Standard

For a while, this marque made some of Britain's most advanced, attractive cars. Sadly, it didn't last, says Brian Sewell
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Indy Lifestyle Online

It was with a melancholy snort that I read in the pages of this very newspaper that Standard cars were originally mass-produced from standard parts and eventually became so bog standard that they brought about their own demise.

There is some anecdotal record of a conversation among the firm's founding fathers in which one of them, Reginald Maudslay, declared: "I want my car to be composed purely of those components whose principles have been tried and tested and accepted as reliable standards; in fact, will name my car the Standard car" - but this, surely, was an admirable philosophy, not a declaration in favour of the drab and ordinary.

In due course, the cars' radiators bore the standard of a Roman legion and the Union flag, and in 1935 the marque reminded buyers that its name was that of a flag by calling all its models Flying Standards, hinting at the minor and modest royal patronage that indeed it had.

The firm made cars for 60 years. For the last two, it was owned by Leyland Motors which, in 1963, quietly buried the old marque - "Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note" - and transplanted its worthwhile bits and bones into Triumphs, a marque that had been its subsidiary since 1944. It was not, at first, an innovative firm, though its earliest engines were far-sighted in being of square and over-square dimensions, as are most engines now, a century later. (The absurd British taxation system eventually forced it to make long-stroke engines, some very long indeed (62mm by 110mm), and the First World War and its after-effects compelled it to drop its larger six-cylinder models.)

Even before the war it had introduced a small car of evident quality, known as the 9.5hp under the old taxation formula. Revived after the war, this was fundamental to Standard's survival as a manufacturer marginally upmarket from Austin and Morris. Its engine gradually grew from 1,087cc to two litres, and in 1928, just in time to save the firm from the worst effects of the Depression, a new Nine was introduced, a capable little car that in sports guise could almost reach 70mph, with a chassis good enough to send to specialist coachbuilders who set it apart from the herd - "It looks good, and it is'' became its advertising legend.

The Jensen brothers designed several for Avon, and so did William Lyons for Swallow, and it was these that later became Jaguars, for which marque Standard also made the low chassis and six-cylinder engines that brought it immediate success. As the economic situation eased in the 1930s, Standard extended its four-cylinder range up from Nine to Ten and Twelve, and to Sixteen and Twenty with six-cylinder engines.

Then in 1935 came the Flying Standards, semi-streamlined, rounded in contour, with backward-leaning radiators and fastback tails. Across the range, from Nine to Twenty (an Eight was added later), these were cars sufficiently but discreetly American in line to make all their rivals look square and old-fashioned. With the addition of a V-8 Twenty (literally two Tens with a common crankshaft) a Flying Standard became the only British car to rival the Ford V-8. Alas, it proved far too exciting for its brakes and was withdrawn after two years.

With notchback tails, these were the cars that survived the Second World War, but only in Eight, Twelve and Fourteen form, this last providing the engine for the smallest Jaguar and the Triumph Renown and Roadster. Though decently built and still ahead in styling, they were only a holding operation; within two years the firm decided to become a one-car manufacturer and the Standard Vanguard was announced.

This was to be yet another "world car", with high ground clearance and rough-road capabilities that made for much bouncing and lurching on smoother English roads. It had a great new engine - a big four of almost square design, derived from a well-tried Ferguson tractor. Of 2,088cc and giving 68bhp at 4,200rpm, it was both sprightly for its day and a redoubtable slogger, almost indestructible yet refined enough to be used in the Triumph Renown and Roadster. Hauling the awful body of the Vanguard, it could reach 30mph in eight seconds and 60mph in 28. It ran out of steam at 80mph.

Hideous, the Vanguard aped the Plymouths that were the dogsbody cars of the American embassy in London during the war, but on a wheelbase of only 233cm the proportions were stunted. Slab-sided and hump-backed, every plane curvaceous in wobbling uncertainty, too short and too tall for any hint of grace or line (the roof had to be raised so that Standard's high panjandrum, Sir John Black, could wear his hat in the car), had the Vanguard been a garden bug a sane man would have stamped on it for its sheer ugliness. In revising it in 1950, however, Standard made it even uglier, putting spats over its rear wheels to make it even more slab-sided.

This is the classic Vanguard, the car that broke the angular mould of British cars with designs rooted in the elegant Thirties. At the time, it was recognised as "the most advanced British car in styling,'' but did not turn out to be, as The Times put it, "a turning point in the history of the British motor industry".

It was too extreme, and no British marque followed it. Now, all these years later, it seems a bloated runt with reasonable claim to be the most unlovely British car since 1945. Perhaps its ability to seat six, cruise at a mile a minute and be what one reviewer dubbed "a capital performer'' were more important in a car-starved world, for it did not, it seems, offend the eyes of the 184,799 numbskulls who bought it.

Standard, however, had lost the knack. It looked little better when they notched the hump in 1954, and successor Vanguards were, even with the help of Michelotti and Vignale, confused in form and fussy in detail. When they put the six-cylinder engine of the Triumph 2000 in it, they completely lost the point that they had tried to make in 1947 - that the Vanguard was as much a willing workhorse for the Australian outback as a town carriage for the denizens of leafy Solihull. Only those who could recall the coachbuilt Standards of the early Thirties and the later Flying Standards regretted the firm's slide into oblivion.

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