History : The Road to Perdition – Part One
In Part One of this fascinating series, which originally appeared in Vehicle Engineer, AROnline Contributor Ian Elliott applies his insider knowledge to spelling out the exact sequence of mergers that led to the formation of British Leyland Motor Corporation (BLMC) and reviews the product engineering story…
MANY people have published incorrect versions of this admittedly complex history over the years and recent coverage of the MG Rover saga reflects the resultant ignorance of the true facts. Mergers were very common in the world-wide motor industry even before 1968, although, for every merger that actually took place, there were dozens of aborted discussions.
When the Austin Motor Company was under administration in the early 1920s, the then Sir Herbert Austin made tentative attempts to sell his troubled company to General Motors – which went on to buy Vauxhall instead – and to Ford. Even the idea of joining Austin, Morris and Wolseley together was mooted as early as 1924 by Dudley Docker of Vickers, who then owned Wolseley. Austin and Wolseley were keen, but Morris said that such a conglomerate would be difficult to control ‘and might tend to strangle itself.’ A perceptive chap, Bill Morris, though he out-bid Austin to buy Wolseley in 1927. However, by 1952 the Austin + Morris concept was even more fraught with hazards.
The linkage of Standard and Triumph in 1945 wasn’t really a merger, but more the acquisition by Standard of what today is called a ‘brand’; for Triumph cars had effectively died in 1939 and there was no substantive company or product to take over.
THERE was certainly no original Triumph engineering DNA in the first post-war Triumph models, which simply used existing Standard mechanicals with distinctively-styled new bodies. It is just as well that Standard did have recourse to a new and more upbeat marque name for, by the early 1960s, it found that the old Standard name had a somewhat pejorative image in the minds of car buyers – in the sense that ‘standard’ was less than ‘de luxe’.
Rover talked to Leyland in the late 1940s – in fact, Leyland funded part of the Rover gas turbine research – and to Standard Triumph at least twice in the 1950s, and there was even a hint that Rolls-Royce and Rover might have discussed the idea of building on their amicable relationship of the 1940s. The first ‘blockbuster’ merger in the UK was, of course, the formation of BMC in 1952. This brought together Austin (including Vanden Plas and a substantial LCV and truck business) and Nuffield (Morris, Wolseley, MG and Riley plus Morris Commercial and Nuffield Tractors).
Although Austin chief Leonard Lord made it clear from day one that Austin was the dominant partner, the product engineering sections of Austin and Morris remained remarkably autonomous for the first few years.
Apart from an immediate programme to standardise the group’s powertrain components (which saw the eclectic 1952 mixture of side valve, OHV and OHC Nuffield engines phased out in favour of the corporate A, B and C-Series OHV family by 1956), there was initially no commonality between Nuffield and Austin cars in terms of bodyshell and chassis design.
In part this would have been because by 1952 many new models were already in train on both sides, and also because re-organising the engineering functions was going to take time.
A further factor, often given insufficient recognition by critics of BMC, was that the substantial dealer networks and their customers around the world had certain expectations of any given marque so any over-hasty rationalisation could well have triggered wholesale defections and even legal challenges. Perhaps the most significant ‘cross fertilisation’ that did happen early on was the adoption of the A-Series engine in the Morris Minor. Throughout the 1950s, the Minor was by far the biggest-selling BMC product, reaching its peak in ‘1000’ form after 1956 when the A-Series was uprated from 803cc to 948cc and the gearbox improved to match, with a remote shift.
By any contemporary standards, the Minor 1000 was an excellent product, which arguably should have been more vigorously exploited by BMC, emulating the way that VW made the Beetle a ‘world car’.
Did Leonard Lord discount this possibility because it was a Morris? Nevertheless, it still became the first British car to sell a million, achieving this by early 1961, and perhaps it was also first in the world to spawn a ‘limited edition’, with 371 commemorative ‘Minor Millionths’ in a curious and unforgettable lilac colour.
THE Nuffield Group, which had effectively invented ‘badge-engineering’ in the 1930s, had already established a great deal of well-accepted rationalisation – for example, the 1948 Wolseley 6/80 was an obvious sibling of the Morris Six – so it was no surprise that the Gerald Palmer-designed 1953 Riley Pathfinder and 1954 Wolseley 6/90 should share similar body and chassis designs, or that his unitary-bodied MG Magnette ZA and Wolseley 4/44 should also appear as peas from the same pod.
However, as many classic car enthusiasts have found, there are surprisingly few parts interchangeable between each of these deceptively similar pairs, and one wonders how much genuine rationalisation was achieved. The 1954 Series II Morris Oxford shared only its drive train with its Austin A40/A50 Cambridge stepsisters and had few visible links with any of its Nuffield brethren either. Look carefully at the Series II Oxford, however, to see the influence of Alec Issigonis (who left BMC shortly after its formation to join Alvis) and a preview of certain Mini features – notably the front end sculpturing and the fascia design, with its sweeping parcel shelf and faraway switches.
Issigonis’ Alvis sojourn proved fruitless; Alvis decided to focus on aero engines and military vehicles, and therefore not to tool up for his interesting V8 Sports saloon with Moulton suspension.
Leonard Lord was thus able to persuade him to return to BMC in 1955 to begin one of the most extraordinary eras in British vehicle engineering. However, Issigonis’ work was not to appear in public until August, 1959, and the products that BMC launched up to this point gave no hint whatsoever of the coming revolution. Even as late as 1958, Austin was to launch a model that had no Morris counterpart, in the form of the Austin A40 Farina – effectively a stylishly successful re-skin of the tubby little A35 – and which seemed almost a final attempt by Austin to counter the in-house rivalry of the evergreen Morris Minor. Let us note that the Countryman version of this A40 was a proto-hatchback, albeit with a split tailgate, Range Rover style.
However, the full impact of Leonard Lord’s rationalisation intentions became all too obvious from the end of 1958. Over a few months, no less than five very closely related new medium saloons were announced, beginning with the Wolseley 15/60 and followed by four others – the Austin Cambridge MkII, the Morris Oxford MkIV, the Riley 4/68 and the MG Magnette MkIII.
All used the same basic Farina-styled bodyshell, with cosmetic variations inside and out, and the same B-Series 1489cc engine, pepped up by twin SU carburettors on the Riley and MG versions.
Rather unfortunately, the basic chassis was based on that of the previous Cambridge. Though proven and reliable, its track was rather narrow and it lacked the steering precision that would have come with a Nuffield-style rack and pinion design.
Perhaps if BMC had been more brazen about this new range of cars, and launched them all simultaneously as a family, the motoring press might have digested them more readily. But to be invited to a succession of launches that sought to present each one as a brand-new stand-alone model proved too much for many journalists, who duly adopted the ‘badge-engineering’ jibe.
In 1959, a slightly more restrained sequence was followed for the six-cylinder executive cars with the Farina-styled Austin Westminster A99 also appearing in party dress as the Wolseley 6/99 and as what eventually became known as the Vanden Plas Princess 3-litre.
There was no Morris equivalent. The previous six-cylinder, long-wheelbase Isis versions of the Series II and III Oxford had never sold well enough to establish the Morris name in this sector and BMC wisely decided that MG and Riley versions would also be inappropriate.