Best British car brands: A to Z of the Great British motor industry

From the sheer luxury of Rolls Royce to the eccentric style of Morgan

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When it comes to the British car industry, variation is the name of the game. Our country offers the motorist everything from the sensibilities of Jaguar Land Rover and the luxury of Rolls-Royce, to the performance of Aston Martin and McLaren, and the sheer eccentricity of BAC and Caterham.

High prices are common across the board, but so too is style, sophistication, performance, luxury and exclusivity. Some of the UK’s biggest names aren’t entirely British-owned anymore, but all of the companies featured here build (or at least finish, in the case of Rolls-Royce) their cars in the UK.

Eccentricity pumps through the veins of the British car industry. Ariel, for examples, builds cars without roofs, doors and windscreens, while Bowler turns old Land Rover Defenders into off-road monsters, and David Brown charges over £80,000 for reconditioned Minis with Apple CarPlay.

Even the larger, apparently more sensible companies occasionally descend into madness, like when Aston Martin rebadged the Toyota iQ and tried to sell it for three times the original price in a bid to cut its average emissions levels. Then there’s Morgan, which has been making the same car for 82 years and genuinely counts a clock, radio and door pockets as ‘optional extras’.

So come along, as T3 takes you on a whistle stop tour of the Great British car industry, from sheds in fields to global corporations and everything in-between.

Ariel

We begin in Somerset and at Ariel. Not to be confused with a famous mermaid or brand of detergent, this Ariel began by making penny farthing bicycles in 1870, when it also patented the spoked wheel. 

Ariel switched to cars in the early 20th century, then moved to motorbikes in 1916, where it stayed until production ended in 1973.

The company bounced back in 2000 with the Atom, a hairy-chested road racer with a skeletal body and no roof, doors or windscreen. Second- and third-generation Atoms upped the power from 190bhp to 300bhp, before the Atom V8 arrived in 2010 with an outrageous 500bhp - and a 0-60mph time of 2.3 seconds.

More recently, Ariel added the Nomad buggy to its range in 2015, perfect for when you fancy popping to the shops via fields instead of roads.

Aston Martin

Founded in London in 1913, Aston Martin has had a more difficult life than the James Bond glamour may have you believe. When current CEO Andy Palmer took over in 2014 he joked about how the company went bankrupt seven times in the 20th century, but since then it has gone from strength to strength.

While there is of course the legendary DB line - including Bond’s DB5 - Aston Martin’s current portfolio is an impressive lineup, ranging from the new Vantage, to the four-door Rapide and upcoming Valkyrie hypercar.

The Gaydon-based firm is also working to relaunch its Lagonda sub-brand as a luxury electric car maker.

BAC

Liverpool-based Briggs Automotive Company produces the Mono, named because it has a single, central seat. Built in small numbers, the Mono is powered by a 305bhp Mountune engine and, because it only weighs 540kg, can hit 60mph in 2.8 seconds.

The car has a detachable steering wheel with LCD display, and a seating position where your legs are stretched out ahead, feet high, F1-style.

BAC was founded by brothers Neil and Ian Briggs in 2009 and the first cars were completed two years later. Pricing for the Mono starts at £165,000, but each car can be tailored to the customer’s exact requirement.

Bentley

A stalwart of the British motor industry, Bentley was formed in 1919 and has been owned by the Volkswagen group since 1998. The company dominated Le Mans in its early days, winning the 24-hour race in 1924, 1927, 1928, 1929 and 1930. Bentley also won again in 2003, with a little help from fellow VW firm, Audi,

Bentley was best known for producing luxury saloon cars in a similar vein to Rolls-Royce through the 1970s and 80s, before switching up a gear with the Continental GT in 2003. More recently, Bentley entered the luxury SUV market with the Bentayga in 2016.

Caterham

Sussex-based Caterham Cars began life as a Lotus 7 dealer in the 1960s, before founder Graham Nearn purchased the rights to produce the car when it went out of production the following decade.

Lotus and subsequently Caterham are credited with kickstarting the British kit car industry, and even today the Caterham Seven can be bought in kit form and assembled at home. The company estimates that construction should take between 80 and 100 hours.

Fittingly, there are currently seven cars in the lineup, ranging from the 160 which has just 80bhp, all the way up to 620R, with 310bhp and a 0-60mph time of 2.8 seconds.

David Brown Automotive

Not to be confused with the David Brown who once owned Aston Martin - and where the DB naming prefix came from - this is a different man of the same name. Founded in Coventry in 2013, David Brown Automotive produces two vehicles, the Speedback GT and the Mini Remastered.

The Speedback GT launched in 2014 and is the result of giving the chassis of a Jaguar XK-R a body reminiscent of cars from the 1960s - and specifically the Aston Martin DB4, 5 and 6. The car is hand-built from aluminium, powered by a 510bhp Jaguar V8 engine, and costs in the region of £500,000.

The second car is the Mini Remastered, which launched in 2017 and is essentially a restored classic Mini with an updated and modernised interior, complete with Bluetooth, touch screen and Apple CarPlay. Prices start from £75,000, but if you fancy one of the 25 ‘Inspired by Monte Carlo’ examples, pictured, you’ll need - deep breath - £82,500. Plus tax.

Eagle

Taking a similar approach, Eagle has been restoring E-Type Jaguars since 1984, spending 4,000 hours on each car to blend modern performance with classic styling. More recently, Eagle has branched out into producing so-called ‘restomods’, where old cars are made into something new.

The Eagle Speedster takes an original E-Type, which is then treated to a shallower windscreen, updated mechanicals, and other sympathetic changes to the its aesthetics.

Jaguar Land Rover

The Jaguar and Land Rover brands have previously been owned by both British Leyland and Ford, before becoming one in 2008 as a subsidiary of the India-based Tata Motors. Now Britain’s largest car maker, JLR produced 532,000 vehicles in 2017.

Both firms have enviable bloodlines, with Land Rover offering the Defender, Discovery and Range Rover sub-brand, while Jaguar’s back catalogue includes the C-, E- and D-Types of the fifties and sixties, the XJ220 of the nineties, XK and XJ of the noughties, and today’s F-Type and electric I-Pace.

Lotus

Founded in 1952 by Colin Chapman, Lotus is perhaps the most dedicated of all British car makers, in that it has only ever focused on lightweight sports cars. There are no Lotus estates and certainly no SUVs to dilute Chapman’s original recipe of ‘simplify then add lightness’.

Lotus is of course known for the Seven, which became the Caterham 7 mentioned earlier, but it gained equal notirity from Formula One, where its drivers included Stirling Moss, Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, Mario Andretti and Ayrton Senna.

The current lineup of Lotus road cars includes the Elise, which first went into production in 1996, the larger Evora, and the more track-focused Exige and 3-Eleven. 

McLaren

McLaren built its first road car, the F1, in 1993, then partnered with Mercedes on the SLR supercar in 2003. But while these felt like side projects to the company’s Formula One team, this changed in 2011 with the launch of the MP4-12C, a proper mass-production supercar from a new company, McLaren Automotive.

Since then, the Woking firm has proved itself as a genuine rival to Porsche and Ferrari - a remarkable achieved when you consider those names have been around for 70 years compared to McLaren Automotive’s seven.

Today, the 720S supercar is joined by the entry-level 540C and 570S, the more refined 570GT, and the Senna, which recently superseded the P1 as McLaren’s flagship offering.

Morgan

Back to Britain’s cottage sports car industry, and one of the oldest players in the game. Morgan began producing three-wheelers in 1909, before the four-wheeled 4/4 was launched in 1936. Staggeringly, this car is still in production today some 82 years later, and still follows much of the original recipe, including a wooden frame.

Located in the Malvern Hills, Morgan produces three ‘classic’ models, alongside the (slightly) more modern-looking Aero GT and a new incarnation of the original Three Wheeler. Later in 2018, Morgan will begin producing an electric version of the Three Wheeler, called the EV3.

Rolls-Royce

Owned by BMW since 1998, Rolls-Royce can trace its history back to 1906. Today, the cars are partly built in Germany then completed at the Rolls-Royce factory in Goodwood, Sussex. The current range includes the Ghost, Wraith, Phantom and Dawn, with the new Cullinan SUV joining the family this summer.

As unapologetically enormous as they are extravagant, every detail of a Rolls-Royce can be tailored to the customer’s demands. For the latest Phantom, that even means having miniature 3D pieces of art installed on an area of the dashboard RR calls ‘the gallery’.

In fact, the company’s use of language to describe its cars is rather unlike any other manufacturer. For example, the retracting roof mechanism of the convertible Dawn is referred to as “a silent ballet”. No one else could use such creative license, but we think Rolls just about gets away with it.

TVR

And finally - and back from the dead, again - we have TVR. Named after founder Trevor Wilkinson in 1946, Blackpool-based TVR is synonymous for lightweight and powerful, two-seat sports cars.

As with Aston Martin, however, TVR is no stranger to bankruptcy. The company first fell into liquidation in 1965, but was quickly bought up and resumed production the following year. Through the 1970s, TVR earned itself a rebellious streak by hiring nude models to pose with its cars at the British Motor Show, earning it both publicity and a slapped wrist from the organisers.

In 2004, TVR was bought by Russian businessman Nikolay Smolensky, who, over the next decade, laid off staff, split the firm into several different companies, hired his personal assistant as a director, and relaunched two cars but never actually put them back into production.

Fast-forward to 2017 and, under new owners, TVR revealed the new Griffith, a V8-powered, 500bhp sports car with a carbon fibre chassis, and prices starting at £90,000. The first cars are scheduled to arrive in 2019.