The beginnings of rationalisation. But is it too late?
The car companies involved in the British Leyland merger of January 1968, provided between them the widest range of models of any motor manufacturer in Europe. But the advantage of being able to supply a car for every section of the market was outweighed in the early years of the new company by a host of problems which only now look like being brought under control: inadequate investment, outdated plant, inter-marque rivalries, and too many models that were either antiquated or superfluous.
The formation of the British Leyland Motor Corporation brought together Triumph and Rover-separate entities until the mid-1960s when both carne under the Leyland Motors umbrella and the British Motor Corporation, the still somewhat uneasy alliance of Austin and Morris, to which Jaguar had been reluctantly added only 18 months before. Not only were there keen rivalries between these various companies but their models clearly overlapped: the top Rovers competed with Jaguar, the Rover and Triumph 2000 cars were in even more direct conflict, and the small Triumphs came up against the BMC range.
To introduce some sense in to this jungle, Leyland split its car companies into two groups, forming a volume car division (Austin Morris) and a specialist division (Rover, Triumph and Jaguar). Since the key to the company’s short-term survival was the health of its biggest component part, much of the money and effort during the first five years was devoted to the rationalization of Austin Morris.
Here Leyland had to perform a major rescue act. Not only were too many old and unprofitable models still being made but BMC had practically nothing in the pipeline. So the Morris Minor (which had been in production since 1948), the Morris Oxford, and Austin Cambridge and three-litre were swiftly phased out, leaving only the Issigonis front-wheel drive family of Mini, 1100 and 1800. Even the Mini and 1100, despite excellent sales, were making little money.
The first priority was to fill the huge gap in the range between the 1100 and 1800. Leyland took over and brought to fruition yet another Issigonis design, for a roomy five-door car on the lines of the Renault 16, with particular appeal for the holidaymaker and weekend tripper. It was launched in 1969 as the Austin Maxi. The concept was sound enough, but the car suffered from a wretched gear change and the 1500cc engine lacked power.
Within 18 months Leyland responded by offering a re-designed gearbox and a 1750 unit, and sales began to climb. Meanwhile Leyland had taken the significant step of temporarily abandoning its tradition of cars with advanced engineering to take on the Ford Cortina and Vauxhall Viva in the important fleet market (which accounts for more than one third of new car sales). The Morris Marina, which appeared in April 1971, was a totally conventional car and cheap to make, and it did much to revive Leyland’s profitability.
It offered a choice of 1300cc and 1800cc engines, a spacious interior and a huge boot. During 1973, it became the second most popular car in Britain after the Cortina. With the Marina successfuily established, Leyland could go back to advanced engineering. The Allegro, launched in May 1973, as the successor to the 1100, carried on the Issigonis tradition of front-wheel drive, transverse engine and all-independent suspension (a new system, Hydragas, replacing, though similar to, Hydrolastic).
The Allegro used the engines from the 1100, 1300 and Maxi models, and had a new body shell which did not increase interior space but gave a much bigger boot and more room under the bonnet. People who had expected the flair of a Citroen GS were disappointed, but the Allegro won general favour. Leyland has high hopes of the Allegro in the European market, and another car for Europe, a bigger model, will follow towards the end of the year.
This should complete the Austin Morris range for some time to come, with future developments likely to be less concerned with entirely new models than with variations on existing ones. The 15-year-old Mini, for instance, is due for a major face-lift during the next couple of years. It is difficult to see how the basic shape can be altered without abandoning the essence of the car, but there is scope for a more luxuriously equipped interior on the lines of the Cooper 1300 and Mini 1001 which Leyland makes for the Italian market. The Allegro may also follow the Italian line by offering up-rated twin-carburettor engines, and the Marina is likely to be developed on the Cortina principle with further engine and trim options.
Jaguar, with a long tradition of independence under the almost personal rule of its founder, Sir William Lyons, has probably fitted into the Leyland scheme with the least grace; and it has remained more or less a marque apart, though to end the overlap with Rover the 2.8 litre engine has been discontinued on the home market. (Could the energy crisis bring it-back again?)
The XJ saloons were planned before the Leyland takeover and the six cylinder appeared in the autumn of 1968 ; it was followed four years later by the superb 5.3 litre XJ12. Two-door coupe versions of the XJ range went into production this year, and a successor to the eight years old E type cannot be long delayed. Jaguar’s major problem has not been the quality of its cars but making enough of them to satisfy demand; and energy crisis or not there should still’ be enough customers when production reaches its projected 60,000 units a year, or double the 1973 figure.
Rover and Triumph were both profitable companies, so BLMC could afford to leave them alone in the early years while resources were concentrated on the volume car sector. Rover’s projected mid-engined sports car was cancelled and the range pruned to the 2000/3500 series and the Land-Rover and Range Rover.
Originally, BLMC planned to replace the competing 2000 models with a single basic car in Rover and Triumph versions; but during 1973 Rover and Triumph were brought under one management and given separate roles, Rover to produce medium-quality saloons, Triumph to concentrate on smalle, high performance saloons on BMW or Alfa Romeo lines.
So the 2000 successor will be a Rover and it will be built at a new assembly plant at Solihull. The Triumph range, mean- while, continued to offer a variety of saloon and sports models, many of which in spite of judicious face-lifting were becoming increasingly out of date or superfluous. Plans were laid for a drastic rationalization that would eventually produce two basic models: a sports car, with a choice of engine sizes, and a performance saloon based on the excellent two litre Dolomite Sprint which was launched during 1973. Fewer models but many more of them is the policy.
Leyland hopes to double the output of Rover Triumph to 460,000 in the next five vears. The continued success of the MG marque, particularlv overseas, suggests that it will continue, and there is to be a joint sports car programme involving MG and Triumph. Again there seems little sense in eventually continuing with competing models like the Midget and the Spitfire, though it is unlikeiv that MG will go the way of Wolseley and become merely a badge on a Triumph car.
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.