Today, the notion of buying a British-owned-and-built production car is an impossibility. The relatively small number of UK-built cars are from brands entirely owned by foreign corporations, even if some of those marques have British roots - such as Jaguar or MINI.

 

Mini coopers in a row

World's biggest car exporter

But it wasn’t always like this. By 1950 the UK provided 52% of the world’s exported cars - the most of any nation. Only the USA built more cars - but they were mostly made for the domestic market. Needless to say, the vast majority of cars in Britain during the 1950s were built on these shores.

Meeting global demand

The success of the UK’s automotive industry in the 50s was down to two key factors. Firstly, the government-controlled steel production and only funnelled this precious material into businesses which exported at least 75% of their production - with a view to improving the nation’s terrible post-war balance of payments. This allied with the devastated industrial base of mainland Europe, and the inability of US production to meet domestic and Australian demand, meant Britain was in a powerful position.


Demise of UK mass-production car making

Sadly, outdated production methods coupled with more cost-efficient competition from Japan, the US and mainland Europe, meant the UK gradually lost its dominant position. The British maintained a "mend and make do" attitude while the Germans and Japanese were re-tooling with new production equipment and techniques. By 1956 German car production outstripped that of the UK.


Luxury and sports cars

2019 saw the UK as the 16th largest producers of cars - between the Czech Republic and Indonesia. Until the pandemic hit, the UK was still making a lot of cars (around 1.38 million annually), but has become better known for its luxury and sports car brands, like Rolls Royce (German owned), Jaguar (Indian-owned), Aston martin (majority Canadian-owned). The biggest carmakers in the UK are now Jaguar-Land Rover; Nissan; BMW; Toyota; and Honda.


But rather than lamenting the demise of domestic car making, let's celebrate some of the amazing - and best selling - cars produced in the 1950s.

 

Morris Minor on beach


Morris Minor

Now considered a British design classic, more than 1.6 million Morris Minors were manufactured between 1948 and 1972. In the 1950s, the Minor Series II and the Minor 1000 were common sights on UK roads.

 

Blue mini cooper


BMC Mini

Fuel shortages caused by the Suez Crisis prompted BMC to design a smaller, more fuel-efficient car. The result was the Mini - now arguably the most famous of all British vehicles. 5,387,862 original Minis were sold worldwide.


Ford Anglia

Built by Ford UK, the Ford Anglia was very popular in Britain in the 1950s. First hitting our roads in the 1930s, its design changed a great deal until the last model rolled off production lines in 1967. More than 1.5 million Anglia’s were produced from 1939 to 1967.

 

Ford popular on seafront


Ford Popular

When launched in 1953, the Ford Popular was the cheapest car in Britain. But while robust and reliable, you didn't get much for your money; even sun visors cost extra. However, it was a hugely “popular” model in the 1950s.

 

Hillman Minx on seafront


Hillman Minx

Produced from 1931 to 1970, the Hillman Minx was often re-badged as a Humber, a Singer or a Sunbeam, but the design was essentially the same. Over nearly four decades of production, the Minx design changed a great deal. Marks V-VIII were most common in the 1950s.

 

Standard Vanguard


Standard Vanguard

Built by the Standard Motor Company in Coventry from 1947 to 1963, the Vanguard was a popular saloon in 1950s Britain. In 1954 it was the first British car to offer a diesel engine.


Rover P4

The decidedly British P4 was popular among the bank managers and solicitors of the 1950s. Large, well-made and stately, they were often affectionately called 'Aunty Rovers'. It formed the basis of the experimental gas-turbine Rover JET1, which could exceed 150mph.


Vauxhall Classic on road


Vauxhall PA Velox and Cresta

While Vauxhall's Velox and Cresta brought a touch of chrome-clad American glamour to British roads in the 1950s (they were popular with salesmen), these large cars often succumbed to rust. More than 300,000 of these models were built in Luton from 1948 to 1965.

 

Triumph Mayflower

More than 35,000 Mayflowers were built by Triumph, a subsidiary of the Standard Motor Company. This small luxury car was a fairly common sight in the early and mid-fifties.


MG MGA

More than 100,000 MGA sports cars were produced from 1955 to 1962, although most of these were earmarked for export.