Arguably, the Sixties were the years of style over substance. In many cases the engines were slightly warmed over from the previous decade but in others, although completely new, were not particularly adventurous. Other than the forging of BMC/British Leyland’s front-wheel-drive family – most cars were traditional front engine and rear drive chassis.
The Mini was, of course, strictly speaking a 1950s design although its huge rise to stardom was during the ‘Swinging Sixties’. The 1100 also rose to the ‘top of the pile’ and was Britain’s best-selling family car for many years. However, the front-wheel-drive set hardly led the styling revolution – that was certainly the prerogative of Ford, Vauxhall and Rootes.
The 1960s saw the serious influx of ‘Johnny Foreigner’. Before this decade, only the Beetle had attacked our sales in any real depth, (accepting the Slough-built Citroëns and numerous US attempts in previous decades) but now Alfa Romeo, Audi, BMW, Citroën, Fiat, Mercedes-Benz, Renault, Simca and Peugeot spearheaded the onslaught – with the likes of Skoda, Moskvitch, Wartburg and others bringing up the rear.
Stylistically, there were some ‘firsts’ – and huge individuality throughout. The ‘dog leg’ windscreen was actually born in the US much earlier – but hit our showrooms with the ‘F’ Series Victor from Vauxhall during the late 1950s. Inept and clumsy people complained they hit their knees on the ‘dog leg’ – while most of us just appreciated the styling extravagance throughout the early 1960s.
Fins were very popular – even if not in the 1950s US extreme interpretation – with many British styles having flattened or ‘suggested’ fins. BMC’s late-’50s winged offerings continued into our period of course – with the Farina Austin, Morris, Wolseley, Riley and MG variations.
If 1960s styling is to be remembered for anything – it must be the ‘individuality’. To modern eyes it must seem extraordinary that if one takes a line-up of mid-1960s cars, possibly every car would be totally different from the other. No Ford could ever be confused with a Hillman, Singer or Vauxhall. Similarly, no Vauxhall could ever be confused with anything else. Unlike today, these differences were not confined to the shape of the grille. How else can you tell an Alfa from an MG or a Kia from a Hyundai today?
Interiors were so different too – not just a sea of slightly differently styled black plastic with aluminium bits added! Some dashboards were still painted steel – with or without vinyl padding; some were wood grain; some were all vinyl; some were a combination – but all in such individual shapes. Many instruments were centrally grouped – whilst some favoured dials ahead of the driver. Some instruments were in a binnacle – others were set in dash panel. Twin tone colour schemes were popular with bright oranges, twin tone blues, white and almost any other colour. Ford’s Zodiac interiors were a riot of colour. The artist’s pallet was never dry!
In the day, enthusiasts could be shown just a three inch section of a dashboard – and they knew if it was a Ford, Triumph, Vauxhall or anything else. We could close our eyes and know a car make or model by smell! Try that today!
At the start of the decade the column change was still popular – and four on the floor still an option for many. Overdrives were common with some makers – Triumph particularly. The bench seat still allowed the larger family car to carry six – and estate cars were offered for those who wanted a proper flat load area – and still carry the family to church on Sunday.
Dave and Vicky – 2019 People. (But not car enthusiasts!)
As I have done with my other ‘decade blogs’, it’s interesting to think how the modern young driver would find a classic 1960s car – how would it drive for them? Let’s put 2019 ‘Dave and Vicky’ in the hot seat!
Initially, of course, they would find the car very easily. Even in 1965 the model we have lent them would be easily distinguishable. There would be no need to tie a balloon to the aerial or keep pressing the remote key fob as we do today.
To open the door, they would have to do this ‘insert key and turn anti-clockwise’ thing. Gosh! How do you do that again? Having then seated themselves comfortably in the softly sprung leather armchairs (OK, so we’re in the Rover 3-Litre!) Dave and Vicky are gobsmacked that car seats can be so comfortable! The ones in their modern cars are a ‘park bench’ compared with these!
After more key insertion and turning – Vicky selects a gear. The clutch and gearbox will not be that different (although the pedal may be heavier) so she starts to move across the car park. Wait! Some chump has just pulled out in front of us and Vicky stamps on the brakes!
Lesson Number One – the rock hard pedal slows the car – slightly. You have to press harder, Vicky!
There were exceptions of course – some ‘upper crust’ cars did have ‘servos’. It’s also worth remembering that we oldies didn’t know any different – so they weren’t actually hard for us to use at the time. Vicky takes a sharp left-hand turn out of the car park and experiences Lesson Number Two.
“What on earth is the matter with the steering?” she asks. “I think I’ve suffered a serious upper limb disorder!” She understands it gets lighter the faster it goes – how quaint! So now it rains. “On with the wipers!” Vicky says again “on with the…..’ hang on, what are those funny little blade type things moving about out there? Oh’ my gosh. Can’t they go any faster than that?
And now it’s getting dark. Dave says “on with the lights ……..’ what is that faint yellow glow?” (This is getting silly now – 1960s lights weren’t that bad!)
But the road surface is clearly getting worse – look at the size of those pot-holes! Yet this 1960s car seems to absorb them better than Dave’s 2019 model. There’s a surprise! It must be something to do with having proper tyres on the rims and not rubber bands.
Dave and Vicky have never lifted the bonnet on their 2019 cars – but they do today – just for the hell of it! “Oh’ my word – look at all that space” they say. On the journey home Dave and Vicky turn on the radio – “What’s Long Wave and Short Wave – and how do we get Heart?”
Dave and Vicky have recently driven five modern hatchbacks – MPVs or whatever they’re called nowadays. They couldn’t really tell the difference driving them – but one of them boasted better ‘connectivity’ then the others – and the interior lights had more colour options, so they’ve ordered one of those. She thought it was a Hyundai, but Dave thought it was Kia – anyhow, it was sort of metallic deep red. They pick it up Tuesday.
A 1960s Selection
However, we want them to try five different 1960s cars – a Vauxhall Victor FB; a Ford Consul 375 Highline; a Morris Oxford Farina Saloon; a Rover 3-Litre Saloon and an Austin 1800 Saloon.
They cannot believe the difference between these cars! They all actually drive totally differently, and the interiors – apart from having controls and seats – had no resemblance to each other at all.
The Vauxhall was quiet and smooth with a column change, the Ford had a colourful leather interior and felt somehow ‘sharper’ than the GM car. The Morris felt older, more upright and had a floor gear stick – it was slightly noisier but felt very ‘solid’. The Rover felt like sitting in one’s lounge doing 70mph in relative silence and the Austin felt just weird – like driving a very low bus with a very sloppy gearshift – but the leg room was amazing!
Strangely though, according to Dave and Vicky, they couldn’t open any windows on any of the cars. There was just no buttons at all! Another disadvantage was that they both got lost wherever they went. They were provided with these large sheets of folded paper with lots of lines and pretty shades of green on – but goodness knows what they were for!
Dave backed the Oxford into a post – having waited patiently for a ‘beep’ – but having heard none – he assumed all was well.
Vicky loved all the gay colours, tactile leathers and fabrics, Dave loved the ‘feel’ of having some connectivity with the road – he felt (after a little practice) that he could almost steer the car with the rear wheels. And they both loved he differences between them all – the sound, the driving experience, the smell of the interior and the idiosyncrasies of each of them.
But with no ‘connectivity’ – they felt a classic car was not for them.
The Market Place
I don’t need to repeat the BL story – it is so well covered on this website. At the beginning of the decade, many BMC cars lived on and BL was in a sound position – holding a goodly UK market share. Vauxhall’s fortunes rose significantly with the introduction of the Viva HA and HB models – increasing their market share. The US coke-bottle influenced Victor FD at the end of the decade was a breath of fresh air and was as different from its predecessor, the 101 – as chalk and cheese.
Rootes introduced the cheeky little Imp – and, despite its initial overheating and throttle problems, that turned into a good little car and the basis for Singer and Sunbeam ‘badge-engineering’. The Imp was a great competition car too – although not as popular as the Mini Cooper.
Ford, as they so often have done through the years, appeared to have a ‘winner’ in every market sector. The Consul Classic and spin-off Capri aside, their Anglia, Cortina, Corsair and Consul/Zodiac range were big sellers. Some of the older manufacturers that ‘Dave and Vicky’ have never heard of still clung on in niche markets. AC, Allard, Alvis, Armstrong Siddeley, Bond, Jensen and many others were available for those with an eye for something ‘different’ – or a very deep pocket.
In the mass market though, Triumph had the little Herald saloon, coupe and estate (and a van, called the Courier) to offer as well as the new 2000 saloon – launched at the same time as the rival Rover 2000. The Rover used the four-pot approach and the Triumph the six. Yer’ pays yer’ money and takes yer’ choice…
Johnny Foreigner began his march to swamp us during this decade as mentioned earlier. Datsuns and Toyotas wooed customers with showroom appeal – and a radio and a heater was included in the price when BMC still thought it was an option! Classic car shows today reflect their longevity (or should I say shortivity?). There a very few around – whereas BMC and BL cars are, for the most part, well represented.
Renault introduced the 16, a car as individual as one can get but practical and enormous fun to drive – which, unfortunately our BL Maxi was not. Simca were running with the hare and the hounds as were Renault – promoting both rear-engined, and front-wheel-drive models.
I have a memory of CAR Magazine voting the Simca 1000 Rallye’ (rear-engined saloon) as ‘the worst car of the year’. Some of the rear-engined cars did have ‘tricky handling’ – but not all. The Renault 4CV, Skoda MB1100, Renault 1100, Beetle and the Rootes Imp could all be made to move smartly through the bends – with the right mindset and skill. I have to say a certain Renault Caravelle Coupe defeated my mindset and skill! The FWD contingent was mostly BL inspired, but Citroën had carved their own furrow long before – and the 2CV epitomised French thinking (although styled by a German). The space age DS was from the decade before.
For the ‘monied set’ – AC, Alvis, Armstrong Siddeley, Jensen, Rover and others flew the flag – whilst BMW made inroads with the 1602 and larger saloons – the company having been rescued by the Isetta bubble car.
Those that bought foreign in the earlier part of the decade were adventurous indeed – but, by the end of decade, Fiat and others were seriously threatening our home brew companies. Fiat were beginning to be a force to be reckoned with indeed.
It is true to say that the BMC Mini killed a complete market sector within a couple of years.
Up until 1959, Berkeley, Bond, Heinkel, Isetta, Messerschmitt, Nobel (below), Reliant, Scootacar and others provided basic economical transport for those who wanted or needed to achieve 100mpg from their car. The Mini, despite being a revolution in driving experience, was more like a regular car than most of the ‘microcars’ of the day. In addition, the Mini was so competitively priced – being very little more than a new Isetta.
Only Reliant made it into the 1970s – with their three-wheel (but not Micro) cars and vans. As with all vehicles, the experience is a ‘mindset’ thing. Driving a Heinkel Cabin Cruiser was either a ‘horrid’ – or ‘challenging and fun’ experience – depending on one’s outlook on life. Most microcars needed more skill to drive than a Mini. Microcars suffered from the ‘human disease’ of knocking anything different – especially by those who had never driven one!
Sports cars in the decade were provided by Jaguar, Lotus, MG, Morgan, Triumph and TVR among others. Jaguar, of course, also provided some of the most prestigious saloons – although they did go through something of a reliability and quality crisis. The Mk 10 however was a magnificent beast indeed – and a car that Britain was justly proud of. The E-type was a similar masterpiece and, even in those days, no one could believe how cheap it was.
The above is not an exhaustive list of what was on offer – just a sample of stuff that the writer experienced that aptly illustrates the individuality of the time. Apologies for possible omission of the readers ‘favourites’.
This is an odd blog in that I’ve deliberately not gone through each company and their models in detail – there are other websites that do that superbly. Also an odd blog in that this account is purely from memory of some of the cars I owned or drove. I have done no research at all! Hence, I’m more than happy to be corrected if my memory has failed me in some area.
My ‘qualifications’ for writing the piece are that I got my driving licence in 1967 and, between then and now, have owned over 115 cars (nothing compared to our Keith!). In the period I have considered here, I was delivering new cars all over the UK, including E-types, from the south to Scotland. I got to drive new Vauxhalls, Daimlers, Jaguars, Rovers – and Bedford Truck chassis in the days when we had a piece of hardboard in front of our legs!
Return journeys involved driving everything else out there – including some exhilarating Alfas, Fiats and Lancias and even a Lamborghini 350. It was a great time – I learnt a lot. No doubt some readers can go back even further, but this is just a snapshot of my experience.