In the 1960s, with British culture ruling the airwaves, British car makers were overwhelmingly focused on selling cars overseas. Particularly to America. Back then America was finding its post-war feet and, in common with other new-ish countries throughout history, was borrowingly heavily from established cultures to fill its own culture vacuum. In particular, British culture.
Of course, this magpie approach to British music, fashion, politics and of course cars wouldn’t last. How could it. Eventually America would do everything it’s own way, and in time encourage most of the world to do likewise. But for a short period in the 50s and 60s, America couldn’t get enough of British stuff and that included its cars.
America mostly wanted our open top cars, so we sent it E Types, TRs, MGs and Austin Healeys, a diverse mix of small starter cars and big-engined grown up cars. Such was the demand for anything British that smaller, more bespoke companies got in on the act too – Jensen and AC being principle among them.
Americans lapped up our convertible cars – a surprising 80% of E Types went to the USA (over half of them convertibles). In return Britain got much-needed export dollars. The first cars we sent over were more British than American in their style and specification but this gradually changed as American consumers became more discerning and the competition hotted up.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the evolution of two cars on the Great Escape fleet – the AC Ace and the E Type. As American tastes changed Detroit switched from big lazy tourers to more compact, sports-focused cars like the Mustang and Corvette, cars that combined performance with comfort and long-legged interstate cruising appeal. Hardly the territory of the early Austin Healey or E Type. In return Jaguar made the E Type more luxurious and more powerful, Austin Healey did the same and AC went bonkers, creating the Cobra with the help of Carol Shelby, a man whose lady’s name belied his obsession with horsepower.
The British motoring vanguard reached its apotheosis in the mid-60s with the 4.2 E Type and AC Cobra, two brilliant, scintillatingly quick cars that combined the best of British desires with the best of America’s. We wanted svelte and stylish, America wanted fast and brutal. In the Cobra and E Type AC and Jaguar gave both nations what they wanted. Shelby’s transformation of the Ace to the Cobra almost embodies the culture change afoot – from Britain dictating American culture to being driven by it. Instead of selling America what we had, we started to give them what they began to realise they really wanted.
This change is not only evident in the Ace’s evolution but also that of the E Type and the Triumph sports car range. The E Type and eventually the XJS reflect this export or die approach to America, increasingly luxurious and softened models that aimed to compete with Detroit for the Yankee dollar. It is a testament to Jaguar’s skills that it managed to evolve the E Type to appeal to UK and USA buyers by flaring the arches and dropping in a V12. Triumph responded with the V8 Stag and big-engined TR6. But it was a battle they could never win. America in the 1970s was carving out its own culture and while it still kept a weather eye on what was happening in Britain, the Limies were dictating culture less and less. In fact, amongst the old-tech motoring duds churned out by Detroit there were a few sporting golds, in particular the Stingray Corvette. The shark-nosed ‘vette showed Britain what Americans really wanted in a sports car – big, stylish, simple and long-legged. The Corvette, despite its size, was really very, very good, an American bid for the sales pitch vacated by the E Type. And it was fixed head. Historians may argue that the proposed legislation to ban open top cars killed British interests in America but the game was up long before that. By the early 70s the cars we were selling there were expensive and compromised evolutions of 1960s models.
Ironically American culture was increasingly dictating what we did here. While we lapped up their burgers and TV we were less enamoured by their four-wheeled ventures. Instead of dictating and driving American culture we were following it and by the 1970s our car makers didn’t understand it. Which is hardly surprisingly really because what Americans appeared to want was American cars massive land ships that wallowed and pitched and had chrome, lots and lots of it. Jaguar had tried to match this with the Mark X. And failed. They didn’t try again.
Some Americans still wanted smaller sports cars. They trouble is, they didn’t want creaky old unreliable British ones. They much preferred Japanese versions, which did what the British ones did but they kept on doing it for as long as you needed them to. Call Americans fickle and picky if you will, but they just didn’t want the TR7…
It took Britain quite a long time to learn its lesson. Dwindling American sales meant there was no money to develop many new cars. And the ones we got were pretty half-baked. The XJS should have done the job but it was rushed into production, had a complicated V12, a low-rent interior and was built very, very badly. The TR7, as we’ve already heard, was a dud.
Throughout the 80s our car makers mostly gave up on the American market. Only Jaguar persevered, sticking to a British heritage niche that served it well. And naturally it was at the vanguard when the renaissance finally arrived. The Americanised X300 and XK8 with their 6 cylinder and V8 motors were what Americans wanted – perhaps it was the ‘valet’ button on the dashboard that finally convinced them. Since the turn of the 21st century then we’ve begun to do rather better over the pond. And not just with sports cars – Americans want our original SUV, the Range Rover, and our plutocrat express, the XJ. We are, once again, motoring.
All of which is fine and dandy and great news. But we owe it all to those cars of the 60s like the E Type and Cobra that established the bridgehead for British sports cars over there. We ceded a lot of ground in the years since but when we finally stopped trying to sell what we wanted to make and instead sell what Americans wanted to buy, we started to gain ground again. It took us 30 years to learn why Americans love the Corvette and in the F-Type and XK we finally have cars that incorporate the louche, relaxed pace of the ‘vetted with the svelte lines and sporting capability of European sports cars.
You can now discover the best of British vs American sports cars with Great Escape’s enlarged fleet – it now includes E Types (all models from ’61 to ’74), XJS’, Corvette and Cobra. Prices start at just £199 for 24 hrs and the cars can be hired from our Devon, Yorkshire or Cotswolds sites. To find out more call 01527 893733 or visit http://www.greatescapecars.co.uk.