In this third and – you’ll be relieved to know – final part of my articles linked by and to the NEC Classic Motor Show, the focus is on the Midlands marques that managed to stay out of the clutches of British Leyland. Not that it helped them survive any better – sadly, not one of the manufacturers mentioned here is still a going concern.
In case you need to catch up on my ramblings, both Part 1 and Part 2 are full of that. This time though, the starting will be the very top point of our “kite”, in Tamworth, Staffordshire. The Reliant Club was celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Scimitar GTE, of which our very own Chief Editor, Claus Ebberfeld, runs a Scimitar SE6 among his impressive fleet of classics in Denmark. But there was more, as there was also a toast to the 45th anniversary of the much-mocked fibreglass-bodied three-wheel Reliant Robin (which achieved cult status thanks to the long-running comedy “Only Fools and Horses”) and not least the 65th anniversary of the Regal range, and their much trendier 1970’s re-invention as the Tom Karen-designed Bond Bug, following Reliant’s takeover of Bond Cars in 1970. The main club stand was decorated in celebratory mode, and the Bond Bug stand was resplendent in the car’s signature bright orange and stood out even amidst all the glitz of the show. Sadly, the last Reliant – a Robin – left the production lines in 2001.
Conveniently, a number of the stands grouped many of the region’s manufacturers together. Among the Rootes Group clubs, I had an enjoyable chat with the Singer Owners’ Club chairman, Arthur Michell. The Singer Motor Company first started producing cars as early as 1901, but by the time I got to Birmingham as a student in 1976, the brand had already disappeared in 1970. Indeed, by 1958, just after its acquisition by the Rootes Group, Singers were basically nothing but re-badged versions of other Rootes Group models such as the Hillman Imp, which in Singer clothing was marketed as the more upmarket Chamois sporting wood veneer trim and a few other niceties.
Nevertheless, thanks to Arthur and his fellow Singer enthusiasts, and an encouraging level of co-operation with sister clubs such as the various Sunbeam and Hillman clubs via the Association of Rootes Car Clubs, the Singer Owners’ Car Club is now thriving, with over 800 members. On the stand were pre-war and post-war models, including a lovely 1933 Singer Nine Sports Coupé, as well as a more recent Gazelle alongside it.
Staying in Coventry and with the Rootes Group, there was a small display from the Imp Club (geddit? never mind…) which neatly summarised the brand profusion and confusion that reigned within the region’s motor manufacturers. A Hillman Imp, but a Sunbeam Stiletto, a Singer Chamois Coupé, and a Hillman Husky – all based on the same little rear-engined car, the Imp. I particularly liked the red Chamois Coupé, and I’m pretty sure our own International Editor, Anders Bilidt, spent a fair amount of time in this part of the hall!
Sunbeam and Sunbeam Talbot are among the most famous names in British motoring and motorsport history. Originally based in Wolverhampton, Sunbeam started making cars in 1901, but by 1934 had been acquired by the Rootes brothers. Until 1954, the brothers operated Sunbeam and Talbot as a single marque, abandoning this practice in 1954, from when Sunbeam was the main brand. Sunbeam made smart sporty cars and is perhaps best remembered for the Rapier saloon and not least the Alpine and Tiger sports cars. My father ran a Series V Rapier for a short while in 1967/8, stuffing half our junior school football team in it for matches. The other half travelled via our PE teacher’s Austin Cambridge! The Rapier brand lasted until 1976 on a stylish fastback version (although it was briefly revived as a version of the Chrysler Alpine in the mid-1980’s, but let’s not revisit that). After this, the Sunbeam name was only used on the rear-wheel drive Chrysler Sunbeam and Talbot Sunbeam hatchback – most effectively of course on the Lotus twincam engined version which saw quite some success in rallying. Since 1981, no car has carried the Sunbeam name.
Many of these models retain strong followings among classic enthusiasts, and the Tiger in particular is, if I may mix my animal metaphors a little, a real wolf in sheep’s clothing, concealing as it does either a 4.3 or a 4.7-litre Ford V8 under the bonnet. Thanks to both the engine and some development input from the famed Carroll Shelby, it is naturally – and not wrongly either – regarded by many as a poor man’s AC Cobra. Similarly, the Talbot Sunbeam Lotus packs a fairly hefty wallop within its mid-sized hatchback body.
Sunbeams across the company’s history were represented at the show, with a particularly tasty pair of Alpines on a chequered flag floor glinting under the NEC’s unforgiving lights.
Yet another famous old Coventry marque was Humber, who had been building cars there since 1902. In 1964 the company had become part of the Rootes Group, its name being used on solid, well-appointed cars such as the Super Snipe, Hawk and Imperial. There was an especially fine Super Snipe Estate at the show, as well as a lovely deep red 1935 Humber Vogue. By 1967, however, Chrysler had taken control of the Rootes Group, and the Humber name joined the lengthening list of marques put out to pasture.
Finally, from within the Rootes Group, one mustn’t forget Hillman. Hillman models in the 1950’s through the ‘70’s ranged from the Imp, through the Minx, Hunter and Avenger. They were inevitably closely related to the Sunbeam and Singer range in particular, but the Avenger stood alone. The most coveted of Avengers was represented by a superb Avenger Tiger, their high-performance version, at the NEC show. Headquartered in Ryton-on-Dunsmore, near Coventry, Hillman was swallowed up by Chrysler in 1967, with the Avenger and Hunter ranges re-badged as Chryslers until 1979, when Chrysler was sold to Peugeot – the Hillman name having joined its peers in the fallow pasture in 1976.
Chrysler revived the Talbot name for the Alpine, Horizon, the unloved Solara and Tagora (didn’t see either of those at the show – not surprising I suppose when you consider only ten Solara’s and not one Tagora remain registered in the UK), but the company’s fortunes continued to decline, and Talbot stopped being used as a marque in 1986. The Ryton factory then became a UK production outpost for a variety of Peugeot models until the lines finally shut down for the last time in 2006, and was demolished a year later. While strictly speaking not a Talbot, Chrysler also marketed the European developed Horizon as the Dodge Omni in the US. While it would have been viewed as nothing but an average shopping-trolley in period, seen with European eyes, there was some strangely appealing about the Omni displayed at the NEC resplendent in typically American two-tone paint scheme and whiteband tyres.
Also in Coventry, but long defunct by the late 1970s, were Armstrong Siddeley and Alvis, who made dignified but conservative cars that failed to compete with the sportier products from Jaguar in particular, and both ceased motor car production in 1960 and 1967 respectively. On the Alvis stand was a very rare animal, a beautiful Graber-bodied car – another example by this Swiss coach-builder resides in the British Heritage Motor Museum’s collection. The car on which this is based, the TF21, is itself a very fine car, but Graber definitely moved the model up a notch.
Perhaps the most desirable marque made in the Midlands, alongside Jaguar, was Jensen. Based in West Bromwich, just to the west of Birmingham, Jensens were high-end sporting GT cars. Their best-known models are the Interceptor and technically advanced four-wheel-drive FF, both cars marrying Carrozzeria Touring and then Vignale-built bodies with Chrysler V8 engines, assembled in West Bromwich.
Less well-known perhaps is the work Jensen took on for other companies, such as assembling the early Volvo P1800 and the Sunbeam Tiger, and also building the body shells for the Big Healeys. Later Jensen even tried to expand its own model range through a joint project with Donald Healey, leading to the launch of the Jensen Healey in 1972, which was the subject of some recent discussion here on ViaRETRO. Unfortunately, despite the addition of the GT shooting brake, the car wasn’t the success the company needed it to be, and by 1976 it was all over for Jensen as they entered receivership. Jensens – particularly the Interceptor – are now starting to rise significantly in value, though they still fetch relative peanuts compared to their Aston Martin DB rivals. There was a fabulous blue Interceptor convertible at the show, which is arguably a much more exclusive car than any DB Aston. An exceptionally rare – and quite exquisite – Jensen at the show was a brilliant white 1938 S-Type Tourer, one of only eight made, with four surviving. This fabulous car effectively has six forward gears, thanks to its twin-ratio axle married to a manual 3-speed gearbox – in 1938!
Attempts have been made to revive the Jensen name, but so far with little success – it truly was, and could have continued being, a rival to Jaguar and even Aston Martin.
Final reflections? Well, this huge show triggered many memories – and a flood of words! – for me personally, as well as causing me to revisit the Midland’s halcyon days as one of the world’s great motor manufacturing regions, and to regret its demise. But what days they were, and how great it is that there are thousands of enthusiasts keeping the memories of those days alive.