Small but Mighty: England’s tiniest car companies are bustling
Welcome to Small But Mighty, a short series about boutique British car companies. You may not know much about Ariel, Briggs, Caterham, or Morgan, but you probably can appreciate at least one car the way they do: as a crafted thing, meant for enjoying and possessed of its own personality.
In this intro, author Aaron Robinson details the landscape of this cottage industry. You can read part one, on Ariel Motor Company, here.
A sad fact of modern life is that the most British thing you can do as a British citizen these days is buy a British car.
The country is overrun—indeed, was overrun decades ago—by imports that have steadily winnowed down the number of domestic choices for Mr. and Mrs. Hail, Britannia. Gone are the proud Wolseleys, Hillmans, Humbers, and Sunbeams that once ranged in huge numbers over this green and pleasant land.
Most of the remaining choices, such as from Bentley, Mini, Rolls-Royce, or Land Rover, are not actually built by British companies but instead by local subsidiaries of foreign firms. Even Ford, which has assembled vehicles in the U.K. since 1911 and is considered by most Brits to be a local company, has made only engines and transmissions there since 2013.
However, as the giant conglomerates of the global auto industry merge and shovel out highly homogenized transport units suitable for all tastes and markets, scurrying at their feet in Britain are a few tiny hustlers. They have managed to carry on a century-old tradition of British cottage car making while somehow dodging a reaper that comes in many forms, including encroaching safety and electrification regulations, the vagaries of the global economy, the ever-escalating costs of development, and Brexit, the trade wall that Britain voted to erect around itself in 2016.
To see how things are going, we set off on a tour of England’s cottage car industry, picking four firms that represent the historic cornerstone themes of British car expertise: elemental lightness, cutting-edge racing tech, and retrospective heritage.
Their cars may lack roofs or, indeed, windshields (both useful in the realm of the perennially pissing rain), but we found Ariel Motor Company, Briggs Automotive Company (BAC), Caterham Cars, and the Morgan Motor Company all to be going concerns with full order books and bustling workshops. Each has its own distinct personality and unique selling proposition, as well as its own master plan for surviving into the future. And they are brothers in arms in a trade group called the Niche Vehicle Network that represents the concerns of the U.K.’s cottage car industry to the government.
Well-known Union Jack brands such as Aston Martin, Lotus, and McLaren didn’t make our itinerary, as they each assemble well over 1000 vehicles a year. And Gordon Murray Automotive—which is set to produce a series of new and somewhat atavistic million-dollar supercars that evoke Murray’s magnum opus, the 1992 McLaren F1, with naturally aspirated V-12s and manual transmissions—didn’t return our calls.
The onslaught of regulations and economic upheaval greatly thinned Britain’s car-making roster in the 1970s and ’80s, leaving the business of building oddly esoteric right-hookers to but a few hardy remnants (plus a couple of newcomers). However, nothing ever really dies in Britain, a country obsessed as no other with its own history.
As we write this, efforts are being made to revive Bristol, TVR, Jensen, and probably half a dozen other dormant brands. AC Cars, which was formed in 1901, keeps churning out Cobra replicas and variants as Britain’s oldest active car company. Lister still produces copies of its 1950s and ’60s racing cars as well as hopped-up versions of late-model Jaguars.
Thanks to dedicated artisans and favorable local laws that exclude small-volume producers from some of the most onerous regulations, you can still motor in weirdly British style if you want to. And that is indeed a great thing.
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This article first appeared in Hagerty Drivers Club magazine. Click here to subscribe and join the club.