Theme: Values – Britain

Ah, this is a tricky one. It´s like trying to understand your family.

2001 Mini: aw retro as New Beetle but nobody objects. Image: I wonder what that site is about.
2001 Mini, old and new British style. Image:

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.

1961 Lagonda Rapide:
1961 Lagonda Rapide:

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.

1998 Rover 75
1998 Rover 75

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?

2014 Ford Focus
2014 Ford Focus

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.


Author: richard herriott

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

9 thoughts on “Theme: Values – Britain”

  1. With an imminent referendum, the UK finds itself at another of those points where people are questioning what Britishness actually is. As usual, there is the confusion between Britishness and Englishness which sums up the impossibility of characterising a constantly changing bastard nation. Whenever there’s a royal wedding or funeral Brits like to say ‘no-one does pageantry like us’ and, generally, I’d agree. But in all other things we might initiate something, but then we lose interest and we end up finding that, actually, BMW understands Rolls Royce better than its previous British custodians ever did. But that’s not always the case. Lush interiors seem very British – compare a Mk 10 Jaguar with the austerity of a Mercedes W108 – but somehow the ex-German industry management at Jaguar, or is it the British but not English head of design, have decided that a distinctly un-lush interior is a good idea. Which sounds like shooting yourself in the foot. Which is certainly very British.

  2. As Sean says above, foreigners often have a better understanding of a nation’s character than those who have grown up with it do. So your comments – as a near neighbour – are insightful and relevant.

    I do think you are doing British design a disservice though. Design and culture are areas where Britain is a world leader. I think the Range Rover, Phantom and Mini are all exceptionally strong products… and they earn a premium through good design and good marketing. The other common demoninator is that BMW had a big influence on all of them.

    The UK also has London, one of the world’s financial centres, but sadly the City has a short termist attitude to finance and has never invested in manufacturing properly. It could also be argued that engineering – not the glamorous, blue-sky thinking, but the more mundane nitty gritty of ensuring a product can be replicated to high standards – is under valued.

    1. True, Britain has traditionally had good design education (well, I would say that) and has put a lot of good designers into the auto industry. The problem has always been, as Jacomo says, short-sightedness from investors and from management too. Looking back at the long history of what ended up as MG Rover Group, we see a tale of almost heroic achievement from people working with shoestring budgets – a strange situation under which the British seem to thrive best.

    2. Yes, when I said ‘thrive best’, what I meant really is ‘best’ as in ‘feel most comfortable’. It’s not ‘best’ for the punters who ended up with untested, slipshod products, as Fred says below.

  3. As a unitedstatesian who’s had a couple of British cars (’58 Hillman Minx, ’67 Sunbeam Alpine, two Scimitar coupes and a Rover P6B) as well as an innovative British bicycle (original Moulton) and who’s driven others, Land Rover 88s in particular, I’m not sure that there’s much that they have in common. Their salient shared attribute — best exemplified by the Moulton — is a frightening combination of good ideas and abysmal execution. Poor choice of materials, stupidity in the details, haphazard assembly, ….

    My aged mother died last year, left me a small inheritance. I contemplated squandering it on a car with sporting pretensions. Most of the leading candidates were old and British, and then there was the Honda S2000. I didn’t buy a car, instead convinced myself that getting another one would improve my life. The old crocks I thought I wanted all embodied good ideas but were all, um, fragile.

  4. There has always been a tug of war in the British mindset between conservatism and modernity. This has played out in any number of fields, from car design to architecture to politics to urban planning.

    It does not help that modernism has often been used as an excuse for the substitution of poor quality materials. Travelling to America, I was surprised how they used concrete to much greater effect, often polishing the surface to achieve a shiny granite like sheen. The British equivalent has been to embed pea gravel, or use softwood mounds to create a crude texture that collects dirt. Ditto our embrace of IKEA, with poor quality materials masked by good design and a cheap price.

    Despite the current Conservative government, the tug of war seems to have pulled towards modernism in recent years. TV programmes such as Grand Designs are full of modernist homes. Each new skyscraper creates a new modern counterpoint to London’s overwhelmingly Victorian architectural heritage. Range Rovers and Rolls Royces are thoroughly contemporary devices combining traditional materials and techniques with futuristic forms. Even Aston Martin is lunging into the future with its DB11.

    Of late there has been a wholesale reappraisal of the British mid century, the period bookended by the end of the Second World War and the turmoil of the late 1970s. This was a great time for European design, marrying modern forms with traditional materials. Long out of favour, teak sideboards and Ercol chairs are now fetching huge sums. This is part nostalgia, sure, but it also acknowledges a belated awareness that modern design and traditional materials must go hand in hand. For me, that is where British design is at its best, aware of the traditions of craftsmanship but always with an eye on the horizon.

    1. There´s a character in the Fast Show who always has a bad turn whenever he gets to mention the word “black”. He´s the chap discussing how to watercolour, I think. I´m pretty much like that when I see people counterpointing modern architecture with other architecture. It´s the scale. The modern high-rises aren´t counterpointing but working to an entirely different agenda. But I am about smash my canvas and run off screaming so I will stop there. Apart from that detail, yes, I agree… Or maybe not.

      A lot of modern Conservatives like modernism now all the social justice part has been ripped away. Personally I´d like a mix of social justice and vernacular architecture. I don´t see why only Prince Charles has to have pretty buildings all around him.

      The Grand Design homes are often ludicrous and any of the ones I have seen feature a house in the middle of nowhere, the anti-urbanist ideal of a home away from all the annoying other people, spoiling a nice bit of countryside to satisfy illusions of grandeur. The Danes are the same: when they see nice countryside they imaging plonking a house down in the middle of it. Nice for them and crap for everyone else. As I like to say, if you love nature, leave it alone. It doesn´t need to be looked at so much as left to itself, preferably without a sterile glass box and massive gravelly drive for three cars doing 12,000 km a year each.
      Sorry: touchy topic for me.

    2. Grand Design is a bad example because the self builds featured are vanity projects by virtue of their nature. It is noticeable though that left to their own devices, British people embrace modernism in their housing. I think it reflects a suppressed desire for modernity that is not being met by UK house builder’s predilection towards rabbit hutches in a faux Victorian style. What is required is a better mix of styles, some traditional and some modern, rather like the car market. Unfortunately, thanks to pent up demand, UK builders can throw up various sizes of pinewood sheds skinned in brick and tile, and people have to buy them.

  5. To my mind the last mainstream British car that truly captured the British Zeitgeist was the original Rover 200. That counterpointed modern style with a superb interior that was light years ahead of the competition. Inside modern and traditional materials sat side by side in an environment that was comfortable, light and treated the occupant with respect. Notably it was the last Rover that sold in numbers abroad. Many of the styling themes it encapsulated have been taken on and repurposed by Landrover; I often wonder if a more fitting evolution of the Rover 200 would have looked like the Evoque.

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