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Was 1959 the greatest British motor show?

Published 10 November 2014

There will always be debate as to the greatest motor show, but for many it will be the 1959 Earls Court Show - as the news announcer said at the time, ‘There’s something for nearly every purse.'

Ten years earlier, the idea of buying one of the exhibits at the London Motor Show without enduring a lengthy waiting list would have been thinkable - but the 1959 event promised a brave new world of driving your car (acquired for a very reasonable deposit and only a few shillings per week), along the soon to be opened M1.

This was a show burgeoning with optimism, showcasing cars that would come to define the mythology of ‘The 1960s’ - be it in the form of Jaguar’s updated compact saloons in Mk2 form or the 6/99 on the Wolseley stand, future star of countless black and white B-features.

If you were the sort of dashing chap who favoured cheesecutter caps and Leslie Phillips-style moustaches there was the Sunbeam Alpine or the Austin-Healey 3000 and drivers with very understanding bank managers considered the Rolls-Royce Phantom V or the SP250 Dart and the Majestic-Major on the Daimler stand.

Austin -Healey 3000 (1)

Heavy duties meant that imported cars were a rare sight in the UK but this did not stop visitors craving after a new Mercedes-Benz 220 or Fiat 1800/2100 Berlina. There were also the new American ‘compact cars – the Ford Falcon, with its remarkably low-key styling, the flamboyant Valiant with instant appeal to the nation’s wide boys and the truly radical Chevrolet Corvair.

It was not just that its coachwork was the antithesis of tin finned excess, the very idea of a rear-engined, six-cylinder, six-seater saloon was almost as exotic as a Porsche 356 to motorists on both sides of the Atlantic.

For Britons considering their first new small cars, there were four main show attractions – five if you counted Citroen’s Bijou, a 2CV assembled in Slough and sporting a glassfibre two-door body. The Herald was comparatively expensive but it was well appointed and the Triumph badging set it at a class above the outgoing Standard 8/10 range, which always conveyed an air of ration books and boiled cabbage. But the Herald not only featured a turning circle smaller than a London taxi, it was Italian styled transport for the sort of chap who pretended to like expresso coffee and French art house films.

Meanwhile, the Anglia 105E was the first British Ford with a four-speed gearbox and electric (as opposed to vacuum) windscreen wipers as standard, although most show-goers were more impressed with the ‘Breezeaway’ rear windscreen. ‘The World’s Most Exciting Light Car’ would bring a touch of Hollywood glamour to the suburbs of Southampton or Leeds, shocking neighbours whose idea of decadence was one of Fanny Craddock’s recipes.

The two other new small cars at the show were aimed at the buyer who might otherwise have considered a second-hand model or even a three wheeler. When Ford launched the 105E the old Anglia 100E was stripped of its luxuries and rebadged as the Popular. It’s lines were pure 1953, its side valve engine was best described as ‘venerable’ and the level of trim was miserable even by 1959 economy car standards (the base model had an interior light on the optional extras list) but it was ‘a real car’.

But the Morris Mini-Minor and its Austin Seven twin boasted a heater and windscreen washers in De Luxe forms - but they had tiny wheels, sliding front windows and no apparent boot. Pathé News may have described the Mini’s transverse engine as ‘a novel appealing feature’ but the British Motor Corporation sold only 20,000 of their new small car in the first year of production – sure proof that they would never catch on…

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Was 1959 the greatest British motor show – or can you remember a better year. Email or have your say by commenting below.




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