british motoring caterham norton morgan

Best of British: On the hunt for the best home-grown motoring

06 Mar 2024 | |By Charlie Thomas

From Portmeirion to Snowdonia – in search of home-grown motoring purity

‘Simple’, ‘small’, ‘fun’. Three words that don’t describe the majority of new vehicles on the road today. ‘Overly complicated’, ‘overly powerful’, ‘overly large’, maybe. Take the Porsche 911. At its launch in 1974, the 930 model weighed little more than 1,350kg. The current 992 model weighs 1,715kg. That’s some weight gain. It also takes up nearly a foot more length in real estate.

And then there’s the tech. Cars used to consist of four rubber wheels, an engine and a gearbox. They are now super computers that can do the driving for you, with touchscreens replacing buttons and electric steering. Is it still possible to enjoy a pure experience, unmarred by soulless automatic gearboxes and endless beeping? In the case of three British motoring brands, the answer might just be yes.

Caterham, Morgan and Norton have long produced simple, well-engineered vehicles with either four, two or even three wheels. Forget driving modes and HD infotainment systems – these home-grown manufacturers are still committed to throwback designs that aim to capture the fun of driving, something that seems increasingly less important to bigger-name carmakers.

To see just how much fun could still be had, I ventured to Wales on a classic British road trip. The drive would start at Portmeirion, a small resort town in the north, and finish on the winding roads around Snowdonia, recognised as being home to some of Britain’s finest driving routes.

Portmeirion is a strange place. Built over a 50-year period from 1925 to 1975, it was the vision of eccentric Welsh architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, who wanted this slice of North Wales to evoke the romance of the Mediterranean. The multi-coloured buildings reference Italian fishing villages like Portofino. And, like the Italian Riviera, the town has attracted plenty of celebrities over the years.

Noël Coward frequently stayed there, even writing Blithe Spirit in the Fountain Building while on a retreat from London during the Blitz. H.G. Wells was another fan, alongside Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman. The Beatles repeatedly visited, and George Harrison celebrated his 50th birthday in the village. Portmeirion also appeared in 1960s television show The Prisoner.

Driving an oversized modern car on the town’s narrow streets, around toy-town architecture that looks like it’s been designed as a movie set, would be a stressful experience. The diminutive Caterham Super Seven 600 was the perfect motor. This is Caterham’s smallest car; a fact you can only really appreciate in the metal. It looks impossibly small, not unlike a child’s toy car, and that’s before you try to get in it. You have to climb into a Caterham as they don’t have doors; rather a wind flap that clips on. Once, finally, you’re in the cockpit, the tiny Mono-Lita steering wheel and leather-gaited, chrome gear knob reminds you that this is a car derived from the racetrack.

The Super Seven 600 is Caterham’s throwback model, which means it comes with 1950s-style flared front wings, a chrome filler cap and matching, simplified bar front grille, as well as a range of heritage paint colours. Mine was Bordeaux Red. It can be optioned with a wooden steering wheel and a map pocket. It’s very much the car Mr Toad would drive if he was born in the 1990s.

Start it up and the 660cc turbo-charged Suzuki engine burbles to life. To enjoy it, I leave Portmeirion and head to some more fast-flowing tarmac. On the open road, you rifle through gears as the car’s turbo sneezes and whooshes. Gear changes are short and punchy, making the box on my ’92 Eunos Roadster (a car renowned for its gear changes) feel like a van. The Caterham only puts out 84bhp. But then it only weighs 440kg, so it’s surprisingly quick. Unsurprisingly, it sings in the corners, feeling more like a go-kart. It makes other cars seem obnoxious in their ungainly height and heft. It might be the purest driving experience available on the market.

The Morgan Super 3 is something else altogether. Its looks are nearly unchanged from the historic three-wheelers that Morgan was making in the early 20th century. Its still futurist-looking shape is part early Grand Prix car and part Riva boat, with the two tall, skinny front wheels sticking out almost comically, and the single rear wheel hidden at the rear of the chassis.

The Morgan Super 3
The Morgan Super 3

It used to be made with a V-twin engine up front in place of a grille, but for this model Morgan has opted for a naturally-aspirated, 1.5-litre Ford Ecoboost triple cylinder, which produces 118bhp. It’s the noise that’s most impressive. There’s no roof and with the exhaust sitting just behind the driver, the car gurgles up to the redline with a raucous note that is completely addictive.

A boat-like steering wheel, cockpit-inspired dash (complete with fighter pilot engine start button) and snappy MX-5 gearbox make for a driving experience that’s nothing short of exhilarating. It’s even less practical than the Caterham, with the front mini windshields doing precious little to prevent buffeting, and the lack of a roof making driving in the rain a challenge. But as far as unbridled fun goes, this is where it’s at.

For something even more visceral, only two wheels will do. Riding a motorbike through
a sunny Snowdonia National Park is one of life’s great pleasures. It’s even better when that bike is a Norton. When it comes to purity and connection to the road, no car can compete with a parallel twin between your legs.

The new Norton Commando 961 has one of the best, most characterful notes of any twin cylinder, a fact that becomes apparent as soon as you fire it up. Thanks to its full stainless steel exhaust system, it retains a raw, unrefined note that is lost on most new vehicles, and is reminiscent of the great British twins of the ’60s and ’70s, in the best possible way.

Norton crafts many of the bike’s parts in its own factory in Solihull, from its frame that’s welded in-house to the top yoke, handlebar mounts and footpegs, which start life as a solid block of billet aluminium. The exhaust and shiny transmission cover are also made and polished by an engineer’s hand, while the subtle pin-striped paintwork references classic Nortons in either Manx Platinum silver or a black-and-gold combination.

british motoring portmeirion

The best thing about the Commando 961 is its simplicity. There are no rider modes, no confusing buttons and proper, analogue dials with vintage-inspired italicised font. There is ABS (and a full Brembo system) for reassurance under braking, but a steady right hand is advised due to a lack of traction control. The bike puts out 76bhp, which isn’t much compared to today’s sport bikes, but it’s more than you ever realistically need for the road. The Commando consumed the winding roads of North Wales with a thunderous hum that reverberated through the mountains.

In a world where manufacturers are constantly chasing more power, more grip and more tech, the refreshingly simple purity of these three British motoring machines is what driving, and riding, is all about.

The Caterham Super Seven 600, from £30,490,; The Morgan Super 3, from £43,165,; The Norton Commando 961, from £16,999,

Read more: A road trip through the Scottish Highlands in the Porsche Taycan