Just imagine for a second that Britain’s best-known automotive nameplates aren’t owned by the Germans and Indians. Once upon a time, the Union Jack fluttered proudly over a vast empire of brands. The sun never set on the nation’s impressive array of automobiles, and enthusiasts the world over lusted over the scorching, sexy offerings emerging from a country best known for fog, breakfast fishes and military might.
When Britain decided to let its hair down, oh boy. Any red-blooded driver would gladly put up with weird electrical issues or leaks for a chance to sit behind the wheel of a curvacious, inline-six-powered dream machine that oozed sex (and perhaps oil) every mile of its life. Though the dream eventually collapsed, foreign ownership brought it partway back. (I’m poking fun just a bit, but the stinking nationalized mess that was British-Leyland is a comedy mine that never runs out.)
But we’re not here to rehash the dismal 1970s. This is a celebration — a brimming glass of scotch, gin, sherry, or port raised in honour of a quirky industry with a diverse heritage. Detroit may have cranked out the wheels that moved America, but Britain — at least for a while — cranked out cheap exports for people who couldn’t afford a Dodge. North of the border especially, postwar British cars with alarmingly low horsepower figures stoically braved weather they weren’t designed for.
Sure, my parents’ childhoods contained Fords, Chevrolets, Studebakers and Plymouths, but they also contained an Austin A30, Morris Minor 1000, Morris Oxford, two Vauxhall Victors, and a grandparent’s Triumph Mayflower (0-50 mph in 26.6 seconds). Dad still raves about the Vauxhall Firenza (“half of a V8!”) he bought in the ’70s. Maybe it’s a Commonwealth thing.
It was with these tales in mind that I travelled to tony Stowe, Vermont last weekend for the British Invasion, the Northeast’s annual celebration of UK rolling stock. Let’s take a look at some oddities and bonafide classics, shall we?
Wolseley is storied luxury brand that got off to a fascinating start in 1901. While too long to relay here, its origins involve machine gun inventors, sheep shearing, and airships. Sadly, Wolseley was destined to become a somewhat upscale maker of badge-engineered Morris knock-offs after its 1935 purchase by that company. Through a series of mergers, Wolseley found itself a part of British Motor Corporation, and later British Leyland, which promptly killed off the nameplate.
The vehicle you see above is a Wolseley Hornet, produced from 1961 through 1969. It doesn’t take much imagination to guess where this model sources its DNA from.
On the left, a 1936 Riley Adelphi Saloon; on the right, a 1959 Riley One-Point-Five Saloon, or “sedan” to you Yanks. Like Wolseley, Riley got its start with a non-automotive venture (bicycles) before entering the motorcar business at the dawn of the 20th century. The high-end cars produced by the Coventry factory saw many technological advancements, including the adoption of hemispherical combustion chambers and overhead valves in the late 1920s.
Later swallowed by BMC and killed immediately after its inclusion in British Leyland, Riley is truly a British golden age brand. This One-Point-Five uses a Morris Minor floorpan and suspension setup mated to a (68-horsepower) powertrain sourced from MG.
Just because your country is crippled by wartime debt and damage from German bombers doesn’t mean your citizenry doesn’t deserve a jaunty little convertible. The Standard Motor Company, founded in 1903, was well known for its early luxury saloons and later products like the Vanguard, but the entry-level Eight (later, just the “8”) sold in big numbers before and after World War Two. Production resumed 10 days after VE Day.
Seen here is a 1946 Standard 8 Tourer, equipped with a 28-horsepower 1.0-liter inline-four and the cutest wheels ever. Sadly, Standard, which spawned the Triumph brand, had the misfortune of being bought by Leland Motors, and was put out to pasture after its transformation into British Leyland in 1968.
Leather hood straps never go out of style. Is there a car that screams “English gentleman” more than a mid-1920s Bentley 3/4.5 Litre Tourer? A perfect vehicle for the Green Mountains of Vermont.
No, stop. Don’t do it. Too sexy. There’s kids around. Arguably the steamiest car ever to roll off an assembly line (Enzo Ferrari called it “the most beautiful car ever made”), this 1969 Jaguar E-Type Series II deserves to take a bow. After all, does any other model have the distinction of serving as Austin Powers’ “Shaguar”?
Because this sultry E-Type was good enough to lift its bonnet for us, let’s sneak a peek at the legendary 4.2-liter straight-six that lies beneath.
Speaking of Jags, how about a girthy 1965 Mark X? So much….body. The model ran from 1961 to 1970, and wasn’t well suited to the narrow spaces of Great Britain’s major urban centers. Jaguar hoped to market the model to political and entertainment bigwigs, but sales never took off the way the company desired. Featuring unibody construction and an independent rear suspension, this 3.8-liter straight-six-powered luxo-barge didn’t skimp on premium content or innovation.
Uh oh — we’re in the ’70s. The Triumph Stag looked great, but owners soon found themselves facing a myriad of problems, from valvetrain, cylinder head, and cooling issues to corrosion problems. Not surprisingly, there’s a scene in Straw Dogs where the emasculated Dustin Hoffman character’s new Stag won’t start. This ’72 model, fitted with its factory removable hardtop, sports a 3.0-liter V8.
One oddity I noticed with the Stag: check out the clock. Nope, it’s not in the dash. It’s located on the passenger side of the shift lever.
This is what camping should be like. Safely removed from marauding predators of the four- and two-legged variety, the rooftop tent on this vintage Land Rover 110 Defender also makes for a good hunting blind.
The American surf scene wasn’t the only place you’d find woody wagons in the Baby Boom era. Tasteful (structural) wood adorns the rear of this cute 1958 Morris Minor Traveller, and owners access their picnic supplies via a properly British clamshell rear door design. Available in every bodystyle, including panel van and pickup, the Minor was the first British car to sell 1 million units. Somewhere under that hood lies a side-valve four-cylinder of either 948 or 1098 cc displacement.
The Traveller’s lack of blinker lights means there’s a direction-signalling “trafficator” that pops out of the B-pillar.
Check out this photobomb! While most eyes are on the unrestored Lotus Elite Type 14 (1957-1963) in the foreground, there’s a DeLorean DMC-12 in the back just begging for our attention. Of course, the DMC-12 was built in a suburb of Belfast, Northern Ireland, so it’s okay to claim a UK pedigree.
The Elite earns top marks in the “tiny bonnet opening” category.
Jaguars, Rolls-Royces, and Bentleys weren’t the only large British four-doors built for ferrying around the well-heeled in the 1960s. British Prime Ministers and cabinet ministers used the Rover P5 (1958-1973) for official transportation well into the 1980s. This one’s a 1965 Mk III variant, sporting a 3.0-liter inline-six. Later models arrived with Buick-designed 3.5-liter V8s under the bonnet, providing dignified power for a respectable saloon.
The Land Rover Series IIA “Pink Panther” was a customized off-roader used by Britain’s SAS for reconnaissance and special operations in dangerous, faraway locales. While the open-top design didn’t afford much protection from small arms fire, occupants could put down a steady stream of their own with two pintle-mounted general purpose .30-caliber machine guns. An external holster just ahead of the driver keeps the serviceman’s Lee-Enfield or FN FAL within easy reach.
This particular 1968 example served from 1970 until its retirement in 1985.
For hotter sectors of the military theater, this Alvis Saracen is a better choice. Starting production in 1952, the Saracen’s six-wheel-drive capability, 16-millimeter armor, and .30-caliber turret served the British Army well for decades.
From the largest to the smallest. No British car show is complete without a Morgan three-wheeler, and this Super Sports variant is surely the most desired of the model’s lineage. Powered by a liquid-cooled V-twin, the Super Sports debuted in 1927. The three-wheeler line, which began in 1911 and didn’t wrap up until the early 1950s, was designed to circumvent restrictive British tax laws, allowing the holder of a motorcycle license to own this diminutive car.
Just don’t burn yourself on that exhaust. Here’s a closer, head-on look at the Morgan’s dangerously exposed engine and suspension.
Oh man, the Lotus Europa. Polarizing styling. There’s certainly some awkward lines here (take a gander at the upper window frame), but the Europa’s ingenuity wins over those put off by the tall rear deck and contrasting angles. Built from 1966 to 1975, the Europe brought mid-engine driving to the masses via clever parts sourcing and a fiberglass body. This is a 1972 example, featuring a 126-horsepower “Big Valve” twin-cam 1.6-liter jointly developed by Lotus and Ford. The transmission comes from Renault.
Below that rear decklid lies a limited amount of luggage space and the aforementioned “Big Valve” motor. This owner appears prepared for any eventuality, including hunger.
No British car show is complete without at least one pristine Jaguar Mk II (or Mark 2 or Mark II, depending on locale and preference). Truly a sculpted work of art, the Mk II just doesn’t know when to quit. Take a look at those fendertop turn signals. So graceful. Though dignified and luxurious, the Mk II, produced from 1959 through 1967, was quite a performer, holding its own on the track. It was also a popular getaway vehicle.
Few hood ornaments contain this much class. The engine lineup in this crouched cat of a car topped out at a twin-cam 3.8-liter inline-six, good for 220 horsepower, making this a very appropriate hood-topper.
MG traffic jams were common in the vicinity of Stowe last weekend.
Who doesn’t feel like Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner from time to time? The short-lived libertarian-themed TV show famously featured the protagonist driving his Lotus Seven (1957-1973) to and from an epic job resignation. Of course, you can still get one in the form of the Caterham 7.
Let’s pause for a moment to imagine how our lives would change if we owned one of these (as well as admire the Seven’s double wishbone suspension). That must have been some trip up from Massachusetts.
There you have it, folks. British cars appropriately situated in New England.
God save the Queen, and the manuals.
[Images: © Steph Willems]