What Are the Most Famous Classic British Sports Cars?

The debate over which country made the best classic cars (pre-1970) is heated. Whether you believe Italy, Japan, Germany, England, the United States, or France produced the best vintage sports cars, England unquestionably offers some of the best classic sports cars ever made in build quality, innovative features, styling, and performance.

The most affordable European sports cars were all manufactured in England. Thus, you can blame the British sports car for the surge in interest in this type of vehicle in the United States.

The following list details the most famous British classic sports cars—cars that the GIs might have purchased and driven. For this list, a classic is defined as any model introduced before 1970.

Austin Healey Sprite

The Bugeye Sprite, as it was known in the United States, was introduced in 1958 and got its name from its special headlight treatment. The designer’s main intent was for the headlights to withdraw into the hood when turned off, similar to how Porsche did with the 928 models. Because production costs prevented the design feature from being implemented, the headlights were fixed to the car’s hood.

The Austin-Healey Sprite was the world’s first mass-produced unit body sports car. It was launched with a four-cylinder, 43-horsepower inline engine displacing 948cc (1000cc=1 liter). The Austin-Healey Sprite was a simple car with no trunk lid or door handles; passengers would have to reach inside the vehicle to open the doors.

The seats had to be folded forward to access the spare tire or stow cargo. The Austin Healey Sprite was produced from 1958 to 1971 and evolved through four generations. While each subsequent iteration of the car sold well, the Bugeye Sprite, the original Sprite, is remembered fondly.

Jaguar XK-120

the Jaguar XK 120 Roadster on display

The XK120 was introduced in 1948 as a show car to showcase Jaguar’s latest XK series inline six-cylinder engine, and its fluidly supine lines caused such a stir that the model was put into production. Sir William Lyons, Jaguar’s lead designer and founder at the time, is said to have created the design overnight. The XK designation pertains to the engine installed in the vehicle, while the 120 denotes the model’s top speed.

The Jaguar’s top speed of 120 mph made it the fastest car globally in 1948. Its early cars were handcrafted from used frames of ash wood and aluminum. When the model’s popularity grew, Jaguar switched to steel bodies to ramp up production; however, aluminum was still used for the hood, doors, and trunk lid.

The 3.4-liter engine produced 160 horsepower, and while the top speed was listed as 120 miles per hour, several owners reported speeds over 130 miles an hour. The XK120 was produced in both two-seat convertible and two-seat coupe configurations for 12,055 units from 1948 to 1954.

Lotus Elan

The Lotus Elan was the first road car to use a steel backbone chassis with a fiberglass body. This resulted in a car that was remarkably lightweight and extremely rigid, which are hallmarks of Lotus founder Colin Chapman’s automotive design philosophy. When it came to the structure of sports cars, Chapman believed that agility was more important than power.

When it was introduced in 1962, the Lotus Elan was technologically advanced. It featured a double overhead cam engine, rack and pinion steering, four-wheel disc brakes, and all-independent suspension. The Lotus Elan, with a curb weight of only 1500 pounds, was among the most gallant small sports cars of its time.

A 2+2 version was introduced in 1967 to broaden the Elan’s market. Anyone who remembers the 1960s British television series “The Avengers” will remember the Lotus Elan as the car driven by the sexy “Emma Peel.” The original two-seat Lotus Elan was produced until 1973, and the Elan 2+2 was produced until 1975.

Morris Garages (MG) MGA

a white MG A 1600 Roadster parked on the road with the driver inside

While the MGA was designed in 1951, it did not go into production until 1955. The MGA looked markedly different from the T-series MG sports cars it replaced, ushering in a new design era. Only 5,869 MGAs were sold in England, despite being built primarily to meet overseas demand.

In its branding for the MGA, MG referred to it as “the first of a new line,” which it was. Many consider the MGA to be the model of the modern sports car because it is wider, lower, and more advanced. To move a curb weight of around 1,988 pounds, the body on frame design used a 1.5-liter, 68-horsepower engine.

The MGA, eventually available in both two-seat coupe and two-seat convertible body styles, featured a rigid rear axle with semi-elliptic springs and a wishbone type independent front suspension. There was a four-speed manual transmission, hydraulic drum brakes, and rack and pinion steering. The car was also available with either steel or wire-spoke wheels.

The MGA was manufactured until 1962. The car was great to drive for its time, though not particularly fast; it went from zero to 60 in 16 seconds, with a top speed of just under 98 miles per hour. The MGA was manufactured until 1962 when the MGB replaced it.

Triumph Spitfire

a brown Triumph Spitfire 1500 Mk 4 parked in front of crates

The Triumph Spitfire was introduced at the London Auto Show in 1962, with styling based on a 1957 model designed by Giovanni Michelotti, among the most prolific sports car creatives of the twentieth century. He also worked on projects for Lancia, BMW, and Maserati. The Spitfire’s engine was derived from a Triumph sedan called the Herald.

The Triumph sports car arose from the popularity of the Austin-Healey Sprite. When the Triumph top management saw the demand for the Austin-Healey, they agreed to do something similar but a little more refined. As a result, the Spitfire had a single-piece front end and wind-up windows to render servicing the engine easier.

Because Triumph was undergoing financial difficulties when Michelotti completed the design, it took five years for the model to enter production. When British Leyland did take over Triumph, it discovered the Spitfire prototype hidden beneath a drop cloth in a factory corner and rushed it into production. Between 1962 and 1980, 314,000 Spitfires were manufactured.

Today, Britain boasts even more incredible sports cars proudly designed and built in the country, such as those from Ariel Atom, McLaren, Caterham, Noble, and others. However, there’s no disputing that these classic cars are still in demand for a reason. If you want to buy your classic car, here are some tips and risks to consider when investing in them.