Best British cars: Top 50 all-time greatest British-built cars revealed page 2
We convened a distinguished panel of expert judges to decide once and for all on the best cars ever built in Britain.
From the original Mini to the latest Land Rover Discovery, the small island of Great Britain has punched well above its weight by producing some hugely impressive cars in its time. But what model is the best of the bunch?
Auto Express set itself the unenviable task of naming the best British-built car of all-time, taking into account sales success, groundbreaking design and unbeatable performance. For a task this big, however, we couldn’t do it alone. That’s why we enlisted the help of some industry big-hitters who’ve graced our own Brit List over the past few years, including previous winners Andy Palmer and Ian Robertson. Of course our own team of experts who’ve driven and tested some of these special motors over the years also had their say.
So, scroll down below to see our Best of British countdown of the top 50 cars ever to roll off factory production lines in Great Britain.
The Auto Express team joined forces with a distinguished panel of judges to choose the top 50 best British-built cars...
- Mike Flewitt, CEO, McLaren
- Linda Jackson, CEO, Citroen
- Adrian Hallmark, Group strategy director, JLR
- Edmund King, President, AA
- Andy Palmer, CEO, Aston Martin
- Jonathan Goodman, SVP corporate communications, Volvo
- Duncan Aldred, VP, global Buick and global GMC
- Andy Goss, Global sales director, JLR
- Marek Reichman, Chief creative officer, Aston Martin
- Ian Robertson, Director, BMW
The best British cars top 50
Click the links below to jump to each section...
25. Morris Minor
Years of manufacture: 1948-1971 Price when new: £628 Price now: £400-£20,000Engine: 948cc 4cyl petrol, 37bhpTop speed: 62mph
At the end of World War Two, Morris needed a new affordable car to appeal to the UK and export markets. It brought in hot-shot engineer Alec Issigonis – who also designed the Mini.
He conceived a car that would make the owner proud and was also as big inside as larger, more expensive models. The Morris Minor was finally revealed in 1948, and it became
an instant hit. It was made available in two-door, four-door, convertible, estate, van and pick-up bodystyles, and it became the first British car to sell a million examples. Now it’s one of the most popular classics in Britain, too.
Judge’s verdict: “The Minor is another lesson in car design from Alec Issigonis. Some forget he was even responsible for the car, because the Mini stole the show, but its ingenuity and flexibility will forever make it a classic.” - Sam Naylor, Staff writer, Auto Express
24. Aston Martin Vanquish
Years of manufacture: 2001-2007 Price when new: £164,349Price now: £80,000-£120,000Engine: 5,935cc 12cyl petrol, 450bhpTop speed: 200mph+
After the brutish and slightly crude Virage, the 2001 Vanquish was a revelation. It previewed the VH chassis used in the DB9, making extensive use of bonded aluminium and composite. The sleek looks were the work of Ian Callum, who now pens Jaguars. With comparatively light weight, smooth aerodynamics and a 450bhp V12, the Vanquish became the first production Aston to top 200mph.
The only blot on its copybook was an underdeveloped clutchless transmission; most cars have now been converted with conventional boxes. The chassis glue wasn’t the only successful ‘bond’ – the Vanquish was 007’s car in Die Another Day.
23. Jensen Interceptor FF
Years of manufacture: 1966-71 Price when new: £5,249 Price now: £80,000-£100,000Engine: 6,276cc 8cyl petrol, 330bhpTop speed: 140mph
While the Interceptor is considered a classic in its own right, the huge-engined grand tourer didn’t really push the boundaries of innovation – until the FF came along in 1966. The Ferguson Formula was packed with technology that still seems advanced today.
It was the first performance car with four-wheel drive, beating the more famous Audi Quattro by 14 years. It was the first with anti-lock brakes too, using a system that had been developed for aircraft. Sadly it wasn’t a commercial success, due to the huge list price as well as the right-hand-drive-only format, which ruled out export sales.
22. Jaguar Mk2
Years of manufacture: 1959-1967 Price when new: £1,843Price now: £10,000-£70,000Engine: 3,781cc 6cyl petrol, 200bhpTop speed: 125mph
Few things are equally loved by both bank robbers and policemen, but the Jaguar Mk2 is an exception. Launched in 1959, it was the epitome of the “Grace, space and pace” that marque founder Sir William Lyons said should define a Jaguar. Gorgeous bodywork, a smart wood and leather interior plus engine choices including a 200bhp 3.8-litre straight-six meant that the Mk2 could hit 125mph with five people on board. That made it the first choice as a getaway car – and for the police who were chasing the crooks.
Modern-day Jaguar Mk2 fans are more likely to know the classic saloon model as the car that was driven by an on-screen policeman – Inspector Morse.
21. Aston Martin DB11
Years of manufacture: 2016-present Price when new: £154,900 Price now: £154,900Engine: 5,204cc 12cyl petrol, 608bhpTop speed: 200mph
When you only launch a fresh car every 12 years, you’ve got to ensure any new model is sophisticated enough to be desirable for more than a decade. That’s not easy for anyone, let alone a manufacturing minnow such as Aston.
The formula the company used for the DB11 was to borrow technology and powertrains from Mercedes and recruit a forward-looking executive from Nissan. The model is the company’s first product to be launched under the new regime, and it’s a world-beater. Fast, refined and beautiful to look at, the 200mph V12 coupe has already smashed Aston Martin sales records, and it makes the company’s future look secure once more.
Judge’s verdict: “Not only is the DB11 Aston’s most important ever car, it’s also its best. It may not have the iconic status of the DB5, but in years to come it will be looked at as turning point in Aston’s history.” - Sean Carson, Senior staff writer.
20. Delorean DMC12
Years of manufacture: 1981-1983 Price when new: £16,660Price now: £20,000-£40,000Engine: 2,849cc 6cyl petrol, 130bhpTop speed: 130mph
The DMC12 was supposed to be a futuristic car packed with innovation, and John DeLorean convinced investors – including the British Government – to part with millions to get the project off the ground. Lotus did much of the development work, and a new factory was built in Belfast. However, the stainless steel, gullwinged car was plagued with problems at its launch in 1981 – not least that it was slow and unreliable. As the company plunged into debt, DeLorean grasped at a final straw; he was caught trying to smuggle cocaine to finance the business.
The DMC12’s renaissance came on the screen – it’ll be forever remembered as the time-travelling car in Back To The Future.
19. Austin Seven
Years of manufacture: 1922-1939 Price when new: £135Price now: £5,000-£25,000Engine: 747cc 4cyl petrol, 10.5bhpTop speed: 53mph
Long before the Mini came another tiny British car that was an engineering marvel and international success. The Austin Seven was conceived in the early twenties as a ‘proper car in miniature’ to supplant the motorcycle and sidecar combinations that were the choice of a whole generation of impecunious road users.
The model was a huge success, and was copied and modified all over the world. Production lasted from 1922 until 1939, and other automotive brands including Jaguar, Lotus, BMW and Datsun all began making derivatives of the Seven.
Years of manufacture: 2000-present Price when new: £12,396 Price now: £500-£29,990 Engine: 1,598cc 4cyl petrol, 115bhp Top speed: 124mph
How do you follow an act such the original Mini? The answer was the capital-lettered MINI; a car that was bang up-to-date and yet retained all the original’s fun and character – if not the innovation.
Under the watchful eye of owner BMW, Rover engineers created the all-new model to be a ‘premium’ small car, far away from the original’s budget beginnings. But it was still reasonably compact and – crucially – was great to look at, with smile-inducing driving dynamics. Clever marketing and infinite personalisation options made it a sell-out hit. The range has now expanded and evolved, and it continues to be a great British success story.
17. McLaren 570S
Years of manufacture: 2011-present Price when new: £143,250 Price now: £143,250Engine: 3,799cc 8cyl petrol, 563bhpTop speed: 204mph
Creating a new supercar brand is never going to be an easy task, even if you have a Formula One team and the awesome McLaren F1 road car on your CV. McLaren Automotive’s very first effort – the MP4-12C – was launched all the way back in 2011, but the response from both automotive journalists and customers was surprisingly muted.
McLaren took decisive action, and recruited engineers who could inject passion into the driving experience. They have since created a range of cars that appeal on an emotional level, rather than merely being fast. The cheapest, and therefore most accessible, model of this range is the 570S. At last, it’s a real British alternative to a Ferrari.
Judge’s verdict: “The 570S may be the baby McLaren, but its significance is equal to that of the F1. It brought in a new breed of buyers, and has kept business at the brand booming.” - Richard Ingram, Reviews editor, Auto Express
16. McLaren P1
Years of manufacture: 2013-2015 Price when new: £866,000 Price now: £1.5millionEngine: 3,799cc 8cyl petrol plus electric, 904bhpTop speed: 218mph
Its performance was truly astonishing, thanks to technology in addition to brute force. A 3.8-litre V8 twin-turbo worked with an electric motor to boast a combined 904bhp – more than enough to have bragging rights against a LaFerrari or Porsche 918. Unlike the XJ220, the P1 was a sell-out success, and all 375 were snapped up. It also proved McLaren was a true supercar maker, and helped draw attention to the manufacturer’s range of lesser models.
15. Jaguar XJ220
Years of manufacture: 1992-1994 Price when new: £415,544Price now: £250,000-£500,000Engine: 3,500cc 6cyl petrol, 542bhpTop speed: 212mph
In the booming economy of the eighties, investors clamoured for exotic hypercars. Jaguar revealed a V12 all-wheel-drive beauty at the 1988 Birmingham Motor Show, and instantly received 1,500 orders – each with a huge £50,000 deposit.
However, before the XJ220 reached production, the economy crashed and the car had to be re-engineered. Buyers abandoned their deposits in droves, and a mere 271 examples were produced, each with a retail price of £470,000.
So, was it a failure? Not according to the record books – the XJ220’s top speed of 212mph was enough to make it the fastest in the world.
14. Lotus Esprit
Years of manufacture: 1976-2004 Price when new: £7,979Price now: £9,000-£40,000Engine: 1,973cc 4cyl petrol, 160bhpTop speed: 138mph
Teenagers growing up in the eighties would inevitably have supercar posters on their bedroom wall: a Ferrari GTO, Lamborghini Countach and maybe a Porsche 911 Turbo.
Among them would be a four-cylinder, plastic-bodied car made in Norfolk. How could something so humble be a pin-up? Firstly, the styling was as sharp as the handling. Second, the Esprit was incredibly light – which meant the four-cylinder turbo could keep up with V12s. Finally, it was the Bond factor. When an Esprit turned into a submarine in The Spy Who Loved Me, it became an instant legend.
Judge’s verdict: “The Esprit’s wedge-shaped profile summed up the seventies perfectly – and being an iconic Bond car ensures its classic status will be timeless.” - James Batchelor, Editor-at-large, Auto Express
13. Aston Martin DB9
Years of manufacture: 2004-2016 Price when new: £125,050Price now: £30,000-£170,000Engine: 5,935cc 12cyl petrol, 444bhpTop speed: 186mph
The Aston Martin DB7 may have been beautiful in its day, but the model had fallen massively off the pace by the turn of the millennium – and this was unsurprising, really, as it was based on the ancient Jaguar XJS platform.
The answer was the all-new DB9, a quantum leap for the Newport Pagnell sports car brand. It used a glued aluminium and composite body structure – the process created by Lotus for the Elise. It was strong but light; a DB9 with a Caterham Seven on its roof rack would still be lighter than a Bentley Continental GT. Thanks to this sophistication it lasted 12 years in production, and was one of Aston’s most successful models.
12. Lotus Elan Mk2
Years of manufacture: 1962-1973 Price when new: £1,596Price now: £15,000-£50,000Engine: 1,557cc 4cyl petrol, 100bhpTop speed: 108mph
When Gordon Murray was engineering the McLaren F1 supercar, his benchmark for steering feel was the original Elan. Mazda also used the Lotus as the blueprint for the very first MX-5, even down to making the engine look the same. And for producers of the sixties TV series The Avengers, the gorgeous little roadster was the perfect car for the heartthrob character Emma Peel to drive.
But just why was the Lotus Elan so revered? As with all Lotus models, the car was all about light weight. Sporting a strong steel ‘backbone’ chassis clothed in a fibreglass body, it weighed little more than 700kg. That was enough to give peppy performance and handling that is still a benchmark today.
11. Nissan Qashqai
Years of manufacture: 2007-presentPrice when new: £13,499Price now: £2,895-£25,475 Engine: 1,598cc 4cyl petrol, 117bhpTop speed: 109mph
What is a ‘normal’ car such as the Qashqai doing among all these classics and supercars? Well, Nissan’s best seller is a massively significant model – and it was styled, engineered and built in Britain.
Created after the failure of the bland Almera, the Qashqai melded SUV style with a hatch’s low running costs. It pioneered the crossover sector as we know it today, and spawned imitators across the world. Production passed 1,000,000 after only four years – the fastest UK car to do so. After 10 years, more than 2.3 million have been built in Sunderland, making it one of the most successful Brits ever.
10. Lotus Elise
Years of manufacture: 1996-2001 Price when new: £19,950Price now: £7,000-£30,000Engine: 1,796cc 4cyl petrol, 118bhpTop speed: 124mph
While it may be famous for building cars, most of Lotus’ income comes from engineering. Back in the nineties the company needed a new model to showcase its skills, so its boffins set about building a mid-range sports car that would have to be lightweight and great to drive in order to fit in with the brand ethos.
Revealed in 1996, the Elise took the world by storm. Its chassis was made from extruded aluminium and glued, not welded. The car’s weight was half that of a small family model, and it redefined sports cars with its exceptional dynamics. It’s evolved ever since, and the tech’s been sold to other makers, keeping Lotus afloat.
9. Ford Escort Mk1
Years of manufacture: 1967-1975 Price when new: £666 Price now: £500-£50,000Engine: 1,263cc 4cyl petrol, 75bhpTop speed: 95mph
When Ford needed to replace its family favourite, the Anglia, it took the formula used for the Cortina and shrunk it. The resultant 1967 Escort was a simple car mechanically, with four-cylinder petrol engines powering the rear wheels – unlike most of the competition. However, the Escort had modern, American-inspired styling that appealed to British buyers in their millions.
While it offered sensible family transport the Escort also proved formidable in motorsport, and it become one of the most victorious rally cars ever. This led to a range of affordable sporty saloons for the road, too, with legendary names such as Mexico and RS2000 created to cash in on rallying success.
Judge’s verdict: “The Escort brought high-performance motoring to the masses, and essentially coined the phrase ‘Win on Sunday, sell on Monday’.” - Jonathan Burn, News editor, Auto Express
8. Caterham/Lotus Seven
Years of manufacture: 1957-present Price when new: £1,157Price now: £10,000-£33,990Engine: 1,172cc 4cyl petrol, 34bhpTop speed: 80mph
Lotus founder Colin Chapman was obsessed with weight. His mantra was to “add lightness” in order to increase performance, and the successful results on racetracks proved his concept. The most enduring of his designs was the Seven. Launched in 1957 as a kit car, it proved huge fun to drive and offered amazing performance from a humble Ford saloon car engine.
In 1973, Lotus wanted to move upmarket and produce fully built cars. A dealer, Caterham Cars, bought the rights to the Seven, and is still making them today. There have been many versions and refinements, but the best seller is still offering thrills from a combination of simplicity and a mainstream Ford powerplant.
7. Ford GT40
Years of manufacture: 1964-1969 Price when new: £5,200Price now: £2million-plusEngine: 4,737cc 8cyl petrol, 306bhpTop speed: 164mph
The GT40 was a car fuelled by revenge. When Enzo Ferrari scuppered Henry Ford’s plans to buy Ferrari in 1963, Ford decided to hit the Italians where it hurt most – on the race track. He ordered a crack team of British engineers to build a car to end Ferrari’s run of wins at Le Mans.
The resulting 4.7-litre V8 stunner was aerodynamic and powerful, but was rushed into production. As a result, the first year of racing was disastrous, and Ferrari triumphed again. Carroll Shelby was brought in to rework the cars, and soon victories rolled in. Henry Ford finally got his Le Mans wins; the GT40 won four consecutive times, from 1966 onwards.
6. Range Rover Mk1
Years of manufacture: 1970-1996 Price when new: £1,998 Price now: £1,000-£140,000Engine: 3,528cc 8cyl petrol, 132bhpTop speed: 95mph
By the end of the sixties, Rover built comfortable saloons and the workday Land Rover. Managers decided to combine the two into one car. The Landie’s chassis was modified to accept coil springs, and Rover’s burbling V8 was mated to 4WD. The cabin was far from luxurious, but was comfortable and practical.
The result – the Range Rover – was supreme in both the mud and the snow, great for towing and still refined enough to drive everyday. It was gradually moved upmarket until it was replaced with the Mk2 in 1996, and it could justifiably be called the first crossover and luxury SUV.
5. McLaren F1
Years of manufacture: 1992-1998 Price when new: £540,000 Price now: £8,000,000Engine: 6,064cc 12cyl petrol, 627bhpTop speed: 240mph
It’s an engineer’s dream: forget the cost, just make the ultimate supercar. This particular dream was Gordon Murray’s, and he got backers such as McLaren’s Ron Dennis and BMW to help him realise it. His goals were low weight and high power from a car using the most exotic materials available. Even once BMW’s huge 6.1-litre V12 was bolted in, the F1 weighed only 1,138kg.
Performance was devastating – its 240mph top speed drove it straight into the record books. Few could afford such an uncompromised car, though – it cost £500,000-plus and only 106 were made.
Judge’s verdict: “The Aston Martin DB5, Jaguar E-Type and Lotus Elan take the top spots for pure beauty, style and class. They could really be in any order – but the McLaren F1 is the car many would love to own.” - Graham Hope, Editor, Auto Express
4. Aston Martin DB5
Years of manufacture: 1963-1965 Price when new: £4,248 Price now: £100,000-£1,000,000Engine: 3,995cc 6cyl petrol, 282bhpTop speed: 145mph
The DB5 could be famous for many qualities, but none will eclipse its achievement of being the greatest piece of product placement ever. The DB5 has starred in five Bond films since 1964’s Goldfinger, and helped Aston Martin to become one of the world’s coolest brands. Bond chose well: the DB5 was beautiful, and had the performance to match with a 4.0-litre straight-six producing 282bhp – or 315bhp in the Vantage.
There was a convertible, too, if you wanted to ensure the many admirers saw you driving. Production lasted only two years and 1,059 cars before the visually similar DB6 arrived.
Judge’s verdict: “The DB5 has to be every Englishman’s favourite, thanks to James Bond. I also had a wonderful Matchbox toy car replica when I was seven years old.” - Duncan Aldred, Vice president, Global Buick and Global GMC
3. Land Rover Series/Defender
Years of manufacture: 1948-2016 Price when new: £1,730 Price now: £1,500-£50,000Engine: 1,997cc 4cyl petrol, 52bhpTop speed: 50mph
Few cars inspire such passion as the Land Rover Series and Defender ranges. The best-known 4x4 in Britain lasted in production with relatively minor evolution from 1948 until last year – and when the final example rolled off the line, it made the national news.
The Land Rover was born after World War Two, when Rover needed to find a car it could make using the expertise (and materials) gleaned from its military contracts. It would have to use the minimum amount of rationed steel and be attractive to export markets; after all, bombed-out Britain needed to earn some foreign money to rebuild itself.
Engineer Maurice Wilks suggested a vehicle that could be dual purpose on and off-road, modelled on the Army surplus Jeeps his family used. It would have the same mechanical layout as the Jeep, a Rover saloon engine and a flat-panelled alloy body to save on rationed steel.
The result, launched in 1948, was crude and compromised, but was peerless off-road and usable on the tarmac, making it a true dual-purpose workhorse. It was the first vehicle seen by many people in far-flung places, the staple transport of the British Army, kept farmers farming and helped emergency services save lives.
The Defender’s evolution was slow but steady, with it undergoing a few refinements over the years to keep it bearable in the face of imitators. Perhaps its greatest achievement was to be the foundation of the flourishing Land Rover brand.
Judge’s verdict: “The Land Rover really is one of a kind, a true icon of British auto history. A car that was in production for 67 years, virtually unchanged, deserves to be on the podium.” - James Disdale, Chief reviewer, Auto Express
2. Jaguar E-Type
Years of manufacture: 1961-1975 Price when new: £1,934Price now: £35,000-£100,000Engine: 3,781cc 6cyl petrol, 265bhpTop speed: 150mph
When the E-Type was revealed at the 1961 Geneva Motor Show, Enzo Ferrari said it was the most beautiful car he’d ever seen. He’d created the most desirable models in the world, and yet it was a Jaguar that took his breath away.
The beauty wasn’t only skin deep. The E-Type had sophisticated independent suspension, a monocoque body, all-round disc brakes and a 265bhp 3.8-litre engine – proper supercar performance at the time. It had a 150mph top speed at a time when most cars would struggle to top 60mph.
All this was available for only £2,097 for the roadster and £2,196 for the coupe – about half the price of a contemporary Ferrari or Aston Martin with similar performance, and around the same price as a BMW 5 Series in today’s money.
The E-Type was developed from the Le Mans-winning D-Type, and used the same basic design and construction methods. It, too, saw competition victories, especially when Jaguar built special lightweight versions using aluminium bodywork.
However, it was on the road where the E-Type saw the most success, as buyers flocked to showrooms. The car was developed with further refinements, including a 2+2 model to make sure family motorists didn’t miss out on the fun, and a massive 5.3-litre V12 engine to give the car effortless performance right up until the end of its life in 1975. That muscle and those looks ensured the E-Type was – and has remained – highly desirable and a blue-chip classic.
Judge’s verdict: “Inevitably the iconic E-Type leads the way; it’s a car that helped define the sixties. However, the richness of British design can easily be evidenced in the list itself.” - Andy Goss, Global sales director, JLR
Years of manufacture: 1959-2000 Price when new: £506 Price now: £500-£30,000Engine: 850cc 4cyl petrol, 34bhpTop speed: 73mph
There surely can’t be anyone in Britain whose life hasn’t been touched by a Mini. Throughout its marathon 41-year production run, the car become an icon of British innovation, a fashion accessory and a motorsport hero that also brought affordable motoring to the masses.
These diverse achievements were possible because of a truly inventive approach to auto design. Faced with a fuel crisis and onslaught of super-economical, German-made ‘bubble’ cars, BMC bosses tasked designer Alec Issigonis to make a sub-10-feet (3m) car that could carry a family of four.
The ingenious result utilised every inch of space. Tiny 10-inch wheels were pushed into the corners of the car to make more room inside. Instead of bulky conventional springs, the Mini used compact rubber cones. Then the gearbox was placed in the engine’s sump and the whole powerplant mounted transversely, so the cylinders were lined up sideways across the car to perfectly fill the space.
The result was launched to a stunned public in 1959. The Mini was almost too radical for conservative Brits, and it wasn’t until celebrities and racing drivers started to be seen in the car that it became fashionable. One of those racing stars was John Cooper, who immediately realised that the Mini had giant-killing potential in motorsport. After a few tweaks to increase power, the Mini Cooper was born.
By the time the Mini was replaced, 5.3million had been built. It had become a convertible, estate, van and pick-up. Minis were once as common as lampposts on UK roads. Now the originals are cherished classics that raise a smile from everyone. They still dominate classic motorsport, too. No wonder our experts said the mighty Mini is the mightiest British car of all time.
Judge’s verdict: “There’s only one choice for the top spot: the Mini. It’s one of the most influential cars ever built, and lasted for decades with the design barely changed.” - Edmund King, President, AA.
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- 1Best British cars: Top 50 all-time greatest British-built cars revealedWe convened a distinguished panel of expert judges to decide once and for all on the best cars ever built in Britain.
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