British Cars I Remember (Geoff Wheatley)

The first car that I ever owned, (apart from a death trap that I purchased for $20 when I was in college and sold for $35 when I graduated), was a 1957 Ford Popular. The technology was distinctly pre WWII with a side valve engine a rather Spartan interior and a three speed gearbox. For an extra few bucks you could have a heater that certainly enabled the driver to see in wet weather by clearing the windshield. However, if you wanted warm feet at the same time the choice was limited between the two operations. With a good tail wind you might hit 70 mph but not for long. When the Mini came out in 1959 I traded in the Ford and purchased one of the early versions of this popular car. The only drawback was that the car stopped every time it rained! After a couple of trips to the Dealership I found out that the assembly process was not quite perfect. The cover that was supposed to direct rain away from the electrics had been designed to fit the wrong way round and this resulted in a regular soaking each time there was a shower.  Also I also found that despite all the advertising about the interior size and how many travel cases could be carried, when my family of two adults and two children aged 12 and 5 were in the car there was not much room for anything else!  The unique design of the Ford Anglia with its cut back rear window flared headlight and a genuine American type of styling convinced me that I should have one. As I recall it was yellow with a lot of chrome front back and on both sides.  For what it was it was not expensive I think with tax etc the bill came to about $1200 in American money and it had a heater as standard equipment. A radio was extra so I went without listening to the BBC each morning on my way to work.  Those of you who watch the Harry Potter movies will recall the design of this car, in fact how can anyone forget? Performance left something to be desired it took a long time to hit 60 mph but it was reliable and had plenty of inside room for a growing family with a dog!  By 1966 I had progressed up the corporate ladder to a point where a more distinctive vehicle was required and of course the kids had grown larger at the same time. The then new Hillman Hunter had hit the market supported by the fact that the car had won the 11,500 mile rally from London to Sydney (Australia) certainly enhanced its appeal to any family man who wanted a sporty car. It was a 100 mph car not that you could ever do such a speed in the UK at that time. The first of the Motorway’s opened the 1963 and that was all of eighty miles long! An interesting statistic about this car is its life span,  in the UK  was about eight years but the Hunter continued production in Iran called the “PAYKIN” until 2005, a popular vehicle that  lasted almost forty years. The Rootes Group who owned Hillman produced some interesting cars but nothing that anyone would remember as being unique in either performance or design. Lord Rootes the founder of the company was a man without vision as illustrated by the fact that in 1946 the British asked Rootes to evaluate a car that had been found in a German factory with the idea that it could be produced in the UK as a Post War vehicle. Rootes recommendation was that the car was of little interest and no one would buy such a thing. So the VW Beetle was sold off for virtually nothing and went on to beat all production records at 21 million over the next 58 years! It was now 1971 and I was approaching my mid life semi crisis. Passing a Ford Dealership there was a car that looked like it was made for the Autobahn which of course it was, the new bright and beautiful Ford Capri.  The one in the window was the GT version with all the trinkets and a performance rating of 118 mph.  Red of course with a body design that would make any car buff green with envy. However, that was its only redeeming feature. The car and many of its brothers was plagued with electrical problems that the majority of UK Ford Dealers could not resolve. For no reason the car would simply stop in the middle of a road, not a healthy situation with trucks on your tail.  The clutch was replaced twice in a period of sixteen months while and various other delights persuaded me to say good bye and look for another toy. The time has also come for the family to move up to a two door garage that needed two cars to fill the space. After my experience with the Mini that was not on the list of the second car but the new Hillman Imp certainly was. It had been around since 1963 trying to cash in on the Mini market with limited success, but it was larger and had a lot of cargo space with the engine in the rear. It also had a rear screen that could be lifted like a hatch back with was a unique feature for the time. Performance was adequate but certainly no match for a Mini Cooper.  However  I was not looking for performance simply a second car that the family could enjoy while Dad ventured forth to find a new sporty toy.  To my mind the best of the best within that price range at that time had to be the Triumph 2000. The early version had a few problems with the new fuel-injected engine but by the time I got round to purchasing these problems had been resolved. In 1967 Triumph owners, British Leyland acquired Rover whose own 2000 was a direct rival to the Triumph. It did not take long before BL decided to drop both models and introduce the Rover SD1. In reality that was the end of Triumph who had been shuffled around since Sir John Black purchased the company in the 1940’s and proceeded to drive it into the ground. The early 1950’s revival with the TR range of sports cars did give the company a few more years but it was never a profitable venture. However the 2000 was by any standards a winner. It looked good drove well and was in the middle price range so that people like myself could buy a luxury car and think it was a Bentley!

No I did not buy a Rover SD1, the look alone was enough to send any self respecting middle age man to look at foreign cars and by the 1970’s there were a few nice ones to look at.  Instead I purchased the most dreadful British car ever made the Morris Marina, to say that it was a disappointment would be the understatement of the year. Dreadful quality control assuming that there was such a thing at Cowley/Longbridge. Unreliable to the point where it was more rewarding to catch the bus than risk a drive on the open road. One special feature was the throttle control that was a cable attached to the gas pedal which froze in the winter resulting in some hair rising moments in traffic when it froze open and the car continued to maintain speed.  After about a year I gave up and went to a local BMW Dealer and purchased a” 5 Series”, despite the fact that I felt a touch unpatriotic, however I consoled myself with the knowledge that the war had been over for thirty or more years. Apart from the T Type MG’s that grace my garage today and a MGB I have never owned a British car since the Marina. I do have a Jaguar but as it was made under the Ford banner with a German Ford engine I don’t think it qualifies as being British.  Looking back I truly enjoyed these cars warts and all, and there are certainly one or two that I wish I had today.  Once a great Motor Industry that in many ways was its own enemy.  Corporate greed, union strikes and poor management contributed to its demise and despite the billions that various British Governments poured into the industry it simply failed. With the exception of one small private company that has never taken a penny from any support program all these cars and many more are simply memories.  Morgan just celebrated its 100 years of existence and to celebrate they pushed the production up to 13 cars a week. With a year’s waiting list for a new model ..I call that good management!

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