Top five family cars of the 1950s

Martin Gurdon / 22 August 2014

From the Standard Vanguard to the Vauxhall Cresta, we take a nostalgic look back at the family favourites of the 1950s.



Morris Minor, 1948-71

The Minor was designed on the quiet during World War 2 by Sir Alec Issigonis (who later created the Mini). At the last minute he decided to widen the Minor by four inches, hence the crease in the middle of the bonnet. 

It came of age in the 1950s, and its flatulent exhaust note was part of the soundtrack of British post-War life. This little car had immense character, handled brilliantly, and it was spacious and tough – although front wheels would fall off if the suspension wasn’t greased regularly. Still it was one of the decade’s most-loved cars and in 1959 became the first British car to sell a million.

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Standard Vanguard, 1947-63

With its humpbacked saloon body, and broad all-of-a-piece front end, the Standard Vanguard, right, was styled to resemble a scaled-down American car, and conceived with international aspirations.

After World War 2, Britain was badly in the red, businesses were extolled to ‘export or die’ and the Vanguard was one a number of British cars that initially mostly went for export, reaching British roads in quantity in the 1950s.

Sadly, it was only tested on those roads, and quickly developed reliability problems in tougher conditions, denting sales. Even a complete re-design with snazzy Italian styling didn’t help, but the Vanguard had its fans and its engine was used in everything from grey Ferguson tractors to Triumph TR sports cars.

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Ford Popular and Anglia 100E, 1953-62

Before the 100E, baby Fords had sit-up-and-beg bodies and upgraded 1930s' designs, so 100Es, right, with their boxy, modern styling, were a revelation.

These simply engineered, robust cars sold in huge quantities. They had features like hydraulic brakes and independent front suspensions.

Being Fords they were sparse inside. Customers paid extra if they wanted heaters and sun visors, and the windscreen wipers were powered by a cheap-to-make vacuum system with the flaw that the faster the cars went, the slower the wipers worked.

Still, in their bright, Festival-of-Britain colours, the baby Fords were talismans of a prosperity that Austerity Britain of the mid-1950s was only just starting to feel.

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Rover 75-110 P4, 1949-64

Few cars have a more British feel than Rover’s sedate P4, right, the model of choice for a generation of 1950s' solicitors and bank managers.

Outside it looked a bit like a Saint Bernard dog on wheels, and the wood and leather interior made it feel like a gentleman’s club, but ironically the car was intended to have an American feel.

Early P4 75s had a single fog lamp in the middle of a grill that resembled a chrome Radiogram speaker cover, and it became known as the ‘Cyclops Rover.’ Later, Anglicised P4s were fondly nicknamed  ‘Aunty Rovers.’

Discreet, well made and quietly tasteful, the P4 had an enduring friendliness that has made it much loved to this day.

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Vauxhall PA Velox and Cresta, 1957-62

Mid-fifties Luton was the place where Vauxhall made cars with cut prize American glitz, like the PA Velox and Cresta, right.

These big saloons had acres of chrome, tail fins and ’wrap around’ front and rear screens. They could be ordered with whitewall tyres and two-tone paint jobs.

Inside, big, comfortable bench seats front and rear could accommodate six, the driver worked a three-speed manual or two-speed automatic with a steering column lever, and looked at a dashboard that was as flashy as a jukebox.

Lazy, six cylinder engines made these cars relaxed straight-line cruisers, and they were beloved of salesmen who thrashed up and down Britain’s trunk roads.

Glitzy, vulgar and fun, they were also instant rust buckets, which is why so few survive today.

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All car images from the Giles Chapman Library.

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