Classic British Convertibles: The Hits & Misses
Updated: Aug 13, 2020
We are a nation of convertible car lovers. We don't let wind or rain or freezing temperatures deter us from buying cars without roofs. This dogged commitment in the face of the weather has one upside - it's made Britain the King, the undisputed Numero Uno, of classic convertible sports cars.
Our heyday, of course, was in the 60s and we haven't offered up much of any important since the MGF of 1995. But here, for dispute and rancour, are our our 5 hits and 5 misses of British sports cars. Enjoy.
It's the daddy, the constant in an ever-changing world. The venerable B lumbered on in production for over 20 years, through three decades and infinitely changing fashions. The hairstyles may have changed but our love affair with the very simplest of convertibles remains.
It's not that easy to see why. Yes, the MGB looks good, but it's not as gorgeous as an Alfa Duetto, and it's powered by a Morris van engine. The boot is small, the handling ponderous and the steering heavy. But somehow none of this matters. Unlike any of its peers the MGB is simple to fix, reliable, cheap to run and few cars have such exemplary parts supply. And despite hardly changing throughout its life, there is a B for most people - 1.8 or V8, coupe or convertible, chrome or rubber bumper and that's before you begin to think about upgrades.
It may be ubiquitous and, for some, a classic car cliche, but the B is perennially popular for a good reason - it's easy, hassle-free fun.
2. Jaguar E Type
Other cars may handle better, be more practical and more comfortable but we'd argue that no mass produced car has ever looked as good. The E Type is all about presence and the drop top version sends out so many wordless messages that it is almost mesmerising. It stands for freedom, escape, joy and speed, all the things that we want from our classic drop top cars.
3. Triumph TR6
Triumph's TR series began as delicate play things for American troops and ended up as hairy-chested speed weapons for Dick Dastardly types. The Karmann-tweaked TR6 brought together sharper styling with Triumph's innovative fuel injected straight six engine. That meant decent handling and 150 bhp, a compelling combination that helped eek out a few more years from the aging separate chassis design.
The TR6 is on this list because it managed to achieve what few drop top cars can - practical, sharp-handling and with proper grunt.
4. Austin Healey
The Austin Healey made the TR6 possible, combining E Type-level beauty with great performance. Where the E Type was delicate and pretty, the Healey was handsome and brutal - a car for blasting down Highway 1 or careering round a rally course.
The Healey had a reputation as a 'proper' driver's car, one that needed skill and effort. At the time, it had precious little competition and yet Austin threw away the opportunity by failing to replace it.
5. Morris Minor Tourer
In the 1950s motoring was fun. It mobilised people and cars were suddenly attainable by the masses. Into this bright, multi-coloured future came the Morris Minor Tourer, a four door convertible that perfectly suited the optimistic, care-free times. Today the idea of a mass-produced, four seat family open top car is an odd one - but the Tourer sold and sold, even causing many owners to chop the roofs off their saloons and make their own convertibles.
The Moggy is simple, slow and wobbly, none of which matters on a sunny day in the Cotswolds with a picnic warming in the boot.
Let me say at the outset: the Misses aren't, by default, bad cars. Some of them are arguably better than the Hits. But the public either hated them at launch or grew to hate them. For many reasons.
1. Triumph TR7
The infamous TR7 was Triumph's difficult second album. After years of making essentially the same convertible sports car but with subtle changes to the body and engines, Triumph dropped the ball. It's not hard to understand why. The TR7 was meant to replace all of British Leyland's broad sports car range, from the Spitfire and Midget to the MGB and TR6. It was an impossible task.
The result is a car that tries to be everything to everyone, but ends up not really pleasing anyone. Almost all TR7s, inexplicably, had 2 litre engines - without the Dolomite Sprint's 16v head - and that alienated the TR6 and MGB V8 buyers. It was quite big, which didn't suit the Spitfire and Midget customers, and it was fairly soft to drive, and that put off everyone else.
Beyond the flawed concept, the drop top Triumph was unreliable and poorly built. From the nation that popularised inexpensive sports cars, it could have been so different.
2. Triumph Stag
Another miss, another Triumph. Where the TR7 tried to please everyone, the Stag knew exactly what it was about - hitting the Mercedes SL where it hurt. And it should have done: the Stag was comfortable, spacious, powerful and luxurious. It did most of those things better than the German car whilst looking better too. But, of course, it was a flop once again due to build quality. We should have known because the compromises were obvious from the start - this was a car with a T-bar rather than a convertible roof because Triumph couldn't make it rigid enough. That wouldn't have happened at Mercedes.
3. Scimitar SS1
Before Mazda and before MG, in the early 80s Reliant realised that there was still demand for a small, cheap convertible. And the market was wide open, thanks to the departure of the Spitfire and MGB and failure of the TR7.
The resulting SS1 got a lot of things right, but with one exception - it looked awful. Designed by Michelotti, presumably in his sleep, it combined awkward angles and shut lines to create a very unhappy whole. A shame because the SS1 was really very good - agile, quick (there was a turbocharged version) and fairly practical. Then the MX5 came along and it was game over.
4. Jensen Healey
Before Triumph threw away what remained of our hold on the world sports car market, Jensen had done its best to destroy things with the Jensen-Healey. It began as a good idea - a modern replacement for the old Austin Healey that was also a competitor to the Triumph TR6. Jensen had America in its sights. Sadly, while they were busy watching Uncle Sam, they forgot to design and build the car properly. When it was launched Jensen-Healey revealed a car that managed to be both bland and ugly at the same time and possessed of a Lotus engine that was catastrophically unreliable. Nobody wanted it - and neither did Jensen once the warranty claims began flooding in.
5. Daimler SP250
At the height of the British sports car craze, fuddy duddy old Daimler decided to pitch in with the SP250. While there is much that is good about the car, it certainly doesn't include its looks. Despite having fins and a wide mouth, like a startled fish, none of it works together. It's so awful in fact, that looking at it creates an unsettled feeling that can only be resolved with a hammer. When it was launched at the 1959 New York Motor Show it was voted the ugliest car at the show.
The SP250 did have the brilliant small-block Turner V8 engine and it was quick - the police bought a few until the crims started laughing at them. But it was made of glassfibre and twisted and shook itself apart, all of which meant Daimler was better off building posh saloons. So it did.
We know the MG, Morris, Triumph, Healey and E Type are your drop top hits because we have run all of them on our hire fleet. The Healey, MG and E Type have stuck around because they're so popular. You can hire them from just £39. To find out more call 01527 893733 or visit www.greatdrivingdays.co.uk