While the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II was the big news in 1953, it was also a vintage year for classic cars. Here are our favourites
Words: Chris Randall
All manner of temptations were ready to part buyers from their cash in 1953, particularly for those after a British sports car, although more family-oriented motorists were catered for too. Now, 70 years and a second coronation later, the options are just as tempting. Join as we look back at the greatest hits of 1953 – which would you choose?
Mercedes-Benz 180 (W120)
While other cars on this list can claim to be sporty, that’s not really something you can say about the upright Mercedes. The rather formal saloon styling is pleasingly attractive and was the design of the new 1953 model that led to the ‘Ponton’ name.
Of unitary construction and with a greater nod toward aerodynamics, the W120 was spacious, comfortable and boasted enviable build quality that contributed to a feeling of solid dependability. It wasn’t exciting to drive but it was never intended to be; instead, it was focused on providing decent refinement and pleasingly responsive controls, and in both of those things the car that was essentially the forerunner to the E-Class delivered admirably.
As for performance, the use of a 1.8-litre engine making just 52hp wasn’t going to result in a ball of fire and so it proved, and while the introduction of a diesel in 1954 gave a useful boost to economy, it took a yawn-inducing 39 seconds to hit 62mph from rest. Not that many owners were likely to attempt such a car (in any case, those after a little more pace were offered the similar W121 which managed 75hp from its larger 1.9 engine).
But things get a bit more difficult when it comes to finding one of these cars, and that makes them tricky to value. Widening your search to Europe is going to be best, and it seems that around £22,000 is enough for a nice example.
AC itself dates back to the beginning of the 1900s but what interests us here is the car that would ultimately give rise to the legendary Cobra. Pretty two-seater bodywork clothed a tubular chassis, and when the Ace arrived in 1953, power was provided by a 2.0-litre straight-six making 100bhp.
That fairly modest output was boosted for 1956 when a Bristol-sourced engine with triple carburettors was installed, the resulting 120bhp making this a sports car that was good for almost 120mph. The disc brakes that arrived the following year were a notable improvement. But the highlight for many enthusiasts was the appearance in 1961 of the Ruddspeed version that featured a larger 2.6-litre straight-six running on triple SUs. Depending on the level of tune as much as 170bhp was on offer which, quite frankly, was plenty. Just 37 would be made before production of the Ace ended two years later.
It wasn’t just on the road where the Ace excelled, though, as this is a car boasting motorsport pedigree. There were numerous appearances at the famous Le Mans race, with seventh overall in 1959 being a notable result. If you’re expecting something this special to be on the pricey side, you’d be right. Entry to this rarefied club realistically starts at £200,000, making it by far the most expensive of all the cars here, but as eye-watering as that sum is, it’s worth bearing in mind that you’ll be buying into a fine piece of Britain’s automotive history.
MG Magnette ZA
The formation of the British Motor Corporation in 1952 was far from straightforward when it came to juggling the various marques it encompassed, and one of those was MG. Gerald Palmer was responsible for the design of the new model, which would appear a year before the MG Magnette as the Wolseley 4/44. Not only was it the first MG to feature monocoque construction, but it was also a world away its Y-Type predecessor and the firm’s traditional sports cars.
One of those sports cars – the TF – was launched alongside the Magnette at the London Motor Show. But while the two-seater would last just two years, the sporting saloon would continue from 1953 until 1958; around 12,700 would be made before it was replaced by the ZB. It wasn’t just the saloon styling that marked a departure for MG, though, as the Magnette was also its first model to get the B-Series engine that saw duty in so many cars over the next couple of decades.
Fitting twin SU carburettors lifted power to a healthy 60bhp, enough for 0-60mph in 22 secs and a top speed of 80mph. That was respectable pace, but it was also accompanied by well-sorted handling thanks to independent front suspension and accurate rack and pinon steering. A spacious and comfortable cabin was the icing on the cake, and 70 years after its launch you can enjoy all this without breaking the bank. A good example should set you back less than £10,000 (the very best fetch twice that) making this family-friendly MG very appealing.
Arguably the most unusual car of our selection – we’d go so far as to call it quirky, but in a good way – it also has a rather unusual story. Developed by the American Nash Motor Corporation with a design by Bill Flajole, the eagerness for export sales saw them do a deal with Austin that resulted in the characterful car being built at Longbridge.
Available in convertible and hard-top forms and usually sporting eye-catching two-tone paintwork, this compact slice of Americana went into production in October 1953 and lasted through to 1961. Incidentally, although they were built in Birmingham it wasn’t until the very end of 1956 that the production of right-hand cars for the UK began; prior to that they were all for export. Anyhow, the simplicity of the early cars saw them do without a conventional boot lid – something not rectified until the Series IV of 1959 – while power came from a 1200cc engine shared with the Austin A40 range.
The modest performance was improved with the adoption of a 1200cc B-Series engine for Series 2 cars, and once again with a 1489cc unit for Series 3 models in 1955. In reality, the Metropolitan was all about how it looked rather than how it went. That’s still the case today, and if you want to get noticed at your local car show this is a fun and relatively affordable way to do it. Good convertibles can be found for £10,000 or a little less, with the very best fetching £20,000, and there’s no real difference in price between early and late examples.
Ford has long been a master at providing just what buyers want at just the right time, and the 100E is the perfect illustration of that. With the gloom of post-war austerity beginning to lift families wanting simple but affordable motoring discovered there was plenty to like about the neatly-styled saloon when it arrived in 1953.
Ford’s first small car with unitary construction was available as the two-door Anglia or more practical four-door Prefect, and looked like they were from a difference plenty to the previous ‘sit-up-and-beg’ models. Power was provided by a side-valve 1172cc engine managing 36bhp, so while outright performance was nothing to shout about – getting to 60mph took half a minute and it was all done by 70mph – that didn’t really matter.
What did is that it was cheap to run and easy to maintain, and it was more than decent to drive thanks to MacPherson strut front suspension and hydraulic brakes. And for anyone wanting a few motoring luxuries to impress the neighbours there was always the De Luxe model complete with a radio and heater.
The Prefect and especially the Anglia were strong sellers, and remained in production until 1959. At this point the 100E model took on the Popular badge and became a two-door only model, while the four-door car was revised to create the 107E Prefect, something of a hybrid with superficial restyling of the body, plus the new 997cc overhead-valve engine and four-speed transmission that would find a long-term home in the new105E Anglia. Most of the Ford 100E and 107E cars produced were saloons, but from 1955, Escort and Squire-badged estate versions were offered too, based on the contemporary Thames 300E van.
Fast forward seven decades and those after a charmingly uncomplicated classic will still discover plenty to like, and a good one can be yours for around £6000. That really isn’t a lot of money for a car that’s both practical and simple to look after, so if your next classic needs to be family-friendly this might just fit the bill.
At the beginning of the 1950s Triumph wanted to emulate the sports car successes of MG, and the result was a model line that lasted right through until the 1980s and the demise of the TR7. Let’s rewind, however, because while the TR2 was a simple recipe using a pre-war Standard chassis and an engine borrowed from the Vanguard, it was rather more than the sum of its parts.
A prototype designated 20TS was deemed a “death trap” by BRM test driver Ken Richardson, but it was finessed and made ready for launch at the 1953 Motor Show.
It was a lively performer too, with the 90bhp 2.0-litre ‘four’ making the little two-seater a genuine 100mph machine, and although the live rear axle allowed a bit of skipping over bigger bumps the handling was fundamentally secure and it’s easy to see why it appeals to so many enthusiasts today. Production lasted until 1955, by which point around 8300 had been made, and it’s worth mentioning that October 1954 saw the bodywork changed to a ‘short-door’ layout; the long doors of earlier cars could get caught on kerbs.
That foible aside, the combination of sturdy construction and enjoyable driving experience makes it a sound buy as long as you find one that’s been cherished and not subjected to a poor quality restoration in the past. There’s plenty of scope for upgrades, too, so making a TR2 perfect for your needs isn’t difficult. Price-wise, you should look to pay upwards of £22,000 for a nice example while the best can command more than £40,000.
It’s no wonder that BMC boss Leonard Lord was so keen to get his hands on this car following its unveiling as a prototype at the 1952 Earls Court Motor Show. The curvaceous Gerry Coker-styled sports car would become the Austin-Healey 100/4, a car offering ample performance from its Austin Atlantic four-cylinder engine and entertaining handling that’s as fun today as it would have been seven decades ago.
It was very much a case of style and substance, which explains this car’s enduring appeal. Arriving in 1953 and not replaced until 1959 with the arrival of the Healey 3000, there were plenty of changes during the 100’s lifetime such as the adoption of a 4-speed gearbox for the BN2 model and introduction of the 100M in 1955 that boasted a meatier 110bhp.The following year saw the launch of the 100/6 powered by the straight-six engine from the Austin Westminster, and buyers could also now have their car in 2+2 or two-seater form.
It’s the larger-engined car that proves the more affordable way into ownership, with nice ones approaching £50,000, whereas a 100/4 in similar condition can command an additional £10,000–12,000 or more. The very best out there are nudging £100,000, or more for an M. Such figures are a reflection of just how desirable these Healeys remain, but bear in mind that condition is everything; major restoration can swallow huge sums of money, so a bit of caution is needed before taking the plunge. Still, don’t let that put you off what is a very fine British sports car.
Mention the name Alpine and thoughts might well turn to the drop-top sports cars that proved so successful during the 1960s (and arguably the first Bond car, appearing in 1962’s Dr No). But we’re heading back to the beginning, the Mk1 launched in March 1953 and constructed using a sturdy box-section chassis and two-seater roadster bodywork courtesy of Mulliner.
Taking its name from the success of Sunbeam-Talbot on the challenging Alpine Rally, it was intended mostly for export and blended elegant looks with a comfortable cabin along with capable long-distance ability. Power was provided by a robust 2.2-litre ‘four’ producing 80bhp, and buyers could opt for Laycock de Normanville overdrive to further improve its cruising credentials. And there was also a Special aimed at competition use, a revised cylinder head and raised compression ratio endowing it with a fruitier 95bhp.
Independent front suspension and a live rear axle on semi-elliptic springs delivered capable and secure handling. The Mk1 was made until 1954 with total production amounting to 1192 cars, around two thirds of those in left-hand drive, with the Mk III (there was no Mk II) taking over until 1955. Seventy years on from the launch the combination of style and sporting pedigree makes these Sunbeams a very attractive choice, and there’s a real feeling of quality in the way they were engineered which only adds to the appeal for many enthusiasts. The very best command around £60,000, but half that sum will get a very nice example indeed.