The once-proud British car industry is littered with the memories of many a name that no longer exists.
From small outfits to giants like Rover, these are the firms that we have loved and lost over the years. Thanks to increasing global competition, in particular from the superior products of Japan and Europe, much of the UK’s car manufacturing took a big hit in the 1970s, from which it would never return to the same heights.
It has, however, seen some names re-emerge at times, perhaps most notably MG, which is back in business and Chinese-owned. While the present-day setup largely exists of overseas firms like Nissan building in the UK, as well as small companies making low-volume cars, it is the enthusiasts that keep all of these names alive in an effort to preserve the proud history of the British car industry.
Here, we’ve picked five British firms that are long-gone, but not forgotten.
Jensen was famous for its sports cars, but also made commercial vehicles.
It was founded in West Bromwich in the Midlands in 1934 and its most famous car is, without doubt, the Interceptor. First built in very small numbers in the 1950s – less than 100, in fact – it took off properly in a completely different guise in 1966. When production of the car, which was seen in coupe, convertible and hatchback forms, finished 10 years later, more than 6,400 had been made.
But Jensen became a victim of the worldwide recession in 1976 and that was the end of the Interceptor, or maybe not quite. There was a short-lived revival in 2001 for Jensen, but it again went into administration in 2002.
In 2010 Jensen International Automotive was founded, taking old Interceptors and selling them ‘as new’ after restorations. Just this year it was mooted that the name would be revived, with the prospect of two new models in 2016.
But, for now at least, Jensen remains a name from the past.
Sydney Allard was a successful motor racing driver and the name is well-known, but his car firm didn’t last long. He founded the Allard Motor Company in London in 1945, firstly from small premises in the south west of the capital. But, a little more than 10 years and 1,900 cars later, it was gone.
Allards aped the big American cars of the post-war era and featured large V8s in a lighter British chassis and body, which made for some excellent power-to-weight ratios. Among the models produced were the K3, a soft-top sports car, the Palm Beach, which was another roadster, and the odd Safari Estate, which simply couldn’t find a market. But poor research and development meant that the company didn’t keep up with its competitors.
It became insolvent and ceased trading in 1958.
If ever a car firm suffered a long and painful death, MG Rover Group – the final name for the once state-owned firm known as British Leyland – is surely it. Once the beacon of British car making, the demise was painful and eventually left thousands of people out of work in Longbridge, Birmingham.
It’s a long and complicated history, but in various guises the company was responsible for everything from Austin to Mini, MGs and Jaguar, Land Rovers and Leyland Trucks in its previous brand of British Leyland. At one time British cars made by Rover, or its forebears, flooded the British roads, but many would say that the problems started in the British Leyland days of the 1970s, when the company was crippled by poor manufacturing standards and industrial action.
It became Rover Group in 1986 and was then owned by British Aerospace, which sold the remaining car businesses to BMW in 1994. There were further break-ups of the group to come, with Ford buying Land Rover in 2000, leaving just Rover and MG under the MG Rover Group company. It all collapsed in 2005, with the loss of more than 6,000 direct jobs and tens of thousands more indirect jobs.
That left MG Rover Group with the dubious honour of being the last domestically owned mass car producer of the British motor industry. But many names live on – Jaguar and Land Rover thrive under the Indian ownership of Tata Motors, while MG is enjoying a smaller renaissance through the Chinese SAIC company and the cars are once again assembled at Longbridge.
One of Britain’s oldest car firms, Sunbeam was first created in 1888, first making bicycles before motorcycles and then cars. In 1919 it bought Talbot and started to import cars under that name from France.
A Sunbeam was the first British car to win a grand prix and the name was also associated with a number of land speed records in the golden era of attempts in the 1920s and 1930s, in addition to building limousine, saloon and touring cars for the road. One famous car, the Sunbeam 350hp, established three land speed records, before it was bought by Malcolm Campbell and renamed Blue Bird, again hitting a new record.
Sunbeam went into receivership in 1935, but was bought out and remained a well-established make. In 1964 American giant Chrysler bought in to the company as it attempted to enter the European market, but it was not a happy experience and models started to be abandoned. The last Sunbeam was produced in 1976 before the name was dropped by Chrysler.
The last models to bear the name were the Talbot Sunbeams of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Most famous for two cars – the Robin and the Scimitar – Reliant was founded in Tamworth, Staffordshire, in 1935 and went on to build more than half a million cars. At one stage, from the 1960s through to the 1990s, it was the second-biggest car company in Britain.
The Robin, known as the Regal in its earlier days and Rialto in its later iteration, needs little introduction – it was the famous three-wheeler that could be driven on a motorbike licence and was, of course, the steed of choice, in van form, of Del Boy in Only Fools and Horses.
The Scimitar, produced between 1964 and 1986, was the polar opposite of the Robin – a sports car that came in coupe, cabriolet and, possibly most famously, estate forms. And perhaps less well-known is the Sabre, a rather pretty two-seater sports car made in the early 1960s. Reliant sold in seven countries and was making 50 vehicles a week up until to 2001, when production finished and the company switched its attention to importing small vehicles. Its swansong was a run-out version of the Robin, produced in the firm’s 65th year.
Reliant became defunct in 2002.