I never really understood why Americans developed such a love for our British Sportcars. For Brits of my generation it is obvious as we grew up with them. In the late 50s and early 60s there were very few foreign cars on UK roads, a few Renaults and Citroens and the inevitable VW Beetles. Japanese cars didn’t start getting imported until 1965 and it was only in the 1970s and 1980s when a combination of strong unions, bad management and bad quality saw them really have an impact on the UK manufacturers. For a while there were probably as many American cars in the UK as German, as we had a lot of US bases all over the country and many GIs imported US cars.
I have known for years that about 75% of production of Austin Healey, Jaguar, MG and Triumph went to the US but it is only now that I own two American classics that I think I understand why British cars are loved so much.
To illustrate this I think it is worthwhile doing a straight comparison with a couple of the classics that I have owned and driven. My favourite car by a long way is my 1970 Jaguar SII E-Type. I am now on my 3rd E-Type having progressed up the value chain from a SII 2+2, the least desirable version, to a SII coupe and now to a SII Roadster. 1964 saw the S1 E-Types evolving from the original design with the 4.2 litre engine replacing the 3.8, a Jaguar gearbox replacing the appalling Moss one, brakes being upgraded and a decent servo installed and good supportive seats replacing the original bucket ones. 1964 saw the launch of the Ford Mustang in the US and my 1st American Muscle Car is a 1965 Mustang Fastback GT, so I believe it is fair to compare these two.
I will ignore the fact that the Ford Mustang is a 2+2 v the 2 seater E-Type and concentrate on the technology and driving. Both cars have similar power outputs – Mustang 250 bhp, E-Type 265 bhp, both have 4 speed manual gearboxes and the weights are pretty close. There the similarities end. The Mustang has a solid rear axle on good old fashioned cart springs and single Macpherson strut suspension for each front wheel. The E-Type has double wishbone front suspension and fully independent rear suspension. Ford offered various braking options: drums all round; drums plus a servo or drums on the rear and disks on the front – which ours has. For some inexplicable reason Ford didn’t think the driver would need disks and a servo. E-Types have disk brakes on all four wheels and a servo as standard – right from their launch in 1961.
It is this combination of fully independent suspension and decent brakes that make the E-Type completely outclass the Mustang, which is pretty fast in a straight line with 0-60 being only 1 second slower than the E-Type. Sadly the myth that American muscle cars were not designed to go round corners seems fairly accurate. The basic suspension is responsible for a soft ride and lots of body roll, speed really needs to be scrubbed off to get round even the gentlest of bends. The E-Type will easily leave the Mustang standing on any winding country road.
Over the years technology improved a bit so it is worth comparing our 1974 Triumph TR6 with my 2nd American muscle car – a 1978 C3 Corvette Special Edition Indy Pace Car. The TR6 develops 125 bhp from its Lucas injected 6 cylinder 2.5 litre engine while the Vette develops 220 bhp from its V8 which is more than twice the size at 5.7 litres (350 ci). This engine has to drag along about 50% more weight than the TR6 – 3,624 lbs v 2,410 lbs but does manage to carry it to 60 mph about 1½ seconds quicker. Top speed of the Vette is only 5 mph faster than the TR6. Not a huge difference for all that extra horse power and fuel consumption.
The TR6 has a 4 speed manual gearbox with overdrive giving it 6 gears while the Vette has a 3 speed auto box which doesn’t rev very high, even with the accelerator flat on the floor.
Both the Vette and TR6 have independent rear suspension so the road holding on both is better than the 1965 Mustang but not as good as the E-Type. The Vette has disk brakes on all four wheels and a servo v the TR6 front disks and servo. To help handle the weight of the cast engine V8 engine block our Vette has power steering which while it makes life really easy loses all feedback to the driver.
We take our cars on track when possible on a classic car tour and our Etype would leave the Mustang standing. I haven’t yet taken the Corvette on track and while it will be quick off the line I am sure that the TR6 will see it off in the corners as it is much lighter and more nimble.
The two American muscle cars do have a few things going for them: that unique V8 burble, straight line speed and their ability to attract attention. There is also no doubt that the success of the Mustang (1 Million cars sold in 18 months) is unlikely ever to be matched again and Ford with their huge options list did more to push the idea of the ‘personal car’ than anyone else.
But our TR6 and Etype are much better driver’s cars, better road holding, better braking, more nimble and much more fun.
This can all be summarised by the split in the age range of who appreciates which car. The American cars tend to attract the attention of 30 somethings who have grown up with American films like Grease and High School Musical. The E-Type and TR6 tend to attract the attention of 40 and 50 somethings who grew up with them in the UK.
It would interesting to see a remake of Grease with ‘Greased Lightning’ being based on an E-Type!