Examining Britain’s tradition of automotive craftsmanship
Great Britain has always proudly played a significant role in the automotive landscape. The British have a motorsports history as rich as any nation’s, and their deep manufacturing roots have led to an enduring legacy in the industry.
British manufacturers have historically set the gold standard for luxury automobiles. When the Britons’ emphasis on refinement meets their storied motorsports tradition, it creates a powerful combination that has become a hallmark of the luxury segment. As a result, the English especially have always managed to blend both performance and character into even the most cushy vehicles.
In the post-war twentieth century, many of the UK’s largest manufacturing firms became a part of the automotive conglomerate British Leyland Corporation through various mergers and acquisitions. Though fraught with financial and organizational problems, the British Leyland empire exercised considerable influence on the automotive industry and employed over 100,000 people at its height. At various points, the conglomerate contained profitable brands such as Austin, Rover, Jaguar, Morris, MG, Mini, and Triumph. In 1975, it was partly nationalized, giving the British government control of over 40 percent of the UK car market. Many point to this decision as the beginning of the already-troubled British Leyland’s downfall.
When the automotive might of British Leyland came crashing down in the ‘70s, only the most trusted and pedigreed brands survived the shakeup. Many of the engineering and stylistic developments of the era carried over to foreign manufacturers, especially influencing luxury automobiles. Today, almost all the major models coming out of “Dear Old Blighty” are from luxury marques (sorry, not you, Mini). And British car making is booming.
Well, technically British. Most of the well-known brands are foreign-owned or manufactured elsewhere. BMW owns Rolls Royce. Bentley is part of the giant Volkswagen Group. Ford bought and combined Jaguar and Land Rover, but sold the brand to Tata Motors. And while smaller firms like Morgan and Caterham are helping to preserve the tradition of British manufacturing, the big firms are working to push the envelope in quality and performance. Let’s take a look at the history of Britain’s luxury automobile marques and the present-day legacy of these brands’ traditions.
As you can read in our history of Jaguar, the company got its beginnings in 1922 making motorcycle sidecars. After a glut of mid-century racing successes, Jaguar hit financial trouble and bounced around between owners for decades. Today, it makes up half of Jaguar Land Rover, and their models inject plenty of attitude into the British automotive armada.
Jaguar’s luxurious sedans, or saloons, carry a high-powered image and have long been favored by executive types. From the mid-sized XE to the premium XJ, Jaguars display poise, power, and style. English refinement and an aggressive demeanor combine to give Jaguars a distinct edge.
In 2013, Jaguar began production of the F-Type, an achingly gorgeous 2-seater that comes in both coupe and convertible form. The F-Type delivers laugh-your-head-off performance and an exhaust note so intoxicating, it’ll turn even the most devoted vegan into a red-blooded carnivore. With 550 hp, the F-Type R is a madly powerful sportscar and the most fun you’ll have in a Jaguar. The only problem with the F-Type is that it’s nearly impossible to decide which is better-looking — the coupe or the convertible?
For 2016, Jaguar released its first-ever SUV, the F-Pace. The F-Pace is entirely a response to today’s SUV-obsessed consumers, but it is unquestionably a Jag. The sporty SUV looks and plays its part well, and competes with the likes of the Porsche Macan.
Land Rover, another British Leyland escapee, made its name strictly by making SUVs. The British government saw the success of the Willys Jeep during World War II, and realized that they needed to develop their own vehicle to meet the rigors of the battlefield. Because of their military beginnings, early Land Rovers were spartan and rugged and could mostly be had in black, white, and shades of green. As their trucks commanded more and more commercial success, Land Rover shifted its focus to accommodating the consumer, pioneering the luxury off-road SUV in the process. While they retain their military-inspired off-road capability, the Land Rovers of today have morphed into highly-recognizable status symbols.
For decades, most Land Rovers were built at the Solihull plant near Birmingham. But in 2008, Indian automotive giant Tata Motors purchased Jaguar Land Rover from Ford, and announced plans to open factories in Asia. Today, Land Rovers are manufactured in multiple countries to take advantage of emerging international markets, especially in China.
Land Rover knows what they do well and they stick to it. All models across their catalogue are excellently equipped for multi-terrain travel and similarly well-equipped inside. Land Rover cabins are spacious and contain all the creature comforts that the modern luxury buyer could want. A 2013 special edition of the Evoque compact SUV, decidedly the least off road-focused, featured an interior styled by Victoria Beckham.
The Range Rover and Range Rover Sport are Land Rover’s bread and butter. In addition to its regular appearances as the subject of rap songs, the Range Rover is the standby upper-class family car. Its off road abilities are proven and the appeal of its image is cemented in the consumer market. It is, quite simply, the benchmark by which all other luxury SUVs are measured.
Bentley was founded in 1919, and promptly won the 24 Hours of Le Mans five times from 1924 to 1930. These successes added instant credibility to the Bentley name. And while Bentley still maintains their motorsports presence, today they are known for making one of the most coveted luxury goods.
During World War II, Bentley relocated its headquarters to Crewe, England so that Rolls-Royce (Bentley’s then-owner) could serve the war effort in making plane engines. Most Bentleys are still made at the Cheshire County factory today. Each car is painstakingly hand-crafted according to the specifications of each customer’s order, and the bespoke Bentleys offer ample room for custom additions and flourishes.
All Bentleys made from 1931-2003, however, shared their chassis with Rolls-Royce models and used adapted Rolls engines. When Volkswagen Group took control in 2003, many saw it as an opportunity for the Bentley marque to reclaim its original spirit. Enter the Continental GT.
The Continental GT, launched in 2003, was built around the VW-developed W12 engine with a focus on combining refinement and performance. The W12 is essentially two VR6 engines mated together, which saves space and weight while keeping the 12 cylinders. The way the W12 dispatches its wave of power makes the driving experience an occasion, but never a jarring one. When the W12 is combined with Bentley’s exquisite interior, the result is a grand tourer with unrivaled opulence and balance. The Bentley engineers thought so too, which is why the Continental GT is so named.
The Continental also comes in saloon form, called the Continental Flying Spur. The Bentley Flying Spur is a dreamy cocoon of diamond-quilted seats and walnut panelling. It will set you back a quarter of a million dollars, but it’s the kind of extravagant toy you get when money is no object. Incredibly, the 626-hp Flying Spur W12 S tops out at over 200 mph, which is faster than most supercars.
If the Flying Spur is reserved for the likes of superstar international footballers, Bentley’s full-size Mulsanne requires oil baron money. The Mulsanne is the car your chauffeur loves driving as much as you love lounging with a champagne flute in the back seat. This behemoth is 3 tons of opulence and British steel. No fewer than 150 hours of hand stitching go into crafting the Mulsanne’s interior. And with 2,000 watts, it boasts the world’s most powerful factory audio system. You get the point — the Mulsanne offers uncompromised elegance in a wonderfully gigantic, shiny package.
As of 2015, Bentley also makes an SUV, the Bentayga. The Bentayga is the most expensive production SUV money can buy. Rather expectedly, it is lavishly equipped in the cabin and under the hood. Thoroughbred race horse breeders ought to rejoice, because the Bentayga even offers over 7,700 lbs of towing capacity. Bentley knows its customers, which is why it has preserved its status as one of the premier aspirational brands in the world.
Ever since James Bond drove the Aston Martin DB5 in 1964’s Goldfinger, Aston’s sports cars have been regarded as a British cultural icon. That glorious DB5, equipped with bulletproof windows, revolving number plates (naturally), a bevy of defense mechanisms, and an ejector seat, is likely the most famous car in cinema history and is responsible for launching the Aston brand into permanent dream car status.
Over the decades, 007 sat behind the wheel of many different cars, but England’s suave savior will forever be associated with Aston Martin, especially the grand tourer DB series. From 1948’s DB1 to the new DB11, the unmistakably British bloodline’s knee-weakening beauty has kept the desirability of the Aston Martin nameplate on a level by itself.
In addition to consistently exhibiting some of the most stunningly attractive physical forms, Aston’s supercars also employ the coolest names in the industry: Rapide, Zagato, Virage, Vantage, Vanquish, Valkyrie. They just sound fast.
The baby of the current model range is the charismatic Vantage, which can be had in coupe or roadster form with a V8 or Aston’s legendary V12. Aston uses phrases like “race-bred dynamism” and “searing urgency” to describe the Vantage’s performance. Then there’s the four-door Rapide S, which is somehow as gorgeous as its coupe siblings while accommodating your kids in the back. The interior materials and attention to detail are flat-out indulgent.
The DB11 began production in 2016 and replaces the outgoing DB9. Its sharklike nose, inimitable Aston grill, and athletic stance make for a dazzling next step in the DB lineage. The DB11 uses a new 5.4L twin-turbo V12, making it the first-ever turbocharged production Aston.
The range-topping Vanquish is “the ultimate Aston Martin”. Its intoxicatingly potent V12 powerplant and cutting edge chassis design make this GT an incredible exercise in combining performance with luxury. It represents everything Aston Martin stands for.
True to British tradition, every Aston is hand-built at the factory in Gaydon, England. Each car is endowed a rich racing heritage, refined craftsmanship, and sheer beauty that come together to make Aston Martin the quintessential British supercar maker.
Since 1906, Rolls-Royces have been the preferred conveyances of the world’s one percent. Throughout history, every Roller has been precisely crafted to achieve cofounder Frederick Henry Royce’s mission to build the “best car in the world.” Each of the four models in the current lineup is more exclusive than the last, and if you have to ask the price, they’re not for you. (Fun fact: Donald Trump’s first car was reportedly a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud.) Only the very finest, most lavishly furnished vehicles are adorned by the lovely Spirit of Ecstasy.
The Rolls-Royce Ghost is a masterful cradle of glass and sheet metal that will shield you from the inconveniences of the outside world. This sedan ticks all the Rolls boxes. Opposite-opening doors. Double-R logos in the wheel centers that are weighted so they remain upright while driving. Twelve whole hides from Simmental breed bulls, because the hides of cows are prone to stretching during pregnancy. It doesn’t matter that underneath the bespoke opulence lies the skeleton of a BMW 7 Series. What matters is that you get to customize the umbrella that sits in a pocket inside the door jam and that you can have stars installed in the ceiling.
The gently curving fastback roofline of the Wraith is the coupe’s defining characteristic. The Wraith has been billed as the company’s most performance-focused model, but this 5500-pound, 17-foot vehicle is no sportscar. It does have a 624-hp twin-turbo V12 that effortlessly urges the Wraith from zero to 60 in 4.3 seconds. And no matter which exotic hardwood you choose to grace your cabin, the grain is set at a 55-degree angle. Because luxury.
At first blush, the Dawn looks like a drophead version of the Wraith coupe. It shares many of the drivetrain components, but it has a styling all its own. The Dawn projects the type of serene authority that perpetually invites stares from onlookers. The five-layer thick paint with a mirror-like piano-shine finish is chosen from 44,000 individual hues available for the Dawn.
The Rolls-Royce Phantom is the creamiest of any crop, a palatial partition of finery and bliss. The latest Phantom represents the eighth generation of the Goodwood, Sussex factory’s ultimate status symbol. Driving the Phantom is like sitting in a lower Manhattan penthouse while moving very quickly. Rolls-Royce proclaims that, thanks to no less than 278 pounds of acoustic insulation, the Phantom is the quietest car in the world. Up front, Rolls-Royce will finish the dashboard, which they now call “The Gallery”, with a fine artwork for viewing pleasure. Among the suggested options are a sculpted silk appliqué by British artist Helen Amy Murray and an array of ultra-fine porcelain roses based on actual roses that were bred specifically for Rolls-Royce for this purpose. Alternatively, a customer can commission the artist of their choice to create a custom artwork to adorn their Phantom’s Gallery. If that’s not luxury, I don’t know what is.