Before we wrap up our automotive journey around the world with the United States, we think it’s important to pay homage to the motherland of our colonies and take a look at the hand made, luxury vehicles of the British automotive industry. Despite the fact that many of the UK’s biggest names have become part of foreign companies, models produced still follow the time tested values of quality craftsmanship above all else. Where Japan is known for reliability, Italy for speed, and Germany for precision, cars from the British automotive industry are known for being crafted to highest standards of elegance and sophistication. What else would you expect from a country that makes official vehicles for both The Queen AND James Bond?
Frederick Simms was a consulting engineer living in London, England at the end of the 19th century. A good friend of Simms, Gottlieb Daimler, had recently been granted a patent for a high speed petrol engine. After the patent was granted in 1895, Simms began to create engines under the UK license of Daimler’s patent, and the early stages of the British automotive industry was born. Early UK vehicles were built with parts sourced from Germany and France, and it wasn’t until 1897 that the first pure British car emerged. Early locomotive laws hindered the growth of the automotive industry. Once these laws were removed, some 200 automakers emerged, eager to produce their own vehicles. Half of these companies did not survive until 1913. The world wars both hindered and helped the British automotive industry. While steel and materials became scarce, post war it meant that the UK could rebound fast, and become the worlds largest automotive exporter. At peak production, the British automotive industry was second only to the United States in terms of manufacturing until roughly 1950. It wasn’t long before Henry Ford created a plant in the UK, putting pressure on automakers like Rover.
The British Automotive Industry – Performance
While cars from the British automotive industry are known for their handcrafted quality, that doesn’t mean they are garage queens that never see a track or some mud. The UK currently produces some of the fastest vehicles on the planet.
Rover – 111 Years Of Taking The Less Beaten Path
As with most modern car makers, Rover got their start making high quality bicycles. In 1904, the company began to produce automobiles. The history of Rover is a shaky one, with the company changing hands many times over its 111 year history. While you aren’t currently able to purchase a Rover vehicle, Rover did manage to release a 4 wheel drive vehicle in 1948 that would change to off-road market forever. Named the Land Rover, this off-road machine was based on the Willys Jeep that had proven itself to be an unstoppable machine during the Second World War. Today, Land Rover has further branched from its original Rover roots to include both Land Rover and Range Rover models. While the Jeep that the original Land Rover was based on is still known for its off road capabilities, the modern Land Rover is widely regarded as being one of the most capable and refined off-road experiences available today. Modern Land Rovers and Range Rovers are also known for their incredible luxury in addition to their capabilities off road. The performance and elegance of these machines does not come cheap, with capable base models starting at $60k ($100k for Range Rovers). After being owned by Ford for quite some time Land Rover was sold to India’s Tata Motors, along with Land Rovers sister company..
Jaguar – The Classic Sports Car
While owned by Ford, Land Rover became associated with the luxury sports car maker known as Jaguar. If you have ever seen a James Bond film, or any luxury sports car for that matter, then you have likely seen a Jaguar. Founded in 1922 as the Swallow Sidecar Company (making motorcycle sidecars, and starting in 1935, passenger vehicles), the SS Company would change its name to Jaguar after World War 2 to avoid using the SS initials. Today, Jaguar is seen as both a performance and a luxury line of cars. While some may consider the Lamborghini Miura to be the most beautiful car ever made, that title is widely believed to be held by the iconic Jaguar E-Type (even the great Enzo Ferrari believed this to be true, and is quoted as saying so). With this history of luxury and performance, it is no surprise that Jaguar holds Royal Warrants (meaning they are officially contracted to produce goods for) for both Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles. Jaguar performance vehicles have appeared in the last 4 James Bond films (including the final Pierce Brosnan and all Daniel Craig films), and a special electric concept version of the Jaguar C-X75 is expected to appear alongside another major player in the British automotive industry, Aston Martin.
Aston Martin – The Not So Secret Agent
It’s impossible not to mention the iconic Aston Martin DB5 when talking about James Bond, and vice-versa. Next to purpose built cars like the Batmobile, the Aston Martin DB5 is easily one of the most recognizable movie cars in the world. Aston Martin was set to start producing vehicles in 1913, but the outbreak of WW1 caused the companies founders, Lionel Martin and Robert Mamford to become preoccupied with serving in the war effort. The name Aston Martin would come from the area where racing and testing was done (Aston Hill) and founder Lionel Martin. Like other members of the British automotive industry, the company changed hands numerous times over the years, but has managed to find a strong foothold in the performance market. Unlike Jaguar and Land Rover (as well as many other companies on this list) Aston Martin remains relatively independent, with investment firms making up its parent companies. The Ford motor company does have an 8% stake in Aston Martin, something that can be seen in more recent grille designs.
McLaren – Hyper cars
The company that defined the modern supercar and continues to push the limits into hypercar territory wasn’t Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche, or anything from North America, it was the UK’s own McLaren. While the company is less than 30 years old, with roots in Formula one racing it managed to cement itself in automotive history with the release of the McLaren F1. The F1 is regarded to this day as THE supercar, being the bar against which all modern supercars are measured. Released in 1992, the F1 had a 0-60 time of just 3 seconds. Today, the successor to the F1 is the McLaren P1, part of the trifecta of modern hypercars (including the Porsche 918 and Ferrari LaFerrari). The P1 has a 0-6 time of 2.7 seconds, and is roughly 400kg lighter than the F1. Unbelievably, the P1 is also a plug-in hybrid.
World Leading Luxury
While the British automotive industry has speed, the handcrafted manufacturing lends itself to luxury. The two most prestigious vehicle manufacturers in the world, Bentley and Rolls-Royce, have their headquarters in the UK.
Bentley – The Real Ghost
When touring another automotive plant, Walter Owen Bentley got the idea to start using aluminium in engine pistons. These pistons were used in aircraft during the First World War. After the war, Bentley Motors became a registered company. With their vehicles, Bentley would go on to win the 24 Hour LeMans race 5 times between 1923 and 1930. In the James Bond novels, the spy is noted as driving the high performance Bentley 4.5 Litre. Bentley currently supplies the state limousine for Queen Elizabeth II, a vehicle that was recently modified to run on Biofuel. Bentley, like Rolls-Royce, is known for creating luxurious sedans. More recently, Bentley has been getting back to their performance roots with concepts like the EXP 10 Speed 6. The luxury and performance of a Bentley is not cheap, with base models starting at the $200K price range. The two major luxury manufactures also go above and beyond to create cars that are exactly what the customer wants. With options like cocktail bars and custom hand carved wood inlays, the price of a Bentley can quickly rise. When Bentley fell on hard times in 1931, Rolls-Royce purchased the company for fear of competing with them. Today, Bentley is a member of the Volkswagen Auto Group.
Rolls-Royce – The Luxury King
It takes over 60 people to hand produce each Rolls-Royce Phantom, the companies top of the line luxury sedan. In 1904, a partnership between Henry Royce and Charles Rolls resulted in the Rolls Royce 10, A 10 horsepower vehicle. The numeric nomenclature was abandoned in 1925 with the introduction of the Rolls-Royce Phantom. The Chassis for this vehicle was used for British armoured cars during both world wars (the chassis existed prior to being badged the Phantom). Until 1947, Rolls-Royce wouldn’t sell you a complete car. Rolls-Royce would produce the chassis, and would leave the body to coach builders (the vehicle coach building industry still exists to this day, and is a way to make expensive cars EVEN MORE expensive). You can still buy chassis only options from Rolls-Royce. Today, Rolls-Royce is known as the world leader in luxury. A new Rolls-Royce Phantom will set you back roughly $400k, but features any option imaginable thanks to Rolls-Royce bespoke program, which custom makes each model to specific orders (want tiny LED lights to mimic starlight in your Phantoms roof? for $12,000 you can have it). Today, Rolls-Royce is owned by BMW.
A Royal Heritage
While that covers the performance based and ultra luxurious models coming out of the UK, there are still plenty of other options to choose from. Companies like Lotus, Caterham, and Mini all very small, very light vehicles designed to have high power to weight ratios. Mini has more lately fallen under German engineering, having been bought and revived thanks to BMW over the last 21 years.
With vehicles from the British automotive industry, there is simply no compromise in quality or performance. There no shortage of debate as to which country produces the best cars, but with dominating luxury and performance, the UK makes a very strong case.
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