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BBC Autos

Icons and Innovators

The greatest British cars never built

About the author

Editor of BBC Autos, Matthew is a former editor at Automobile Magazine and the creator of the digital-only Roadtrip Magazine. His automotive and travel writing has appeared in such magazines as Wired, Popular Science, The Robb Report and Caribbean Travel + Life. He lives in Los Angeles with his wonderful wife and four-year-old daughter.

 

Jaguar C-X75

Jaguar C-X75. (Jaguar)

The British motor industry has never lacked for innovation. The original Mini’s space efficiency, the Jaguar E-Type’s inspired agility, the McLaren F1’s high-speed stability – the list of superlatives is long. But some of the greatest British cars were the ones that never reached the production line. Herewith, a look at six of the UK’s most memorable concept cars, design studies, and experimental prototypes.

Jaguar C-X75 (2010)

Jaguar introduced the C-X75 to acclaim at the 2010 Paris motor show, a gift to itself on the occasion of its 75th birthday. The show car featured a radical hybrid-electric drive system comprised of four electric motors, one at each wheel, powered by a pair of diesel-fuelled micro-turbines. The following year, the company announced plans to build a scant 200 examples of the C-X75, priced between £700,000 and £900,000 apiece, plus VAT. Still a hybrid, the production version would use a turbocharged and supercharged 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine producing 500 horsepower in place of the turbines, and two electric motors in place of the concept's four. The revised system’s 900hp total output promised a 3-second sprint to 60mph and a top speed of 220mph. Those grand plans were short-lived, however; in December 2012, citing the continuing global economic slump, Jaguar cancelled the car.

Jaguar C-X75

Jaguar C-X75. (Jaguar)

Aston Martin Bulldog (1979)

With a “folded paper” shape by designer William Towns (who had previously styled the radical Aston Martin Lagonda sedan), the Bulldog brimmed with surprises. The car (called “K-9” inside Aston Martin, after Doctor Who’s robotic dog) featured full digital instrumentation, a closed-circuit camera with a dashboard display in place of a rear-view mirror, and a quintet of hidden headlamps. A 5.3-litre twin-turbo V8 delivered something close to 700hp – sufficient to give the car a theoretical top speed of 237mph (although 191mph was its highest verified speed). Although Aston had initially planned to build 25 examples of its futuristic flagship, the company produced only one before abandoning the project. The lone Bulldog was then sold to the highest bidder, commanding a rumoured £130,000.

Aston Martin Bulldog

Aston Martin Bulldog. (Aston Martin)

Vauxhall SRV (1970)

Little more than a design exercise, the dramatic SRV (Styling Research Vehicle) took inspiration from the long-tailed Le Mans prototype racers of the late 1960s. Although the car was initially planned as a two-seater, designers Wayne Cherry and Chris Field, intrigued by Lamborghini’s then-new Espada four-seater, decided to change course. Just 41 inches tall (more than 6in lower than the Espada), the rakish SRV featured four doors (the rears lacked external handles) and provided surprisingly spacious seating for four adults. The car was intended to employ a transversely mounted 2.3-litre four-cylinder engine, but Vauxhall had no appropriate transmission for such a layout, and the SRV never moved under its own power.

Vauxhall SRV

Vauxhall SRV. (Vauxhall)

Rover JET1 (1950)

Rover’s interest in gas turbine engines dated to the early days of World War II, when the company offered to help develop a jet engine for the Royal Air Force. In the late 1940s, Rover set about applying its turbine expertise to automobiles, In 1950, the JET1, based on Rover’s P4 75 Cyclops, arrived: the world’s first car with an inboard turbine engine – predating the Chrysler Turbine by a dozen years. The JET1’s turbine produced 100 horsepower at 26,000rpm, enough to propel the two-seater to a top speed of 90mph. The smooth-running engine, although able to burn a variety of combustible liquids, returned a fairly deplorable 6mpg. Rover produced a series of turbine-powered cars – and, teamed with British Racing Motors (BRM), even fielded turbine racers at Le Mans – until the company quietly abandoned the program in 1965.

Rover Jet 1

Rover Jet 1. (Photo by Ron Gerelli/Express/Getty Images)

MG EX-E (1985)

MG conceived the EX-E, which debuted at the Frankfurt motor show in 1985, as Britain’s answer to the Ferrari 308. Built on an adhesive-bonded modular aluminium sub-frame with composite body panels, the compact, lightweight coupe boasted a very low 0.24 drag coefficient. The EX-E employed a version of the 3-litre V6 engine from the MG Metro 6R4 rally car, detuned from a race-spec 410hp to about 250hp, and matched to a five-speed manual transmission and the 6R4’s four-wheel drive system. MG estimated the coupe could run from zero to 60mph in less than 5 seconds, and press on to a top speed of 170mph. A brochure for the EX-E carried the line, “The concept car that’s too exciting to keep secret.” Too good to be true was more like it; MG’s Ferrari-killer never turned a wheel.

MG EX-E

MG EX-E. (Austin Rover)

Doctor Who Whomobile (1973)

The pet project of Third Doctor Jon Pertwee, the Whomobile was much more than an outsized prop for a TV time-traveller. Pertwee built the car with his own money, working with British customiser Peter Farries. Although its eight-inch rubber skirt made it look like a hovercraft, the ground-hugging Whomobile was in fact a three-wheeler, similar to the diminutive Bond 875 (1965-70), with a modified 875cc four-cylinder engine from a Hillman Imp providing the motivation (sorry, those jet nozzles were just for looks). And the car was street-legal, albeit barely; the bubble top worn in its Doctor Who appearances (Pertwee coaxed his producers to write the Whomobile into the series’ 10th season) had to be replaced with a more traditional windscreen – from a motorboat, in fact – to make the car drivable on public roads. Pertwee claimed to have taken his winged wonder to “well over” 100mph. He made a memorable appearance with the car in October 1973 on the BBC children's television show Blue Peter. Watch the segment here.

Doctor Who Whomobile

Doctor Who Whomobile. (BBC)

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