Britain Can Make It


World War II and the British Automobile in America

During the Second World War, around three million members of the U.S. military were sent to bases in southern England and Wales. As the American soldiers interacted with their British hosts, one descriptive phrase became particularly popular. The Americans were “overpaid, oversexed, and over here.” In the eyes of the more cash-strapped British civilians, this in part began an association of Americans with both money and their willingness to spend it. For the Americans themselves, many of whom were seeing a foreign country for the first time, everything about Britain was a new and exciting adventure. These young, single American men of course interacted with young, single British women, and naturally romances between the two groups became commonplace. Some of these romances really blossomed, as around 70,000 British women relocated to the United States to marry American men they had met during the war.

Another of the many things Americans noticed during their time overseas was the difference between British automobiles, namely sports cars, and their own bulkier boulevard cruisers. American cars, known as “yank tanks” among the British, were typically big and heavy machines. American roads were typically long and straight. British cars, on the other hand, were designed for narrower and curvier European roads and were smaller and nimbler than any car Americans had really seen before. The thrill of driving a lively little MG must have been quite the change from a big, lumbering Cadillac. After the war, these same Americans came home to a strong economy, numerous government benefits in the form of the G.I. bill, and plenty of disposable income.

Many American servicemen had brought home souvenirs from their adventures in Europe, like swords or shell casings, but before long, more than a few of them wanted to experience the thrill of those fun little British sports cars again. The British automotive industry, hoping to export as many cars as possible, was all too eager to oblige. According to automotive historian Jonathan Stein, “the phenomena that created the sports car craze in North America was little more than a marriage of convenience. Americans craved the small sporting novelties from across the sea, and they had the dollars which Great Britain so desperately needed for its depleted coffers.”  British cars, with just enough chrome trim and whitewall tires to satisfy American tastes, began to reach American shores in large numbers starting in the late 1940s. By the end of the 1950s, MGs, Jaguars, Morgans, Aston Martins, Triumphs, Sunbeams, and Austin-Healeys filled the driveways of many sophisticated, affluent Americans as well as the bedroom walls of teenage boys dreaming of that quintessentially British sense of speed and style.

“Export or Die” and America’s Love Affair with the British Car

America’s relationship with British cars began after the Second World War. American servicemen returning from the war began to sing the praises of the agile British sports cars they had driven during their time in Europe, and people listened. The British automotive industry, very much part of the “Export or Die” mentality in post-war British manufacturing, was delighted that these ex-soldiers, practically serving as sales reps, were promoting British cars in a wealthy U.S. economy. Meanwhile, the British Treasury wanted a steady stream of American dollars; therefore steel, a crucial element in car production, was allocated mostly to companies exporting to the United States. With encouragement from both buyers in America and the government at home, Britain’s car makers wasted no time in shipping cars across the Atlantic to the United States.

The first customers for the unfamiliar new British automobiles were of course veterans who had been introduced to the cars during the war, but soon British cars, really the first significant imports in the American market, were selling quickly and in large numbers. By the 1950s the automotive industry was bringing more American dollars into the British economy than any product manufactured in the United Kingdom. British cars, particularly sports cars, were not for everyone, and American cars continued to control most of the market. A distinct culture emerged, however, that was made up of Americans who appreciated the raw, on-edge sensation that driving a British sports car offered. These like-minded people shared that appreciation at race tracks, autocrosses, garages, and car shows around the country. British car makers had found their calling. They were exporting more cars than any other country in the 1950s, and most of these were shipped to an enthusiastic American customer base.

By the middle years of the 1970s the honeymoon was coming to an end. The oil crisis of 1973, an unstable world economy, and harsher emissions regulations all hit the automotive industry hard. British cars also faced unwelcome competition in America from Japanese imports, which were much more practical, reliable, and usually cheaper than anything else on the market. Many Americans became disillusioned with their more troublesome British cars and turned to the American, Japanese, or German alternatives. By the 1980s almost all of the brands that had been so popular in the immediate post-war years were either out of business or in serious financial trouble.

Even though the British automotive industry never really recovered from its collapse in the 1980s, fondness for Britain’s more memorable cars certainly has. Just as American soldiers returning from World War II felt nostalgia for the cars they saw and drove in England, so too do many older Americans fondly remember the fun times in the exciting British cars of their youth. Younger generations of car enthusiasts have also started to appreciate the exhilaration of driving a British sports car, which some would argue is motoring in its purest form. Beginning in the early 1990s, classic British cars were starting to resurface from barns and sheds to undergo repair or restorations to wipe away years of neglect. Today British cars are a common sight at vintage races and car shows from coast to coast. They remind us of the years when America learned that driving could be fun, and they give future generations a look into one of the more fascinating chapters in American as well as automotive history.