It’s not like European and British cars were unheard of in the United States before World War II. MGs had been imported to the US all the way back into the 1930s, and several other British brands had a foothold here, too. But the close of hostilities in Europe unleashed a torrent of cars that changed the landscape in 1950s America.
The British Government in particular saw the United States as the only way to survive. “We must sell the things we like to buy the things we need,” the narrator implores in this 1946 animated film, “Export or Die.”
Britons got the message. In the austere times of 1950, the British Motor Industry produced 522,515 cars. 397,688 were shipped straight to America.
Three million American servicemen passed through Britain during the war. “Overpaid, oversexed and over here,” they not only fought bravely against the Axis forces. These young men, many of whom had never left home before, got a taste of British life. They witnessed small, sporty, interesting cars moving around the cities all over Europe. They came from a long history of road racing here in the United States. When they got home, those cars were often available at a reasonable cost, thanks to the importing horsepower of people like Max Hoffman in New York. It was a perfect storm for European products to thrive.
John Thornley, who worked at MG since 1930 and was its general manager from 1930 to 1968, discussed the economic situation as related to his company in In Hemmings Special Interest Autos #47. “In 1947, we started exporting the TC to America, and the company really began to come alive,” he said. “We were under the stringency of steel control at the time, where we could get as much steel as we liked to build vehicles for export, but to build anything for the home market, the allocation of steel depended entirely on our export performance. So what we were doing, virtually, was building about 200 TCs–the majority of which went to the States–which entitled us to enough steel to build 20 Y-type sedans, which went to the home market.”
Here’s a look at 5 cars from Great Britain and Europe that American servicemen helped to make successful here:
As MG’s General Manger John Thornley mentioned in SIA, the TC was a car designed for export to America. It was MG’s first post-war car, and was almost exactly the same as the pre-war TB, with the exception of a slightly hotter 54hp engine, thanks to a higher compression ratio. It was a bit wider than the TB, which made it a little more comfortable to drive, but compared to American cars of the post-war era, the TC was archaic. Regardless, it came to symbolize British cars in America. Over 10,000 cars were sold here, all right-hand drive.
Volkswagen Typ 1
Wait, we said British cars, right? What’s the VW Beetle — the world’s most German Car — doing in this list? We’ll explain: Following World War II, the Morganthau plan ordered that Germany be almost completely de-industrialized. Germany could only produce 10 percent of the cars it produced in 1936 at the dawn of the second World War. Volkswagen had been producing the Typ 1 since 1936, but following the war, the VW plan was handed over to British control by the American occupiers. The plan was to have the plant completely disassembled and shipped to Britain for reassembly there.
Good fortune struck Volkswagen twice. First, no British car company had the interest or the means to ship all that gear to Britain. Second, British Army Major Ivan Hirst took control over the plant. His first act was to remove an unexploded bomb that had crashed through the building’s roof. Had it exploded, the plant would’ve been leveled. He went on to persuade the British government to order 20,000 Typ 1s from Volkswagen to feed the massive need for vehicles there. The first month, the plant churned out 1,000 cars, limited only by the availability of materials. Hirst ran Volkswagen until 1949. By 1955, VW would produce its millionth car, and it would become an icon around the world.
It’s not exactly the first British car that comes to mind. Allard only built cars in triple digits, and they looked like something you might build in the shed on nights and weekends. But the Allard J2 dominated the racing scene in America in the early 1950s. The cars were shipped to the United States sans engines. The J2 typically had an 85hp flathead Ford V-8 installed when the car arrived, and the 110hp Mercury V-8 was a popular choice, too. By 1952, the even more racing-oriented Allard J2X arrived, with a rearranged front suspension setup that allowed the engine to move forward by about seven inches. The J2X typically had a 210hp Cadillac V-8. At just 2,100 pounds, it made made these cars the most feared racing cars in America until Ferrari started importing here.
The XK120 changed everything. In 1948, it put the London Motor Show on the map. It established the British as the world’s signature producer of sports cars. It singlehandedly spurred Chevrolet into building the Corvette. It was simply the greatest sports car in the world when it was launched, matching other-worldly design with the highest technology available at the time. While it’s easy to focus solely on the car’s design, the engine was the reason the car was built in the first place, as a showcase for that incredible 3.4-liter, all-aluminum, overhead cam, inline six-cylinder. It — and a little bit of aerodynamics learned during the war — propelled the car to its namesake 120 miles per hour, achievable with the windscreen removed, making it the world’s fastest car at the time. Nearly all of them came here. With an almost $4,000 port price in the United States, they were out of reach of most returning servicemen, but they fueled their dreams, and pushed them to the lesser-priced British imports from MG, and later, Triumph.
Aston Martin DB2
Let’s be clear on this: American servicemen were not bringing Aston Martin DB2s home from the war. However, they had no choice but to pay them serious attention because they were winning races all over the place. The cars were the product of David Brown merging Aston Martin and Lagonda in 1947, with his main goal being the acquisition of the 2.0-liter Lagonda inline six for a sports car of his own design. Three pre-production cars raced at LeMans in 1949; one failed after six laps, a second killed its driver, and the third came in 7th. A month later, DB2s finished 3rd and 5th at Spa. The next year, the DB2 finished 1st and 2nd in the 3.0-liter class at LeMans.
Briggs Cunningham — the American racing icon that brought two Cadillacs to LeMans in 1950 — took a second place finish in an Aston Martin DB2 at the very first Sebring race in 1950. The DB2 would fuel American passion for post-war British cars through the 1960s.