Auto Makers: UK (Part 3A)

When you think about car makers the US, UK, Germany, Italy, & Japan are the big names that come to mind. Of course the actual manufacturing is done all over the world no matter what parent company name goes on the final product or where it is ultimately sold.

It’s also true that a ton of cars are made by manufacturers in countries other than the big 5 listed above. Many are even sold in large markets like the US but some of them are not sold outside their own borders. This series starts with the big auto countries but it won’t stop until we’ve covered every country that makes a car for sale to the public.

Big Names in British Vehicles

Aston Martin

Almost an iconically associated with Great Britain (and alphabetically first), the Aston Martin brand is as British as James Bond. It’s a good connection for the UK to draw as Aston Martin makes only luxury and sports cars and Grand Tourers. But does reality bare up to the hype? There is one way the British people are different than the car. They are less fragile. Aston Martins look fantastic, ride like a dream, and have all those cool design touches you’d want in a luxury vehicle…but they aren’t as reliable as the stalwart British citizens who sipped tea in bunkers during German air raids.

Aston was founded in 1913, and is now owned by a consortium of investors, (like Prestige Motor Holdings, Asmar, Primewagon, Adeem Investments, Daimler, and a number of minor shareholders. For about 20 years, starting in 1987, Ford owned Aston Martin. They manufacture in in GaydonWarwickshire, as does everyone apparently, but they have another facility in Wales.

Cars range from famous old grand tourer DB9, to their smallest sports car, Vantage, to the stylish Vantage Roadster, the four-door Rapide S, the One-77-inspired Vanquish, the Vulcan, and DB11. (That last one sounds like a star wars robot doesn’t it. We’ll include a pic so you believe us. )

Aston currently has a lucrative partnership with Mercedes Benz and is traded on the London Stock Exchange. In August 2017, a 1956 Aston Martin DBR1/1 previously driven by both Carol Shelby and  Stirling Moss became the most expensive British car ever sold at auction, bringing in $22,550,000 US.  

Bentley

Bentley make luxury motorcars with an impressive Grand Touring history (winning 24 Hours of Le Mans six times between  1924 to 2003. These cars are hand-built, and are sold via franchised dealers around the world.

 W. O. Bentley created Bentley Motors Limited in 1919, in 1998 it became a subsidiary of the Volkswagen Group. It’s current line include the Flying SpurContinental GTBentayga and the Mulsanne. Worthy of note is that WWII and the American Stock Market Crash of 1929 were hard to weather for a luxury car maker. They went into making planes, got bought by Rolls Royce, who went into receivership and was parted out to VW who currently owns Bentley. However, that’s an extremely abbreviated version of the history of this company that’s been traded around and restructured seemingly more often than not. How they managed to produce consistently great cars through that turbulence is remarkable.

Bentley was noted for its four consecutive victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, from 1927 to 1930.

Jaguar

Officially Jaguar began in September, 1935, but they are a bit older. Starting in 1922 as a maker of motorcycle sidecars (Swallow Sidecar Company), they expanded to full cars by joining forces with Standard Motor Co. The name changed to Jaguar Cars in 1945. Merged in 1966, and again in 1968, became nationalized in 1975 and then was spun off in 1984. Then like so many British car companies it was acquired by Ford in the 1990’s.

Who owns Jaguar now? That takes a bit of digging. Ford also bought Land Rover (2000) and in 2008 Ford sold both Jaguar and Land Rover to Tata Motors. The merging of manufacturing was complete by 2013 and Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) was formed. Together they are a subsidiary of Tata Motors, an Indian maker of cars, truck and vans (and more recently EV’s) headquartered in Mumbai, India.

Jaguar manufactures all over the place though their headquarters remained in the UK, (Whitney, Coventry, England) and most of their executives managed to keep most of their positions.

Worthy of note: The S.S. was dropped and the Jaguar was picked up in 1945 leading us to wonder if SS was an unpopular thing to have in your name right at the end of WWII. Also noteworthy was Jag’s wins at La Mons, 1951, 53, & 55-57.

Jaguar made its name by producing a series of successful eye-catching sports cars and currently makes popular models like  F-type and F-type Coupe, Jaguar XE, Jaguar XF, stylish grand tourer XK, and futuristic looking saloon (sedan) Jaguar XJ.

Do they or have they made anything besides luxury sports cars. Yes, they’ve made Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance (Tracked), the Fox armoured reconnaissance vehicle, and the Ferret Scout Car for the British Army.

Land Rover

Land Rover is mainly known for four-wheel driveoff-road capable vehicles, which is a bit ironic as the company has a history marked by ups and downs with frequent periods of challenge. Challenges include things like economic downturns in the market, fuel crises, reliability problems and multiple changes in ownership.

original vehicle was started in 1947 by Maurice Wilks, and his brother Spencer on their farm. While the American Jeep is clearly an inspiration for the vehicle, Land Rover has done some remarkable things with aesthetics to set themselves apart. What began as a rugged and simple utilitarian vehicle with light green paint (military surplus), has become a luxury off-road vehicle that caused “Top Gear” to refer to as “the maker of the world’s best 4×4”.

King George VI granted Land Rover a Royal Warrant in 1951, and in 2001 it received a Queen’s Award for Enterprise for outstanding contribution to international trade. Still for most Americans the vehicles are expensive to buy and expensive to fix–which you may need to do several times a year. The American Jeep and the Japanese versions of Jeeps like the Toyota Land Cruiser are formidable competitors at juicy American market. Still Jaguar Land Rover intends to spend $180 million on a research and development center in Coventry where engineers will be designing the future of 4×4 off road.

Lotus

Founded in 1948 by Colin Chapman, Lotus Cars Limited is best known for making light weight  sports cars and racing cars with exceptional handling. Well, Lotus Engineering Ltd. formally came about in 1952 but Chapman, who would continue to own Lotus for many years, officially started tinkering with custom race cars in back in ’48.

Noteworthy: Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman is the inspiration behind the four initials in the Lotus Logo seen here.

Lotus became active in Formula One racing in 1958 and spun off a racing division. While Lotus stayed in F1 until 1994 their formal racing division was gone by 1971. In the late 60’s and early 70’s Lotus sold exclusively as a kit car, but slowly switched over to factory built models. One of the most popular of which, the Lotus 7, can still be purchased though now it will be built by Caterham Cars (still made in England).

The hallmark of Lotus is complete fiberglass monocoque fitted with built-in steel pickup points, backbone chassis, and overhead camshaft engines. Of course when they began to collaborate with Ford, the overhead cam from Coventry Climax but was replaced by Lotus head and twin cam valve gear. In the 1980s, Lotus collaborated with Vauxhall Motors to produce the Lotus Carlton, Vauxhall’s fastest street legal car.

A monocoque is a shell around the car made by using both chassis as the frame in a single construction.

GoMechanic.com

McLaren

Fasten your seat belts for this one because McLaren is a car story with more twists than a formula 1 racetrack. The short story is that McLaren makes supercars that are priced a little less ridiculously than most supercars, makes them in Woking, England, and formally began doing so in 1985. At 36 that makes it one of the youngsters in the game, but that’s where things get confusing.

For one thing Founder Bruce McLaren, formerly of Aukland New Zealand, died in a car accident in 1970. Bruce grew up working at his parents service station where he became something of a savant with cars. He started racing at age 15 when he won a local hill climb.

Bruce moved to England in 1958 and started racing Formula 1, becoming the first US Grand Prix at age 22 (the youngest winner ever). His impressive driving career racked up many wins including three more Grand Prixs and a La Mons in 1966 (that time with Ford.)

Obviously F1 hinges on cutting edge tech as driving skill and strategy. McLaren the company grew by pioneering technology. 10 years after Bruce’s tragic death, his company joined forces with Ron Dennis Project four racing team and the match skyrocketed their success. By 1985 McLaren Cars was born but it’s not accurate to call it a start up since they had teams of engineers and access to patent technology–they were hardly starting from scratch.

In 1988 the company spun off their car company to allow investment in the development of a new car named the F1, which they produced in 1992. That company went dormant from 1994 to 2010 when it reformed as McLaren Automotive. Then in 2017 Ron Dennis sold his shares in the company to the McLaren Group allowing the company to be absorbed back into the fold.

The current product structure began in 2015, dividing into three series–Sports, Super, and Ultimate. For the Ultimate Series they offered the P1 & P1 GTR (though they added and relaunched these more recently). For the Sports and Super Series, rather than giving some fancy marketing name to their cars they stick to a naming convention. They begin with the power output in PS, then a letter for the model type. So current models include cars like the 570S (for sport), 540C (for Club), and 600LT (for Long Tail). Its a cool idea, though an American consumer might prefer horse power to PS.

The naming thing goes out the window a little with their use of Spider as an edition type. So you can get a 570S Spider. Like the one in the picture.

PS or PferdStarke is the metric measure of horsepower. It is the equivalent of 98.6% of one HP.

thejcbgroup.co.uk

MINI

Not surprisingly, Mini is famous for small cars, predominately made in England and Holland. We’d like to say that it was founded in 1959 because that’s when the name started popping up on things like the Austin Mini and the Morris Mini, but as a Marque Mini began in 1969.

The original Mini was a line of British small cars manufactured by the British Motor Corporation (BMC) which through a series of mergers and acquisitions (literally 5), ended up in the possession of British Aerospace. During that time they produced models included the Morris Mini-Minor and the Austin Seven, the CountrymanMoke, 1275GT and Clubman, as well as a performance line named Mini Coopers (a nod to Racing Legend John Cooper).

Their final acquisition happened when BMW bought Rover Group in 1994 and spun Mini back out into it’s own thing. Mini produced its line up of cars under it’s own name until 2000, then BMW relaunched the brand with a whole new line of cars in 2001: the Hardtop/Hatch/Convertible (three-door hatchback), Clubman (estate or station wagon), Countryman (five-door crossover), Coupe/Roadster and Paceman (three-door crossover).

Mini vehicles have been active in rallying and the Mini Cooper S won the Monte Carlo Rally three times in the 1960’s.

Rolls-Royce

Rolls-Royce has both a logo (RR) and the Spirit of Ecstasy, the winged figure.

Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Limited is a British luxury automobile maker. Rolls-Royce was named after its founders, Sir Henry Royce and Charles Stewart Rolls. However, the current company, subsidiary of BMW AG has no direct relationship to Rolls-Royce-branded vehicles produced prior to 2003.

Bentley Motors Limited (a subsidiary of Volkswagen AG) is the direct successor to Rolls-Royce Motors. In 1998 BMW licensed the rights to the Rolls-Royce brand name and logo. They now produce the Phantom four-door (sedan, coupe and convertible), Ghost four-door saloon, Wraith two-door coupé, Dawn convertible, and the Cullinan SUV. Selling primarily in the US and China.

Rolls-Royce Motors was created in 1973 during the de-merger of the Rolls-Royce automotive business from the nationalized Rolls-Royce Limited, who had been making mostly jet engines. The company was bought by Vickers in 1980 and sold in 1998 to VW.

The story of the split up of Rolls-Royce Bentley goes like this. BMW was supplying the engines as well as other parts for the manufacture of the vehicles. When the company came up for sale BMW was outbid by Volkswagen. This created a difficulty since VW wasn’t prepared to start making their own engines. The two companies agreed to split Rolls-Royce brand and trademark grill off to BMW in exchange for $40 million dollars and continued manufacture of engines until 2003. VW got Bentley and all the manufacturing and headquarters buildings.

Vauxhall

Do we call Vauxhall a major UK car maker? Most Americans have never heard of it. It’s headquartered in Charlton England and Vauxhall has been the second-largest selling car brand in the UK for more than two decades. But it’s been owned by US Car Makre for 92 years and doesn’t seem to design it’s own original car brands anymore.

The Vauxhall story sounds more like one you’d hear about a Japanese Car maker, getting it’s start before the American Civil War as a pump and marine engine maker. It later sold and became Vauxhall Iron works before making its first cars in 1903. In 1925 GM came into the picture which took Vauxhall out of the luxury car game in favor of the mass market.

During the 1980’s it stopped exporting cars entirely and became a local manufacturer of other car brands–at that primarily the German Car Company, Opal. Another example would be cars of the Australian maker, Holden (Commodore and Ute), are also sold in the UK with a Vauxhall code plate (ie VIN)

In 2017 Vauxhall sold to Groupe PSA, and currently sells Vauxhall-branded made in Opel factories in Germany, Spain, and Poland as well as in the UK. Their car makes include the Astra (small family car), Corsa (supermini), Insignia (large family car), Crossland (subcompact crossover SUV), Mokka (subcompact SUV), and Grandland (compact SUV).

That’s it for now. Stay tuned for our next installment Automakers: UK part 3B Lesser known UK car makers.

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