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1950’s British Classics

1950's British Classics Published: 20th Jun 2019 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

1950’s British Classics
1950’s British Classics
1950’s British Classics
1950’s British Classics
1950’s British Classics
1950’s British Classics
1950’s British Classics
1950’s British Classics
1950’s British Classics
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If you want style by the bucket load and more colours on a car than you can count, then you need a 1950’s British classic says Robert Couldwell who selects the delights from that decade

What’s the attraction?

There’s little argument that cars from the 1950s had a unique style of their own; one that showed post-war optimism in their designs and lurid colour schemes. Thanks to the demise of the absurd RAC road tax scheme and pool petrol, engines became more efficient and swifter. A decent 1950’s car can keep better pace with modern traffic and not be a chore. Handling and braking improved greatly over the decade (mechanical brakes out – disc brakes in!) and the cars also became a lot more comfortable and refined.

Small cars

There was a wide choice at all levels in the early fifties starting with the small cars: Austin offered the A30, with OHV 803cc engine growing to 948cc in the A-Series A35. These cars were available in two-door, fourdoor and Countryman versions while Morris offered the ubiquitous Issigonis-designed Minor first with 918cc side valve, then 803cc OHV and A-Series 948 and finally with the 1089cc engine.

Ford countered initially with the ‘sit up and beg’ side valve E93A Anglia which was a truly awful car which amazingly either as Anglia or Popular lasted from 1940 to 1959 with 250,000 sales! The Anglia 100E from 1954 was visually based on the contemporary Consul and retained an enlarged version of the E93A ‘flat head’.

The Rootes Group which included Hillman, Humber, Singer and Sunbeam did not at that stage offer a small car unless you count the Hillman Husky which was a very basic two-door estate cut down from the Minx.

Standard, which had bought the remnants of Triumph to become Standard-Triumph provided the 8, 10 and latterly the Pennant, successors to the immediately post-war 8. These were good solid little cars with 803cc and later 948cc OHV engines. Very rare is the Gold Star, a version with overdrive launched in 1957. There was also a two-pedal gear box called Standrive that was not very popular.

More upmarket was the Triumph Mayflower which was similar in size but much more expensive and was fitted with the pre-war Standard 10 engine and gearbox with bottom gear blanked off. Finally, in 1959 the innovative little Herald saloons and coupés were launched both with the later OHV standard 10 engine but with an extra carburettor on the stylish coupé. A convertible and estate would be added later and the whole range would benefit from progressively more powerful engines.

Family cars

In the medium sector Austin offered a plethora of models mostly named after English counties. The Dorset was a 2 door version of the 1200cc Devon and both had fairly lurid handling but went quite well. The Devon morphed into the Somerset which had no two-door version. There was also the short lived Hampshire with Devon underpinnings, rear wheel spats and a big 2199cc four from the old 16 which gave way to the later Somerset based Hereford with the same engine.

The handling on this was even more scary but it was there to compete with the Standard Vanguard. Ford’s Consul and Zephyr/Zodiac were American in style and while it was up-to-date with MacPherson struts, monocoque construction and hydraulic brakes, it suffered a three-on-a-tree column change and terminal rust but boy what style they exude and that goes for the later Mk2, especially in convertible form!

The Morris equivalents were initially the Oxford which looked like an obese Minor and had a sidevalve engine. The much nicer Series II followed in 1954 with the B-Series 1489cc engine but still a column change. There was also the virtually identical Cowley with less equipment and a choice of 1200 or 1489cc engines. The MG ZA/ZB Magnettes while sharing the Palmer designed Wolseley 15/50 body benefited from a tuned B-Series power unit and high quality interior furnishings.

Rootes had several medium cars all based on the Hillman Minx which itself came as saloon, estate car, coupé and convertible and had a 1265cc side valve (later replaced with a 1390cc OHV engine). The rather luxurious Singer Hunter complete with chassis had a rather interesting overhead cam 1494cc engine and gave way in 1955 to the Gazelle which looked very much like the Minx but retained the quite advanced OHC unit until 1958 when the 1494cc OHV Minx engine was fitted.

Standard’s Vanguard Phase 1 and 11 both suffered somewhat from obvious trans-Atlantic styling but had great drive trains (except for the column change). Unfortunately, owing to the narrow track and high centre of gravity, the handling was, frankly, abysmal.

For the successful sales manager there was a wide range of large cars from which to choose. Austin’s stately Westminster was launched in 1955 and in various forms kept going until 1968. They were all fitted with increasingly powerful versions of the C-Series 2639cc six so had a good turn of speed. The A90 boasted 85bhp and lasted just two years before the much more elegant A95 was launched with 92bhp and a larger boot.

The A 105’s engine was in Healey 100/6 tune and for one year was in A90 short body form and then inherited the A95 body in 1956 complete with standard overdrive. The real gem, of which just 500 were made was the A105 Vanden Plas which involved sending the standard cars without trim and upholstery to the Vanden Plas coachworks at Kingsbury where they received high quality walnut dashboards, fine leather trim and multi-coat paint jobs. The Morris equivalent to the six-cylinder Austins was the slow selling Isis which looked a bit like an Oxford on steroids.

Ford’s solution was to stick a six-cylinder engine in the Consul and call it the Zephyr and then add two-tone paint and a few ‘gizmos’ to create, the ‘spiv’s favourite, the Zodiac.

Rootes pitched in with the four-cylinder Humber Hawk and six-cylinder Super Snipe (4138cc no less!)

Triumph were sticking with the pre-war lines of the rather conservative Renown which lasted until 1954 and wasn’t replaced until the Italian Michelotti designed 2000 range in 1963 and not before time.

General Motors owned Vauxhall followed the Ford policy with four and six-cylinder versions of the same USA inspired style, this time from a late 40’s Chevrolet. The Wyvern, aimed at the Consul was quite basic, the six-cylinder Velox (Zephyr) wellspecified and the Cresta (Zodiac) quite luxurious. In 1957 it launched the F Series Victor, again taking its cues from a earlier American design although popular, this model cemented Vauxhall’s reputation for rusting that it never truly rid itself from.

Up until the mid-fifties, most cars had been related in some way to pre-war offerings and then it suddenly changed with a raft of new models from all the major companies. BMC had discovered Pinin Farina and progressively launched Farina small, medium and large cars which, apart from their propensity to rust were thoroughly modern.

The little Farina A40 Countryman was perhaps the first ever hatchback and with the new styling came badge engineering with a vengeance; Austin A60, Morris Oxford, MG Magnette, Riley 4/68 (later 4/72) and Wolseley 15/60 were all basically the same with various levels of luxury or sportiness. The MGs and Rileys with their ‘hotted up’ engines were really quite decent transport.

Ford still plodded on with the ‘upright’ Popular but the Mk2 Consul/Zephyr/Zodiac range, while still trans-Atlantic in style were much bigger and a great improvement on their predecessors.

Rootes provided some much crisper Minxes and joined the badge-engineering fashion with Hillman, Singer and Sunbeam all basically the same although the Gazelle was more luxurious and the Rapier more sporting with more power. The Humber Hawks and Super Snipes were now rather desirable with varying levels of performance and luxury and continued with similar shapes until the late sixties. Vauxhall launched the compact Victor and the avant-garde PA Velox and Cresta were still American in style but much bigger and better than their predecessors.

Prestige cars

In the early fifties, there was far more choice for professional people and wealthy industrialists. Today, it’s Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Lexus and Mercedes and of course Bentley and Rolls-Royce. Then there were a dozen or more: Alvis launched the 100 mph TC21, which, with its bonnet scoops and wire wheels had returned to the pre-war sporting image after the dull TA14 and 21 models. Armstrong Siddeley gave the choice of sporting with the six cylinder 2.3 litre Whitley or staid with the spacious, almost regal Sapphire. Bentley offered post-war austerity in the Mk6 which was something of a bargain and was later replaced with the rather more luxurious R Type.

Bristols were still aircraft quality standards for the road and as well as the two-seaters, the Company also listed the unusual but very effective four-door 405. Daimler, then the preserve of Kings were somewhat conservative with the Conquest and Century although the latter could hit 90mph with ease. The bigger One-o-Four with 137 bhp was the forerunner of the ‘muscle-car’ V8 Majestic Major and despite giving away 83bhp still performed pretty well for the day.

Jaguar started the 1950s with a bang and stunned the World by launching XK120 and Mark Vll large saloon in quick succession. Sharing the wonderful new twin-cam, 160 bhp 3.4-litre six, even the luxuriously appointed Mk VII could hit 105 mph and reach 60 mph in a then pretty rapid 12 seconds. The Mk VIIM, originally developed for rallying with 190bhp was even quicker. An automatic was added in 1956 and an even more powerful (210bhp) and luxurious MkVIII followed in 1957. The final Jaguar big saloon of the fifties, the MkIX came in 1959, with XK150 220bhp power and a 115mph top speed. Conscious of competition from the likes of Riley and Rover for smaller executive cars Jaguar developed the 2.4, later to become known as the Mk1.

It was Jaguar’s first unitary construction car which proved a major challenge to company resources. The rather leisurely performance was solved in 1957 with the option of the 3.4-litre, 210bhp MKVII lump giving genuine 120 mph performance. Jaguar finished the 1950s with a flourish with the much improved Mk2 version with the offer of an even bigger 3.8-litre engine for scorching 125mph pace with much better handling.

Jensen was in the process of changing from building sports-saloons to grand-tourers and its PW straight 8 was a pre-war leftover. Thanks to Gerald Palmer, the Jowett Jupiter was well ahead of its time with its novel flat four engine design and a state-of-the-art aerodynamic body.

Lanchesters were becoming badge engineered Daimlers but the Conquest-lookalike Sprite had just four cylinders to ensure pedestrian performance. Lagonda was a sort of rich man’s Bentley and produced beautifully built cars with pre-war dynamics. Lea-Francis also persevered with well-made but old fashioned saloons which were pre-war in concept and wouldn’t survive the fifties.

Riley would continue to be a prestige car manufacturer even after bankruptcy and subsequent purchase by Nuffield in 1938. The only real Morris involvement was the installation of Nuffield synchromesh gearboxes. The 1950s started with the RMA left over from the 1940s with an interesting pre-war 1.5-litre twin-cam engine which would endure until 1955 in the updated RME. The 2.5-litre version was reserved for the larger RMB, RMF and after the takeover by BMC, the badge-engineered Wolseley-looking Pathfinder. The RMC and RMD were rather lovely and now rare Roadsters with ton up performance. The RMC was in a way more sporting with dropped doors and side screens whereas the RMD with its wind-up windows was a proper cabriolet, a sort of grand tourer.

The Pathfinder (known as Ditchfinder due to its ‘interesting’ handling) despite being developed under BMC was considered to be the last real Riley and was replaced by the 2.6 which now shared the 2.6-litre big six with the Wolseley 6/90, Morris Isis, Austin Westminster and, in higher tune the Healey 100/6. The 2.6 was a commercial failure and its demise in 1959 signalled the end of Riley as a prestige maker, left as it was with just the Morrois Minor derived 1.5 which, while a charming and quick little twin carb car was hardly premium.

Rover, the poor man’s Bentley had launched the Studebaker-inspired P4 75 and then progressively de-Americanised it over the next 14 years. They may have looked staid but these cars with four and six-cylinder engines of up to 123bhp performed and handled extremely well for their size and the quality was up there with the best – the line up lasted right up to 1964 and was the last of the staid ‘Auntie Rover’ designs.

As the fifties drew to a close even these prestige cars had been transformed as the Alvis TC21 gave way to the Graber-bodied cars and Armstong-Siddeley tried ‘compact-executive’ with the 234 and 236, the four pot 234 being the quicker and more sporting of the two.

Rolls-Royces then were expensive, de-tuned Bentleys and the standard steel offering was the Silver Dawn. Bentley’s S1 and the equivalent Rolls- Royce Silver Cloud were thoroughly modern but unfortunately Bristol had given up on four-door saloons. Daimler wouldn’t fully modernise until the sixties with the Turner-designed V8s. Lagonda modernised and launched the Duke of Edinburgh’s favourite, the Aston-Martin engined 3 Litre.

Tragically, with the exception of Bentley, Rolls- Royce (both German-owned), and Jaguar (Indian owned), none of these ‘prestige’ British manufacturers now produces cars.

Our fab fifties favourites

When it comes to choosing 1950s saloons as classics, despite the scourge of post-war rust there are plenty of practical options at all price levels. How about a restored Morris Minor saloon for around £6000 or an even cheaper A35 as seen beating all comers at the Goodwood Revival. If you want similar handling but more power there’s the Wolseley 1500 or the rather quick Riley 1.5. Sticking with BMC there are the sporty MG Magnettes around £12000 in earlier Gerald Palmer form or much less for the later Farina cars, if you can find one. All these cars have terrific parts availability and owner club support and are cheap to run.

Triumph Heralds and (1960’s) Vitesses are brilliant, exceptional value classics and so easy to work on with all sorts of possibilities to improve performance and handling. If you can find an estate, what a brilliant utility vehicle you’ll have and if you become fed up with a saloon you can fairly easily turn it into a convertible as many have been!

Rover P4s are beautifully built and if looked after will last forever and offer refined cruising and great comfort. Slowly increasing in value a good car will cost £15,000. Anything less will mean work which could be expensive and outweigh the car’s value.

Not enough to go around 1950’s Fords have survived but occasionally you will see a wonderful brightly coloured Zodiac convertible but they are so rare. Decent prestige 50s are now serious money and whether it’s a Jag, Bristol, Alvis, Bentley or Lagonda, restoration costs are just too high to justify buying anything but a fully restored car and paying the price – you can be sure that, unless the seller was a talented home restorer, he will be making a loss on the deal and so you’ll be a beneficiary.

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