How I learned to love Britain’s cars of the ’70s

| 4 May 2020
Classic & Sports Car – How I learned to love Britain’s cars of the ’70s

For the latest classic car news, features, buyer’s guides and classifieds, sign up to the C&SC newsletter here


Years ago, I used to rue my poor luck at getting into the motor-noting game during the 1970s.

It seemed to me that hacks who’d arrived 10 years earlier were much more fortunate: they’d witnessed the arrival of the Jaguar E-type, the launch of the MGB, the burgeoning of the Mini, the worldwide growth of Land Rover and the incredible flowering of Lotus – all of it leading to the magnificence of the Jaguar XJ6 and Range Rover.

My own early 1970s arrival coincided with the launches of the Morris Marina, Triumph Dolomite, Leyland P76 (in my native Australia) and pretty soon the Triumph TR7, Austin Princess and Rover SD1.

These were not traffic-stoppers in a Lotus Elan sense, though the enduringly good-looking Rover does get an easier ride today than it did from disaffected buyers back in the day. 

Classic & Sports Car – How I learned to love Britain’s cars of the ’70s
The now fondly remembered Rover SD1

BL’s main ‘70s problem was intransigent unions and a profusion of factory disputes (Derek ‘Red Robbo’ Robinson led 532 walk-outs in 30 months).

Cack-handed, because-I-say-so management was also a major factor.

The result was a febrile, them-and-us atmosphere that led to deliberately-bad build quality and on to unprofitability – that last problem encouraging dimwitted bosses to skimp disastrously on parts and manufacturing procedures.

No wonder so many ’70s cars have already returned to the earth as red oxide.

The current scarcity of 1970s cars is remarkable: when did you last see a Morris Marina Coupé? Longer ago than your last half-dozen E-types, I’ll bet.

And what about the cars that followed? Austins Princess, Maestro and Montego? How many years since your eye fell on an Ambassador?

And whereas TR4, 5 and 6 roadsters are out there in numbers, TR7s grow harder to find because they never had the respect (thus value) of their predecessors.

Classic & Sports Car – How I learned to love Britain’s cars of the ’70s
An E-type is beautiful, but today has a lower nostalgia value

Despite all that, I believe we’re now moving towards a change.

It’s time for cars of the ’70s, previously dismissed as ‘porridge’, to take an upward hike in classic status. As we know, the major drivers of this are nostalgia and rarity. And both are on the increase.

Whereas everyone’s dad had an Austin Maxi, you nowadays have to be quite an old fart to have clear memories of the E-type or ‘eggshell’ Lotus Elite when they were new. So what today’s enthusiasts know of these cars is mostly hearsay.

It’s also time to admit that many 1970s British cars had design and engineering merit, and failed mostly on quality grounds.

In specification and styling many were bravely conceived and advanced machines that might have thrived if they’d had the kind of development lavished on Peugeots and Volkswagens.

Classic & Sports Car – How I learned to love Britain’s cars of the ’70s
It is time for the Montego to have its day!

For me (I whisper this) the 1960s ‘greats’ are in danger of becoming clichés, default choices for investors.

I’ve reached a stage where, were I walking along a street with an Austin-Healey 3000 on my side and a well-presented Austin Princess on the other, I’d lose no time crossing the road.

An Allegro or Marina Coupé would cause similar stirrings. We scorned those cars in their day (the former fell to pieces and the latter was crude to drive), but there was a local honesty to them I’ve come to miss in today’s internationalised and sometimes charisma-free products, a thousand times better looking and functioning though they are.    

My own ’70s favourites? I was part of a very small team that decided the Leyland P76 would be Wheels Magazine’s (read Australia’s) Car of the Year in 1973.

It drove well, the 4.4-litre alloy V8 made it decently quick and the boot was huge, so we managed to look beyond the fact that it appeared to have been styled by a not-very-talented right-handed eight-year old using the left hand only.

Classic & Sports Car – How I learned to love Britain’s cars of the ’70s
Cropley is a fan of the ever-comfortable TR7

I quite liked the Marina because though crude it was chuckable. You hurled it into a corner and entertained yourself sorting it out. And by the time the Allegro reached its third major iteration, it was pretty decent, too.

The Rover SD1 3500 had class, especially if yours was reliable, and I loved the fact that the engine could be coupled with a sweet-shifting five-speed manual (I’d only driven Rover V8 autos before), and seemed to pull harder and rev higher than earlier cars.

Always enjoyed TR7s (agile, courtesy of a short wheelbase and wide tracks) for their decent steering, revolutionary styling and the surprising, day-long comfort of their seats.

Best of all I loved the Austin Princess with its avant-garde ‘new wedge’ styling, space and supple Hydragas ride.

On my very first trip to the UK in 1976 (a year after the car’s launch), I remember being struck by the endearingly Pommy daftness of a huge poster at Dover showing a bloke standing beside a Princess, stooping slightly as he peered at its dash through the driver’s window.

“People bow when they see a Princess,” said the ridiculous caption. I’ve spent half a lifetime wondering who let that one through, and wishing I could see it again.

Classic & Sports Car – How I learned to love Britain’s cars of the ’70s
If only…

I’m far from being the only person who feels intense nostalgia for these cars.

If you’re on Twitter, you’ll surely have seen The Car Factoids series posted for the past couple of years by an extraordinarily knowledgeable BL (and other makes) British car geek called Andrew Ryan.

It’s Andrew who kindly let me have the Princess poster you see here with its bitter-sweet message of optimism and untruth: “Beautifully thought out. Beautifully made”. 

That last bit quite chokes me up. If only they’d built these decently engineered cars even half-well, using line workers with a modicum of today’s commitment and materials other than discarded tomato cans, perhaps we’d still be enjoying them today.

Images: John Bradshaw/Andrew Ryan/James Mann/Tony Baker


READ MORE

Buyer’s guide: Austin Allegro

Who says there weren’t any great cars in the ’80s?

Guilty pleasures: Talbot Tagora