The British Sports Car – A Brief History

pg3-7-1024x816Although the British sports car came of age and became firmly established in the global consciousness during the years immediately following World War II’s end, the foundation for that success was laid during the 1920s and 1930s when the British automotive industry made a deliberate effort to manufacture automobiles capable of providing sporting performance at an affordable price. During a time when most vehicles were beyond the reach of the ordinary man and cost more than most families could afford, companies like Riley and Alvis introduced models aimed to satisfy the needs of the populist motoring enthusiast.

Following these early pioneers, MG introduced its first bona fide sports car in 1923 on a Morris chassis and followed that effort in subsequent years with a succession of capable sports cars that established the archetype for the marque and industry. With open two-seat bodywork and minimal weather equipment, these primitive vehicles possessed highly tuned engines to provide performance equivalent the more advanced and expensive European competition. In short order, MG was soon joined by AC, Invicta, Morgan, Singer, Sunbeam, Triumph and SS-Jaguar, as well as numerous others, with models that enhanced the basic roadster formula with increasing amounts of performance and handling. Despite stiff competition from storied marques like Alfa Romeo, Bugatti and Mercedes-Benz, British sports cars found great success in international racing and rallying competition in the years before the war, often besting the competition, in spite of their more simplistic construction and lower cost.

During the war, countless American armed forces personnel stationed in England became acquainted with these delightful machines, often driven by dashing Royal Air Force fliers, and brought their affection for them home to the United States after the war. Although the United Kingdom had largely escaped the wide spread devastation that had ravaged France, Italy and Germany, the British Empire was saddled with an enormous debt from almost seven years of war and needed hard currency to service its Lend Lease payments to the United States. In an effort to rebuild the country’s war-torn economy, the Board of Trade exhorted domestic manufacturers to ‘export or die’ to earn the dollars that would allow England to survive in the midst of its crippling debt obligations.

Among the first manufacturers on the postwar scene was MG, with its immortal TC, which was nothing more than a lightly revised version of its immediate prewar forebear. Notwithstanding its lack of modernity and anachronistic character, the TC, despite reaching America in only limited numbers, paved the way for millions of other similar cars to follow and set the stage for a love affair between Americans and little British sports cars that continues unabated to the present day. Not long after the arrival of the MG TC, Jaguar introduced the XK120 open two-seater roadster to almost universal praise and an unquestioned place as the finest sports car available in the world, setting the stage for even more success in the showroom and racetrack in the days ahead.

The success enjoyed by Jaguar and MG did not go unnoticed by their rivals, leading to an extraordinary influx of British sports cars into American homes. Although some efforts, like the Austin A90 and the first iteration of the Sunbeam Alpine met with indifference, later models from Austin-Healey and Triumph became some of the most legendary sports cars ever produced. Smaller firms like AC, Allard, Aston Martin, Bristol, Daimler, HRG, Frazer-Nash, Morgan and Swallow added their own vehicles to the mix, establishing Britain as the largest exporter of automobiles in the world and the leading purveyor of sports cars to the masses.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the leading British manufacturers (Austin-Healey, Jaguar, MG, Sunbeam and Triumph) continued their run of success, furthered by the introduction of lower priced sports car models like the Sprite, Spitfire and Midget and world-class competitors like the immortal Jaguar E-Type, Lotus Elan and the Aston Martin DB Series. As the Swinging Sixties progressed, British sports cars were an essential part of the scene as Minis and MGBs were present from Piccadilly Circus to the Pacific Coast Highway. While most British sports cars were less technically complex than their European competition, eschewing for the most part advancements like overhead camshaft engines, alloy engine construction, four-wheel disc brakes and 5-speed transmissions, they offered an almost unbeatable blend of performance and affordability that continued to win converts throughout the decade, even in the face of stiffer competition.

If video killed the radio star, then American regulations helped doom the prospects of the British sports car in its most important market in the world. In the wake of a consumer movement spurned into action by the publication of activist lawyer Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed, detailing a damning litany of charges against the modern automobile, the Federal Government began to enact increasingly stringent safety and pollution regulations. The harsh strictures forced AC, Austin-Healey, Bristol, Daimler, Morgan and Sunbeam from the North American sports car market, while the various British Leyland nameplates struggled to meet the increasing burden that these rules imposed, often choosing to respond in the most cost-efficient manner possible without concern for how it affected the appearance or performance of the car.

Making matters worse was a shift in consumer tastes away from convertibles towards more capable (and functional) sports coupes, allowing competitors from Japan to make significant inroads into the American market for the first time. Throughout the 1970s, MG and Triumph continued to do battle against one another at the affordable end of the spectrum (even after they had become corporate siblings at British Leyland), while Jaguar was forced into more harried competition from marques such as BMW, Ferrari, Lamborghini and Porsche. Hit hard by the Oil Crisis and currency volatility, British sports cars became more expensive to operate and purchase, eroding sales in a time of austerity and global instability. Almost as bad, difficulties in meeting new pollution standards had made the cars slower than ever before, while safety requirements added increased weight and complexity to make the cars less agile and more complex to maintain and repair.

Ultimately, labor strife in the domestic automotive industry hammered the final nail into the coffin as quality control became a running joke and work stoppages often brought production to a standstill. Attempts by the British government to save the industry met with little success since government oversight complicated, rather than helped, matters with management and the labor unions. The last months of 1980 saw the closure of MG’s legendary Abingdon factory, followed almost immediately afterwards by the termination of Triumph Spitfire production at Canley. By the spring of the following year, British Leyland was strapped for cash and bedeviled by a poor exchange rate, marking the end of the line for the Triumph TR7 and TR8, which would be the last affordable British sports cars exported to America.

In the years that followed only Jaguar would survive relatively unscathed among the major manufacturers, having passed through various owners including the Ford Motor Company and India’s Tata. The downfall of the Rover Group saw most of the various heritage marques incorporated into the BMW automotive conglomerate, many of which were later sold off piecemeal to various corporate masters, leading to MG’s eventual resurrection under Chinese ownership.

Still, enthusiasm for classic British sports cars remains strong in the 21st Century, encompassing one of the single largest interest groups in the classic car hobby, allowing these cars to be enjoyed by an entirely new generation of enthusiasts that will eventually pass them on to their children. As long as roads remain in our lives, enthusiastic owners will continue to drive their British sports cars and enjoy them for their unparalleled sense of fun and nostalgia – Rule Britannia!