Posted on

British Iconic Cars – Their History

As an Englishman born and bred and a fan of British iconic Cars I thought it may be of interest to list some of the most popular British Car Icons which are instantly recognised Worldwide. I have decided to list the cars and descriptions about the Iconic Cars which may be of interest to the reader.

Rolls Royce Silver Ghost

Rolls and Royce were in fact people before the history of Rolls-Royce as a company every began. Frederick Royce was a British electrical equipment manufacturer who built the first Royce cars in 1904. The three two-cylinder, 10-hp cars he built attracted the attention of Charles Rolls, a longtime car enthusiast from way back in 1894 and son of a baron. He owned a dealership in London, where he first encountered a Royce. He was so taken with the engineering that he partnered with the car’s creator. Royce would built the cars, and Rolls would sell them. Like many manufacturers of the day, Rolls entered the first Rolls-Royces in races in order to promote them. These cars were similar to the first one built by Royce. Real fame came with the 1907 introduction of a 6-cylinder engine inside a silver-painted four-passenger chassis dubbed “The Silver Ghost.” This car was driven 15,000 continuous miles with little wear, cementing the R-R reputation for reliability. Unfortunately, Rolls’ passion for excitement ended in 1910, when his biplane (based on the Wright brothers’ flyer) crashed and killed him almost instantly.

The Silver Ghost chassis, built in Derby, U.K., was toughened with armor so it could serve as a combat car in Flanders, Africa, Egypt, and with Lawrence of Arabia during WWI. In the Jazz Age that came after the war, people had money to spend on these reliable Rollers. There were Silver Ghosts built in Springfield, Mass., from 1920-1924, and a smaller 20-hp “Baby Roller” was introduced. Big cars were still popular, though, with the Phantoms I, II, and II all appearing in the 1920s. During WWII, the company built Rolls-Royce Merlin airplane engines in a facility in Crewe, U.K., rather than cars.

The Austin Mini ( 1959 )

Announced in 1959, and still manufactured 40 years later at the end of the century, Alec Issigonis’s cheeky little Mini-Minor changed the face of motoring. The world’s first car to combine front-wheel-drive and a transversely-mounted engine in a tiny ten-foot long package, was the most efficient and effective use of road space that had ever been seen. In so many ways, this must qualify as the ‘car of the century’.

In scheming up the car Issigonis and his team, which had already designed the Morris Minor, was given a difficult brief by the British Motor Corporation. In the aftermath of the Suez Crisis, and threatened world-wide petrol rationing, Issigonis was asked to provide a minimum-size, minimum-price four-seater package – all built around an existing BMC engine. Choosing front-wheel-drive and the A-series engine, he then minimised the size of the car by turning the engine sideways, and mounted the transmission under the engine. Tiny (10 in /254 mm) diameter road wheels, independent suspension by rubber cone springs, and a careful packaging of the cabin, all helped to provide one of the most amazing little cars of all time. So what if the driving position was cramped, and the steering wheel too vertical? This was a Mini, after all.

Although Issigonis insisted that he was only providing a super-small, super-economy saloon, almost by chance his Mini had superb handling, precise race-car-like steering and unmatched agility.

Even before more powerful versions were available, the Mini had started winning rallies, and showing well in saloon car racing: later, in Mini-Cooper S form, size-for-size it was unbeatable. Originally sold only as two-door saloons in near-identical ‘Austin’ and ‘Morris’ forms, Minis soon spawned derivatives. Not only would there be vans, estate cars and pick-ups, but plusher Riley and Wolseley types followed, as did the stark ‘topless’ Mini-Moke machines. web page image spacer

Engines were eventually enlarged, tiny front-wheel disc brakes were added, the Mini-Cooper and Mini-Cooper S followed, and by the mid-1960s this was a car which had won the Monte Carlo Rally on several occasions. For years there was nothing a Mini could not do, for it appealed to everyone, and every social class, from royalty to the dustman, bought one. At peak, production in two factories (Longbridge and Cowley) exceeded 300,000 every year, BMC’s only problem being that it was priced so keenly that profit margins were wafer thin.

Even the arrival of the larger Mini Metro in 1980 could not kill off the Mini, whose charm was unique. By the 1980s, with larger wheels, re-equipped interiors and wind-up windows, the Mini was a better car than ever, and, looking much the same, it was still selling steadily at the end of the 1990s: more than five million had already been made. Now in the 2000s, we have the New Mini, larger and heavier than before.

The Morgan ( 1946 ) 4 X 4

Although the original four-wheeler Morgan was shown in the mid-1930s, it was overshadowed by the company’s older three-wheeler models until the end of the Second World War. From that point, while altering the original style only slightly as the years passed by, Morgan concentrated on their four-wheeler sports cars.

Morgans were first made by a family-owned business in 1910 (a situation which has never changed), and even the first cars employed a type of sliding-pillar independent front suspension which is still used to this day. Assembly was always by hand, always at a leisurely pace, and even in the post-war years it was a good week which saw more than ten complete cars leave the gates in Malvern Link.

The post-war 4/4 retained the simple ladder-style chassis and the rock-hard suspension for which the marque is noted, and still looked like its 1939 predecessor. It used to be said that the ride was so hard that if one drove over a penny in the road, a skilled driver would know whether ‘heads’ or ‘tails’ was uppermost. Although pre-war cars had been powered by Coventry-Climax, the post-war chassis was exclusively fitted with a specially-manufactured overhead-valve Standard 1,267 cc engine (which never appeared in Standard or Triumph models). Although this engine only produced 40 bhp, the Morgan was such a light car that it could reach 75 mph, while handling in a way that made all MG Midget owners jealous.

The style was what we must now call ‘traditional Morgan’ – it was a low-slung two-seater with sweeping front wings, and free-standing headlamps, along with cutaway doors and the sort of weather protection which made one drive quickly for home in a shower, rather than stop to wrestle with its sticks and removable panels. Up front, there was a near-vertical radiator, flanked by free-standing headlamps, while the coil spring/vertical-pillar front suspension was easily visible from the nose. Most 4/4s were open-top two-seaters, though a more completely trimmed and equipped two-seater drop-head coupé (with wind-up windows in the doors) was also available. Bodies were framed from unprotected wood members, with steel or aluminium skin panels tacked into place, and were all manufactured in the Morgan factory.

Here was an old-style, no-compromise sports car made in modern times – a philosophy which Morgan has never abandoned. Requests for a more modern specification were politely shrugged off, waiting lists grew, and Morgan has been financially healthy ever since. Before the 4/4 was replaced by the altogether larger 2.1-litre Plus 4 of 1950, a grand total of 1,720 4/4s were sold.

Hand assembled, these low-slung two-seater sports cars had cutaway doors and a near vertical radiator which was flanked by free-standing headlamps. Most were open topped and had rock-hard suspension.

Aston Martin DB5 ( 1963 )

Fame comes in strange and unexpected ways. Although the Aston DB4 and DB5 models were already respected by the cognoscenti, the DB5 did not become world-famous until used as James Bond’s personal transport in the film Goldfinger. Although not equipped with Bond’s ejector seat, it appealed to millions, and the DB5’s reputation was secure for ever. Technically, of course, Aston Martin had always been a marque of distinction.

Following the success of the DB2, DB2/4 and DB Mk III models of the 1950s, Aston Martin commissioned a totally new and larger series for the 1960s, beginning with the DB4 in 1958. Built around a simple steel platform chassis, it was clothed in a sleek light-alloy fastback body style by Superleggera Touring of Italy (but built at Newport Pagnell). The skin panels were fixed to a network of light tubing, a method patented by Superleggera. Power (and what power!) came from a magnificent new 3.7-litre twin-cam six-cylinder engine, which soon proved to be strong and reliable in motor racing. The DB4 came close to matching anything so far achieved by Ferrari. All this, allied to a close-coupled four-seater cabin, and high (traditionally British) standards of trim and equipment, made the expensive DB4 very desirable.

The DB5, which was launched in 1963, was a direct development of the DB4; it had a full 4-litre engine, a more rounded nose with recessed-headlamps, and many equipment improvements. Two varieties of engine – the most powerful with a claimed 314 bhp – were on offer, as were non-sporting options such as automatic transmission, which came a full decade before Ferrari stooped to such action.

It was such a complicated, mainly hand-built, machine that it had to sell at high prices. The saloon cost an eye-watering £4,175 in 1963 (there was also a convertible version, at £4,490) and because assembly was a lengthy and careful business, sales were limited to only ten cars a week. It was not for years, incidentally, that it became clear that even these prices did not cover costs, for Aston Martin was merely the industrial plaything of its owner, tractor magnate David Brown.

DB5s could safely reach 140 mph, with roadholding, steering and brakes to match, all the time producing the characteristic booming exhaust notes for which they became famous. Although they looked sinuous and dashing, they were heavy machines and there was no power-assisted steering on this model.

Clearly, this was a bespoke GT machine which would run and run, as the longer and more spacious DB6 which took over in 1965 would prove. In only two years, a total of 1,063 cars (123 convertibles, and 12 of them very special estate car types) were produced. Almost all have survived.

The DB5 became world-famous as James Bond’s car in the film Goldfinger. Lacking the ejector seat, this mainly hand-built car appealed to millions. Although it was a heavy car to drive, as it lacked power-assisted steering, the DB5 had good roadholding.

The Jaguar E Type ( 1961 )

By almost any reckoning, Jaguar’s original E-type was the sexiest motor car ever launched. It looked wonderful, it was extremely fast, and it was always sold at extremely attractive prices. For more than a decade, it was the sports car by which all other supercar manufacturers had to measure themselves.

Originally conceived in 1956 as a successor to the D-type racing sports car, the E-type was not to be used for that purpose. Re-engineered and re-developed, it became an outstanding road-going sports car, taking over from the last of the XK cars – the XK150 – in 1961. Like the D-type, its structure acknowledged all the best contemporary aerospace principles, utilising a multi-tubular front chassis frame which surrounded the engine and supported the front suspension and steering, and was bolted up to the bulkhead of the pressed steel monocoque centre and rear end.

Power came from the very latest version of the famous XK six-cylinder twin-cam engine, with three SU carburettors and no less than 265 bhp (according to American SAE ratings). It was matched by all-independent suspension, four-wheel disc brakes, and a unique, wind-cheating body style. As with the C- and D-type racing cars, the E-type’s shape had been designed by ex-aircraft industry specialist Malcolm Sayer, who combined great artistic flair for a line with the ability to calculate how the wind would flow over a car’s contours. For practical purposes, the E-type’s nose might have been too long, its cabin cramped, and its tail too high to hide all of the chassis components, but all this was forgiven by its remarkable aero-dynamic performance – and its enormous visual appeal.

Open and fastback two-seaters were available from the start, and although a 150 mph top speed was difficult for an ordinary private owner to achieve, this was a supercar in all respects, being faster than any other British road car of the period (and, for that matter, for many years to come). Much-modified types eventually won a series of motor races at just below world level, for they were really too heavy for this purpose. Only three years after launch, a 4.2-litre engine, allied to a new synchromesh gearbox, was adopted, and a longer wheelbase 2+2 coupé followed in 1966.

The E-type sold well all around the world, especially in the USA although new safety laws caused the car to lose its power edge, and its headlamp covers before the end of the 1960s. The Series II’s performance did not match that of the original, and by 1971, the E-type was a somewhat emasculated car. A final Series III type was powered by Jaguar’s new 5.3-litre V12 engine, and a top speed of 150 mph was once again within reach.

Drivers did not seem to mind the small cabin and less than perfect ventilation, but in the end it was more safety regulations and changes in fashion that caused this wonderful motoring icon to fade away. The last of 72,520 E-types was built in 1975, when it was replaced by an entirely different type of sporting Jaguar, the larger, heavier and not so beautiful XJ-S.

Considered to be the sexiest car ever launched, the E-type was a fast and outstanding sports car. Designed by an ex-aircraft specialist, it had a remarkable aerodynamic performance.

Land Rover 1948

Here is a classic case of the stop-gap project which soon outgrew its parent. Before the Land Rover appeared, Rover had been building a relatively small number of fine middle class cars. By the 1950s they were building many more Land Rover 4x4s, and the cars were very much a minor part of the business.

Immediately after the war, Rover found itself running a massive former ‘shadow factory’ complex at Solihull, and needed to fill it. (A ‘shadow factory’ was an aero-engine factory established during the rearmament of the 1930s.) Faced with material shortages, it could not build many private cars, and elected to fill the gaps with a newly-developed 4×4, which it would base unashamedly on the design of the already legendary Jeep from the USA.

Early Land Rovers shared the same 80 in/2,032 mm wheelbase as the Jeep, and the same basic four-wheel-drive layout. The Land Rover, however, was much more versatile than the Jeep, in that it was built in myriad different guises, shapes and derivatives, and it used aluminium body panels, which ensured that it was virtually rust-free. Apart from the fact that it was not very fast or powerful, (though time and further development would solve those problems) the Land Rover could tackle almost any job, climb almost any slope, and ford almost every stream, which made it invaluable for farmers, contractors, surveyors, explorers, armies, public service companies – in fact almost anyone with a need for four-wheel-drive traction, and the rugged construction which went with it.

It wasn’t long before the original pick-up was joined by vans, estate cars, short and long wheelbases to choice, petrol and diesel engines. A long list of extras became available: winches, extra-large wheels and tyres, and liaison with specialist companies ensured that it could be turned it into an impromptu railway shunting vehicle, a portable cinema truck, an equipment hoist, and a whole lot more. Its short-travel leaf spring suspension gave it a shatteringly hard ride and the Land Rover engineers stated that this, at least, limited cross-country speeds to keep the chassis in one piece.

Later models grew larger, longer, and more powerful, but it would not be until the 1960s that the first six-cylinder type appeared, not until 1979 that the first V8 Land Rover was sold, and not until the early 1980s that coil spring suspension finally took over. Sales, however, just went on and on, with the millionth being produced in the mid 1970s. By the late 1990s, when the ‘Freelander’ model appeared, 1.5 million Land Rovers had been manufactured, although by then it had been renamed ‘Defender’ and

Bentley Continental R-Type 1952

After Rolls-Royce took over Bentley in 1931, it was more than 20 years before the new owners produced another truly sporty new model. But the wait was worthwhile. The R-type Continental of 1952–55 was a great car by any standards, which not only looked sensational, but was also extremely fast.

Even before 1939, Rolls-Royce had dabbled with super-streamlined prototypes (one of them being called a ‘Bentley Corniche’), but production cars had to wait until after the war. Using only slightly modified versions of the existing Bentley Mk VI saloon car’s chassis, but with a superbly detailed two-door four-seater coupé designed by the coachbuilder, H.J. Mulliner, the company produced an extremely fast (115 mph), exclusive, and very expensive car, whose title told its own story.

The Continental certainly did not gain its high performance by being light, but by a combination of high (unstated) horsepower, and by the remarkable aerodynamic performance of the bulky, yet sleek shell. There was, of course, no way of taming the drag of the proud Bentley radiator grille, but the lines of the rest of the car were as wind-cheating as possible, the long tapering tail being a delight to the eyes. Like all the best 1930s Bentleys, it had two passenger doors, and a full four-seater package. Leather, carpet and wood abounded – for no concessions were made to ensure a high performance.

Here was an expensive grand tourer for the connoisseur and, by definition, it was likely to sell in small numbers. Put on sale in 1952 at £7,608 (at a time when Morris Minor prices, for instance, started at £582 ), it was ideal for the ‘sportsman’ who liked to drive far and fast, wherever conditions allowed. It was produced in the traditional Bentley/Rolls-Royce style, for the engine was low-revving, the steering and most other controls quite heavy, and the fuel consumption ferocious – but the fit, finish and quality of every component (especially the interior trim) were of the very highest quality.

As ever, Rolls-Royce/Bentley never thought it necessary to reveal the power output of the big six-cylinder engine, whose overhead inlet/side exhaust valve layout was only shared with one other British make of car – the Rover of the period. Needing only to point out the easily provable performance of their cars, they let acceleration figures speak for themselves.

In a career of only three years, the R-type Continental needed little improvement, for the engine was a very powerful 4.5-litre u

Lotus Elite ( 1958 )

Right from the start, when he built his original special- bodied Austin Seven trials car, Colin Chapman showed signs of engineering genius. Setting up Lotus, he sold his first car kits in the early 1950s, and soon progressed to building advanced racing sports cars. The first true Lotus road car, however, was the very advanced Lotus Elite.

First shown in 1957, but not available until a year later, the new two-seater Elite coupé was irresistibly attractive. Even though Lotus was still a small company, Chapman had laid out a car which pushed technology to the limit. In particular, he decided to make the Elite without a separate chassis, using a fully-stressed fibreglass monocoque body which would only include steel sections for a few local reinforcements.

Not only was this amazing machine to be powered by a race-proved overhead-camshaft engine from Coventry-Climax, and had four-wheel independent suspension, but it was achingly beautiful, and was quite amazingly light in weight. No-one, it seems, was ever likely to confuse the Elite with any other car, for its tiny, smooth and always curving lines had no rivals. Looking back into history, its only real drawback was that the door windows could not be wound down, but had to be removed to provide better ventilation.

In engineering terms, though, ‘adding lightness’ often adds cost too, and there was no doubt that the Elite was always going to be a costly car to make and sell. The fibreglass monocoque body shells proved to be difficult to make in numbers, major bought-in items like the Coventry-Climax engine were very expensive, and owners soon found that a great deal of maintenance and loving care was needed to keep the new sports car running.

Refinement was not then a word which Lotus understood and the Elite was a rather crudely equipped and finished machine at first; the interior environment was very noisy, for there was little attempt to insulate the drive line and suspension fixings from the monocoque, which acted like a fully matured sound box.

As the years passed, the Elite’s specification changed, with the power of the engine gradually being pushed up to 100 bhp (which brought the top speed to more than 120 mph, quite amazing for a 1.2-litre car), a ZF gear-box adapted and (for Series II cars) a different type of rear suspension geometry specified.

Special Elites, particularly when prepared at the factory, were outstandingly successful class cars in GT racing, even appearing with honour in major events such as the Le Mans 24 Hour and Nurburgring Six Hour events. Years later Colin Chapman admitted that the Elite had never made profits for Lotus, which may explain why he was happy to phase it out in 1962, ahead of the arrival of the backbone chassised Elan. Nothing can ever detract from the gracious style and inventive engineering which went into the car. A total of 988 Elites were made.

Committed owners usually forgave the Elite for the car’s failings, as here was a car which drove and handled like no other rival. Light by the standards of the day, it was not only fast, but remarkably economical too.

Please visit my Vintage Classic Cars on Art Prints Collection 1900-1913 @ http://www.fabprints.com/CARS.html

My other website is called Directory of British Icons: http://fabprints.webs.com

The Chinese call Britain ‘The Island of Hero’s’ which I think sums up what we British are all about. We British are inquisitive and competitive and are always looking over the horizon to the next adventure and discovery.

Copyright © 2010 Paul Hussey. All Rights Reserved.