“Rule Britannia” Is The Story Of How A Nation Was Rebuilt With Sports Cars
Picture vintage British sports cars and a procession of bright-eyed roadsters will probably populate the hedgerow lanes in your head. That’s how it is for a lot of people, the connotations likely including dim Lucas-powered headlights wheezing light into the immediate rainy space in front of smiling grilles capped with the emblems of MG, Triumph, Austin Healey, Morgan, AC, along with those from countless small-and-part-timers building cars in garden sheds.
Then there are the names with more in the ways of cachet and pace—Jaguar, Aston Martin, for instance—as well as those scrappy underdog victors embodied by the innovative and competitive Minis. The terrain of sports and enthusiast cars produced in (and heavily exported from) Great Britain in the 1950s and 1960s is well-populated, immensely successful even in the economically strict post-war circumstances of the time, and all too often stereotyped to be more quaint and dreary than it likely was. It took a lot of pluck and passion to build sports cars on this scale and with this scope, and in the end the efforts helped to save and propel the industry while making fun cars accessible to the masses.
It’s arguable that Great Britain has produced or else significantly contributed to more successful racing teams, racing cars, and racing drivers than any other country, so it’s interesting that one of its defining eras of sports car production is relegated to an idea of whimsical antique motoring reserved for stodgy dudes who affect to smoke pipes at Cars & Coffee and do their best to look grumpy.
This book does justice to the reality of the situation. In Rule Britannia: When British Sports Cars Saved a Nation, John Nikas authors a compelling history of the British automotive industry as it rebuilt itself in the tightened-belt times following the Second World War, and along with the faultless beauty shots taken by Michael Furman in a modern study, there is a trove of period photography, pamphlets, ads, posters, all the 2-D automobilia you could ask for.
Nikas goes through the histories of the major manufacturers in depth and detail, but despite being a reference-worthy piece of literature for your shelf, it’s written in a way that makes you feel in those moments rather than having them retold and explained to you. The writing is the kind that invites spur-of-the-moment openings of the book, but if you’re after something that will leave you much more informed it can also be pored over for hours at once.
The story of British sports cars in the 1950s and 1960s should be remembered as a period of triumphant loyalty to the less utilitarian side of driving, as a remarkable allocation of limited resources, and as one of the more auspicious moments in a country’s motorized history that has many achievements to its name already.
With forwards by Lord March and Alain de Cadenet as well as a roster of experts providing insights and anecdotes, this book has been crafted with an obviously genuine desire to tell this story in its fullest. It is entertaining, engaging, and the opposite of dim and dreary. I won’t be as dramatic as to say it’s “setting the record straight” on the topic, but it will shift your perception.