The destination for history

Cars we loved in the 1950s


The classic British sports car has its roots firmly planted in the 1950s. This was the decade when MGs, Triumphs, Austin-Healeys and Jaguars were the global yardsticks of open-topped, two-seater excitement. Within a very short time there were roadsters to suit every pocket - from the cheap-and-nippy Austin-Healey ‘Frogeye’ Sprite to the Jaguar XK150 with its thrilling performance and Le Mans-winning pedigree.

Mind you, not very many of these gorgeous machines would be available to British buyers. At the beginning of the 1950s, the name of the car-making game was exports. And the vast majority of the country’s sports car output had the steering wheel on the ‘wrong’ side and was destined for America’s sunshine states.

Quite apart from the crushing austerity that lingered from the post-war 1940s, and the chronic shortage of petrol for the average motorist, absolutely any brand new car was difficult to come by. If you were a doctor, or other vital worker, then you went to the top of the waiting list; everyone else had to join the bottom of it, and remain there for many years until the call from the local showroom came.

Biding your time, though, was perhaps the best thing to do anyway. Away from sports cars, the average small family car had been - for almost all of the late 1940s – merely a warmed-up version of what had been around in 1939. Only as the 1950s got into its stride did peppy and attractive new models come on stream. And some true motoring legends certainly did come to life. 

One of the best-loved was the Morris Minor which, while no ball of fire, handled and steered sweetly and provided faithful, roomy service to all who chose it. Following on in 1951 came the Austin A30, the spiritual successor to the legendary Austin Seven. Like its famous forebear, this was a real car ‘in miniature’, but it featured an excellent combined body-chassis unit that made it an uncommonly strong little car.

Two years later, in 1953, Ford joined the modern world. The ancient ‘sit up and beg’ looks of the Anglia and Prefect were swept away with sleek new lines and independent front suspension, yet the cars remained frugal to maintain and easy to fix – a vital element at a time when many drivers routinely did their own servicing.

For, mechanically simple as 1950s family cars undoubtedly were, they needed a lot of regular care. Getting the oilcan out every 1000 miles was a routine business … and adding mysterious substances to the mediocre, Government-rationed petrol was often required to prevent permanent engine damage.

The motorway era was to really begin in the 1960s. Which was just as well, because even quite large 1950s family cars were none too well suited to sustained driving at constant high speed. Wheel bearing failures or a boiled-over radiator were likely outcomes.

Yet trips by car were still something special – proper occasions with the pent-up anticipation of seeing new parts of the country, maybe even venturing abroad on a new roll-on/roll-off ferry. Driving was fun, and the cars of the 1950s – from the most mundane of Vauxhalls to the most exotic of Aston Martins – simply fuelled the promise of freedom and mobility.

By Giles Chapman 

Earl’s Court Motor Show 1953

Sign up for our newsletter

show more books