Best of British?

Autocar magazine has released a list of the top 100 British cars, as voted for by its readers. But how exhaustive and/or authoritative is it, and what is a British car anyway?

Original and best - the BMC Mini (Picture source: Wikipedia)

Original and best – the BMC Mini (Picture source: Wikipedia)

The original BMC Mini has topped a poll of the 100 best-ever British cars, as voted by Autocar readers. This isn’t really much of a surprise. After all, Issigonis’s baby was a truly revolutionary car that transcended class, becoming a much loved icon and as much of an emblem of national automobility as the Citroën 2CV, Volkswagen Beetle, Fiat Nuova 500 and Ford Mustang.

That the Mini should be followed in the poll by the McLaren F1, Jaguar E-type and Range Rover (surely the original Rangie, rather than it’s current, somewhat bling, iteration?) is also unsurprising, as they too are all automotive icons in their own way. After that, things get a bit muddier.

Nissan Qashqai. Subaru Impreza. Honda Jazz. Renault Megane. All make the list, but are hardly ‘British’ nameplates, although the Qashqai and the Jazz are built in Sunderland and Swindon respectively. On that basis, surely the iconic Citroën DS qualifies, built as it was in Slough for a time in the 1950s/60s.

Number 5 in the list is the Yamaha MOTIV.e. The ‘what’, you ask? Well, the Yamaha MOTIV.e is only a concept at the moment, developed by Gordon Murray Design in Surrey, though one which promises to revolutionise the car manufacturing process. A great British car? It could certainly be a great British engineering success story. But it isn’t just yet.

So what constitutes a British car? One that’s built here? Designed here? Engineered here? Maybe it’s wood and leather interiors, or some intangible ‘other’ – an underdog-ness perhaps, or a stiff-upper-lip-ness?

I think that two quotes can help provide the answer to this question. Noted academic John Urry from Lancaster University has previously described the car as “the quintessential manufactured object”, while writer and former Design Museum director Stephen Bayley noted in his 1986 book Sex, Drink and Fast Cars that “more than any other manufactured product, the car enshrines and projects the values of the culture that created it”.

Storming the poll at number 80 - Triumph 1300 (Picture source: author's photograph).

Storming the poll at number 80 – the Triumph 1300 (Picture source: author’s photograph).

This would suggest that what makes ‘a car’ is the time, the outlook, the prevailing zeitgeist of where and by whom it was created, whether this pertains to a car’s inspiration, engineering or manufacture – all qualities exemplified by national automotive icons like the Beetle, Fiat 500, Ford Mustang and, yes, the Mini.

A globalised and interconnected world, however, aided and abetted by car manufacturers’ predilections for platform-sharing and badge engineering, necessarily makes it harder to define the national identity of a car, as the ‘time’ and the ‘place’ of a car become less distinct. Would a BMW Mini be any less British if it was manufactured abroad? Is the Citroën C3 Picasso any less French for being manufactured in Slovakia? Was the last generation Fiat Panda any less Italian for being made in Poland or, for that matter, any less ‘Panda’ for sharing a platform, its underpinnings, with the current Fiat 500 and Ford Ka? Does any of this matter?

My PhD concerns how we ‘consume’ the car as avatar, artefact, icon and experience, and I would contend that only we can answer the question of what a car ‘is’, and decide how a car answers back to us (or not, as the case may be), based on our own nature, our own essence, our own affect. Whether a particular car is attractive, desirable, offensive, or even nothing at all, only we know.

This means that, in addition to the observations above, what also makes ‘a car’ is the time, the outlook, the prevailing zeitgeist in which a car is regarded and consumed, and by whom. How we answer the question of what a car is can be manifest in surveys such as the Autocar best of British poll. Yet there are some who claim that the meaning of such ballots can be baseless or even arbitrary.

They may have a point. After all, the meaning of a car is very much negotiated and contested, and can change over time; memories and reputations of cars can be both trashed and rehabilitated. However, it is because of this negotiation and contestation that these polls can also provide a snapshot of the national automotive psyche.

As for the Autocar top 100 itself, I’m just rather chuffed that the Triumph 1300 made the list, beating the Triumph Dolomite Sprint in the process. Although I would like to know what happened to the Austin Metro…

Oh Metro, where art thou...? (Picture source; Wikipedia)

Oh Metro, where art thou…? (Picture source; Wikipedia)

Morgan a feeling…

This post began as something to write about during a blogging workshop which was held at Coventry University a week or so ago under the auspices of the Guild of Motoring Writers (GoMW) and co-hosted by Automotive Journalism lecturer Andrew Noakes and GoMW Breakthrough Blogger of the Year Keith Jones. However, as it was about a rather special automotive  experience, I thought I’d better give it a polish and post it.  

Just under eighteen months ago, I was afforded the opportunity to do something that anyone with a fluid ounce (or is that millilitres these days?) of petrol in their veins should do: along with a cohort of automotive design and journalism students from Coventry University, I popped down to Great Malvern in Worcestershire and visited the Morgan car factory.

Actually, you don’t need intravenous petroleum to appreciate Morgan – you can visit out of a sense of history, or of culture, or an appreciation for craftsmanship and style. Indeed, as you pass the factory on Pickersleigh Avenue, you somehow sense that Morgan isn’t a typical 21st century car maker, and the tour doesn’t disappoint as you are taken into a world of craft automotive manufacture, with a little high-technology thrown in.

Office furniture (Picture source: authors photograph).

Office furniture (Picture source: authors photograph).

Split into two groups from the outset, my particular group did the tour backwards – sort of – beginning in the despatch shop where customers’ cars are lined up for delivery, before going to see where the bodywork is fitted and engines are installed. Our next port of call was the body frame workshop, which is a particular delight as your senses are first assailed by the smell of wood and sawdust. And then you see – some sat upon trestles, some resting on the floor – the legendary ash frames, the architecture that will become a 4/4, a Plus-4 or a Roadster, and you begin to ‘feel’ the essence of Morgan (incidentally, contrary to popular belief, it is the body frame – and not the chassis – of a Morgan that is made of wood). It was in this workshop that we were all given wood, in the shape of an offcut with which we were presented as a souvenir by our guide. Anywhere else, and such an offcut would just be an odd-shaped bit of wood; but this is Great Malvern and so it was much, much more than a piece of misshaped arboreal detritus. I still have it.

In the frame (Picture source: authors photograph).

In the frame (Picture source: authors photograph).

Then it was over to the trimming shop where seats are fitted and dashboards installed, before proceeding to the facility where final checks are made – we didn’t get to see the paint shop – and then heading to another building where the neo-iconic 3-Wheelers are made. We only saw the final stage of this, but it was enough for a few pictures and a ponder over my next lottery win. I’ll probably need more than a tenner though.

Three wheels good... (Picture source: authors photograph).

Three wheels good… (Picture source: authors photograph).

Cars are more than just machines, and Morgans are more than just cars. They are innately anthropocentric. Whether it is the bespoke customer specifications or even just their hand-made nature, there is so much in the cars that is, for want of a better word, ‘people’ – a personality, perhaps. From a geographical and sociological point of view, there is an essence, a nature, an ‘affect’ to Morgan – both car and company – that is unique. It produces, and is, a feeling that is almost tangible.

One aspect of my PhD is concerned with the notion of the ‘affect’ of the motor car – an automotive affectus, if you will – and considers how the way that we ‘consume’ the car may impact upon the uptake of low carbon vehicles. Although a visit to the Morgan factory may provide a heightened sense of this, I believe that we all somehow ‘feel’ the car in a way that is manifest in the car we drive, even if we don’t realise it, and that the ‘consumption’ that in/evokes these feelings is a key yet overlooked aspect of the environmental impact of the car. Can we make the leap to a low carbon automobility? Do we even want to?

Before my factory visit, I’d always thought Morgans were okay – old-fashioned, six-year waiting list and all that – but I came away from Great Malvern wanting a Morgan – any Morgan – so much it hurt. Traditional style, modern technology and just so much essence imbued into the cars; what’s not to like? There’s even an electric one – christened the ‘Plus-E’ – knocking around somewhere; I wonder what that’s like to drive?

The factory visit is thoroughly recommended – check out the details on the Morgan website. You know you want to.