British cars. It’s a well worn path from those two words to another one – unreliable. In the 60s and 70s British cars broke down. A lot. Their ability to turn every journey into a destination lottery was just one of the reasons, arguably the main reason, why our car industry contracted at an alarming rate.
Of course British cars themselves were often rubbish, old fashioned, ugly solutions to the simple problem of moving people from a to b. But despite the way they looked we still bought lots of them. We only started buying less of them and more foreign cars when they kept breaking down.
The tawdry reliability of British cars is now little more than a distant memory for many, or for lucky younger people, a rumbling urban legend. But for us here at a Great Escape Cars it is a daily challenge. Keeping old British cars mobile over high mileages, often mileages higher than they did when new, can be a bit of a daily headache. And making these cars reliable is not just desirable – it’s essential, because our customers are hiring our cars for their weddings, major birthdays or other special events. Breakdowns can be, well, stressful.
It doesn’t help that breakdowns have become something that modern drivers simply don’t expect. Modern cars are machines that do their job well. Old cars weren’t designed for that. And aren’t. Car owners of the 60s, 70s and 80s counted themselves lucky if their car reached 100,000 miles. Nowadays many cars achieve that before they hit their first MOT. Put simply, old cars weren’t designed for hard use – and they certainly weren’t built to withstand it.
So it can often seem that when one of our old cars breaks down it must be because we haven’t maintained it properly. While lack of maintenance is a major contributor to old cars failing, I can honestly say that it is not the problem on the thankfully rare occasions when our classic cars fail to proceed.
To swallow my conveniently face-saving claim you need to consider how cars were made in the 1960s and 1970s. Today cars are designed by joined-up management teams and made by advanced automated factories. Back then, nothing could be further from the truth. Factories were automated to a degree but there was still a huge amount of human input. This was a world, after all, where Fiat could launch the 1980s Strada with the catchphrase ‘hand built by robots’ and an expectant world would sit up and listen. Robots y’say? Gosh.
How cars were assembled was not only different, but how they were designed and made was too. In general, the design team created a car, the engineering team engineered it and the factories were told to make it. Similarly, suppliers were told to supply what was ordered. There was little communication between each department. So engineers devised cars without much thought as to how they would be built. Suppliers were told to provide parts without much idea of how they would be used. Cost and cost-reduction were the over-riding priority. Nobody was really bothered about reliability and repairs because that was the dealer’s problem. Or if a part failed it was down to the supplier. While Japanese manufacturers evolved clever ideologies to address these problems, British manufacturers stumbled on as they always had. To pick one example, in 1979 ailing Jaguar invested millions in the launch of the Series 3 XJ saloon, a major revamp of the company’s staple model. Cue much fanfare. Cheque-waving buyers were then a little surprised to discover that they could have their luxury Jag in any colour they liked, as long as it was white, yellow or red because these were the only colours that Jaguar’s new paint plant could confidently apply to the new bodies.
This blinkered approach of course led to a lot of problems. But the situation was compounded by generally poor pre-launch testing. New cars were put on the market before they were ready, leaving customers to discover the faults. In some cases these issues were rectified, in many cases it wasn’t possible because it would have meant costly redesigns. This lackadaisical approach may be hard to understand now, but in the 1950s, 60s and 70s it made perfect sense. British car manufacturers could sell everything they made, so there was little incentive to make them better.
Few British cars of the period escaped the curse of unreliability. The seeds of the problem had been laid in the 40s and 50s with archaic management practices – quality didn’t necessarily deteriorate in the 60s and 70s, but it was thrown into sharper focus by the increasing complexity of modern cars. A XJS was a long way from a Mk2 in terms of electrics and mechanicals. There was more to go wrong, and it did. The XJS suffered electrical gremlins, the TR6 fuel injection system endlessly played up, the Allegro’s windows popped out.
Simply replacing parts doesn’t solve these problems – the issue is about design rather than poor components. Some of the problems suffered by the cars are irritatingly fundamental. The Mk2 has terrible ventilation, it suffers fuel smells due to body design and poor engine-to-cabin design. The Jensen Interceptor overheats and fries its electrical wires due to excess engine heat. Its switchgear is fragile because of the poor quality ‘push push’ buttons. The list goes on. While we can solve these problems time after time, they are very difficult to eradicate. Crucially, they’re not the sort of problems you expect to encounter on a modern car.
Modern cars, in general, tend to work or not work. Electrics and technology rule their lives. Old cars operate in shades of grey: they work well, not very well, better than expected, worse than expected, they misfire, they appear to misfire, the grind and graunch, they smell, they mist up, they’re definitely not tuned correctly, they’re certainly, probably, might be running on one cylinder short of a full engine. The list goes on. Some of these problems are real, some are imaginary and some are they way they always were from the day they left the factory.
I am extremely glad that car makers have finally got their acts together. For one thing it means I can buy a 15 year old Alfa and be fairly confident of getting from A to B on a regular basis. Modern cars are brilliant, albeit perhaps just a little banal and anonymous in their sheer excellence.
As the searching torch of progress shines ever forward it also casts a longer shadow over the cars of the past. Cars made 30 or more years ago are from a different country, one where breakdowns, failures, malfunctions, niggling squeaks, misty windows and useless heaters were part of life’s rich tapestry. Sure, nobody relished them, but it was all there was. We’ll always hire cars in the best condition we can. But if you’re out in an E Type and your shoes gets wet in an unseasonable rainstorm, the man to blame worked at Browns Lane in 1969, not in Worcestershire in 2015.
We are the only specialist classic car hire company with its own workshop facilities and staff. We invest at least 35% of every hire in maintenance. To find out more visit http://www.greatescapecars.co.uk or call 01527 893733. We fix our own cars and, if you own a classic, we can fix yours too.