Best British cars: Top 50 all-time greatest British-built cars revealed
The British car industry has had its highs and lows but what are the best cars ever built in Britain? We pick our top 50!
From the original Mini to the best modern day offerings from the likes of Land Rover, Rolls-Royce and McLaren, 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. Of course, our own team of experts who’ve driven and tested some of these special motors in their time also had their say.
So, scroll down to see our Best of British countdown of the top 50 cars ever to roll off factory production lines in Great Britain...
The best British cars top 50
50. Triumph Herald
- Years of manufacture: 1959-1971
- Price when new: £708
- Price now: £500-£10,000
- Engine: 1,147cc 4cyl petrol, 48bhp
- Top speed: 80mph
For an entire generation of drivers, the Triumph Herald will forever hold a special place in their hearts as the car in which they learned to drive. Throughout its 12-year run, it was the first choice for driving schools due to its great visibility and easy-to-use controls, plus its party trick – a 7.6m turning circle that made test manoeuvres a breeze.
Once a licence was obtained, the Herald still made sense as a family car. It was cheap to run and maintain, yet had the look of a miniature American automobile with fins and hooded headlamps. The interior was marginally more luxurious than rivals’, too.
49. Vauxhall Astra Mk2
- Years of manufacture: 1984-1991
- Price when new: £7,971
- Price now: £200-£12,000
- Engine: 1,598cc 4cyl petrol, 81bhp
- Top speed: 111mph
Ford’s Escort was looking old by the time the Astra Mk2 was introduced in late 1984, giving Vauxhall a real chance to catch its rival. The Astra was good enough to win the European Car of the Year award in 1985, and had an aerodynamic body that looked modern and saved on fuel, too. The model’s case was helped when the Mk4 Escort was launched to a lukewarm reception. To keep up with Ford, Vauxhall offered myriad bodystyles: hatchbacks, vans, estates, convertibles and even a saloon called the Belmont.
Despite all this, the Astra never quite caught the Escort in the sales charts – but it got close enough to convince the blue oval that it needed to make more of an effort.
Judge’s verdict: “Three-door, five-door, estate, convertible, van and saloon – the Mk2 Astra had all the bases covered. A 1989 BTCC title for John Cleland in a GTE provided some performance glamour, too.” - Stuart Milne, Editor, CarBuyer
48. TVR Chimaera
- Years of manufacture: 1992-2003
- Price when new: £26,720
- Price now: £10,000-£20,000
- Engine: 3,950cc 8cyl petrol, 275bhp
- Top speed: 158mph
As tastes and legislation changed, traditional big-engined British sports cars had withered away to virtual extinction by the nineties. The notable exception was TVR. The Blackpool manufacturer bucked the trend for blander, safer cars as it made outrageously styled roadsters complete with meaty V8s.
The Chimaera was developed as a more practical GT version of the Griffith, with softened driving dynamics and a more usable boot. It retained the same Rover-derived V8, soft-top arrangement and questionable build quality. It became something of a surprise hit, too – in its 10- year production run more than 6,000 were produced, making it the company’s biggest success.
47. Land Rover Freelander
- Years of manufacture: 1997-2015
- Price when new: £15,995
- Price now: £500-£30,000
- Engine: 1,796cc 4cyl petrol, 118bhp
- Top speed: 102mph
Rover didn’t have the money to develop it, so the project stalled. BMW immediately saw the potential and ordered that work be restarted. Three years later, the Freelander arrived. A range of bodystyles and engines covered all the market and it was a huge hit. It stemmed the flow of Japanese rivals with better brand image and surprisingly good off-road ability. The second generation took the brand further upmarket and improved reliability.
46. Jaguar XJ6 Mk1
- Years of manufacture: 1968-1973
- Price when new: £1,797
- Price now: £2,000-£30,000
- Engine: 2,792cc 6cyl petrol, 180bhp
- Top speed: 120mph
“The best car in the world” is a boast that Rolls-Royce would hope to own. But in 1968 the title belonged to the Jaguar XJ, a model line that has survived unbroken until today. With graceful styling, interior luxury, excellent refinement and effortless performance, the first XJ was the choice of celebrities, VIPs and successful executives alike. The V12 version added 140mph performance, too, although it certainly needed both of its distinctive twin fuel tanks to feed its engine.
The Mk2 came along in 1973 with arguably better looks, but it was then built by British Leyland and the quality suffered. As a result, the Mk1 is regarded by some as Jaguar’s finest-ever saloon.
45. Ford Sierra
- Years of manufacture: 1982-1993
- Price when new: £6,615
- Price now: £300-£60,000
- Engine: 1,769cc 4cyl petrol, 90bhp
- Top speed: 106mph
Although it eventually became a common sight, the Sierra caused a seismic shock upon its 1982 launch. Rather than evolve the best-selling Cortina, Ford changed the shape to something far more radical – and the public wasn’t quite ready. The Sierra was nicknamed “the jellymould”, and sales were slow at first.
Yet with familiarity the Sierra became a success and started to make its rivals look old-fashioned – even though the car still had a very conventional powertrain. The image boost was helped by the legendary RS Cosworth, which became famous for its racetrack success and infamous for its magnetism to joyriding thieves.
Judge’s verdict: “The most extraordinary thing about the Sierra has to be the RS Cosworth. It was a true race car for the road, and remains one of the ultimate eighties icons.” - Steve Fowler, Editor-in-chief, Auto Express
44. Vauxhall Viva
- Years of manufacture: 1963-1966
- Price when new: £539
- Price now: £500-£6,000
- Engine: 1,057cc 4cyl petrol, 44bhp
- Top speed: 80mph
Vauxhall watched in envy during the sixties as Morris and Ford chalked up thousands of sales with their Minor and Anglia respectively. The solution was the 1963 Viva HA, a conventional-looking saloon that was exceptionally easy to drive, with light controls and good visibility. These attributes made it popular with new drivers and women – a fact Vauxhall made the most of in its advertising.
Despite being a huge success, the HA was replaced by the Viva HB after only three years. The Bedford van version of the HA lasted rather longer; huge fleet deals with British Telecom and the Royal Mail kept it in production until 1983.
43. Rolls-Royce Dawn
- Years of manufacture: 2015-present
- Price when new: £265,155
- Price now: £265,175
- Engine: 6,592cc 12cyl petrol, 563bhp
- Top speed: 155mph
Although most of us will never be able to afford any sort of Rolls-Royce, it’s easy to think that the £265,000 Dawn is merely a Rolls for buyers who aren’t quite rich enough to afford the £365,000 Phantom drophead.
However, the reality is a little different. The Dawn is more compact and more engaging from behind the wheel than the Phantom – a model that in turn has always been described by Rolls-Royce itself as a “yacht for the road”. The luxury British manufacturer hopes that the less ostentatious Dawn will appeal to a much younger audience, who might otherwise be tempted to buy a Continental GT from old rival Bentley.
Judge’s verdict: “The Dawn is an exceedingly expensive car, but spend five minutes with the Rolls and you’ll see why. It’s eminently desirable and exquisitely built - British engineering at its finest.” - John McIlroy, Deputy editor, Auto Express
42. Jaguar XF
- Years of manufacture: 2007-present
- Price when new: £33,900
- Price now: £32,490
- Engine: 1,999cc 4cyl diesel, 163bhp
- Top speed: 132mph
Under Ford’s ownership, Jaguar launched the S-Type. A rival to the BMW 5 Series, it harked back to the glory days when Jaguars were the most beautiful cars on the road. The trouble was it missed the mark and wasn’t terribly attractive.
Jaguar designer Ian Callum changed all that when it came to replace the S. Instead of creating a bad pastiche of an old car, he styled something that was seen as being as bold and well proportioned in 2007 as the Mk2 was in 1959. A smart estate, efficient diesels and a neat facelift have helped the XF become a car that would actually be tempting for a BMW owner.
41. Jaguar F-Pace
- Years of manufacture: 2015-present
- Price when new: £34,170
- Price now: £34,730
- Engine: 1,999cc 4cyl diesel, 163bhp
- Top speed: 121mph
The idea of a Jaguar SUV would have seemed crazy only a decade ago. The brand was famous for sleek sports cars and saloons, not clunky mud-pluggers. But times change. Bosses looked on in envy as BMW, Mercedes and Audi swept up buyers with a range of family friendly ‘lifestyle’ 4x4s such as the X5 and ML – so it grabbed a piece of the action, in some style.
The F-Pace combined the great dynamics of the saloons with the style of the sports car. It’s not meant to be a hardcore off-roader, but Land Rover helped with the 4x4 system, too. It was good enough to be our Car of the Year in 2016.
40. Vauxhall Cavalier Mk2
- Years of manufacture: 1981-1988
- Price when new: £6,588
- Price now: £500-£5,000
- Engine: 1,598cc 4cyl petrol, 90bhp
- Top speed: 105mph
In the early eighties, the company car market accounted for a massive chunk of British car purchases. Salesmen and middle managers plied their trade by travelling on the motorways of Britain, mainly in Cortinas. However, the Ford was getting old, the Austin Princess was staid and the Maxi was too weird.
Against these rivals Vauxhall introduced the attractive, front-wheel-drive Cavalier. It offered class-leading economy to keep the expense claims low, and was faster than rivals, too. When Ford launched its radical Sierra in 1982, the market took time to adjust, giving Vauxhall even more time to gain a foothold. The two marques have fought for supremacy in the sector ever since.
39. Rover SD1
- Years of manufacture: 1976-1986
- Price when new: £4,750
- Price now: £1,000-£10,000
- Engine: 2,597cc 6cyl petrol, 136bhp
- Top speed: 119mph
Rover tends to be remembered these days as a manufacturer of staid cars, but back in the sixties and seventies its designs were really cutting-edge. The SD1 (it was the first car from a Special Division) looked like a Ferrari Daytona, had an innovation called a ‘hatchback’ and used new production techniques. It was even impressive enough to win the European Car of the Year title in 1977.
However, the curse of British Leyland struck again. Models that made it through the strikes fell apart and had to be rebuilt and repainted by dealers. Amazingly, buyers stuck with it, and the car evolved into a respected exec – especially in muscular V8 Vitesse form.
38. AC Ace/Cobra
- Years of manufacture: 1953-1967
- Price when new: £2,453
- Price now: £400,000-plus
- Engine: 4,727cc 8cyl petrol, 271bhp
- Top speed: 140mph
AC had been quietly making cars at its facility to the south of London ever since 1901, including in the fifties a pretty roadster called the Ace. The two-seater then got the attention of a retired American racing driver called Carroll Shelby, who had a dream of making a supercar that could beat the Chevrolet Corvette and even the mighty Ferrari on track.
So Shelby bolted a Ford V8 engine on to the Ace chassis and renamed the car the Cobra. It was pretty and exceptionally fast, both on and off the circuit. It’s since been copied by countless replica and kit car companies. The Cobra was also blamed for the imposition of the motorway speed limit in Britain, after a test driver was clocked at 185mph on the M1 in a race-tuned coupe.
37. Bentley Continental GT
- Years of manufacture: 2003-present
- Price when new: £110,000
- Price now: £141,240
- Engine: 5,998cc 12cyl petrol, 552bhp
- Top speed: 198mph
After a stressful divorce from Rolls-Royce in 1998, Bentley was free to make its own cars rather than merely rebadging Rollers. To help, it had the money and expertise of new owner the Volkswagen Group. The Continental GT was revealed to an eager world in 2003, and in some ways it was controversial.
The coupe shared major parts with VW’s Phaeton luxury saloon, and the Crewe factory used some mass-production techniques rather than previous Bentleys’ hand-built craftsmanship. Yet the GT was half the cost of what went before, and faster, more comfortable and better to drive. It hugely boosted sales worldwide.
36. Ariel Atom
- Years of manufacture: 2000-present
- Price when new: £19,995
- Price now: £30,572
- Engine: 1,998cc 4cyl petrol, 245bhp
- Top speed: 140mph
Setting up as a brand new sports car manufacturer in Britain is often seen as a highly efficient way to turn a large fortune into a small one; the list of failed companies is tragically long. However, Ariel has proven to be an exception.
Developed from a university project, the Atom is basically a single-seat racer with an extra seat and the bare minimum to make it road legal. It weighs 620kg, has a Lotus-engineered chassis and power is from a choice of reliable Honda units. If that didn’t offer enough thrills, Ariel got an even better reception when it bolted in a 500bhp V8 and gave the pylon-on-wheels a 2.3 second 0-60mph time.
Judge’s verdict: “It’s not to all tastes, but the Atom demonstrates the breadth of talent in the UK automotive industry. It really is a car unlike anything else.” - Steve Walker, Website editor, Auto Express
35. Vauxhall 30/98
- Years of manufacture: 1913-1927
- Price when new: £1,350
- Price now: £400,000-plus
- Engine: 4,244cc 4cyl petrol, 115bhp
- Top speed: 100mph
The pre-war Vauxhall 30/98 might look like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but in its day it was one of the ultimate supercars. The 30/90 Velox was produced to satisfy a racer who complained that no car could maintain 100mph at Brooklands race circuit.
Vauxhall came up with a new 115bhp, 4.2-litre four-cylinder that it proved could – unlike contemporary Bentleys and other exotica. The car was relatively luxurious, too, with innovations such as electric lights and a starter motor. About 600 30/98s were built from 1913-’27; a third are thought to survive today.
34. Triumph Stag
- Years of manufacture: 1970-1977
- Price when new: £2,093
- Price now: £1,500-£25,000
- Engine: 2,997cc 8cyl petrol, 146bhp
- Top speed: 115mph
With a range of successful sports saloons and roadsters to its name, Triumph was in a good position to launch an upmarket four-seater luxury convertible. The Stag had Italian styling, hard and soft-tops, plenty of gadgets and a newly designed V8 under the bonnet. On paper it was more than a match for rivals such as the Mercedes SL – but the theory didn’t take into account the poor engineering, shoddy production and industrial disputes that plagued the British motor industry in the seventies.
The complex V8 engine constantly broke, usually in a terminal manner, and the car became virtually unsellable. As a result, only 25,877 examples were produced before the Stag was finally put down in 1977. Despite all of this, it is a collectors’ car today.
Judge’s verdict: “With svelte styling, a T-shaped roll-over bar and seating for four, the Stag had the right ingredients to be a success. It was just a shame BL chose the wrong engine for it.” - Lawrence Allan, Staff writer, Auto Express
33. Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost
- Years of manufacture: 1906-1926
- Price when new: £998
- Price now: £10million-plus
- Engine: 7,036cc 6cyl petrol, 48bhp
- Top speed: 60mph
Rolls-Royce launched a car called the 40/50hp in 1906. A year later, a model was built for marketing purposes and called ‘Silver Ghost’ because of its silver paint and spooky quietness. The car was exquisitely engineered – and to prove this, it was used successfully in reliability trials, which included driving between London and Glasgow 27 times. The task would be gruelling in a modern motor on today’s roads, let alone back then.
As a result the Silver Ghost became famous, and Rolls-Royce began to apply the name to all of its 40/50hp models. The original Silver Ghost, wearing the registration plate AX201, is now thought to be one of the most valuable cars in the world.
32. Jaguar F-Type
- Years of manufacture: 2013-present
- Price when new: £51,235
- Price now: £51,455
- Engine: 2,995cc 6cyl petrol, 337bhp
- Top speed: 161mph
Ever since the portly XJ-S replaced the E-Type, enthusiasts had been calling for Jaguar to make an F-Type. It should be a lithe sports car with good looks and great handling, they said, capable of exciting the same passions as the E-Type did upon its launch. A concept model got close to production back in 1982, but never quite made it. Then, in 2013, the enthusiasts finally got their wish.
The new F-Type was small, fast and great to drive. Its styling nodded to the classic E but was also bang up to date. A coupe arrived a year later and arguably looked even better. It’s a car worthy of the name.
31. Jaguar XK120
- Years of manufacture: 1948-1954
- Price when new: £1,263
- Price now: £60,000-£120,000
- Engine: 3,442cc 6cyl petrol, 160bhp
- Top speed: 120mph
In 1948, Jaguar wanted to test and publicise its brand new engine. It took a Mk5 saloon chassis and added a sleek roadster body, then put the car on its London Motor Show stand, and watched as eager customers waved chequebooks at its sales staff. The first customer in line was film star Clark Gable.
The XK120’s number denoted the top speed; it was the world’s fastest production car. The first versions were wood framed with aluminium panels, but by 1950 Jaguar realised it couldn’t keep up with demand so switched to more conventional steel construction. The car was replaced in 1954 by the equally pretty XK140.
30. Range Rover Evoque
- Years of manufacture: 2011-present
- Price when new: £27,995
- Price now: £30,760
- Engine: 1,999cc 4cyl diesel, 148bhp
- Top speed: 113mph
In an idle moment, Jaguar stylist Julian Thompson doodled a car for sister brand Land Rover. It was a compact, premium SUV that looked incredibly futuristic and had certain lines that linked to one of his earlier designs – the Lotus Elise.
Bosses liked the look of it and developed it into the 2008 LRX concept. The reaction persuaded them to put it into production – complete with a posh interior and the Range Rover badge to justify its inflated price. By launch in September 2011, Land Rover had 18,000 deposits for the car they named Evoque. A year later, the company had sold a huge 80,000 and there was a lengthy waiting list.
29. Austin Healey 3000
- Years of manufacture: 1959-1968
- Price when new: £1,257
- Price now: £20,000-£70,000
- Engine: 2,912cc 6cyl petrol, 124bhp
- Top speed: 113mph
In the late fifties, sports cars were big business. It wasn’t only in this country where they were popular, either; in that era, American buyers were lapping up British-built roadsters and providing us with vital export dollars.
The ‘big Healey’ was introduced in 1959, and used a body built by Jensen and a 3.0-litre straight-six powerplant borrowed from some staid saloons.
It looked gorgeous – except during wet weather, when the very basic rain protection had to be used. However, most Americans don’t get nearly as much rain as we do here in the UK, and as a consequence more than 85 per cent of all Austin-Healey 3000 cars were exported across the Atlantic.
Judge’s verdict: “Arguably the original hairy-chested British sports car, the 3000 started out as a rakish and swift brute. Over the years it became more refined and powerful.” - Tom Barnard, Creative director, Auto Express
- Years of manufacture: 1962-1980
- Price when new: £849
- Price now: £1,000-£30,000
- Engine: 1,798cc 4cyl petrol, 95bhp
- Top speed: 105mph
Peer behind the garage doors of an average suburban housing estate back in the sixties and seventies, and it wouldn’t be long before you found an MGB. The two-seat roadster (or coupe) is now the archetypal classic car, and with good reason. It’s great looking, fun to drive and simple enough for the DIY mechanic to maintain at home. It helps that parts are easy and cheap to find, too.
At its launch in 1962 the MGB was quite an innovative design, as it used a monocoque construction instead of the then-traditional separate-chassis set-up. It proved popular in the vital American market, too. This all helped the car have a long life, and it survived in production until 1980.
27. Land Rover Discovery Mk1
- Years of manufacture: 1989-1998
- Price when new: £19,249
- Price now: £200-£10,000
- Engine: 2,496cc 4cyl diesel, 110bhp
- Top speed: 87mph
While early Discoverys are only just emerging from ‘banger’ territory, the model is now being appreciated for the innovative, landmark car it was. Launched in 1989, it plugged a chasm in the Land Rover range between the utilitarian Defender and upmarket Range Rover. It also went one better than Japanese rivals, being family friendly, spacious, practical and stylish.
The light and airy cabin was the work of Conran consultants, and there was even a seven-seat option. But perhaps the Discovery’s biggest achievement was how it was put into production on a comparative shoestring. From these humble beginnings came a great car that may well have saved Land Rover.
26. Ford Cortina Mk1
- Years of manufacture: 1962-1966
- Price when new: £643
- Price now: £500-£55,000
- Engine: 1,498cc 4cyl petrol, 60bhp
- Top speed: 82mph
In the early sixties, car makers across Europe were experimenting with all sorts of innovative technology. But Ford shunned it all for its new car, using tried-and-trusted mechanicals that were cheap to produce and maintain.
Private and company motorists alike loved the Cortina – or Consul Cortina, as it was named at its launch in 1962. It was easy to drive, comfortable and just the right size for a family. A twin-cam Lotus version became a legend on the track, too, and helped give the car a sexier image. It paved the way for the later Cortinas to become Britain’s best-seller from 1972-81.
Move on to page 2 for the rest of the Top 50. Don't forget to tell us your top 10 British-built cars in the comments section below...