motoring in the forties - back to the future

motoring isn't what it used to be - or is it? jonathan crouch turns the clock back to see how far we've really come since the roaring forties...

motoring in the forties - back to the future

In 1949...

Britain still had rationing, though there was a 'summer holiday bonus' ration for petrol, and the Berlin airlift was in full swing, while the Allies were still busily carving up Germany. Sir Malcolm Campbell died on New Years Day and Donald Bradman was knighted. The Peronists were re-elected in Argentina, Truman was newly elected in the USA; we had Attlee, Russia had Stalin. Britain was the world's largest car exporter and farm workers' minimum wages were increased to £4.14s, with hours down from 48 to 47, with seven days holidays instead of six. Prohibition was lifted in Kansas after 69 years and Prince Rainier acceded to the throne in Monaco. The RAF's first jet bomber, the Canberra, flew in May; the world's first jet airliner, the Comet, flew in July; and early in March, a US B50 superfortress, Lucky Lady II, completed the first non-stop round-the-world flight, while the world listened enthusiastically to big bands.

By the end of the Forties, the British motor industry was almost back to the heady days that had ended with the invasion of Poland a decade earlier. We were the world's largest exporter of cars and home to the globe's most ingenious automotive designers. Whatever you wanted - family runabout, affordable executive saloon, powerful sports car or all-purpose four-wheel drive vehicle - we produced it.

Family Runabout

If you wanted a small, economical family runabout back in 1949, you almost certainly ended up with a Ford Prefect. This after all, at just £396, was the cheapest four-door saloon on the British market and was a car commended for its generous specification.

By now, the Prefect had been on the market for eleven years, so Ford took the opportunity to introduce a minor facelift. The new model was recognisable by its 'more attractive' streamlined appearance, with the more powerful headlamps being set into the wings for the first time.

Throughout its life, the car maintained a reputation for performance and economy. A road test in Motor at the time called it, "an astonishingly lively small car," recording a 0-50mph time of 22.8 seconds and a fuel consumption figure of 33.2 miles per gallon.

Executive Saloon

"One of Britain's fine cars - now made finer." was the slogan introducing the Rover P3 models for the 1949 model year. Executive saloon buyers could choose from two models - the six-cylinder '75' and the four-cylinder '60'. Though the chassis was the same in each case, customers could specify either engine in a choice of two four-door bodystyles; the 'four-light' or 'Sports' saloon and the 'six-light' saloon.

The P3 was the first proper post-war model introduced by the Rover company, although the styling closely followed the well-established traditions of the pre-war period. Under the traditional skin was a new chassis with independent front suspension and a new engine which, for the first time on a Rover production car, employed the overhead inlet and side exhaust valves.

In 75bhp form, it cost £1,106 and its 2.1-litre engine was capable of 75mph. By the end of 1949, however, it was already being phased out to make way for the more modern P4 line-up.

Sports Car

In the late Forties, Jaguar's XK120 (named after its top speed) was the sports car to have; no question about it. So it was quite a bonus that at £1,263 including all taxes, it was also astonishingly cheap.

The car was really produced by accident. Most of Jaguar's post-war plans were centered around the MK V saloon, alongside which 'for its publicity value', the company thought it would make a twin-cam-engined sports car.

It was only when the first 240 alloy-bodied cars were quickly sold out that Jaguar realised that volume production would be a necessity. In May 1949, in front of a suitably impressed crowd of invited journalists, a fully-equipped XK120 with a standard 3.4-litre 160bhp six-cylinder engine recorded 126mph on the Jabbeke motorway in Belgium.

The car went on to win the Tourist Trophy and even threatened victory at Le Mans. In C-type competition form, it did win the famous French event and even was victorious in the RAC Rally - a tribute to the versatility of the design. In the end, over 12,000 units were sold.

Four-Wheel Drive

The Land Rover has to be one of the British motor industry's most enduring success stories. Designed by the brothers Maurice and Spencer Wilkes, Managing Director and Chief Engineer of the Rover Company in the late 1940's, it was intended to be a stop-gap vehicle for the new Solihull factory, using as little sheet steel as possible in the era of post-war shortages.

By 1949, it was out-selling the Rover cars and production has steadily increased every year since. Its initial layout was based on the wartime American Willys Jeep, though the Rover P3 engine and transmission were used.

The four-cylinder 1.6-litre powerplant put out 50bhp in its original form, which meant that early users could reach a heady 50mph. And the price? Just £450...