Costin Amigo

Costin Amigo 1970s British classic sports car

Frank Costin – creator of the Amigo – was an automotive pioneer. That said, he learned a lot of what he knew from the aircraft industry. He had been a top aeronautical engineer in his time. In the Fifties, Costin shifted his skill-set to motor racing. Lotus and Vanwall benefitted directly. Indirectly, the ripples of his expertise spread far wider. When Frank Costin met Jem Marsh, they founded sports car maker MarCos. The marque had a unique take on English eccentricity. That was fully in keeping with Costin’s character. An out and out maverick, he did things his way. That certainly extended to his cars’ construction. Costin liked wood. The chassis in Marcos’ first sports cars were made from laminated marine plywood.

In time, Marcos moved to more orthodox chassis. That was probably partly as a result of Marsh’s input. Costin, though, was still a believer. He sought backing to build a car of his own. Enter the Costin Amigo! Its monocoque frame was forged from, yes, plywood – albeit with strengthening pine strips bonded on. The chassis’ light weight was echoed by a glassfibre body. The latter was sublimely smooth – both of shape and finish. Visually and aerodynamically, it cut straight to the chase.

The Amigo’s engine, drive-train and suspension were sourced from the Vauxhall VX4/90. Indeed, the Amigo was built close by Vauxhall’s Luton HQ. Fittingly – given Costin’s former employment – it was at an airfield. And the Amigo’s performance was jet-plane impressive. Top speed was 137mph. Handling was high-calibre. Design-wise, only the spartan interior let the side down a tad. It certainly contributed to the Amigo’s woefully low sales. A scant eight units were shifted. To be fair to the Amigo, had Frank Costin been more of a marketing man, it might have helped. To be fair to Frank Costin – engineering was all he knew. Anyway – the Costin Amigo story was richer than that of many cars that sold a thousand times more. Not that the bank manager would have seen it that way!

Daimler SP250 Dart

When first seen – at the ’59 NY Motor Show – the Daimler Dart was derided as an ugly duckling. The consensus was that the fins looked dated, the headlamps bug-eyed – and the grille a bit … well, fishy! Over time, though, qualms over the SP250’s styling subsided. Daimler was on a downswing in the late Fifties. New management sought to remedy that – by emulating Jaguar, Triumph and MG. Daimler, too, would produce a sports car for the American market. The potential problem was that Daimler lacked experience with sports cars. Indeed, the Dart was the only one the marque made. To get the ball rolling, it used the chassis and suspension set-up from the Triumph TR3. After that, Daimler turned to the bodywork. Which is when things started to go awry. The glassfibre shell Daimler designed seemed fine. Until the going got a bit rough – at which point the doors were liable to fly open! The writing was on the wall for the Dart as early as 1960. Jaguar then took over the SP250 project. Sir William Lyons was the new CEO. As well as being a top-flight manager, he was a stylist of high repute. Sadly, Lyons and the Dart did not see eye to eye. Its unwieldy form upset his creative sensibilities. One of them had to go. It would not be Lyons!

Prior to the Jaguar takeover, Edward Turner was managing director at Daimler. Before that, he had worked at Triumph – in its motorcycle division. His engine design work there had achieved widespread acclaim. Indeed, in the bike world, he was legendary. Some of that had rubbed off on the Dart. Indeed – courtesy of Turner – its motor was pretty much flawless. Torquey but smooth, it catapulted the lightweight Dart to a top speed of 125mph. 0-60 took 9.5s. The engine’s hemispherical combustion chambers – and twin SU carburettors – were key to its performance. Plus, the SP250 returned a respectable 25mpg. Best of both worlds, basically. Brakes-wise, a full set of Dunlop discs were fitted.

In a bid to drive up US sales, attempts were made to upgrade the Dart. It was given a stiffer chassis and bumpers – as well as a few more creature comforts than it had previously provided. From a marketing perspective, the SP250 was pitched between the cheaper Triumph TR and MGs – and the more expensive Jaguar XK150. 2,644 SP250s were built. Production ceased in ’64. The ugly duckling never did morph into a graceful swan. But, beauty is in the eye of the beholder – and Daimler Dart fans loved it all the same!

Austin-Healey 3000 MkIII

The Austin-Healey 3000 MkIII was a seriously iconic British sports car. One of the legendary ‘big Healeys’, it was made in the Midlands, England. Bodies were built by Jensen – in West Bromwich. Final assembly took place in MG’s Abingdon factory. First of the breed was the Healey 100. It recycled the 4-cylinder engine from the Austin Atlantic. But it was when a 6-pot motor was lowered into the 3000 model, that the Healey range really sprang into life.

The 3000 MkI arrived in ’59. In design terms, it was not too different from what had gone before. It was a sizeable, stylish 2-seater. The game-changer was beneath the bonnet. The six-cylinder engine kicked out 124bhp. Top speed was 114mph. To cope with the extra horsepower, robust front disc brakes had been fitted. Come the 3000 MkII version, and output had been upped to 132bhp. That was largely courtesy of triple SU carburettors. ’64’s MkIII racheted up power still further – to 148bhp. The speed-needle now flickered at over 120mph. At that point, the motorsport world sat up and took notice. Before long, the Healey roadster had morphed into a works rally car … and a highly competitive one, at that.

Visually, the 3000 was notably low-slung. Whilst that certainly looked cool, it did not help the car’s rallying cause. On the stages, ground clearance could be suspect. As automotive design, though, the MkIII was a triumph … as it were! Its dramatic grille – and subtly sloping lines – were a joy to behold. Its wire wheels were web-like works of art. The curved windscreen – and neatly-folding hood – were stylish embellishments. The 3000’s rear-end was as shapely as it gets. Distinctly British though it was, the MkIII was built primarily for the American market. Ironically, it was strict Stateside safety regulations that brought about its demise. Production stopped in ’67. By then, though, the Austin-Healey 3000 MkIII was woven into the fabric of moody, muscular sports cars. Wonder if Marlon Brando ever drove one!

Vauxhall Cresta PA

The Vauxhall Cresta PA appeared in ’57. At the time, Vauxhall – a mainstay of British car manufacturing – was under the aegis of GM, in Detroit. Unsurprisingly, then, the new Cresta PA picked up several US styling motifs. The rear fins, for example, were pure Americana … though suitably reined in for British tastes! Likewise, the PA’s wraparound windscreen clearly originated on the other side of the ‘pond’. Stateside-style two-tone paint – and whitewall tyres – were optional extras. The Cresta was Vauxhall’s answer to the Ford Zodiac. It was there in every larger-than-life line of the British-made car. The PA’s cabin continued the ‘Britmobile’ theme. Bench seats, white steering wheel and column shift all came courtesy of the American Dream.

Mechanically, the Cresta harked back to the E Series. Its pushrod straight-six engine produced 78bhp. That gave it a top speed of 90mph. Capacity was 2,262cc. Power was delivered in relaxed fashion. The gearbox was a 3-speed synchromesh set-up. Soft suspension was via a leaf-spring rear axle, wishbones and coil springs. Many of these components derived from the Vauxhall Velox – the Cresta’s slightly less sophisticated predecessor.

In ’59, the Cresta got a face-lift. Its three-piece rear screen became one-piece. Up front, the ‘egg-crate’ grille was revised. Coachbuilders Friary built an estate car version. The Queen gave it her personal seal of approval … she drove one for years. 1960 brought further Cresta updates. Its motor was taken out to 2.6 litres. That upped output to 96bhp. The PA was given larger wheels and fins. The gearbox was now a two-pedal Hydramatic auto. Or, alternatively, a dual overdrive manual. Front disc brakes were servo-assisted. British motorists gave the improvements a thumbs up. The PA sold soundly, right up to ’62. By then, though, its fins – whilst the ‘in thing’ in the Fifties – were starting to show their age. Its production run now over, the Vauxhall Cresta PA was put out to well-earned pasture. British cars would seldom seem so American again!

Aston Martin Lagonda

There was little doubt which car was the star of the ’76 Earls Court Show. The Aston Martin Lagonda fired up a furore of excitement around its stand. 170 orders were placed, there and then. Aston – still reeling from recent travails – were on cloud nine. Then the problems set in! The Lagonda sported futuristic looks – designed by William Towns. His cutting edge styling included not just the exterior lines, but the cabin area, too. A digital dash – and touch-sensitive controls – seemed straight out of Star Trek. But, this was ’70s Britain – not ’90s Silicon Valley. Technical gremlins surfaced from the get-go. As a result, the Lagonda’s launch was delayed three years. By the time it was finally released, its price tag had risen to £32,000. Aston thanked their lucky stars that it was still in demand!

In terms of traditional engineering, the Lagonda was fine. Its chassis was an updated version of a tried and tested set-up. Suspension, too, had been seen before. Following a few tweaks to sort an increase in weight, ride and handling were spot-on. Press reviews were upbeat. The Lagonda’s engine, especially, was praised. Its 5.3-litre V8 – with quad-cam layout – made 340bhp. Top speed was 140mph. That was impressive – for a saloon car weighing nearly two tons. Transmission was 3-speed auto.

Ultimately, the Lagonda was all about leisure. Avant-garde though it was, it also harked back to a more luxurious past. On its launch, then – in ’79 – Lord and Lady Tavistock were first in line. Air conditioning – and electric seats – came as standard. Coachbuilders Tickford turned out three stretched Lagondas – complete with colour TVs. But, for all of its state of the art buzz – and genteel pretensions – the Lagonda did not sell well. By the end of its run – in 1990 – a scant 645 cars had been built. It had signally failed to back up the hype – commercially-speaking, anyway. The high-tech teething troubles had not helped. In that regard, however, it paved the way for cars to come. At the time, though, Aston Martin’s Lagonda bit off more of the future than it could comfortably chew!

Riley RM

By the time the RM series was launched – in ’45 – Riley’s glory days seemed gone. Dating back to 1898, the firm had produced a steady stream of successful saloon and sports cars, throughout the ’20s and most of the ’30s. At race circuits, too, Rileys met with much success. Sales had been consistently impressive. By the late Thirties, though, financial fissures were forming. As a result, ’38 saw Nuffield take over the Riley reins. It worked. Before long, there was a resurgence of interest from investors. And, the post-war launch of the RM series saw Riley right back on track.

The RMA and RMB models were stylish saloons. Timber frames were wrapped in swooping steel bodywork. Topping it all off was a woven removable roof. Both A and B were fitted with Riley’s high-cam inline-four engine. The A was good for 75mph. The B took that out to 95mph. Riley’s motor had the longest stroke of any post-war British production car. As you would expect, then, torque came by the barrelful. Again, both A and B featured torsion-bar independent front suspension. So, good handling was also a given.

The most glamorous member of the RM club was the C. Since it was a tilt at the American market, it came with column gear-change. Well, it was only polite! Other notable updates were a fold-flat screen and lower bonnet-line. The RMC was pure roadster – to wit, an open 3-seater, with cutaway doors. In due course, the RMD appeared – as a 4-seater drop-head. It reverted to a more traditional body than the C. Completing the series were the RME and RMF. Improvements included hydraulic brakes, a hypoid back-axle and larger rear windows. In ’54, Riley revisited the E version. It received the honour of the final RM makeover. Its running boards were removed – and headlight pods streamlined. A set of rear wheel spats was grafted on. By this point, though, Riley were clutching at straws, commercially. Revered as it had been, the brand-name was now in decline. There would be one final throw of the Riley dice – in the form of the Pathfinder. But – according to critics – its four-cylinder motor was about all it had going for it. Back in the day, however, Riley combined British panache with sporting prowess. The RM series had made that abundantly clear!

DeLorean DMC-12

On the design board at least, the DeLorean DMC-12 ticked all the right boxes. Namely, a V6 motor by Peugeot/Renault, a chassis by Lotus and bodywork design by Giugiaro. For a roadster, it does not get much better than that. To say the least, it was a highly desirable blend of styling and functionality. But, of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. And – in the case of the DMC-12 – the automotive ingredients simply did not mix. In terms of weight distribution, it did not help that the DMC was rear-engined. For all of its expertise, Lotus struggled to optimise handling. And, if they could not do it, no one could. In a straight line, however, things were spot-on. A top speed of 130mph testified to that. Another suspect part of the DMC package was its ‘gull-wing’ doors. Sure, they looked great. But, for $25,000, you expected them to be watertight … whatever the weather! Deficiencies, though, in DMC’s door department meant that was not always the way. Plus – from an emergency services point of view – prising gull-wing doors apart could be a problem. It was not long, then, before the first cracks in the DeLorean plans appeared.

It had all started so swimmingly. John Z DeLorean was something of a whizz-kid, during his time at GM. He conceived the DMC-12 as a player in the realm of upmarket supercars. To make that happen, he would need to source serious funding. The UK looked like his best bet. He was strongly encouraged to start up in Northern Ireland – by the British government, no less. The region badly needed a boost. DeLorean seemed like the ideal man. There was no stinting on incentives. Grants and loans totalled £80m – in early ’80s money.

DeLorean’s dream lasted just two years. In 1980, the sky was the limit. By ’82, things had crashed back to earth. Improprieties were alleged. Indeed, DeLorean was arrested – on drug trafficking charges. Though he was subsequently cleared, it was not the best by way of PR! The whole sorry episode was the stuff of history – political, as well as automotive. BBC Nine O’Clock News sagas did not get any more gripping! John DeLorean had certainly made his mark on the world. As for his car, it had fallen short of expectations – dismally short. In different circumstances, though, the DeLorean DMC-12 could now be considered a classic supercar … of the sort its creator so desperately craved!

Ford Sierra Cosworth

The Ford Sierra Cosworth was a performance car for the people. For a start, it was a snip at just £16,000. For that, you got supercar speed and stability – plus, practicality. Ford passed their Sierra shell to tuners Cosworth – based in Northampton, England. And the ‘Cossie’ was born! Cosworth installed a two-litre twin overhead-camshaft turbo engine. The production car was an ‘homologation special’ – a certain number needing to be built to allow it to compete in races and rallies. So, such cars are limited-edition by their very nature. Ford’s Special Vehicle Engineering department was asked to come up with a competitive Group A car. There were several key components on the SVE’s spec-list. Toward the top were a close-ratio 5-speed gearbox, a limited-slip diff and power steering. As well as ABS, anti-roll bars and firmed-up suspension. 4-piston disc brakes were attached to wide alloy wheels.

The Cosworth’s body was modified Ford Sierra. Updates included widened wheel arches – and a ‘whale-tail’ rear spoiler. While the latter increased downforce, it compromised aerodynamics. And was not ideal in cross-winds! Still, if you bought a Cossie to make a statement – and you probably did – the rear aerofoil was spot-on. ‘Spirited’ drivers praised planted handling – along with fearsome acceleration. Top speed was 149mph.

Of course, the Cossie was a magnet for thieves and joy-riders. Insurance costs sky-rocketed. In time, the tearaways moved on to pastures new. Once rid of its hooligan rep’, the Cosworth transitioned into performance car respectability. The Sierra Sapphire and 1990’s 4×4 version duly followed. A further 16bhp would be coaxed out of the Cossie’s 16-valve cylinder-head. In racing, rallying and roadster modes, then, the Ford Sierra Cosworth delivered the goods. Though not literally, of course!

TVR Griffith

The seaside town of Blackpool, England, is famous for its Illuminations. Similarly, TVR – the sports car manufacturer, based in the resort – lit up the motoring world. It did so, not with a dazzling display of neon lights – but with the gorgeous Griffith. The new TVR heralded a return to raw V8 power. The TVR brand itself did not need rejuvenating – but the Nineties sports car market did. The Griffith played a pivotal part in that. In five-litre form, the Griffith 500 produced 345bhp. That gave a top speed of 163mph. 0-60 arrived in a tad over 4s. Such fierce acceleration reflected plenty of mid-range poke – as well as gargantuan low-down grunt. The Griffith was inspired by the TVR Tuscan – a pure-bred, blood-and-guts racer. The latter had first appeared in the late Eighties. The iconic TVR Tuscans tore strips out of each other, in a one-make race series. Even TVR chairman Peter Wheeler dived headlong into the high-speed fray. He battled it out with the best of them, in his own racing Tuscan. A fresh take on the company car, as it were!

Design-wise, the Griffith came with a full complement of curves and subtle touches. Most notably, the air ducts – on the bonnet and doors – were cutting edge cute. The interior, too, was impeccably styled. Copious amounts of leather and wood were inlaid with aluminium. Not surprisingly – with all its technical and aesthetic assets – the Griffith sold well.

With its RWD system maxed-out, the Griffith’s exhaust note was ear-splitting. With hood down – and revs up – British sports car drivers had never had it so good. The Griffith prototype debuted at 1990’s Birmingham NEC Show. To say it wowed onlookers would be understatement. Automotive folklore has it that 350 deposits were stumped up that same day. Which translated to an order every eight minutes! The first production cars swanned into showrooms in ’92. The Griffith was designed, developed and built almost exclusively by TVR. Given its relatively small operating scale, that was an astonishing feat. TVR went one step further, though. At £24,802 new, it even managed to keep the Griffith competitively priced!

MGB

Among other cars, footballer George Best drove an MGB. A man synonymous with style – in both the Sixties and Seventies – he doubtless took the odd Miss World or two out for a spin in it. He would have needed to watch out, though, for his glamorous passengers. The MGB’s handling was no match for Best’s dynamic dribbling skills! Suspension and steering parts – as well as its live axle – were stock BMC items. In other words – manoeuvrability-wise – they were nothing to write home about. In a straight line, however, things MGB were much improved. Top speed was a creditable 106mph. With the top down, Best – and his busty companions – would certainly have felt the breeze blowing through their Vidal Sassoon-sorted locks. At one point, more than 50,000 MGBs per annum were passing through the Abingdon factory gates. Add another nought to that figure, and you have total sales for the MGB. More than half a million were shifted – between ’62 and ’80. Numbers like that make it one of the best-selling sports cars ever!

Safe to say, then, the MGB’s success was due mainly to its lithe good looks. Technically, it was no great shakes. Nonetheless, it was an improvement on its predecessor. The MGA’s hefty separate chassis had been ditched – hopefully, not literally – for a lighter unit-construction item. The MGB scored well, too, in terms of torque. There was a rip-roaring 110lb/ft of the stuff – and at just 3,000rpm.

It was in the design department, though, that the MGB shone. Its seductively low lines were drawn with stunning simplicity. The car was inherently aerodynamic. Were it not for its small-scale four-cylinder engine, it would have gone a whole lot quicker. For a sports car – even in the ’60s – 95bhp was no more than middling. That said – taken in the round – the MGB embodied the best of British motoring. Obviously, Georgie thought so – or, he would not have spent his hard-earned money on one. No doubt, Miss World agreed. End of the day – if it was good enough for the Belfast boy – it must have been the best!

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