There’s a new classic car show coming to London this autumn – and to help launch it with a bang, organisers are running a big poll to answer classic car fans’ ultimate question: which is the best British car ever?
After polling 100 experts including people such as Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason, McLaren F1 designer Gordon Murray and renowned classic car writer Simon Taylor, organisers of Classic & Sports Car – The London Show now have a shortlist of 10 cars.
Now it’s the turn of classic car enthusiasts to vote on which one deserves the overall title – with the winner to be revealed at the opening ceremony for the new show, which will be held at London’s Alexandra Palace from 30 October to 1 November.
Voting is now underway online, and will run until 1 August – and everyone who votes is in with a chance of winning one of 25 pairs of tickets to the show.
But which cars are in the running for the title of best British car ever? Here, we run down the shortlist… is there one here that gets your vote?
1: Austin Seven
The Austin Seven is known as the British Ford Model T: it helped get Brits off motorcycles and bantamweight cyclecars, and behind the wheel of a proper car.
Designed to be a low-cost, high-volume, four-seat, four-cylinder motor car, it was transformative both in Britain and across the world: even the very first BMW passenger car, the Dixi, was actually an Austin Seven built under licence.
The very first McLaren racing car and the first Lotus, the Mk1, were also rebodied Austin Sevens.
Built between 1922-1939, 290,000 examples were built. By modern standards, this doesn’t sound a lot, but back in the 1920s, when cars were rare, it was a huge number.
Its affordability was key and it helped transform both the British motor industry and the Austin car company. Its success led directly to cars such as the Austin Mini. It’s easy to overlook its impact today but the British car industry wouldn’t be as big as it now is if it weren’t for the Austin Seven.
2: Bentley Speed Six
The Speed Six is Bentley’s most successful race car: it won the Le Mans 24 Hours in both 1929 and 1930. Powered by a monster 6.6-litre six-cylinder engine, it produced 180hp and was also sold in road car guise; around 180 were built.
This was akin to putting one of today’s high-tech Le Mans racers on the road, and the level of performance was similarly immense compared to most other cars on sale. Indeed, this is what led Bentley chairman Woolf Banarto, three-time winner of Le Mans, to make a bet that would seal the Speed Six’s place in history.
In Cannes, France, he bet £100 that he could reach his London club before the famous French ‘Blue Train’ reached Calais. With minutes to spare, he won the bet, and legend status for the Speed Six was ensured.
3: Ford GT40
The Ford GT40 racer may have been formulated and sold by an American company determined to beat Ferrari at the Le Mans 24 Hours, but the car itself was all-British, being both designed and built in Slough, England.
The GT40 won the race it was created to triumph at four times, and three of the cars were all-British creations. A Brit, Ken Miles, even co-drove it to its first race victory in 1965.
Created by Lola Cars, the GT40 was far from an instant success, but developed into a tremendously successful racing car. It also won the forerunner of the FIA World Sportscar Championship four times, and overall achieved a level of domination that did exactly what it was created to do – beat Ferrari…
Today, the shape is iconic, from its low 40-inch height to those squat, oh-so muscular proportions. Again, even non-car buffs recognise it; this really is the Ford that’s as iconic as any Ferrari, too.
4: Jaguar E-type
THE icon of the swinging sixties. A staggering 70,000 E-type were sold between 1961 and 1975; it was the everyday supercar of its day – the Porsche 911 of the 60s, but probably even more affordable.
This relative accessibility was a big part of the E-type’s allure, but not the biggest: it styling saw to that. With a yards-long bonnet and set-back cabin, the shape is an unquestionable classic and even those with zero interest in cars know exactly what it is when they see it.
It even has a dash of suave notoriety: Jaguar claimed a breathtaking 150mph top speed and, even if it customers’ cars generally didn’t quite manage to reach this, many of them happily cruised on Britain’s new motorways at 100mph-plus. Indeed, the E-type was part of the reason a 70mph speed limit was imposed…
It’s won umpteen ‘world’s most beautiful cars’ and ‘world’s greatest sports cars’ over the years, but is it Britain’s best classic car of all? This autumn, we’ll find out…
5: Jaguar XKSS
Could this be Jaguar’s most beautiful car of all? Even for a company that gave us the E-type and one-off XJ13, the XKSS stands out as being simply adorable.
It was, essentially, a road-going conversion of the D-type racing car. Just 25 were built, but a big fire at the Browns Lane factory in 1957 destroyed nine of them. Most of the 16 remaining cars were sold in the U.S.; famous owners include Steve McQueen.
With a race-proven XK straight six engine, performance was ample and the race-honed chassis meant handling was sublime. It’s a true rarity is not as widely known as the famous E-type – but those in the know generally rate the XKSS as their favourite Jaguar.
But will it be the voters’ favourite too?
6: Lotus Seven
The epitome of Lotus founder Colin Chapman’s mantra of light weight and simplicity, the Lotus Seven was such a terrific driver’s car, canny Lotus specialist Caterham spotted an opportunity when the 15-year production run came to an end in 1972: the fact you can still buy it today shows how spot-on Chapman’s highly successful car was.
Originally, it was so light, Lotus fitted a tiny 40hp 1.2-litre Ford side-valve engine – but even with this engine, it proved to be an able racing car in the clubman scene.
More power came with subsequent versions – sadly, by the final S4 cars, so too did ugly looks. Caterham wisely reverted back to the classic Lotus design and the rest is history.
It’s a rare classic car that is also seen in a modern context; the fact even period Lotus Sevens still drive so brilliantly shows what a great car it is.
7: McLaren F1
The McLaren F1 was designed to be the best car in the world, full stop. Despite being created back in 1992, for some people, it still is the world’s ultimate supercar.
It can still teach contemporary hypercars a thing or two: models such as the LaFerrari and McLaren P1 need complex hybrid powertrains to achieve their incredible performance. The McLaren F1 did it all with a non-turbo BMW-designed 6.0-litre V12 engine.
And what an engine. Producing 627hp, it could accelerate from 0-62mph in 3.2 seconds – with a manual gearbox and no launch control, remember – before going on to a top speed of 240mph. It was the world’s fastest car for years: racing driver Mario Andretti reckons that with a taller seventh gear, it could go even faster…
Created by ace McLaren F1 designer Gordon Murray while waiting for a flight from the 1988 Italian Grand Prix, it had the world’s first carbon fibre chassis and titanium, magnesium, kevlar and even gold were used in the build process.
But the most distinctive aspect of the McLaren F1 remains its unique three-seat layout, with the driver in the middle, just like in a racing car. Creating a three-seat car like this had been a dream of Murray since childhood: although only 106 McLaren F1s were built over a six-year period, it’s still a dream car for many.
We all know the story: launched in 1959 as an answer to “those damned bubble cars”, initially a slow-burner, later a 1960s icon, even later a small car that simply ran and ran. The last one wasn’t made until 2000; throughout its life more than 5.3 million Minis were built, all looking almost identical to the original one.
It’s the archetypal cult British classic car that’s as well loved today as it was during its 1960s heyday. It’s as cool now as it was back then as well – probably more so now, in fact, as newer generations discover the two-door four-seat city car.
A marvel of packaging, the cute little Mini is also, crucially, brilliant to drive. All those Cooper versions and Monte Carlo wins didn’t happen by chance. It means the Mini remains almost as relevant today as it did half a century ago. You’ll certainly struggle to find an everyday classic car that’s more fun to drive.
Not a single person would fail to understand why you brought one as a classic, either: this, for us, is the clincher in why it could become Britain’s favourite classic car.
9: Range Rover
For years, Land Rover was a one-car company selling the utilitarian 4×4 that, in Defender form, you can still buy today (get it while you can, though – production finally ends this year).
Canny chief engineer at the Solihull company, Spen King, spotted an opportunity, though – create a more luxurious V8-engined machine for estate owners to drive across their land alongside the rugged Land Rovers of their groundsmen. The idea of the Range Rover was born.
At one time, you could get it with vinyl seats and flooring that could be cleaned with a hosepipe. Customers quickly had the better idea though – make it even plusher and even more luxurious: today, you can buy a Range Rover that’s almost as posh (and almost as expensive) as a Rolls-Royce.
They’re wonderful cars, but the clean elegance of the original still takes some beating. It’s rightly a shining light in a dark period for British Leyland, looking as appealing even today as it did back then. No wonder prices in classic car circles are climbing so quickly…
10: Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost
The Silver Ghost was truly a car ahead of its time. Sold between 1906-1926, its superiority over anything else on sale in any country led British motoring magazine Autocar to dub it “the best car in the world”. The term stuck: because it was.
Powered by a 7-litre straight-six engine (later a 7.4-litre motor), the Ghost could produce a dizzying 80hp but of more importance was the fact it was so quiet. Indeed, it was originally called Rolls-Royce 40/50hp: the fact the company’s silver demonstrator car was ‘as quiet as a ghost’ saw the name stick.
Epic reliability saw it become a household name. It not only easily mastered the 1907 Scottish reliability trials, but it also then completed a 15,000-mile drive that saw it travel between London and Glasgow a full 27 times.
A total of 7,874 cars were built – so well, most of them remain in existence today. One of them is insured for $35 million and is thus a contender for the world’s most valuable car. No wonder it’s a legend.