The 1960s began with two Great British automotive milestones that are now largely forgotten: the end of quantitative restrictions, or quotas, on vehicle imports from within the European Economic Community; and import duty being reduced to 30%.
That still meant your money went further if you bought British, but increasing numbers of buyers were being tempted away by Continental offerings.
“One of the most sinister statistics of recent times in the motor industry has been the dramatic rise in the importation of foreign cars,” said Coventry MP Maurice Edelman in a parliamentary debate in February 1970.
Britons bought just 4% of their cars from the EEC in 1960; by the end of the decade it was nearly 10%, well before Britain itself had joined.
Parliament and patriots alike denied that there was any issue with the products being offered by British manufacturers during the 1960s, but it would have been difficult not to notice the new Alfa Romeo and BMW models revealed in 1962: the 105-series Alfa Giulia and the ‘Neue Klasse’ BMW 1500.
Their buyers would have dismissed the British car as stuffy and old-fashioned.
Fans of the Jaguar would call these foreign interlopers boxy, even austere.
All three were comparably priced to British buyers – and indeed they remain at similar levels today.
That’s not to say that this is a classic case of old versus new.
The Jaguar has a twin-cam engine, which the BMW doesn’t, and four-wheel disc brakes, which neither of the other two have.
On paper, the 2.4 is by far the slowest to accelerate, though it hardly feels as lethargic as the bald figures suggest.
Its extra engine capacity is most clearly felt in its torque; once up to speed, it pulls strongly.
What give it that long 0-60mph time are the slow gearchange and a reluctance to get off the line.
No doubt the latter is because of the much greater weight of the car – at 1406kg – though that does give it a planted feeling unmatched by either the BMW or Alfa.
While the Alfa in particular feels quite tall and narrow, the Jaguar is more modern – in this respect, at least – being wider and with its centre of gravity tangibly lower down, the benefit of its smaller glasshouse.
It’s the flattest of the three by far in corners and, despite having the least-advanced rear suspension set-up, it feels very well developed, behaving predictably at high cornering speeds – where the BMW feels positively tail-happy and the Alfa bouncy.
It almost goes without saying that it’s the best-riding car here, too, though all three ride well.
Unfortunately, a sense of immense weight is only escaped when the car is at higher speeds. It’s there that the Jaguar’s chassis feels in its element, and where you’re finally freed from the oppressively heavy unassisted steering.
It’s a slow rack, too, which adds to its ponderous nature in low-speed driving.
This is very much a fast A-roads weapon – as a town car it would be pretty tiring. The famous getaway-driving antics of the Mk2 must have been with power-steering-equipped cars, or perhaps bank-robbing just engenders a lot of upper body strength.
For most buyers, however, the Jaguar Mk2 wasn’t about smashing through conveniently placed stacks of empty cardboard boxes: it was a cruiser for Britain’s quickly growing motorway network.
It swallows the driver in comfortable, pillowy seats, feels secure at high speeds and, even in 2.4-litre form, has the sort of torque you need to be able to accelerate, in top, to overtake lesser motorists.
For most of the Mk2’s life, motorways in Britain had no speed limits, after all.
The overdrive, though technically less impressive than a five-speed ’box, is a boon for the cruising motorist, allowing a switch between gearing sets with the flick of a finger.
The Alfa is the junior of our group, but those looking for a Milanese alternative to the Mk2 had to turn to the Giulia because the larger 2600 range was nearly twice the price of our Brit.
Some would no doubt have laughed at the idea that the 1300, down by 1193cc compared to the Jag, could compete; but, as with any good Italian car, the engine makes it.
It’s every clichéd description of a Latin twin-cam: fizzy, sonorous and a true joy to use.
Unlike the Jaguar’s ‘six’, this little engine was built for an Italian market where cubic capacity was heavily taxed, so the performance is actually in line with most 1.6-litre cars of its class.
It has to be revved, of course, but it feels urgent, aided in no small part by a gearshift that, while a bit long in throw by sports car standards, is easy and quick to navigate.
The only exception is the downshift to second, which needs to be treated with care to avoid a crunch.
In common with all three, the Alfa Romeo has a large-diameter steering wheel to reduce effort yet, despite that, it’s a great set-up.
There is a hint of play, but it’s well-weighted, feelsome and communicative, with a quick enough ratio to be accurate.
The first steering input with any verve reveals the car’s predisposition to roll, the high cabin and driving position exaggerating the sensation.
It feels halfway to a Citroën at first, but with a bit more time spent behind the wheel the driver soon comes to realise that, once the Giulia adopts the angle of lean it wants into a corner, it digs in and clings to your chosen line with impressive commitment.
It’s not necessarily the fastest way around a bend, but the Giulia never fails to feel light, agile and fun.
Taking a more serious approach, however, is the braking, which is superb.
All three of our trio stop with positivity, but the Alfa Romeo is the best, both in outright power and pedal feel.
It’s a lot more basic inside the Giulia than the Jaguar, though, with vinyl seating that is far firmer, along with a fairly basic dashboard.
That said, the dials are beautiful things: large and clear, with sporty cowls that mark this out as a driver’s car.
It’s the smallest, too, narrow enough inside that you’ll be brushing elbows with your passenger, though the boot isn’t much different from the bigger Jag’s in usable capacity thanks to its considerably squarer shape.
If the luxurious, refined but traditional Jag and sharp, modern and busy Alfa neatly fulfil the stereotypes of the British and Italian auto industries, BMW’s Neue Klasse will surely offer an understated competence.
Certainly the styling, inside and out, conveys exactly that.
Like the Giulia, the BMW is up-to-date with the Modernist styling trends of the early 1960s, but in an even more stark manner.
The chrome trim across the car is all perfectly perpendicular, while the sheer blockiness of its sheet metal is German rationalism at its most bullish.
This pays dividends inside, with the 1800 offering by far the most spacious interior. Slightly wider than the Mk2, its rectangular cabin is much airier, almost as wide at head height as it is at your feet.
The boot, too, is gargantuan, while the rear seats are the only ones here that would carry tall adults in real comfort over long distances.
The fact it does all this while weighing 300kg less than the 2.4-litre Mk2 shows truly terrific packaging, especially when, as you might expect, it’s a thoroughly solid-feeling car in its construction.
For all that raw practicality, this remains a very pleasant interior, too.
It’s still strictly modern and not bedecked with luxury to the level of the Jaguar, but it’s the most stylish here, full of intricate and pleasing details.
There’s the fantastic steering wheel, plus delightful interior doorhandles: milled and chromed blades mounted on the underside of the armrests.
They’re one of many touches on the 1800 where the pride of its production engineers can be felt, where things have been made not in the cheapest way, but the best.
Outside, this can be seen in items such as the fuel-filler flap, which lines up with the edge of the rear-light cluster – poor alignment here would be glaring, but this mundane component is successfully turned into a joyful detail.
So far, so Teutonic stereotype, but this BMW also has that Munich flair once you get behind the wheel. It might feel like a large, boxy saloon, but it’s still eager to kick its tail out and have some fun.
The steering and suspension don’t fizz quite like the Alfa’s, but they’re competent enough to allow you to enjoy the 1.8-litre M10 engine to the full.
A single-overhead-cam unit, it’s arguably the least exotic here, but it’s also the newest, introduced with the Neue Klasse in 1500 form in 1962.
It’s the surprise of the three, feeling impressively muscular when, on paper, you’d expect it to be the most dull powerplant
of the trio.
It doesn’t hold a candle to the Alfa’s soundtrack for sure, but it’s such a driveable unit, delivering power at any point in the rev range.
The one disappointment of the 1800 is its gearbox. Perhaps ‘our’ car is in need of new bushings, because BMW went on to produce some superb gearchanges, but the shift quality is closer to a VW Beetle’s than that of an E30 M3.
It’s vague, difficult to navigate and very long of throw – so much so that you end up hitting the base of the driver’s seat when changing into second.
It’s also odd not to see the famous monochromatic instrument layout that BMW introduced with the E3 ‘New Six’ in 1968, and has used in its cars to the present day. Instead, the dials on the Neue Klasse are much more ornate, almost American in style.
It’s a reminder that BMW was still very much forming its identity in the early 1960s, and the marque carried less prestige than either Jaguar or Alfa Romeo.
Now, just as when it was new, it is the pedigree of the Jaguar name and the Mk2’s traditional looks that inspire many of the plaudits the model receives.
The splendour of the interior and the driveway presence are all that many want from this sort of car, and the Mk2 outstrips the other two in both areas.
In appearance and character, however, the Alfa and BMW are lighter, more youthful, and well ahead.
The Jaguar 2.4 would still be your choice for a long motorway journey, but it makes greater sacrifices elsewhere in return for that touring ability.
The other two aren’t significantly less effective cruisers, but their compromises seem smaller, and that’s where their modernity shines.
The Alfa Romeo is the sporting choice, thanks to its lack of weight, effervescent engine and satisfying gearchange, but it’s the BMW that strikes me as the real all-rounder.
Nearly as enjoyable a drive as the Giulia, but more refined, more spacious and achieved with simple, easy-to-maintain engineering, it’s a superbly made, spacious family car that’s fun, too.
Images: Will Williams
Thanks to: Vintage Motors; William Clapperton; Mike Redmen
Jaguar Mk2, 1959-’69
A thorough reworking of the Jaguar 2.4 and 3.4 (retrospectively known as the Mk1), the Mk2 featured all-new – albeit similarly styled – bodywork, as well as a new interior and heavily revised suspension.
The XK straight-six, however, continued largely as it had been in the older car, with only subtle modifications for the 2.4-litre and the addition of a new 3.8-litre version.
Four-wheel disc brakes, optional on the Mk1, were now standard on all models and after just three years the Mk2 had become Jaguar’s record seller, with 108,850 cars built in total including the Daimler-badged versions, which were fitted with Edward Turner’s 2.5-litre V8.
In 1967, the model range was renamed to comprise the 240 and 340, with the 3.8-litre available only by special order.
The power of the 2.4 was boosted at the same time, while slimmer bumpers were the main external change.
Cost-saving measures, including front foglights becoming an optional extra and a switch from standard leather to Ambla upholstery, had occurred just prior to these changes introduced for the last two years of production.
Alfa Romeo Giulia, 1962-’76
The 105-series Giulia saloon wasn’t just Alfa Romeo’s most successful model to date, with 542,085 of all variants built and spawning the Spider, the GT series of coupés and the 1750/2000 Berlina, but proved the basis of Alfa Romeo’s identity for the rest of the 20th century.
Based on the running gear of the Giulietta saloon, the Giulia incorporated crucial changes to make the car less of a specialist product – no longer did the suspension need regular greasing, while great strides were made in improving refinement.
The styling not only looked fresh, but the boxy four-door was deceptively aerodynamic thanks to the benefit of wind-tunnel testing, with a Cd of 0.33 – as good as many cars on sale today.
There was significant simplification to the front and rear bodywork for the 1974 Nuova, while a 55bhp Perkins diesel engine was fitted to 6582 of these final cars.
BMW ‘Neue Klasse’, 1962-’75
But with this fresh model range the firm found the identity it is known for today.
An all-new design with a new engine to boot, the Neue Klasse made its debut as the 1500, though the 1800 soon joined the line-up and proved the most successful version.
The Neue Klasse spawned the ’02 series, a shortened two-door version, and these models proved crucial in establishing BMW in America and other key export markets.
The car’s design language would also inspire the ‘New Six’ range of saloons, known to enthusiasts as the E3.
These three ranges would, in subsequent generations, become known as the 3, 5 and 7 Series.
Jaguar Mk2 2.4
- Sold/number built 1959-’67/25,173
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, dohc 2483cc straight-six, twin Solex carburettors
- Max power 120bhp @ 5750rpm
- Max torque 144Ib ft @ 2000rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual, optional overdrive, RWD
- Suspension: front independent, by double wishbones, coils, anti-roll bar rear live axle, quarter-elliptic leaf springs, radius arms, Panhard rod; telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering recirculating ball
- Brakes discs
- Length 15ft 1in (4597mm)
- Width 5ft 7in (1695mm)
- Height 4ft 10in (1460mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 11in (2717mm)
- Weight 3100Ib (1406kg)
- 0-60mph 17.3 secs
- Top speed 96mph
- Mpg 18-28
- Price new £1342 (1967)
- Price now £8-20,000*
- Sold/number built 1963-’71/134,814
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, ohc 1773cc ‘four’, single Solex carburettor
- Max power 90bhp @ 5250rpm
- Max torque 106lb ft @ 3000rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension independent, at front by MacPherson struts rear semi-trailing arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers
- Steering worm and roller
- Brakes discs front, drums rear
- Length 14ft 11in (4546mm)
- Width 5ft 7in (1710mm)
- Height 4ft 9in (1448mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 5in (2565mm)
- Weight 2417Ib (1098kg)
- 0-60mph 13.7 secs
- Top speed 100mph
- Mpg 25-35
- Price new £1498 (1967)
- Price now £10-20,000*
Alfa Romeo 1300 TI
- Sold/number built 1966-’72/c200,000
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine all-alloy, dohc 1290cc ‘four’, single Solex carburettor
- Max power 85bhp @ 6000rpm
- Max torque 77Ib ft @ 4900rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension independent, at front by double wishbones with anti-roll bar rear trailing arms, coil springs; telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering recirculating ball
- Brakes discs front, drums rear
- Length 13ft 6in (4140mm)
- Width 5ft 1in (1560mm)
- Height 4ft 8in (1430mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 2in (2510mm)
- Weight 2160Ib (980kg)
- 0-60mph 13.3 secs
- Top speed 99mph
- Mpg 25-35
- Price new £1321 (1967)
- Price now £12-25,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication
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