British sports cars are the forerunners in the sports car scene – they brought the sports car fever in the United States. Although the British sports car came of age globally during the years after World War II, they laid down the road to success during the 1920s to 1930s when the British automakers started to create more affordable cars with excellent sporting performance. Companies like Alvis and Riley launched models that satisfied the needs of the populist motoring enthusiasts.
However, it was MG who introduced the very first bona fide sports car in 1923. Their capable sports cars with open two-seat bodywork, minimal weather equipment, and highly tuned engines set the standard for the industry. Later on, other companies like Invicta, Singer, Morgan, AC, Triumph, Sunbeam, SS-Jaguar and many others enhanced the basic roadster with improved performance and handling. Before World War II, British sports cars were successful in the international racing and rallying scene, even with stiff competition from big names like Mercedes-Benz and Bugatti.
When the war broke out, countless American soldiers assigned in England became enamored with the agility and beauty of those delightful machines. Many of them arranged to bring samples of the cars home with them after the war. Those who couldn’t or didn’t fondly recalled their experiences of driving them. Later on, America had a growing demand for open two-seaters.
These classic British sports cars went on to make history as a British sports car and become successful in the United States:
Morris Garages MG TC
A successor to the MG TB, the MG TC was the first product Morris Garages (MG) launched after the Second World War in 1945. The T Series of MG sports cars date back to 1936, but the MG TC is the one credited with introducing Americans to small open two-seaters powered by inline four-cylinder engines. The demand was so great that the car was exported to the US even if it was only ever produced in right-hand drive. With its 55 horsepower and 1250cc engine, it can accelerate from zero to 60 in 22.7 seconds. The car also used a four-speed manual transmission and hydraulic drum brakes.
Introduced in 1948, Jaguar XK-120’s top speed of 120 miles per hour made it the fastest car in the world. It was launched as a concept car to showcase Jaguar’s new XK series inline six-cylinder engine, but when it created such interest, Jaguar decided to put the car into production. It was never a bad decision, as it gained success in the field of rallying and racing since 1949 to the early 1950s.
Morris Garages MGA
The MGA was unleashed in 1951 but it wasn’t produced for the public until 1955. The two-door coupe was built primarily to satisfy overseas demand. When it was advertised, Morris Garages called it “the first of a new line” since it ushered a new era of design that was radically different from the T-series car models it preceded. MGA was the epitome of the modern sports car. It employed a 68-horsepower, 1.5-liter engine that can accelerate from zero to 60 in 16 seconds. Its top speed was just under 98 miles per hour. The MGA remained in production until 1962 and was eventually replaced by the MGB.
The Austin-Healey Sprite was first introduced in 1958 and was in production until 1971. This sports car picked up the moniker “Bugeye Sprite” in the US and “Frogeye” in the UK, because its headlights were mounted on top of the bonnet so that the headlights can retract into the hood when they were switched off.
It was the first volume-produced unit body sports car. The 1958 model was powered by a 43-horsepower inline four-cylinder engine displacing 948 cc. Without a trunk lid, the seats had to be folded forward to stow cargo or access the spare tire. While the other iterations of the car sold well, the first Sprite was the one remembered most.
Launched in 1959, the Austin-Healey 3000 got its name because it was powered by a 2912 cc inline six-cylinder engine. It had a top speed of 115 miles per hour and boasted of dual carburetors and front disc brakes as standard equipment. Produced from 1959 to 1967, it was best known as “the Big Healey” models, differentiating itself from the Austin-Healey Sprite. It was also the most popular variant of what has evolved from the Austin-Healey 100 launched in 1953. The Austin-Healey 3000 was a highly successful car, which won its class in several European rallies during its time.
Dubbed by Enzo Ferrari as “the most beautiful car ever made,” Jaguar E-Type is the most desirable car of its time. For most car lovers, the phrase “British sports car” would instantly trigger an image of the Jaguar E-Type in their heads. This car was introduced in 1961 and enjoyed immense popularity among consumers when it runs until 1974. The first version was powered by a 3.8-liter inline six-cylinder engine with three carburetors, boasting of 265 horsepower and 240 ft-lbs of torque. The 1961 model had a top speed of 150 miles per hour and can accelerate from zero to 60 in around seven seconds. With a weight of fewer than 3,000 pounds, this meant exhilarating performance.
When Lotus Elan was introduced in 1962, it was highly technologically advanced. It was the first Lotus road car that employed a steel backbone chassis design with a fiberglass body. It used a double overhead cam engine, rack and pinion steering, four-wheel disc brakes and an independent suspension system. The Lotus Elan was one of the most beloved elemental sports car ever built.
The original version of the car provided the design inspiration for the highly successful Mazda MX-5 Miata in 1989. It was also popularized by the 1960s British TV series “The Avengers,” as it was the iconic car driven by the sexy Emma Peel.
Actually, Triumph owed its existence to the success of the Austin-Healey Sprite. When they saw the demand for Austin-Healey cars, they came up with their own products, somewhat similar but with a bit more sophistication. The Triumph Spitfire has a style based on a 1957 model done by Giovanni Michelotti, one of the most prolific sports car designers of the 20th century who also worked for BMW, Maserati, and Lancia.
The Spitfire was introduced at the London Auto Show in 1962, boasting of wind-up windows and a single piece front end that made servicing the engine easier to do. It was only produced en masse in 1967.
Built between 1975 and 1981, Triumph TR7 was an evolution of the company’s best seller, the TR6. The car is most recognizable because of its wedge shape, which was advertised as “the shape of things to come.” It was actually launched earlier in the United States – Triumph released it in 1975 due to demands twice as high compared to its home country. It was in 1976 when it debuted into the UK.
The power of TR7 was provided by its 105 bhp 1,998 cc eight-valve four-cylinder engine. The car used a front independent suspension and a rear four-link system. Braking was accomplished with discs at the front and drums at the rear.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, British car manufacturers like Jaguar, MG, Austin-Healey, Triumph, and Sunbeam enjoyed their run of success. However, when American regulations became stricter and stricter – the Federal Government increasingly putting stringent safety and pollution regulations – the British carmakers struggled to meet the increasing burden to comply with the imposed rules. To add to their pain consumer tastes began to shift away from the convertibles towards the more functional sports coupes, which the Japanese competitors provided for the American market.
In the 1970s, it was mostly MG and Triumph who continued to compete against each other in terms of affordability, while Jaguar was forced into a more stressful competition from brands such as Porsche, Lamborghini, Ferrari, and BMW.
When the Oil Crisis hit, British sports cars became more expensive to operate and purchase. Difficulties in meeting new pollution standards made cars slower while safety standards increased weight and complexity to the cars. Problems like labor strife also slowed down production of cars. The British government tried to save the industry but the oversight only complicated the matters. Because of that MG saw the closure of its legendary Abingdon factory in 1980, and Triumph saw the termination of Spitfire production at Canley. The poor exchange rate on the following year hurt their ability to create inexpensive cars, with Triumph TR7 and TR8 being the last affordable British sports cars exported to the US.