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Confessions of a Sports Car Bolshevik
What it was like to be young and in the front lines when Europe mounted an assault on Detroit with small, snarling, irresistible machines that changed the way we drove and thought
November 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 7
That it was likely to be underpowered, unreliable, uncomfortable, and ugly reflected the fact that the average English sports car manufactory was equally likely to be run more along the lines of an Ealing comedy than a giant of industry, and underfinanced or eccentric or reactionary or all three. But at the fevered peak of the sports car revolution, such drawbacks seemed to be almost pluses. No bland American blob, thank you. Character was the thing. And what revealed character more than cantankerousness? It overheated? It wouldn’t start on a cold morning, wouldn’t keep running in the rain, blew fuses and clutches oftener than its owner blew his nose? Well, of course. It wasn’t another boring family hack, it was a sports car .
I had mentally window-shopped the sports car market until there wasn’t a specification I didn’t know, a marque history I couldn’t recite going back to Edwardian times. Like everyone else, I dreamed of nestling into the all-conquering new Jaguar XK120, of lording it over all mankind in a handmade Aston Martin DB3, or of lording it over even Aston Martins in a Bentley Continental. Reality, alas, ordained that I settle for 50 percent of much, much less. Only by pooling my puny financial resources with Hugh’s might we just barely manage between us what neither could individually afford. Not the sports car of our dreams, not even a clapped-out old Riley—not on a budget in the middling-low three figures. But by astute reconnaissance of the used-car lots and shrewd bargaining, we could surely land something. Maybe even something European.
Neither Hugh nor I happened to be in the least astute or shrewd, and car fever was lowering our standards almost hourly. That some slickster didn’t hornswoggle us into a deathtrap seems in retrospect a minor miracle. Our maiden set of wheels was proof of our father’s adage that even a blind hog finds an acorn once in a while: It was only three years old, it had been driven by the proverbial little old lady, and it was English.
For years after the end of World War II, America’s and Canada’s pent-up demand for new cars far outstripped even Detroit’s capacity to satisfy it. The motor industry of the United Kingdom saw its chance and favored the Canadian market in particular with a trickle of sports cars and a flood of left-hand-drive versions of the same cheap, small sedans that were the staple of British driving life. They briefly bloomed like mayflies on the streets of Toronto, a watered vintage compared with their sports car cousins, but better these than waiting years for a new Ford or Chevy or taking a flyer on something used. They buzz past in review: the Triumph Mayflower, a grotesque parody of Rolls-Royce styling in pint size; the Hillman Minx, with its inexplicably ass-backward shift pattern; the Vauxhall Victor, cowering under its heavy-handed American styling; the redoubtable Morris Minor; the long Austin A35, a metal pup tent on wheels. There were entertaining oddballs and flashes in the pan like the Jowett Javelin with its flat-four engine, and big, staid Humber Super Snipes and Wolseleys. The Germans belatedly muscled in with their Borgwards and NSUs and Lloyds and Isetta bubble cars and two-stroke DKWs, and eventually the French as well, most notoriously with the Renault 4CV, an evil-handling little rear-engine bug designed by Dr. Ferdinand Porsche while in captivity just after the war and known forever after as “Porsche’s Revenge.” But once Detroit’s production and North American buyer demand became more or less equal, those imported stopgaps largely fell from favor. You could pick up a used English flyweight sedan for a song.
Ours was a seasick green 1951 Ford Anglia, a tinny little thirty-horsepower relic of pre-war economy car design barely gripping the lowest-known rung of automotive status, barely good for 63 miles per hour in a strong tail wind, homely as a meat loaf, stark as a monk’s cell. But it was a car. And it wasn’t American.
We loved and tended that knock-kneed runt as if it were a Rolls, duly recording its every mile and gallon of fuel and pint of oil, fretting over its every random squeak and hiccup, weekly and often daily waxing and rubbing its every surface, manicuring the thing like a prize miniature poodle at Westminster. Feeling at least halfway certified for admission to the sports car elite, we bought Kangol driving caps and mesh-backed driving gloves and affected long English scarves. We enrolled in the local sports car club, joining our fellow zealots one evening per month in the Grange Hall to watch documentaries on the Monte Carlo and Redex Round Australia rallies of two or three years before. We drove in Sunday rallies, competed in parking-lot gymkhanas and in time trials on frozen lakes. I became editor of The Crankshaft Journal , the club newsletter, and turned it into a screed packed with anti-Detroit polemics instead of news. If my father had ever seen an issue, I’d have been disinherited on the spot. I didn’t care.