Distinctly British icons
Some iconic designs really embody a sense of Britishness. Black cabs, red buses, the miniskirt and the Spitfire aircraft are all feats of craftsmanship and design that shout Britain. We’ve put together these and a few more famous British designs that you’re sure to know and love.
Designed by Sir Alec Issigonis and manufactured by the British Motor Corporation from 1959, the small, affordable Mini quickly achieved widespread popularity. Today it’s an icon of 1960s Britain, partly thanks to its starring role in the film, The Italian Job, where three Minis in the colours of the Union Flag were the loveable crooks’ choice of getaway vehicle.
Take a retro Mini tour of London
There are few vehicles as iconic as the London black cab, or Hackney Carriage. While a number of different vehicles have filled the role over the decades, the classic cab is the Austin FX4.
London cabbies are required to memorise a huge number of London routes within a six mile radius of Charing Cross – that’s around 25,000 streets and 20,000 places of interest, so it’s no mean feat. Since 1906, black cabs have also been legally required to have a very small turning circle to help them negotiate the tiny roundabout at the famous Savoy Hotel!
Today Burberry is an internationally recognised fashion house, but its origins back in the late 19th century were firmly tied to one iconic design, and a clever invention. In 1879, Thomas Burberry invented gabardine, a tough, water-resistant fabric, which attracted the interest of the British Army.
Burberry began to make a bulk order of officers’ coats, known as trench coats, and the brand’s signature design was born. If you fancy picking up some Burberry fashions yourself, stop by their luxury flagship store on London’s Regent Street.
Britain’s bright red telephone boxes are a well-known design icon, and they were created in 1920 for the Post Office by Giles Gilbert Scott. Scott was famous for having designed Liverpool Cathedral, a towering structure that combined Gothic style with an imposing modern look, and later on, he worked on London’s enormous Battersea Power Station.
The red colour of the telephone boxes was not universally loved at first, and a number of regions painted their boxes grey – a far more respectable colour, it was thought.
Find out more about the red telephone box
Manufactured between 1961 and 1974, the Jaguar E-Type became the iconic British sports car of the 1960s, with racing driver Enzo Ferrari even calling it “the most beautiful car ever made”.
If you want to see some in the flesh, head to the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu. If you want to see some on the racetrack, get along to the Goodwood Revival in Sussex and take your position beside the track!
Find out more about the Goodwood Revival
Mary Quant’s head-turning new design hit London’s streets in 1964, fresh from Quant’s own shop in the then hyper-fashionable Kings Road, Chelsea. The new look caused quite a stir, with hemlines shifting from knee level to halfway up the thigh, and there was some controversy about whether the new garment was appropriate dress for young ladies. The miniskirt quickly became a fashion icon synonymous with 1960s London and Carnaby Street, the coolest shopping street in town.
Find out more about Carnaby Street
In the latter half of the 1970s, Punk Rock exploded onto the British music scene and brought with it a whole raft of now iconic looks. Malcolm McLaren’s boutique, known as ‘SEX’, was one early outlet for designer Vivienne Westwood whose definitive designs – bondage gear, safety pins, spiked dog collars and razor blades – became the Punk Rock uniform. Today Vivienne Westwood is one of the world’s leading designers, and you’ll find her shops in a number of British cities.
Learn more about Punk at the British Music Experience
Designed by London Transport, the big, red Routemaster bus entered service in 1956 and quickly became a London icon. Its most famous feature was an open platform which let passengers jump on or off at any point on the route.
The last original Routemasters were retired in 2005, though two heritage routes (London buses numbers 9 and 15) still feature the original vehicles. The popularity of the original bus led to a new upgraded version being designed, and this went into service in 2012.
Find out more at the London Transport Museum
Looking at the London Tube map, you’d never know that the tube lines themselves are rather a confusing mish-mash of different levels and routes. For that we have Harry Beck to thank, the man who designed the first diagrammatic map of the London Underground.
His simplified design based on a circuit diagram became an instant classic and today’s Tube map evolved from his original idea: to strip the map down to basics to ensure a user-friendly experience.
Find out more about the Tube Map
The Spitfire, or Supermarine Spitfire to give it its full name, was one of Britain’s most effective aircraft during World War 2. Designed by R. J. Mitchell, and developed by Joe Smith, it played a key role in the Battle of Britain and came to be a symbol of British military prowess.
Thanks to its clever design, particularly its elliptical wing shape, it was faster and more manoeuvrable then other contemporary fighters, and it became the main aircraft of RAF Fighter Command for years after the war.
See a Spitfire at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum