Reviewing 1958’s British offerings, DTW experiences a sinking feeling.
The RMS Titanic sank many times in the intervening years since it first slipped beneath the waves with terrible loss of life in April 1912, but perhaps its definitive cinematic retelling dates to the Roy Ward Baker directed A Night To Remember, starring Kenneth More. The most expensive British made film when it premiered in July 1958, it was notable for its historical accuracy and the fact that several first-hand survivors of the sinking were employed as advisors to the production.
But not simply a faithful telling of a fable about hubris and man’s incapacity to truly overcome his environment, it also served as a potent metaphor for Britain’s fading grasp of empire and diminishing global influence.
Already, its lead in civil aviation was coming to a crushing, titanic halt. While the elegant if ill-fated, De Havilland Comet, in heavily revised fourth-series form began its first transatlantic service with BOAC that autumn, so too did Pan American Airlines a month later with the faster, more cost-effective and considerably less tainted Boeing 707.
Alongside the Comet’s disintegrating reputation, the UK also mourned the loss of the Manchester United football team as their BEA Airspeed Ambassador aircraft crashed on take-off one freezing February night at Munich airport.
British establishment to its fingertips, the Daimler Company was still (for a few years yet) clinging to its Royal Warrant. A development of the One-O-Four series, first introduced as the Regency in 1951, 1958’s Majestic was anything but a new car. Featuring a separate chassis which dated back to 1937 and a rather upright, narrow and slightly old-fashioned six-light body, the most appropriate adjective one could append to the appropriately-named Daimler was stately.
Inside it offered the full gentleman’s club environment, passengers sitting loftily amidst soft leather and polished walnut splendour. The driving position was upright and somewhat vintage in feel, the generous instrumentation sited centrally. Daimlers were built in relatively small numbers with a good deal of hand crafted assembly and to a high standard of finish. But even the later advent of the fire-breathing 4.5 litre V8 engined Majestic Major couldn’t save matters, with Daimler selling out to Sir William Lyons in 1960, the marque ending its days as an ennobled Jaguar.
Motorcars had become very much an inconvenient sideline for Alvis, the carmaker having successfully diversified into aero engines in 1935, then later into military vehicles. By 1950, car production had virtually ceased and might have remained so but for Swiss carrosserie, Graber, who in 1951 debuted an elegant, modern looking five-seater coupé/convertible on an Alvis chassis.
Red Triangle management entered into an agreement with Graber to produce a version of the car in the UK, employing Park, Ward and Co, who also built bodies for Rolls Royce. Press reception was overwhelmingly positive, Autocar declaring the TD 21 to be “one of the most enchanting owner-driver cars imaginable“.
But what success there was however, would be fleeting, and with the car business again faltering, Rover purchased the brand and in August 1967, the final Alvis motorcar was built. Rover made several attempts at relaunching the marque, but all efforts would come to nothing as the disintegrating BLMC combine blundered its way towards perdition.
Rootes’ Humber marque was established as the maker of sturdy, upmarket and conservative vehicles backed with a quality image. Based on the unitary bodyshell and mechanical package of the previous year’s Hawk model, the 1958 Super Snipe, a more compact car than its pre-war-based predecessor, was introduced, powered by a new 2.6 litre in-line six, designed by fading car and aero-engine maker, Armstrong Siddeley.
The big Humber was finished in a manner in keeping with its upmarket aspirations, the roomy cabin fitted with leather, burr walnut and folding picnic tables. Styling was in the mid-50’s pre-finned American idiom and the Snipe was also offered in both estate and limousine versions, with division. Produced until 1967 in five series’, it too would mark the end of the line, the final dedicated Humber model line produced.
BMC’s two divisions continued, it appeared, to be run as individual fiefdoms, with the Nuffield side of the business, having introduced the Pathfinder-based Two-Point-Six Litre the previous autumn, saw the ill-starred and watered down variant of the Wolseley 6/90 Series III, enter production. Neither car hit sales chart heights, the Riley in particular proving a tough sell, being discontinued a year later. It was to be the last of that particular line, although the brand was retained in undead form for another decade before its ignominious end.
Meanwhile at Longbridge, the Austin division introduced the Pininfarina designed A40, a compact saloon based on the popular A35 model. The car’s striking design was the major point of significance, being the first BMC product to be dressed by the fabled Italian carrozzeria, combining aspects of previous work carried out for Lancia, Peugeot and GM and previewing the following year’s A55 model.
Technically unadventurous and inferior (in some aspects) to Nuffield’s Morris Minor, the A40 nevertheless was developed into a thoroughly competent motor car, if one whose appeal in the market proved shorter than that of its in-house antagonist. However, had BMC’s two Lords a’ leaping been in possession of more genuine insight, the A40 (in Countryman form) could have been at the forefront of the hatchback revolution.
Timing is everything of course. While De Havilland were getting to grips with with the troubled Comet, at Filton, Bristol’s aircraft business backed the wrong horse entirely with its ‘Whispering Giant’ Britannia airliner, which arrived just in time for the jet-age. Bristol’s carmaking sideline was on slightly surer ground, introducing new, more contemporary styling with 1958’s 406 model.
A stylistic evolution of earlier Filton offerings, the 406 would be the final Bristol motorcar to employ the BMW-sourced in-line six engine, and would be notable for a run of special-bodied versions being offered by carrozzeria Zagato. Bristol maintained a modicum of success with evolutions of broadly similar cars to a diminishing customer base. But by 2011, they too went the way of the others – revivals notwithstanding.
By 1958, old certainties were already in the process of being upturned. Across the Atlantic, the apparent success of their domestic motor industry was counterbalanced by the demise of the once mighty Packard Motor Company, while Ford’s act of Edsel-branded corporate hubris also made its ill-starred debut. More significantly however, were the opening salvoes from the far-East, with the advent of Toyota and Nissan to US shores.
For Britain however, it was a case of looking on impotently as the European Economic Community came into being in 1958, its seat at the table conspicuous by its absence. And while on the surface at least, its motor and aviation industries appeared to be thriving, appearances were deceptive. The truth was that they were already holed below the waterline and their administrators were at best, fruitlessly rearranging the tea services.
“Never again has Man been so confident. An age had come to an end“, intoned A Night To Remember‘s narrator. Britain’s age of the motorcar was passing from its grasp and like Kenneth More’s characterisation of Officer Lightoller from the Titanic, it would “never feel sure again. About anything“.
Some of the class of ’58 we did write about.