British-built electric cars - the UK's EV icons past and present

  • Electric cars
  • Feb 25, 2021

With British icons like Jaguar gearing up to be fully electric, it’s time to check in on the British brands amongst the growing pack of electric cars on the market.

We take a look at British-made electric cars - celebrating the distinctly British icons that have entered the electric age, and uncovering the EVs that can really claim to be 'Made in Britain'.

Silent Shadow: An electric Roller

By the end of the year Rolls Royce will unveil an all-electric Roller. While it is not yet fully clear what form the Silent Shadow will take, it’s expected to draw heavily on BMW’s iX – a large SUV also coming on the market in the UK this year.

The first electric Rolls-Royce, the 2011 Phantom VII
The first electric Rolls-Royce, the 2011 Phantom VII

Parent company, BMW, last year applied for a trademark for ‘Silent Shadow’, and since many Rolls-Royce models have ‘Shadow’ in their name, the Roller conclusion was not too hard to draw.

Rolls-Royce actually dabbled in all-electric models back in 2011 with its Phantom VII body but it never made it to production. That car was called the Rolls-Royce 102EX, it was powered by a pair of electric motors and it raced to 62 mph in 8 seconds.

To achieve that it had the largest battery pack ever fitted into a passenger car - 71 kWh (for reference 64kWh is pretty common size today). It was ahead of its time with relatively fast charging too, and could replenish the battery fully in around 8 hours.

While Rolls-Royce is busy putting the first truly Silent Shadow into reality, there's already a British company building and selling electric Rolls-Royces, rebuilt from the ground up in Silverstone.

Lunaz is a British automotive engineering company that has designed and developed an electric powertrain to breathe new life into classic cars. It has brought a number of celebrated classics back to life, including a 1961 eight-seat Rolls-Royce Phantom V, Rolls Royce Cloud and a 1953 Jaguar XK120. In the ultimate example of upcycling, Lunaz source cars that are no longer functional and create beautiful, clean and usable electric classic cars.

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Newtown, Wales is the home to a similar upcycler,  Electric Classic Cars, which converts classic cars to 100% electric and sells kits so you can convert your own classic car. It has worked on vehicles including the Range Rover Classic, Ferrari 308 and BMW CSi.

Electric Classic Cars in Newtown, Wales can put electric power behind the petrol cap of any classic car

If you are looking for a more affordable electric car, you might be interested in an equally British icon...

She's electric: the unforgettable Electric Mini

About as far as you can imagine from the opulent but thirsty Roller, the Mini came about as a smaller and more fuel efficient response to the price hikes of the Suez Crisis. The Mini is timeless and classless - equally at home outside a suburban family house as the London pad of the pop stars of the day.

It is fitting then that the Mini Electric came out £600 cheaper than the equivalent Mini Cooper S with an automatic gearbox. That doesn’t happen often with an EV, as you normally expect to make savings after you start driving not before! The Mini's official range (WLTP) is 145 miles, though you may actually get under 100 miles from a full charge in the winter, as EV range falls during the coldest months.

Sixty years ago the Mini revolutionised small car motoring and became a symbol of the swinging sixties. The Mini Electric is built at the same Oxford factory. The electric Mini has various references to it’s UK roots - from the tail-light union jack to the, slightly more subtle, UK three-pin plug design on its hubcaps.

She's electric: The new Mini Electric has been launched and it will cost a shade under £25,000
Cool Britannia: The Mini Electric - spot the British references?

The Mini Electric is powered by a 184 horsepower (135kW) motor, which draws its charge from a 32.6kWh high-voltage lithium ion battery arranged in 12 modules.

On a fast charger (50KW direct current) the electric Mini can achieve 80 per cent of its charge in just 35 minutes, says Mini. That's two-and-a-half hours on a standard home electric car wall charger. Plug in to a domestic socket for a slower full charge while you sleep (ready in around 12 hours). Despite the heavy batteries, it weighs only 145kg more than a petrol version.

Mini Electric or hybrid? Typical savings stack up for the electric, especially at higher mileages

The Oxford plant employs 4,500 people, building 223,000 new cars a year, of which 80 per cent are exported. As soon as the Mini EV leaves these shores it goes by the rather inconspicuous name ‘Mini Cooper SE’.

Turning over a Nissan Leaf

It may not be the first thought in a list of British electric institutions, but the Leaf is an institution in the world of EVs and it is British built. The Nissan Leaf is built in Sunderland with some imported battery cells and has been the best-selling electric car in Europe.

The British-built Nissan Leaf

Batteries for the largest 62kWh version of the Leaf are currently produced in the US. But Nissan plans to bring these onshore, to produce them as they do the smaller 40kWh units at Sunderland by Chinese firm Envision Group.

Nissan is keen to avoid incurring tariffs on the 70% of Leaf models which are exported out of the UK under the terms of the new EU trade deal. The deal states that at least 55% of a vehicle's material value must come from the UK or EU to avoid penalties.

The first Nissan Leaf, the Mk1, was a true electric car pioneer. The 2020 model built on this with an improved range, a better price and new tech designed to help get the most from its electric drive system.

Nissan always insist on capitals for its flagship EV - LEAF  stands for Leading, Environmentally Friendly, Affordable, Family Car. Which just about sums it up. Gill Nowell, EV advocate and founding member of the EV Association of England talks about how she straight for a Leaf when she started driving electric.

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Exciting plans afoot at Jaguar

Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), is owned by the Indian Tata Motors group, but produces electric cars at two sites in the UK. It is committed to become a net-zero-carbon business by 2039. By the end of 2029, every Jaguar and Land Rover model will be offered with an electric-only version, with Jaguar becoming an electric-only luxury brand from 2025 onwards.

Jaguar will continue its push upmarket, heading towards Bentley’s territory, and staying clear of the SUV segment. Expect some sporty cars. The I-Pace will, according to insiders, continue to be built on its unique platform in Austria and have a “normal lifespan”.

Production will continue at all three of its three British plants, but because it has dropped plans to build an electric version of its XJ saloon, the Castle Bromwich plant will eventually stop making cars. New CEO Bolloré saying: “First we will continue production of our existing nameplates built there to the end of their lifecycle. Then we will explore opportunities to refurbish the plant, which could benefit from the consolidation of businesses scattered across the Midlands.”

Jaguar Land Rover announced investment into a battery site at Hams Hall last year to produce hybrid and pure-electric systems for its cars. Solihull will be used to build Land Rovers on the MLA platform and Jaguar models on the new BEV platform.

An electric Land Rover is awaited

A full electric Range Rover, nicknamed the ‘Road Rover’, is due in 2024. Land Rover will launch six EV variants within the next five years, one of them the first all-electric Land Rover, due in 2024. Land Rover is set to retain its off-road ethos.

Bentley won't rush in

Crewe-based Bentley will please its clientele “desperate for a luxury electric product”, confirming that by 2030 the marque’s entire lineup will be electric. It’ll have to be a quick turnaround though, with the car maker not even expecting its first electric effort before 2025. Bentley can look to sister-brands Audi and VW for electric drivetrain tech - but expect an electric Bentley with a distinct British character.

Meanwhile Lotus goes hyper-electric

The extraordinary Lotus Evija (pronounced “eh-vai-ya”) definitely lives up to the name, meaning "the first in existence”. It is the firm’s first pure-electric production car and its most extreme car ever. The cost is an eye-watering £1.7 million. For that price tag you’ll get a car built by hand and tested around the famous test track at the factory in Hethel, Norfolk.

Lotus Cars was founded and owned for many years by Colin Chapman. It is currently owned by Chinese multinational Geely.

Lotus' Evija Hypercar drives fast and charges faster

Lotus says its 1,973bhp and 1,254 lb ft of torque are good for a 0-62mph time of under three seconds and a top speed of 200mph. The mid-mounted battery pack, developed by the Williams Formula 1 team officially does 250 miles on a full charge, though if the driver gets anywhere near the top speed don’t expect to drive that far. However, Lotus owners won’t be waiting long at the pump -  the Evija is capable of charging speeds of up to 800kW – more than twice the power of even the newest generation of ultra-fast (350kW) public chargers being rolled out in the UK. In theory the Evija could recharge from flat in under ten minutes.

An electric sports car bearing a more attainable price tag will be revealed towards the end of 2022.

Delivery is going electric

Just down the road from Mini, the English electric van manufacturer and vehicle developer Arrival has moved into a new plant in Bicester built on what they call a ‘skateboard’ platform.

Arrival was founded in 2015 and has production facilities and research and development centres in the USA, Germany, Tel Aviv, Russia and Great Britain. This new factory in Oxfordshire will deliver the electric delivery vans from UPS’ bulk order.

UPS has ordered 10,000 electric vans from Arrival

The US logistics company had recently ordered 10,000 electric vans from Arrival, with an option for a further 10,000 electric transporters. That is said to be worth more than $440 million.

Arrival can’t fulfill the order from the UK, but plans to open “micro-factories” near Los Angeles and New York to produce the vehicles for North America there. But the plan is to assemble all European vans in the UK.

Hyundai-Kia are investors with an eye on its ride-hailing or shuttle vehicles.

The British battery is the backbone

There’s no doubt that the collective fate of British built electric cars lies very much in the hands of battery makers. In five years' time, the EU trade deal will see any car more than 40% 'non-British' subject to tariffs. This makes British-built batteries even more important.

Step in BritishVolt. Their planned 2.7-million-square-feet plant in the North-East of England will aim towards an annual battery production capacity of up to 35GWh, putting it on par with Tesla's Gigafactory in Nevada, US. It will be one of the largest industrial investments in British history.

The move is intended to make Britishvolt a global leader in producing high-performance lithium ion batteries, with the firm claiming it will “become one of the largest industrial investments in British history”. It’s planned to open with an annual output of 10GWh – enough for 130,000 EVs – and hit 30GWh by 2027, eventually creating up to 4000 jobs.

Coventry’s Hyperbat is another battery producer to watch. Hyperbat is a joint venture by Williams, the engineering arm of the Formula One racing team, and Unipart. They’ve invested in bringing their electric technology from research phase to scalable production.

The UK currently exports all its end-of-life batteries. As gigafactories start producing, the UK needs to establish commercial scale recycling for automotive lithium ion batteries, recycling as much as 80% of battery materials by 2035. Read more about the impact of EVs in our article: How green is your electric car?.