The most sought after prize in British Leyland’s huge retail network, the marketing of the new 1500 saloon, the first completely new car to come out of the former B.M.C. factories for over four years-has been won by Austin dealers.
Disappointed Morris dealers, who comprise the other half of the retail side of the new Austin Morris volume car division, have been told that further new models are in the pipeline for them but there will necessarily be a gap betwveen the arrival of the 1500 this spring and the first exclusively Morris model. The decision to market the new car as an Austin marks the end of the much criticized era of badge engineering” which came into being after the original Austin-Morris merger in 1952. It was to end this loss of identity and to prevent his dealers from competing among themselves for the same business that shortly after the Leyland-B.M-H. merger, Sir Donald Stokes, chairman and managing director of British Levland. announced plans to return to separate model ranges for the group’s two main franchises. Small quantity production of the new Austin had already begun at Cowley, the traditional home of Morris cars. This apparent slap in the face for Morris is, in fact, dictated by the need for a smooth change- over from existing models The A60 Morris Oxford series assembled at Cowley is being phased out. According to dealers, A60 production has already ceased but the Morris Oxford version will continue for the time being.
George Turnbull, the engineer and former Rugby player chosen by Sir Donald to run the Austin Morris Division, he has described it as ” the toughest job in my whole team”,
is determined that the 1500 will not come to the market until it is absolutely ready. The spectre of the enormous damage caused by the premature appearance of the 1800 in 1964 still haunts Longbridge. “Preparation and testing, and then more preparation and testing, was my policy at Standard Triumph and it remains my Policy here”, says Mr. Turnbull.
“We are doing tens of thousands of miles of road testing and general bashing about. The success of the 1500 is of the utmost importance to everyone in the Austin Morris division. It is aimed at the biggest growth sector of the market and I don’t want it going off half cock, even if it means holding the car back for a time.”
The 1500 is also being subjected to the tightest cost control of any model hitherto produced in the old B.M.C. factories. Central purchasing for the whole British Leyland group was considered but rejected in favour of what Turnbull describes as
” centralized control of prices by consent “.
The group’s supply directors meet regularly under the chairmanship of Bert Walling, the ex-Ford man who is now Turnbull’s supply chief at Longbridge. They share the savings produced by bulk buying but each division remains fully profit accountable. How well the Austin Morris division has buckled down to the immediate task of producing cars is re- flected in its year-end production figure of over 691,000 cars compared with 539,000 in 1967. On paper, the division has a nominal capacity of one million cars annually, but Mr. Turnbull considers that in practice this figure cannot be reached without further expansion.
He is looking for around 850.000 in 1969. The establishment of a new model policy to follow on after the 1500 is his most pressing task. “If we can get that agreed in as much detail as possible over the next five years and then tentative for a further five years, we have the cornerstone on which to build this division.
“Many other decisions follow from this. We started from the premise that the badge engineering concept is not a satisfactory one. In the short term it was probably necessary, but in the ultimate we consider it necessary to produce a completely new range which will not be available for a year or so. This, combined with the decision to market Austin and Morris as two separate franchise lines, has also conditioned our thinking on model policy.”
Harry Webster, the division’s executive chief engineer who, like Turmbull, came from Triumph. is the key figure in the design team now working on the new models. He is recruiting a number of top calibre engineers to strengthen the old B.M.C. team and to shorten the long time lag between drawing board and production. B.M.C.’s critics have made much of the need for extensive modernization of its plants but Mr. Turnbull says he was pleasantly surprised when he arrived to find so much really first-class equipment.
“Where it does not appear too impressive”, he admits. “it is because production facilities are split up into a number of factories rather than concentrated into one huge production unit. A number of buildings housing machine tools are in need of reconstruction and this will be done. In other areas there will be some updating of plant. But until we get our model policy right we do not know how best to organize our manufacturing resources.” None the less, he is already increasing production schedules with his fingers crossed that component supplies will not be disrupted.
“Although we do not know what is going to happen on the home market in the spring, whether or not the Chancellor’s measures will bite much deeper than we hope, nevertheless, on the export side we have booming order books with the United States and Europe going great guns. I am anxious to stock up the trade from now on so that when spring selling starts we shall be in the best possible position to increase our share of the market.”
The 1500 model referred to was the ADO14 Austin Maxi.