I used to rule the world
Seas would rise when I gave the word
Now in the morning I sleep alone
Sweep the streets I used to roam
— From Viva La Vida by Coldplay
I spend way too much time thinking about matters such as this, but after a lifetime—or what seems as very close to such—of pondering deep thoughts about the British sports car, my focus has wandered to vehicles constructed across the English channel.
As a young child, much like General Gordon on his way to Khartoum, I believed that the sun never set on the British empire. While other teens my age pondered the profile of the Ferrari 308 and contemplated the choice between it, a cabernet and a supine blonde, I had torn the pages out of old Road & Tracks with road tests of various Healeys, Triumphs and Jaguars. No joke—almost every kid my age had a poster of Heather Thomas in his room but I had an article of Kas Kastner in a white smock thumbtacked to a cork board near my bed.
So after I evolved into real adolescence and later into bona fide adulthood I continued to presume that any sports car worth its weight in salt—or any other fungible asset—hailed from the British Isles and that anything else was worthy only of scorn and derision.
I dismissed Italian cars—especially Alfa Romeos and Ferraris—as fragile and high strung while cars from Germany like Porsche, Mercedes and BMW were soul sucking Teutonic appliances devoid of character or passion. While others heaped criticism on British cars for their putative unreliability, dubious electrical systems and penchant for oil leaks, I viewed these qualities as badges of honor to be earned and admired.
But it was sometime in high school when I became an orphan when Triumph (my favorite British car as a child) abandoned the US market to follow its Leyland brethren out of the world’s largest automotive marketplace. Don’t get me wrong—at the time the withdrawal of Triumph didn’t seem a particularly big deal—it wasn’t as if I had lust in my heart for the TR7 (that would develop later in life) and there were other things going on to divert my attention—like women. As time passed, however, I would purchase car mags from the UK just to catch a glimpse of the Triumph Acclaim (it looked rather like an Accord, natch) and I began to scour the Penny Saver for bargains on old British sports cars.
While the long haired, head-banging crowd had new iterations of their beloved IROC Z-28 Camaros and Ford Mustang GTs to satiate their automotive desires, it was as if I was forever in a state of arrested development since the cars I coveted were no longer in production. It’s like that kid who had a poster of Marilyn Monroe on the wall rather than Farrah Fawcett in her red onesie. Farrah would eventually get old and crazy and be replaced by the likes of Christie Brinkley and Elle MacPherson, while the guy with the Monroe fetish likely remained stuck in a permanent Mad Men phase where the world was perpetually in the early 60s.
Well, that was me. I never even considered newer sports cars because for the fan of the LBC life stopped at the TR8 (discounting the XJ-S as too large and the Esprit and Aston Martin as way beyond my means) and that position continued for decades – until now. What strikes me as curious is that while names like Porsche and Ferrari seem to be enshrined in some automotive Valhalla, names like AC, Austin-Healey, MG, Triumph and TVR are mostly forgotten by the general public. Porsche and Ferrari survived, thrived and are remembered now, but once, there were dozens if not hundreds of British sports car models that were every bit as memorable as those from Maranello or Stuttgart.
The 911 was introduced 50 years ago and is still being sold today. In 1964, there were 3000s, Sprites, Midgets, MGBs, TR4s, Spitfires, E-Types, Plus Fours, 4/4s, Elites, DB4s, Couriers, Darts, Alpines and Tigers along with another 30 or so models from smaller manufacturers. England had variety with a car for every taste and budget. It ruled the world and its cars were everywhere that roads could be found – very few Ferraris made it to Central Africa while MG owned sports car sales from Durban to Djibouti.
Well, things may be changing with a new F-Type, more Lotus models that may make more of an impact on the market and even more impressive DBs from Newport-Pagnell than ever before. Who knows, England may rule the roads again (unlikely though as that may seem) but in the meantime I think I will stick with 50s and 60s Brits but my tastes are creeping ever outward across the Continent – after all, no one wants to be an orphan forever.
By Johnny Oversteer