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I suppose the motor industry of any given country has experienced its highs and lows, but probably none so quite to the extent of the British motor industry. There has been genuine ingenuity, moments of true brilliance and then unrecoverable disaster. While many car museums nowadays tend to focus only on the successful, the respected and the loved, this isn’t the case at the British Motor Museum in Coventry. Here they are brave enough to present the whole package – including those which the industry would have probably done better without.

It would be all too easy to dismiss the British Motor Museum as being narrow-minded and single-sided. After all, what about the many interesting cars that have come out of Germany, Italy, France, Sweden, Spain, some of the old East Block countries, not forgetting America of course, Japan, Australia and others. But that’s missing the point. The British motor industry has plenty of diversity to stand alone in a museum presenting both the highs, the lows and not least the could-have-beens.

But let’s start with The Good:

In all honesty, there is plenty to choose from for this category. The Brits have after all manufactured some real gems through the years. Parked side by side, it’s really much too easy to place both the painfully elegant Jaguar XK120 OTS and not least the brutally effective Jaguar D-type in this group. If anything, “good” is probably the understatement of the year.

So let’s move on to something a little more intriguing: The sublime but largely unknown Swallow Doretti. With only 276 cars produced between 1954 and 1955, it was the product of the Oxfordshire-based automotive parts manufacturer named Tube Investment Group. In short, they decided to have a stab at building their own sports car rather than just supply parts for already established car companies. A relatively complex and very rigid tubular chassis of their own design was constructed to accept Triumph TR2 running gear. The finally car was stylish, of high build quality and decidedly upmarket. Bizarrely they did such a stellar job of it, that it turned out to be to their own detriment. Mainly Jaguar applied serious pressure on the mother company, TI Group, threatening to purchase their parts from another supplier should they continue to market a rival for the XK120. Despite an improved mk.2 version of the Doretti just being finished off, that simply became the end of what could have been a new and successful sports car manufacturer.

If we can agree that any classic Land Rover is a good thing, then surely we will also agree that a Land Rover on caterpillar tracks is a truly awesome thing. Look no further than the Cuthbertson Land Rover series 2 first introduced in 1958. Scottish James A. Cuthbertson essentially built a new subframe with tracks attached and then bolted a Land Rover on top of it. Far from being the most comfortable or luxurious means of transport, it would get you through terrain which would have easily bogged down any other 4×4 to its axles and beyond. And just look at it! Thoroughly bonkers and so menacing – the Cuthbertson is just cooler than cool.

I’ll make no excuses for it. I love classic estates and these four wonderful British incarnations of the theme are all as charming as can be. Why anyone would choose one of these in the normal saloon version is simply beyond me. Needless to say, I spent a fair while drooling over these four, with especially the Allard P2 Safari woodie leaving me in a blissful dreamworld…

To keep things predictable, we’ll now look at The Bad:

First of all a confession: I actually quite like the styling of British Leyland’s ADO71 better known as the Princess. Sure the final detailing never seemed quite finished, leaving the production car with a slightly tacky and almost prototype (in the worst sense) appearance. But overall it’s a crisp and daring application of the wedge design for what should have been a quality upmarket saloon. But even all of that can’t save the Princess from ending up in The Bad category. Not even a bit of badge engineering to make it the Wolseley 18-22 Saloon can possibly save it. This was and is just a horrendously poor execution of what could have otherwise been a very decent car. Build quality was… well, just not present at all. In short it perfectly sums up the downfall of the British motor industry during the seventies.

Just like the Princess, the Rover SD1 is another example of the how the British motor industry failed. Build quality wasn’t great. Still it’s odd that this particular car ends up in The Bad category. Normally I would say that the SD1 has enough flattering features to drag it free of such a fate – the fabulous design for one thing and of course that lovely Buick/Rover V8 engine. Furthermore – as stated above – I’m a sucker for all-things classic estate. But look at it. Let’s be honest – it’s awful! Just a big featureless blob. Somehow, they managed to thoroughly mess up the otherwise dashingly beautiful lines of the SD1, leaving this Rover estate with the V8 as its only saving grace. I’m sorry, but that’s just not enough and there’s no excuse for ruining such an elegant design. This is one estate that we should all be thankful remained a one-off.

And of course The Ugly:

I sorely wanted to present to you the rear end of the 1978 Triumph Lynx, but my camera was having none of that – it simply neglected to function and wouldn’t allow me to take a picture of such an eyesore. I managed to get a picture of the front though, which is really just a TR-7 and as such actually quite alright. But the wheelbase was extended a full 12 inches on this prototype making it a four seater, and the rear was totally restyled with a lift-up glass hatchback and a rather bulky and awkward looking design featuring very big and bland rear light clusters. The Lynx also lost Harris Mann’s famous plunging beltline from the TR-7. All in all, a very uncoherent design. Thankfully, someone apparently saw the light and Triumph neglected to put it into production.

Ha! Then I somehow managed to trick my camera into photographing the prototype 1967 Rover P6BS. On paper this looks like a brilliant concept: Develop and build a late sixties mid-engined sportscar offering three seats and utilising the excellent Buick/Rover V8. What could possibly go wrong? Erhm… lots apparently! The “BS” in its name stood for Buick Sports, but I can easily think of something more suitable… Granted, it would have been interesting to see what the final result would have been, had the BMC into BL merger not got in the way of further development. But as it stands, this concept is ugly as sin.

Yet we can’t possibly stop here, as there’s naturally also The Utterly Fabulous:

Yes, I know the 1966 Jaguar XJ13 never raced. It never got to prove its worth. But I just don’t care! Just look at this beast. All at once vicious yet so beautiful. Add to that a stonking 5.0-litre DOHC V12 utilising a mechanical Lucas fuel injection to push out an impressive 503 hp. Even without race history, this race car is a true legend!

But the most captivating and utterly fabulous car within the British Motor Museum is – for me at least – the 1965 gas turbine Rover-BRM Le Mans racer. Rover had been experimenting with gas turbine powered road cars for quite some time, starting with their famous experimental Jet 1. A joint venture with BRM lead to Rover using their own technical know-how in a BRM race car chassis, enabling them to enter the 1963 Le Mans. They were allowed to run only as an experimental with the racing number “00”, but finished the race with an impressive average speed in excess of 100mph. A new body and further engine development were made for 1964, where they however withdrew prior to Le Mans. They were back the following year, and this time competing in the 2-litre prototype class with number “31”. Despite complications during the race, with Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart behind the wheel, they managed to finish an impressive 10thoverall, 7thin class and best placed British car. If such a combination of revolutionary engineering and motorsport history isn’t enough to impress you, then please consider a Le Mans racer with a dashboard covered in a vivid orange-red corduroy. Epic!

And not least The Could-Have-Beens:

If only BMC had given these two the go-ahead. While especially the face of the 1964 ADO34 prototype has a clear MG relation, the rest of the body has the petite feminine elegance of a Peugeot 204 convertible which of course didn’t debut until late 1966. Perhaps not a great coincidence seeing as Pininfarina was involved with both designs. Using tried and tested mechanicals from the Mini, this prototype could have made for an excellent successor to the Spridget family. This of course never happened, but BMC and then BL continued to dream up worthy successors to their aging little roadster. In 1970 this lead to the ADO70 equally based on Mini mechanicals. Compared to the 34, the 70 has a decidedly seventies vibe about it, but it’s a cool little thing nonetheless. While designed in the UK, one prototype was assembled in Italy by Michelotti. And then… nothing. Just imagine owning one of these two today as a classic – I for one know that I would love to.


2 Responses

  1. Tony Wawryk

    I’ve visited this museum a handful of times – most recently last year as part of my attendance at the BMW National Festival (a number of car clubs hold big events there; it’s central, close to the M40, lots of parking, and has the museum as an additional attraction).
    The BHM is indeed a fascinating look at the history of the British motor industry. Some of you might recall I spent almost 6 years working in it, with BL and then the Austin Rover Group, between 1979 and 1985, when the company slid inexorably towards it’s demise. Anders, you’re spot on with your categorisations, and the biggest “could have been” for me is the ADO 34; there must be reasons why it wasn’t put into production, but I think it “should have been”, and would have flown out of the showrooms, as well as being a desirable classic today.

    Anders, did you get a chance to look in the other building on the site, the Collections Centre? The cars are not displayed in the same way as the museum, but there some fascinating cars in there, eg another “could/should have been”, this Michelotti-bodied proposed Dolomite facelift, a victim of corporate restructuring.


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