Between 1919 and 1939, Britain’s motor industry went through an upheaval. Recovery from the First World War was followed by the glories of what is known as the ‘vintage’ era, the economic traumas of the Depression of the early 1930s, and the spirited recovery which preceded the outbreak of the Second World War.
The story of this dramatic generation of motor cars must begin with a few statistics. Annual British car production shot up from 25,000 in 1919, to a peak of 341,000 in 1938, and the number of cars on the roads also exploded, from 100,000 in 1919 to just over two million in 1939. That was the good news, but the bad news was that although there were at least 100 different makes of car in production in 1919 (and many more hopeful entrants which never made it beyond the prototype stage), that figure slumped to no more than 35 in the depths of the Depression, and to a mere 32 in 1939–40. Marques which had been popular in the 1920s, such as Bean and Clyno, had disappeared by the 1930s, and marques which had been proudly independent in the 1920s found themselves taken over and transformed within ten years, a fate which befell Bentley, Sunbeam, Talbot, Lanchester, and Riley, among others.
While production rose steadily during the 1920s to 170,000 cars a year, the industry, and the type of cars it produced, changed considerably. Until the mid-1920s, even mass-produced cars like the Austin Seven and the Bullnose Morris were built mainly by hand, though in a highly organized way. By the end of the decade, mechanization was sweeping in, bodies were being built from welded pressed steel panels instead of being constructed on a wooden framework, and engines were smaller.
It was only in the mid-1930s when some die-hards (who had tired of the much cheaper, smaller and flimsier new models which had appeared) started talking of the 1920s as a ‘vintage’ era. Easy to define but difficult to describe, this usually meant that the cars were sturdily built, simple to maintain and often surprisingly good fun to drive.
By the 1920s a large component supply industry had been established, and engines, gearboxes, and axles could be built to order, so it was possible for undercapitalized businesses to announce a new car, to rely on poorly-paid craftsmen to put them together, and to develop a reputation. Even so, of the hundreds of hopefuls who faced the 1920s in this way, few actually became established.
The crème de la crème
The best British cars of the 1920s and 1930s were produced for the comparatively small, yet excessively wealthy end of the market: some were as dignified as the Rolls-Royce Phantom and Daimler Double-Six limousines, some as fast and capable as the Bentley 8-litres and Lagonda V12s. Britain’s motor cars were at the height of their fame. Big, beefy sports cars from Bentley, Invicta, and Lagonda set one standard, while magnificently crafted limousines from Rolls-Royce, Daimler and (for a time) Lanchester maintained another. Although their chassis were never shatteringly modern (compared with the Germans, for instance, the British were tardy in adopting independent suspension, supercharging and V-layout engines), they were invariably well-built, and their coachwork was matchless.
Apart from the few coachbuilders who serviced the latest models from Cadillac, Packard, and Duesenberg in North America, no-one could match Britain’s coachbuilders. Don’t believe anything you may be told about declining standards at this time – merely take a look at an H.J. Mulliner-bodied Rolls-Royce, a Hooper-bodied Daimler, and any number of sports saloons from companies like Park Ward, Gurney Nutting or Barker. ‘Makes you proud to be British’, was the obvious retort, which was true, as the combination of first-rate styling, a choice of tasteful trim and equipment, high-quality materials, and peerless craftsmanship was unmatched. Anyone who could afford such cars – which were extremely expensive, even at the 1920s and 1930s price levels – was fortunate to have so much choice.
Yet this was the high tide for such well-crafted cars. In the decades which followed, (particularly after the Second World War) social changes and soaring taxation would decimate the market. Those with an eye to the future rushed to enjoy luxury motoring while it was still practical; happily, a number of these fine cars have survived to this day.
Middle-class motoring came into existence during the 1920s and took center stage in the 1930s. As with so many of the world’s innovations, once ways were found of increasing production, costs were driven down, selling prices were reduced, and the market boomed. Car makers who had annually sold dozens in the 1910s sold hundreds in the 1920s and thousands of cars in the 1930s.
Although a typical manual worker – a factory hand, a miner, or a shipbuilder – could probably not afford a new car at this time, the white collar workers increasingly could. The professions – doctors, solicitors, architects, and dentists – were first to join the ranks, followed by the middle-managers. This was a time when few could afford to pay £1,000 for a car, but thousands could afford £500; when Austin, Ford, and Morris started asking less than £150 for their small-engined products, the market place exploded.
Even so, it was ‘middle class’ manufacturers with middle price models, who did so well in the inter-war period. By the 1930s a number of manufacturers had prospered by catering precisely for this new clientele: Alvis, Armstrong-Siddeley, Crossley, Daimler, Lanchester, Riley, Rover, SS-Jaguar, Sunbeam, Talbot, Triumph, and Wolseley all competed in this keenly-fought and prestigious sector, all offering smart, well-equipped cars.
The 1930s were the high point for such cars and their owners. Motoring became a middle-class leisure activity: second-division coachbuilders were able to offer a great deal of visual variety in their car ranges, and magazines were produced to satisfy the curiosity of new car-owners. Advertising was surrounded by an aura of ‘British is best’, a complacent attitude which seemed to appeal to the motorists of the day.
Among the earliest sports cars were the big, expensive Bentleys and Vauxhall 30/98s; these were followed by smaller, individualistic machines such as the Frazer Nash, and finally the small-engined two-seaters from MG, Morgan, Triumph, and Singer. These vehicles, particularly those from MG, laid the foundations for the sports car boom which was to follow in the 1950s and 1960s.
There was great demand for fast small cars, if only it could be satisfied. Bentleys, Vauxhall 30/98s, twin-cam Sunbeams, Lagondas and Invictus were all extremely desirable cars, but they were also expensive, and could only be expected to sell in hundreds, not tens of thousands. Cars such as GNs and Aston Martins were great fun to drive, but prone to fall apart if abused and, as with the most expensive marques, were not backed by a large chain of dealers.
So-called sporty versions of cars like the Bullnose Morris and even the Model T Ford were simply lighter versions of the original, perhaps with the addition of unique bodywork. The breakthrough came when MG, Austin, Riley, and Singer all developed truly small cars with unique frames, and tuned-engines: it was with the arrival of M-type Midgets and 9 hp Singer sports cars that demand suddenly expanded. Marques like Triumph and Lea-Francis attempted the same breakthrough, but not in the same numbers.
In only ten years MG grew from being a minor manufacturer to pre-eminence; there was a huge difference – in both engineering and in behavior – between the Morris-based 14/28 of 1924, and the special overhead-camshaft PAs and Magnettes of 1934. Although the TA which followed was more closely based on Morris and Wolseley models than before, it was still a fine sports car. Morgan joined in, HRG appeared as a bespoke alternative and, quite suddenly, the layout of the traditional British sports car was founded.
In the meantime, the yawning gap between expensive and bargain-basement was also being filled, not necessarily with lightweight two-seaters, but with fine and stylish open models. Lovers of 1920s cars were too blinkered to see the merits of many 1930s cars, which ranged from the beefy Jaguar SS100s to two-seater Riley Sprites; from convertible Triumph Dolomite Roadsters to the Vanden Plas-styled Alvis Speed Twenty types; from hand-built ACs, to series-production SS-Jaguar, Wolseley and Daimler models. For those in work (and, let’s not forget, the effect of the Depression weighed far more heavily on the non-car-owning classes than on the middle class who could afford to buy a new car) there was far more choice of interesting and stylish machinery in the 1930s than there had been just ten years earlier.
Motoring for the masses
Britain’s largest car makers were already established before 1914, but it was in the 1920s and 1930s that they truly came to numerical dominance. By the end of the 1920s, Morris had market leadership, with Austin close behind, followed by Ford and Standard, with Humber-Hillman (the soon-to-be-named Rootes Group) and Vauxhall ready to join the battle. By the end of the 1930s, Austin and Morris were more or less equal, Ford was a definite third, with the other three scrapping for 10 or 12 percent each of the market place.
In the 1920s, the Austin Seven and the Bullnose Morris were by far the most successful cars of their type, though at the end of the period the tiny Morris Minor and the equally small Singer Junior both came close. In the early 1930s cars rated by the RAC at 8, 9, 10 and 12 hp really took over the market leadership. Every member of the ‘big six’ had a best-seller in this category, and though they were not technically exciting (and usually unimaginatively titled), they sold in huge numbers. Austin, of course, had the Ten, Morris had the Ten, Standard the Nine, Big Nine and, later, Flying Nine, Rootes had the ubiquitous Hillman Minx, Vauxhall the Ten-Four and Twelve-Four, while Ford swept into the market with a raft of cars all based on the original 8 hp Model Y, which became the C, evolved into the Anglia, and then spawned the Prefect.
All these cars were available as saloons, convertibles, vans, and were occasionally special-bodied, though the mass-market estate car was a type yet to be invented. Unexciting to drive (in most cases 50 mph was a good cruising speed, no more), and always likely to rot away, they were all very cheap – and motorists loved them. Thus, the scene was set for similar cars to evolve in the 1940s and 1950s.
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Apocalypse now …
If Adolf Hitler had not decided to conquer the world, the British motor industry might have evolved in a different way. By 1939, the ‘big six’ were embracing new technology. All-steel bodies and overhead-valve engines were almost universal, unit-construction bodies were already used by Morris, Rootes, and Vauxhall, and independent front suspension had arrived at Rootes, Standard, and Vauxhall. Exports were going well (nearly 80,000 in 1937), and the market was booming.
Then, at the end of the 1930s, re-armament, tax rises, the opening of aero-engined ‘shadow factories’ run by car makers and, from the end of 1939, rapid conversion to military production altered the scene irrevocably. Soon Vauxhall was making tanks, Rootes was producing aircraft, Austin made trucks, while Ford constructed Merlin aero-engines. The transformation was complete: in consequence, Britain’s industry, and its cars would never be the same again.