Top Gear's Top 9: British engineering dead ends

By topgear, 06 February 2019
Rover’s jet adventure

Britain gave the jet engine to the world, having developed it for powering aircraft across the sky. Obviously. Rover had the bright idea of seeing if this exciting new technology could, in gas turbine form, power a road car. Its prototype JET1 roadster broke speed records, achieving 245kph in 1952.

Despite producing, ahem, 100bhp at 55,000rpm, the slight noise problem, niggles with heat management and fuel consumption of about 6-7mpg meant the jet-powered Rovers remained one-off prototypes. If only someone could have seen those qualms coming…

Triumph Stag V8

The Stag looked good. It had a cool name. And waiting in the wings to power Triumph’s flagship was sister brand Rover’s legendary 3.5-litre V8. How could it fail?

Well, because Triumph decided, in order to show off the company’s in-house engineering prowess, it’d build a bespoke 3.0-litre V8. The result was one of the most botched engines of all time. The water pump was frequently starved of water, so the engine overheated. The iron block and aluminium heads also required a very specific formula of antifreeze to prevent corrosion – which few owners or dealers bothered with.

Oh, and the super-long timing chains stretched and broke, causing high-speed interface of valves and pistons and other expensive bits of engine. We could say ‘oh deer’, but we’re better than that. Honest.

McLaren MP4-12C doors

The first supercar from McLaren Automotive contained many innovations for a relatively inexpensive supercar – active aero, a carbon tub, hydraulically linked suspension… and you’d get to sample all of them, if you could just gain access to the cabin.

McLaren did away with door handles and fitted the MP4-12C’s doors with a touch-sensitive area that was supposed to power-unlock when the driver stroked the surface just under the side window.

It was elegant. Minimalist. And bloody frustrating, when the car stubbornly refused to grant access while you were stood in a cold, bleak petrol station with a crowd of bemused onlookers wondering why an angry person was busily fondling a supercar. They were quickly replaced by rubberised buttons, which worked much better.

Aston Lagonda dashboard

Another vastly ambitious British car that brought its maker to its knees, the wedge-tastic Lagonda’s digital LED dashboard (eat your heart out Audi TT) and touch-sensitive switchgear were majorly ahead of their time.

They were also hopelessly unreliable, and replaced by more conventional fixtures and fittings later in the car’s slow-selling lifespan. But just look at it! Plenty of cars from the late 70s and early 80s looked like spaceships but had interiors like medieval castles. The Lagonda was utterly barmy inside and out. For that, it has our respect. But we wouldn’t want to attempt changing the clock…

Land Rover Defender Works V8

An exception to the rule in this list – the 400bhp V8 Defender actually did good business. Land Rover actually managed to find 150 people who wanted to pay £150,000 for what was effectively a farm truck fitted with a great-sounding motor and three times more power than the chassis could reasonably handle.

Driving one is terrifying, because of the sheer unpreparedness of the rest of the car for dealing with the poke summoned by the V8. If anything, the Works V8 just served to show how utterly out of date the Defender was. Small wonder it was only a short-lived special edition. If you see one coming towards you, get to high ground, quick. Or better yet, out to sea.

Tyrell P34 F1 car

More classic British lateral thinking here. Four front tyres means a bigger contact patch for steering (reducing understeer) and for braking (so drivers can brake later). As a plus, running smaller front tyres cut aerodynamic drag, so the top speed was healthier.

So, why aren’t all F1 cars six-wheelers today? 

Well, partly because Goodyear refused to keep developing the bespoke teeny tyres for just one team, and partly because the higher speeds of the weeny front wheels lead to overheating brakes and front tyres that wore out tens of laps before the rears. And with 1970s safety standards, well, you wouldn’t want to be on the limit for long. Presently, the FIA banned six-wheelers before the troublesome tyres could be perfected.

Pity really – imagine trying to nail a three-second pitstop with one of these...

TVR Speed Six engine

British carmakers just can’t help themselves when it comes to developing bespoke engines that go bang. That said, TVR’s attempt was awesome. Designed by the same man who came up with the Suzuki GSX-R superbike engine, the result was the most powerful naturally aspirated straight-six engine ever made. And one of the best-sounding. Bwaaaarp. See?

What hobbled its reception was the valvetrain, which had stiff springs and a high wear rate. An eagle-eyed owner might spot the car’s oil usage increasing, but before long oil would leak into the combustion chambers and wreck pistons, causing pricey rebuilds. Though TVR went bust in the late 2000s, specialists have managed to modify surviving Speed 6s to remedy the chocolate valvetrains.

However, you’re still unlikely to see Tuscans troubling Honda Jazzs in a customer reliablity survey.

Lotus Elite fibreglass chassis

Pretty, isn’t it? If you don’t want to have the Lotus Elite spoiled for you, best not read on. For the brave, here goes…

Which phrase sums up Lotus best? ‘Simplify and add lightness’, or ‘Lots of Trouble, Usually Serious’? Nowhere do they collide better than in this, the Elite sports car of the late 1950s.

As part of a fanatical desire to reduce weight, the Elite was based around a stressed fibreglass chassis, using only a small steel subframe to hold important bits like the engine and suspension on. This helped towards a kerbweight of just half a ton – similar to a modern Ariel Atom, but including a roof, doors, and actual body panels. Very much unlike the draughty Atom.

The problem was that fibreglass, the carbon fibre of the 1950s, isn’t as strong as carbon fibre. And the dainty Elite quickly developed a reputation for the suspension mounts tearing clean out of the bodywork while under a hard cornering load. A worthy contender in the great tradition of British sports cars that fall to bits when they arrive at a bend.

Jaguar C-X75 hybrid system

We’re not in halcyon days for Jaguar right now, thanks to plummeting car sales in China and pancake-flat demand for its XE and XF saloons. But as recently as 2012, the company was hard at work – or rather, Williams Advancing Engineering was hard at work – turning the company’s C-X75 hypercar from a gas turbine-powered concept into reality.

Ditching the micro-jets and opting instead for a manic 1.6-litre, 9,000rpm petrol engine and two electric motors, the results were set to be staggering. 50km of silent battery power, nigh-on 900bhp, 0-100kph in under 3.0sec and a top speed knocking on the door of 354kph. Mouth-watering, even today.

But as the global economy continued to stagger after the global recession of 2009, Jaguar got cold feet and binned the project before any were sold. Some mules powered by V8 engines and fitted with WRC-style roll cages were used as the villain chase car in the 007 movie Spectre, but they were merely stunt cars dressed up to look like Jaguar’s beautiful 75th birthday present. Had the hybrid version made it to production, the McLaren wouldn’t have had to take on the might of the LaFerrari and Porsche 918 Spyder alone…