National Automotive Icons – Great Britain

It’s time to move our automotive icon focus across the channel and take a look at the Best of British.

As is tradition with this series, I’m providing the first 5 nominations here on the site and you readers have to make a case for other nominations in comments. I think we’re going to end up with quite a long list. But remember, we’re looking for the most iconic British car – the most instantly recognised as a piece of British design, engineering or ingenuity. We’re not just looking for personal British favourites that don’t have standing as an icon of the industry.

Whilst considering this post, I figured there were four indisputable walk-up starts. The fifth would always be a matter of contention so rather than cop the blame myself πŸ™‚ I’ve asked the opinion of a British car guy – Lance Cole. Lance has already written one best-seller on the Saab 99 and 900 and he has a new Saab book coming out in just a few weeks. He’s also edited automotive encyclopaedias, written extensively for newspapers and websites about both motoring and aviation (he’s a keen glider pilot, amongst other things) and is just a general, all-round good bloke.

So…. I’ve provided the first four selections for British icons. Lance has provided the fifth. It’s up to you to provide the rest.

Jaguar E-Type

……or the XKE in some parts of the world.

No lesser man than Enzo Ferrari himself called this the most beautiful car in the world when it was released in 1961 at the Geneva Motor Show. Like a number of other automotive and design icons, the E-Type has a silhouette that is instantly recognisable from almost any angle, at almost any visible distance.

The E-Type has proved to be a solid investment over the years. One of its credentials upon release was that it was quite affordable compared to other cars offering similar performance. Combine that performance with superb looks and it’s little wonder the E-Type was such a runaway success. Its popularity hasn’t waned, either and the value of a well preserved E-Type has just grown and grown. You’ll barely get change out of $40,000 for a half-decent restorer here in Australia and many of them – both coupes and convertibles – top six figures.

The E-Type’s status was boosted by a bevy of celebrity owners – Twiggy, George Best, Roy Orbison, Tony Curtis, the Austin Powers ‘Shaguar’ and the one that provides my favourite owner photo: Sid James. Carry On Driving!

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Mini

If you want to know how good the BMW marketing machine is, just take a look at the way they’ve been able to leverage the international cult of Mini – a movement that always existed but was rarely gathered and tied together so coherently.

The Mini, like the Jaguar E-Type, earned its iconic status mostly through the 1960’s after being first produced in 1959. Whilst the Jag was an affordable supercar for the upwardly mobile, the Mini was the people’s car of the British Isles and its cute looks, zippy frugality and unlikely practicality have made it a worldwide favourite ever since.

Perceptions about the Mini’s looks and handling were no doubt helped along by a number of successful racing programs, including three wins at Monte Carlo (and a ‘Ladies Award’ for Saab’s own Pat Moss for her Mini drive in the early 1960’s) and numerous victories in track competitions around the world after John Cooper got to weave his magic over the car.

Reputations nearly always grow with decent exposure in film and the Mini stole the show in The Italian Job. It’s a rather silly car chase by modern standards, but still regarded by many as one of the best chase sequences in film:

The Mini is perhaps unique in this group in that it has a modern iteration that has been embraced both by the general public and the historical Mini crowd, as well. There are now Mini gatherings all around the world where owners of Minis, both old and new, gather to enjoy their vehicles together.

In that spirit, here are all the Mini driving sequences from the 2003 version of The Italian Job:

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MG MGB

The Brits have a fascination with convertibles that astounds any non-Briton who’s familiar with their weather. One of the most famous British convertibles is the MGB (note, there was also a hardtop version of the MGB, but the convertible’s the one we’re more interested in here).

Right: About as British as it gets: An MGB in a field

The MGB was made from the early 1960’s until 1980. It was even assembled in Australia for some time (as was the Mini), which I’m sure was a reasonable contributor to the model’s occasionally dubious quality ratings.

The MGB is notable today for its enduring good looks and for being the car that took the idea of a British convertible and spread it around the world. People still see one and think of packing a picnic and going for a meander through the countryside. The car retains its popularity for this exact reason – the MGB is an idea, a lifestyle component, the car that will give you a taste of 1960’s freedom all over again.

Those who desire a more modern (and reliable) version, albeit without the character, usually buy a Mazda MX-5. If you’re after an MGB, however, early models are far more collectable than the later, rubber bumper models.

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Rolls Royce Silver Shadow

You could put a number of Rolls Royces in this post, but I’m going to go with the Silver Shadow – primarily because it’s the one that was being made when many of this site’s readers would have been growing up. If you’re a late Baby Boomer or a Gen X-er like me, then this is most likely the image that springs to mind when you think ‘Rolls Royce’

This is, hands down, the image of pomp and regality that was scattered throughout my youth.

In choosing the Silver Shadow, I’m really just trying to choose a worthy representative of Rolls Royce, because it’s really the Rolls Royce company itself that is the British icon here.

Cadillac might have once been The Standard of the World, but that saying became a distant memory, a distant memory ago. It’s one that the Caddy marketers can only wish for today. Rolls Royce, on the other hand, has remained as a quiet symbol of success, luxury and dignity from its earliest beginnings and even up to today with the land-yachts made under BMW’s ownership.

Less dignified, however, are some of the ‘for sale’ videos of Silver Shadows that I found when scouring YouTube. I guess that’s what happens when a car becomes almost affordable to the commoners.

This old Top Gear video from 1992 is worth a watch, however. Like the car, it’s as British as can be and features a Rolls dealer straight out of ZZ Top:

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Aston Martin DB4 and DB5

The fifth choice! The one belonging to our esteemed celebrity nominator, Lance Cole, is the Aston Martin DB4 and DB5. He couldn’t split them, so neither will I. I will, however, take a stab at explaining this dual nomination.

Put it this way – the DB5 is the better known car, thanks to both its incredible good looks and its feature role in early James Bond films, but the DB5 owes much to the DB4 that preceded it. Does that make sense?

When you’re talking British icons, it doesn’t get much more recognisable than James Bond, correct?

Lance recognises the immediate identification with Bond, but prefers to keep things automotive:

This is a tough one and whatever I nominate, someone is going to be unhappy. Should it be the Healey 3000? Should it be a Morgan? The Triumph TR4, TR5 and Spitfire also come to mind.

The contrarian in me wants to nominate an Allard or a Bristol, but the truth is one car stands out as the icon of Britain old and new. That car is the Aston Martin DB4 (and it’s DB5 successor, to be fair). It’s less to do with James Bond and more to do with design, engineering and the allure of superleggera bodywork with the engine, handling, and cabin to match.

The reasons we love the Aston Martin are the same reasons the people responsible for casting the car in Goldfinger loved it. It’s beautiful, fast and quintessentially British in terms of its advanced engineering and performance for the time.

It was amongst the best in a golden age of British automotive engineering, which is why it’s so recognisable today.

I can’t resist. Here’s a couple of Goldfinger clips featuring the Aston Martin DB5 looking its best. Enjoy!

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And with that, our Swadeology nominations are over. Now it’s your turn to add more cars to the list.

Comments are open and your nominations, with reasons why, are most welcome.

My thanks to Lance Cole for his help in deciding the fifth and final nomination to be made directly on the website.

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24 Comments

  1. Gotta have the original Range Rover in there. The Land-Rover was arguably a Jeep imitator but the RR created a whole new class of vehicle. Landed gentry, investment bankers and football stars have been grateful ever since.

    1. Nice to see the first comment (and then others below) included Range Rover. Good timing too as the fourth-generation Range Rover was officially unveiled in Richmond Park, London on September 6.

      From the Heritage section of one of the press releases…

      The new model is the fourth generation of the iconic Range Rover line. The Range Rover was a milestone in the evolution of the sport-utility vehicle when it launched in 1970. The popularity of the Range Rover concept grew around the world, and today it remains the premier choice for the luxury SUV customer.

      The first Land Rover was in 1948. Land Rover started up at about the same time Saab cars did and for a similar reason. To put excess factory capacity to good use.

  2. Jaguar E-Type

    Reasons:-

    1) It IS the most beautiful car ever made;
    2) No other car is more British than the E-type;
    3) It was sensational when it came out 50 years ago and still is just as desireable.

  3. I need to add two cars actually. The Austin Healy and the Ford Cortina Mk I. Both icons of their time and the latter actually owned by a lot of people.
    Cheers/Thomas

    1. I agree , the beauty is an E-type however the Cortina did it all family car , rally etc. Stag is a fav too so meany to chose so little space to have them all .

  4. Hmmm, difficult one, but I would want to add the Morris Minor to the list. Why? It was one of the rather iconic cars that brought mass motoring to many. I do recall the district nurse coming down the hills in Scotland, with the engine turned off to save petrol πŸ˜‰ Easy to mend and good workinghorses.

    1. Funny, I didn’t notice until I read your comment.

      The truth is, that even though British racing green is iconic, it’s not the most iconic color on any of these cars!

      The Mini is perhaps the exception, but there were so many red and light blue ones.

      The MGB was, at least here in the US, overwhelmingly red, the Rolls is obviously silver, gray or off-white, the Aston Martins were also silver.

      The E-types were all over the map, but the ones that I remember are silver or silver-blue (as pictured).

  5. LandRover Defender. It is not as fast as an E-Type but it anyone would mention it when being asked about British cars.

    London Taxi. Maybe not the best British car ever made, but imagine London without it?

  6. Five is not enough!

    You need some room for the Morris Minor, probably in place of the Aston or the MGB. The MGB was just a 2 seater Morris Oxford!

    E-Type Jaguar
    Land Rover
    Morris Minor
    Mini
    Austin Seven

    Rolls Royce was an icon when it was Rolls & Royce, but a big car with added luxury and weight and an American V8 isn’t an icon.

  7. As others above, the Range Rover is so iconic, but it’s not a car is it?

    I still think that the London Taxi should have been there instead of the Aston Martin, too. Iconic, yes. Perhaps not so much for design as ubiquity. I’ll give you that.

    Finally, I nominated the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud vs. the Silver Shadow. To me, the swooping front fender line extending all the way back to the rear fender, the formal upright chrome grille and the impossibly long engine bay are the lines and proportions that shaped luxury car design for a generation. For instance, Lincolns to this day still incorporate many of these design aspects. Those features, which started on this side of the pond, were indelibly stamped on the minds of people everywhere by the Cloud’s over-the-top opulence and presence.

    On the other hand, the Jag is gonna win going away, so why bother?

  8. Excellent choices.

    I would pick the E-type as a winner, though. Not only will it win over the british cars, it might win over ANY car. Looking THAT good, while performing THAT good, sounding THAT good. I’d say priceless, if it weren’t for the fact that the price is rather hefty nowadays.

    And the Austin Seven could perhaps get a nod for being the car that put all pedals in the right order. πŸ˜‰

  9. You’ve surely nailed down the winner – the XKE – and first runner up – the Mini. The outcome notwithstanding, it would be nice to have the Morgan 3-wheeler in the icon consideration set, along with the Land Rover and London Taxi already mentioned. Given the range of the British motor industry, from the sublime to the absurd, let’s give a tip of the hat to the Reliant Robin as well!

  10. Finally – you kept us waiting longer than I expected!!

    The title is ‘automotive icons’ so that doesn’t restrict us only to cars, does it?

    While I can’t disagree that you have 5 legitimate nominations Swade, I have to add my agreement to the voices above, concerning the ubiquitous Morris Minor (in all its guises.. low light, split screen, convertible, traveller, van, pick-up), the Range Rover and the Austin 7. The Austin 7 was a design reproduced in many countries and the fore-runner to so many descendants.

    As one could have at least another 2 parrallel lists, maybe the final 5 should reflect icons that were a more regular part of the automotive landscape in their era. Thus any of the above nominations would dispace the Aston Martin, as would the Ford Cortina Mk1, 11 or 111, the Escort and even the Transit van!

    Can’t pick a winner between the E-type or the Mini.

  11. For me, an automotive icon is a car that is more than just “a car”. True, some other cars may have sold in huge numbers or be interesting from a technical standpoint. But are they therefore icons? I have a simple litmus test. Do we stand in awe in front of the car and just look at it – feeling the history of it, the time when it were sculptured, the culture of that society? Is the car in question maybe featured in a book or movie? If so, is the car so important that it is almost a character in itself? Is the car alone almost the essence of the story?

    For me, the Land/Range Rover is an important vehicle in the automotive history. But it is just too practical to be drooled over. There is not really any “icon” in the aura around it – just a matter-of-fact and a-job-to-be-done.

  12. Easy -> the “E” Type.

    To quote Richard Pryor in the movie “Silver Streak”:
    “That Chevy’s jerkoff, this here’s pure pussy!”
    As Pryor’s character is trying to steal a car off a used car sales lot.

    The Mini is also a fav for the common man in me.

  13. That would be not to dificult:
    1. the E-type,
    2. the XK120,
    3. the MK2,
    4. the XJ6,
    5. the XJS.
    All of them iconic, caracteristic cars.

  14. I’m sure you have picked the right top 5, but I would love to see the Triumph TR6 in the vote as well. But as Eggsngritts says, the jag will take it away, so why bother πŸ™‚

    The funny thing is, when we look at british cars, there are so many with character/personality. That makes it harder to choose than when looking at the other countries (except Italy, I’m looking forward to that one!).

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