Ev­ery­thing we hold dear, from Porsche to Land Rover, Lotus to the 2CV, was born in 1948. The mod­ern car in­dus­try: look­ing good at 70

CAR (UK) - - 2018 In Review - Ben Oliver

948 WAS YEAR Zero for the mod­ern car in­dus­try. It’s no co­in­ci­dence that so many makes and mod­els shared a 70th an­niver­sary in 2018: Lotus, Land Rover and Porsche; the XK120, Deux Che­vaux and Mor­ris Mi­nor.

The rea­son hardly needs stat­ing. The car in­dus­try was emerg­ing from its war­time deep freeze. Its fac­to­ries had been re­turned and recom­mis­sioned af­ter mak­ing tanks and trucks, ›ighters and bombers since ’39. Its en­gi­neers and man­agers had re­turned too, de­mobbed with a de­sire to cre­ate rather than de­stroy, a long war’s worth of new ideas to try, and a war­time knack of ›in­d­ing clever, eŸec­tive and cheap so­lu­tions un­der ex­treme pres­sure. In Bri­tain, the gov­ern­ment needed the re­born car in­dus­try to ex­port, and bring in the earn­ings that would end aus­ter­ity. It didn’t just en­cour­age this re­nais­sance: it cracked the whip. Car mak­ers only got their al­lo­ca­tion of steel if they ex­ported 75 per cent of pro­duc­tion. If 1948 was Year Zero, the Earls Court Mo­tor Show was its be­lated New Year’s Day. Its open­ing on 26 Oc­to­ber saw the launch of both the XK120 and the Mor­ris Mi­nor. Land Rover had made its de­but at the Am­s­ter­dam show in April, fore­go­ing a de­but on home turf to crack on with sales. We hear a lot about the de­but of the E¤Type at the Geneva show in ’61, but the launch of the XK120 in Lon­don was in›initely more shock­ing and signi›icant. Over 11 days, 563,000 peo­ple came to the show to see that el­e­gant, glam­orous, mod­ern shape and mar­vel at its 120mph top speed. How must it have looked to them? Most had queued all the way from Earls Court tube sta­tion to the ex­hi­bi­tion halls on cold, grey, pol­luted Lon­don streets. Few would have driven there: af­ter be­ing sus­pended en­tirely for a year, the petrol ra­tion had been rein­tro­duced that June at one-third its pre­vi­ous amount, and there was a three-year wait­ing list for a new car. Bread ra­tioning had only just ended: most other sta­ples re­mained ra­tioned un­til 1954. For them, that XK120 was about as at­tain­able as a Gulfstream jet is to­day.

But the size of the crowds that came to see it and the other new mod­els – twice as many as had at­tended the ‘38 show – sug­gests that there was no re­sent­ment, but in­stead an un­der­stand­ing that these cars rep­re­sented some­thing

speed, glam­our or sta­tus. They were a way out of aus­ter­ity, and a glimpse of a bet­ter fu­ture.

It worked. The XK120 and the Land Rover made British cars look de­sir­able and de­pend­able. Ex­port sales grew quickly, and the in­dus­try en­tered a long boom which only ended with its largely self-in›licted im­plo­sion in the ’70s.

Lotus’s claim to be part of the ’48 club is a lit­tle more ten­u­ous. Colin Chap­man built his ›irst car that year, the oneoŸ MkI racer based on an Austin 7. He didn’t es­tab­lish Lotus Cars un­til ’52. But the date is still signi›icant: if he’d turned 20 in 1940 rather than 1948, he’d have been ›ight­ing, or de­sign­ing air­craft or ar­tillery.

Porsche had an equally gen­tle start: un­like Lotus, it was es­tab­lished in ’48, but it took two years to build and sell its ›irst 50 cars. There’s a broader signi›icance there too, of course. The de­struc­tion wreaked upon Ger­many, and the sub­se­quent oc­cu­pa­tion and repa­ra­tions, meant its car in­dus­try got a slower start, though boy did it catch up. Nei­ther Ger­many nor Ja­pan was on Bill Boddy’s radar when the Clark­son of his day gave this as­sess­ment of the ’48 show: ‘At last our man­u­fac­tur­ers have re­alised that only up-to-theminute, safe-han­dling, brisk-per­for­mance cars can meet the weight of com­pe­ti­tion that will be seen un­der Amer­i­can and French colours at the show,’ he wrote in Mo­tor Sport.

‘The 1949 mod­els will try the na­tional pa­tience to its limit, for de­liv­ery dates to British cus­tomers seem as far away as ever. Bri­tain’s sal­va­tion lies in suc­cess­ful ex­port, and it is well that our vir­ile mo­tor in­dus­try should have pro­duced such stim­u­lat­ing new mod­els at such a vi­tal time in our his­tory.’

Our vir­ile mo­tor in­dus­try is still a suc­cess­ful ex­porter. It’s ironic that, hav­ing re­cently got close to its all-time pro­duc­tion record set in the boom that be­gan in ’48, it now faces an ex­is­ten­tial threat from an­other Euro­pean con›lict.

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