A question of sports. Never mind austerity, buyers of rakish sporting machines were spoilt for choice in ’50s Britain. But which is best: Healey 100, Jaguar XK, MGA, AC Ace or TR3? Words Martin Buckley. Photography Will Williams.
SPORTS FOR ALL The roadsters that cemented Britain’s reputation as the home of the sports car
GREATEST’ 50S SPORTS CARS JAGUAR XK120 • MGA TWIN-CAM • AC ACE • AUSTIN-HEALEY • TRIUMPH TR3A
Picking a winner from the very best of British
The 1950s are now a very long time ago. The Jaguar XK120 is a 70-year-old design, and even the youngest of the great British sports cars assembled here – AC Ace, TR3A, Austin-Healey and MGA – is well into bus-pass territory. This was the land of the sidescreen, the fly-off handbrake and the crash first gear; a place where a ‘real’ sports car was an open-topped strict two-seater with primitive weather protection. These were lean roadsters that would breach the magic ‘ton’, pull the birds on Saturday night, and not disgrace themselves in a local club sprint or hillclimb on a Sunday morning.
Quite why this draughty, wet island has always specialised in cars such as these I have never worked out, but I suspect it has masochistic roots based in the supposedly health-giving benefits of ‘fresh air’. Yet you only think of sunny days when you look at these cars; they still summon images of warm beer, cricket and the fondly imagined long, hot summers of a post-war Britain that was coming back to life.
For most British buyers, however – even the few who could afford something as frivolous as a sports car in those ration-book years – ownership was just a dream. All of these cars (with the exception, perhaps, of the suave, hand-built AC Ace) were conceived in response to Sir Stafford Cripps’ Export or Die policy: dollar-earning products for a North American market that had fallen in love with our open two-seaters.
The Jaguar XK120, star of the first post-war Earls Court Motor Show in 1948, set the tone for this ’50s British sports-car invasion. Its fabulous shape, conceived in just two weeks by William Lyons, was essentially a publicity exercise to showcase the equally fabulous 3.4-litre, 160bhp XK twin-cam that was created to power the then still-secret MkVII. That car represented Lyons’ long-planned dream of producing a true 100mph luxury saloon; this breathtakingly sleek, aluminium-panelled, partly wood-framed sports car was originally intended as a shortlived distraction while the pressed-steel shell for the MkVII was readied for production.
But, almost by accident, Jaguar had created the world’s fastest production vehicle, good for 120mph. That made it as quick in a straight line as an ERA single-seater, with acceleration most drivers had never experienced before. At £998, Jaguar was overwhelmed with orders and plans were soon afoot to get a fully productionised, steel-bodied XK120 under way. The fact that the XK was a race winner virtually out of the box further whetted buyers’ appetites.
Like almost all of these cars, it is a bugger of a thing to get into. But once you have learned to semi-dislocate your knee joints, become accustomed to having the massive steering wheel in your lap and got used to manipulating said wheel with your right elbow over the top of the cutaway door, this snug, well-finished cockpit is a nice place to work – a reminder that the XK was the first really civilised sports car.
Leave your modern-car expectations behind and the XK’s solidly dependable handling telegraphs everything you need to know through your hands and your backside. Its smooth power delivery is an important element in cancelling out the understeer to change line without drama. Those of a vintage sensibility probably considered the XK’s ride too comfortable and its steering, at three turns lock-to-lock (but with good castor return), too low-geared. But even those hairshirt die-hards must have been won over by its engine. It urges the car forward in smooth, creamy lunges of power that still impress today and must have been sensational in the early ’50s, particularly when combined with the sort of magnificent top-gear flexibility that made gearchanges virtually optional. Linked to a fairly heavy clutch, the Moss ’box demands that you pace your changes carefully, but is also a rewarding element of the XK’s character that I would not want to be without.
If the XK120 roadster is a sort of eternal classic, its image the staple fodder of birthday cards, biscuit-tin lids and complimentary small-business calendars for as long as anyone can remember, then the AC Ace was always more of a connoisseur’s choice: rare, handmade and reassuringly expensive – then and now.
First seen in 1953, the John Tojeiro-designed Ace, with its Ferrari Barchetta-style alloy body and fully independent transverse-leaf suspension, would run through to 1963 with AC, Bristol and Ford Zephyr power.
This one is a Bristol-engined Ace, offered from 1956 and one of 463 built, a big seller by AC standards. It’s the most fancied of the breed (this beautiful example is valued at a spectacular £285,000) and was the fastest 2-litre sports car on the market at the time, with a top speed of 116mph and the ability to get to 60mph in 9.1 secs with only one gearchange.
The AC Ace Bristol is a car you approach with high expectations that are mostly fulfilled. It is low and lean, its simple, beautiful lines dominated by smoothly voluptuous wings that flow into a narrow, pinched waist. The surprisingly roomy cockpit features a pair of figure-hugging bucket seats (slightly askew to the transmission tunnel) and a functional, no-nonsense, leather-covered dashboard. The central handbrake lever is implausibly huge, the throttle pedal little bigger than a postage stamp.
Pop the bonnet and that tall, narrow Bristol straight-six, with its dual rocker covers and triple Solex carbs, looks slightly lost in the engine bay. It does the business on the road, though, with strong pull from 2500rpm, a 90mph third gear and gorgeous throttle response. You need to rev it quite hard to extract the performance, but this is no hardship because few ‘sixes’ have such a throaty, purposeful howl. I can’t readily think of a car with a nicer gearchange, either, despite the unpromising look of the crooked lever; it is precise, quiet and quick, and you change gear just for the fun of it.
Tautly sprung and strongly braked, the largely roll-free Ace holds the road well at both ends and is a handier, more focused sports car than the XK. If the steering is not its best feature, loading up early in tight corners, then it is easily forgiven because the Ace is, generally, a delight to the eye and the touch.
Then again, so is the MGA Twin Cam. Here was a true production sports car with an exotic engine that might have hastened the demise of the expensive, specialist Ace had it not been so adept at burning oil and putting holes in its pistons. Don’t let that put you off, though.
The A of 1955 is, for me, the prettiest of the MGs and the first of the modern ones, although it was the last to have a separate chassis. In 113mph Twin Cam guise it had the performance the car’s chassis deserved, with disc-brake stopping power all round behind those handsome Dunlop centre-lock wheels. It’s quite a special thing and I was surprised to learn that the owner of this one values it at ‘only’ £40,000.
The first thing you want to do is open the bonnet and look at the cause of all the fuss. Created under the ever-versatile BMC design boss Gerald Palmer, the twin-cam engine was based on a modified B-series block. It is a nice-looking thing, seemingly cured of its problems by later generations of enthusiasts, although you still pity the man who has to get at the distributor, which is buried under heater ducting.
Still, at least the MGA has a heater (it was optional on most of the other cars), and luckily it works quite well on this crisp late-winter day. The interior is cosy and neatly finished with a leather-covered dash and plusher seats than lesser A variants. Precise rack-and-pinion steering and a honey of a short-throw gearchange give the A instant sports-car credentials once under way. You can slide the car controllably and neatly at will, and stop it on its pretty nose; the brakes – without a servo and firm of pedal – are superb. Sweet and pokey, the Twin Cam seems to still have every one of its 108 horses. It pulls freely and smoothly to 6000rpm and has ample torque, despite a slight tendency to bog down as you pull away. You soon get used to that, though. A fouled plug from too much idling was a reminder of the potential fussiness, however.
In fact, the MGA Twin Cam got itself such a poor reputation in the trade that only 2111 were built between 1958 and 1960, most of them roadsters. By then the 1600 pushrod-engined A had emerged as a less expensive way of doing 100mph (or more) in your MG.
Triumph took the short cut to 100mph performance by simply fitting a bigger engine. Previewed in 1952 and launched in ’1953, the hardy, bug-eyed TR2 was powered by a linered-down 2-litre Standard Vanguard in-line ‘four’ developing 90bhp on twin SU carburettors. The box-section chassis was unique to it, but the TR ran Triumph Mayflower front suspension and rear axle. It was an unpromising specification that somehow added up to more than the sum of its parts. An impressive competition pedigree, particularly in rallying, showed that it was tough as well as fast.
By the time the 100bhp, disc-front-braked TR3A emerged in 1957, those Americans who couldn’t afford an XK or a Healey were beginning to take the TR to their hearts. At home it was the cheapest 100mph-plus two-seater you could buy, noted for its ability to return 30mpg. Production peaked at 2000 cars a month for the 3A, with its full-width front grille and exterior doorhandles. They built 85,000 of these in the end, which probably explains why ‘our’ dark-green TR3A appears such good value for money at around £30,000.
The cheeky Triumph looks like a giant pedal car to modern eyes, but it has such a lusty, cheerful character on the move that it’s hard not to warm to. Like all these cars it sports a huge steering wheel, a lethal-looking windscreen frame (offering more in the way of head-trauma injuries than protection) and a compromised driving position, yet it is the only one of them to offer any kind of space behind the seats. Its engine, not too far removed from what you would find in a Ferguson tractor, is accessed by undoing two catches with the separate T-handle.
It has a fruity bark, lots of torque and whips the TR along much better than its advertised 100bhp suggests, with a really solid push in the back in first and second.
With optional overdrive, there are effectively seven speeds to play tunes with – a perfect ratio for every occasion – and the gearchange itself is quick and clean via the stubby lever.
The deep cutaway of the TR’s doors is slightly disconcerting at first, if only because you feel as if you could reach down and touch the road. In practice it gives you plenty of elbow room to get to grips with the direct but fairly hefty steering. With the TR’s flat cornering comes a hard ride, limited suspension travel and lots of axle hop in tight corners attacked ambitiously. It’s all good, clean, rugged fun.
Much of that could be repeated in describing the Austin-Healey 100’s behaviour, although its low-slung rear end is better behaved, its steering more smoothly positive and higher-geared. It should be faster; all I can say is that the A90 engine feels eager and smooth for such a big ‘four’, and pulls strongly through to 4500rpm with a flat burble that is lazily industrial and has rounder edges than the raucous Triumph. In this left-hooker, the gearlever is helpfully offset towards the driver and, as in all good ’50s road tests, ‘falls easily to hand’ – even if the change is the least appealing of these cars.
Like the TR, the Healey is another great sports-car success story, a blend of beauty and stamina that completely seduced an American market already vulnerable to the charm of a British open two-seater. Jensen built the bodies, and Austin supplied the drivetrain and did the final assembly on a car that would be Donald Healey’s first and most famous commercial success.
Outwardly, the Healey is up there with the XK120 and the Ace, a perfect blend of curves and muscle that says it all while appearing to not do very much. Inside, whether deliberately or not, it seems to acknowledge the existence of lanky American customers in being surprisingly roomy while grouping its (minimal) controls around the instruments rather than spreading them across the dash.
It was, and is, a car to put hairs on your chest, although if you set your heart on this rare genuine 100M, with its 110bhp ‘Le Mans-tuned’ engine and louvred bonnet, they will be expensive hairs. Restored to apparent perfection in 2013 by specialist JME Healeys, this Mille Miglia-eligible car is valued at £175,000.
It is one of 640 Healey works-converted M-spec BN2s (meaning a four-speed ’box) built in 1956 – the main clue being that bonnet, which is ostentatiously restrained by a leather strap. As cars that were as nifty, manoeuvrable and fun to drive as the domestic behemoths were (generally) ponderous and dull, it’s not difficult to understand the American market’s attraction to the great British sports car of the 1950s.
Somehow, they were a breed of car only we British seemed able to make in real volume at the time, opening the door to the vast North American market and creating a foundation of goodwill that might have extended beyond the 1970s, had we invested in the creation of the reliable, modern, legislation-friendly sports cars the locals still wanted to buy.
Fifteen or 20 years after they were built, these were perhaps among the first cars people thought of as ‘classics’ in the earliest days of our particular obsession. They are cars I feel I have been reading about all my life, much older today than the London to Brighton relics were in the 1950s. A slump in the popularity of ’50s classics has been quietly suggested as owners either die or get too old (or fat) to drive them.
Yet they have an appeal that seems eternally youthful, rooted in a world of carefree post-war motoring far removed from today’s highly legislated, overcrowded experience. As time machines to take you back to that better place, even if it’s for only a few days each year, I think there will always be buyers for such cars.
Why? Because they are (mostly) beautiful, romantic objects that are engaging to drive in an understandably mechanical way; cars that will forever connect with people who want a ‘real’ experience yet are not so divorced from modern standards that they would frighten the buyer who really wants to own one.
I suppose, at £285,000, you have to really want to own an Ace Bristol, a precision instrument wrought in aluminium that you cannot seriously compare to the off-the-shelf appeal of the TR3A and MGA. In some ways, the Triumph and MG don’t even feel like all the money at up to £40,000. If £50k for a less-exotic species of big Healey (the standard 100, say) seems a lot more than they used to be, it is perhaps not quite as much as you might expect when things such as TR5s are out there priced at £70,000-plus.
But if I had to take one car home it would probably be the XK, by a short nose over the Ace. The pride of the British motor industry, the XK120 sealed Jaguar’s reputation as a maker of ‘proper’ cars, although the fact it made 12,000 of them (including dropheads and coupés) means we tend not to talk of XKs in the same hushed tones as the BMW 328 or Alfa Romeo 8C.
For me it is the post-war successor to those cars that put exotic twin-cam performance and styling within the reach of a wider audience. It is still, arguably, the most beautiful Jaguar of all; perfectly proportioned from every angle, it actually looks as if it’s worth the £100k that examples such as this one would command. Which is good value in the grand scheme of things.
And, by the way, I did get to take the Jaguar home, but it rained all weekend. Typical.
Thanks to MG owner Edward Vandyck; Pendine for the AC (pendine.com); Bicester Sports & Classics for the TR (bicestersportscars.co.uk); JME Healeys for the 100M (jmehealeys.co.uk); Cotswold Classic Car Restorations for the XK (www.cotswoldclassiccarrestorations.co.uk); Historit (historit.co.uk); and Bicester Heritage (bicesterheritage.co.uk) for the venue
‘The Healey is a car to put hairs on your chest, although set your heart on this rare 100M and they will be expensive hairs’
‘The cheeky Triumph looks like a giant pedal car, but on the move it has such a cheerful character that it’s hard not to warm to’
‘If the XK120 is a sort of eternal classic, the AC was always the connoisseur’s choice: rare, handmade and reassuringly expensive’
Clockwise, from left: windscreen folds for an extra-rakish look; nonstandard wheel in spartan cockpit; Austin-sourced ‘four’ offers real muscle.
Clockwise, from left: firm ride translates into little body roll, but axle tramps under acceleration; TR3A scores extra points for having space behind the seats; agricultural but lusty engine sounds good.
Right: twin-cam engine is a rev-happy delight, but prone to reliability issues when new; plusher seats and a heater inside the first ‘modern’ MG roadster. Below: feelsome brakes boost driver confidence.
Clockwise from left: Ace shape is magnificently sculpted; big handbrake and tiny throttle pedal are oddities in handsome cabin; exotic Bristol ‘six’ has a thoroughbred note and the AC handles confidently.
Right: once you’re in, the XK’s snug cockpit is a nicely finished place to be; 3.4-litre straight-six made 160bhp when new, and delivers its power in creamy dollops for a top speed of 120mph.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS Jaguar XK120
Sold/no built 1948-’1954/7612 (roadster)
Construction steel box-section chassis, steel body (aluminium for first cars)
Engine iron-block, alloy-head, dohc 3442cc straight-six, with twin SU carburettors
Max power 160bhp @ 5200rpm
Max torque 195Ib ft @ 2500rpm
Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
Suspension: front independent, by double wishbones, torsion bars, telescopic dampers and anti-roll bar rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs, lever-arm dampers
Steering recirculating ball Brakes drums
Length 14ft 5 ½ in (4407mm)
Width 5ft 2in (1575mm)
Height 4ft 4 ½ in (1334mm)
Wheelbase 8ft 6in (2591mm)
Weight 2919Ib (1324kg)
0-60mph 12 secs
Top speed 126mph
Price new £1263 3s 11d (1948)
Price now £90-150,000
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS Austin-Healey 100M
Sold/no built 1955-’1956/640
Construction steel ladder chassis, pressed steel body
Engine all-iron, ohv 2660cc ‘four’, twin SU H6 carburettors
Max power 110bhp @ 4500rpm
Max torque 150Ib ft @ 2200rpm
Transmission four-speed manual with overdrive, RWD
Suspension: front wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs, Panhard rod; lever-arm dampers f/r
Steering cam and peg Brakes drums
Length 12ft 7in (3835mm)
Width 5ft ½ in (1536mm)
Height 4ft 1in (1244mm)
Wheelbase 7ft 6in (2286mm)
Weight 2170Ib (984kg)
0-60mph 9.6 secs
Top speed 110mph
Price new £1064
Price now £100-175,000
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS MGA Twin Cam
Sold/no built 1958-’1960/2111
Construction steel box-section chassis, steel body
Engine iron-block, alloy head, dohc 1588cc ‘four’, with two 1 ¾ in SU H6 carburettors
Max power 108bhp @ 6700rpm
Max torque 105Ib ft @ 4500rpm
Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
Suspension: front independent, by wishbones, coil springs rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs; lever-arm dampers f/r
Steering rack and pinion Brakes discs
Length 13ft (3962mm)
Width 4ft 10in (1473mm)
Height 4ft 2in (1270mm)
Wheelbase 7ft 10in (2388mm)
Weight 2156Ib (977kg)
0-60mph 13.3 secs
Top speed 113mph
Price new £1027 (1959)
Price now £30-65,000
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS Triumph TR3A
Sold/no built 1957-’1962/58,236
Construction steel box-section chassis, separate steel body
Engine all-iron, ohv 1991/2138cc ‘four’, with twin SU carburettors
Max power 100bhp @ 4600rpm
Max torque 127Ib ft @ 3350rpm
Transmission four-speed manual, optional overdrive, RWD
Suspension: front independent, by wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs, lever-arm dampers
Steering cam and peg
Brakes discs front, drums rear
Length 12ft 7in (3835mm)
Width 4ft 7in (1410mm)
Height 4ft 2in (1270mm)
Wheelbase 7ft 4in (2235mm)
Weight 2240Ib (1016kg)
0-60mph 12.5 secs
Top speed 102mph
Price new £991 (1959)
Price now £15-40,000
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS AC ACE BRISTOL
Sold/no built 1956-’1963/463
Construction alloy body, tubular chassis
Engine iron-block, alloy-head, cross-pushrod ohv 1971cc straight-six, triple Solex carbs
Max power 125bhp @ 5750rpm
Max torque 122Ib ft @ 4500rpm
Transmission four-speed manual, optional overdrive, RWD
Suspension independent, by transverse leaf spring, lower wishbones, telescopic dampers f/r
Steering Bishop cam steering box
Brakes drums (front discs from 1957)
Length 12ft 8in (3859mm)
Width 4ft 11in (1500mm)
Height 4ft 1in (1244mm)
Wheelbase 7ft 6in (2286mm)
Weight 1800Ib (816kg)
0-60mph 9.1 secs
Top speed 116mph
Price new £2045 (1959)
Price now £250,000-plus