A Jubilee Review of Seven Decades of British Motoring Innovation

A Jubilee Review of Seven Decades of British Motoring Innovation

From Mini Coopers to electric Land Rovers, modest family cars to computerised SUVs - British motoring has witnessed ups, downs, changes and challenges over the course of the Queen's reign. But as Sotheby's RM motoring division reflect, the constant factor has been a constant commitment to innovation with quiet, elegant style.
From Mini Coopers to electric Land Rovers, modest family cars to computerised SUVs - British motoring has witnessed ups, downs, changes and challenges over the course of the Queen's reign. But as Sotheby's RM motoring division reflect, the constant factor has been a constant commitment to innovation with quiet, elegant style.

T hroughout HRH Queen Elizabeth’s 70-year reign, the automotive industry has witnessed almost unbelievable changes, going from a world of pushrods and carburettors to kinetic energy recovery systems and hydrogen fuel cells. The British automotive sector has in that time enjoyed many highs and endured the occasional annus horriblis, but what always set British marques apart—during the bad times and the good—has been their uncanny knack for innovation.

In many ways, British ingenuity, design and craftsmanship came of age alongside the Queen. Where her reputation for stoicism and unwavering commitment to service was forged in the tumult of the Second World War, so too was the golden age of British motoring; from the ashes of conflict emerged vehicles that would change the world forever.

Scarcely two years after the end of the war—and just months before Elizabeth’s marriage to Philip Mountbatten—Maurice Wilkes sketched in the sand of Red Wharf Bay an idea for a four-wheel-drive utility vehicle that would become the Series I Land-Rover. The production car made its debut the following year, alongside now iconic automotive designs including the Porsche 356, Citroën 2CV and Cadillac Series 62—but it was in Britain that the envelope was furthest pushed.

1950 Land Rover Series I SWB: From workhorse to collector car royalty: values of Series I Land-Rovers are such that the factory has begun to offer turn-key restorations from its ‘Land Rover Reborn’ programme. This example is the first, sold from The Elkhart Collection in 2020 for $240,800
©2019 Courtesy of RM Sotheby's

Among the cars to join the fray at the 1948 London Motor Show were the Morris Minor—progeny of the famous Mini; the Aston Martin DB1, which would spawn a line of sports cars that included the Aston Martin DB5; and the Jaguar XK120, a machine that offered stunning performance at a price previously unheard of, and which would lead ultimately to the Jaguar E-type—arguably the most beautiful car of all time.

Each of those cars (with the notable exception of the seven-breeding-pairs Aston Martin) contributed to a booming export economy, that by 1950 resulted in more than 75% of British automobiles being sent abroad, with more than half of all the world’s exported vehicles coming from Great Britain. With that success came seven decades of innovation.

Morris Minor 1000 (Shutterstock)

Though the opening decade of the Queen’s reign saw Malcolm Sayer’s Jaguar D-types conquer Le Mans and Vanwall win the inaugural Formula One Constructors’ World Championship, the greatest innovation came in the form of a budget saloon: the Morris Mini-Minor. Having cut his teeth on the Morris Minor a decade earlier, Alec Issigonis’ genius was let loose on the Mini. The car he produced, featuring front-wheel-drive and a transverse-mounted engine, changed car design forever. Not only could it comfortably seat four adults (with room in the boot for their luggage), it was also brilliant fun to drive and supremely capable, going on to become a competition legend both on track and on the loose. More than that, it became the first car to transcend its use as a mere means of transport, becoming a cultural icon and enduring symbol of British cool.

1969 Austin Mini Cooper - It didn’t take long for the Mini’s sporting prowess to be realised, with the arrival of models fettled by Formula 1’s John Cooper. This Mk II example sold in 2020 for £21,450
Peter Seabrook ©2020 Courtesy of RM Sotheby's

Britain’s emerging dominance of motorsport gathered pace in the following decade, driven by Colin Chapman and his revolutionary ideas around lightness, central backbone chassis’ and monocoque construction—all of which came to the fore in 1962 with the launch of the Lotus Elan. Featuring all-round independent suspension, lightweight glassfibre construction and a powerful twin-overhead-cam engine, the Elan turned the world of sports cars on its head, instantly rendering firm favourites such as the MG Midget and Triumph Spitfire near-obsolete. Such was its prowess on the road that the Elan was heralded the best-handling sports car ever made—a reputation that it lives up to even to this day.

Lotus Elan +2 (Shutterstock)

Moving into the 1970s, the domestic automotive industry wasn’t in the best shape, with the likes of British Leyland beginning to struggle and economic unrest dominating the news. Amid the strife there were automotive highlights, both for the Royal Family and the nation. For their respective birthdays, Prince Charles and Princess Anne were given an Aston Martin DB6 Volante and Reliant Scimitar GTE, though by far the more interesting proposition was the Spen King-designed Range Rover.

Prototypes for a ‘Road Rover’ had existed as early as the late 1950s, but it wasn’t until 1970 that the idea to combine the off-road ability of a Land-Rover with the comfort and appointments of a conventional saloon came to fruition. The Range Rover was an instant hit, and in addition to featuring in myriad long-distance endurance races, the car was exhibited at the Louvre, where it was heralded as an exemplary work of industrial design. The Royal Family became enthusiastic owners almost from the outset, but it wasn’t until later years that the true significance of the Range Rover became apparent, pioneering a luxury offroad segment that now accounts for a huge portion of new car sales, and which is occupied by the likes of Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Porsche and Lamborghini.

Ford RS200 (Shutterstock)

As the 1970s gave way to the 1980s, Britain once again shone bright in the world of motorsport, winning six Formula 1 Constructors’ Championships between McLaren and Williams, and producing incredible rally weapons in the form of the Ford RS200 and MG Metro 6R4. Princess Diana would go on to own a Metro— spiritual successor to the Mini—along with a string of Escorts including a black RS Turbo. But it was another Ford that proved surprisingly significant: the 1982 Sierra.

Despite its conventional underpinnings, the Sierra must rank as one of the most forward thinking yet contentious models launched throughout Ford’s time in Britain. Styled in the wind tunnel, the Sierra boasted a remarkable drag coefficient of just 0.34 which, though it contributed to fantastic fuel economy, gave it a rounded look completely different to what came before; it was quickly dubbed ‘the jelly mould’. Despite disappointing sales throughout most of its production run, the Sierra set the scene for the arrival of the Mondeo.

1992 Ford Sierra (Shutterstock)

By the 1990s, Britain’s dominance of the motorsport and technology sectors began to pay dividends. Nowhere was this better exemplified than the world-beating McLaren F1, a car so advanced that it swept aside all competition on both road and track, becoming the fastest production car in the world while also winning Le Mans at its first time of asking. Gordon Murray’s incredible design featured a complete carbon fibre monocoque, trick aerodynamics that made full use of ground-effect, plus a central seating position for the driver. Power came via a BMW-supplied, naturally aspirated V-12, capable of taking the car to speeds in excess of 240 mph. A true benchmark hyper car, the McLaren F1 is considered a rival for the world’s most advanced vehicles—though it’s ever-increasing value far eclipses anything currently on sale.


Andrei Diomidov ©2019 Courtesy /Andrei Diomidov ©2019 Courtesy

As the Queen entered her fifth decade as monarch, another British institution, in the form of Rolls-Royce, was revived—along with the Phantom nameplate—under the auspices of German marque BMW. But perhaps the greater success story was the reinvention of Aston Martin, culminating in the limited edition One-77 in 2009. A far cry from the grand tourers of the 1960s, the One-77 utilised a full carbon fibre monocoque chassis clothed in sleek aluminium coachwork, while power came via a 7.3-litre V-12 engine capable of producing 750 horsepower—the most powerful naturally aspirated engine in the world at the time.

Aston Martin One-77 (Shutterstock)

The next decade marked one of the greatest changes in automotive design since the advent of forced induction: the emergence of electrification and hybrid technologies. Nowhere was this better exemplified than in the 2013 McLaren P1. Thanks to its burgeoning motorsport industry, Britain was a leading player from the off, with the P1 featuring a host of technologies borrowed directly from Formula 1, including an instant power assist, drag reduction and kinetic energy recovery systems. Meanwhile, a powerful electric motor supplemented the 3.8-litre twin-turbocharged V-8, programmed to ‘torque fill’ dips in the engine’s power output caused by turbo lag. Against rivals from Ferrari and Porsche, the P1 proved that Britain’s automotive industry was still at the razor edge of technology.

McLaren P1 GTR

Anticipation for Gordon Murray’s latest design—the T.50—reached fever pitch late last year, when the car made its on-track debut at the 78th Goodwood Members’ Meeting. We could eulogise about the new hypercar for days, such is its brilliance, but tempting as that is, I doubt the T.50 will be Murray’s greatest contribution to British design this decade. Instead, that honour may fall to a little-known project dubbed the ‘Ox’.

Far from the hybrid powertrain technologies and carbon tubs of his supercars, the Ox was instead born out of a desire to change the world, by developing an affordable-to-maintain all-terrain vehicle suitable for use in rural parts of developing countries. Masterminded by Murray, the Ox is the world’s first flat-pack vehicle, capable of being moved six cars per shipping container, seating up to 13 people, and carrying eight 44-gallon drums. With launch projects rolling out across Africa and India, the transformational economic and social impact of the vehicle on the developing world—including many countries of the Commonwealth—could be huge.

More than anything, the Ox proves that brilliant British design over the past seven decades isn’t just about cutting-edge technology or luxury craftsmanship; like the Land-Rovers so beloved by the Queen, the best British design is about innovation, ingenuity and—even occasionally—altruism.

The Jubilee Season

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