More cars turning 50 in 2023 | Axon's Automotive Anorak

02nd February 2023
Gary Axon

When the 1973 London Motor Show at Earls Court opened its doors to the general public on 17 October, it did so just nine days after Egypt and Syria had attempted to reclaim disputed territory from Israel by making surprise attacks on the Holy Day of Yom Kippur, creating the conditions for the global mid-1970s petrol crisis and fuel rationing being reintroduced for the first time since the 1950. Little did show-goers know at the time know that a handful of Earls Court’s debutantes would prove to be somewhat ‘premature’ as the first production models of the new Motor Show star cars would not actually be delivered to customers until a frustratingly long delay afterwards, partially caused by the fuel crisis and subsequent stock market crash and economic slowdown. Yet still, debut in 1973 they did. Some of these and some others, listed in part two of our 50 year-old cars roundup.


AC 3000ME

In 1973 long-established Thames Ditton-based specialist car maker AC pulled off a surprise at that year’s Earls Court Motor Show by revealing a modern and affordable mid-engined sports car, to replace the exclusive and expensive V8-engined 428 that wore a sharp tailor-made exotic Italian suit by Frua on a Cobra 427 chassis. 

The shock new AC was an appealing updated version of the Bohanna Stables Diablo; a one-off Austin Maxi-powered mid-engine prototype coupe that had been presented at the previous year’s Racing Car Show. Spotting the Diablo at that event as a suitable successor to its slow-selling 427, AC Cars negotiated with specialist car engineers Bohanna Stable to acquire the exclusive productions rights to the appealing GT. Ahead of its Earls Court relaunch, AC re-engined the car to now equipe it with a mid-mounted Ford 3-Litre V6 engine – as found in the contemporary Granada – mated to AC’s own five-speed gearbox. Named the 3000ME (for 3000cc Mid Engined), the compact but muscular new AC instantly attracted a number of orders, but this initial promise of success sadly soon turned into a disaster for the famous Thames Ditton car maker, despite it returning to to the Earls Court Motor Show annually, until the very first customer cars (for those that hadn’t cancelled their orders in disgust and frustration) were finally delivered in 1979, six years after the model’s 1973 debut.

The constantly moving feat of changing safety regulations and crash test requirements, plus unseen challenges mating the AC’s bespoke transmission to the Ford V6 motor, lead to painful and embarrassing production delays, resulting in the cutting-edge 1973 3000ME prototype being a little outclassed (by the Lotus Esprit and others) by the time AC actually got the car into production. This ultimately resulted in just 80 examples or so examples being built, before a despondent AC Cars eventually sold on the rights to the ME to a short-lived Glasgow-based company (AC Scotland), which inevitably only made a few more before going bust. A sad end to a promising specialist sports car that never really had its chance to shine


Jaguar/Daimler XJ Coupe

Another 1973 Earls Court Show premier that also took time to become a production reality was the elegant pillarless two-door Coupe version of the acclaimed Jaguar (and posher badge-engineered Daimler) XJ four-door saloon. Timed to coincide with the introduction of the revised facelifted Series 2 XJ/Daimler models at the ’73 Show, the glamorous new XJ6/XJ12 Coupe was the perfect range-topper. Costlier than the ‘regular’ standard wheelbase XJ four-door saloon, but shorter and a useful 20kg lighter, the launch timing of the stylish new Jaguar was unfortunate to say the least, coinciding with a fuel crisis and worldwide economic depression. 

Already plagued by British Leyland’s infamously poor build quality, the new Jaguar Coupe’s frameless side windows caused huge problems during development, being prone to leaks and unacceptably noisy (by Jaguar/Daimler standards). These caused such unforeseen quality problems that the first customer delivery XJ and Daimler Coupes were not released until 1975, two years after their Earls Court debuts. A full-length vinyl roof had to be fitted as standard too to all XJ Coupes to (supposedly) cover up unsightly weld marks, and fuel injection faults also caused later customer problems. Unsurprisingly, given this list of serious unexpected problems, the XJ Coupe didn’t make it into Jaguar’s vastly improved Series 3 guise, making this a short-lived and rare model of unfulfilled potential today. 


Vauxhall Firenza HP ‘Droop Snoot’

Vauxhall used the busy 1973 London Motor Show to shack up its worthy but dull Viva HC range by introducing some new, costlier and livelier derivatives; the more upmarket quad-headlamp Magnum with 1800 and 2300 engines and Rostyle wheels, plus the unexpected but exciting new sporting Firenza HP (High Performance), using the two-door fastback bodyshell of earlier Viva/Firenza models. Instantly nicknamed the Droopsnoot, due to its distinctive aerodynamic fibreglass nosecone, developed exclusively for Vauxhall by Specialist Mouldings of Huntingdon, with the aim of successfully reducing drag to improve performance, with a dizzy (for 1973) 120mph+ (195 km/h+ ) top speed, the Firenza HP was introduced to take on performance rivals such as the new Ford Capri and Escort RS models. As well as the distinctive drag-reducing nose cone, a special five-speed ZF transmission, bespoke alloy wheels and four rectangular headlights set behind flush glass panels added to the strong performance potential of this metallic silver-only Firenza fastback coupe. 

Delays in producing the Firenza’s special GRP nose, plus the fuel crisis, meant that deliveries of the Droopsnoot Firenza didn’t commence until late 1974, with just 204 examples of this niche coupe being built (some way shy of Vauxhall’s 1,000-per annum forecast) before production was suspended early in 1975. These low sales lead to a number of aerodynamic GRP nose cones being left over, so Vauxhall resourcefully used them to create around 200 special Droopsnoot HC estate models. With the Droopsnoot nose cone, Vauxhall’s head of design – Wayne Cherry – enthusiastically created a new visual DNA for the Luton brand, a distinctive family look that he would go on to help differentiate them from their equivalent German Opel cousins, such as the later Chevette, Cavalier, and Carlton.


BMW 2002 Turbo

Finally, to complete this quick review of the ‘Class of ’73’ new car releases, here are some of the more interesting new performance-orientated derivatives of already-established models, starting with the BMW 2002 Turbo. It holds the distinction of being the very first European turbocharged production car, beating the famous 1975 Porsche 930 (911) Turbo, 1975 TVR Taimar Turbo and the best well-known and most useable of all, the landmark 1976 Saab 99 Turbo. Badly timed by being launched at the September 1973 IAA Frankfurt Motor Show, just at the start of the mid-70s fuel crisis, the thirsty but fast 170PS+, 130mph (208 km/h) 2002 Turbo struggled to attract buyers, with just 1,672 built over a one year period only. 

At launch, the turbocharged BMW was given a deep front spoiler with a mirror ‘Turbo’ script, which was soon deleted due to too many complaints from other motorists claiming that the car looked too intimidating in their rear-view mirrors. These red, white and blue Turbo graphics were soon revised to be less aggressive. Purposeful wheel arch extensions, and a rear boot spoiler, completed the 2002 Turbo’s distinctive exterior. Due to its busy engine bay layout, the 2002 Turbo was only available in LHD form, which – along with its high price – limited its UK sales potential.  


Ford Capri RS3100

The rarest and arguably the most forgotten of all British-built Ford Capri models, with an uncharacteristically quiet launch (by Ford standards) in late 1973, the Halewood-made was homologation special, intended for competition use, as per the German-made Capri RS2600 that successfully went before it. For racetrack use, the new RS3100 was powered by a four-cam Cosworth 3.4-litre 400PS+ V6 conversion. In its rare road-gong form, however, it featured an overboard 3-litre V6 with a single Weber carb, pumping out over 150PS.

Homologation dictated that at least 1,000 examples of the RS3100 had to be built, and externally the RS3100 could be distinguished from less Mark I Capris by its black rubber duck tail boot spoiler, four-branch RS alloys, front quarter bumpers and a front snow plough spoiler. The UK-only tuned RS3100 was almost immediately made redundant by the introduction in early 1974 of the revised Capri II, with a smoother design and a useful third opening tailgate and fold-flat rear seats making the Capri I model rage obsolete.



After the failed attempt to install a larger and more powerful engine into an MG B bodyshell with the unloved (and unsorted) six-cylinder 2.9-litre MG C model in 1967, British Leyland (BL) revisited the concept of a larger motor in an MG B in 1973, by installing the familiar Rover 3.5-litre V8, to develop the 140PS MG B GT V8, with a 125mph (200 km/h) maximum speed. 

The idea behind shoehorning a Rover V8 into an MG B was nothing new, with BL ‘stealing’ the combination pioneered by engineer Ken Costello, who first began converting MGBs to use Rover V8s in the early 1970s. Available officially in the B GT hatchback bodyshell only, the V8 was instantly hurt by the effects of the 1973 energy crisis, which adversely impacted sales. The model also looked too much like a regular B GT, with just discrete V8 badges and special alloy wheels being the only exterior giveaways to the car’s potent engine. Launched while the B GT had its preferred chrome bumpers, a handful of facelifted V8s were also built (just into 1976) with the unloved and cumbersome black rubber bumpers that inflicted all late-70s MG models, to comply with anticipated American safety regulations. Just under 2,600 B GT V8s were built over a three-year career. 


Triumph Dolomite Sprint

The English sporting saloon response to the admired performance Continental BMW 2002 Tii and Alfa Romeo Giulia, the Michelotti-styled Triumph Dolomite in its initial 1971 1850cc guise was a worthy competitor to these Continental fast family rivals. Things shifted up a gear into overdrive though in 1973 when BL introduced the livelier Dolomite Sprint variant, not only the very first British production car to be equipped with alloy wheels as standard, but more importantly, a clever and award-winning 16-valve cylinder head (actuated off a single camshaft) in its 1,998cc straight-four engine (originally derived from a joint Saab-developed unit). 

The four-door, 127bhp Dolomite Sprint (soon affectionately nicknamed the Dolly Sprint) was a true sports saloon for enthusiasts, capable of 115mph (185 km/h) with neck-snapping 0-60mph acceleration of around 8.5 seconds. The Dolly Sprint became BL’s most successful competition car of the 1970s, excelling as a Group 1 saloon, and even today, 50 years later, it still remains a very popular entrant at the Goodwood Members’ Meeting Gordon Spice race. All Dolly Sprints came nicely as a junior executive saloon, equipped with walnut wood interior trim, thick carpeting and a vinyl roof covering, allied to sharp understeer handling, the 16-valve engine encouraging a press-on driving style. Now rightly regarded as a true classic, half-a-century on after launch.

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