Five world-beating cars from beleaguered ’70s Britain

| 16 Jul 2018
Five world-beating cars from beleaguered ’70s Britain

It was during the 1970s that British cars became something of a running joke, mainly thanks to a reputation for patchy dependability and poor build quality.

The industry's inability to manufacture cars in sufficient numbers (in-between strike action) didn't help the general feeling of despondency. In the public mind, British cars of the ’70s could never match the ingenuity and chic of the European opposition.

And yet, when you take a look beyond easy targets such as the Allegro and the Marina (still mercilessly lampooned 40 years on) at the full range of UK products during this period, it actually feels like something of a golden age.

Certainly the brave inventiveness and raw engineering talent of the time produced some true world-beaters – and a few intriguing near misses.

And the funny thing is, many of the most highly rated cars of the era remain among the best-value buys today. A clear case of mud sticking for far too long… 

Jaguar XJ-S (1975-’81)

Five world-beating cars from beleaguered '70s Britain

The XJ-S was the most refined grand touring car in the world, routinely compared with Lamborghinis and Ferraris – which were usually found wanting in comparison. The German opposition, meanwhile, couldn't get close to the Jaguar's silky driver appeal or effortless urge: the 150mph XJ-S was powered by the world's only mass-production V12 engine.

While collectors have woken up to the car's appeal as a ’70s glamour machine – with truly distinctive looks – the XJ-S is still cheap overall, at least for what it offers.

The model received a new engine and became the XJ-S HE in 1981, and pre-HE cars are now getting rare. Even so, they still seldom cost more than £20,000.

ONE YOU CAN BUY: 1980 Jaguar XJ-S, £14,000

Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow (1965-’80)

Five world-beating cars from beleaguered '70s Britain

The greatest of all the Shadows was a victim of its own success.

The proliferation of sad old wedding cars tends to obscure the fact that these grand saloons were superbly engineered and finished.

Some rivals were faster, some were even quieter and there is no doubt several big cars handled better; yet none did it all with such graceful aplomb as the Shadow, with its whisper-quiet, under-stressed V8.

Today, a sorted one is a delight – but there are many pitfalls for the unwary and a huge number of cars to choose from at £4000 to £15,000-plus.

ONE YOU CAN BUY: 1977 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, £27,995

Reliant Scimitar GTE (1968-’75)

Five world-beating cars from beleaguered ‘70s Britain

Trend-setting and much-desired in the ’70s, the Scimitar GTE has a lot to recommend it, including reliable Ford V6 running gear for nifty performance and easy servicing.

The body still has a refreshing elegance about it that no other sports estate has ever quite matched, although the glassfibre construction is something of a double-edged sword in terms of image. Certainly it will never rust, but equally the GRP construction links it to certain unmentionable tricycles that shared the same Tamworth factory.

Cheap-to-buy Scimitars have always attracted 'messers', and invite 'improvements' in the form of silly wheels and the like – thus adding to the general view that the GTE was really just a jumped-up kit car. A cool thing if you can find one in a nice bright ’70s colour with all the right bits; look to pay no more than £10,000 tops, and possibly as little as two grand.

ONE YOU CAN BUY: 1972 Reliant Scimitar GTE, £6950

Rover 3500 SD1 (1976-’81)

Five world-beating cars from beleaguered '70s Britain

These V8 hatchbacks were cunningly simple, but dramatically styled.

With decent build quality, the SD1 would likely have been the saviour of the floundering Leyland combine; powerful and high-geared they hit benchmarks of performance and chassis behaviour that matched the best in Europe in the hotly contested executive saloon sector.

They were also well equipped, came with excellent five-speed transmissions and were very crash-safe. Spoilers and wood trim slightly did for the purity of David Bache's original design after 1981, but the ’70s era SD1s look more dramatic with the passing of every year.

They're quite rare now, but what a car for five or six grand in really nice order. Consider also the six-cylinder 2600 version: almost as quick as the V8 in manual form.

BUY ONE NOW: View all classic Rovers in our classified listings

Aston Martin Lagonda (1976-’85)

Five world-beating cars from beleaguered ‘70s Britain

Only in the world of Aston Martins could a sub-£100,000 model be considered a bargain. But given that its futuristic origami styling (by William Towns) is certain to capture imaginations in the future, now might be the time to grab a Lagonda.

A little more than 600 were built through to the early ’90s, which was enough to save Aston and put the company in the limelight again for the first time since the days of 007's DB5.

The exotic quad-camshaft 5.3-litre V8 made this one of the fastest four-door cars in the world, and the lavish interior featured digital instrumentation and touch-sensitive switchgear that was not very reliable, but was very much part of the Lagonda's myth and appeal.

I was once offered one for £2000, but anything half-alive will command upwards of £35,000.

ONE YOU CAN BUY: 1980 Aston Martin Lagonda, €49,000

Images: Tony Baker, James Mann, Newspress



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