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The Illusion of Speed

Posted by RedTR250 on March 27, 2011 at 2:48 PM


Speed is not absolute, it is relative. It needs context. When you travel on a commercial airliner, does your environment make you actively aware that you are arrowing through the ether at 500 miles per hour? Likewise, riding a bicycle down a steep, winding hill might see you peak at 40 mph. Which trip left you with a lengthier catalog of exhilarating sensations?

 

There are plenty of classic British cars capable of performance that pins you to your seat and sends passengers' hands clawing for some kind of grab-handle. Jaguar E-Type, Sunbeam Tiger, AC Cobra, any Aston Martin—these cars have always and will continue to shock and delight anyone who has the great fortune (literally and figuratively) to own one. The Jaguar Mk II and Rover 2000 TC were popular as police interceptors, so 2-seat roadsters are clearly not the only path to high-speed Britcar enlightenment.

 

Thanks to common-sense marketing practices, the cachet of these highly evolved and superbly quick machines was filtered down to more plebian offerings within their respective brands. Plebian only in direct comparison! In their day, the Austin Healey 100 and 3000, MG MGA and MGB, Triumph TR series, and Sunbeam Alpine all gave their owners an opportunity to experience spirited motoring in an everyday car that was far more affordable yet still possessing attributes like a wood dash, torquey inline engine, manual gearbox, and—a big plus—the potential to ruin any hairstyle. Many of these convertibles were all-season daily drivers, some of them even fitted with studded snow tires and crawling valiantly to the front line of the annual battle between Man and Winter.

 

And then there's the Little Guys—the Austin Healey Sprite, MG Midget, and Triumph Spitfire. Scaled to European roadways and garages but embraced by the North American market nonetheless, these pocket-sized roadsters inherited many of their siblings' features and, well, character. While perhaps not offering the bigger cars' acceleration, top speed, or even the space to stow a suitcase, a sub-miniature sporty car still transports its own cargo of tactile sensations—the smell of damp carpet blended with singed oil, the whirr and occasional clash of gearbox synchros, and the tingle of wind-blasted skin.

 

Although top-down motoring defines the British car experience for many, the tin-tops have a charm of their own. The ubiquitous Mini is the most famous of these. Beginning in 1959 and in continuous production for over forty years, this revolutionary example of Sir Alec Issigonis' genius endures and endears not just because of its brilliant mechanical layout and superbly efficient use of space—it's also a blast to drive. The Mini's admirable road-holding ability and handling are often compared to that of a go-kart, and quite justifiably so. Moving upward in size, the small and medium British saloons often attempted to emulate the posh appointments of their larger and in some cases much more lavishly equipped cousins, but many of them are just plain fun to drive.

 

The majority of classic British cars, when considered objectively, are not particularly quick. A percentage of them are ergonomically challenged, or optimistically engineered, or indifferently assembled. It does not matter. The modern enthusiast is not bound by the constraints of "value" or "practicality" that defined these cars in years past. There is no definitive standard of measurement that ranks a vehicle's speed in relation to the driver's goofy, self-satisfied grin.

 


Categories: The Motoring Experience, British Car History, The Classic British Car Obsession