As in other realms of life, motoring in the 1960s influenced and reflected the changing mores of the times to the extent that by the end of the decade, motoring was significantly different from at the start.
The rise of four wheel motoring
By the early 1960s motorways were beginning to spread across Britain, allowing long and fast journeys (with, until 1965, no speed limit). Immediate post-war austerity had been replaced for many by greater affluence. This was reflected by a new generation of small family cars, effectively ousting motorcycle combinations (with children seated precariously in a side-car), 3-wheeler cars (which could be driven with just a motorcycle licence), kit-cars and ‘bubble cars’ like the Isetta.
Just as today’s Formula 1 cars are the proving grounds for technological developments, safety features developed on the track began to find their way into mass-production models. Radial-ply tyres, offering superior grip and handling to traditional cross-plies; disc brakes, providing greater resistance to ‘brake fade’; and front seatbelts, pioneered by Volvo, all became common features or options on new cars. Perversely, given the growth in motorway building, crash barriers on central reservations did not become common-place for another decade.
Motorways apart, much of Britain boasted uncluttered roads, ideal for Sunday afternoon jaunts through the countryside, stopping off perhaps for a picnic on the obligatory tartan rug, with tea served from Thermos flasks and new-fangled Tupperware containers. Post-Suez, petrol was cheap and plentiful, with UK brand Cleveland Discol even offering a 21st century 5% ethanol mixture.
1960s motoring icons
The British motor industry was at its zenith in the 60s, albeit through amalgamation and ‘badge-engineering’. For example, Riley and Wolseley simply served up sportier or more luxurious versions of a basic Austin or Morris. Inevitably, as an enduring icon, the Mini takes centre-stage. Designed by Alec Issigonis of Morris Minor fame, the Mini was launched in August 1959 as both the Morris Mini-Minor and the Austin Seven. Issigonis’s front-wheel drive design was revolutionary on several counts – the ‘wheel at each corner’ maximised interior space, itself enhanced by placing the engine and integral gearbox at right angles to minimise bonnet length; and the rubber suspension created further space and produced deft handling. Such was the impact of the Mini that virtually all European manufacturers would switch to front-wheel drive, transverse engine layout over the next decade.
1961 saw the introduction of what was universally considered the breathtakingly beautiful Jaguar E-Type sports car. The sculpted E-Type could reach 150mph and sold at a fraction of the cost of other ‘supercars’ from manufacturers like Aston Martin, Maserati and Ferrari.
Aiming at a very different market, the Ford Cortina eschewed revolutionary design and was a conventionally-engineered ‘sales repmobile’ and family car. It nevertheless gave nimble handling, reliability and a level of comfort previously unknown in a family car. Belying its humble engineering, Lotus saw its potential as a sportssaloon and the Lotus Cortina gave the sporty Mini Coopers a run for their money in rallies and races alike.
The Rover 2000 instantly overturned Rover’s staid, maiden-aunt image. Like today’s BMW 3-series, it became the default choice of country solicitors, professionals and junior executives. Sleek and futuristic, its design masked that its body panels were merely bolted to a conventional chassis.
Elsewhere in the motoring world, development of other icons was underway. Volkswagen was starting to move away from its single offering of Beetle-based models, whilst Citroen pioneered horrendously complex hydraulic braking and steering systems into its shark-like DS19. In the US, Chevrolet flirted with the absurd, large, rear-engined Corvair, leaving Ford to develop the muscle-car Mustang, as featured in ‘Bullitt’ – for once an American car with decent handling.
The Welsh Dimension
In Wales, motoring was noteworthy for several developments. Only one car was produced entirely in Wales, the Gilbern in Llantwit Fardre. Conceived by local butcher Giles Smith and German-born engineer Bernard Friese (hence Gil-Bern), these sports cars attracted a loyal following among connoisseurs. But if Wales produced few complete cars, the components industry in the 1960s was huge – including steel for bodies from BSC Port Talbot and Llanwern; rubber components from Dunlop Semtex in Brynmawr; Pullmaflex Seating in Ammanford; Lucas Girling Brakes in Cwmbran; Ford’s transmission plant in Swansea; and Llanelli Radiators. All made significant engineering contributions to the motor industry and,likewise, afforded high levels of employment.
Yet to say that Wales did not produce complete cars is inaccurate. In the Swansea suburb of Fforestfach was a factory producing a wide range of vehicles exported all over the world. Corgi Toys made highly-detailed, die-cast model cars, arguably of higher authenticity and precision than its rival Dinky Toys. Throughout the 1960s Wales made a significant contribution to existing and future motorists alike.
© Rod Ashley 2015
Rod Ashley was for many years on the staff of Swansea University as well as running a long-established consultancy business. The author of many books on education and management, he is currently working on his 30th book, a social history of neutral Portugal in the Second World War. A keen motorist, he is Chair of the Swansea Bay Group of Advanced Motorists and is a frequent contributor to Good Motoring magazine.