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)

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Classical gas: Volume 2

Last weekend, I visited an incredibly busy Classic Motor Show at the NEC. Here’s a brief roundup.

Such a lovely couple - Lamborghini Miura and Ferrari 208 (Picture source: author's photograph

Such a lovely couple – Lamborghini Miura and Ferrari 208 (Picture source: author’s photograph)

In the post I wrote on last year’s Classic Motor Show, I noted how busy the show had been compared to when I had previously attended in 2010. At the risk of repeating myself, this year’s show also seemed busier than last year; much, much busier. Having to queue to buy a ticket was no surprise (though this didn’t take long), but queuing to get into Hall 12 once I’d got my ticket was unexpected to say the least.

Eventually inside, I adopted the same plan as last year, which was to scoot around the stands taking as many photographs as possible before the NEC lights cast their distinctive hue upon everything, then peruse the autojumble for interesting models, books and brochures that I couldn’t afford (I almost succumbed to an Austin A90 Atlantic brochure), prior to making my way back through the show, all the while taking more time over things. It almost worked, but I still didn’t quite manage to get around it all.

It is remarkable to consider that while there is no British Motor Show any more, and hasn’t been since 2008, the Classic Motor Show seems to go from strength to strength. This year’s show was the 30th such event held at the NEC, and has grown from occupying just two halls in May 1984 to ten halls in November 2013. Taking photographs was difficult at times this year because of the sheer number of people there, and I began to wonder if the Classic Motor Show is beginning to get a bit big, a bit too successful.

I then stopped thinking like that, because it’s great that so many people want to look around cars that may well have played a part either in their past or in their dreams. The Classic Motor Show and its ever-increasing crowds would appear to prove how the automobile is more than mere transport; rather it is a culturally dynamic artefact, with each car on show invoking its own affect, for a whole host of reasons.

Taking a literal approach to the 17th century philosopher Benedict de Spinoza’s definition of affect, it is perhaps true to say that cars on show moved each of us present to a ‘greater perfection’ within ourselves, if for differing reasons. Such feelings of a greater perfection may be manifest in a comfortable nostalgia as we glimpse an example of our parents’ old car, or of the car we learned to drive in, or of our own first car, or perhaps in something more stirring as we espy a sports car we may regard as a piece of art (or something more primal…).

Events like the Classic Motor Show provide the chance for visitors to realise that all these cars, whether on show or in our past, make us feel a ‘something’, providing an illustration of how the car is ‘consumed’, something we perhaps seldom dwell upon as we drive our cars today. Such consumption constitutes a geography in itself and, as such, these events are worthy of academic consideration in themselves!

In no particular order, here are just some of the cars that invoked a ‘greater perfection’ the, er, greatest.

BMW Z1

BMW Z1Probably my favourite car at the show. While I’ve always liked the Z1, enough to include it in my PetrolBlog Real World Dream Barn, this was the first one I’d actually ever seen in the metal (or plastic, even). Suffice to say I like it even more now, and I really rather want one.

Mercedes Benz 190SL

Mercedes Benz 190SLThe Mercedes Benz Club stand was a delight, with several wonderful cars thereon serving to remind how Mercedes Benz was once a byword for style and elegance. The ‘Pagoda’ 250SL, 300SL Gullwing and 600 Grosser present on the stand were all were fabulous, but the one I really liked was this 190SL. Almost impossibly glamorous, and also probably my favourite car at the show.

Austin Maestro

Austin MaestroI may be showing my age here, but I recall how, in my youth, I dragged my dad down to the local BL dealer launch party when the Maestro first went on sale, so the fact that the Maestro – noted for its talking dashboard – celebrated its 30th birthday (blimey!) this year made me feel a little old.

Renault 16TX

Renault 16Very smart, with an almost tangible comfiness, this Renault 16 was another ‘car of the show’ contender for me. There are, unfortunately, far too few R16s left nowadays.

Bugatti Type 51 – ‘le Roadster Mysterieux

Bugatti T51Dubbing a car ‘the mystery coupe’ might prompt memories of Scooby Doo for some but, in this case, there appears to be a real puzzle about this particular Bugatti. It seems that while the factory production records show this car to be a Type 51, it seems that the identity of the coachbuilder who created the bodywork is less certain. A splendid car, whoever was responsible.

Jaguar C-X75

Jaguar C-X75It wasn’t just old cars which were on display at the NEC last weekend, as the hybrid Jaguar C-X75 supercar which made an appearance on the Jaguar Classic Parts stand shows. Having not made production, it perhaps wasn’t quite the halo car for low carbon automobility that it could have been but, from popular reaction, it certainly seemed to provide a halo for Jaguar here.

Morris Ital

Morris ItalThere was a large Morris presence at this year’s show, as the marque celebrated its centenary. The Morris Centenary stand had a wide range of cars from the marque’s history from a 1913 ‘Bullnose’ to this Morris Ital which, for some reason, I really liked.

Peugeot 304

Peugeot 304Very sweet and utterly French (or should that be tout à fait Française?), this 304 estate was an unassuming delight which raised a smile. Incidentally, behind it was another new car at the show, the Peugeot 308. I only managed a brief sit behind the wheel, but I was impressed; that early road tests suggest it is more suited to the Périphérique than the Nürburgring than have some cars been of late (even from French manufacturers – quelle horreur!) is also good news in my book.

Citroën DS

Citroen DSAnother voiture tout à fait Française – quintessentially so, even – surely no classic car show is complete without a Déesse (another car to reside in my PetrolBlog Dream Barn), and this was a splendid example. I had a really good chat with the folk on the Citroën Car Club stand not only about things Citroën, but also the environmental impact of the car and the merits of contemporary low carbon technologies versus the reuse and recycling that constitutes classic car motoring. We also talked about next year’s Coventry MotoFest being held from 30th May-1st June 2014 – click the link to find out more.

Audi Sport quattro

Audi Sport quattroI must admit that I was a bit of an Audi fanboy in the 80s; I had the Audi Sport t-shirt and rally jacket, Hannu Mikkola was my hero and so the Sport quattro became very much a favourite of mine back in the day (the ur-quattro is another inclusion into my PetrolBlog Dream Barn too). Chatting with the Club Audi member in attendance, it was pleasing to hear that both the ur-quattro and Sport quattro on the stand had attracted more attention than had the newer mid-engined R8 also present. Which is as it should be.

Triumph 1300

Triumph 1300For a Triumphista such as myself, this was an epic car in more ways than one. While some classic cars are stored away, this particular car was taken on a 13,000 mile post-restoration trek to the China. I think it’s fair to suggest that it’s probably run in by now.

A whistle-stop tour, then, of the 2013 Classic Motor Show. There were many other cars I could have included (maybe enough for a Classical gas: Volume 2 ‘B-side’?). A cracking day out all-in-all but please, NEC, sort out the lights – these classic cars deserve better than the jaundiced glow afforded at the moment. Perhaps the show could be moved to a time of year permitting longer ambient daylight (how does May sound…?). Even so, I’m sure I’ll be back next year.