Essay : Counterfactual BMC
What would have happened had Issigonis not returned to BMC in 1955, leaving the company with a conventionally engineered range of cars styled by Pininfarina?
Robert Leitch ponders this very question and comes to some very interesting conclusions…
BMC’s alternative ‘60s
OUR scenario. In 1955, Leonard Lord tries to recruit Alec Issigonis back from Alvis, but without success. Issigonis is determined to oversee the TA350’s development into a production car, confident that it will have as big an impact on the luxury sector as his Minor had on the small-car market. His instincts prove correct. The fast, comfortable, and efficient new car, combining leading-edge technology with restrained British style and craftsmanship is a runaway success. By the early 1960s Parkes père et fils are well on the way to shaping Alvis into a highly regarded automotive consultancy with Issigonis as its star player. Lord then attempts a reconciliation with Gerald Palmer, but he is not to be enticed away from his well-remunerated and secure post at Vauxhall.
Without a high-profile designer, how would BMC have approached the 1960s?
BMC weathered the late ‘50s well, much of the credit due to the wide range of cars powered by the efficient A-series engine, and a ruthless cutting back of investment in new products. The expectation that in difficult times customers would seek the comfort of the familiar was proved correct. The A35’s modest 1959 facelift – horizontal grille, smoothed out sides, vestigial fins and an 850cc economy model – revived sales without encroaching into the territory of the recently introduced Austin A40 Farina. The decade-old Minor’s sales strengthened, outselling the A35 and A40 combined.
Farina’s Oxford and Cambridge were steady earners, and for 1962 BMC repeated the formula with the Cowley-built Austin Stratford and Morris Woodstock, which bridged the gap between the A40 and Oxford / Cambridge, replacing the Morris Minor and Wolseley 1500/Riley One Point Five. The familiar Austin chassis design, coil springs and double wishbones at the front and a leaf sprung live axle saw yet another outing. 1098cc A-Series and 1489cc B-series engines provided the power, and the Pininfarina saloon bodywork avoided the fin and chrome excesses of the larger cars to look very much like a scaled-down Peugeot 404.
Dick Burzi and Sid Goble worked their magic to produce Wolseley and Riley variants, and a particularly elegant two-door MG coupe. In 1964 the appeal of the cars was greatly improved by the introduction of the E-series engine, a short-stroke pushrod unit in 1300 and 1600cc capacities, far lighter and cheaper to build than the B-Series. The new engine appeared to take more inspiration from Ford’s Kent unit than its own stablemates, but with its five-bearing bottom end and Weslake developed head was considered superior in both robustness and efficiency to Ford’s offering.
The core of the range was technically uninspiring, but BMC’s sales heartland, middle-class owner-drivers remained loyal, and healthy profits allowed BMC to take full control of The Pressed Steel Company by 1964. The steady profitability of the conservatively developed volume products also brought more visible benefits.
A 2.5 litre V6 derivative of the E-Series transformed the MGB and MGB GT. The post-Suez decision to postpone replacement of the Austin A95 / A105 was fortuitous as the eventual BMC big car range could be designed with the Rover and Triumph 2000s available as a benchmark. The Wolseley 6/100 and Riley Monaco, with 2.0 and 2.5 litre V6 power and independent rear suspension, were able to match the best qualities of their Solihull and Canley rivals, while largely avoiding their weaknesses.
Best of all, although a bit player in the grand scheme, was the ADO30 Austin Healey Silverstone, a stylish grand tourer which clothed a shortened version of the big car’s platform in a developed version of Manzu, Werner and Conrad’s prize-winning Firrere design. Offered as a coupe and convertible, and made at Abingdon in numbers which hopelessly underestimated demand, the new incarnation of the Big Healey became an instant classic.
And yet, by the end of 1966, the weaknesses in BMC’s conservative strategy were starting to show. The Pressed Steel purchase had precipitated the merger of Leyland / Triumph and Rover, who had now had a sizeable pressing facility on Merseyside which ended their dependence on BMC as a supplier. As a result of this, and stagnant sales, Pressed Steel found itself with huge excess capacity, and had gone from being a major source of revenue to a financial burden. In the former British colonies, hitherto unknown Japanese manufacturers were mounting an ever-stronger challenge to the old providers of the Empire. Even at home, a better-travelled, cosmopolitan, individualistic middle class was enticed not by shiny grilles, wooden dashboards and moribund nameplates, but by the products of France, Italy, Germany and Sweden.
The new product cupboard was looking worryingly bare. The desperately needed Pininfarina-designed Oxford / Cambridge replacement was still a year away from launch, a neat but visually unremarkable car of similar length to its predecessor, but considerably wider. Coil-sprung five-link rear suspension and a 2 litre OHC development of the B-Series engine would ensure that dynamically it was a huge advance on the outgoing model, and Peugeot would be enraged at the similarity of the BMC car to the design Pininfarina had provided them for its 504.
The new mid-sized car was still in the early stages of design – in essence a re-skinned Stratford / Woodstock with coil-spring rear suspension and an updated E-Series engine with an alloy sohc cylinder head. It would not go on sale until 1969 and in the boardroom, fears were expressed that however good it was, the new car would struggle to compete against forthcoming big-budget rivals from Ford, Vauxhall and Chrysler.
A third facelift for the A40 had done nothing to lift sales. For some years it had been a poor third to the Ford Anglia and Vauxhall Viva, and it was now being outsold even by the troubled Hillman Imp. The advanced chassis design and appealing looks of the second generation Viva had been a shock to the system – although most of the engineering was the work of Opel, it was already known at Longbridge as “Palmer’s Revenge”. The Ford men BMC had recently recruited were all too ready to talk of the Anglia replacement, less than a year away and set to make a huge impact on the sector. Among BMC’s directors and product planners there was no consensus as to what had to be done. Building a conventional small car in the Ford or Vauxhall mould seemed ever more a vain exercise, a belated “me-too” response to competing products which did the same job, but were built cheaper and sold harder.
There was a modest diversion from this gloomy prognosis in the shape of the car of the moment, the radical Triumph TX. The British car industry had been buzzing with rumours about the Issigonis-designed front wheel drive newcomer for years. The Alvis designer’s spats with Harry Webster and Giovanni Michelotti were already legendary, and the effectiveness of the advanced Moulton interconnected fluid suspension on a small, light car was widely questioned. The prototypes had been awkwardly boxy, but in the production model, Michelotti had made a fine job against difficult odds. What was more, all who drove the little Triumph were agreed that its ride and handling were far in advance of any competitor, and were demonstrated best in the improbably quick Spitfire-engined TX1300 Sprint.
Such praise was rarely heaped on BMC’s products by 1966. The more conservative BMC hands took comfort that the little Triumph could surely never make money, with its complicated transmission and suspension, and the unprecedented price Leyland-Triumph had paid Alvis for Issigonis’ exclusive (meaning not available to BMC) services.
And yet for every blinkered BMC traditionalist who dismissed the small car from Canley as a piece of self-destructive folly, there were two or three who looked longingly not just to Coventry, but to the other side of the English Channel. Those same eyes then focused on their own road ahead, and saw the slowly winding path to oblivion.