The HRG may have been archaic even at its birth in 1936, but it broke all the rules. And it breaks them still, says Brian Sewell

As half a century has passed since the last HRG left the factory in Tolworth, Surrey, and the firm went into voluntary liquidation, it is probable that most readers of The Independent have neither heard of this small marque nor seen one of its few cars.

In the two decades between 1936 and 1956 - the years of foundation and demise, six of them lost to the manufacture of gun sights, aeroplane parts and artefacts of high technology in the Second World War - fewer than 250 cars were pieced together.

The number is slightly vague because the odd ERG engine was installed in a chassis not constructed by the firm, and an odd authentic chassis was powered by a Standard, Maserati, Ford, Bristol or Vauxhall engine. In fact, no engine was ever made from scratch by HRG, but, when the firm got into its stride, it settled on engines made by Ginger for its Nine Tourer and Twelve Saloon, and, with much tinkering to increase their power and reliability under sporting pressure, it brought them into the 1100 and 1500 categories of track and sport.

It is a measure of the engineering skills and ingenuity of HRG, as well as of the wholly irrational affection of those who bought its expensive cars, that some 225 survive.

If the HRG was anything, it was the quintessential sports car of the immediately pre- and post-war years, designed for road rallying, the racetrack and that now forgotten motor sport, the hill climb. The war in Europe ended in May 1945; within three months, a 1,500cc HRG beat all opposition up to 4,000ccs in the Bristol hill climb. Over the next two years, it was consistently fastest, not only in its class but against cars of up to twice its capacity, in at least 18 more such events.

A hill climb was not a sprint up the tarmac on Porlock Hill, but a scramble up a muddy gully, slipping and sliding as skinny tyres lost adhesion, a crazed passenger throwing his weight from side to side over the rear wheels to help them grip; it was contrary to all modern notions of pollution and conservation, the earth scarred and the air blue.

And as for health and safety, well, the adolescent makeweight that I was then would never now be allowed near such a jolly jape without a helmet and a harness. For this, the HRG 1100 and 1500 were perfect: light at 13 and 131/2 cwt (the contemporary MG TC was 15cwt) and low slung between big 17in wheels with virtually no overhang yet reasonably high ground clearance, the engine well back behind the front wheels, weight distribution even.

Celebrated for its superb steering, the lighter (and marginally shorter) 1100 could reach 60mph, the 1500 90mph, with acceleration to 50mph in more or less 10 seconds; it is not, however, for its performance that one would now buy an HRG, but for its perfect ugliness. If this seems paradoxical, think of Le Corbusier and his notions of perfection for purpose.

The three men who nursed HRG into existence, Ted Halford, Guy Robins and Ron Godfrey, were all bright sparks of the motor industry as it had been in the Roaring Twenties, when sports cars were either monstrously large or impertinently small, transcontinental in extravagance and capability or intended for a wind-in-the-hair dash to Brighton for the weekend or the odd day of sport on the hill climb or the track.

The HRG was of the latter genre but purer in concept than its rivals, stripped of comforts and not a machine in any way to pull the birds; with cut-away doors to accommodate the elbow and the screen folded flat, this was a car for the stalwart driver to whom wind and foul weather were minor irrelevances and who took more pleasure in a cold shower than a warm doxy in his bed.

It had no lines (indeed, the car's charm now lies in its naive absence), for the radiator was an upright radiator and not an elegant cowl, the bonnet a box to cover or reveal the engine (a leather bonnet-strap a common extra), and the body aft of the windscreen was little more than an open tray containing two simple seats, with room for a third passenger in acute discomfort tucked behind.

It was an example of pure function, of minimalism, of total disregard for the flamboyant conventions of Art Deco, of design that rejoices in the very ignorance of design. It is beyond possibility that Le Corbusier ever saw an HRG, but I am certain that he would, in its honest simplicity, have recognised the creation of a kindred spirit.

Alas, the stark severity of the car's looks - austere, unadorned and wholly un-American - were two decades out of date when it was reintroduced in 1945. Most British cars of the period were revivals of models in production in 1939, old-fashioned in engineering terms but many beginning to hint at transatlantic influence, toying with rounded noses and faint notions of aerodynamics, but Lassie's kennel was more aerodynamic than the archaic HRG.

Up their sleeves, however, lurked a solution, or rather a wartime dream of what might come to be in the post-war years: an aerodynamic envelope for the 1500 chassis. But, instead of consulting a coachbuilder, they designed it themselves and had the bodies built by the garage next door, so to speak.

For a British sports car, it was startling enough in that it had wind-up windows and a weatherproof hood, but the teardrop shape was almost exquisite, spoiled only by the awkward incorporation of headlamps and grille and so best seen three-quarters from the rear. For those with racing intentions, the flat windscreen was removable, to be replaced with aero screens.

But it and the hard-riding chassis were poorly screwed together and tucking the fuel tank into the near front wing affected the balance of the car; these destructive influences could not be remedied and production of the 100mph car ceased in 1947, some of the 35 returned to the factory to be fitted with the antique traditional body.

The end came for HRG when Singer fell into the maw of the Rootes Group and could no longer be the source of engines. But the truth is that the end had come from the beginning: the HRG was old at its birth in 1936, a progeriatric destined for early death, its mechanicals Edwardian, its raison d'être a dying sport.

It should have been a British Cisitalia. That car's engineers persuaded the 1,100cc iron lump from Fiat to give 60bhp at 5,500rpm and take the car to 109mph, compared with the HRG 1100 figures of 40bhp at 5,100rpm and 80mph, and that car's bodies were designed and built by Vignale and Farina, recognised as works of art and displayed in New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Even so, the antique HRG has about it a quaint and endearing perfection that broke the rules when it was new and breaks them still, and I have the certainty that Le Corbusier would share my lust for one.

Search for used cars