Chequered Past: Of England and the Automobile

Chequered Past: Of England and the Automobile

Q: Do you still write about cars?

A col­league in Devon, intro­duced over Churchill sub­jects, writes: “I’m curi­ous about your motor writ­ing. I’m a RoSPA qual­i­fied advanced dri­ver and had one of the first right­hand dri­ve Audi Quat­tros. Our local group had a fas­ci­nat­ing talk by an auto­mo­bile writer who reviewed 502 cars and wrote the book, he said, on the Mini.”

A: The automobile: still plugging along

Yes, I still write fea­ture arti­cles for Col­lectible Auto­mo­bile (US) and The Auto­mo­bile (UK).  I also write the val­ue guides for Col­lectible Auto­mo­bile. The lat­ter are very droll: “Would you real­ly pay $50,000 for one of these? … The instru­ments are down by your knees, where you won’t have to look at them.” (Which is why I write those columns with­out a byline.) Recent auto­mo­bile arti­cles are archived here. To access web­sites for the two mag­a­zines click CA or TA.


Two subjects—Churchill and the automobile—have kept me occu­pied most of my life. For an arti­cle that com­bines them both, see “Churchill’s Motor­cars,” archived in three parts begin­ning here.

My rela­tion­ship with Pub­li­ca­tions Inter­na­tion­al, pub­lish­ers of Con­sumer Guide and Col­lectible Auto­mo­bile, is the longest of my career. It’s been fun all the way. It began in 1977, when I co-authored with Jef­frey God­shall a thin lit­tle illus­trat­ed book called 1957 Cars. Jeff was a tal­ent­ed car design­er and writer, lost to us in 2019, great­ly missed by the auto­holic  fraternity.

You remem­ber 1957…. No? Well, too bad. That was a very good year for the auto­mo­bile. Think Ever­ly Broth­ers: “And he’s got a new Fifty-sev­en too.” (I can’t find a copy of 1957 Cars any­where, nei­ther on Ama­zon nor

The Mini and its descendants

Ah the Mini. A bril­liant idea by the inim­itable Alec Issigo­nis, failed in exe­cu­tion, or at least in mar­ket­ing. It was nev­er real­ly right for the Amer­i­can mar­ket, but a huge suc­cess in Europe. It led in turn to the some­what larg­er BMC 1100 (ADO16), and then to the Maxi, which failed badly.

Van­den Plas Princess 1100 pho­tographed in Bel­gium. (Charles01, Cre­ative Commons)

A friend owned a deriv­a­tive, the Van­den Plas Princess 1100: a “Watch Charm Rolls.” Out­side it was most­ly stock 1100, but the inside was swathed in Con­nol­ly leather, wool car­pets and burled wal­nut. It was a lit­tle gem—overpriced and com­plete­ly wide of the market.

The more basic ver­sion of ADO16, sold as the MG 1100 in the USA, briefly bid to rival Volk­swa­gen. The Bug was reach­ing its max­i­mum appeal when the 1100 arrived in 1962. The British rival had four doors, much more room inside, more lug­gage capac­i­ty, and sim­i­lar fuel econ­o­my. But right away there were problems.


Kjell Qvale, who sold many British cars in Cal­i­for­nia and liked them par­tic­u­lar­ly, told us a sad sto­ry. The engi­neers back in Eng­land, he said, were baf­fled by the 1100’s ser­vice problems.

The cars were burn­ing out engines in Los Ange­les and burn­ing up clutch­es in San Fran­cis­co. Why such oppo­site prob­lems in two cities so close on the map? They’d nev­er set foot in the Unit­ed States.

AQSo it went with the British indus­try, whose approach to for­eign mar­kets was often myopic.

In 1973 at Auto­mo­bile  Quar­ter­ly, we pub­lished a pan­el dis­cus­sion on UK automaking—what was left of it. British Ley­land were offended—scroll to our title spread here.

To dis­pute our con­clu­sions and show how bright they were, Ley­land orga­nized a 1974 press tour of fac­to­ries. I remem­ber my first vis­it to MG at Abing­don-on-Thames. It was like some­thing out of Dickens.

(The odd thing was that the Amer­i­can indus­try start­ed doing the same dumb things a few years lat­er, with very sim­i­lar results.)

An English obsession

That was the first of twen­ty trips to the UK. It sounds irre­li­gious, but I’ve nev­er been able to relate to Fer­raris, pos­si­bly because I could nev­er afford one. Give me a quirky Eng­lish rig like the Sun­beam Har­ring­ton Le Mans, with an inter­est­ing pedi­gree and a shape you don’t see every day.

There’s some­thing about the smell of leather and wool, the way the rain beads on the bon­net, that reminds you of the days when almost any­body in Eng­land could build a sports car, and most of them did. A work­er in Coven­try once said to me about the Tri­umph TR6: “It rides hard and smells of oil, mate. They just don’t make cars like that any more.”

Par­ry Thomas in Babs, pow­ered by a Packard 27-liter Lib­er­ty aero-engine, break­ing the Land Speed Record, Pen­dine Sands, Wales, 28 April 1926. His grave­mark­er reads: “Love is eter­nal and Life is immor­tal and Death, which is only the begin­ning, is only the lim­it of our sight.” (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

In 1977, we brought “Babs,” the Land Speed Record car, back Pen­dine Sands on the 50th anniver­sary of the crash and death of the great Welsh rac­ing dri­ver John God­frey Par­ry Thomas. (After the crash Babs was buried in the sand. Years lat­er she was dug up and restored by an intre­pid Welsh­man, Owen Wyn Owen.)

We host­ed auto­mo­tive tours of Eng­land, and were wel­comed at fabled shrines like Mor­gan and Aston Mar­tin Lagon­da and Rolls-Royce. Grand memories.

A vanished world

My friend above wrote from the West Coun­try, which I knew well, hav­ing explored and rent­ed cot­tages from Dorset to Som­er­set, Devon to Corn­wall. We had close friends in Bris­tol, who co-found­ed the Tri­umph Mayflower Club. There I vis­it­ed a “niche man­u­fac­tur­er” by the same name, Bris­tol Motors, run by an affa­ble gent with the mis­lead­ing name of Antho­ny Crook.

Bris­tol had only one show­room, in Kens­ing­ton High Street, Lon­don. Its cars were built by hand: big, potent gran tur­is­mos most often pow­ered by Amer­i­can V-8s. Tony Crook sold out in 1997 and the firm strug­gled on into receiver­ship in 2020. He was kind man and a bril­liant inno­va­tor who loved the automobile.

automobileBack in the 70s and ear­ly 80s, Britain was a driver’s par­adise. The roads, unham­pered by extremes of tem­per­a­ture as in the USA, were bil­liard table smooth and immac­u­late. You could dri­ve as fast as was rea­son­able and (if sober) over­take on curves.

Over the years I drove 80,000 miles from Land’s End to John O’Groats, the Hebrides to Dover.I once drove a Tri­umph Dolomite Sprint from Carlisle to Lon­don in four hours. It was like dying and going to heaven.

Alas came speed cam­eras and too many cars. Recent­ly a friend in Oxford was dinged for doing 32 in a 30 mph zone. More recent­ly you can’t even bring a car in there. One Sat­ur­day on one of my last vis­its to Dorset, I had to use an Ord­nance map and one-track lanes to get round the traf­fic in and out of Dorch­ester. I don’t dri­ve there anymore.

2 thoughts on “Chequered Past: Of England and the Automobile

  1. Love­ly piece, hank you. Please nev­er give up on cars. “So it went with the British indus­try, whose approach to for­eign mar­kets was often myopic.” To “myopic” I would add “jin­go­is­tic, con­de­scend­ing and com­pla­cent.” If some­time you have time on your hands (!) might I sug­gest you search for which will take you to an opin­ion piece I wrote address­ing that from the point of view of an ex-Brit ser­vice rep for the Cana­di­an arm of a British car man­u­fac­tur­er (Rootes, actu­al­ly) fight­ing uneven odds.

  2. I believe I have a copy of ‘1957 Cars’, but can’t locate it… maybe they have all dis­si­pat­ed into the ether.
    Fer­rari: I’m still delight­ed about the orig­i­nal Ford GT40. I’ve owned two British cars; both Jaguars (Mark 9 and XJS). Both were low mileage, the XJS was owned and scrupu­lous­ly main­tained by the orig­i­nal own­er, whom I knew.
    Both were dis­ap­point­ments. I say “They don’t nick­el and dime you in repairs, they hun­dred and thou­sand you.” The hap­less Mark 9 was pur­loined out of my dri­ve­way one night, nev­er to be seen again. I still have the pink slip after 40 years missing.

    Thanks, Scott. For sim­i­lar amus­ing Jaguar expe­ri­ences, scroll to “O’Kane and the Eng­lish” in my post: “Old Jags & Allards: The Whim­sey and Fun of Dick O’Kane.” His expe­ri­ences will be famil­iar to you. —RML

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