UK Day Opener: The Highs And Lows Of British Cars

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It’s time to leave poor GM alone for a while, and move on to that all-time favorite automotive scapegoat: British cars. We’ve got a couple of CCs lined up today, a reprint of an old Brock Yates look at the British industry, and maybe we’ll squeeze in something else. I wish I had time to do this superb XK-E justice today, but it’s been a hectic (but exciting) week here.

But let’s use this post to reminisce a bit about an industry that has brought us some of the most lust-worthy vehicles ever, as well as some of the all-time greatest stinkers. Here’s an abbreviated overview of some of those highs and lows, and then it’ll be your chance to wax eloquently – or have a PTSD moment – about your Brit car experiences. But let’s look for some nuance too, as it’s all-too easy to fall into easy stereotypes.

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I arrived in the US in 1960, which more or less represents the the end of the great British car era in the US. Austin was once the number one import brand, and British cars were quite common in Iowa City then, although most were a bit newer than this 1951 A40 Devon (CC here).

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It’s impossible to overstate the mammoth influence of the Jaguar XK-120 in the US. Yes, the little MGs (TD CC here) were of course more affordable, and constituted the heart of the actual import sports car market in terms of sales. But the big Jag was the icon and lust object, and was at the very heart of the huge sports car boom that swept across America in the late forties and early fifties.

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By this, I mean the endless home-built “sports cars” that kids across the country were cobbling up from old Ford chassis or whatever was handy, and fabbing their own fiberglass bodies (like this one by eighteen-year old future GM designer Wayne Kady. Or buying one of the many XK-120-inspired fiberglass kits.

This was not the province of the tweedy sports car set, but a huge wave that caught the imagination of Americans of all stripes. And of course, the XK-120 directly led to American production sports cars, like the Kaiser-Darrin, Nash-Healey and the Corvette. A truly seminal car.

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Jaguar also utterly dominated the import luxury market during the fifties, with their stately large Marks VII-IX (CC here), as well as their fine mid-sized sporty sedan, the Mark II. Mercedes was still a relatively obscure fringe brand, and BMW was essentially off the radar. How the mighty fall.

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My brother bought a rusty and battered MGA (CC here) in about 1967, and I experienced the hair-battering euphoric high of roaring down a rural Maryland road on a summer night with the top down, as well as watching him spend the better part of the summer trying to keep it running, which eventually become a lost cause. My account of that painful story is here.

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In the sixties, sales of Brit passenger cars wilted, first from the dominance of the VW Beetle, which was better adapted to American conditions, being designed to tolerate being driven flat out all day long, and then from the Japanese. The British cars, reflecting their origins in the cool climate and narrow roads of England, were just not up to that. Perhaps their last attempt to compete in the economy car class was the Austin America; a brilliant design (ADO16) in principle, and a huge seller back home. But American drivers’ disdain of fussy maintenance and poor dealer support caused it to flame out, and represent the crash of the British passenger car in the US. Jeff Nelson’s somewhat harsh assessment of the America is here.

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That left mostly the venerable Brit sports cars to carry on, along with Jaguar’s sedans. Of course there were other ill-fated attempts, like the brilliant Rover 2000 (CC here). But the tried and proven MGs (MGB CC here) and Triumphs became the mainstay of British exports to the US, and they soldiered on well past their sell-by date, on the strength of so much loyalty and charisma. Even I fell to the MGB’s siren lure, but it too did not have a happy ending.

But I know full well that all these cars are actually very accommodating for the enthusiast owner, and they have a huge following. British cars aren’t junk; they have many qualities that make them highly suitable for restoration and ownership. It’s just a matter of getting to know them well, and know how to accommodate (or improve upon) their quirks. My brother went on to have a number of them, and he found them eminently easy to work on.

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The XK-E will go down in history as one of the most beautiful and desirable cars ever. Who wouldn’t be willing to put up with a few foibles to own one?

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Occasional CC reader Chuck Goolsbee has a superb ’67 E-Type roadster that he bought from his father and spent way too much money on having it rebuilt. But he takes it on long trips regularly, and stopped by our house one recent summer on the way to Southern California with his son, via Hwy 1. Now that’s living the dream.

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Of course, his Jag’s cooling system has been massively fortified with a special multi-core radiator, electric fans, and an alternator to power them. A bit of modern technology goes a long way to remedy the shortcomings of what originated in Old Blighty.

The British Car story is a huge one, and we can’t begin to do it justice here, except for a few slices. And we’ll keep coming back to it. But if you have anything to add to our little opener, we’re all ears.