Home Cars 25 Iconic British Cars: The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide

25 Iconic British Cars: The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide

Vukasin Herbez July 13, 2018

The story of British car industry is one of the most interesting tales in car history. Once upon a time, Great Britain was the biggest exporter of motor vehicles in the world. They got there by producing signature machines and dominating several market segments. However, today, the real British car industry no longer exists. Brands like Rover, Austin, BMC, Singer, Sunbeam and Jensen are long gone.

So, what took them down? Inadequate management, subpar quality and missed market opportunities were their downfalls. The surviving brands are all under the ownership of foreign companies. Nowadays, BMW owns Rolls Royce and Bentley owns Volkswagen. The Tata Group from India owns Range Rover and Jaguar, and a Kuwait investment firm now owns Aston Martin.

Practically, all automotive jewels from the British crown are in foreign hands. This is a big blow for traditionalists, especially how Jaguar and Land Rover belongs to a company from an ex-British colony, India. Despite all that, the British car industry is still highly respected among automotive enthusiasts. It is full of important classic models, innovative designs, legendary sports cars and several groundbreaking designs.

Read on to discover the essence of cars from UK through a deeper look at the 14 most iconic machines. You will also be able to see how important the British car industry was and why it is still influential even today.

  1. Jaguar XJ6

Jaguar has always occupied a place in the market as a brand that produces unique, elegant, powerful and fast cars. During the 60’s, they enjoyed enormous success with the Mk2 Saloon and legendary E-Type sports car. But, the product that withstands the test of time is the famous XJ6.

Jaguar introduced the XJ6 in 1968 and back then, there was nothing similar on the market. The XJ6 was a low, sleek and elegant sedan. Jaguar equipped it with powerful straight six engines and a 5.3-liter V12 for the most demanding customers. This was the first car to perfectly blend luxury with sports appeal and a signature shape. The XJ6 lasted all the way up to 2009 through eight different generations.

Throughout its iterations, the Jaguar XJ6 was always a popular luxury car in America. This means there are plenty of them around. Some of the early models are quite affordable. This could be the perfect starter classic if you are into legendary British motors.

  1. Rover SD1

Do you remember what your father drove in the mid-70’s? It was probably a boxy sedan with an underpowered engine or a station wagon with wood inserts on the sides. Or maybe it was a small, front-wheel drive import car. Whatever he had in those days pales in comparison to the interesting Rover SD1.

Rover imagined it as the family sedan of the future, presenting the SD1 in 1976. It was immensely modern with aerodynamic styling, a hatchback rear end and a futuristic interior. Base versions came with a 2.6 liter 136 HP engine, but a 3.5 liter V8 was also available.

Unfortunately, due to strikes at the factory and bad quality of the components, the SD1 didn’t have the dependability or reputation most German cars offered. So, it was mildly successful in America. But it met praises in Europe and became The Car of The Year for 1977. It was also the favorite car of British police forces all the way to the early 90’s.

  1. Ariel Atom

The ingenuity of British engineers not only present in classic cars, but on some current projects, as well. This car is probably the craziest car for sale today. The Ariel Atom 500 V8 weighs 1,200 pounds and gets 500 HP from a V8 engine directly behind the driver. The car is basically a go-kart with a spoiler and enough room for two people. However, it has no trunk, body panels or fenders.

All you get is a naked chassis, a screaming V8 and 500 angry horses that want to run free in full power. It also has a seven-speed sequential gearbox and four tires. If this description doesn’t scare you, the performance will. The Ariel Atom 500 V8 can jump from 0 to 60 mph in 2.3 seconds. This time beats the ridiculous Bugatti Veyron, which was the world`s fastest accelerating passenger car at one point.

Can you imagine catapulting from 0 to 60 mph in 2.3 seconds in a car without a body or roof with an engine is just inches away from your head? Although it must be fantastic, it’s got to be potentially deadly.

  1. Rolls Royce Silver Ghost

Entering the British car market in 1906, the Rolls Royce 40/50HP was the first model from this legendary factory. They painted the car silver and it was eerily quiet, fast and powerful, earning it the nickname, Silver Ghost. It got its power from an enormous seven-liter straight eight engine with 48 HP and loads of torque.

But the reason this is one of the best British cars is the quality and durability. The Silver Ghost was the best car in the world in terms of quality. Many owners in remote parts of the world like India or Africa could attest to its durability. The Silver Ghost even served as a military vehicle during the First World War. In those days, cars were spitting oil and refusing to start, but the Silver Ghost was as dependable as the tide.

The model was in production for 20 years, making the company famous. The Silver Ghost sparked the legendary saying, “60 mph and the loudest noise you hear is the ticking of the clock,” since its max speed was just 60 mph.

  1. MG B

The Britons invented the roadster class, which is a small, two-seater convertible with lively driving dynamics. One of the most popular and typical British roadsters from the 60’s is the MG B. They introduced it in 1962. The MG B was the successor to the MG A and helped establish the roadster class in America.

For the standards of the day, the MG B was a modern car with unibody construction, a roomy interior, as well as decent suspension and steering. Some of the contemporary tests say the MG B was underpowered since 95 HP from 1.8-liter engine isn’t much. But since the car weighs only 2,200 pounds, it can keep up with modern traffic. For those who want more power, MG introduced the model C with a 3.0-liter six cylinder and 145 HP.

They also offered the MG B GT with a 3.5-liter V8 engine available only in coupe form. The best thing about the MG B is it is a simple car to maintain and they still produce all the relevant parts today. MG produced over 400,000 MGs, selling most of the cars in the U.S., so finding one shouldn’t be a problem.

  1. Jensen Interceptor FF

One of the best British Gran Turismo cars ever they ever built was the Jensen Interceptor. It was massive and came with Italian styling by Vignale. This comfortable care had a powerful Chrysler 383 or 440 V8 engine in the front. This four-seater coupe was one of the fastest, most comfortable cars for crossing continents in the late 60’s and early 70’s.

All Interceptors featured Chrysler engines, and the most influential version was the Interceptor FF. The latter part of the name comes from Ferguson Formula. This meant the FF had all-wheel drive and an early form of ABS brakes. In 1966, this was space age technology. Jensen sourced the power from a 383 V8, although there were coupe prototypes with a 426 Hemi.

The Interceptor FF was expensive, so Jensen only managed to sell 320 of them. However, regular Interceptors in coupe and convertible form were much more successful. They made over 6,400 of them until 1976, selling many in America.

  1. McLaren F1

It is hard to comprehend, but they never officially imported the legendary McLaren F1 to America. There are a few examples here, but they are basically sculptures with no license plates. There is a lot of information about the F1, like the way they designed and produced it. Some car historians say the McLaren F1 changed the world of supercars forever.

McLaren introduced the F1 in 1992 and it stayed in production until 1998. During that period, McLaren produced 106 cars, including the GT-R versions, which were highly successful racing models. The F1 featured a bespoke 6.1-liter V12 engine by BMW Motorsport, delivering 627 HP. It also had a six-speed manual transmission.

The road versions of the F1 had an interesting, three-seat configuration with the driver’s seat in the middle of the cabin. They positioned the steering wheel in the center of the dash. The initial testing, racing success and overall excellence of the F1 made it one of best supercars of all time. The price of the F1 was around a million dollars when new, but perfect examples trade hands for 10 to 15 times as much right now.

  1. Land Rover Defender

Many car enthusiasts write off British cars as quirky, rust prone and problematic, and some of them are like that. But there are several examples where British cars are durable, dependable and legendary. One of those machines is the epic Land Rover Defender. Beginning in 1948, Land Rover built simple, but effective off-road vehicles. Along with the Jeep Willys, it was the pioneer of the segment.

Land Rover built the Defender out of necessity and the need for a capable vehicle for military and civilian purposes. Soon, Land Rover started exporting these cars all over the world, so millions of buyers discovered them. The Defender had a tough chassis and permanent, capable all-wheel drive. It provided decent power and had an all-alloy body, making it light and extremely capable on rough terrain.

They stopped production of the Defender in 2016 after 68 years. Over time, they changed the design and the names, but Land Rover never changed their original concept and character. You may be amazed to find out over 70 percent of all the Land Rovers they built are still on the roads all over the planet. This fact says a lot about the quality of British cars.

  1. Jaguar XJ220

The story of the XJ220 is a strange one. Jaguar conceived it in the late 80’s as their first road-going supercar. At first, it looked quite promising. The concept car and the first prototypes had Jaguar’s V12 engine they tuned to produce a high output. However, halfway through development, Jaguar decided to install a new 3.5-liter twin turbo V6 unit with 542 HP. The design of the car was fantastic with flowing lines and a wide stance emphasizing its performance and speed.

When Jaguar released the XJ220, it was the world’s fastest road-friendly model with an enormous price. Despite the hype and wealthy customers waiting to buy this model, several delays in production and the lack of a V12 affected the market. Eventually, Jaguar built less than 300 of them. They called it the XJ220 since it could top 220 mph. However, they never officially sold it in the U.S.

  1. Aston Martin DB5

The British always knew how to build a gorgeous Gran Turismo sports car. All through history, there were numerous Bentleys, Jaguars, Jensens and Aston Martins that captured people’s imaginations. They seduced generations of car enthusiasts with their sculpted lines and powerful engines. The epitome of the British GT must be the fantastic, everlasting Aston Martin DB5.

They released the DB5 in 1963 and the famed Italian Carozzeria Touring company designed it. The heart of the car was a 4.0-liter straight six engine with 282 to 315 HP, depending on the trim and model. Aston Martin offered the DB5 as a coupe or gorgeous convertible. Despite being powerful by the standards of the day, the DB5 was more of a luxury cruiser than a sports car. The acceleration figures from 0 to 60 mph was just eight seconds.

The DB5 was quite popular, so Aston made over 1,000 until 1965. They considered this to be a big success for a small boutique manufacturer. But this car is most famous for being James Bond’s car of choice, appearing in several Bond movies. Although some people say it was an early case of product placement, others say it was a match made in heaven.

  1. Range Rover

The Land Rover Defender was the definitive off-road vehicle. But, the Range Rover took the concept and improved it far beyond what anybody could have imagined. They introduced it in 1970. And most car historians agree the Range Rover launched the modern SUV class. It came with a unique blend of off-road capabilities, an elegant design and luxury appointments.

After this model, other car manufacturers decided to try to sell comfortable off-road vehicles. And that is how the SUV craze swept through the industry. The Range Rover was the answer to customers who needed a capable car but not the Spartan off-roader like the Defender. The company didn’t expect much in 1970, but sales were encouraging, so Range Rover invested in the concept.

During the 80’s and early 90’s, the original Range Rover was the bestselling vehicle in its class and a legend of the industry.

  1. Ford Escort RS Cosworth

Ford UK was always an economy car maker. But every once a while, they would introduce fantastic cars that could beat costlier models, becoming instant classics. The Ford Escort was an active model, delivering an affordable performance. From the legendary RS 1600 Mk1 to the Escort RS Turbo of the mid-80’s, it was a competitive yet obtainable choice.

However, the best Escort RS was the 1992 to 1996 RS Cosworth model. Ford built it using Sierra RS Cosworth bits. Although this Escort was smaller, it featured an improved 2.0-liter turbocharged engine with 227 HP. The exterior meant business with flared wheel arches, a hood with cooling vents and a massive and easily adjustable rear wing.

One of the main features was the rally proven all-wheel-drive system. This proved necessary since the car developed over 230 lb-ft of torque. The Escort RS Cosworth was fast with a 5.8 second 0 to 60 mph time, beating most sports cars of the day. Too bad it was somewhat expensive for a hot hatch, so Ford decided to make it a limited model.

  1. Austin Mini

American car enthusiasts know the Mini for its 21st-century modern iteration by BMW after the German brand bought Rover in the 90’s. But the story of the Mini dates to 1959. Many car fans and historian consider the original Mini, which they introduced in 1959 and sold until 2000 as the most important British car. It is also one of the most important cars of the 20th century.

Although the British car industry is full of expensive and limited production models, the Mini proved to be their most influential, timeless car. The reason for such praise lies in fact that the Mini is a technological marvel and immensely capable little car. It has motorized Great Britain and influenced every car maker since.

When they first introduced the Mini in the late 50’s, it featured the unusual concept of a transversely mounted engine with front-wheel drive. This was something nobody had in those days. Fast forward 60 years and all front-wheel-drive compact cars in the world have the same layout as the Mini. The Mini was also the champion of usability since it looked tiny from the outside but could sit five people on the inside.

Even though it had delivered 34 HP from the factory, this little car won some of the world’s most prestigious races like the Rally Monte Carlo. This was due to its small weight, front wheel drive agility and precise handling.

  1. Jaguar E-Type

The last car on this list is probably the most famous British sports car of all times. It is a design and engineering icon that has graced the roads since 1961 yet it still looks attractive as ever. It is a sharp handling, straight six roaring, two-seater coupe or roadster with a long nose and curved rear end. Simply, it is the E-Type.

Jaguar introduced the E-Type in 1961 and it created a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Thanks to Jaguar’s long-lasting tradition of building fine sports cars, the E-Type was years ahead of its time. It came with a superb design, four-wheel disk brakes, independent rear suspension and powerful straight six engines. Jaguar derived it from the Le Mans-winning C and D Type racers. The E-Type was as fast as any Ferrari or Maserati at that time.

But the best thing was the price. The E Type had the looks, power and performance of those high-priced Italian exotics, but it cost just a fraction of the price. It stayed in production for 15 years until 1976 selling 74,000 of them in the U.S. Today, Jaguar offers the F-Type sports coupe, a modern-day interpretation of the classic E Type design form. It is a modern car that captures the essence of this legendary brand.

  1. AC Ace

You have probably heard about the Shelby Cobra 289, but have you ever heard about the AC Ace? If it wasn’t for this cool-looking British roadster, the Shelby Cobra would have never existed in the first place.

They introduced the Ace in 1953 and produced it until 1962. The AC Ace was a modern power roadster with a sleek design and a powerful 2.8-liter six cylinder. Although MG and Triumph dominated the roadster market in the ’50s, the AC Ace was a better, more powerful car that helped establish the legend of the Shelby Cobra.

  1. Bentley Continental GT

Bentley was on its knees when Volkswagen bought it in the late ’90s. Despite the legend, Bentleys were outdated cars for outdated customers. But when the company introduced the Continental GT in 2003, the automotive world was stunned.

It had the winning combination of gorgeous looks, fantastic power and an AWD drivetrain. And the retro-futuristic design and uncompromised luxury and prestige was unique to the market. The Continental GT marked the return of British luxury in a big way. It also proved to be a sales hit and the ultimate GT coupe, too.

  1. Jaguar XK 120

After the War, the British car industry was in ruins and in desperate need of a good export product. Jaguar as a luxury car company was particularly affected and needed to sell in the U.S. So, what better way to do it than to make a fantastic sports car to gain the attention of American customers? Jaguar called their new offering the XK 120.

As a quintessential sports car, it one of the fastest models of the decade. Jaguar introduced it in 1948 with a powerful straight six engine and sleek streamlined body. They got the name because the XK 120 could top speeds of 120 mph. The rest is automotive history. Not only did this Jaguar sell well, it also inspired the production of the E Type.

  1. Lotus Esprit

As one of James Bond`s favorite cars, the Lotus Esprit has a special spot in most car enthusiast’s hearts. Lotus introduced it in the early ’70s and sold the Esprit until the mid-90s. The Lotus Esprit was a competent sports car although it had a smaller engine. However, it weighed less compared to the rest of their models.

With Giugiaro styling, a wedge shape and compact dimensions, the Esprit was a fast, nimble car. However, car critics attacked it for build quality and its tiny interior. But car buyers loved it for its handling and performance. The prices are still somewhat affordable, so hurry and snatch this piece or British motor heritage before the prices go north.

  1. Ford Escort Mk1

Although the British car industry is famous for its luxury and sports cars, the truth is, their economy models are interesting and unique. And this is the case with the Escort Mk1. It’s a mass-produced economy car that became one of Ford’s global bestsellers. But it was also a fantastically successful motorsport legend. Ford introduced the Escort Mk1 in 1968.

It was a compact, rear-wheel drive saloon aimed at family buyers. The basic version used those forgettable 1.1 and 1.3-liter engines. But for those who wanted more, Ford offered the hot 1600 RS and RS 2000 models. Those cars had special suspensions and engines, delivering a lot of power. Also, the small weight made them capable of defeating those more expensive cars and racing monsters.

  1. Caterham/Lotus 7

Lotus started as a kit car company operating from a shed. They used components from mass-produced cars. However, they covered them with unique bodies to create special cars that appealed to wide audiences. But everything started with the legendary Lotus 7, which they first presented it in 1957.

The Lotus 7 was a bare bones sports car with a small four-cylinder engine in the front, two seats and nothing more. But it was the purest form of driving legally possible. Over the years, the technology advanced and the cars got faster and more powerful. However, the basic idea stayed the same.

  1. Triumph Stag

Triumph presented the Stag in 1970 and produced it until 1978. The market was impressed by the new model with its cool styling and open top driving. Yet it was still enough room for four adults and their luggage. The Stag came with a 3.0-liter V8 engine delivering 145 HP, which was enough for a decent performance.

With its muscular appearance and V8 rumble, the Stag looked like a luxury muscle car, attracting some buyers. Unfortunately, owners soon experienced the Stag`s notorious unreliability, along with its higher price tag. This sealed its chances on the American and global market. When they ceased production in 1978, they only built 25,000 of them.

  1. Ford Sierra Cosworth

One of the most legendary British muscle cars is the fantastic Sierra Cosworth, which Ford introduced in 1985. The Ford Sierra was an ordinary family sedan they produced in numerous versions. The car featured rear-wheel drive and an independent rear suspension.

But when Ford decided to contract the Cosworth tuning house for a performance model, a legend was born. Cosworth took a three-door body and added a special body kit with spoilers.

Then they added unique wheels and colors. Under the hood was a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine that produced 225 HP. And it propelled the car to 60 mph in just 6.5 seconds. For 1985, those were fantastic numbers. The Sierra Cosworth became one of the hottest British cars on the road. Also, it was successful on the tracks, winning many races.

  1. Triumph GT 6

The GT6 project started in mid-60s when Triumph realized they needed a coupe version of their popular roadster. However, just putting the roof on the Spitfire wouldn’t do the trick. They needed to extensively reengineer the car. Also, they needed a more powerful engine in for the chassis to cope with the added weight of the coupe body style.

So, the Triumph engineers installed a 2.0-liter six-cylinder engine with 106 HP. That provided the GT6 with more power and performance than the similar Spitfire. They officially presented the GT6 in 1966 and discontinued it in 1973 after they built around 45,000 of them. The GT6 was never as popular as the Spitfire, but it was a cool-looking alternative to the other sport coupes on the market.

  1. Ford Capri

Designed in UK, the Capri was like a European Ford Mustang in every way. Using the long hood-short-deck formula and semi-fastback styling gave the Capri a fantastic stance. Despite being based on the standard Cortina floorplan with the same engines, the Capri looked like a thoroughbred sports or muscle car.

In fact, people often confused it with the U.S.-built Ford. This affordable coupe was almost as successful as the Mustang. It sold in millions throughout its 16-year lifespan. They imported the Capri to the U.S. as the Mercury Capri in the mid-70s.

  1. Rolls Royce Silver Shadow

The ultimate British car is, without a doubt, the Rolls Royce. Over the years this company produced some of the best luxury cars the world has ever seen. After the war, Rolls introduced the Silver Cloud, but the market needed something more modern and advanced. So, in 1966, they presented the Silver Shadow.

With the new V8 engine, hydro-pneumatic suspension, modern design and improved road manners, the Silver Shadow was a prestigious four-door sedan. The market was impressed and suddenly the waiting list was over a year long. Rolls also produced an elegant coupe and gorgeous convertible they named the Corniche.

These iconic machines helped form this beginner’s guide to the British car industry. Have you chosen your favorite? Hopefully, you’ll be able to find it on U.S. shores, but if not, you’ll need to cross the pond to Great Britain.

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