Olden Life: What were lovelylooking cars? Joseph Connolly
Look at the unending ribbon of cars in the average British street, and you will see a mass of usually silver abominations.
They resemble a giant door wedge – sloping nose; clunky sawn-off backside – each wholly indistinguishable from the next.
’Twas not always so. During the golden age of the 1950s and 1960s, I was obsessed with beautiful British cars – in my study at school were posters of the E-type Jaguar and the Aston Martin DB5 – and also one of Ursula Andress coming out of the sea in Dr No, so that people wouldn’t think me over-weird.
What you drove was an indicator of status, class and even gender. The most English of them all was the Morris Minor – pleasingly rounded and utterly dependable: a car for the district nurse. Other rather prettier models were also associated with ‘lady drivers’, as they were smirkingly termed: the Sunbeam Rapier and the Alpine (with its pointy rear wings) – as well as the Singer Vogue (the message is in the name). These cars had a touch of the ‘continental’ about them – as did the fondly remembered Triumph Herald and Ford Anglia, which often came as racy two-tones.
Every single British marque was singular, and immediately identifiable.
The rather stodgy Vauxhalls and Hillmans; the Austin Cambridge and the Morris Oxford for middle management, or the Man from the Pru.
The Humber was a more elegant proposition – the car for doctors and solicitors; as was the Rover. Wolseley was best known as the dashing police car – black, with blinding chrome, the twin bells pealing with urgency. Police cars were not adorned with hi-vis markings in those days (nor, indeed, were policemen).
Then there was the hugely adored Mini, which appeared around the same time as the E-type. There were many luxury cars, all quite breathtakingly elegant and exuding glamour: Alvis, Bristol, Aston Martin, Jensen, Bentley and, of course, Rolls-royce, dubbed ‘the best car in the world’. What presence they had – the Parthenon radiator grille and Spirit of Ecstasy mascot forcing people to stop and stare, and often driven by chauffeurs in full fig. The current models look like big ugly boats. And then there was the sexy sports car, preferably in British racing green: MG, Austin Healey, Lotus, Morgan… Low and rakish with useless hoods: there for the sheer thrill of it all, when motoring was still worthy of the name.
So what went wrong? Well, what always goes wrong, really: the autonomy and flair of a human car designer were usurped by committees and then computers. The result is the deadening sameness you see all about you.
Nearly all the great names I have mentioned are now consigned to memory. Those that remain are all under foreign ownership – usually German or American.
Morgan was the last to go – after 110 years in the Morgan family, it is now owned by an Italian venture capital group. But take heart: those wondrous cars are still hand-built in Britain round an ash frame – and still immediately recognisable as a true British classic, amid the ocean of ubiquitous silver wedges.