Archive : British Leyland stays British

British Leyland still refuses to ape the Americans. ANTHONY BAMBRIDGE wonders whether it can hold out much longer.

“Let’s be realistic” said the man from Ford. “Stokes has put as good a face on an inheritance as he could.”

Lord Stokes, chairman and managing director of British Leyland , admits that the new Austin Maxi is not one of those “crappy cars with exotic styling and no room in the back” that date before you can get them into reverse. The division between British Leyland and the American-owned Ford and Vauxhall companies on how to make money out of making cars now seems absolute.

Ford and Vauxhall are inclined to believe that it is the look of the package that sells a car; Leyland worries more about what’s inside the skin. Ford’s Capri and Austin’s Maxi might have been made by men in different industries—one in consumer durables the other in engineering. This extreme example of Leyland’s product philosophy is the work of Alec lssigonis. He is inclined to make almost no concessions to style and Stokes admits that the 1500 c.c. car he inherited from BMC’s drawing-boards after last year’s merger looked like ” a chicken coop.”

When Roy Haynes, the stylist enticed away from Ford to Leyland, clapped eyes on it he felt it was “the first post-war car he’d seen with pre-war styling.” None the less it was a car that packed the maximum power and comfort into a minimum space. The past year has been devoted to improving the look of the car without making it too expensive or losing too much functional efficiency.

Leyland could not exist without styling nor Ford and Vauxhall without top-class engineering. Yet in both the American owned companies the engineering is traditional, innovation tends to show itself in styling and marketing.

“Ford and Vauxhall are getting the rub off from America of increasing personalisation” says a Vauxhall executive. “We try to build a car that is seemingly tailor made.”

No one has yet matched Heinz but there are no less than 19 varieties of the Viva and 26 of the Capri. On the basis of two body shells, saloon and estate, and two engine sizes it is possible to build a pyramid of choice involving two or four doors , basic or de luxe models. The result is a gradation of prices from the smallest cheapest car to the biggest and dearest with a degree of overlap where models change offering a choice, say, of the basic Cortina and the de luxe Escort.

“The market is no longer lots of people, all coloured grey”, says Ford. “People are trying to buy difference. ”

How much difference is another matter. The marketing benefit of maximum model choice is carefully balanced against industrial good sense. The extra cost of offering a choice is controlled by the maximum number of common components between all the variations in one model and also between different models. The question a company like Ford now has to face is whether it has pushed this policy too far. It needs 20/20 vision to spot the difference between a Capri costing £890 and one costing £1,300.

At £979 the Maxi offers no variations. What it has got is five forward gears, an awful lot of room inside, reclining seats and a fifth door at the back similar to the one that has made the Renault R16 such a strong seller over the past three years. What the Maxi won’t do is win a beauty contest. Equally it seems expensive. It is only £50 cheaper than British Leyland’s 1800 and exactly the same price as Ford’s plushy 1600 Cortina estate. Stokes argues that because of “the bits that are standard,” like the five gears, the car is in fact cheap and that the sort of “undated style” that still keeps the Morris 1000 selling is more important than beauty that is only tin deep.

Stokes could be right. The Maxi is, after all, the obvious sister of the 1100, which, now that it is also offered with a 1300 engine, is again Britain ‘s best-selling car. Even the ugly sister, the 1800, is selling well. Equally, Leyland brought to the merger men who are experts on how to keep an ageing model young. Their cosmetic efforts on the Triumph Herald have put it in the Marlene Dietrich class.

None the less there is a fast-growing market for brash good looks. The the Escort and Viva started it and now Ford seems likely to hit the jackpot with the Capri, “The worst thing we can do is ape the Americans,” says Stokes,

Yet British Leyland can hardly afford to ignore this trend. At the same time, however, it must be sure not to alienate that vast army of solid citizens who have stood bythe equally solid models of Leyland and BMC. The real test for British Leyland is not so much the Maxi as the first car from the Morris stable. Stokes explained last week that the Austin side of the Volume Car Division would continue to provide the engineering features not exploited by the Americans, while Morris kept to the conventional rear-wheel drive designs.

Morris, then, will face Ford and Vauxhall head on; it will beat its brains out if it fails to at least match their styling flair. The Capri has mock grilles on its side. The old Leyland and BMC companies would never have stooped to such depths. Now they are together they will have to conquer that aversion, and quick. There are no half measures in this game. The next Morris will have to offer variations similar to those of its rivals.

The Capri has 90 permutations on its 26 variants. In America the buyer may now go into a showroom and pick an almost unlimited number of extras to be added to the basic model on display. His choice goes on to a punch card and a computer in the factory makes sure that the right car drops off the production line at the right time. Provided British Leyland can bring itself to accept this product philosophy it will stand a chance of reaching the target of half the British car market as against its present 42.5 per cent. The Maxi has filled a nasty engine size gap through which old loyal buyers were draining away to Dagenham and Luton. A 1500 to 1700 cc Morris, styled with dash, could start wooing back the deserters.

Lord Stokes’s announcement last week that each six months would see either a new British Leyland model or a major face-lift on an existing model shows how fast things are changing on the sixth floor of Berkeley Square House.

“It’s the only way we’ll stay in business,” says Stokes.

Keith Adams

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