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Ten Classic British Cars That Outclass American Muscle Cars

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Written by Elise

20th October 2020

Ten Classic British Cars That Outclass American Muscle Cars
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Ten Classic British Cars That Outclass American Muscle Cars

By Chris Williams

As an Australasian car person I never understood the concept of being a die-hard for any particular type or brand of car. Hence, back home, I was always viewed with suspicion by my fellow antipodeans as a potential automotive fifth columnist because I was neither a Holden nor a Ford fanatic.

Indeed, the only occasion there would be any unity between Ford and Holden people was when I happened to voice an opinion in support of European or British offerings.

Australasia too had its response to the likes of Dodge Challenger, Pontiac GTO and Mustang GT, but for a long time they suffered from that American disease of being unaware how to build a performance car other than with a large-capacity V8, so you can imagine their confusion when Ford Australia started turbocharging the Falcons from 2003. And woe betides anyone who dared admit they were actually faster than their V8 counterparts.

I never got a chance to publish anything like this back home without the threat of being lynched, so here are my top ten classic British cars – old and new – that are better than the colonial offerings.

10. Austin Seven

Austin Seven

A peculiar place to begin perhaps, but to me, the Austin Seven has been Britain’s top people’s car over the Mini.

The Seven is the car that introduced the conventional car control layout we know today and made it stick. The idea came from Cadillac but its model, the Type 53, was very expensive, whereas almost any pleb could afford a Seven (£135 when new).

Prior to the Seven and the Type 53, no two cars had had the same controls – let alone such hierarchically different models – and all of them were frightfully counterintuitive. De Dion Boutons and Ford Model Ts apparently required drivers to have an uneven number of arms and legs to operate!

In fact, octopus employment was at its highest ever rate in the early twentieth century as many were used as drivers for new motor cars…until the Austin Seven.

9. Jaguar MK2

MK2 Jaguar

Recently-retired Cadillac CTS-Vs and top-end Holden Commodores pride themselves as cut-price BMW M5s; affordable but genuine alternatives as sports saloons. However, back in 1959 Jaguar launched a sports saloon to which there was no alternative.

Offering 200bhp and a top speed of 125mph with five people on board, the Jaguar MK2 came along a good five years before the big block movement in America took off so even in a straight line there was nothing to compete with it.

Jaguar has frequently been a middle ground between American prices and European dynamism, the most famous of which is the E-Type. But the MK2 was the first proper sports saloon and therefore sits at least equal to the E-Type in status.

Jaguar’s founder Sir William Lyons was extremely pleased with the MK2, holding the opinion it should define Jaguar. The MK2 certainly did that.

7. Jensen Interceptor FF

Jensen Interceptor FF

“Grand tourers” – the European name for muscle cars, so in this section, there are a lot of trans-Atlantic crossovers.

I said in my Chevrolet Camaro Review that Hennessey put quite possibly the best name to a car with The Exorcist, but I did not commit to the best because I knew the Jensen Interceptor competed hard for that prize.

When the Interceptor FF was new (1966-71) it was hard to compete with it in a game of point-scoring. All face and all trousers, Jensen marketed the FF as “the world’s most advanced car” and with four-wheel drive predating Audi’s Quattro system and anti-lock brakes it was hard to argue.

The performance wasn’t bad either: the FF used a 6.3 litre Chrysler V8 with 330bhp and a top speed of over 130mph. To heavyweight American bruisers, the Interceptor FF was a scrappy Brit that was could repeatedly land punches without its opponents realizing how. The main drawback of the FF was its cost. At £5,249 when new, one could buy many Ford Mustangs for that.

6. Range Rover

Range Rover

The original Range Rover has the same inexplicable ‘I want one’ trait as the Mustang.

Many of us think of the Range Rover as a national hero who enabled the middle class to drive through mud puddles and be a place from which they could look down imperiously on lowly common motorists.

In fact it was Jeep that invented the luxury off-roader with the Wagoneer, but the Jeep was enormous and naturally only suitable for Americans. By comparison, the Range Rover was positively spritely and with its Rover V8 and coil springs, it was quickly established as a superb off-roader for those who demanded an automotive equivalent to Hunter wellingtons.    

5. Ford Sierra Cosworth

Ford Sierra Cosworth

When I was quite young, before I knew about the Cosworth, my dad took a friend and me to a local touring car race.

My friend and I were betting on which car would win each race. In one particular line-up, there were Mustangs and Ferraris and Camaros and a funny yellow saloon sitting on pole position.

‘Pick that one,’ my dad advised. ‘What, the yellow one?’ I protested. ‘Just take it,’ he replied.

That was my introduction to the Cosworth. Years later, a tweaked Sierra RS Cosworth provided one of the more lively driving experiences of my life. On some tarmac back in New Zealand I was testing out the infamous turbo lag: on fourth gear at 40mph it accelerated like an FSO Polonez; at 50mph it took off like a caffeinated squirrel. It was only at 125mph that I discovered the brakes had given up.

The Sierra Cosworth was the machine that slapped down the American V8.  Talk about high performance!

4. TVR Tuscan

TVR Tuscan

I like the honest, simple experience that a muscle car gives you, but I like the brown underpants adrenalin rush that a TVR provides even more.

Why choose the Tuscan of all the TVR models? It is one of the TVRs from my era and I think it is the most attractive.

Pretty it may be, but I give the same advice about the Tuscan as I did when testing an AC Cobra replica last year (similar to the ones made here at Pilgrim Motorsports): never drive it in the wet. And don’t make the mistake of thinking you have the car figured because its limits are as changeable as the weather.

The Tuscan is a Pitbull; subdued one moment, ripping your throat out the next. But that is what I love about the Tuscan and TVRs in general: there is never a dull moment.

Now for some modern classics and classics-to-be that outclass modern muscle cars. To leave them out would be a disservice to the strides in development that surviving British marques have made.  

3. Rolls Royce Phantom

Rolls Royce Phantom

America’s luxury car name is Cadillac, Britain’s is Rolls Royce.

If a modern Cadillac is a brass band, a modern Rolls Royce is an orchestra; more sophisticated, more intricate, and impossible to get done properly without the Germans.

BMW really did something remarkable when it bought Rolls Royce in 1998. Having spent the following four years working on a twenty-first-century Rolls Royce, what they revealed in 2003 was simply the best car in the world. No vehicle could touch the new Phantom for opulence, grandeur, refinement, attention to detail, and subtle performance. The current model, for example, has 130 kilograms of sound insulation.

2. Ariel Atom

Ariel Atom

You might expect the Lotus Elise to make this list but I think the Ariel Atom is better. Developed along similar principles, with a lightweight frame powered by a reliable Japanese engine, the Atom was in fact developed with help from Lotus.

When the version with a supercharged Honda engine was launched in 2003, it set about breaking numerous acceleration records and winning various car magazine drag races. The Americans, along with everyone else, loved it so much the Atom is now also built under license by TMI AutoTech in Virginia.

1. Morgan Plus Six

Morgan Plus Six

Probably the stereotypical British car that many muscle car fans still picture automatically: your typical wicker basket, picnic-in-the-meadows type of car that people only take out on Sundays.

Of course, the rest of us know better: the modern Morgan Plus Six is a type of classy performance car for the well-heeled, slightly hipster petrolhead. A very unique alternative not only to muscle cars but any sports car.

The appeal of the Plus Six is more understandable than ever since the Plus Six now has 19-inch rims, the same 3-litre turbo as the BMW Z4 and Toyota Supra, and still only weighs 1075kgs. On top of that, it is one of the few cars made today in which it is acceptable to use driving gloves.      

Bonus: Aston Martin Vantage

Aston Martin Vantage

You don’t have to spend a lot of money to have fun in a car but you can if you want to.

Driving the Vantage around a wet racetrack is a top motoring highlight of mine. I know modern muscle cars have plenty of tech but there is no arguing that the Vantage’s higher price isn’t just because of the badge. Take for proof the poise and weight of the steering, the immediacy of the twin-turbo V8, the expertly controlled body roll, and the grip.

The Vantage is no lightweight but it certainly behaves like one, thanks to the magic of intelligent and thorough engineering. Then to top it off is the styling. I think the Vantage is the best-looking Aston Martin yet (even though the headlights are a little small and piggy).  

Author: Chris Williams

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