Let's stop making history

Gavin Green The new Jaguar, the Rover, the Jensen... about as Nineties as Herman's Hermits
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Indy Lifestyle Online
"THIS IS the best British Motor Show in years," a friend of mine commented at the NEC, in Birmingham, last week. "It reminds me of the great shows of the Sixties, when the British car industry was at its peak."

This year's excellent motor show reminded me of those great Sixties events too - not least because all the new British cars looked as though they were designed 30 years ago. The new Jaguar S-type, the Rover 75, the gawky new Jensen S-V8, new offerings from Caterham, Marcos and AC... they all looked about as 1998 as Herman's Hermits. The only exception was Morgan. And its cars look like they were designed in the 1930s.

What is it about British car makers and retro design? It's as though the guys in the design offices live in some time-warp and think that, when we buy British, we automatically want something that looks out of date.

I put this to Geoff Lawson, the design boss of Jaguar, who did the S- type. His CV includes the XK8 sports car, so he's a talented man able to see beyond 1969. "We looked at doing a more adventurous design for the S-type," says Lawson. "But the customer research was clear. They wanted traditional style."

I suspect that the real demand for olde worlde style comes from foreigners, who still think that the English all wear tweed, drive Morris Minors, live in cute little cottages and sing "God Save the Queen" before going to bed each night.

That's what the Yanks (the biggest single buyers of the new S-type) have become conditioned to expect from Jaguar saloons. That's also, unfortunately, how they view most of the other famous British manufacturers - from Dunhill and Daks to Rolls-Royce and Rover. We are the world authorities on old- fashioned fashion. That's why we love classic cars, antique furniture and costume dramas and all want to live in Victorian houses. It's the same sort of logic that encourages us to produce new cars that look like old ones.

The Germans, whose history is admittedly less attractive to peddle than ours, have so much to teach us here. BMW, Mercedes and Audi - Rover's and Jaguar's biggest competitors - design cars which are in keeping with their traditions but which are still modern. They are aware of their heritage but are not intimidated by it. They use tradition as a stimulus not as a straitjacket (it's the same with Italy's Ferrari and Alfa). We turn to our past partly because the present state of our indigenous car industry is so depressing (so why not go back to the good old days?) and partly because British car makers - like the British tourist authorities - have become conditioned to accept that all we can offer is our history.

It's nonsense, of course. The best Jaguars and Rovers were modern in their day and beautiful (the E-type, the SD1), not the motoring equivalents of a neo-Georgian Barratt home.

There are some forward-thinking, beautiful new British-badged cars, of course, even if they are thin on the road. The XK8, the Aston Martin DB7, most TVRs (never mind that, like Camden Market fashion, they're loud and uncouth), the McLaren F1 sports car (the fastest and most exhilarating road car ever made). Further downmarket, there's also the new Ford Focus, co-designed in Britain and Germany, a car that is as refreshing as it is futuristic. The Focus, more than any Sixties throwback Jaguar or Rover, was the real star of the excellent Birmingham Show.

The British International Motor Show, at the NEC in Birmingham, finishes tomorrow