The Mayflower was aimed squarely at patriotic Yanks, says Brian Sewell - and it was doomed to failure

The Triumph Mayflower. Those three words trigger a flood of memories; not of a great car, not of madcap thrills, but of National Service more than half a century ago.

One of the subalterns in my battalion flaunted his comfortable wealth with one of these cars. It was new, and its basic price was £370. Other subalterns sported ancient Austin Sevens of the open perambulator kind, the earliest and most decrepit of Morris Tens and, best of all, a Riley Nine of 1931, with all the cachet of a pre-selector gearbox and a semi-coachbuilt Weymann body.

The average price of all these was less than a tenth of the cost of the Mayflower, but if such crocks were cussed fun of a sort, they were certainly not reliable, and if ever I wanted to jaunt to London for the opera, then Second Lieutenant Holt had to be cajoled into an errand of his own with me as passenger.

The Mayflower was, I imagine, primarily conjured into being for a non-existent American market for small English cars. If we call it Mayflower, Triumph's panjandrums must have argued, we shall tap into American folk memory - the tiny car a reincarnation of, if not the body, certainly the spirit of the cockleshell craft that carried the Pilgrim Fathers over the Atlantic in 1620.

They were mistaken. The US had a few hundred Magna Carta Dames and Daughters of the Revolution to whom the name might have had some sentimental meaning, but these were the rich women of American society who would never drive anything lower down the motoring ladder than a Buick; and to the average blue-collar worker driving a big blowsy Chevrolet or Ford, the word Mayflower could have meant nothing.

Would it have appealed to any sector of the American market had it been called the Triumph Silver Streak, Stylemaster, Airflyte or Fleetline, all Detroit names of the day? No, is the answer - the car would have invited even more ridicule than it did.

A young and financially wobbly marque, Triumph had cut something of a dash before the war with a Gloria that could show its heels to most MGs and a Dolomite with an outrageously flamboyant Art Deco radiator, but bankruptcy was about to do it down, and beyond the Channel it had not so much as a toehold.

Standard absorbed it, but in 1949, when the Mayflower was launched, the TR sports cars that reestablished Triumph as a marque had not even been conceived, and the Mayflower's parents were the ingenious Roadster and the preposterous Renown, both based on working parts provided by the parent company, the original 1.8-litre engine of the Standard 14 - which was not entirely to be sniffed at, for Jaguar used it to power its so-called 11/2-litre saloon.

The Roadster and Renown had bodies that not only set them apart from the Standard, but from all other post-war cars of any nationality. The low-slung aggressive-seeming Roadster, close-coupled, three seats abreast, was often mistaken for a deplorable foreigner, but it lacked performance even with its last-chance Vanguard engine, and fewer than 5,000 found a buyer.

But if the Roadster seemed too modern for the conservative tastes of the day, the Renown went too far the other way; it was a knife-edged box of a family saloon so square and upright in confronting the science of aerodynamics that it was as retardataire as the Top Hat Bentley or the most commodious Rolls-Royce limousine.

As a caricature of the ancient works of Messrs Hooper, Mulliner and Gurney Nutting, the Renown had its peculiar charms for those content to tootle round town or view the countryside at 50mph as though they were goldfish in a wheeled aquarium, for if the aerodynamics were appalling, the visibility was wonderful - if only bodies now could match such thin pillars.

As the gene pool of the Mayflower, however, the Renown was not a success; the little car inherited its knife-edge lines and half-acre of flat glass, but then the designers lost their senses, enclosed the headlamps to give it a slab front and dispensed with wings to give it slab sides too. The wheelbase was far too short for such bulk and too narrow for the height; the two doors looked disproportionately wide, but there was not space enough for four. Inside, the rear seat was uncomfortably cramped over the rear axle; I swear that after a journey of any length, if two passengers had occupied it they emerged with one buttock squared into a block, for the interior was knife-edged too.

Knife edges distinguished the Mayflower from its bulbous peers the Austin Somerset and Morris Oxford, but in mating the slab-side style clichés of the day with those of much grander cars made decades earlier, the Mayflower in its way looked as absurd as did the bloated Crosley, the only home-grown American baby car, that strove in miniature to mimic the cuss of its huge contemporaries from Hudson and Packard.

The Mayflower made one point and one point only; that design must be proportionate. A small car cannot be a large writ small. In attempting to be a small Renown it claimed to be a car of quality, a rival for the baby Lanchester perhaps (another absurd car), but hidden beneath its pretentious skin lay the pre-war engine of the Standard Ten, reliable but sluggish and desperately old-fashioned.

Mated to the three-speed gearbox of the Standard Vanguard it proved quietly flexible, but if the outright performance was better than the smaller Morris Minor, the steering and roadholding were not: "Handling just isn't," was the comment of one writer.

The Mayflower lasted for four seasons. Total production was some 35,000, an astonishing figure for so ugly, pretentious, unconvincing and nasty a small car. Nothing inexpensive could be done to improve its stunted lines. To make any sense it needed a longer wheelbase and four doors, but as it was a monocoque construction such changes were impossible.

A drop-head version was attempted, but only 10 were made, probably because the basic structure was too weakened without a roof to make it rigid.

The Mayflower died in 1953, to be replaced by a new Standard Eight and Ten - another ugly little runt, but coherently so and, with four doors, cheap and practical. Second Lieutenant Holt now has his umpteenth Mercedes and I go to the opera on the District Line.

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