Britain's national auto show closed recently, having played host to thousands of car fans who had come from all over the country to the site near Birmingham in the English midlands. There was a time when Birmingham was home to a dozen or more major manufacturers, with more in nearby Coventry. Sadly, that's no longer the case. Coventry still has Jaguar, which is going from strength to strength under Ford, and Land Rovers are still built (now also under Ford ownership) in a factory just a few miles from the exhibition site.
But Birmingham's biggest factory, founded in 1906 to build Austin cars, is now a white elephant, too big and inefficient for MG Rover, who bought it this summer from BMW for $15,? but too important a local employer to close down.
MG Rover is so strapped for cash that it wasn't at the show, but it wasn't all gloom for the British car industry. There are no British representatives among the world's top auto companies, but there are some fascinating small firms, most of them turning out highly individual sports cars, and their tiny booths, some no bigger than the catalog dispensing stations on the big manufacturers' stands, were full of interesting cars.
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Lotus is still a name that means something internationally, and after some turbulent financial times in the past decade or so it now seems to be making good progress under Malaysian ownership. The Lotus Elise is a sports car in the true tradition of Lotus' founder Colin Chapman, light and small with a powerful little engine from a bigger company – in this case MG Rover. By Lotus standards the Elise is a big seller, and its numbers are swelled by the Sportster, a two-seater designed with the help of Lotus engineers by GM and using a GM engine. Lotus is building the Sportster for GM to sell in Europe, and the extra financial stability this contract has brought no doubt played a part in Lotus' decision to give the Elise a facelift. The new look was introduced at the show, and it had enthusiasts flocking to the Lotus stand to check out the reshaped headlamps and subtle body changes.
If light cars with powerful engines were the roots of Colin Chapman's success with Lotus, there was another new car at the show that followed his pattern exactly. Mark Grinnall is an engineer who made his name by building the Scorpion, a tiny three-wheeled car with an 1100cc BMW motorcycle engine driving its single rear wheel. Light and beautifully engineered, it was good enough for BMW to supply their engines with full approval for use in the little car. Racing technology and racing build standards gained the Scorpion a strong following, and when racing legend Phil Hill tested one for Road & Track he was impressed. "When I first saw it, I didn't take it seriously," he said. "Then I drove it. Now I take it seriously." Now there's a four-wheeled Scorpion, powered by a 2.0-liter Fiat engine. The 220-hp unit will take it from zero to sixty mph in around four seconds and carry on to a top speed of 150 mph. Shown in Birmingham as a prototype, it will go into limited production next year at about $37,000, and Mark Grinnall already has all the orders he can handle.
TVR TuscanEnlarge Photo
TVR is a name that's known by sports car historians in the U.S., but like many British sports car companies it has passed through many hands. The current owner, Peter Wheeler, has learned from the past and says he will not try TVR's luck in the U.S. market again "..unless somebody wants to make them under license." That's a pity for American enthusiasts, because TVRs are very exciting cars. The company even makes its own engines now, and it has a strong band of faithful clients across the world. There's always something new on the TVR stand at the British show, and this year it was a convertible, the Tamora, and a high-performance coupe, the Tuscan R, that can be supplied with up to 450 horsepower available from its TVR six-cylinder engine.