Every resto project is filled with blood, sweat and tears, but at the end of the road there is so much satisfaction to be had when we see how one more classic car has had the ‘class’ painstakingly worked back into it.
Sometimes you do start to wonder whether we love the act of restoration more than the car itself – but a quick glance through this list of British dream machines will give the lie to this. Although we all love restoring cars there are certain cars we would just love to get our oily hands on.
The British car industry was born in 1896 when Harry J. Lawson launched the Daimler Motor Company in Coventry and over the years it has produced many vehicles that have more than stood the test of time. Their exquisite craftsmanship, smooth handling and abundance of character have found markets and adherents not just across the pond but across the world.
Which iconic British cars should we salute? Drum roll please: the Union Jack is about to be unfurled and as the triumphant opening bars of “God Save The Queen” sound in the background let’s salute ten true Brits.
This one we can only dream about. There were just 17 of these two-seated beauties ever made making them rare to the point of extinction and all the more desirable for it.
When one last came up for auction it was referred to as “the oldest known surviving Rolls-Royce in the world.” It sold for more than any other pre-1905 car has, finally falling under the hammer at £3,521,500 at auction. To think that back in 1904 you could have picked one up for just £395!
The British equivalent to the American Jeep is rugged and lacking in creature comforts but certainly durable – both literally and in its appeal. Land Rover has claimed that 70% of all the vehicles it has ever built are still in use today giving it the dubious honour of being the cockroach of automotive Armageddon. Forget manners and niceties, what the Land Rover promises is assured, robust off-road driving at the cost of a comfy ride.
Incredibly the Land Rover – the second four wheel drive brand ever commissioned – was actually seen as a stop-gap measure to fill Rover’s production freeze on luxury cars caused by wartime austerity. It was designed in 1948 as an agricultural vehicle – a cross between a small truck and a tractor – complete with rear power take-off for accessories. After a few years of production however the Series 1’s greatly outsold all of Rover’s new luxury cars and the rest is history.
Donald Healey certainly put the fun back into driving with this affordable car with true character. Sadly missed since its demise in 1969 the Sprite was made in Abingdon at MG and spawned the copycat MG Midget which carried on its mantle, with slightly less flair, for another decade.
The small, open-topped sporty Sprite raided many parts from Austin’s back catalogue. It launched itself as a low-cost successor to the Austin Seven that “a chap could keep in his bike shed,” and the earliest model – the Mk I Sprites (1958-61) – featured an unmistakable front-end referred to endearingly as Frogeyes by the Brits or Bugeyes by the Americans. With headlights as eyes, the Austin marque as a button nose and a chrome grille shaped into a welcoming smile you cannot but expect a cheeky wink every time one passes you.
The Bentley 3 litre won the endurance race that was Le Mans 5 times in 7 years in the 1920’s – forcing Ettore Bugatti, half in admiration and half in spite, to refer to it as “the fastest lorry in the world.” Arguably, though, it is its successor the Blower Bentley that continues to blow classic car lovers away.
The Bentley 4.5 litre above all cars has come to epitomise pre-war British racing and its perfect engineering was matched by pithy sloganeering. “There’s no replacement for displacement” was used to signal to the rest of the cars on the track that this powerful Bentley benefitted increased engine displacement.
In total only 720 4.5 litre Bentleys were produced between 1927 and 1931 and just 55 of these carried the supercharged engine known as the Blower Bentley. With a slew of speed records crushed under the heat of its tyres – including the famous 138 mph at Brooklands in 1932 – the Blower staked its place in history and its position in the classic car cannon.
In many ways the history of classic cars is the history of culture as much as it is the history of carburettors, chassis and chrome trims.
Take the MG TC, for example. Between 1936 and 1939 MG made 3000 TA Midgets and between 1939 and 1945 it produced just 379 TBs. Admittedly the Second World War cannot have helped production, marketing or sales. Thanks to the war, however, American GIs stationed in the UK saw the latest TC Midget and it was like nothing there was back home. The result was that 10,000 were produced between 1945 and 1950 and many found their way across the pond.
The MG TC may be in itself unspectacular – and actually differs little from its low-selling predecessors – but it is truly iconic for a small car that managed to muscle in to the home of the muscle car. A Midget in a land of giants indeed.
The British history of mass produced cars may be littered with false starts and a fair few crashes along the way but the hand built car is an entirely different matter. The Morgan Plus 8 is the hand built car par excellence: unashamedly old fashioned, eccentrically elegant yet excitingly electrifying it is quite simply one of the world’s great cars.
The Morgan Plus 8 kept Morgan afloat for many years thanks largely to interest from across the Atlantic. Designed in 1968 as an upgrade on the Plus 4, the Plus 8 was the fastest accelerating car on the market thanks to the addition of an immensely powerful 3.5 Rover V8 engine under its sleek bonnet. Models prior to 1973 boasted a compression of 10.5:1, after which a new design (1973-7) dropped this to 9.25:1. The smart money is on the earlier model.
Even the most die-hard resto-head will struggle to restrain the impulse to modify the Aston Martin DB5 with a few faux 007 gadgets. Famously James Bond’s drive of choice, the DB5 is every inch as glamorous, exciting and smooth as the super spy himself.
The DB5 raced off the production line in 1963 equipped with high octane performance credentials: a smooth but powerful 4.0-litre I-6 engine that could give 282 horsepower and cover 0-60 mph in just over 8 seconds before hitting a top speed of 143-mph.
Surprisingly even after fifty years the DB5 still wears its years well and drives like a dream. With just two years of production (1963-5) and a truly iconic presence expect to pay the price to live the dream.
If the DB5 promises thrills the Silver Cloud oozes urbane charm, creature comforts and outspoken quality.
Manufactured to exquisite perfection between 1959 and 1962 and boasting the first ever 6.2 litre V8 engine the Rolls Royce Silver Cloud II is dignified by an impressively plush interior and angular exterior. A top speed of 115mph pales into insignificance against the sheer beauty and elegance of this car. Not so much a silver cloud as a silver lining.
The real star of Michael Caine’s movie The Italian Job, the Austin Mini remains a much-loved, timeless icon with its roots firmly in the 1960’s.
In 1959 Sir Alec Issigonis was briefed to design a fuel-efficient car but he did so much more than that: he designed a legend that kept rolling off the production lines until as late as the new millennium. The loveable Mini was revolutionary for its space-saving, front-wheel-drive layout which cleverly freed up 80% of what little there was of its floor-plan for passengers and luggage.
An affordable car to restore, an iconic vehicle to be seen in and a surprising pleasure to drive: those early Mark I’s (1959-67) will one day soon be making the canny restorer a lot of money indeed.
Our final choice is another car that epitomises the 1960’s – but from the opposite end of the price spectrum. First released in 1961 to immediate acclaim the E-Type (or XK-E in the States) quickly produced admiring glances and outright superlatives. Enzo Ferrari – a man not known for his compliments – publicly called it the most beautiful car ever made and it certainly still carries a timeless elegance.
The speedometer may have only reached 150mph in the marketing department’s fevered imagination but the E-Type could certainly match the Ferrari in terms of performance as well as for sheer stylish panache.
Between 1961 and 1974 there were more than 70,000 E-Types sold but it’s those early ones (1961-4) with the covered headlamps and playful 3.8-litre I-6 engine that rightly set the mark for other marques.
About the author
Matthew Fidge is a car lover with more than a passing passion for British cars. This list has been compiled with the team at White’s Bodyworks who have been restoring classic cars in the UK for more than two decades and have recently been seen helping TV’s Wheeler Dealers breathe life back into a Morris Minor.