Perhaps you've heard the jokes inspired by the decline and fall of the British car industry: Give an Englishman a piece of metal and he'll do something stupid with it. Joseph Lucas, the corporate captain of the headlight and ignition manufacturing firm bearing his name, was called the "Prince of Darkness" until he was knighted, after which he was dubbed the "Knight of Darkness." (Why do the English drink warm beer? Because they use Lucas refrigerators.)
And so it has gone, until the phrase "British craftsmanship" has taken on the same lunatic aura as the Brits' earlier claim of the divine right of kings. The jokes about the car industry have even spilled over into other, successful British industries: How can you tell an English computer? It's the one with the oil leak. Sadly, much of the lampooning about autos has been justified. Rare is the man who has owned an Austin-Healey and cannot recount a horror story of how his mount bit the dust in the fast lane of an expressway, thereby causing a monumental traffic jam that generated the lead story on the local evening news. Even rarer is the MG owner who does not remember lying under the car in a teeming rain hammering furiously with a rusty spanner on a jammed fuel pump.
No one who has ever owned an English car has escaped the agony of trying to tune an SU carburetor, an antediluvian design that most manufacturers on the tight little island refused to cease using long after the devices had become as obsolete as chain drives and spark boxes.
Ironically, it was automobiles such as the MG, the Jaguar, the Triumph and the Austin-Healey that created the imported-car revolution in the United States. The British had a lock on the market in the early 1950s, long before the fascination with the Volkswagen broke things wide open. Americans liked the boxy little Morris Minors and Ford Cortinas. And they adored MG-TFs, Jaguar 120s and Austin-Healey 3000s. Zoomy little sportsters from England created a new consciousness about automotive performance.
Americans, weaned on a diet of sloppy, oversize, overweight Detroit iron, experienced an automotive epiphany behind the wheel of a British sports car: the steering so quick and precise; the suspension firm and exact; the brakes powerful and reliable; the engine small and free-winding. Revelation! Conversion! A new corps of automotive missionaries was launched on America's back roads to spread the gospel of True and Honest motoring, British style. It worked for a while.
The converts were blinded by fun and gamely tried to overcome the evils of ignition systems that did not work in the presence of moisture, creaking ash-frame bodies and silly, clattering, long-stroke engines, many of which dated from the 1930s. As quality concerns became overwhelming, though, the British auto industry headed for real trouble.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Great Britain was in the throes of socialistic self-destruction. The rise of the unions, coupled with some of the worst management since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, brought the domestic automobile business to its knees. Design was stagnant, distribution nonexistent, the cars prone to breakdowns. Slowly, such marques as Triumph and MG vanished or were swallowed up by government-mandated conglomerates. Others, such as haughty Rolls-Royce and Jaguar, declined so far in engineering and fabrication as to become farcical contrasts to the luxury machines from West Germany and Sweden.
By the middle 1970s, the British automobile industry was for all intents and purposes dead. (The motorcycle industry -- which Britain had dominated on a worldwide scale in the 1940s and 1950s -- was already dead. A batch of prestigious makers, including Triumph, Royal Enfield, BSA, Matchless and Norton, had driven themselves into oblivion by their own inefficiencies.)
Then along came a man named John Egan, who took over Jaguar Cars Ltd. in 1981. The situation was classic: The company was losing $80 million annually, the labor force was surly and slothful, the automobiles had the bodies of goddesses and the hearts of harlots. The XJ6 sedans had the most esthetically pleasing shapes and the shabbiest innards of any modern automobile on the road.
Egan halved the work force, instituted hands-on management and simplified the cars without destroying their lovely lines. Within five years, Jaguar leapt to the very pinnacle of prestige, and its worldwide sales are now booming. More significantly, the Jaguar story has apparently inspired a small renaissance in the British automobile industry. While the business will never return to its former glory days, Jaguar has given new heart to Rolls-Royce, Lotus (now part-owned by General Motors), Aston-Martin (recently purchased by Ford), Rover and BL (makers of the Sterling, built in concert with Honda).
Rolls-Royce, for example, has revived the Bentley, heretofore a Rolls with a different radiator shell, and is making the Bentley 8 and the new Mulsanne S for sportier buyers who cannot identify with Silver Spirits and Silver Spurs. A powerhouse Mulsanne Turbo R that ought to run 150 mph will be out next year.
The Range Rover, at $34,000 the world's most elegant farm implement, is being upgraded to improve its flabby performance, but nonetheless remains the darling of America's nouveau gentry. Aston-Martin has smoothed the lines of its stunning, avant-garde Lagonda four-door, and Lotus has just introduced its flashy, mid-engine 215-hp Esprit Turbo. Jaguar, stung by criticism that its new XJ6 sedan is too conservative in styling and power, is promising revisions that will make it a direct rival of BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
The bad old days of leaking engines and burned-out ignition systems seem to be living on only in the memory banks of more senior car enthusiasts. A younger breed of buyers -- with no memory of such mechanical nightmares as the MGA, the Triumph Spitfire, the Austin American, the XKE Jaguar, the Rover 2000, the Jensen Interceptor and the Lotus Elan -- are attracted by the same old status symbols, such as Connolly leather and burled-walnut dashboards, and unafraid of horrors lurking beneath the regal bodywork. This time the Brits are getting it right, and people who like to drive are welcoming them back. ::