Motoring: British minnows shine in the big pool

The big foreign car companies keep getting bigger, yet once every two years, at the Earl's Court Show, Britain's locally owned motor industry - full of tiny makers mostly building sports cars - emerges from its slumber and dazzles with its innovation, its boldness and, perhaps most impressively, its perseverance. We have lost Austin, Triumph, Riley, Lanchester and Morris for ever. Jaguar, Rover, Land Rover, Aston Martin and Lotus are now German, American or Malaysian owned. But we still have TVR, Marcos, Bentley, Rolls-Royce, AC, Caterham and Morgan. Earl's Court is where they strut their stuff - this year more convincingly than ever.

Bentley and Rolls-Royce together constitute Britain's biggest locally owned car maker: extraordinary, when their cheapest model, the Bentley Brooklands, is pounds 106,866. Rolls and Bentley (two badges, one maker) sold almost 1,400 cars in the first nine months of 1997 - far less than the daily output of General Motors. But that's 9 per cent up on last year and cause enough to open the Bollinger.

The Bentley Continental T was Earl's Court's most extravagant and most expensive (pounds 233,355) star.

Vickers, which owns Rolls and Bentley, hotly denies persistent rumours that it will sell them to either BMW or Mercedes, but sadly this move would surprise nobody. The minnows are likely to stay British - they are so small that no foreign giant would want them. Morgan, the best known, once famously rebuffed Sir John Harvey-Jones's advice on TV's Troubleshooter ("increase production and raise prices") and was vindicated by a subsequent world recession that affected it by not one jot, while the bigger, more expansionary companies bled.

It had a new range of cars at Earl's Court - "the biggest change since we introduced the cowled radiator in 1952", according to a dealer - but they look the same as ever, 1930s testaments to fine old British design and wind-in-the-hair fun, contemporaries of the Spitfire, not the 747. They have airbags, electrically heated windscreens and engine immobilisers, sops to new laws on safety and security, but their heart-and-soul is rooted in the past, not least in their hand assembly. Their style, their best asset, hasn't changed and probably never will.

While Morgan (annual production 500) may be the most traditional of Britain's small makers, TVR (annual production 1,800) is the most extreme, the raver compared with the tea-party vicar. Peter Wheeler, who bought the Blackpool company in 1981, is a bold man. If you don't believe me, visit his stand next to the main entrance. His Speed Twelve model looks like a road-going Batmobile, uses a 7.7-litre V 12 engine producing 800bhp and costs pounds 150,000. TVR says it is the fastest road car ever built. It joins his noisy, ill- tempered yet fast and eye-catching other models - the Chimaera, Cerbera and Griffith.

Caterham (annual production 750) makes modern versions of the bug-like but entertaining Lotus Seven. They have the creature comforts of a park bench, but go fast, handle brilliantly, and have an enthusiastic worldwide following. Nothing puts you closer to the action.

Marcos (annual production 150) is another long established sports car player whose cars haven't changed much. For Earl's Court, the front end was smoother, and there was a new 2.0 GTS model, at just over pounds 27,000.

Spectre (annual production 20, but set to double), a relative newcomer, impressed with the R45, with its beefed-up American V8 motor.

On the smallest stand of all stood little AC, Britain's oldest surviving car maker. Recently rescued by a team of British and American investors - but still proudly made and managed at a site near the old Brooklands racing circuit near Weybridge - AC (anticipated annual production, 150) showed a revised Ace sport car and a new version of its best-selling Cobra. They were in a bullish mood when I visited on day two. They'd just sold a new Cobra. At pounds 70,000, that more than covered the cost of their stand.

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