"The first British car to be built with a monocoque" sounds like the description of a Lotus Formula 1 car from the mid-'60s or some Aston Martin racer that existed a few years after the war. Actually it describes a small Vauxhall from 1937.
Meet the Vauxhall 10-4, or the H Type as it was marketed. This was the small family car of its day – and even 82 years later the recipe is a familiar one. It has four doors, a 1.2-litre inline four-cylinder engine, a manual gearbox and a boot at the back. Our needs haven't changed much in the last century.
But back in 1937 the H was pretty revolutionary. No British car had ever gone on sale with a unitary body, it was very rare to find any cars with hydraulic brakes and independent suspension on a family road car was all but unheard of. But that's exactly what the 10-4 came with.
Family cars in the pre-war era were not something the masses really expected. But the H Type was fundamental in changing that. It was dubbed "the £1 million car" not because it broke the bank to buy one, but because Vauxhall spent that amount developing the car – that's £66 million in today's money according to the Bank of England. But it cost the consumer £168, the equivalent of just £11,000 today, and Vauxhall were described as "selling the H Type as fast as it can build them". The H Type was akin to Britain's Model T, such was its effect.
Vauxhall are rightly proud of the H, as not only was it a revolution, it was also one of the final cars the company nailed together in Luton before production switched to tanks in the midst of World War 2. Now one sits in their heritage collection a short distance from that original factory in Bedfordshire.
This particular H is finished in a fetching shade of dark grey, and the interior is absolutely riddled with what can only be described as 'patina'. It also has an intriguing mix of browney-beige dash and vivid deep-blue leather seats and floor. The dash is unclutered, presenting the driver and passenger with only three dials – the speedo, a rev counter and a clock as big as the other two. In fact in front of the driver (other than a large three-spoked wheel) is just a small glove compartment.
The front doors are suicide-style, meeting the normally hinged rears in the middle, and you slide onto the aged leather seat with ease (the seats, by the way, are mounted to the floor by a set of metal runners). The first task is picking the correct key, as the many keys you have all fit into the slot but don't all work the car. Get the right one, twist the elegant knob and we're ready to start. For something well into its 80s Vauxhall's H is magnificently on the button, the only delay being my inability to work the ignition.
Before setting off an inspection of the cabin returns some delightful details. The indicators are exactly what you wish for from a car this old – no lights, just a small orange reflector that pops out of the side of the car to let your fellow motorists know what's going on. The gearstick is slightly longer than HMS Queen Elizabeth, too, and the rear windows come with curtains – operated by a drawstring.
Out on the road the H Type is not speedy in a modern sense, but add in the lack of seatbelts, need for double-clutching and a quite astonishing lack of grip and the journey feels a whole lot more perilous. The giant wheel, more like that of a bus than a small family hatch, telegraphs every single imperfection from the road directly to driver, the suspension is old-fashioned wafty and the engine is happy in a higher gear than you might expect. But it's a properly enjoyable drive.
You can find both under- and lift off oversteer here, not exactly what you expect with 34bhp, but with tyres this skinny, cross-plys of course, and a complete lack of anything in control other than you it’s a strange hoot behind the wheel.
This car meant that motoring joy was being brought to the masses, but then the war came along and stifled everything. Imagine today someone suddenly stopping the production of Corsas because we needed to build munitions – would our cars of today last the years-long war ahead?
After the war Vauxhall reintroduced the H Type, but it was a different world. Cash-strapped families could no longer reach even such an affordable car as the 10-4 and Vauxhall would withdraw from the small car market for the next couple of decades.
There might be no direct lineage and the H's life might have been snuffed out before its potential was reached, but this is a true ancestor to the affordable family cars we see today. Loaded with tech and flying off the shelves it foretold a future of motoring long before anyone was paying attention.