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Getting the Goat – The Greatest British Sports Cars of All Time

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A brain…an athlete…a basket case…a princess…and a criminal

It never fails to surprise me how much real life is like high school.

Back then we were typically identified with a group and that appellation likely stayed with us throughout our entire four years. Jock. Nerd. Slacker. Freak. Sometimes you were lucky enough to cut across such crass distinctions by creating a niche for yourself that belied such simplistic and crude categorizations. But more often than not, once you were tagged it stuck for good.

Knowing all that, I am still surprised when people approach me during car shows and identify themselves by marque rather than name – Hi. I’m an MG guy, how are you? – as if they had been assembled at Abingdon rather than birthed from a womb.

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Patrick Dempsey and Amanda Peterson ponder love from opposite sides of the tracks (or the table).

I guess it makes some sense. If you had asked me at any time before my thirties I would have told you that I was a Triumph guy and damn proud of it. But like the cheerleaders in Can’t Buy Me Love that eventually sit down at the nerd table for lunch rather than eat with the football players I began to broaden my automotive horizons (it would have been easier had my father been more supportive of other marques but he was convinced that Healeys were too low and hot for regular usage and had moved past the MG stage of his life sometime during the 60s).

After my first Triumph – a TR4A that was followed by a TR7 – came a Jaguar, then a Big Healey (followed by three more in quick succession) and an MGA, Spridget and another Jag. More Triumphs were interspersed between them all but I had officially evolved into a British car guy rather than solely a Triumph guy.

I realized that I liked all British cars and would later come to appreciate all cars – but that’s a story for another day – and I can honestly say that I do love them all (it’s very Julio Iglesias of me).

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The name is Keeble – Gordon-Keeble.

From AC to Bristol to Caterham to Daimler to Elva to Fairthorpe to Gordon-Keeble …

Like the Will Rogers of British cars I can appreciate the fine qualities of every four-wheeled conveyance to come out of England no matter how much oil they leak or how prone to self-immolation they may be. That doesn’t mean to imply that I don’t have my favorites or that I don’t have an opinion for the GOAT – greatest of all time – among the litany of classic British sports cars, just that I think they all have their salient qualities that can be appreciated and admired.

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Admittedly, Aston Martin has the upper hand in sex appeal over the Daimler Dart.

Thanks to Facebook, however, we recently had the opportunity to find out what you think is the greatest British sports car of all time and find out with a degree of statistical certainty given the broad audience that we were lucky enough to avail ourselves of.

Going in I predicted the eventual winner but I could never have guessed the poor showing achieved by some of the putative early favorites. There was some thought that the seriously phrased question – we had asked voters to consider nominees based on certain factors including historicity, overall sales success, popularity, engineering excellence, competition success, period reviews and importance in the marketplace – would devolve into a simple popularity contest wherein the MGB would be expected to finish strongly along with such well admired cars as the Aston Martin and Lotus.

In the end, I believe that the Moss customers got it right. The E-Type should have won and did, handily, but the voters also got it wrong. How else to explain the relatively low placement of the ground breaking Mini and MG TC?

The Mini was one of the most influential cars to have ever been manufactured and it should have placed higher based on historical impact alone. Instead, it tied for 13th. The MG TC that started the sports cars craze in the United States? It finished in a tie for next to last with a car that was only produced for one year (the TR250). It’s successors in the T-Series faired little better with the TD and TF failing to motivate any significant traction in the voting.

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First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts and minds of its countrymen – the E-Type.

As far as marques go, Triumph produced the greatest number of individual models in period and that allowed it to easily amass the highest aggregate vote followed by Austin-Healey (impressive considering there were only 3 Healey models to compete against the 6 MG nominees) and MG. That the MG folks failed to achieve a better showing is surprising as I thought that between the T-Series, MGA and MGB there would have been a ground swell of support for Abingdon. As an aside, the Wedge supporters surprised me as both the TR7 and TR8 faired much better than expected and tied with the XK120 and Mini for a spot just outside the Top Ten.

Well, without further adieu here is the top 10 including – what you the customers think – is the greatest British sports car of all time.

1961_Jaguar_E_Type_Fixed_Head_Coupe_classic_supercar_supercars______f_2048x1536Number One – Jaguar E-Type

Was there really any question that the Jaguar E-Type would lead the way?

Some of you referenced the Classic & Sports Car survey which had the AC Ace on top while others sent me private messages lobbying for the Mini or MGB to finish first. In the end, what Henry Manney described as the “ultimate crumpet catcher” coasted to a fairly easy victory. Even fans from the more affordable end of the spectrum (MG, Healey and Triumph) were able to agree that as automotive icons go, the E-Type is in a class by itself, while the others readily conceded the sensuous cat’s place in the hierarchy of all-time legends. It wasn’t even close. Something tells me that 20 years from now when Series I E-Types trade hands for $500,000 we will all look back and wonder why we didn’t snap them up when they were only $10,000 cars. These are Ferrari level cars for Chevrolet Corvette money, get them while you still can.

1959_Austin_Healey_3000_MkI_retro__g_2048x1536Number Two – Austin Healey 3000 

That the 3000 beat out the 100 was a mild surprise given the purity of the earlier design and the Über-cool folding windscreen designed by Gerry Coker. The 3000 range is comprised of three distinct desires each with its own personality.

The early MKIs retain much of the character that marked the 100 with side screens, erector set tops and spartan furnishings. The middle cars are a mixture of old and new with the later BJ cars being completely different in both character and feel. Better windscreens, wind-up windows, center-shift transmissions and better ride height all render these cars much closer to the XK150 in spirit than the 100 and they are the most numerous on the market and often the most valuable.

51475-500-0Number Three – Triumph TR6

More than 1100 votes were cast in total and the margin between the Healey 3000 and TR6 could be counted on one hand. That these two cars should be linked in the voting is not surprising – two more such pairs would follow – given how similar they are in feel and character. Maybe it was the more attractive lines of the Big Healey that made the difference or the higher perceived value with the BMC built car, regardless, both of these are true British crown jewels and their placement above their series progenitors signals a shift in the marketplace away from the traditional classics to these more modern successors.

1960_Aston_Martin_DB4_UK_spec__Series_II__classic__w_2048x1536Number Four – Aston Martin DB4

This was somewhat an unfair result for the crew from Newport-Pagnell. Among the 24 cars nominated I could easily have included more than one from the fabulous DB series of cars or picked instead as my nominee what is arguably the most famous car of all time – the DB5 driven by Commander James Bond. The problem is I prefer the styling of the first DB4s to the closed headlamps of the later cars and – truth be told – even prefer the styling of the earlier DB 2/4 MK III cars to the subsequent David Brown DB5, DB6 and DBS coupes.

If you have never done so, find an early DB4 or DB5 at a show and ask the owner if you can open and shut the door and engage the turn signal. The door shuts like those on a Mercedes 6.9 L Grosser and the turn signals feel like they were carved out of billet (compare that with the finger tip operated stalks on any Triumph or the “will it work or won’t it” trafficator on a Big Healey). These are exceptionally well-built cars and given a choice I think I would take a DB4 GT Zagato over any car in the world including any 250 Series Ferrari or even an SLR roadster from Stuttgart.

SAMSUNGNumber Five – Austin Healey Sprite

Gerry Coker hated the Sprite. It’s hard to imagine the legendary Healey designer turning on one of his most beloved creations but he loathed Donald Healey’s parsimony and the refusal to incorporate the hidden headlamps for the Sprite as Coker had originally planned was one of the final nails in the coffin for the proud Englishman. Of course with hindsight it’s easy to recognize that without the bulbous eyes peering up from the one-piece bonnet the Sprite would have been an altogether different car and likely nowhere near as loved.

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Seriously, this should have been the star of Cars not an emasculated stock car that is a veritable Ken doll next to Doc’s Hudson Hornet

The frog eyes transformed a likable little sports car into a lovable automotive icon and the friendliest fascia ever created presaged Lightning McQueen and Tow Mater long before they were a gleam in Pixar’s imaginative vision of cars as people. It didn’t hurt that the Sprite was a blast to drive, cheap to buy and easy to maintain. No one who has ever managed to ease behind the two-spoke wheel (which also niftily incorporates the Healey wings) will deny that it’s one of the most memorable experiences in motoring. The Sprite defines the mantra of it’s better to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow.  The Sprite was a legend in its own time and a respectable fifth place finisher here.

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Sixth Place Tie Between the Austin Healey 100 and the Triumph TR3

Healey 100 – Just as the TR6 and the Austin Healey 3000 will forever be collectively linked as the last of their breed, so too are the 100 and TR3 best remembered as the first of their kind – fast and affordable British sports cars. When the 100 first appeared at Earl’s Court it was revelatory with its handsome styling and 100 mph top speed. For a world groomed to think that the TC was the affordable sports car and the XK120 was the fast sports car, it was stunning to believe that you could have both qualities (throwing in attractive to boot) all in the same car. 60 years later the 100 is one of the most iconic shapes to have ever been penned and its folding windscreen places its cool factor somewhere between Steve McQueen and suits from Savile Row in the first rank of chill.

triumph-tr3-03Sixth Place Tie Between the Triumph TR3 and the Austin Healey 100

Triumph TR3/3A – When its predecessor, the TR2, made its debut, contemporary road testers compared its acceleration to a rocket ship. What the Healey 100 achieved with 2.7 liters, the TR2 (and TR3) accomplished with less than 2. Given the significant price disparity between the two, the laurels for the affordable performance crown would shift to Coventry and remain there for quite some time.

While the TR3 – in either small or wide mouth form – will never be confused for the Prom Queen-like figure of the immortal 100, its looks will grow on you over time (in much the same way that an esthetically challenged wife becomes more attractive with the passage of time – she’s not much to look at but she sure can cook). More Liam Neeson than Brad Pitt, the TR3 possesses a tougher and more masculine form than the lithesome Healey. Durable, rugged and more British than Churchill talking about Dunkirk, the TR3 is a car we all can love even if lust isn’t necessarily part of the equation. It’s the quintessential English bulldog.

Screen Shot 2014-09-23 at 2.33.11 PMEighth Place Tie Between the MGB and TR4

Until the advent of the Mazda Miata, the MGB could rightfully lay claim to the title of the world’s most popular sports car. From 1962 to 1980 – not counting the RV8 revival in the 90s – 523,836 units of the ubiquitous B found buyers. Think about that for a moment, the MGB was born, matured and was able to vote and enlist for service during its almost 20 year run. In contrast, its rivals from Standard-Triumph evolved from the TR4, to the IRS-suspended TR4A, six-cylinder TR250 and TR6 and the all-new TR7 and TR8 during that same time span.

speedster_01Everyone has an MGB story and I challenge anyone to deny the fundamentally decent nature of the car. Much better built than the contemporary Triumphs – although admittedly slower – the MGB was the people’s sports car. Look at any movie from the 60s and an MGB is bound to show up. Its a car almost without inherent vice and benign to both own and drive, these cars are the sports car equivalent of the Model T or VW Beetle, damn near everyone had one at some point – and loved it. In many ways it’s the perfect British sports car – fun, simple and easy to restore or maintain by the average guy. Whether it’s the light and more simple early cars that you desire or the affordability inherent in the rubber-bumper B, there is a car out there for every taste and budget. The only surprise here is that it didn’t finish a close second to the E-Type.

 

Screen Shot 2014-08-01 at 2.24.38 PMEighth Place Tie Between the MGB and TR4

In the interest of full disclosure I have to admit that I absolutely freaking love the TR4. I learned to drive in a TR4 and the TR4A was my first car. I made my reputation racing in a TR4 and my closest friends are usually Triumph peeps.

That said, it’s funny that I’m most often identified as a Healey guy while others would swear I’m more of a Jaguar bloke. But they say you never forget your first love and the TR4 is mine and I can tell you that it has all the reliability and ruggedness of the side curtain Triumphs while possessing captivating Michelotti-designed Italianate styling.

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The author’s first stint behind the wheel of a TR

In truth, I’d rather have a TR250 which really is the best of all worlds (with its sweet sounding six-cylinder engine) but here the vote goes to the TR4. As fast as any Big Healey and faster than the MGB, it also offered a comfortable interior – albeit a very narrow one – and more luggage space than most people can ever use during a road trip. The TR4 succeeded on the track, rally circuit and on the showroom floor but for too many years languished in the shadow of the earlier TR3 and later TR6.

Curiously, this vote recognized three sets of alternate pairs with the 3000/TR6, 100/TR3 and the MGB/TR4. Of those, the MGB and TR4 are most likely to be encountered in the real world as viable purchase alternatives – the Healey/Triumph value gap is large enough to make them non-fungible – and both cars have qualities to recommend each. Unlike the better built and more refined MGB, the TR4 lacks any sense of being manufactured with careful consideration. Its ox cart ride, however, and prodigious torque make up for these failings and for sunny days on open roads there are few better companions than this Coventry classic.

1967_Sunbeam_Tiger_II_classic_convertible_tiger___d_2048x1536Number Ten – Sunbeam Tiger

It pains me to think that until recently I seriously underestimated the Sunbeam Tiger’s place in the Pantheon of great British sports cars. I had driven Tigers before (and even greater numbers of its Alpine sibling) but I had always dismissed them as crude imitations of the more celebrated and venerated Cobra while the Alpines were just too damn slow for their own good (even that’s not entirely true).

A few months ago, however, I had the chance to spend a week driving a Tiger on a 1000-mile journey on a variety of roads and in weather that would render the most prosaic MG or Triumph apoplectic while leaving a Big Healey cowering under an overpass.

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Good enough for Maxwell Smart, good enough for tenth overall

Over these long distances, the Tiger was easily the most comfortable British sports car that I had ever driven and its handling was less understeer-y than I remembered while chasing down the Natchez Trace (don’t forget that the Ford V-8 is lighter than the Healey six-cylinder lump).

Sunbeam was able to design a water proof top, functional wipers and an effective heater and defroster and still have time to design comfortable seats (don’t get me started on the torture that the seats from 100 represent).

The engine note is fantastic and the styling is attractive. Most importantly, almost any Sunbeam is better screwed together than any contemporary Healey or Triumph. I should have given the Tiger its due before dismissing it out of hand but I am thrilled that the voters recognized its inherent goodness with a respectable tenth place finish. It’s a fine car.

 

Honorable Mentions – AC Ace, Morgan Plus Eight, BMC Mini, Jaguar XK120, MGA, TR7/TR8 and Triumph Spitfire

By Johnny Oversteer

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'Getting the Goat – The Greatest British Sports Cars of All Time' have 7 comments

  1. September 26, 2014 @ 6:01 am Andy Reid

    I like the results but am amazed at a few omissions from the survey top 10.

    How about the Spitfire?

    So many British car aficionados learned about the joys and associated pain of British car ownership with the Spitfire and so many were sold that I was amazed at its omission from the top 10

    The other car I was stunned to see omitted was the Lotus Elan. Yes they are fragile compared to a TR4 or an MGB, but the Elan might be the finest British roadster ever designed. Not only is the styling spot on, but the driving experience is possibly the best of any open sports car I have ever driven.

    The final omission that surprised me was the MG T series cars. These are the cars that started not only the British car hobby, but the entire sports car hobby in the United States.

    That said, I completely agree with the #1 choice on the list as well as many of the others.

    Reply

    • October 2, 2014 @ 10:19 am Carly Bonilla

      All good points, Andy. Sounds like another G.O.A.T list may be in order in the near future…

      Reply

      • November 9, 2014 @ 4:04 pm nikasj

        I would love to do an articles ranking all the British sports cars on several different levels including fun, ease of ownership and their place in the pantheon of sports cars worldwide. Someday, time permitting.

        Reply

    • October 7, 2014 @ 7:31 am Brad

      Wow! MGB on the list at all!!. Above the Tiger and the TR-250?? Tough one to stomach. No spitfire, maybe at the bottom.

      Reply

  2. October 20, 2014 @ 8:20 am Karl

    I must say I am surprised that the MG T series cars are not in the voting. Would it be fair to say that a souped up Austin Mini Cooper should not be considered as well? Clearly…the Jag XK 120 / 140 cars would be at the very top of my list for design.

    Reply

    • October 22, 2014 @ 10:50 am Johnny Oversteer

      I was very surprised at the poor showings for the T-Series, Mini and the XK series given their cumulative historical impact. As the enthusiast pool ages it appears that drivability increasingly becomes a factor. I agree that the Big Cats are some of the prettiest cars ever designed and having raced a 120 it is one of my all time favorites. At the end of the day, the votes are what they are and the public has spoken. It doesn’t mean that we cannot debate the results though.

      Reply

  3. November 6, 2014 @ 6:45 pm C. Roche

    Where’s the MGA? Both the roadster and the coupe were beautiful automobiles.

    Reply


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