Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Quintessential British Sports Car

From the site There’s a black Jensen Interceptor that’s often parked around my block. It’s an eye-catching car with a long nose and a large rear window that bulges like a glass bubble. And it oozes ’60s swinging London in the middle of Brooklyn.

Sometimes I see it across from my neighborhood coffee shop. Sometimes it’s parked on the way to the subway. Sometimes it surprises me two blocks farther than usual. But no matter where I find it, that Jensen nags me to write about a topic that’s been swirling in my mind for at least five years. But more on that in a second.

Shortly after my parents were married, they moved into a small house in Virginia, and my dad bought a used blue Triumph TR3, which my mom had painted a brilliant red. She also reupholstered the seats and took scraps of used carpet and hemmed edges to make mats for the back seats.

They loved that car. And years later, when my parents moved to North Carolina, they replaced it with a newer TR4A, the car that I grew up with.

Those were the days before baby and toddler seats. I remember standing in the back seat, with my two sisters beside me, on rides to the mall. I recall the rip in the scratched rear window, which my dad fixed with clear packing tape, and the feeling of falling asleep against the cold red steel of the windowsill.

Whenever I see that Jensen, it evokes these memories, but more than that, it resonates an emotion that’s universal in British sports cars.

You can’t say a Jensen looks much like a Triumph or that a Jaguar resembles an MGB, but they share … something, an unmistakable similarity of emotion, which could be the reason why my parents, two Chinese immigrants living in the South, fulfilled their aspirations in the Triumphs.

But what is it?

American sports cars are built like bulldogs. Italian sports cars are sexy. Japanese sports cars are manga and robotic. Describing the essence of a British sports car is more elusive. I’ve been trying to reason an answer for years. It’s a question I’ve asked often. And yesterday I decided to phone a group of Brits, who I felt would have a better perspective.

I first spoke to Peter Horbury, Ford’s executive director of design, the Americas, who once held the top design post at the Premier Automotive Group, which included Aston Martin and Jaguar, though he’s best known for sportifying Volvo’s boxy design in the ’90s.

“I think there’s a combination of things,” Mr. Horbury said. “Where American sports cars tend to rely on brute force and a macho image, British sports cars are a combination of discreet power and beautiful car. That combination, which the Jaguar E-Type and Aston Martin always represented – even Austin Healey – it wasn’t brutal. It was more beautiful.”

“But within that beauty lurked serious power,” he said, adding that the contrast was something that British drivers preferred at the time.

David Richards, the chief executive of Prodrive, a motorsport and automotive technology company and new owner of Aston Martin, echoed Mr. Horbury’s idea of understatement, offering the DB5 and Lotus Elan as examples. He also thought that a country’s sports car reflected the culture of its people.

“In America, the Ford Mustang or a Corvette reflects the V8, the big muscle cars, the style of America,” Mr. Richards said. “If you look at Italian sports cars, the fragility of them, the flamboyance of them, the slightly unreliable nature of them, it reflects the Italian temperament. I think British sports cars reflect the temperament of the country. I think it’s very much the case.

“I think it’s one of those things that happened,” he said. “It’s not by design. These things just happened. They evolve and become a sort of reflection of the culture they’re manufactured in and the heritage. They are the expression of people’s mobility and the kind of motorcar that they desire.”

On the other hand, Roger Becker, the vehicle engineering director of the Lotus Group, said he believed that the cars were more derivative of the quality of British roads.

“In England we have all of these small roads,” he said. And British sports cars were created with compact footprints to be nimble and agile enough to “thread through the narrowest of gaps and charge around the country lanes and miss the odd pheasant and rabbit that dashed out in front of you.” Power was secondary.

Mr. Becker’s design counterpart at Lotus, Russell Carr, spoke on design terms and re-emphasized the element of understatement, citing the Jaguar E-Type, a car he owns. But it was his historical perspective that proved to be the most interesting.

“I think one of the interesting things you said at the start was that it’s a difficult thing to pinpoint what it’s about,” he said. “I guess when you start with that conundrum, part of the reason is that a lot of the sports car companies were founded by very entrepreneurial inventive people, who had their own take on the best way of doing a sports car, or a car.”

Peter Stevens, who is best known as the designer of the McLaren F1, spoke more to that history, making the point that most of those quirky, personality-driven sports cars companies have disappeared.

“The awful thing that that suggests is that whatever it was, people didn’t want it. That’s the negative view there, but you do get that creepy feeling because other than tiny manufacturers, like Aston and Lotus,” he said, British sports cars are not made in numbers anymore.

Then he brightened up and added a twist on the definition. “I always thought that British sports cars were actually something that were accessible to a large number of people — kind of a democratic thing. The MG and Austin Healey, and all of those companies, made sports cars that anybody who could afford a car could afford to choose a sports car, which I thought was very nice. It was very simple and accessible for anybody.”

That’s important?

“It is to me,” he said. “That’s something we used to do so well. Because something like the Triumph TR2 would’ve been cheaper to buy than the saloon car that Triumph made.”

After I got off the phone with Mr. Stevens, I took a good look at my scorecard. The five people I spoke to overlapped on some points. Four mentioned the E-Type as the definitive British sports car. Three also cited the Elan. But there was an equal amount of variance, and three of them admitted to an inherent difficulty in nailing down a definition.

“If it was easy to define and distill as you suggest,” Mr. Richards said rather emphatically, “then the Japanese would have been doing it by now, and they’re not.”

And so perhaps my tendency to put things neatly into a box won’t be satisfied this time. But still I recall this colorful scenario presented to me two years ago by Damian Harty, who was a top engineer at Prodrive at the time. It seems to do a pretty good job:

“The quintessential English sports car experience is having gracefully bumbled through a village, we come to the sign that says the village has ended, and we want to accelerate up to speed and start enjoying the flow of the roads. And that’s rolling on in fourth gear and the exhaust note comes up a bit. That’s what it’s all about – having an English sports car.”