The British screwed up their automotive industry like no other. The endless badge-engineering meant that their once great cars become as outdated as the fish and chips kiosk just outside the factories, while the long-lasting strikes made sure that the workers went back to do their shifts with just the right attitude. Quality control? In the seventies, even the Romanians cared more about their Dacias than Leyland employees about whatever they built.
Lucky survivors like Jaguar, Land Rover or Aston Martin are now owned by entrepreneurs from previous colonies like India, or a bunch of Italians. Less fortunate ones like MG ended up in Chinese hands, which is funny because their new cars just hit the showrooms of Great Britain. If they prove to sell well, it will only show that the Chinese can build a better cheap British car than the Brits themselves.
Here's a list of the final cars from once proud, British-owned and operated car companies.
Armstrong Siddeley Star Sapphire
Armstrong Siddeley was an engineering group making everything from gearboxes to rockets and aircraft engines named after various snakes. They started building luxury cars with the Sphinx logo in the 1920s, while also keeping the aircraft business, and designing air-cooled diesel engines for marine use during their lunch breaks.
The Star Sapphire saloon was introduced in 1958, and won the four-door coachwork class at the Earls Court Motor Show straight away. It's four-litre six-cylinder engine made 167 horses thanks to the twin Stromberg carburettors, while servo-assisted disc brakes (only in the front) and power steering helped in keeping the car on track. As you would expect from an executive car, a BorgWarner automatic transmission made sure you never got more then 13 miles from a gallon of petrol. While the Star Sapphire was more expensive than a Daimler Majestic or a Jaguar Mark IX, it was still a bargain compared to a Rolls-Royce or a Bentley, and 980 were sold in two years, including 77 long-wheelbase cars. The Mark 2 was supposed to be the first British car with twin headlamps, but Armstrong Siddeley's merger with Bristol (and later Roll-Royce Limited) meant that only one was built before the automotive section was shut down. The brand's patents and rights are now owned by the Armstrong Siddeley Owners Club.
Jensen Motors Ltd was established in 1934 by two brothers from Birmingham who were previously working at a body shop. After customising Morrises, Singers, Standards, and Wolseleys, they went on building a car for Clark Gable on a Ford chassis. That got so much attention that Ford itself commissioned them to build a limited production model, which become the Jensen-Ford. In 1936, they introduced the Jensen S-type, again using bits from Ford GB's factory. Thirty years later, Jensen gave the world its first all-wheel drive shooting break, the Jensen FF. Yes, that is where Ferrari got the idea from...
While the FF and its rear-wheel drive twin, the V8 Interceptor were awesome in many ways, the Oil Crisis was hitting the company hard. The Jensen-Healey was quickly introduced in 1972 with Lotus's brand new DOHC four-cylinder featuring 16 valves and an all alloy construction, and while sales were improving, strikes, component shortages and inflation made Jensen lose even more. When the roadster needed some refreshing, Jensen answered with the shooting break version, spending a fortune on the development. Since it was heavier and less powerful thanks to new emission regulations, the GT was nowhere near as popular as the roadster (509 were made compared to the 10,000 roadsters), and Jensen had to pull the plug in 1976.
Jowett started in the light car and light commercial vehicle business in 1906. Five years earlier, the two brothers started their company by building motorcycles and V-engines for various applications. After the second world war, they came out with the Javelin, which was a full-sized saloon with 50 horses from its 1.5-litre flat four. More than 23,000 were sold, and while it proved itself at the 1952 Monte Carlo Rally, Jowett also kept on building light vans in vast numbers.
The Jupiter was launched at London Motor Show in October 1949, with a tuned engine making 60 horsepower, giving the two-seater a 85 mph top speed. While reaching sixty took 18 seconds if you were good with the four-speed stick, mileage was only 20.9 mpg. These numbers might seem unimpressive, but while it's hard to see while anyone bought a Jupiter instead of a Jaguar XK120 which was only 20 percent more expensive at the time, let's not forget that the little roadster won it's class at the Le Mans 24 Hour race in both 1950 and 1951, and also scored a class 1+2 at the Monte Carlo Rally the same year. To further improve performance, a prototype was built with a light fibreglass body, but since first Ford, then BMC bought the company supplying Jowett with their bodies, shortages started to shadow the production, and when negotiating proved unsuccessful, the shareholders closed up the shop.
Jem Marsh and Frank Costin started their company in 1959. Costin was working on the de Havilland Mosquito fighter-bombers before, and thought using plywood in car construction was a good idea. The first Marcos was the Xylon, a car built purely for racing. It was also ugly as sin. The company built weird and wonderful speed machines using various power plants in the following decades, including a miniature GT which was only big in Japan. One example came last at the 1966 Le Mans race, although it was also the only British car which was able to finish it. Marcos first went out of business in 1971, and than again in 2000 and 2007. Bad habit.
While the Marcos Mantis XP is something we all want secretly, the TSO seemed like the product that could turn the company around. The rally legends from Prodrive did its chassis, while the engines came from the Corvette. It went like a TVR, but the styling was more moderate this time, so on paper, things were looking good. Unfortunately, only six were completed before the company went bust again. Shame, since it's always nice to see a Marcos at a racetrack, especially with almost 500 horses on tap...
The Hillman Motor Car Company started building cars in 1907, after getting enough practice from making bicycles. Independence was never high on their priority list, as they merged with Sunbeam two years after the foundation, only to be bought up first by Humbler, then by the Rootes Group in 1931. Hillman remained the dominant brand of the company, until the whole thing was taken over by Chrysler. After some talbotization, the British marque ended up in the hands of Peugeot. It is one of the greatest badge-engineering achievements of all time.
The Avenger was the first Hillman to be developed using American money. Chrysler wanted to squeeze out every penny from the car. Introduced in 1970, the Avenger came with saloon, estate or hatchback bodies, using a 4-cylinder 1.2 or 1.5-liter all-iron overhead valve engine driving a coil spring suspended live axle at the rear wheel. The press thought it was better than the Morris Marina, so Chrysler got greedy. They sold the Avenger also as a Sunbeam in Europe, while the US got it as the Plymouth Cricket. South-Africans could hoon in a Dodge Avenger, while Argentina got it with a VW badge as the Volkswagen 1500. The worst came when Chrysler Europe went bankrupt and was taken over by Peugeot. If you ever come across a Talbot Avenger, there are two things to remember: First, just look away! Second, think about how great the word "talbotization" is. It makes me smile every time.
Lagonda was founded by an American opera singer called Wilbur Gunn in 1906. His first car, the 20 horsepower Torpedo won him the Moscow–St. Petersburg trial of 1910 with its reliable six-cylinder. The company built great touring cars as well as smaller saloons, while also participating in both world wars. During the first, they only shifted to building shells, but when Hitler came to the picture, Lagonda replied with a bunch of massive flamethrowers. David Brown bought the firestarters in 1947, just like Aston Martin. The Lagonda 2.6 was put back into production with its Bentley-designed six cylinder, but a brand new chassis.
The following car, the new Rapide was David Brown's attempt to revive the Lagonda marque. Using an Aston Martin DB4 as a base, with Superleggera contruction and the engine from the DB5, it also had a horse collar grille, just like Ford's failed Edsels. The 4-litre straight six was mated to a three speed automatic, and servo assisted disc brakes made sure that the VIPs stayed alive while enjoying the leather and walnut interior. Because it was rather expensive, only 55 were built in the three years of production. Since then, Aston Martin only used the Lagonda name once more, and that didn't work out either...
MG got its name from its founder, as Cecil Kimber was working at Morris Garages at the time. He started his business in 1924, and the brand soon become synonymous with small two-seater sports cars. MG also built saloons and coupes, and was bought up by Morris in 1935. The new parents cut back on motorsports, and when BMC took over the whole company in 1952, most of MG's lineup become a badge-engineered mess as well. The seventies were tough, therefore British Leyland decided to shut down the MG brand after the production of the MGB was finished. The rights to the name went to British Aerospace in 1988 and then to BMW in 1994. Badge-engineering went on with the Rover models, until the MG F came to the rescue. While sales were strong, it wasn't enough to save the Rover group, so the whole operation was sold to the Chinese.
The MG TF was an improved version of the successful, but also aging F roadster. The new two seater had traditional coil springs instead of the Hydrolastic system from before, while the chassis become 20 percent more rigid than the F's. The 1.6 base engine disappeared, and only the K-series 1.8 was available, with improved reliability and 160 horsepower. That was enough for a sub 7 second 0-60 run, and while the MG couldn't beat the Mazda MX-5 on a racetrack, the British were buying until a certain point. After Rover collapsed, the first thing the Chinese did was put the improved TF back to production. Unfortunately for them, demand was so low they could only build 906...
The company started with bicycles in 1886. From 1906, they fitted engines on their bikes, and while the army was kicking German asses from the backs of Triumph bikes in 1918, they become Britain's largest manufacturer of motorcycles. After getting the Dawson Car Company, the first Triumph car arrived in 1924 featuring a 1.4-litre engine. Three years later, the Super 7 was introduced, and it soon generated massive sales for the company. While the sale to Standard Motor Company was probably not a bad move in 1944, what followed in the sixties was basically like digging a grave. Yes, it was British Leyland, all over again. The last Triumph was a shamefully rebadged Honda, but after the company went bust, BMW bought the whole package. Since then, they sold it, but insisted on keeping the Triumph brand. A revival in the future? Well, unlikely if the spend more on their i sub-brand.
While the last Triumph was a Honda, let's forget about that, and focus on a real one. The 2000 was built from 1967 to 1977, with the latter ones getting 2.5-litre engines. Since even the smaller engines were six-cylinders, Triumph could make the Rover P6 run for its money until 1968, when the latter was fitted with a Buick V8. This wasn't the only problem the Triumph 2000 had, because while most people liked the Michelotti designed body, nobody was a fan of massive overheating. The problem can be described with two words: Lucas electronics. The electric fuel pump commonly overheated causing fuel to vaporise. That's never good, but not surprising when a pump is adapted from what was originally a windscreen wiper motor. Another funny fact you should know about is that the estate version of the Mark II cars was 5 inches shorter than the saloon, because the rear bodywork of the car was carried over unchanged from the MkI version. You lazy bastards...
Trevor Wilkinson was too cool for school, so he left it at the age of 14, only to learn about engineering in a garage. He built his first car on an Alvis chassis in 1947. Two years later, the first official TVR was built with an alloy body wrapping a two seater tubular chassis. In 1953, the aluminium was replaced by glass fibre, and the fantastic Grantura was born. The sixties and seventies were uncertain times, with all sorts of engines making TVRs go fast as hell. Thankfully, Peter Wheeler arrived in the eighties, and immediately started using massive Rover V8s instead of turbocharged six-cylinders. He also managed to get Holden V8s from Tom Walkinshaw, the brain behind that other TWR. Just to make it more challenging, Wheeler also started the development of TVR's own V8, which become a straight six they modestly called "the Speed Six". And you don't want to know what happens when you use two of those...
My love for the TVR Sagaris knows no boundaries. It's a 385 horsepower rear-wheel drive sports car weighting no more than a large kitchen table with a top speed of 185 mph. It also has insane styling, but no ABS or any other piece of German assistance. Next to the possibility of sudden death, it also attracted customers with remarkable build quality compared to previous TVRs, or in fact anything coming from British boutique manufacturers. Just look at its exhaust! It's either your kind of thing or not. But the one thing we can certainly agree on is that when they give the pride of the great city of Blackpool to the son of a Russian oligarch, serious amounts of Detroit's rock 'n' roll is needed to deal with the pain.