Ah ... the 60s and 70s, flower power, free love and the birth of the sports car. Okay, that is not strictly accurate as the Corvette was invented in the 50s, (as was the Ford Thunderbird and Porsche created the predecessor of the 911, the 356, back in 1948), but the sports car scene really didn’t take off until the 60s.
And bizarrely enough, where it really got going was that bastion of the stiff upper lip and conservatism - the UK.
The cars produced in the Olde Country were so affordable for the average buyer and had such style that they were in great demand. Boy, did they manage to produce some classics - the MGs, the Spitfire and that most beautiful of cars, the E-type Jaguar.
So grow your hair long, put on a flowery shirt and come ride with me as we look at some of the great cars to come out of that era. And maybe we can pick up a bargain or two on today’s second-hand market.
Let’s start with the MG Midget. With engine options of a maximum 1100cc you would be forgiven for thinking that the Midget wasn’t much of a car, as true to its namesake it was tiny and weighed in at only 700kg. However, the 56 HP engine produced so much power that the engineers thought it would be better to include front disc brakes to handle it.
(Although strangely enough they didn’t think it was important to include external door handles or even door locks in the early models.)
With a top speed of 86mph and being such a light weight, the Midget could fly through winding country roads with ease and it still looks cool today. While there aren’t a lot of Midgets available for sale now you should be able to pick one up for under $10,000.
When talking MGs though, I prefer the MGB GT and I guess I’m not alone in that because after its introduction in 1965 it became the top selling MG of all time.
While it was considerably heavier than the Midget, it came with an 1800cc engine and although not fast by today’s standards it was still powerful and fun to drive.
By the time production finished 18 years’ later over 125,000 GTs had been produced. The GT was a concept dear to MG’s managing director John Thornley, who wanted to build a “poor man’s Aston Martin”. The team at MG had some difficulty in designing the coupé shape, so they commissioned Pininfarina to do the job.
The GT underwent a number of changes during its life, perhaps the most controversial being the addition of black rubber bumpers in 1974 to meet US 5mph crash standards. At the same time, ride height was increased to meet minimum bumper height requirements for the US and this had the unfortunate effect of ruining the handling. This wasn’t rectified until 1976 with the addition of rear anti-roll bars.
In 1973 an all alloy 3.5L Rover V8 was added to the range, but a high purchase price, a lack of available engines and the oil crisis of the late 70s meant only 2591 of these were ever produced. Good luck finding one of the V8s, but you should be able to pick up a good MGB GT for anywhere from $5000 to $25,000 depending on how old it is and whether it has been restored or not.
The Triumph Spitfire was a direct competitor for the Midget for most of its production run. The Triumph name had been owned by Leyland since 1961, while the Midget was built by the British Motor Corporation. The Spitfire outsold the Midget, however, for every production year bar one when there were worker strikes.
The Mk 1 Spitfire had a 63HP 4 cylinder engine which propelled it to a respectable 147km/h. The 0-60 mph time was sedate by today’s standards at 17.3 seconds, but was pretty speedy in 1962 in a car that cost a mere (sterlingsymbol)641.
The Mk 2 Spitfire was nothing to get excited about. Power was up only 4HP and the biggest change was more trim added to the interior. Curiously, a heater was still an optional accessory, Spitfire drivers were obviously a hardy bunch.
The Mk3 gained a 1300cc engine which boosted the power to 75HP, although rear suspension enhancements which would reduce the ‘somewhat exciting’ handling wouldn’t be introduced until the Mk 4. Nonetheless, the Mk 3 was extremely popular in the US.
In 1968 Leyland took over British Motor Holdings, which included Jaguar, Daimler and the British Motor Corporation that produced Austin, Morris and MG. Thus was British Leyland born and what were competing product lines were now all owned by one company.
The Mk 4 Spitfire followed soon afterwards in 1970 and a heater finally became part of the standard equipment. The rear suspension was fixed which transformed the handling and significantly reduced the chance of amateur off-roading while cornering.
This was essentially the last Spitfire, for although British Leyland produced a slightly changed model in the Spitfire 1500 there were no other major changes apart from the increased engine size. This last change did make it a genuinely fast car giving it a top speed of 100mph.
Ironically, it was the success in the US market which largely killed Spitfire production as new emission control laws introduced there were more than the Triumph engine could cope with. Since half of their production was going to the US market it became uneconomical to produce them. The last Spitfire rolled out of production in 1980 and the Triumph name essentially died with it. If you’re interested in a Spitfire you should be able to pick one up for around the $7000 to $10,000 range.
Following the huge success for Ford with the Mustang in the US, in 1967 the company turned its focus on the European market and decided to produce something small and sporty.
Originally Ford wanted to call it the Colt (I wonder where that inspiration came from?), but soon found Mitsubishi had registered the name.
So it decided to call the car the Capri. This was going to become a huge success for Ford. It didn’t hit the streets until 1969 and was initially available in 1.3, 1.6 and 2.0 borrowing a lot of parts from the Escort and the Cortina. The 2.0 engine came from the Corsair and was somewhat unusual being a V4, but gave the Capri plenty of power with a top speed of 106 mph and a 0-60 time of 10.6 sec. For the time that was very quick. But then Ford had a stroke of genius.
The 3.0 V6 Capri shaved nearly one and a half seconds off the 0-60 time of the 2.0 coming in at 9.2. Top speed increased to 114 mph. But, more importantly, this was a V6 with quite a lot of torque. The three-litre Capri really was the boy racer car of the time.
Eleven years after it was launched the Capri was still in the top 10 selling cars in the UK, and an astounding two million cars rolled off the factory lines through the 18 years it was produced. Again, like the MGB GT and the Spitfire, the US was a big market for the Capri but it was the Mk 1 they liked the best. The Mk 2 changed the 1.6 and 2.0 engines to the more modern Pinto version and added a Hatchback to the range to make it more of a practical family car. Of course, it was still a 100 mph-plus family car.
Personally, I prefer the Mk 3 which was introduced in 1978 and while it was never actually called the Mk 3 by Ford it stuck nonetheless. An already fast car became even faster.
Refinements to the 3.0 Essex engine boosted the top speed to 130 mph in the X Pack version and cut the 0-60 time to a very fast 7.4 sec, but then it was putting out 175 BHP so you’d expect it to be quick. To me it was also the best looking Capri with the small boot spoiler and the quad headlights. You’ll be lucky to find one of the later model Capris. Most of the ones in New Zealand seem to be Mk 1s and Mk 2s, but you will find one for around the $8000 mark. I did find a completely rebuilt one for $18,000, so if you look hard enough they’re out there.
No article on British Sports Cars would be complete without mentioning one of the most beautiful cars ever to be produced - the E-Type Jaguar.
It was always intended to be a limited production car, but when it was unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show and then two weeks later in New York, the reaction was overwhelming. Everyone wanted one. The Series one XKE was available in a straight six 3.8 and it had revolutionary engineering like a monocoque body shell, independent rear suspension and all round disc brakes. This was a genuine 150 mph car with a 0-60 time of under seven seconds, but still had all the stopping power and handling to match.
In 1964, Jaguar introduced a 4.2 engine in response to consumer demands for more power. Overall horsepower remained the same but maximum power was reached at lower rpm and torque was also increased, making for smoother power delivery. As with all the British sports cars of the time, US emission control laws played a big part in the Jaguar’s development.
Of the 72000 E-types built, three quarters were exported to the US. Unfortunately, this also had the effect of throttling back the power of the engines and Jaguar needed a new engine that would meet the stringent US requirements while still giving the kind of power and acceleration E-type owners craved.
Wanting to retain technical superiority, a V8 was dismissed as too common. There was a V12 Overhead Cam race engine that it had developed for the XJ13 experimental race car.
Although Jaguar didn’t return to the track for many years and the race engine was too costly and too big for the E-Type, it became the basis for the eventual engine added to the Series 3.
This 5.3L V12 was introduced in 1971 and is arguably the most famous engine, even though it was available for just three years. The E-Type really was a masterpiece of engineering and design and the V12 engine delivered such smooth power that, combined with the already superb handling, produced a truly legendary car.
E-types are still in strong demand but there are still quite a few available on the secondhand market. Prices vary quite a lot. Expect to pay around $50,000 to $70,000 for either the 3.8 or 4.2 in roadster of hardtop configuration. And if you can find a Series 3 V12 you’ll have to expect to pay around $100,000 for a good, restored one but you will have a spectacular car.
The cars we’ve reviewed really were produced in the heyday of the British automotive industry. While the combination of the 70s oil shocks and poor management may have killed off the majority of the industry, these classics are still around. The cars were so popular and there were so many produced that you can still buy them in New Zealand to enjoy; not as daily drivers, but as something to have fun with during the weekend.
So dig out those old flares and flowered shirts and take some history for a spin.