Ah, this is a tricky one. It´s like trying to understand your family.
I’m not British but the British have loomed large in the culture of the Irish, and “Ireland” is written on the front of my passport. British cars once dominated the Irish car market and now Germans and Japanese predominate. The interplay of convoluted historical strands influenced the character of British cars. In sketching all this can I do so without being too kind or too critical?
What makes a British car British? The short answer is that there is no short answer. The country seems to be a mass of exceptions bound up in a coastline, handily separated from the rest of the continent. You can reach for the extremes and point at Rolls-Royce and the Issigonis Mini. You can pick radical vehicles such as the Rover P6 or vehicles as conventional as the Hillman Hunter and Ford Cortina. There are ravishing beauties such as the Jaguar XJ-series and any number of regrettable horrors. If forced to name two I might suggest William Towns’ Lagonda or the VanDen Plas 1300 of 1973.
What’s going on here is that the normative and the descriptive have been muddled. Ideally, a British car is a comfortable, well-appointed car of respectable engineering-integrity. But that could describe a Rover 75 as well as a Dagenham Ford Granada. It might even characterise an Opel or Volvo. The best cars such as the Aston Martin DB6, the aforementioned Jaguar and the Bentley Continental of 1991 are rather above this milquetoast definition. The Hillman gets left out as does the Austin Ambassador. Britishness might be found in the expression of comfort, of appointment and engineering integrity.
This question of values has vexed British designers for decades. Is it really all about leather, wood, strong motors and a soft-ish ride? That path led Rover to the stagnation of the 75. Jaguar nearly drowned in the same death-green millpond. Even getting away from that has been fraught with hazards.
That set of values also leaves out a huge slice of Britishness, represented by Ford UK’s independent years and by Vauxhall’s corresponding offerings. The Ford Escort is quintessentially British even if it’s not the car of plum-voiced country GPs and tailored solicitors from Aberdeenshire and Wiltshire. The same goes for the Royale, Victor and Vectra. Millions of Britons have bought these cars in place of similar vehicles from Renault and Fiat. You might even wonder if the VW Golf is a British car inasmuch as Britons love it as much as the Focus and Astra. Is it British to try and avoid Britishness?
If I was asked to imagine a car for Britain, I couldn’t because there are too many competing visions of British values. For one thing, Britain is not really in love with its past in a way that can survive accommodation with modernity. The current icon on modern Britishness is the costly Range Rover: wood and leather plus warmed over 70s industrial design. The Germans, the French, the Italians and Swedes have all managed to bring their national character into the present. For Britain, Britishness is contested. Even the bland neutraliity of a Focus or Astra are saying something through not saying something. Jaguars struggle with this: I can’t really see Britishness in these cars except that France and Germany wouldn’t have made such vehicles.
The only place British romanticism can be seen is at Goodwood, where Rolls-Royce are put together using bodies made in Germany under the direction of Germans. And they seem to be doing as good a job of this leadership as any of the Britons who held similar positions. What has happened here is that some British values (aristocracy, rarified taste, attention to detail) have been nurtured. As with Ferrari, the high-prices have shielded the firm from the effects of class-division that scuppered the mainstream of British manufacturing. Honda seems to have managed a similar feat at a lower price-level. Is it because the staff don’t mind being asked to do things by people who are different from themselves?
I still haven’t dared to say what else might constitute British values. If French values are a little hazy you can say those of Britain are too diverse to be fitted into one car or even a set of cars. What might be British (robustness, comfort, quality, practicality, masculine good-looks) are all counterpointed by the sub-classes of British values that give us Bentley GTs, faster Fords, Reliants, Morgans, Aston Martins and Vauxhall Vectras and BMW Minis. And, don’t forget the Sinclair C5. That was British too.