The All-Time Top 50 Cars: Number 6

Humber was the quintessential lower upper-middle class brand. Their 1967 Super Snipe epitomised the Rootes Group’s attempt to dissect Britain’s fading class system and sell something targeted very precisely.

Humber Super Snipe Series V:
So the did the ’66 and ’65, but the ’67 seemed the best of the range. Humber Super Snipe Series V:

In 1958 when Britain’s class system was alive and well, the Super Snipe name re-emerged on a gracious, stately car that offered space and grandeur if not much pace for less than the price of a Jaguar and with none of the raffish connotations of a Triumph saloon. Perhaps only Rover offered a similar sort of small mansion-on-wheels-feeling.

The Super Snipe served as the car for bank managers (and not bank robbers) and accountants and lawyers in medium-sized English towns. An Armstrong Siddely engine of 2.6 litres provided the power to the unibody vehicle, driving the rear wheels. It was very conventional, which is what was expected of a country for whom the Second World War was a recent memory. After a year on sale the engine was increased in size to 3 litres. And so began a process of gradual modifications which didn’t change the downward slope of the sales graph.

Like a canary in the mine, the Super Snipe was choking as revolutionary social upheaval swept upheavingly over Britain. Britain was upheaved. The slice of the British market that was the Humber’s was getting thinner and thinner and thinner. People were getting out of the habit of wearing ties at the weekend, for example.

People like to remember the Establishment Club as one of the hammer blows that began overturning centuries of deference. But perhaps we should think of the competitors who stole sales from Humber, year after year from 1958 to 1967. When production stopped the annual sales of the Super Snipe were about 3,000. Where had they gone? To Jaguar, to BMW and to Mercedes.

Now that time has passed, the virtues of the Super Snipe are becoming clearer and these days the car has something of a cult following, being seen as a less obvious alternative to precisely those cars that stole its customers.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

16 thoughts on “The All-Time Top 50 Cars: Number 6”

  1. A Triumph saloon in 1958? No such thing was available between the demise of the Mayflower in 1953, and the arrival of the Herald in 1959. (Except for the lucky Americans who were offered the Standard Ten rebadged as a Triumph TR10. Not many rose to the bait…)

    What Standard-Triumph did offer were the Vanguard and Ensign, although they were scarcely “raffish”. Possibly RAF-ish, as the MoD bought them in big numbers as staff cars. The sole attempt to jazz the Vanguard up a bit was the 1956 TR3 engined Sportsman, an abject failure of which fewer than 1000 were produced. It was very nearly a “Triumph Renown”, but for a last-minute loss of bottle at S-T.

    Poor old Humber. I can only imagine the Chrysler people looked at the sales numbers and production costs, and instantly decided that the nameplate’s future was on a better-trimmed Hillman Hunter. I’m put in mind of the industry saying that you can always sell an old man a young man’s car, but you can’t sell a young man an old man’s car.

    There was a half hearted effort to import Aussie Chrysler Valiants to fill the gap left by the big Humbers. It came to little, but at least the marque wan’t shamed by re-badging.

    1. I stand corrected vis a vis the Standard. Wasn’t it much less staid than a Humber? By 1963 there was the Triumph 2000 and 2500 to choose from.
      The “RAFish” comment has to be wit of the week: thank you for that.

      To be honest, I don’t know how Humber were seen in the 1960s. Were they an old man’s car? Class and age probably played a part, much like Buick and Rover. The clientele moved on or passed on.

    2. A well known story is that a Super Snipe prototype was fitted with a Ford V8 from the Tiger. Lord Rootes was taken for a drive in this powerhouse and was so scared he vetoed it forthwith. But is that really credible? Had Rootes never visited the USA?

      My own memory is that the later Vanguards/Ensigns had a more modern image than Humbers. But they didn’t make much of a mark until they morphed into the Triumph 2000.

  2. Richard – glad you enjoyed the RAF-ish comment…

    I’d sum up the Ensign / Vanguard Phase 3 as a straightforward, hard-working cars, designed very much with the colonies in mind, where the smaller, and more egregiously styled Phase 1/2 cars had done well. Trouble was that in Standard’s big export markets “Empire preference” was rapidly waning, and the Americans were making big inroads with aggressively priced cars better suited to local conditions.

    In their home market, the big Standards suffered by being not nearly as prestigious as the costlier Humbers and Rovers, or the Jaguar 2½ and 3½ litre saloons, and offering less car for the money than similarly priced Fords and Vauxhalls, which also offered six cylinder engines – an important marker of status.

    Against all odds, while teetering on the edge of insolvency Standard-Triumph somehow managed to develop a six for the Vanguard, available from September 1960. That’s a story in itself, but for another time.

    Incidentally the post-October 1958 facelift Vanguards were marketed as the “Vanguard Vignale”, although the restyle was Michelotti’s work. .

    56 years ahead of Ford…

  3. Sean,

    I’ve read the Ford V8 / Super Snipe story somewhere too. Doesn’t say much for Lord Rootes, I’ve driven a few V8 engined cars with running gear ill-suited to the engines’ power and never lost my nerve. The Ford V8 was also tried in the pre-Arrow Humber Sceptre, and showed considerable promise. Probably a better base than the Tiger, which used a Hllman Husky / Commer Cob platform.

    The Rootes Ford V8 adventure came to an end with the Chrysler takeover. It seems – regrettably – that Chryslers engine line-up didn’t include an V8 compact enough to take the place occupied by the Tigers’s Ford Windsor.

    Incidentally, on Alpine matters, it seems that Humber got the Armstong Siddeley six as part of a portmanteau deal wherein A-S assembled the first three years of 1959-onwards Alpines.

  4. I now know more about Standard than I did before. That still doesn’t make it easy for me to parse its place in the pecking order. Perhaps the model I am using is incapable of that. I wrote a bit about this sometime this year: the internationalisation of the market brought the best brands into the awareness of customers and economies of scale tilted away from smaller middle market brands. I keep thinking of the old market being like a shop full of variants on a few types of English clothes with twenty brands of tweed jacket on the racks. The new market has two English tweed coats and also non-Tweed things from Italy, Germany, France etc. Does that metaphor work? In other words, the old order had products for which there is no direct equivalent today.

  5. Trying to interpret the nuances of a past marketplace is always difficult – otherwise excellent articles in classic car magazines can sometimes be spoilt by clumsy attempts to conjure up a world that has disappeared (“Mr Smedley has just been promoted to managing director of a small printing company and is anxious to replace his Singer with something more suited to his new position …. His predecessor had a Hawk, but he’s wondering whether he could stretch to a Super Snipe).

    These pecking orders of British society in the postwar period are as varied as they are subtle. My own (albeit childhood) reading was that a Humber was seen as a bit below a Rover – the latter’s position being helped by a lack of bread and butter siblings – but above an Austin Westminster. All these cars were highly respectable and had a continuity with buttoned up pre War social world.

    There was an alternative line that jumped from the Ford Zodiac to big Jaguars, and these cars were really seen as the province of social climbers, a nasty product of the breaking down of a world where people knew their place. There was a certain flashiness to the last Standards that caused them to straddle that gap, rather uncomfortably.

    Although I am usually happy to berate the then leaders of the UK motor industry for their small-mindedness, and although personally the idea of a hot rod Super Snipe appeals, I suspect that, however apocryphal the details of the story are, in this case Lord Rootes made the right decision. A Sceptre Tiger though would have been a different matter.

  6. Explaining where Standard stood in the 1950’s is a hell of a task, given the sub-plots; Turbulent management, Government interference, post war austerity, a corporate and financial structure of Byzantine complexity.

    Also, ‘brand equity’ and badge snobbery weren’t the factors they are now; The past is a foreign country etc…

    It has to be understood that the Triumph component of S-T was a failed company, albeit a revered one. Bankrupt in 1939, bought in 1944 by Standard, who to use that awful but useful phrase, had had a good war. Standard effectively took on a ‘zombie brand’, and gave it their best shot with the 1800/2000 Roadster, Renown, and the bloody awful Mayflower.

    The last mentioned, an ill-judged product could have been the final straw for the Triumph badge if there hadn’t been a will to grab some of the sports car export action which MG and Jaguar were enjoying profitably.

    Post Mayflower, S-T had pretty good product planning and commercial instincts. The Standard 8/10 which took the razor-edged failure’s place was a sort of Clement Attlee on four wheels; straighforward, capable, clever in its choice of new thinking, but rather joyless and unfairly forgotten. It consistently sold well in a market sector which wasn’t bothered with performance or luxury, but valued fuel efficiency, value for (heavily-taxed) money, reliability, and ease of driving. Aspirations had risen by the end of the ’50s, and S-T had the car to meet them in the Herald, badged as a Triumph.

    The brand name change really does seem to have been down to lexical semantics. As someone said “If this is the Standard, where are the Deluxe and Super?” “Standard” to the British meant a flag, and also a marker of quality. To the American Anglophone it signified the lowest level of acceptabliity.

    The Triumph TR2/3 had succeeded in the USA, Standard was barely recognised, hence the new identity.

    That’s probably enough – I apologise for the complete failure to mention tweed overcoats. ’50s Standards were more like the utility gabardines of the automotive world.

    One more thought to bear in mind; I’d probably woudn’t have been writing this if Harry Ferguson hadn’t given Standard-Triumph the tractor manufacturing contract which underpinned their survival, and their investment plans for most of the 1950s..

  7. To find out where these cars stood in relation to each other would at least require catalogues and prices plus data on income and purchasing power. Suffice it to say, at one point markets were effictively closed and car production was domestic. Standard, Humber et al occupied positions now taken by competors from all over the world and though there are products at equivalent price points to these extinct cars they carry different meanings.

  8. Just two comments on the wonderful Humber Super Snipe. In the 60’s my now brother-in-law had a girlfriend whose father owned a Super Snipe; he can still wax lyrical about the spacious leather interior and the comfort it allowed!. Secondly I seem to remember that the bonnet mascot was, of course, a snipe but with a rubber beak to avoid impaling pedestrians. I loved the car.

    1. To be honest, my regard for the Snipe and Imperial used to be ironic but now it’s not.
      Have you read the Archie Vicar “review” of the Snipe, here at DTW?

  9. I’ve found the following mid ‘50s prices from a reliable source.

    At the Vanguard Phase III launch in October 1955 the comparison looked like this – sorry, no Humbers:

    Standard Vanguard: £849
    Austin Westminster DL: £834
    Vauxhall Cresta: £844
    Ford Zodiac: £851

    Move on to October 1957, the 1670cc Ensign has joined the line up – new Fords and Vauxhalls too:

    Standard Ensign: £899
    Standard Vanguard: £1013
    Morris Oxford: £884
    Austin Westminster A95: £1034
    Austin Westminster A105: £1235
    Vauxhall Velox: £916
    Vauxhall Cresta: £1013
    Ford Consul £818 (Deluxe £871)
    Ford Zephyr: £916
    Ford Zodiac: £1013

    I’ve managed to find a copy of Motor from June 1965, a gentler time going by the cover photograph showing a young woman dressed in the abbreviated mode of the day, and a man in the garb of a motor mechanic peering up her skirt from underneath an early Morris Mini-Minor.

    Anyway to prices – note Purchase Tax was down to 21%:

    Austin A110 Westminster: £998
    Wolseley 6/110: £1180
    Vanden Plas Princess 4 Litre R: £1995

    Humber Hawk: £1095
    Humber Super Snipe: £1512
    Humber Imperial: £1796

    Ford Zephyr 4: £817
    Ford Zephyr 6: £890
    Ford Zodiac: £1029

    Jaguar Mk.2 2.4: £1389
    Jaguar S Type 3.8: £1813
    Jaguar Mark X 4.2: £2200

    Rover 2000: £1298
    Rover 3 Litre: £1708

    Triumph 2000: £1119

    Vauxhall Velox: £872
    Vauxhall Cresta: £974

    I’ll let the numbers speak for themselves. However, Richard is right in observing that in the big Humbers’ lifetime the British large / prestige car market was virtually an autarky. In 1965 foreign competition was simply out of reach in the big car class, reserved for the rich and ultra-enthusiastic:

    Alfa Romeo 2600 Berlina: £2326
    BMW 1800 Saloon: £1481
    Lancia Flaminia 2800 Berlina: £2946
    Mercedes-Benz 220SE Saloon: £2497
    Mercedes-Benz 300SEL Saloon: £4489

    Just over £1100 more than that Merc would get you into a new Silver Cloud III!

    1. The Super Snipe price of £1500 was also the median wage.
      Humber are priced about 10-20% more than Ford and Vauxhall and overlapping with Jaguar.
      If I get the time I’d like to do a diagram of the price spreads to make it clearer.
      Bravo for slipping in the word autarky. It’s quite pleasantly allochthonous.
      The price information needs to be qualified with data on content and the age of the bodies.
      It’s a fascinating line of inquiry, forensic market research?

  10. 6 prototypes super snipes and imperials were built in 1964 and 65 with Chrysler small block V8s 318 and 273 cubic inch they were code named SC1 to SC6 standing for snipe Chrysler the first was a series 4 with a 318 coupled to a 3 speed snipe manual box with a floor change SC2 to 6 were all series 5 . In 1966, 6 pre production humbers were built so they never actually were produced and sold to the public.

  11. Humbers were upper public service and parliamentary transport here before local makes Holden and Ford Australian variants took over in late 1960s, since bureaucrats are always twenty years behind private sector. Humbers were also bankers, accountants and rich people without attitude. By comparison a suburban lawyer might drive a Triumph, a criminal lawyer a Fiat 132, an arts bureaucrat a Peugeot but for its Frenchness not its legendary mile-killing toughness, an Eastern suburbs vicar a Wolseley, a raffish married man still pretensions to hippiness a VW of various types, the newly-rich a fully imported Chevrolet or Pontiac and a major company director a Bentley.

    1. Hi Paul, and thanks for dropping by DTW. A nice characterisation of the choice of car in 1960’s Australia. What a shame that your indigenous manufacturers have been shuttered. I liked Holden’s riff on GM’s designs, some of which made it to the UK as Vauxhalls. They were bonkers, but in a good way!

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