I remember when British cars had spirit, now they just sell…

| 14 Aug 2012

It is great to wake up to news that Land-Rover’s Halewood site is busier than ever before, really it is. But as a born pessimist I’m not convinced it’s as good as all that.

We’ll forego the usual it’s-no-longer-British argument – it’s owned by Tata, we know this – and move straight to the contentious issue of products.

L-R’s doing well for a number of reasons, but chief among them is the new Evoque. Yes, the model lambasted for not being a proper Range Rover (it’s a re-bodied Freelander) could turn out to be the company’s life jacket.

I’ll raise my head above the parapet and say it is a good car, but where does it leave proper car people, the ones that value character and spirit? Floating in a sea of perceived qualities, pretend values and slick marketing spiel? Yes, I think so.

Let’s have a look at another great ‘British’ marque – Aston Martin. As with Land-Rover I’m delighted it’s doing well, but at what cost?

When I was a boy, and this wasn’t long ago (yes it was: Ed), AMs were like hens’ teeth, especially in my native Glasgow (would you park one there?). So, on the rare occasion that Newport Pagnell’s finest did turn the corner it made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.

The particular car I’m talking about is the V8 Vantage of the ’90s (in the main pic). It blipped on to my radar when that year’s Top Gear video was deposited as my traditional stocking filler (I still get it to this day).

It was a festive custom in my household – and not one my parents savoured – that an audio-visual extravaganza starring Clarkson and Co would closely follow the initial frenzy of presents, fighting and eating.

And the new AM’s engine was the most exciting bit for me. There were no look-at-me red highlights, no proclamations of TURBOS and MULTI VALVES. Instead there was beautiful, handcrafted piping, a name plaque on a huge lump with two equally impressive superchargers squeezed in on either side of it. The be-permed one felt moved to declare them ‘big enough to go on holiday in’ and to this day I’d give it a shot.

It wouldn’t be until the following Christmas – and some more Clarkson video magic – that my love for the big AM would be signed, sealed and delivered.

This time the ‘Rolls-Royce with attitude’ (that’s what he called it) found itself lined up on a runway against the competition – the Esprit, a 911 Turbo, an R500 and others I forget. Did it win? Of course not, but it sounded better than all of them. I’m not sure that sound will be replicated ever again.

Cut back to the present day and we’re falling over the tarted-up Jaguars that make up AM’s range; turn one on (via some horribly contrived crystal key) and the words ‘power, beauty, soul’ flash up. Do we really need to be told this?

And that, in a round about way, is my argument. I’m glad British jobs are safe, that we’re making some of the best products in their respective markets, hell I’m even glad we appear (in some cases) to have mastered how to nail them together properly. But in doing all this, in creating things such as the Evoque, AM’s new V8 and the god-awful new Mini Countryman, we’ve lost some of the magic that made British cars special in the first place.

But proper petrolheads shouldn’t care about this, you want to know what won the race up that runway. Well, I’ve good news, it was wholly British, it unceremoniously thumped everything that day including Porsche’s Turbo, it was made by a company that would laugh in the face of focus groups while garnering styling tips from a dog. Annoyingly, for the purposes of my argument, it was the TVR Cerbera…