Currently reading: Historic imports: when foreign car brands arrived in the UK
Polestar, Cupra and DS are some of the latest arrivals to the UK. We delved into the archives to see when other foreign brands made their first appearance here
10 mins read
18 April 2020

Many readers will remember the arrival of the Korean cohort of car companies in the 1990s and, before that, the genesis of the Japanese. The latter’s excellent products played a significant role in the downfall of Britain’s own car manufacturing industry, which had once accounted for almost every vehicle sold here.

But many of the foreign brands you see represented out on the streets today have been peddling their wares on these shores since a time when most homes didn’t even have a supply of electricity – and it’s pretty doubtful that any of you are old enough to recall that.

So here we detail exactly when and how each non-British brand that’s still relevant today (because there are literally hundreds that aren’t) bravely stepped into this new territory. You might well be in for some surprises.


Panhard 3.75hp: What was the very first car to land in Britain? A Panhard et Levassor, powered by a 3¾hp Daimler engine, on the 4th or 5th of July 1895. Its buyer was the Honourable Evelyn Ellis; he purchased it in Paris, from where it was driven to Le Havre, shipped to Southampton, loaded onto a train to Micheldever and illegally driven home to Datchet. Panhard was formed in 1887 and made its first car in 1890. It would produce several key innovations, achieved sporting success and made cars for the president of France. It was sold to Citroën in 1967 and has since made military vehicles. It moved to Renault in 2012.


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Peugeot 3.75hp: In September of the same year, a second car of French origin arrived: a Peugeot, also with a 3¾hp Daimler engine, and vis-à-vis bodywork. It was owned by the influential engineer Sir David Salomons and, alongside the 1895 Panhard, was the first car publicly demonstrated in this country, at a special event in Kent. Within just a few years, a sales agent for Peugeot had set up shop in London.

Benz Velo: The first British Benz landed in November of 1895. This car, a 4hp model, was sold as a Roger-Benz by the German firm’s Paris agent, Emile Roger. A British Benz agent with a showroom in London was established in 1899. Meanwhile, Mercedes, which was owned by Daimler, had a UK sales agent by 1902. Following the creation of Daimler-Benz, the amalgamated Mercedes-Benz brand began its business in 1926.


Renault 4.5hp: Of the brands still in existence to arrive in the Victorian era, Renault was the last. The earliest evidence of a vehicle from les frères français here is a 4.5hp from 1900. In 1902, a London showroom opened for business with 30 cars for sale. This effort was soon bought by Renault itself, and annual sales had rocketed to 450 by 1904.


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Fiat 16hp, 20hp and 30hp


Ford Model A: Three examples of Ford’s first-ever mass-produced car, the Model A, were imported in 1903. The year after, a proper sales agency was set up in London, preceding the creation of Ford England in 1909. In 1910, the first Ford showroom in Britain opened its doors in Southampton, and a year later the first non-US Ford factory was opened in Trafford Park to handle production of the revolutionary new Model T. Being affordable to the less-than-rich, this was enormously successful: in 1919, it accounted for some 40% of all cars on our roads.


Cadillac Model B


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Laurin & Klement A: Václav Laurin and Václav Klement from the Kingdom of Bohemia began selling their Slavia motorcycle in London in 1900. Their first car, the Voiturette A, came in 1905, and received a glowing review from Autocar. In 1925, the firm was bought by armaments maker Skoda, which began applying its own name to the Mladá Boleslav-built cars.


Lancia Alfa: The first Italian brand to reach these shores was Lancia. A concessionaire was appointed in London in the autumn of 1907, and an example of Vincenzo’s appropriately named first car, the Alfa, was driven by Autocar that October. Lancia became one of the most successful car importers in Britain during the 1920s, and it made some brilliant cars post-war, with sales peaking in 1978. A spiral begun by the Beta’s rust problems in the 1980s resulted in the brand withdrawing in 1995.


Opel 10hp, 20hp, 30hp and 45-60hp


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Bugatti Type 17: The sales agent of Britain’s (now long-defunct) Crossley company had also long sold cars for the French marque De Dietrich, for which Ettore Bugatti had got his break as a car designer. This led to the agent becoming the sole Bugatti concessionaire for the British Empire in 1913. Added to this, Crossley built a run of 24 Bugatti Brescias in Manchester between 1921 and 1924. Bugattis continued to be available here until the company went under in 1952.


Citroën Type A: The first Citroën here was imported for the 1919 London motor show: the 10hp Type A. A dealership was promptly set up in London, selling a remarkable 750 cars in its first year, before Citroën itself took over the growing number of imports in 1923. Just three years later, a factory was opened in Slough; it remained open until 1965.


Chevrolet Superior


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Alfa Romeo RL: Englishman Frederick Stiles was so impressed by yet another dominant victory for the scarlet Alfa Romeos at the 1924 French Grand Prix in Lyon that he decided to extend his holiday to visit the company’s factory in Milan. There, he was enthusiastically greeted by Nicola Romeo himself, given test drives of the latest production models and then offered to become the sole British concessionaire. Stiles accepted and began importing Touring and Super Sports variants of the RL, advertising them as the 21/70 and 22/90.


Chrysler Richmond: Former Buick boss Walter Chrysler created his own brand in 1925, using the assets of Maxwell, which had been selling cars in the UK for decades; it even had a plant in Surrey. From 1931, Chrysler built Plymouth and DeSoto cars there from knock-down kits, rebadging them and naming them after nearby towns. Kew was shut in 1967, the year Chrysler bought Britain’s Rootes Group to create Chrysler Europe. This collapsed after just 11 years, and saviour Peugeot rebadged its cars as Talbots. Chrysler returned in 1996 but left again in 2017.


BMW 315


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Volkswagen Type 1: Volkswagen was initiated in 1932 by the German Labour Front to do what its name suggests: provide transport for the people. The first prototype emerged in 1938. Delayed by the war, with production being started after it by the British Army, the Type 1 went on sale in the UK, where it was nicknamed the Beetle, in 1953. With many people still feeling hostile towards Germany, a number of cars were vandalised at the docks and just 945 found homes that year. No worries, though: over the past few decades, Volkswagen has risen to become the world’s biggest car maker.


Porsche 356: A year after the first Volkswagen came a spicy model mechanically derived from it. Indeed, the air-cooled Beetle was designed by Ferdinand Porsche and the Porsche 356 coupé by his son Ferry. The first 356 here was sold from the same Frazer Nash sports car dealership in London that introduced BMW to the UK, before Porsche itself took control of the brand’s British business in 1965.


Abarth 500


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Volvo Amazon


Ferrari 250GT Pininfarina Coupé: This nation’s first Formula 1 world champion, Mike Hawthorn, struck a deal with his Italian employer to sell two 250GT Pininfarina Coupés at the 1958 Earl’s Court motor show. Hawthorn met a sad, untimely death in 1959, after which the purchaser of one of those 250GTs, Ford dealer Ronnie Hoare, struck a deal with Ferrari to take over the British business. He founded Maranello Concessionaires, which today makes around 700 sales annually.


Saab 96

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Maserati 3500GT


Daihatsu Compagno: The first of the Japanese companies, whose excellence would play a key role in the large-scale demise of our manufacturing sector, was not a well-known one. Daihatsu’s Compagno two-door saloon was sold from one London dealership, beginning in early 1965. However, at £280 more than the Austin Mini, it managed to sell an embarrassing six examples over five years.

Toyota Corona: The first notable Japanese entry came that October, from Toyota. It made its debut with the (now rather unfortunately named) Corona in its third-generation saloon and estate forms. Around 100 were sold in the first year. Toyota had 85 dealers signed up by the end of 1967, and real success came shortly after with the arrival of the smaller Corolla.

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The Audi: The history of Audi is rather complicated. It was established in 1910 but merged with DKW, Horch and Wanderer in 1932 to form Auto Union. This company resumed after the war and was bought by Daimler-Benz in 1959 but, due to the diminishing popularity of its two-stroke products, it was soon offloaded to the Volkswagen Group. Wolfsburg promptly relaunched the historic Audi firm, its first car being a reworked DKW advertised simply as the Audi. Just 32 examples were sold in 1965; a far cry from the 160,000 or so premium cars today.


Lamborghini 400GT

Mazda 110S

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Honda S800: Honda had already achieved genuine success in this land by the time its first car arrived in January 1967; its excellent motorcycles had been available here since 1961. Honda’s first four-wheeled machine to be imported was the S800 sports car, which undercut Britain’s own Triumph Spitfire on price. The Japanese firm followed this up with a series of economical two-door saloons, before its big break came with the original Civic in 1973.


Datsun 1600: Datsun made a noisy arrival in 1968, starting by selling its four-door 1600 saloon (the 510-series Bluebird) from a building shared with German firm NSU in the Sussex port of Shoreham. A 1600 estate and a 1300 saloon were added soon after. Expansion was rapid: there were 285 dealers on board by 1974. The brand name was changed to that of parent firm Nissan in 1983 at great expense.


Jeep CJ


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Lada 1200: The Cold War may still have been freezing, but that didn’t stop Brits from seeing the value of the Soviet Union’s Moskvich cars. There were 268 dealers by 1973, and in May 1974 importer Satra introduced Lada saloon and estate models, badging the duo as the 1200. Things went downhill from there, however, with the awful Samara ringing the death knell for Lada on these shores in 1997.

Colt Lancer: Mitsubishi decided to use the Colt brand name in Britain, supposedly to avoid the public making a negative connection with the firm’s well-known aeronautical role in the Second World War. Its first models were the Lancer, a rival to the Ford Escort, and the Galant, a fighter of the Cortina. The Colt name was dropped in favour of Mitsubishi in 1980.


Subaru 1600 and 1800


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Suzuki SC100: The tiny Suzuki outfit (which started as a maker of looms) shipped some cars from Hamamatsu to the UK for evaluation in 1974 but didn’t put any on sale for another five years. Its first offering was the truly miniature SC100 coupé, better known here as the Whizzkid. Next was something very different: the LJ baby 4x4, the predecessor of today’s Jimny.


Dacia Denem

Hyundai Pony: With Japanese cars taking a very large proportion of business, so came the arrival of those from South Korea, a country rocketing up the world order. Hyundai was the vanguard, offering its second-generation Pony from the spring of 1982. Despite its relatively short history, it now has a major stake in the new-car market and can even command premium prices.


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Seat Ibiza: In 1982, Spain’s state-owned car manufacturer acrimoniously split from Fiat, with which its foundation and 32-year history was inextricably linked. It therefore had to produce a car of its own accord. The result, the Ibiza, achieved mild success before Seat was bought by the Volkswagen Group in 1986. It then endured a long period of struggle but lately has seemingly entered a golden era, and recently launched a sibling brand for performance cars.


Lexus LS: Toyota revealed to the world its luxury division, Lexus, in 1989, and it wasn’t long before its flagship LS saloon went on sale in Britain. Such was the refinement yet relative affordability of this maiden effort that it was genuinely revolutionary. Things didn’t progress quite so promisingly from there until sales soared in recent years, thanks to Lexus taking an early lead in hybrid technology.


Kia Pride: Kia entered our world with the Pride hatchback, a rebadged version of the Ford Festiva, a budget model sold in Asia and the Americas. The South Korean company went bankrupt as a result of the Asian financial crisis in 1997. Compatriot firm Hyundai outbid Ford to acquire it, and Kia has since grown in stature as the pair have worked co-operatively in an assault on the middle market.

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Ssangyong Musso: South Korean 4x4 specialist Ssangyong’s history stretches back to 1954, although it only took its current name in 1986. It then made a soft entry into the UK by purchasing the Panther sports car company before launching under its own name with the Musso SUV, developed with help from Mercedes-Benz. Since then, it has been owned by Daewoo, SAIC and now Mahindra, but it’s still a relative unknown to the general public.


Daewoo Nexia and Espero


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Smart City Coupé: The origins of Smart stretch back to 1982, when a stylish two-seat city car was dreamed up by the CEO of Swiss watchmaker Swatch. A deal for production was signed with Volkswagen in 1991, but it started having doubts and so terminated the contract in 1993. Swatch then signed up with Daimler, which brought the Smart City Coupé to market in 1998. LHD models were sold in the UK from October 2000, before RHD cars arrived 12 months later.


Tesla Roadster

Infiniti G37, EX and FX: Despite being launched in the same year as Lexus, 1989, Nissan’s luxury marque didn’t arrive in the UK until September 2009, when the first Infiniti dealership was opened in Reading. It arrived with a full line-up: the G37 saloon, coupé and cabriolet alongside a pair of SUVs, the EX and FX. Latterly, big hopes were placed on the Mercedes A-Class-based Q30 family hatchback, but this flopped, leading Infiniti to pull out of Europe last year.


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DS 3


Cupra Ateca


Polestar 1: Whether or not Polestar has just become the first Chinese brand present here depends on both your view of modern MG and whether you look more to Polestar’s headquarters in Gothenburg or factory in Luqiao. The brand has an odd heritage, starting as a Swedish Touring Car Championship team, being bought by Volvo and then transformed into a maker of luxury electrified cars by Geely of China.


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18 April 2020

I'm only 71 and was brought up in Rural Scotland.Towns had electricity but in the country they did not! Gas lamps were used, this was in the 50's and into the early 60's.So there! My father liked odd cars, he had a Citroen, cousins had Lancia, Honda S600.The fastest car in town was the police Jaguar Mk V.

18 April 2020

FWIW, albeit probably not very much but I can't get out more at the moment, the Spanish designed off an older FIAT platform and built SEAT 133 was sold in the UK as a FIAT 133 from mid 1975.

19 April 2020
Interesting that the first imported car was a Panhard. It made the gorgeously styled 24 BT / CT in the sixties before it was absorbed into Citroen. If only the DS brand took inspiration from Panhard ...

19 April 2020

The Kia Pride was based on the Mazda 121, surely, with whitewall tyres to differentiate. Most of the others from the 1960's on I remember. Datsun dealers appeared in the 70's as did Toyota, Honda and Subaru. Most of these were small dealerships, in Scotland at any rate, and you had to search for them if you wanted to test drive any new models. There were loads of Subaru models running around near where I stayed, because the local dealer had a ready market among the farming community or people who needed to get about in a hard winter. 

19 April 2020

The text tells that Lancia was the first Italian car to reach our shore

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