For one tiny little island, the Brits have made a lot of fantastic cars.
While most of the big British brands are now under foreign ownership, that doesn’t mean the Brits aren’t still stamping their name on the car industry. Jaguar, Land Rover, Aston Martin, McLaren, and Rolls Royce may have varying owners but are all still very much UK based brands. Going back, Ford's European business has generated a lot of very British cars after being developed and built in the UK, and Ford's Dunton Technical Research Center is still a large force in its global empire.
Then there’s motorsport. The Haas, McLaren, Mercedes AMG, Force India, Red Bull, Renault, and Williams F1 racing teams are all UK based. That’s 7 of the 10 teams in the 2019 series. But we’re not talking about race cars here, we’re talking about road cars and, as we said in the Worst Of British Cars Ever Made article, the UK has incredible highs to go with the incredible lows in its automotive history. This is a selection of the highs.
Simply put, the original Mini is the most influential car ever made, and even British Leyland couldn't screw it up once they got their hands on it. Through its 41-year production history from 1951 to 2000, the Mini became an icon of both British design and its cultural significance is immeasurable. The German’s were making bubble cars during the fuel crisis but, when BMC had Alec Issigonis design a car under ten feet long that could transport a family of four, he out-engineered the Germans with his ingenuity. Issigonis used every inch of space by pushing the wheels right out into the corners, ditched bulky conventional suspension springs for rubber cones, put the transmission inside the engine's sump and mounted the unit transversely to take up even less space under the hood.
People may point at the Volkswagen Beetle as the people's car, but the Mini looked good, was just as cheap and practical, and it had a huge ace up its sleeve. The radical little family car was a demon in motorsport, and when racing driver John Cooper realized just how much potential it had to go and slay giants, the Mini Cooper was born and did just that.
During the Mini’s reign as a fashion icon for the everyman and everywoman, Jaguar dropped the more upmarket E-Type at the 1961 Geneva Motor Show. Enzo Ferrari later stated that it was the most beautiful car in the world. It wasn’t just insanely pretty though, it was developed from the Le Mans-winning Jaguar D-Type and underneath the sexy monocoque body was a 265-horsepower 3.8-liter engine, sophisticated independent suspension, and disc brakes all round. At the time, it was a performance monster with a 150-mph top speed at a time where the average road car wasn’t even getting near 100 mph with a tailwind. The E-Type had brawn, brains, and sophisticated beauty while costing half of an Aston Martin or Ferrari with the same performance at the time.
When the book comes to be written about product placement, the opening chapter will be about Aston Martin's DB5. It was achingly beautiful with a heaping teaspoon of style to taste, quintessentially English, and James Bond drove one in the movies. It was made between 1963 and 1964 and had a colossal yet smooth 4.0-liter straight-6 that made 282 horsepower and pegged out at 145 mph.
The UK was bombed within an inch of its life during World War II, and when the dust started settling Rover had gained a lot of expertise developed from military contracts and needed to build a car using just the steel it was rationed. Rover also needed a car that could be exported successfully to bring in some foreign money to help the UK rebuild itself after the devastation. The solution was presented by an engineer named Maurice Wilks as something utilitarian that could be at home on or off-road, and modeled on the American army surplus Jeeps he and his family used. It was an immense success, and in far-flung corners of the world its often been the first car some people have seen.
The XJ220 was produced from 1992 and until 1994, but its story started as a V12-engined all-wheel-drive car that wowed the UK’s 1988 Birmingham Motor Show. It impressed enough people that Jaguar took 1,500 orders with a £50,000 deposit on each one. Then, the car needed to be re-engineered and the economy crashed, leaving formally rich buyers abandoning their deposits. However, Jaguar rescued victory from the jaws of defeat and built 271 XJ220 models and sold them for around half a million dollars each. On top of that, it became the fastest car in the world at the time with its top speed of 212 mph.
When people used to joke that the British build great cars and then the Japanese perfect them, the Elan is Exhibit A. However, remember that it first went on the road in 1961 with a weight of just under 1,500 lbs, had immaculate steering along with a peppy little engine. The degree to which the Lotus Elan's design and engineering has reverberated through the decades shows in how closely Mazda copied the design all the way down to making the engine look the same, and McLaren’s Gordon Murray used the steering feel as his benchmark for the McLaren F1 supercar.
That’s right, the Ford GT40 is one of the UK's finest. America’s first Le Mans winner and loogie in Enzo Ferrari’s eye came from Ford using a team of British engineers. It was rushed to production and had a disastrous first year, but with Carroll Shelby brought in to rework the cars in an Anglo-American alliance for the ages, Henry Ford II got his Le Mans wins and history was made.
With Gordan Murray at the helm, backing from McLaren’s Ron Dennis, and an engine from BMW, the McLaren was a devastatingly fast car built with little compromise, using the most exotic materials available in all the right places. Even with BMW’s giant V12 engine in the middle, it weighed just 2,509 lbs and smashed records with its 240 mph top speed in the early 1990s.
The Ford Escort was a smaller family car than the Ford Cortina and followed a simple formula. It had a 4-cylinder engine at the front and drive went to the rear wheels. It was inexpensive, easy to drive, had American inspired styling, and sold in its millions. It also had another secret weapon and, like the Mini, all it took was some extra power under the hood and some suspension upgrades to turn it into a motorsport weapon. Ford cashed in on its incredible rallying success with road-going sports models that include the now rare and expensive to fine Mexico and RS2000 models.
The idea of taking the utilitarian Land Rover and modifying it to take coil springs and putting a V8 under the hood seems like an obvious one now, but Rover changed that game entirely in 1970 by doing just that before anyone else. Rover was building large, fast, comfortable sedans at the time so it had the engine and the suspension technology to do it. The result was a comfortable 4x4 to drive on the road and an absolute beast to take off-road, and the luxury SUV was born and evolved into what it is today.
The most enduring examples of Lotus man Colin Chapman’s mantra of "simplify, then add lightness” is the Caterham 7. Originally, the Lotus Seven was a kit car first sold in 1957 that went on to dominate motorsport with its incredible performance with even the most humble of engines installed. The car dealer Caterham Cars bought the rights to the Seven and still makes a refined version today that’s thrilling road and track drivers all over the world with its sophisticated simplicity.
Lotus has always been primarily an engineering company and, back in the 1990s, it needed a showcase road car. The mid-range sports car that hit the road in 1996 was as light as you would expect from Lotus, and set a new benchmark with its driving dynamics. Technology from the car, such as the chassis being made from extruded aluminum and glued rather than welded, was sold to automakers around the world and allowed Lotus to continue doing great things behind the scenes.
The first round of hybrid hypercars consisted of the Ferrari LaFerrari, Porsche 918 Spyder, and McLaren’s just as lunatic entry, the P1. McLaren had stunned before, but now it had gone toe to toe on the road with the premier hypercars and held its own with a 3.8-liter V8 twin-turbo monster than when combined with its electric motor makes 904 horsepower. All 375 models were bought up quickly and marked McLaren as one of the words premier hypercar and supercar makers of the 21st century.