A lot of us feel a strong affinity for a particular car marque. You might be a Ford fan or a Mini addict. Jaguars might be the only way to go, or perhaps it was Fiat or Citroën which made the best cars and the world, frustratingly, just doesn't seem to realise that fact.
APR 24th 2017
John Simister: Where do your motoring brand allegiances lie?
None of this is rational, of course. So where do our allegiances come from? Market research for that crash-and-burn magazine for fans of modified cars, the defunct Max Power, revealed that brand allegiances can be set when you're as young as 14. It might be through the car your dad drove or a car in a TV show; all manner of influences can be at work. Whatever, they take root firmly.
Your personality can be a factor, too. Do you want to identify with success, for example, or do you favour the underdog? I was under the dad-car influence, to begin with, so Ford Zephyrs were the bees' knees, but that changed when I was given a car at that crucial age of 14. It was just 10 years old, equivalent to a car on an '07 plate today which hardly seems old at all, but cars didn't last so well back then and it was utterly rotten. Giant holes in the front wings, disappearing sills, road visible through floor… it was shockingly crusty.
Not long before coming into my possession, this 1959 Hillman Minx Series III had been taking two friends and me to school regularly. MOT failure finished it off, it sat mouldering in my friends' parents' driveway and then, knowing I would like a car to tinker with, the parents gave it to me. My father drove it the half mile from their house to ours, crossing fingers the whole way, and I set about it with fibreglass, aluminium sheet, pop rivets and aerosol paint.
It was never going to go back on the road, but I tried to make it look nice for my short trips back and forth on the driveway. The brakes failed once, owing to a rusted pipe, but the tyres conveniently stacked at the far end of the garage cushioned the impact without damage. And the seed was sown: I was a Rootes Group convert.
A holiday job earned me enough to buy a Singer Gazelle, the Minx's posh cousin, in time for my 17th birthday. It cost £35 from a Battersea bombsite used-car lot ('Long MOT, Runs Very Well'), and despite being the same age as the Minx it had much less rust. The Minx was donated to the local scrapyard, the site now a BMW and Mini dealership, and a deal done whereby I could have parts from it, or a similar car, for free when required. Such as the steering box the Gazelle soon needed.
I took my driving test in the Gazelle, but soon hankered after the racy member of the Rootes Group's trio of mid-sized machines, the Sunbeam Rapier. It had twin carburettors, excellent tailfins and a two-door coupé body with no centre pillars, and it also had a motorsport pedigree. Essential Auto Accessories, for that, was the name of the scrapyard, had a dark blue one with a light grey roof and side stripes on its forecourt, where were displayed cars deemed capable of continued life, and £40 later this rather smart 1961 example became mine. A similar one, colours included, has raced in the St Mary's Trophy a few times.
I was pleased with my Rapier, but suddenly my head was turned by something smaller, much nimbler, much cleverer and more modern in its design. The local Institute of Advanced Motorists group organised so-called 'Safe Driving Trials' at a local school, involving manoeuvrability tests and an accompanied road run to weed out bad habits in young drivers such as my friends and me, and they were both useful and great fun. Two of my friends took part in their mothers' respective Hillman Super Imps, and one of the instructors had the more luxurious Singer Chamois version.
A short drive in the Imps and I was hooked. Such nippiness, such precision, such revviness, such smoothness… that was that for the Rapier, and the search was on for an Imp. I found a lightly-tuned one for £150, and I revelled in the fact that it wasn't an obvious Mini. Instead it was the underdog, the three-times winner of the British Saloon Car Championship but the car so many 'experts' reckoned was more trouble than it was worth. And I have had 12 more of the little devils in the four decades between then and now.
So, if I have a brand allegiance, it's still to the cars of the Rootes Group and its Chrysler UK successor. Sunbeam Alpines and Tigers, Hillman Avengers and Hunters rallied and raced with much success, the last of those winning the 1968 London-to-Sydney Marathon. The Group's cars tend to be good-looking and well made, and the rare Avenger Tiger is the equal of any hot Ford Escort.
When classic-car enthusiasts talk about old British cars, it's the products of the British Leyland empire that dominate along with aristocratic Aston Martins, Rolls-Royces and Bentleys and the specialist sports cars. Fords are high on the awareness scale, too, although the US and German links dilute their Britishness. Vauxhall doesn't figure much, having made too few enthusiast-targeted models, but Rootes' cars deserve to be better known and remembered than they are.
That they are not is partly because there is no car manufacturer functioning today which considers them as part of its legacy, not even the Peugeot-Citroën Group which acquired the remnants. PSA has plenty of its own heritage to celebrate, after all. Luckily there are some terrific owners' clubs for the Rootes models, so the cars can still be enjoyed. The clubs have helped create a new Rootes Archive Centre, which opens its doors to the public on Drive-It Day. That, as I write, is tomorrow – and I shall drive there in my Sunbeam Stiletto.
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