HAPPY BIRTHDAY WORLD!
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
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, eective 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 ininitely more shocking and signiicant. 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-inlicted 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 oneo MkI racer based on an Austin 7. He didn’t establish Lotus Cars until ’52. But the date is still signiicant: 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 signiicance 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 conlict.