Blog : The 1950s – gloom and anticipation of the new world order

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

For the third in his ‘Decades’ series of blogs, AROnline‘s very own Wolseley Man, Martyn Kelham, moves forward a decade and recalls his very personal memories of the days rebuilding for a brighter future, the 1950s.


Jowett Javelin - car of the 1950s?
Jowett Javelin – car of the 1950s?

Admittedly, I can remember little of the early 1950s – being born in 1949. Tellingly, though, my earliest memory is directly linked to a mechanical conveyance – to whit, one three-wheel bike. I was about four years old and my Dad told me off for riding on a newly-sown lawn. I do remember I wrecked both rear wheels on that trike – Dad insisted it was because I cornered far too fast – me? Surely not! Also at about this time, I lived a ‘make-believe’ life under the dining table – my small collection of Dinky toys and me – cars, vans and trucks from the 1950s of course.

Our Bond MkBLike most boys, my earliest memory of a ‘real car’ will be the one that Dad had. Unfortunately, in my case, this would be out of our 1950s period, as Dad could not aspire to a new car in the early part of the decade. His second car after the war was strictly speaking a Forties’ design but his was made in 1950 so I’ll include it. It was a Bond Mark B Minicar (left).

It will be impossible for me to get over to the reader just how exciting this was! I lived in a small close in a very small village on the downs above Winchester. We used to live on two acres of land in a tiny caravan, while Dad and Mum knocked down six cottages to build their dream home. Unfortunately, due to the fickle nature of one Howard Hughes, Dad lost the lot and we ended up in a council flat (but that as they say, is another story!)

Out of the 30 or so dwellings, I can remember exactly what vehicles our neighbours owned. They were: a Hillman Minx (four years old and on its side under a tent having the underside rebuilt and rust proofed); a Ford Consul Mk1 and a Vespa Scooter with a sidecar – and half a dozen other assorted motorcycle combinations. I believe someone right down the end had an upright Ford Pop and several people had mopeds and motorcycles. That was it!

And then we had the Bond! Father bought it from a dealer in Eastleigh and we left that fair town at about four o’clock on a Saturday afternoon in the December of 1956. The journey was slow and, at one point, an ETA of 1958 was envisaged. The weather was light rain and fog – not the silly mist that the BBC now call fog – but proper fog! A person standing 10ft in front of you not being visible type fog! On top of this, the wonderful ‘Mr. Bond’ decided that he was going to play an interesting game. Not playing was not an option!

Bond MkB
The Bond MkB was terribly exciting for our Wolseley man during the 1950s…

We were given the choice – either run the engine with no lights and no wiper or run the lights with no wiper and no engine. We could choose to have just the wiper – but, for some reason, that option was not popular. Either way, progress meant my mother and I pushing and Dad steering – but blinded by the 6v lights reflecting in the fog and rain. Alternatively, we all got in and Dad proceeded in total darkness. For those not familiar with the vehicle, this latter course was perfectly ‘safe’ as the reflectors on the rear panel were all of one-inch diameter!

From memory and my parents recalling the incident years later, I believe we got home around nine in the evening. Mother looked like a drowned rat and father had eyes like Dusty Springfield. However, I was enthralled – the whole thing had been a real adventure and I was still revelling in the thought that we owned a car that could turn around in its own length and did 100mpg (yes, really!). It only had one door and was a soft-top – so it must be a sports car then! Apart from anything else, none of my friends’ parents even had a car!

The single front wheel carried all the weight of the engine in front of it and, when the front tyre gave way one Saturday morning, Dad discovered the wheelbarrow tyre was the same size – to hell with the ply rating!

Braking was on the rear wheels only (and there was no rear suspension). Going down a 1-in-4 hill on the way to the shops one Saturday morning, the Post Van came up the other way. It was in a single-track lane with high banks both side and no passing places. Dad applied the brakes and all we heard was a slight ‘shushing’ sound as both rear wheels locked up. The Postman decided to build a passing place on the spot, ‘machetying’ his Series E van into the bank as we glided past with a merry wave.

I have to say one thing for it – that Bond was reliable. It was a first time starter every morning. As soon as you pushed it up the slope and over the top of the hill, providing it wasn’t icy, wet or windy it would fire up and go like the wind – well to 40mph at least. Bless it…

Was it typical of 1950s cars, though? In part yes, because the 1956 Suez Crisis spawned dozens of similar attempts to make the minuscule amounts of fuel available go further. Many attempts were quite dire but a few shone through with a spark of genius and a dedication to making something attractive as well frugal. The Bond, of course, pre-dated this event and was designed to get the family into one space so they could talk to each other – something quite difficult to do in a motorcycle ‘combination’.

Allard Clipper

Allard Clipper
Allard Clipper was the raw end of desperate

Allard’s offering was at the raw end of desperate.  Called the ‘Clipper’ it was notable for several reasons, not least of which is that it can lay claim to being the first fibreglass car in the UK. It was produced by a small team, which included a lady who actually ‘laid up’ the fibreglass panels. Less celebratory was the artist’s licence in the illustrated advertisements for the car (above), which depicted it to be about as big as a Mk7 Jag!

The Allard was advertised as having a bench seat at the front with room for three and room for children in the back – look at pictures – you judge! The 350cc Villiers engine at the rear propelled the car to 49mph and following a production run of 22 it says something for the car that two survive – one in the UK.

Reliant Van

Reliant Van

There were many more three-wheelers around in the 1950s and I well remember the green groceries being delivered from the back of a three-wheeled Reliant Van but bearing no resemblance to Del Boy’s. The van I’m referring to had an exposed front wheel and was probably from the 1930s, although the model did continue with slight upgrades well into the 1950s.

Reliant restarted production of its cars and vans in 1948 having lost over 300 of their staff to enemy action during the war. They were a very competent little van and one enthusiast converted one into a soft-top and entered the MCC Exeter Trial – gaining a significant place and award.

Morgans were always about, of course, as were BSA three-wheel cars from an earlier period – all offering the family a little more(!) comfort than a motorcycle combination. During the decade, the true Micro car arrived in the shape of bubble cars from Germany and (indirectly via BMW) Italy. There will always be divided opinion but in my humble view having owned several of one and driven many of the other – the Heinkel was always the superior car.

Heinkel Cabin Cruiser (1)
Heinkel Micro Car – the best of the ‘bubbles’

The Isetta’s hinged steering column answered a question no one had asked – the wheel never got in the way in the Heinkel anyway! The engine was a sweeter unit and the roadholding far better, providing all the rubber bushes on the rear engine mountings were in good shape. Again, I got around 70mpg to 80mpg and around 45mph out of a Heinkel – and they were enormous fun (but challenging) to drive.

Berkeley T60 (1)
Berkeley T60 – could be had with a fourth wheel

Other notables were the Berkeley T60 and the Nobel – both of which were well proportioned and as about as attractive as you can make anything on wheels – when it has to be so small. Berkeleys were used a lot in competition and were very competitive in their day.

Messerschmitt

Messerschmitt KR200
Messerschmitt KR200

Just before we move on to conventional cars, we must make mention of the Messerschmitt KR200 – the tandem seated Micro car for the ‘thinking man’. The two-stroke engine was a delight when working well and a complete nightmare if it wasn’t. The handle bar steering took some getting used to but the car really was a joy – in soft-top form especially.

Among all this innovation and development, the Cold War continued and gained momentum. The Korean War ended in 1953 and the Vietnam War began in 1959. The Suez Crisis reared its ugly head in 1956 and the Algerian War had begun in 1954. The Cuban Revolution began in 1953 and the Mau Mau began their protest against the British in 1959.

So, while the world was at peace(!) – what were we driving? Well, cars like the Standard Vanguard.

Standard Vanguard Phase One

Standard Vanguard

This was a US-inspired creation in both Phase One (Beetle-back) and later Phase Two (notchback) form. A big, lazy four-cylinder engine was aligned to a column change four-speed box to give that mini-American feel.

Vanguard Phase Two

Standard Vanguard Saloon

A real Art Deco dash and huge leather seats graced the interior with a rather large (usually ivory/grey colour) steering wheel with a full chrome horn ring (Phase One) and half ring (Phase Two) completed the ambience. The wheels – or was it just the tyres? – always looked over-sized on these cars but they were ‘hefty old lumps’. The RAF favoured them in both saloon and estate variants – and, indeed, continued to use the Vanguard when it became the Ensign in the early 1960s.

The Vanguard was the first diesel saloon car offered to the UK public. Buyers had to be somewhat more tolerant than those of today. I have read a contemporary report, which claimed the car was extraordinarily noisy and took almost a minute to reach 50mph – desperately near its maximum.

While our traditional manufacturers reigned supreme with minuscule input from any foreign competition, Sputnik 1 was launched by the Russians – the first real physical space exploration. Also at this time, India suffered a massive earthquake killing more than 500 and leaving five million people homeless. The world suffered three major hurricanes, and one devastating typhoon leaving in total, more than 7000 dead.

It wasn’t a good decade for the aircraft industry. An Avro Tudor crashed in Wales killing 80 passengers; a USAF Globemaster crashed on take off in Japan killing 129; a de Havilland Comet disintegrated in mid air over the Italian Coast killing all 35 on board; a Douglas DC7 and Super Constellation collided over the Grand Canyon killing in total 128 passengers; Flight 609 taking off from Munich airport crashed killing 23 passengers including 8 of the Manchester United Football Team; a mid-air collision between an air liner and a USAF Fighter killed 49 and another Constellation crashed – this time into the sea off the coast of Ireland, killing 99 people.

On the plus side, this was the decade of the invention of the Polio injection. It was also the last decade of real poverty for thousands of people in the UK – but that’s not to say poverty was banished in the 1960s. The aftermath of WW2 left the UK in a funny old place. Victors – yet we had lost so many and so much. The British obstinately refused to be brought down and injected lots of bright colours into our clothes and furnishings as soon possible yet somehow it was still a very grey decade – especially the earlier years.

Bomb damage
Bomb damage – still very evident in 1953

As for home life, mine when I was a kid, would be typical of the period. Centrally placed rugs with polished wooden floors or linoleum surrounding them were standard whilst furniture was a mix of ‘utility’ (very basic) and a more extravagant riot of curves, double curves and Art Deco extravagance.

1950s roomUpholstery styles were equally basic or extravagant – often majoring on big wide arms, massively deep backs – often with ‘fan-shapes’ in the pleating. Fireplaces were beige tiled – again emulating the art-deco style. Radiograms were huge pieces of furniture with a radio and record deck but many came with record storage and a cocktail cabinet.

The small screen TV was housed in a big cabinet and we all watched grainy mono pictures – Six-Five Special, Dixon of Dock Green, The Lone Ranger and Tonight with Cliff Michelmore. The music was an eclectic mix – traditional orchestras and bands vied with Elvis, the crooners and latterly, ‘Skiffle’.

I was not a sickly child but our village doctor was called to the ‘Close’ on a couple of occasions when I was about six or seven. I was transfixed by his car and used to watch out for him to arrive – and leave. He had a brand new Citroen DS – I could not believe it – this thing actually went up and down before my very eyes!

Like many families, at the beginning of the 1950s my father could not afford a car at all and had gone the 15 miles to work and back on a variety of motor cycles – a Francis Barnett and a BSA Bantam to name but two. Weather protection in terms of the bike or rider’s clothing was not as we know it today. Many a time Dad came home in cold, foggy or icy conditions – and it took ages to thaw him out! The ‘open face’ helmet allowed icicles to form on his face and he often looked a frightening spectacle to a six year old.

A Zephyr Mk1 in all of its glory!
A Zephyr Mk1 in all of its glory!

In contrast, I remember it was ‘quite something’ to see the ‘Lady from the Big House’ drive through our village. Her car was the very latest Ford Zodiac Mk1 – in suitable two-tone colours resplendent with twin aerials, sun visor, white-wall tyres and chrome exhaust trim! Was this thing from Mars?

I was far too young to drive in the 1950s but later had a selection of 1950s cars soon after attaining my driving license in 1967. I had an example of the ubiquitous Ford Pop that remained in production until the middle of the decade. Still using the good old side-valve engine, this car’s most memorable feature has to be the vacuum operated windscreen wipers. I’m sure every father or grandfather has told the story of when they were just about to pass a lorry in heavy rain, the wipers virtually stopped mid-screen but when they were sat at the traffic lights in a light drizzle – they were going 19 to the dozen!

The car, though, was one of the toughest old birds you could buy. We had one just after we got married and, virtually penniless, we could not afford a new starter. It would start very easily with a run down a hill or on the handle (providing you caught ‘it’ just right). When the head gasket failed on the compression side of ‘number four’ (nearest the bulkhead), we removed the carpet and soldiered on with bulkhead glowing red for another few months. Yes, seriously!

The Hillman Minx was an all-new car in 1950 and was typical of the US-influenced saloons we saw during this period – it was also very popular. The Minx also spawned two other very useful estate cars – one of which a great many farmers used as a sort of second Land Rover – certainly it was a favourite with farmer’s wives. I refer to the cheeky little Husky, originally in side-valve form but later upgraded to the OHV unit as the Minx progressed.

HuskyIn 1967 I paid £30 for a 1955 metallic green side-valve Husky (right). It was a hard-working little tool that you could throw anything at – loading it until the exhaust was rubbing the Tarmac. WFM 115 had a strange phenomenon, though. I owned it for a year or so and every time I parked it – left for more than an hour or so – the horn button (with its big cream plastic surround) would be found in the back – either on the seat or actually behind the seats.

This would happen regardless of climate! I never saw it happen; yet it would happen every time while I was using the car for work and at weekends.

The interior was typical (if not even more basic) than most popular cars of the day. A suggested Art Deco dashboard in green steel with the luxury of vying covered door cards and ‘air-cushioned’ seats was the order of the day. I failed my first driving test in this car! Approaching a steep downhill section of road I quite naturally (in a Husky of this period) placed my left hand on the gear lever to stop it jumping out of third.

Well, you cannot believe just how aggrieved the Examiner got! He seemed to think I had committed some heinous crime and really should be ‘put in the tower’. Perfectly responsible action in hindsight – but, at that time, I was less than chuffed at the man’s lack of understanding and feeling for my beloved Husky. Speed was not high on the agenda but strength certainly was – I towed many 1930s Morris Eights home with this car.

Nissan-Austin A40 Somerset
Austin Somerset: the car responsible for showing the Japanese how to make full-sized cars! Other cars of the period included the Austin A40 Somerset and its forerunner the Devon (one of the biggest revenue earners of all time)

The Austin A30 revolutionised the small car world and the A35 improved the practicality with a larger rear window, a usefully larger engine and a remote control gearbox. We had an A35 at one point – it was a fine car and we loved it to bits. We paid £1 per horse for it but weren’t told that it had been fitted with a Cooper head. This car was no E-type but it had enough ‘poke’ to be just so much fun!  We actually ‘splashed out’ on four new Viking Radials (thus was in the early 1970s, of course) and this made the little A35 a really swift and fun little car.

My first 1950s car was a cream Austin A30 two door saloon. I actually went to buy a Nobel Micro car but more of that when we get to 1960s era. The A30 was not of its best. I paid £50 from a dealer in Lynham in Wiltshire. I remember for weeks trying to use the thing for work but it refused to start every morning. Thankfully, right outside my parent’s cottage was a bus stop – so I simply threw the keys in the house in disgust and got on the bus. To add insult to injury, my mother would go and try it during the morning and it would start first time – and she couldn’t even drive!

Eventually, I managed to keep the damp out of the ignition and it was okay but not my favourite old car and I swapped it quite quickly for a car I eventually owned for over 30 years. This was an Austin A40 Sports with bodywork by Jensen. As all those who are familiar with the Lenny Lord history will know, Lenny famously agreed to sell the Jensen brothers their 4.0-litre engine providing Jensen agreed to make a small ‘sports car’ to sell as an Austin.

Using the Devon chassis and engine and designed primarily for export, the car was not a great seller and was under appreciated for half a century – but, at last, good ones are fetching sensible money. The car has very understated styling and is beautifully balanced – being designed by Eric Neal – the designer of all Jensens up to the Italian-influenced Interceptor.

“It could give a TR3 a run for its money”!
“It could give a TR3 a run for its money”!

My then girlfriend (and still my wife) and I started the Owners’ Club for these cars in 1968 and, by 1970, we had just over 20 members. They were considered very much ‘an old banger’ at that time and I paid £40 for mine from a little village garage. With twin SUs as standard and bigger valves (later fitted to the Somerset as standard), the car would bowl along nicely at 70mph but a sports car it was not! Having said that, it could be upgraded and thoroughly sorted for the circuit and particularly a man called Tom Fleetwood explored this.

Tom and I were in regular contact as he was a member of the club and he had a wealth of knowledge about the car. The last I heard he was contemplating putting a 2.25-litre V8 Daimler engine in his car but we lost contact over the years. I have included some photographs of his excellent LOJ 9 competing in a couple of events. In his words at the time, it could give a TR3 a run for its money! Around 3650 Sports were made between 1950 and 1952 with approximately 700 remaining in this country. Like many other aluminium-bodied cars, the biggest ‘rot factor’ was almost everywhere where the aluminium bodywork touched the steel chassis.

To compound the difficulties of maintenance and restoration, the panel work (the ‘sills’) are a complicated pressing (or pressings) designed to foil even the most enthusiastic home restorer of a few years ago. Now, with a greater following and support of the Austin Counties Car Club, anything is possible – and some members have some superb examples.

When our A40 Sports expired (big ends, mainly) I had no funds for a complete rebuild and so replaced it with another ‘Counties’ car chassis but this time clothed in an Ashley fiberglass coupe body. I am planning to do a separate article on this car so will limit coverage here – suffice to say we owned that car for over 40 years – I paid £10 for it from the guy who built it five years earlier.

The Wonderful Wolseley 4/44
The wonderful Wolseley 4/44

The next foray into the 1950’s car tank was one of the nicest, most stylish, well-built and now well-respected pre – BMC cars of all time. I refer to the Gerald Palmer-designed Wolseley 4/44.

This is probably the car that got me hooked on Wolseleys all those years ago – I can find a good one at a sensible price I will replace the MINI with it. The 15/50 is probably a more practical option, though – the 1.6 B-Series engine having considerably more power than the original MG 1200cc engine in the 4/44. Either way, one gets lots of quality leather, bound carpets, wood veneers and a general air of luxury in a perfectly shaped body. What more can a reasonable fellow want?

Interestingly, I paid £12 for our 4/44 but, whilst valeting it I discovered a plastic bag under the driver’s seat with twelve, three position flick switches in it. I took these to my brother-in-law who had sold me the car – and he gave me £12 for them. Why can’t I do deals like that any more?

Daimler attempted the middle field with the Conquest Century and Majestic using pressed steel bodies but with a ‘semi’ chassis and traditional engine design to keep the costs down – but styled as a true British ‘top-class’ car should be – complete with leather and wood interiors. Our Daimler Conquest Century was an auto and, whilst not particularly fast, it was utterly smooth and remarkably quiet on its Dunlop SP tyres. I wasn’t terribly keen on the handling, though – our particular car just seemed hell-bent on straightening every bend it ever came across.

Understeer? You gotta believe it! (Might have been just ours though!)

Rover P4

Rover P4: lounge on wheels
Rover P4: lounge on wheels

Rover (remember them?) produced some of the best British traditional cars – the P4 in various guises being surely the ultimate ‘classic car’. I had two 80s and they used the four cylinder Land Rover petrol engine.

If you have never experienced the interior and ride in a P4 – try and do so. It is a little like sitting in your front room doing 70 mph. You’re tempted to put your feet up and ask the ‘missus’ to bring you a glass of wine – not advisable, of course! We had a 3-Litre at one stage, which just took the art a couple of steps further and gave better roadholding and handling.

Models I was familiar with but never actually owned include the Ford ‘flat’ range – Popular, Prefect and Anglia – expanding to take in the Escort and Squire estate cars. The larger brothers and sisters and of course the top range Zodiac completed the volume production range. Ford had a great time in the 1950s, producing the ‘flat’ cars plus the Mk1 Consul, Zephyr and Zodiac with hugely attractive estate car conversions by specialist builders Farnham. Later in the period, the Mk2 version of this line – completely different from the earlier series – brightened up our lives with gaily-coloured exteriors and interiors.

The absolute ‘bee’s knees’ was a ‘Zody’ in two-tone exterior colours, steel sun-visor, twin aerials and a twin-tone (often including a sort of ‘brick-dust’ red) interior!

Meanwhile, over at Rootes

The Minx was the sole Hillman saloon model at this time but Rootes had the upper market covered by Humber – effectively providing ‘larger Minxs’ with its Hawk and Super Snipe. Hillman continued the Minx name but introduced two new series of that model during our period. Good and sound (ignoring the rust factor that applied to almost every other car of the period), dependable and stylish, Hillmans sold well at this time. An added bonus was the option of a convertible – something that Austin’s Cambridge and Morris’ Oxford may have benefitted from.

Morris – on the up

Morris were not at their most competitive in the early years of our decade – the Minor was fine, being an upgrade of the original side valve MM. However, the larger Minor – called the Oxford and Cowley – somehow didn’t win the hearts of many – although the later cars, having once lost the ‘big Minor’ shape did much better.  The Minor was prevalent throughout the 1950s and, indeed, continued into the next decade as well.

The later Oxford and Cowley models became good sellers and I used one as a run around at work for months. The dashboard was far forward and very low (pre-empting the Mini by years) and the big offset steering wheel protruded well into the passenger space – but I loved it.

The introduction of the Issigonis Mini in 1959 began a new era in motoring and that whole scene has been covered extensively so I’ll not dwell on it here.

Standard Motor Products

Standard’s 8 and 10 were popular – the former especially after some bright spark gave it a boot lid. It was a charming little car, though – I travelled miles in one. Modern drivers would struggle with the performance of these and many other 1950s cars – 50mph cruising and 60mph near the maximum were common performance figures.

Vauxhall – an American-inspired future

Vauxhall held its end up with the Wyvern and Velox – essentially the old pre-war 10 shape but with a modern US-styled front end and a big bustle at the rear. The first Victor was released in this decade and was a brave and curvy design complete with dogleg screen pillars and massive wrap around screens front and back. Riding, let alone driving one of these cars was a weird experience in deed – none of us were used to seeing so much of the road ahead unless you were a ‘biker’.

The car attracted a lot of criticism for ‘knocking knees’ on the dogleg. I’m around 6ft and I never found it a problem, but others obviously did. Vauxhall abandoned the small car choosing to concentrate on the bigger Velox, Wyvern and Cresta. In the same vane as the Ford Zodiac, the ‘bee’s knees’ of Vauxhalls had to be the Cresta in two-tone metallic colours, adorned with a steel sun visor and the mandatory twin ariels – not forgetting the fluted chromed exhaust deflector.

Austin’s traditional virtues

The Austin Sheerline, complete with real Art Deco dash, lashings of wood and leather and its big, lazy engine was a real poor man’s Bentley. By the time I was 15 or 16, Sheerlines could be had in the Exchange and Mart for £15 or so. I think my first wage in 1964 was £5 per week as an apprentice in an old-fashioned furniture shop – to put that value in perspective.

The individuality of the cars of this period was significant. Blindfolded until they were inside, even a mildly enthusiastic person could have told you what they were sitting in by the smell of the car. Dashboards were so individual it would be impossible to mistake them – or the view over the bonnet. Some cars had plain steel dashboards whilst others were still walnut veneer. Some were Art Deco and others vinyl covered and slab-like. It is hard to think of two cars with interior styling in any way similar – a far cry from today’s offerings where it could be argued only the MINI and some Citroens tread a totally unique path.

The noise from the exhaust was eminently individual as well. I and many of my peers could easily tell the difference between a Ford Prefect and a Morris Minor or Vanguard and Zephyr Six – and a real enthusiast could identify almost everything just by the exhaust note through the gears.

The late 1950s saw, of course, the beginning of concentrated badge engineering for BMC. With Wolseley, Riley, MG, Austin and Morris still being very separate marques although sharing lots of components, the anomalies were extraordinary on occasions. A Palmer-designed 4/44 using an ‘old school’ MG engine whilst the MG version used the staple B-Series unit? Other great ‘Palmer-designed’ cars of the period must include the bigger Wolseley and the Riley Pathfinder with its right hand gear change.

The Pathfinder – Gerald Palmer – Mr Respect!
The Pathfinder – Gerald Palmer – Mr Respect!

The Pathfinder had a Riley 2.5-litre engine but, in attempt at early rationalisation, BMC replaced this unit in the subsequent upgrade – called the Riley Two-Point-Six. Unfortunately, the die-hard Riley buyer was not impressed with the less efficient but slightly thirstier C-Series lump and the car had a very short life span.

Not that the earliest Pathfinders were without their problems – the rear Panhard Rod could become detached and allow the driver to lose control – whilst the front suspension was cutting edge and very successful. In terms of 1950s interiors – both models (and the Wolseley variants) were ‘to die for’. Find one now and it still reeks of the ‘quality car’ aroma – a time when the only way to do a proper interior – was to do it this way!

The great names of the period?

Alvis made beautiful cars, beautifully shaped and beautifully engineered. The last model was made in the 1960s and was, to my mind, one of the most beautiful shapes of all time – especially in convertible form.

Armstrong-Siddeley always were big cars – Typhoon, Lancaster and others with long bonnets and such presence, often recalling the names of the airplanes that had helped us to win the war. All these cars were incredibly cheap to buy, even by the mid-1960s.

Bentley was evident for the higher echelons of society but majored on tradition and higher speed luxury rather than cutting-edge technology. There were still a lot if coachbuilders putting special bodies on the chassis – just before the change to semi chassis-less designs.

Rolls-Royce just majored on being Rolls Royce – again with special bodies being quite common.

Bristol appealed to the ‘man with money’ too – but majored on the technology rather than the Bentley strengths.

Healey was still separate at the beginning of the decade and produced very attractive large cars with ‘oodles of charisma’ and individuality usually bodied by Tickford. Later, of course, the name became synonymous with the Austin Healey 100/4 and the rest as they say, is history.

Humber continued to fight the Rootes Brothers cause for the bigger, quality market sector. The early decade cars were styled like a larger Minx and they gave the more ‘prestigious manufacturers’ a run for their money – as they were extremely good value.

Jaguar, of course, was the real king of ‘good value’ and even into the 1960s it continued to offer so much grace, space and pace (not necessarily in that order). The 2.4 made its debut in this period and the 3.4 was the chosen getaway car in an untold number of ‘blags’  – simply because they were just about the best handling and fastest piece of machinery around. Much as I love them to bits, I wouldn’t have wanted to be a ‘copper’ chasing a Mk2 Jaguar in a Wolseley 15/50 ‘cop-car’!

Lagonda was still with us into the ’50s and produced some fine cars – with the emphasis on performance and being the ultimate ‘gentlemen’s carriage’.

Only Rolls Royce, Bentley and Jaguar survive to make cars in any numbers from those above – but who else have we lost?

Lea-Francis Lynx – You really had to see it in the ‘flesh’!
Lea-Francis Lynx – You really had to see it in the metal!

This was the era of Lea-Francis with their big saloons and the beginning of the end for their lovely wooden ‘shooting-breaks’. This was a company which, almost in parallel with Jowett, spent their lives producing traditional ‘British’ cars – and then leapt forward with something very far reaching and at the cutting edge of ‘modern’.

In Jowett’s case it was, of course, the Javelin but in Lea Francis’ case it was the ill-fated Lynx. There have been lots and lots of rude things said about this car and I’m not going to add to them here – beauty in the eye of the beholder and all that?

There was the extraordinary partnership of American Nash and BMC in another of Lenard Lord’s US adventures – along with the A40 Sports and the Atlantic. Based on the little Farina replacement for the A35, the Metropolitan was the height of style over substance. That’s not to say the mechanicals were flawed but they were certainly not as ‘Dan Dare’ as the bodywork!

Austin A90 Atlantic
Austin A90 Atlantic

The Atlantic was either going to revolutionise the world and be a trendsetter extraordinaire – or fall flat on its face. I fear the latter is demonstrable with even basic research. Alan Hess continued to think up the most outrageous and (some argued at the time) even pointless world record attempts for this and the A40 Sports – but the bottom line was that our American cousins did not fall in love with our futuristic Austin of England. A pity, though, as they are a great car. In the late 1960s a garage owner in a village near us managed to collect over 50 of them in one of his fields.

Sunbeam was very evident in this period – with an upmarket Minx and the slightly revamped pre-war Sunbeam Talbot 90 looking very ‘late-’40s’ by comparison with most other offerings – including the A40 Sports with which it competed in convertible form.

Triumph was another manufacturer who clung doggedly to tradition with the 1800 Roadster (the infamous Bergerac car) – that was probably the very last UK mainstream production car to offer the ‘dickey seat’. Other Triumphs included the TR2, the later TR3 and the totally-unique Renown – the miniature Rolls-Royce of the 1950s. The Mayflower also appeared but was never a good seller – somehow the RR effect was lost on a vehicle the size of a Ford Pop!

So how was progress 60 years ago – how did the cars perform?

Looking at the range on offer very crudely, we had maximum speeds of 40mph to 45mph or so for many of the three wheelers and super economy cars. Some could manage very near the magic 100mpg figure, though.

The lower end of mainstream cars – the Ford Pop, Morris Minor, Austin A30, Standard 8 – all from the earlier part of the decade would cruise at 50mph  to 55mph and some had a top speed of 60mph to 65mph. Around 800cc to 1000cc was popular although some side-valve engines were of a larger capacity and 0-60mph could be achieved in 30-40 seconds depending on the model and an average mpg figure of around 40 could be trusted (unlike the ‘highly hypothetical’ figures quoted by manufacturers today).

There was a lot of metal in the cars and a weight of 14cwt was not uncommon for an 8hp car. Compression ratios of around 7:1 (or 8:1 as the quality of fuel got better) were normal with a maximum torque figure in the 40-50lb ft region. The biggest difference between these cars and the vehicles of today is in gearing – with 13mph to 15mph per 1000 rpm.

Compare that with a modern small car, often capable of cruising at 70mph-plus with the engine humming away at around 2000rpm and one can see where the improvements have been achieved over the years. Similarly, the maximum power output of many of these small 1950s cars was nearer 20bhp to 40bhp, while many of our 2013 equivalents would be nearer 80bhp to 90bhp.

If we ramp it up to the medium-sized family cars, the picture remains the same. The Austin A55 Cambridge used the B-Series BMC unit and had a maximum speed in the high 70s and a 0-60mph time of 27 seconds. The car was not untypical in giving around 30 miles per gallon and weighed in at something just over 20 cwt.

Upgrading again to the bigger family saloons – to the ‘Bank Manager’ cars – the last of the 1950s Ford Zodiacs would be typical. With a six-cylinder 2553cc engine the car gave a top speed in the high-80s and a mpg figure of around 20-22. Maximum power was 85bhp at 4400rpm, but the car weighed in at almost 25cwt – a fact you became instantly aware of if someone asked you to ‘give it a push’. The 0-60mph time of 17 seconds was quite respectable for 1959.

However, if you were one of the privileged few, your Rolls Royce, Lagonda or Alvis might struggle to make 15-18mpg, but if you had bought a Mark Nine Jaguar, you would at least be sure of getting to 100mph in utter luxury – while admittedly consuming even more fuel.

What about ‘Johnny Foreigner’?

Volkswagen Beetle
Volkswagen Beetle

Well, the 1950s were the true Brit period. Of the names in our showrooms today, only Volkswagen, Citroen and Renault were heard of (as far as family cars are concerned). BMW was not in a good place, Audi was non-existent in the form we think of today and Volkswagen just had the Beetle. Citroen had a presence at Slough producing the ‘Light 15’ until the arrival of the DS and Renault sent us their delightful little 4CV. But that was about it!

And finally… Jowett

Jowett Javelin
Jowett Javelin

No article on the 1950s cars would be complete without mention of the Jowett Javelin. Probably the nearest thing to a British Lancia – the car was considerably advanced, designed, of course, by the very talented Gerald Palmer. I blame my mother entirely for us never owning one!

We went to buy one from Coronation Car Sales (long since gone) in Swindon and, on the test drive, the thing caught fire. The coil springs within the rear seat cushion (where I was sitting) touched the battery terminals – resulting in lots of sparks and black smoke. Well, my mother took objection to this and dismissed the car out of hand! Sad and very unreasonable I call it.

In summary then, what would the 2014 driver make of driving a pretty typical 1950s car?

Probably in order of priority, he or she would notice the effort needed to actually drive the car. Power steering was not popular and servo brakes were not popular. In addition, clutches were heavy by comparison with today’s offerings.

Secondly, the performance of the car would hit hard – particularly acceleration times. Thirdly, the equipment (or lack of it) would become evident early on. No air-conditioning, no electric windows, no sound system (although radios were fitted to some cars) and no ABS, stability control, icy road warning buzzers or heated seats.

I guess that the fuel pump fill up might cause a nasty shock – although realistically this applies to the lower end of the market more than the upper echelons. One can argue it both ways – an A35 used to give 35mpg to 40mpg and a petrol MINI gives around 45mpg to 50mpg. Is that enough of an improvement over 50 years?

What the ‘modern driver’ might find very charming (or hate as the case may be), would be the walnut dashboard and door cappings and the full leather interior with bound Wilton carpets to finish off. He or she might also like to see the long  bonnet out in front – to watch that ‘Flying A’ for Austin of England guide your path in your Austin A40 sports or the even longer bonnet of the A40’s bigger cousin – the Jensen Interceptor – another Eric Neil designed car.

No doubt I have missed out someone’s favourite 1950s car  – my apologies in advance for that. I also apologise to ‘marque specialists’ for any errors – but this stuff is just from memory! (Anyone got a spare anorak?)

Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...

Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

38 Comments

  1. With regard to Johnny Foreigner, a few American cars found their way over in the late fifties as the rock and roll stars of the day and well off wide boys liked them. However, apart from the odd bubble car, almost everything else was made in Britain and it would be frowned on to own a foreign car then, a situation that would last until the end of the sixties when imports would become more common.

  2. Great memories feature. I was born in 55 and recall some of these cars (Jowett Javelin, Heinkel Bubble, Standard Vanguards, Zephyr MK1 etc.) Neighbours in our street had a Somerset too. My Dad’s first car wsa a 1960 Victor F (facelift). Wish I could go back to those days, quieter roads, more courtesy from drivers, More refined population?

    Maybe they were the good old days but we didn’t realise it then…

  3. Huge memory jerk! Being a little older than the writer (six in 1950) the article brings it all back to life. My dad worked in the garage trade so lots of cars came and went (customers on test drives) but his own (and later mine) was a Morris Series E-solid old tub but went for ever–we rebuilt the engine four times it did so many miles It was replaced right at the end of the 50’s with a MG Magnette (series one -small rear window)–a far more stylish motor!! My own vehicle ownership did not get going until the 60’s –so more then!!

  4. Amazing because the first few paragraphs could almost be life as well. My dad was a motor-bike owner and I spent a lot of my early years in a sidecar (names like Busmar and Carmobile).

    But we also had a Bond – the D version, later than the one here – and I had plenty of experience of no doors, flaps-for-windows, and the rear “seats” which were like two separate hammocks at either side.

    And also living on our street was a man who, at various times, had one of those Reliant vans with the external front wheel, and he also had a Berkeley T60.

    He was also a motor-bike man, and all these three-wheelers were due to the fact that you could drive a 3-wheeled car on a motorbike licence without taking a ‘proper; car test. Does that still apply today?

    Reading that piece has taken me back to being a kid in the early 60s.

  5. Excellent article. Thank you for posting…..a Heinkel bubble car would fit in the corner of my garage nicely but not at the prices these things go for these days.

  6. Thanks for a taste of the fifties, I actually quite like the Lea Francis Lynx!

    The cigar shaped sides remind me of the Jaguar mk 10?

    A small number of fifties cars were still in use in my village as everyday transport into the eighties- a Rover 90, a few Minor’s, an A 30, and my favourite an early A90 westminster with circular rear lights.

  7. I can remember Rover P4s, Austin A35s and Morris Oxfords being familiar sights on the road as late as 1980. These were well built, reliable cars that could be run on a shoestring and were very easy to maintain. It’s interesting that a lot of seventies British Leyland cars were falling apart at the time, yet these elderly cars were still on the road.
    Also one memorable sight at the height of the Falklands War, a split screen Morris Minor with union jack signs on the side doing the rounds.

  8. Great article, really looking forward to the sixties one.

    I’ve been reading no end of ate up with motor, which has loads of histories of American cars of this era. They seemed to offer vastly more power and comparatively reliable engines with some very advanced automatic gearboxes. Indeed barring the dire brakes and ponderous handling they would have no trouble on today’s roads; ’59 Cadillacs and big engined Chevys had around 300hp and sub 10 second 0-60 times. Strange then that the truly full size American car was gone by ’79 while a descendant of the humble Ford Anglia vies for global best seller.

  9. #13. What is “ate up with motor” ? I don’t know where the idea of advanced auto boxes came from – most of them from the 1950s and 60s were two speeders which because of an enormous multiplication ratio in the torque converters gave fuel consumption in single figures . Curiously, the GM Hydramatic which was advanced, with 4 speeds usually, was not at all popular with manufacturers ( except Rolls Royce ) probably because shifts in ration were quite noticeable . Best of all was probably the Detroit Gear box, made by Borg Warner, and used by Jaguar into the 1960s , which had a lock up top gear which gave reasonable economy

  10. Keith Adams, I’m glad you’re aware of Ate Up With Motor. You might be happy to hear AROnline has had some glorious write ups on Jalopnik.

    @14 The advanced gearbox I was thinking of was the later fluid-coupling hydramatic (although it lacked a torque convertor and was supposedly very expensive to manufacture), and Chryslers TorqueFlight (as used by Bristol), which led the world until the introduction of the Turbo-Hydramatic 400 (Rolls Royce and Jaguar). Buick’s two speed dynaflow was surprisingly advanced using hi-torque multiplication ratio torque convertors, giving a very smooth drive at the expense of abysmal fuel consumption.

  11. Super article.

    I was born in ’47 and remember most of those cars quite clearly. Just before my fifth birthday my Dad was posted to RAF Box Hill and bought his first car, a 1938 Riley.

    Goodness knows whether the engine was truly an ERA unit as he used to insist, but I do remember the odd occasion when he would engage overdrive by pulling some lever or another from under the dash and zipping past 60mph. Sadly, only 18 months later, he left the RAF, my second brother arrived, the Riley was sold, ajd we had no car until arriving in Canada in 1959. I even remember my ration book and the Australian liver we were lucky to get, all gristle from cavorting around the outback for a dozen years. The 1950s in Britain were indeed drab.

    Thank God for Heinz baked beans, Wall’s sausages and mashed potatoes! And English bread when it was real crust. When I went back to the UK in ’69, the bread had changed, I swear!

    The article really took me back. Thanks from a car nut of the time.

  12. One omission.. the ’50s were the first decade in which Rolls Royce would sell you a finished car, prior to the Silver Dawn there was no standard body, they supplied chassis only and all cars had been coach built, actually strictly speaking this is not 100% true as Rolls Royce America in the ’20s would sell you a complete car if you opeted for one of the ‘Rolls Royce Classic Coachworks’ bodies. however for the UK no complete cars were made for the home market till this time

  13. One of my ancestors worked in Pennsylvania after the war as a mining engineer; on returning to England he brought back with him a Buick Roadmaster and later owned a late ’50s Cadillac. He built council houses in the ’60s (quite an irony I know).
    What amused me was that my mother was acutely embarrassed of being seen with them. They were all very short so the sight of them rolling up in a Roadmaster must have looked pretty daft back in those days.

  14. Born in 1954, so a little older than the author. This is a great series,looking forward to the next installment.

    Love the pics of the 4/44, my best mate had a somewhat mildewed one, and the Zephyr one of my dream cars.

    I almost a 59 Vauxhall Victor “column shift” as my first car, but it was rotten as a carrot.

    The “good old days”.

  15. @21 ExPatBrit
    You do yourself in injustice my friend. You are 5 years younger than me!
    Thanks to you and all other contributors for your kind words.

  16. Thanks my good friend for another wonderful read. Great stories. The Lea Francis looks a gem, as does the Pathfinder. Looking forward to the Sixties article.

  17. 1959 saw the introduction of the Mini, which killed off the bubble cars, and a massive step forward for small car technology as Britain prepared for the new decade. Indeed, the fifties had been a very successful decade for the newly created BMC as the Morris Minor had been a huge success, the Austin A cars had been big sellers, and the Oxford had proved popular with family car buyers. As the decade ended and the economy boomed, with car ownership levels rocketing, Britain’s car makers were in a very good position with a range of good products and imports selling in penny numbers.

  18. Always found it weird that the 4-litre 6-cylinder engine in the Austin Sheerline never found its way into the Austin A90 Atlantic or Austin-Healey 100.

  19. I know it was a 6 cylinder version of the “D” series but would it have fitted easily?

    The unit was used in some 1950s Jensens.

    • Read vague mentions of Austin-Healeys fitted with such engines along with possibly an Austin-Healey at Goodwood one year powered by a Denis Welch prepared 4-litre, though unable to find anything concrete.

  20. Which company was in a position to buy or at least expressed interest in acquiring Jowett Cars?

    Apart from being FWD and the usage of aluminum, the Hotchkiss Grégoire reminds me of an enlarged Jowett Javelin. The same 70-75 hp 2188cc Flat-4 engine from the Hotchkiss Grégoire would later be uprated to produce around 125-130 hp via a supercharger when fitted to the 1956 Grégoire Sport, which makes one wonder what such an engine would have been like powering the Jowett Juniper R4 that made do with the existing Javelin Flat-4 engine.

  21. By the end of the decade, with sales of bubble cars fading as the Suez Crisis became a distant memory and the Mini only just entering production, Reliant had cornered the market for ultra cheap cars that whilst they had three wheels like a bubble car, at least could seat four adults in reasonable comfort. Apart from the Reliant’s low price, excellent economy for the time and acceptable performance, the car could be driven on a motorcycle licence with motorcycle road tax, and many people traded in their motorbike and sidecar for something that resembled a real car. I’m sure these underrated small cars deserve an article on here.

      • The Regal was in production for 20 years and was selling 50,000 cars a year at the height of its success in the sixties. Also the fibreglass bodies reduced weight and made the Regal very economical, 60 mpg was possible on a long journey( no different to something like a Nissan Micra). I think the simplicity of the engineering, very low running costs, low price and cheap insurance and tax made the Regal rather an unsung hero of the fifties and sixtes.
        Mind you cornering was interesting and Reliants were a handful on roundabouts due to being three wheelers, but this was probably part of the fun, and the light bodies made Reliants quite capable of keeping up with rivals like Morris Minors. Later models like the Robin have been known to reach 90 mph, although this must be rather frightening for passengers.

    • It is a pity the UK government did not create a more viable UK microcar class that allowed for 4-wheeled vehicles of certain dimensions (aka Sub-Mini e.g. Vespa 400 or Fiat 500), weight and engine displacement (sub-800cc) to be driven on a motorcycle license yet balanced with possibly car road tax (while 3-wheeler regulations remain less restrictive).

      Basically a bit of post-war legislation allowing for UK low-volume carmakers and motorcycle manufacturers to diversify into creating regular and commercial 4-wheeled microcars (initially 2-seaters made of fiberglass or aluminum to overcome the post-war steel shortages before growing to become 2+2 / 4-seaters), with the UK government encouraging prospective microcar manufacturers to build new factories in “enterprise areas”.

      The Mini might still go on to decimate the UK microcar class (or spawn a smaller Mini-Mini variant) in the same way it largely drove “those bloody bubble cars off the roads”, though such a class would have potentially allowed low-volume carmakers and the motorcycle industry to survive in some form.

  22. On a different note, I think more upmarket fifties cars like Humbers, Rovers and big Fords had really impressive interiors, and the Fords often came with attractive two tone paintwork and plenty of chrome like American cars. Nowadays luxury cars have mostly done away with the wood and leather interiors, but in the fifties a car was determined by the quality of its interior fittings, basic cars had steel dashboards, thin seats and bare metal everywhere, cars from a Wolseley upwards came with armchair like leather seats, wood dashboards and cappings on the doors, and more informative driving instruments. Also while its laughable now, a heater was an accessory on most cars in the fifties and only fitted as standard to more expensive models.

  23. Palmer going and Issigonis coming in certainly changed the nature of BMC

    Looking back, the likes of the ZA/ZB Magnette, Wolseley 4/44, Riley Pathfinder etc were never properly replaced, which led to BMC becoming a manufacturer of cheap and functional cars, rather than producing something more desirable and up market.

    To an extent the likes of Triumph and Rover filled this void, until THEY TOO got under invested so that BL could produce the Maestro and Montego!

    • Would have been interesting to have Palmer produce RWD replacements for the Magnette ZA/ZB, etc (plus Twin-Cam C-Series), while Issigonis focused on FWD cars with both possibly utilizing Moulton’s Hydrolastic suspension.

      BMC should have also focused on giving MG a more upmarket image as a underdog challenger of sorts to the likes of Jaguar and Porsche.

    • Agreed, but you still had luxury versions of the Farina models, the Vanden Plas 4 Litre and the Vanden Plas 1100 and then BMC acquired Jaguar in 1966 that gave them a very upmarket brand.
      Another sad loss was Armstrong Siddeley, who stopped producing cars in 1960. Their limousine like cars were real challengers to the likes of Daimler and were beautifully made with enough space to fit a football team.

      • Previously the Magnette & 4/44 had been completely different looking to the Morris Oxfords, more stylish and rakish to the staid Oxford, and drove differently as well.

        The Farinas though had no sporting pretensions at all, ditto the 1800…BMC basically abandoned this sector, which then got taken by the likes of Triumph and later BMW etc

  24. The fifties were a decade of two halves effectively. The first half still saw rationing in force until 1954, the country struggling to emerge from the war, and conflicts in Egypt, Korea and Malaya( three places National Servicemen dreaded being posted to). Car ownership was largely confined to wealthier people and consumer goods like televisions were rare in the early fifties.
    The second half of the decade, with rationing gone and living standards steadily increasing, was a period of economic boom and also of less tension, with the empire winding down and conflicts like Malaya coming to end.( National Service would be phased out by 1960). Car ownership soared in this period, reaching one in three households by 1959, and goods like televisions and washing machines became more common as the boom took off.

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