National car exports and imports are big news at the moment, so we’ve taken a look a back at a selection of British cars that found success on the foreign markets
Words: Jack Grover
The 1960s were almost certainly the British motor industry’s golden age – business was thriving as more and more people bought more and more cars. Despite the various mergers of the previous decade, most of the traditional marques were still in existence and the industry still had a near-total hold over its domestic market. One million people were in the car-making industry at the time – five per cent of the entire national workforce.
It was also the last period in which British cars were widely exported. Although the UK had lost its spot as the number-two car maker (behind the USA) as the decade began and other nations recovered from their wartime ruination, Britain was still third until 1966 and fourth when the decade ended. The economic ties to the Commonwealth were looser than in previous decades (and were loosening further all the time) but still gave British cars preferential treatment in many places around the world, and in 1960 the UK had been a founding member of the European Free Trade Association, giving tariff-free access to six other European nations. The government also worked to reduce tariffs on cars exported to the European Economic Community after Britain’s application for membership was declined in 1963, leading to an 85 per cent increase in British cars exported to Europe between 1963 and 1965.
In that year 1.1 million cars were sold in the UK, of which just five per cent were imported (a large chunk of that five per cent was accounted for by the Renault Dauphine and Volkswagen Beetle). Of those 1.1 million cars, 484,000 were made by the British Motor Corporation (BMC) – but British car factories built a total of 1.8 million cars, leaving 700,000 to be sold elsewhere. This was also still an era when British car designs were being built in a network of overseas plants, both from kits of parts sent from the UK and as true local manufacture (and a wide spectrum in between).
So let’s look at some of the golden-age products that flew the flag abroad.
The MGB’s predecessor (logically enough, the MGA) holds the record of being Britain’s most exported car, as only six per cent were sold in its home market. The MGB’s appeal was more equal, but of the 512,000 examples built between 1962 and 1980, nearly 400,000 – over 77 per cent – were sold abroad. The proportion of MGBs sent for export steadily increased over the car’s long production life – by 1977 British buyers gave homes to 2,262 MGB roadsters while those beyond our shores bought 22,228 of them.
By the time the MGB arrived it was clear to all British sports car makers that the USA was their lifeblood, but the market was getting tougher. Not only were their other competitors from Britain and Italy, but Detroit was getting into the game with its own very American take on what British sports cars had to offer with products like the Chevrolet Corvette and Ford Thunderbird. Tastes were also changing – the MG buyer for the 1960s was less likely to be a ‘gearhead’ and more likely to be a college student or a young professional (either single or without children) who wanted a good-looking car that was fun to drive.
So the MGB was designed from the start to combine sports car handling with saloon car comfort – a tall order. Cockpit space, ride comfort and noise levels (not to mention handling) were all greatly improved by an all-new unitary bodyshell incorporating full-height doors, winding windows and a flip-up hood. For cost reasons the MGB still used rear leaf springs, although they were much longer (offering a softer and more progressive ride) than those used on the MGA. The proven B-Series engine was retained but in a new 1.8-litre capacity. The rest of the running gear – front disc brakes and rear drums, rack and pinion steering, four-speed gearbox with optional overdrive – was almost straight from the MGA, which itself carried a lot of over from the TD and TF Midget.
The combination of familiar mechanical parts in a brand-new body proved a winner – both in terms of sales and in competition. For all its refinement and creature comforts the MGB was still a joy to drive and a strong performer in standard trim – although it could be up-gunned into a serious bit of kit relatively easily. In its first full year of production the MGB nearly doubled the best export sales performance of the MGA (12,900 cars versus 20,200) and only dipped below the record set by its predecessor in one year between 1962 and 1980. From 1965 the fixed-roof liftback GT version of the MGB was available. By 1968 the GT was outselling the roadster in Britain and by 1972 more home-market GTs were being sold than those for export. In warmer climes the roadster remained by far the popular choice – by the late 1970s fewer than 200 export-spec GTs were built each year.
Of course, the importance of North America to the MGB’s existence was to be a source of trouble in its later years as it had to be kept in compliance with the stream of safety and emissions regulations that American adopted from the late 60s onwards. And so came the padded steering wheel and the ‘safety pillow’ dashboard (fortunately to always remain an exclusive for American-market MGs) and then, from 1974, the rubber-faced impact bumpers and the raised ride height which were applied to all cars due to the structural changes required. But it’s always important to remember that whatever the bumpers and the jacked-up springs did to the MGB’s looks and handling, they didn’t hurt sales – especially in North America. Sales actually increased slightly in 1974 and 1975 and then reached an all-time record for exports – 23,969 cars – in 1976. Unfortunately, the late 1970s saw the exchange rate swiftly make it unprofitable to sell British-made sports cars in their main market; this led to the decision to not only end MGB production without a replacement but close the Abingdon factory.
In stark contrast to the svelte, accessible MGB was the big and brutish Austin-Healey 3000 – an uncompromising heavyweight of a sports car that was rather old-fashioned from the moment it was introduced in 1959 – and its fans loved it all the more for that reason. The 3000 was a direct descendant of the original Austin-Healey, the 100, designed by racing-driver-turned-constructor Donald Healey and officially backed and sold by the Austin motor company. A 3.0-litre C-Series engine making 130hp, a top speed of 114mph and potent acceleration; the appeal of the 3000 wasn’t so much in its ultimate performance but in how easily it could use it – an MGB could be wrung out to 100mph or more given enough space, but a ‘big Healey’ could do it with relative ease, repeatedly and in entirely stock form.
With its snug cockpit, side screens and a hood that had to be dismantled like a tent and stowed in the boot (which was otherwise mostly filled with spare wheel), firm short-travel ride, heavy steering and loud exhaust the Healey had a decidedly racy character, marking it out as the enthusiast’s choice. BMC campaigned the Healey heavily in all its forms, favouring the sturdy but nimble car with its big all-iron engine in rallying. Pat Moss won the Liege-Rome-Liege rally in 1960 in a Healey 3000 and drove the same car to second place in the Coupes des Alps the same year, following it up with a silver medal place in the RAC Rally in 1961. In America the 3000 was favoured more for circuit racing, with the type dominating the Sports Car Club of America series across multiple classes in the years after its introduction. By 1963 over 90 per cent of all the Austin-Healey 3000s built were sent to North America and production was running at around 5,000 per year.
The Healey’s steady evolution slowed to a crawl in the 60s – its fans wouldn’t have accepted anything else – but 1962 saw the introduction of a ‘sports convertible’ body instead of the traditional roadster, with a fixed wraparound windscreen, winding windows and a folding hood. The MkIII of 1964 had more power (150hp), standard-fit servo assistance for the brakes, a new dashboard with a walnut fascia and safety padding, a new design of centre console and redesigned seats. The MkIII was only available as a 2+2. A few months after its introduction the MkIII’s chassis was redesigned to incorporate trailing links for the rear suspension and to increase the ground clearance as customers were complaining that the low-slung exhaust silencer kept hitting the ground when travelling over crests or bumps at high speed.
Production of the Austin-Healey 3000 ended in the summer of 1967. Donald Healey and BMC had been embroiled in discussions to replace it with an all-new sports car design, but in the end the car’s direct replacement was the MGC – an MGB reworked to accept the C-Series engine. It was not of the same spirit or capabilities as the ‘big Healey’ and was only on sale for two years…although three-quarters of them were still exported!
The Triumph TR line owed its entire existence to the export market. Standard-Triumph boss Sir John Black was envious of the success (and lucrative revenue) the Nuffield Organisation was gaining with its sports cars and decided to brew up his own. Faster, quicker and more modern than the Midgets MG was offering, the TR2 (and the improved TR3 that followed) quickly earned a fearsome reputation in competition and a strong following at home and abroad – although of course the export sales were by far the greater, with only one in twelve TRs staying in the UK.
Like the Austin-Healey, the Triumph TR3 entered the 60s as a basic roadster fundamentally little-changed from its 1940s origins, and Triumph understood there was a demand for more refinement and practicality. This resulted in the Triumph TR4, the first TR to receive the attention of Triumph’s new styling consultant, Giovanni Michelotti. The car got a brand new pontoon-sided, blunt-ended body with neat cowled headlamps, a bonnet with a distinctive ‘power bulge’ to clear the carburettors, a full-width chrome grille and subtle tailfins at the rear. Winding windows, a fixed hood and a generous boot were all added to the mix, along with a wider, longer cockpit with a wood-finished fascia and new centre console. The TR4 could also be specified with what we would now call a Targa – a fixed glass rear screen (incorporating a roll-over bar) behind the cockpit and a removable section between it and the front screen which could be filled either by a steel panel or a fabric ‘Surrey’ roof.
The style and added refinement of the TR4 went down well with the critics but the model didn’t do much for sales – after a brief pick up on launch, they settled down to a lower average than the TR3 did in its last years – around 8,000 cars per year. The problem was that the basic TR formula was old-fashioned when compared to the likes of the MGB, Sunbeam Alpine and Lotus Elan. The solution was to update the engineering rather than the styling and in 1965 the TR4A was introduced. The big feature was an all-new independent rear suspension system, using coil springs and trailing arms of a design derived from that used on the Triumph 2000 and 1300 saloons, which required a major redesign of the chassis, although the body was unchanged (save for a redesigned grille without the vertical bars) and without the ‘IRS’ badge on the bootlid it took a very keen eye to spot the very slightly wider rear track.
Handling, grip and stability were greatly improved and the TR4A was the only sports car in its size and price class to boast fully independent suspension. Ironically, while the ride quality was a significant improvement over the leaf-sprung TR3 and TR4, the model now picked up criticism for its stiff ride because expectations were higher for a car with IRS! None the less, the update gave TR sales a much-needed boost, with 13,700 sales in 1965…of which 11,714 were exported. The TR4A retained that grip on overseas sales until it was replaced by the TR5 in 1967.
The world is more than North America, and the bits of it which had little desire or need for British sports cars often found a lot of space on their driveways for our saloons – none more so than the Mini. The ground-breaking little car had been designed with export potential in mind at a time when large parts of the world still thought and bought British first and foremost when it came to motoring. The Mini was good enough to appeal to crucial new European markets as well. It’s hardly surprising that as early as 1962 around half of all Mini production in the UK (at both Longbridge and Cowley) was exported, and by 1965 exports exceeded domestic sales. That margin kept increasing and by 1970 some 198,000 British-built Minis were sent overseas while British buyers kept only 80,500.
The Mini’s appeal in the wider world was the same as it was here in the UK – no other car could carry as many people or as many things in so small a footprint, it was economical to run and huge fun to drive. The Swinging Sixties, the antics of Twiggy and the endorsement of Peter Sellers probably didn’t do much for Mini sales in Kenya or Bechuanaland (or Botswana as it became after 1966) but these places – and many others – had their own form of ‘Mini mania’ and took their share of production.
The biggest Mini markets outside the UK – Australia, South Africa, Italy and Spain – gained local production, but as far as cars exported from the UK went the biggest destinations were France, Denmark, Canada and Switzerland. France was initially a tough nut to crack for the Mini; it was the arrival of the Mini Cooper, and especially the success of that model in the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally, that turned things around. As in Britain, it became the must-have car for young urban trendsetters and supply never again matched demand. The estate version of the Mini, especially with the optional wood framing, became the ultimate chic transport for fashion-conscious Parisians in the same period; Paris would remain the heartland of French Mini sales for the next 30 years.
Over 6,000 Minis were sold in Canada in the first year of production (mostly via the impressive dealer network built by Nuffield in the late 1940s) and in 1961 it was possible to buy a Mini ‘over the counter’ at a Montreal department store for a £3 deposit. By the end of the 1960s over 30,000 Minis had been sold in Canada, but changing tastes and the country’s economic and political realignment towards the USA saw sales dwindle; nonetheless, exports from the UK continued until 1979.
Selling the Mini south of the border was always going to be tough. Americans soon proved to only have time for the ‘novelty’ Minis and by 1966 only the Cooper S and the Moke were officially listed at American dealers. The first round of safety and emissions regulations in 1967 provided the excuse for BMC to pull the Mini out of America.
The Land Rover was specifically intended to be an export success – the British government allocated rations of strategic material (including steel and rubber) to companies based on their exports and Rover’s factory in Coventry had been destroyed in the Blitz so it was faced with starting from scratch at its ‘shadow’ plant at Solihull. The firm’s usual fare of upmarket saloons required a lot of tooling and resources to build and would be hard to sell. In the meantime a simple, rugged four-wheel drive off-road utility vehicle – like the wartime Jeep but optimised for civilian use – would fill the gap.
As it happened, by the time Rover car production got fully underway again the Land Rover was already setting new sales records and clearly had a long-term future. The original Land Rover of 1948 was in some ways compromised by its original stop-gap nature; it used an existing Rover car engine, gearbox and axles which were not really up to the job. Those parts also fixed its major dimensions, as did the fact that its concept was cribbed directly from the Jeep – including its 80-inch wheelbase. Its chassis and structure had been designed for simplicity of manufacture not long-term durability; zero thought had been given to styling or user comfort. For the model’s ten-year anniversary in 1958 the Series II Land Rover was introduced – bigger in every dimension, with dedicated engines, an uprated drivetrain, more body options, and a few deft styling touches by David Bache which did not detract from its rugged functionality, but made it look less like an overgrown Meccano set.
The Series II was also easier and quicker to build; Rover invested in new production capacity both at Solihull and various operations around the world assembling Land Rovers from Complete Knock Down (CKD) kits. Sales throughout the 1950s had been steady at 28,000 or so, but in 1959 this jumped to 34,000. By 1965 they had reached 45,000 and it would exceed 50,000 by the end of the decade. Over a third of all Land Rovers leaving Solihull did so in kit form to supply 29 overseas assembly operations, while eighty per cent of the factory’s output was sent abroad.
By this time the Series IIA model had been introduced, which incorporated a lot of very minor technical updates (mostly expunging the last remaining Series I parts) and introduced a new enlarged diesel engine option. For the rest of the 1960s, Rover continued to refine the Land Rover with stronger transmissions, six-cylinder engine options for the long-wheelbase model, forward-control and heavy-duty ‘one ton’ models, and detail improvements such as better brakes and electrics.
The dominance the Land Rover had in some markets was incredible – in 1965 over ninety per cent of the 4x4s sold in Australia were Land Rovers. It was a similar story in New Zealand and South Africa, and the seventy eight per cent share of the 4×4 market in East Africa only seems weak by that comparison.
Throughout the decade Rover knew that it’s main issue was lack of production capacity, with only the Solihull factory to turn out complete vehicles and sales otherwise reliant on the complex and expensive CKD network. And Rover was a small company on a global scale; by the end of the 1960s, the demand for 4x4s worldwide was exceeding Rover’s ability to sell them. That provided the means for otherwise unknown names like Toyota and Nissan to get a toehold in the market with more modern products unhampered by straightened post-war origins, with much larger production capacity and backed by greater corporate resources. The 1970s would be a decade of decline and retreat for the Land Rover.