Road runners


For Pete Olson, the 1960s and ’70s bring memories of the automobiles of the times, and what today seems like boat-sized Pontiacs and Cadillacs. Back then, there was nothing quite like pulling up to an intersection in a tiny British vehicle.

“Ever since college, I’ve been interested in small British cars,” says Olson, who says he loved the handling and relatively minuscule stature of the vehicles. “I’ve been buying and selling them ever since.”

Much has changed since the ’70s — American cars have gotten smaller, and most British auto manufacturers have closed shop or been overtaken by larger companies. Still, English car fans remain.

Since 1984, many have gathered annually for Atlanta British Motorcar Day. The event has changed dates and locations over the years, moving from Grant Park to Chateau Elan to Mount Berry, and then downtown Roswell.

This year’s edition will be a feature in the Peachtree Corners Festival on June 9-10 with about 200 cars on display, including Olson’s.

“It’s not a judged show, it’s all about enjoying the day and swapping stories,” says Olson, a Roswell resident and owner of an adhesive company. “This is the one time a year when all the different car clubs get together to hang out and promote British cars.”

Olson owns five classics. His collection ranges from a 1989 baby red Caterham 7 to a 1915 Triumph Model H motorcycle with wicker sidecar.

Olson also adores his 1932 three-wheeled Morgan Super Sport Tryke, in part because it’s a joy to drive, and also because its novelty impresses onlookers. The Morgan automobile has an 1,100-cubic-centimeter engine. Many motorcycles on the road today sport larger motors.

In an age of international conglomerates, Morgan Motor Company has been a family-owned car company since 1909.

British roads are historically more narrow than America’s, thus the cars were built much smaller 60-plus years ago, Olson notes.

“The handling, the cornering and the style was completely different from an American car,” he says. “Back in the day, the typically large American cars couldn’t corner, couldn’t handle. British cars were also affordable. It was all about the weight-to-power ratio. For the size, English cars could out-corner and outrun almost any American car. They were absolutely fun to drive.”

Even though British makes have mostly fallen victim to consolidation and globalization, their influence remains. The modern Mini Cooper, now produced by BMW, is one of the shortest cars on U.S. roads today. The Mazda Miata Roadster was no doubt influenced by the small MG sports cars that were the envy of wannabe hipsters a few decades ago.

Of course, not every British car is a diminutive novelty. Many of the country’s luxury brands — Jaguar, Aston Martin, Lotus, Rolls-Royce and Land Rover — still resonate with Americans. And there are local enthusiast clubs for nearly every make.

Dave Kirkman, of Cumming, judges classic cars shows around the region and has amassed an Austin Healey and Aston Martin in his four-car collection. A favorite is an open two-seater 1969 Jaguar Series II E type that Kirkman and his wife have owned for 20 years.

“I’ve been involved in cars for over 50 years,” says Kirkman, 80, adding that British car collectors tend to skew older in age.

Kirkman jokes that in his younger years, he was lured to unique model brands “from the side, usually by opening one of the doors.”

The real story dates back to 1950s, when he attended a car race and was allowed to sit in a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL, which sported gull-wing doors that opened and closed by rising up from a hinge in the ceiling. It wasn’t a British car, but Kirkman was hooked nonetheless.

“I think that was the seed of destruction,” he muses.

Most British car enthusiast trace their interests back to a similar experience. And Atlanta British Motorcar Day is a way to reminisce and revel in a beloved pastime.

“I owned an Austin-Healey in college,” Kirkman says. “It got me through my undergraduate days, plus 15 girlfriends, a broken engagement and graduate school.”

insider Tips

Car enthusiast and Atlanta Journal-Constitution senior editor Todd Duncan says there is no one place to see everything online or at events. The car collectors’ community has hundreds of factions based on tastes, he says. Duncan features vintage automobiles and collectors on the AJC’s “Atlanta’s Classic Cars” webpage,

For a good laugh and to learn more about automobiles across the globe, see “The Grand Tour,” a British show and successor to “Top Gear,” produced by Amazon. The show can be watched on Amazon Prime.

Upcoming car shows

Classic Motorsports Mitty. Races, car shows, test drives and more. April 27-29. Road Atlanta. 5300 Winder Highway, Braselton.

Caffeine and Octane. The car show draws more than 2,000 vehicles of all makes and models to the grounds of Perimeter Mall on the first Sunday of the month. 4400 Ashford Dunwoody Road, Dunwoody.

Atlanta British Motorcar Day. Fourteen British car clubs present a show of only authentic vehicles. No replicas or kit cars permitted. Peachtree Corners Festival. June 9-10. 6236 Crooked Road, Peachtree Corners.

Atlanta British Car Fayre. More than 400 British vehicles will be on display. Sept. 8. Downtown Norcross.

Car clubs and events

Old Ride

Southeast Wheels Events

Hemmings: The World's Largest Car Collector Marketplace

Morgan Owners Group South

Austin-Healey Club of America

Atlanta Jaguar Society