The seven decades of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign saw many changes in all aspects of life, none more so than in the world of motoring. In this special feature, we look back at ten of the defining automative developments of the Elizabethan era.
In 1952, car ownership barely reached beyond those enjoying a level of affluence – only around 15% of UK households owned a car. The early years of the queen’s reign saw that figure climb rapidly and, by the start of the 1970s, there was at least one car in half of UK households. Today that figure is close to 80%.
Over the last seven decades, those cars have changed beyond all recognition – in their design, their complexity, their technology. So what are the ten biggest automotive developments of the Elizabethan era?
The seat belt
There’s no doubt that it’s much safer to travel in the car today than it was back in 1952 when Queen Elizabeth came to the throne. Then, UK road fatalities recorded by the Department of Transport exceeded 5,000 a year. By the mid 1960s, as the number of cars on the road mushroomed, fatalities had increased at a similar rate to 8,000 annual deaths.
Today, however, the annual figure is typically less than 2,000. What makes this even more remarkable is that in 1952 UK people travelled only around 50 billion kilometres a year by car, van or taxi – today, that figure typically exceeds 650 billion.
The reason, of course, is a constant evolution in safety over the past 70 years, without which road deaths would be much higher. This evolution has been punctuated by such milestones as the first airbags, the emergence of camera and radar-controlled autonomous braking and stronger structures able to withstand heavier impacts.
Without doubt, the greatest safety advance of all has been the seat belt. In the 1940s, US manufacturer Nash had first proposed a belt that passed over the lap of car occupants, but it was the three-point belt patented by Volvo – just seven years into the queen’s reign in 1959 – that changed road safety as we know it. The three-point seat belt is credited with having saved more than a million lives more than 50 years later.
The designer of the three-point seat belt, Nils Bohlin (who had earlier worked on ejection seats for Swedish aircraft manufacturer Saab) was so convinced of his creation’s effectiveness he persuaded Volvo to relax its patent so other manufacturers could join the Swedish brand in fitting them as standard equipment. Front seat belts were made mandatory in cars from 1965.
It took a long time, however, for ‘belting up’ to become the norm – despite numerous safety campaigns with tag lines such as ‘Think!’ and ‘Clunk Click every trip’ some motorists objected to being told to strap themselves in, and in the UK using seat belts was not made mandatory until 1983 in the front, and 1991 in the rear.
In 1952 car ownership was still in a minority – prices of new cars were coming down compared to before the second world war, but buying one still represented a huge slice of average household budgets still under post-war pressures. Today, household budgets are again under great pressure, but car ownership is at an all-time high.
If people only ever bought the cars they could afford with the savings they had available, we would never have a car industry. Amercian giants General Motors and Ford both cottoned onto this way back in the 1920s, but it was after the second world war that the car finance industry really took off.
Car finance has become a £100bn industry in the UK today, with ever-more sophisticated forms of funding available to enable both consumers and fleets to renew their vehicles on a very regular basis, and keeping the car industry in business.
Originally, ‘finance’ almost exclusively meant hire purchase, paying a deposit to drive away in a new or nearly-new car and paying the rest off in monthly instalments. Once you’d made your final monthly payment, the car was yours
Today, the personal contract purchase (PCP) dominates the car finance market. It first appeared in the UK in the mid 1990s, launched by Ford. It’s a form of hire purchase, though with much lower monthly payments followed by a very large final payment. At the end of term, you either make the final payment, hand the car back to the finance company or part-exchange it against another car.
Fuelled by the 2008-2011 financial slump, PCPs have become hugely popular. Close to nine out of ten new cars now bought this way. Buyers like the lower payments and the industry likes how it keeps customers coming back every few years. But there are drawbacks, explained in our comprehensive guide.
Other finance packages have also emerged such as personal contract hire (PCH), in which one simply rents the car for a period. The leasing industry has mushroomed in recent years and expanded from the business into the consumer market.
All car finance options have their plusses and minuses but there’s no doubt that without them the global industry would still be limited to building expensive toys for the very wealthy.
The catalytic converter
By the time the queen celebrated her Silver Jubilee in 1977, a new automotive innovation was spreading around the world from America. Initially, it faced considerable opposition – the car industry did not want the expense of fitting it to millions of cars, and it also strangled car performance dramatically. We’re talking about the catalytic converter, a device that deserves much of the credit for cleaning up urban environments across the globe.
A catalytic converter is part of a car’s exhaust system and converts toxic gases and pollutants emitted from petrol and diesel engines (such as carbon monoxide, nitric oxide and hydrocarbons) into less-toxic pollutants (such as carbon dioxide and water vapour). It does this by means of chemical reactions using precious metals such as platinum, palladium and rhodium.
Over the last 40-odd years, catalytic converters have become even more effective at removing pollutants while significantly reducing their impact on vehicle performance. However, the use of rare and expensive metals do mean that they have become a target for thieves – thefts of catalytic converters increased tenfold between 2018 and 2019 and are continuing to grow.
The radial tyre is a largely unheralded development, but it transformed both the performance and safety of every car on the road. Michelin invented the radial tyre in 1948, though it took many years for its advantages in both safety and performance over the existing crossply tyres to be fully appreciated.
All pneumatic tyres (as opposed to the solid rubber items of early cars) consist of a network of steel cords encased in rubber. When Elizabeth became queen in the 1950s, and indeed well into the 1970s, most tyres used a crossply design, which had very rigid sidewalls (making the ride quite firm). They also needed an inflatable ‘inner tube’ to support the tyre on the wheel rim, and being of soft rubber this inner tube was easily punctured, leading to a flat tyre or – more dangerously – a high-speed blow-out.
In a radial tyre, there are fewer cords and they are placed at a 90-degree angle, while a steel belt runs around the tyre rim. No inner tube is necessary, and the softer sidewall is better at absorbing shocks and impacts. This provides a smoother ride and also means that much less heat is generated, so blow-outs are far less likely – another major automotive safety advance of the Elizabethan era.
The white van revolution
What is the most significant automobile of the Elizabethan era? The Mini? The Nissan Qashqai, catalyst of the modern SUV revolution? Perhaps the Bugatti Veyron, the first production supercar to achieve the ‘magic figure’ of 1000hp?
No, none of those. If you’re looking for a genuine game-changer for the automotive industry and the wider world, you need to forget your SUVs, exotic luxurymobiles and insane hypercars and look to… the Ford Transit.
Ford’s van, introduced in 1965, wasn’t the first van to hit the market, but it is single-handedly responsible for introducing the phrase ‘white van man’ to the English language – and for good reason. No matter where you travel today, you’re likely to see more vans than any other vehicle, doing a vast range of duties from transporters to rescue vehicles to minibuses to basically everything that requires something moving from A to B.
The Transit was first built in Berkshire, then Southampton and Dagenham. While a global phenomenon, it has forever been associated with our nation – despite these days being manufactured in Turkey. Ford’s own advertising describes the Transit as the “the backbone of Britain”, the vehicle that “takes Britain to work”, and few observers regard this as hyperbole, as the figures back it up.
Over its history there have been more than 150 different variants of the Transit and more than 8 million sold, more than 2.5 million of those in the UK. This vehicle became the template that all other van manufacturers followed but have never come close to exceeding – in 2021 the almost 88,000 Transits registered in the UK represented more than 40% of the entire market.
Britain’s best-selling vehicle last year, of any type, was the mid-sized Ford Transit Custom, with more than double the sales of any other van maker. And with a new range of electric Transits just arriving, don’t expect this success story to slow any time soon…
The small car
It was the post-war period that saw a step change in the kind of cars that were on sale to the general public – by 1952 the rise of smaller cars was well underway. Henry Ford may have pioneered the idea of a car for the people with the Model T, but others made it possible with smaller, simpler cars that far more people could actually afford.
Infamously, one of those was Adolf Hitler, who personally pushed for the creation of the ‘people’s car’, which of course in German translates as ‘Volkswagen’. The VW Beetle, its French equivalent the Citroen 2CV and Italy’s Fiat 500 were all perfectly suited to mobilise millions of people across Europe in the aftermath of the second world war.
Quickly, other contenders sprung up to help put a steering wheel in the hands of tens of millions of working-class people. They included Sweden’s Saab 92 and, in the UK, the Austin A30 and Morris Minor. This was followed at the end of the 1950s by the British icon that came to epitomise economic motoring in small cars, the Mini.
Small cars have been a solid part of the motoring scene ever since, more recently dubbed ‘city cars’ and at one time one of the most competitive parts of the new car market – even the original Mini lasted to the dawn of the 21st century, the last one made in 2000.
As the Elizabethan era ends, it looks like the small car may be in its twilight years as well. The continued growth of SUVs, along with enormous costs of developing new car platforms and the seismic shift towards electric cars has made the small car segment unprofitable for most car companies.
There are very few public roads these days where you can drive as fast as you like or that comes anywhere near to your car’s top speed. But as long as cars have been made, manufacturers have tussled for the bragging rights of who makes the fastest and most powerful cars.
It was in the early day’s of the queen’s reign when things really started ramping up. It can be argued that the first true ‘supercar’ was the Mercedes 300SL, launched in 1954. Based on a pure racing car, the combination of its signature gullwing doors and 163mph top speed captured imaginations around the world – regardless of whether you could ever afford one.
Supercars have been dominated headlines and emptied millionaires’ wallets ever since. In the 1960s it was the likes of the Lamborghini Miura, the Ferrari 250 GT series, the Aston Martin DB5 made famous by James Bond, and the most powerful variants of the elegant Jaguar E-Type.
Fast forward to the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s and young boys were putting posters on their bedroom walls of the Porsche 911, Lamborghini Countach, Lancia Stratos, BMW M1 and Ferrari Testarossa. Even Japan got in on the act with the Honda NSX while the first McLaren road car, the F1 launched in 1992, is even today considered by many to be the greatest supercar ever built.
By then, supercar top speeds were routinely exceeding 200mph and despite ever increasing legislation and emphasis on safety in the 21st century they have kept on getting more powerful, epitomised by the Bugatti Veyron of 2005. This was the first production car with 1000hp on tap, its 8.0-litre engine taking it to 253mph.
Some might have thought the switch to electric propulsion might have finally killed off the supercar but anything but. Electric motors produce instant, prodigious power, and in fact the supercar has spawned an even more exclusive club, the hypercar. Machines such as the forthcoming Aston Martin Valkyrie, a hybrid with 1160hp, offer a 0-62mph time of under three seconds and a top speed well above 200mph – oh and a price tag starting at £2 million…
The rise of the Far East
When the queen ascended the throne in 1952, Britain was the second largest car manufacturer in the world. But, even then, our two biggest manufacturers (Ford and Vauxhall) were US owned, and a host of other companies were merging to form the British Motor Corporation (BMC), starting the slide towards the fiasco that was British Leyland. The big challenge was a resurgent German industry, which overtook the UK’s output in 1956, but what few foresaw was a challenge from the Far East.
The rise of the Far East automobile industry can be described in three stages encompassing three countries – first Japan, then South Korea, and now China. In the early 1950s, Japanese car manufacturing was little more than a cottage industry – only in the 1960s did Japanese cars begin to become known in Europe, with models such as the Toyota Corona.
It was the global fuel crisis of 1973 and growing demand for small and efficient cars that really brought Japan to prominence. The country was ready to take full advantage as European car manufacturing restructured and the UK industry imploded. Many years of arguments over import quotas followed, but models with badge names like Datsun (later to become Nissan), Honda and Toyota became familiar on UK roads – especially when their makers got over import quotas by opening car factories in the UK.
The rise of Korean manufacturing, principally sister brands Kia and Hyundai, is more recent. While both were manufacturing cars for domestic markets since the 1940s, neither arrived in the UK until the early 1990s, with very basic, budget models such as the Kia Pride and Hyundai Pony.
Over the years, however, both have reinvented themselves as mainstream makers of high quality cars that today directly rival traditional big-hitters such as Ford and Volkswagen. The scrappage scheme of the last financial crisis, along with cheap PCP car finance, propelled them into the mainstream as buyers could suddenly buy a brand new car for £99/month with no deposit. More recently, both brands have been early adopters of electric powertrains.
Now, the big Far East focus is on China, with the Chinese car industry poised to become the dominant force of the next 50 years. Car manufacturing in China really got going in the 1950s, aided by the Soviet Union but almost entirely for a domestic market. In recent years, the industry has embraced much wider ambitions leading to much controversy – in China replicating another manufacturer’s product, such as producing a car that is a copy of a Range Rover in every detail apart from its badge, is seen as a compliment rather than copyright theft.
China now has five enormous state-owned motor corporations, which are imposing themselves on the world both by partnerships with established Western and Japanese manufacturers and by buying up European names. SAIC, for example, owns MG, while Geely has snapped up Volvo, renowned sports car manufacturer Lotus and even the manufacturer of a British icon throughout the whole of the Elizabethan era, the London Taxi Company (now called the London Electric Vehicle Company)…
Motorsport as a mass sport
Back in 1952, the Formula One World Championship was in just its third season. In May 1950, Princess Elizabeth had attended the very first F1 world championship grand prix along with her parents King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, and younger sister Princess Margaret, at Silverstone – the only time to date that a reigning British monarch has ever attended a motor race.
Through the 1950s, many different forms of motorsport boomed, fuelled by demobbed wartime pilots seeking excitement and the availability of plenty of redundant airfields for them to race around. The growth of the sport at all levels matched that of the global automotive industry, car manufacturers seeing motorsport success as great publicity, adopting the phrase “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.”
While over the past 70 years Britain’s status as a global automotive power has declined to almost insignificance, the reverse has been true in motorsport. Today, the UK motorsport scene is one of the most vibrant and varied in the world, from major international teams to weekend racers competing in amateur series. Only 20 of those years have produced a British world champion, but the majority of the champions’ cars have been built in Britain and their teams based here, part of an industry encompassing the entire sport in all its forms.
A vast area of the English Midlands is regarded today as the ‘Silicon Valley’ of the global motorsport industry and the innovations made by British racing teams and suppliers have consistently extended way beyond the sport, making road cars more efficient and safer. This continues today as motorsport embraces its biggest challenge yet, the move away from the internal combustion engine – the technology arm of multiple F1 champion team Williams, for example, is creating the battery technology powering many of today’s electric road cars.
This enormous technogical capability had an unexpected recent benefit as well. During the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, Britain’s seven F1 teams switched from building racing cars to designing and building ventilators for hospitals around the world, saving countless lives.
The electric car
A little-known fact – the electric car is a lot older than one might think, dating back to the 19th century. In fact when the queen’s great grandfather, Edward VII, was on the throne in the first decade of the 20th century, petrol-powered cars were very much in the shadow of a battle between steam and electric on the roads.
By 1910, the US had more than 120 electric car manufacturers and more than 40% of annual sales were electric. Only the increasing reliability, improved comfort and instant refuelling of petrol cars between the world wars ended the electric revolution.
Or at least delayed it – in more recent times the cost of oil and questions over its future availability, but most importantly climate change and the effects on the environment of fossil-fuel engine emissions, have seen the revival of electric powertrains. A combination of increased environmental awareness and political pressure has fuelled the switch to new, more efficient electric vehicles with the pace increasing rapidly each year – Britain is currently set to ban all new petrol and diesel car sales from 2030, and plug-in hybrids from 2035.
Whether electric is the answer to battling climate change remains unclear and a subject that will be of great concern to our new king. The ways that electricity is created and the rare earth minerals that are currently needed to make the batteries are all areas of concern to be overcome. However, looking back over the last 70 years, this is just one aspect of an automotive future that is likely to be as innovative, challenging and fascinating throughout (and beyond) the reign of King Charles III as it was throughout the Elizabethan era.
Additional reporting by Stuart Masson.