People : Harris Mann
Classic Car Weekly magazine features editor, and Allegro and Princess owner Richard Gunn talks to Harris Mann about his life, career, and confesses that not even he liked the Quartic wheel…
AS A classic motoring journalist, I guess I lead a pretty privileged life. I get paid money to write about a subject that fascinates me, and that I’d be quite prepared to do for free if people didn’t insist on constantly paying me for my words. Every so often, dealers or owners ring me up and plead with me to come out and drive their Ferraris, Rolls-Royces or Aston Martins and the like, something I usually begrudgingly agree to. And I’ve met some of the true stars of motoring, people like Sir Stirling Moss, Sir Jack Brabham, David Coulthard and Damon Hill to name but a few, plus many other celebrities from all walks of life. There are worse ways to earn a living.
However, there are times when even a cynical old hack like myself can be overawed by the sheer magnitude of a situation. One such moment happened earlier this year. On an otherwise dull and ordinary Monday afternoon, the phone rang, and the voice at the other end announced itself as Harris Mann…
There can be few British Leyland fans who don’t know who Harris Mann is. In fact, there can be few British car enthusiasts of any persuasion who don’t know the name. As BL’s controversial chief designer during the Seventies and early-Eighties, Harris Mann was responsible for introducing three very distinctive shapes into everyday motoring. Most dramatic were his two wedge-shaped wonders, the Princess and the Triumph TR7. But most famous – or perhaps I should say notorious – of all was the Austin Allegro.
Much has been written in the past on the subject of Harris Mann and the cars he came up with in the Seventies. Little of it has been that complimentary though. Journalists looking for an easy target to make fun of were handed an easy target by British Leyland with the Allegro and the Princess. The cars might as well have come out from Longbridge with ‘Kick me’ stickers glued onto their boots. Despite the fact that I own both cars myself – or then again, perhaps because I do – as a motoring writer, I’ve been responsible for casting a few poison-tipped arrows in their general direction. Most of my jibes have at least been, at heart, good-natured though. But there have been a lot of other articles that have just gone straight for the jugular.
There are two sides to every story though. To many people, Harris Mann is on a par with Guigiaro, Bertone or Pininfarina. An always-adventurous designer responsible for some of the most radical stylings ever to appear in Britain, he’s never received the recognition many feel he deserves. That isn’t so much to do with a lack of talent as a lack of geography. If Harris had been born in Italy or France, then we’d probably have seen extraordinary Ferraris, stunning Maseratis and awesomely quirky Citroens bearing his touches. And he would definitely have done the Lancia Stratos. Instead though, he was born in London, and ended up working for British Leyland during its committee-led nadir of the Seventies. It was a set of circumstances would have been enough to doom any stylist, however innovative and talented.
Yet all designers strive to design something memorable, something instantly recognisable and individualistic. And in the case of Harris Mann, he did three in quick succession. That what eventually emerged caused controversy is a sign that he tried to do something to stand out from the crowd. The new and radical always divides opinion.
It’s also important to point out too that, in the case of the Allegro, what Harris Mann actually designed, and what British Leyland actually built were two completely different things. Once the production engineers were let loose to wreak standardisation and cost-cutting vengeance on the Allegro, all that remained of Harris’s original plans was mere caricature. He was allowed a freer hand with the Princess and TR7, and as a result came up with two of the most distinctively-styled cars ever to emerge from a mainstream British car company. The dramatic wedge shapes were totally of their era. That the cars themselves later became to be regarded in an unfavourable light was largely the result of British Leyland’s financial crisis, appalling quality control record, atrocious industrial relations, laughable attitude towards marketing and inherent lack of managerial ability. British Leyland wouldn’t even have been able to find a brewery, let alone organise anything approaching a bloody good time in one. When the Princess first appeared, the media loved the shape, citing it as “futuristic”. By comparison, its nearest rival – the Ford Granada – looked boring and dated. And however much traditionalists scoff at the TR7’s appearance, the cold hard fact still remains that it was the biggest selling of all TR models, shifting 112,368 (114,865 if you include the TR8) in just six years.
There’s also far more to Harris Mann than just British Leyland. He’s had a long and varied career within the automotive industry, and is still very active today as a freelance designer, working with some of the biggest firms around, and currently involved in some very exciting projects.
That’s clarified the Why question. To answer the question of How, who better to explain than Harris Mann himself?
The history of the man called Mann started in London, in April 1938. As far back as he can remember, there was an interest in cars, and when the opportunity presented itself, he went to engineering school. “It was a great help in a lot of ways,” he recalls. “That gave me a very good practical understanding of things.” He was able to put this understanding into practice when he got an apprenticeship with the coach and bus firm of Duple soon afterwards, who sent him for training in motor body engineering.
“After I’d finished the apprenticeship in London – it was a draughtsman role – I looked around for something new. However, it was difficult to get into the car industry in those days, there weren’t the opportunities there are today. So, I emigrated to the States, towards the end of the Fifties, to look for work. But it was the wrong time when I got there. There were problems in the steel industry.”
Harris stayed in America for just six months, working for the Raymond Loewy Company, although his personal contact with the legendary designer himself was limited. “I was introduced to him, but that was about it,” he remembers. “I was just part of a team, doing things like designing tread patterns and sidewalls for tyres. Then the work dried up. I came back to Britain and got nobbled for the army. It was meant to be two year’s national service, but I got stung for another six years due to a crisis in Germany.”
After demob, Harris went back to Duple, but didn’t appreciate still being regarded as an apprentice. He was soon at Commer at Luton as a draughtsman/design engineer on commercial vehicles. “That didn’t last very long, I had nine months at Commer. Then I saw an advert for a job at Ford for a feasibility engineer. I got that job and got into the design studios there. This would have been around 1962.”
Ford during the Sixties must have been a great time for a young designer keen to learn more and show his own worth. It was a golden era for the company, when it expanded from Fifties austerity and a limited model line-up, to become arguably the prime mover in the British car industry, with a varied range of products.
“I did about nine months in the feasibility area, then I presented the Head of Styling with a portfolio of my own stuff,” says Harris. “I was breeding off a lot of Americans at the time, and they gave me an insight into what they were doing.”
The portfolio was impressive enough to land Harris a “proper” job in the styling studios at Averley and Dunton. In total, he was at Ford for five years, working on Escorts, Capris (“I did a reasonable bit on the Capri,” he points out), D-series trucks and some bus projects that Ford was contemplating at the time.
His next move took him to the Midlands and eventual national prominence. “The person I worked for, Roy Haynes, secured a job with the British Motor Corporation to set up a studio in Oxford. And he asked me to go with him. I felt it would be a bit more of a step up a level. And so I went to Oxford, and the Cowley plant.”
At the end of the Sixties, BMC was still in the Issigonis era. However, Sir Alec hardly went out of his way to welcome the new young gun on the team. “He had a big influence. But Issigonis wouldn’t talk to me because I didn’t have an engineering degree.”
The first major project for the Haynes and Mann partnership was ADO28, instigated just months after BMC and Leyland Motors (Rover and Triumph) merged to become British Leyland. The car that would eventually become better known as the Marina was intended primarily as an Escort/Cortina competitor. It represented the first part of an overall plan Roy Haynes had come up with for BMC, whereby there would be just three basic chassis, onto which a variety of different bodies could be put, “…everything from Minis to Jags,” explains Harris.
“When Roy worked at Ford, he’d come up with the conclusion that BMC didn’t have an Escort competitor. The nearest thing to it was the Minor. The Marina took the concept of the Minor and blew it up with a new body. It was an effort to try and split the product range and get some money back.”
Harris was also working on his own individual projects. One of more distinctive was Zanda, a styling exercise exhibited throughout 1969 as a showcase for products by Pressed Steel Fisher, the Cowley body making company. The car was uncompromisingly wedge-shaped, showing the way that Harris Mann – and, separately, others like Giugiaro and Bertone – believed car design was evolving.
“In the back of my mind, I saw that as the route MG should take. I thought they should look at mid-engined designs (a configuration to which the wedge-shape is ideally suited). It was my way of tickling management. When you looked around at what the rest of Europe was doing, BMC was like a mausoleum.”
It tickled management enough to earn Harris the chance to be chief stylist on Austin’s next family saloon. Codenamed ADO67, design work on the car had already started at Cowley, before there was, as Harris puts it, “…a falling out between Roy Haynes and Longbridge. The people at Longbridge didn’t like a separate outpost not under their control. So Roy departed, and we were all pulled up to Longbridge.”
The Allegro has become a notorious car for many reasons, but early Harris Mann design sketches reveal it was at least intended to be far more attractive. Explains Harris, “We wanted to make a far more modern version of the 1100/1300, keeping the long, sleek look. Then a lot of other things affected it. A heater was developed at astronomical cost which was very deep. That had to go in. Then we had to put in the E-series engine, which was more suitable for putting in a Leyland truck. So the whole car gained in height. That made it look shorter and stumpier. Thicker seats were added inside, which cut down on interior space. It was getting bulkier inside and out, and lost the original sleekness. That was what happened unfortunately.”
And at least Harris wasn’t responsible for the infamous square Quartic steering wheel. “That came from engineering,” he says. “It wasn’t very good at all. But we were instructed to do it.”
Although he has often confessed himself “disappointed” by the eventual appearance of the Allegro, Harris is still defensive of it. “You still see more Allegros around than Cortinas of the same era. It took a lot of stick, but it wasn’t that bad a car. The trouble was that every one off the line was different in some way, thanks to quality control. I had one as a company car, and it was one of the good ones…”
Next project was the Princess, and once again, Harris’ original ideas failed to make it to the metal. “That was conceived as a five door,” he says of the car now universally nicknamed the Wedge. “If you look at the rear, it’s the ideal shape for a hatchback. But we were told that would take away the major selling point of the Maxi. In today’s climate, you just can’t understand a decision like that. It was a boo boo. By the time the Ambassador came along with a hatchback, it was just all far too late.”
Like the Allegro, the Princess picked up a dubious reputation for lack of quality. “It could have been a good car. Unfortunately, design or styling seemed to take a lot of flack for what was engineering’s fault. It got let down by the details.”
The spin off from the Princess was the TR7, which continued with the wedge theme. “Over at Triumph, they couldn’t re-engineer the TR6 to get it into the States. They asked us to do a replacement concept, in just weeks. Lord Stokes was around at the time, and decided to put it into production with few modifications. It was done in a very short period.”
“Before I looked at the TR7, I went to the States to see what was going on there. That’s why it was a bit more extreme. It was really only planned for America. There was no reason to think it would be a European car. It was also intended to be a Targa roof, but Engineering just couldn’t work it out. Which was a pity.”
Again, the TR7 has been regarded as something of a dark hour in Triumph’s history, but there was little chance for a car beset by so many quality problems, thanks to appalling industrial relations at the Liverpool plant where it was built. “The TR7 could have gone on longer, but the company ran out of money. Leyland had this ability to do a product, then let it run itself into the ground, not looking at the marketplace. The engine was another tragedy. Saab took that and made a great Turbo out it. Now that would have been something, a TR7 Turbo…”
Harris was also involved in the tricky task of trying to replace the Mini. Under the ADO74 and ADO88 codenames, Harris Mann’s new themes were radical departures from the cuddly persona of the original. ADO74 was cancelled in 1973, due to the £130-million needed to produce it, but ADO88, on which work started in 1974, eventually metamorphosed into the Metro in the Eighties. “We had the same sort of problems that Volkswagen was having replacing the Beetle. It was the same trauma as the Mini. There was just this love affair with it.”
Harris’ final days with BL saw him working on the Maestro project. David Bache at Rover was in overall charge, resulting in Rover’s design plans being pushed through in preference to Harris’ ideas. But he was called in to do modifications on the car though. “The big scallop down the side was derived from the SD1. The line was meant to link up with the lights at front and rear, but the rear lamps were made bigger. So the line looked like it was running down towards the end. I called it the Hyena look, down at the rear.” And The solution? “We had to jack up the suspension at the end.”
Other modifications were new headlamps – “they originally stuck out from the body” – plus efforts to try and reduce the panel gaps. “In those days, before computers, everything was just slapped on. David Bache’s ideas were to leave gaps on it, which just looked a bit much when they saw the mock-ups. To me, it just made every car look wrong.”
A few of the inherited features of the Maestro went over to the Montego. “That looked even more like it was dropping down at the rear. So we added an extra wide trim strip to make it look like it was running parallel.”
Harris Mann left British Leyland in 1983 after 15 years, with, one senses, a sense of frustration that whatever he tried to do was bedevilled by other factors out of his control. “I’d had enough, the pernickety attitude approach to things There was something of the Chrysler approach coming in, which was not to be in any way adventurous…”
Working as a freelancer, Harris went to BMW for an old friend, Hans Mutt, who’d become the Head of Design for motorcycles at the German firm. That eventually lead to more work on BMW cars in the company’s Advanced Concept Package Department, with one effort becoming a show car.
After BMW came various concepts for buses, lorries and trains, including Channel Tunnel freight locomotives. More recent work has seen him facelift the Subaru Impreza – “the latest one, seen at the motorshow” – plus the current ERF truck which he did three years ago.
Currently though, he’s back with a very familiar marque. “I can reveal what I’m doing at the moment. I’m working with Peter Stevens, the director of design at MG Rover, on the SV sports car project, getting it ready for production.”
Having also collaborated on the new MG Z-cars as well, the current incarnation of what was once British Leyland seems a much better place to work these days. “It’s been quite a project to work on, and it’s a great team. In comparison to working in a mainstream production facility, it’s all very refreshing, no politics. I’m on a freelance basis, but in a sense, I’ve come full circle.”
With – at last – an increasing adventurousness in current car design generally, perhaps the time is finally right for Harris Mann’s radical and distinctive approach to car design to receive the recognition many feel it justifies. “I think there’s a lot of weird stuff around at the moment. I’ve got a great admiration for Renault with the Vel Satis and the Avantime. I think it takes guts to do that, and what they’ve done is really admirable. They’re a real revelation, and a step forward, I hope!” Harris also professes a respect for Cadillac, which has completely revamped its range lately thanks to Simon Cox, a young Birmingham-based designer, and almost a protégé of Harris Mann. “The stuff that he has been doing is very good. It’s great to see them getting their identity back again. It’s all very interesting.”
“When I look back on my career, it’s been fun. It’s such a pity that it ran through the period of discontent at BL. It’s hard to stake your claim in this country and get the rewards you get in other countries. That said, I’m still doing it, so I haven’t gone off it.”
And there are probably many fans of his efforts who hope he never does.