In the BMC Board Files, Chris Cowin, author of British Leyland: Chronicle of a car crash, unearths the minutes of BMC’s secret Board meetings and finds that they contain an honest view of the company’s model line-up. Here’s his review of the BMC Board meeting minutes for the 1968-70 period.
It makes for a fascinating read, even if there are a few too many home truths contained within.
Reviewing the BMC Board’s Minutes at Gaydon
A recent visit to the British Motor Museum at Gaydon gave me the opportunity to review the records of the BMC Board – a body which, within British Leyland, effectively ran the Austin-Morris division. BMC continued to exist as a company within British Leyland, but its name was changed to British Leyland (Austin Morris) Limited in August 1969.
This group included in its membership (among others) Donald Stokes (Chair), George Turnbull (MD Austin-Morris), John Barber (Finance), Filmer Paradise (Marketing), Harry Webster (Technical Director Austin-Morris) and Alec Issigonis (Advanced technical).
The Maxi, Marina, Allegro, Condor (a coupé that would have rivalled the Ford Capri), the Mini-based ADO70 coupé and the 9X Mini were all projects focused on by this group during the period concerned. One needs to read such records with a critical eye – many of the decisions which were apparently taken would later be reversed – but it serves as a useful ‘snapshot in time’.
What the BMC Board was saying
I’ve decided to extract and record a few nuggets of information – a lot of which were a surprise to me at least. More detail (and photos) of the cars and projects referred to can be found elsewhere on AROnline.
This article focuses on product development-related issues, but the Board was also heavily preoccupied by industrial relations problems during this period – a time Donald Stokes would describe as ‘anarchic’.
In December 1968 (five months before the launch of the Austin Maxi in April 1969), there was optimism about the ADO14 (Maxi). George Turnbull said a lot of work had been done since September 1968 on improvements. Filmer Paradise said that, apart from the disadvantage of low power, the car is fully acceptable.
Turnbull said the four-door saloon version was being delayed until the end of 1969 by which time it was hoped more power would be available. (1750cc version of E-Series engine – that was not, in fact, ready until the end of 1970).
However, in February 1969, Webster reported that the ADO14 gearbox was suspect and Lord Stokes said this was very disturbing as it was vital that this model should be successful. Webster said that the fault in the gearbox was only a matter of detail and ‘if we catch up to last weekend, the gearbox should be alright’. (I’m not sure what that means to be honest!).
Lord Stokes emphasized that nobody must conceal any faults likely to arise on new models and especially in relation to ADO14. Reading between the lines there was clearly a lot of frustration that problems with the Maxi were left to emerge at a very late stage.
In April 1969 – post-launch – Webster reported criticism of the gearbox, engine and styling from the press event in Portugal. He discussed plans for a new gearbox. (In the event, a rod-operated gearbox would be introduced in October 1970, replacing the original troublesome cable-change unit).
The later introduction of the four-door saloon was still envisaged, with Turnbull saying that its introduction would help achieve volume targets. The apparent plan to introduce the four-door sometime after the five door might (one can speculate) explain its near-invisible presence in various publicity films issued at the time of the five-door launch. They were initially hoping for ‘two bites of the cherry’.
There was a discussion about the poor penetration of the fleet market by the Maxi. Paradise said fleet customers were not a focus of the launch.
- June 1969 – Interim modifications (to reduce harshness etc) discussed.
- December 1969 – need for heated rear window discussed. By December 1969 plans well advanced for facelift. Discussion over whether the revised car should be called Mk2 or Maxi Super (favoured by Paradise). In fact, the revised models were introduced in October 1970 as simply Maxi 1500/Maxi 1750.
- The four-door saloon appears to drop out of discussion during 1970. This may well be because (one can speculate) the definitive specification of the Morris Marina now included an 1800cc saloon (not originally envisaged) and this would have competed fairly directly with a 1750cc Maxi saloon.
BMC 1100/1300 (ADO16)
There was clearly a serious problem with the Austin America due to inadequate testing (linked to emissions equipment). In December 1968 (eight months after the US launch), problems of ‘evaporative emissions’ were discussed with revised fuel line clips being seen as the answer.
- In February 1969 Paradise warned the ‘market for the America is about to collapse’ and Stokes said ‘we must have proper prototype testing’.
- In April 1969 it was discussed that 12,000 Americas had been ‘reworked’ at a cost of £250,000. An additional problem was that the AP automatic transmission (apart from being prone to failure) lacked a ‘P’ position as expected in North America.
It appears the plan to capture a significant chunk of the North American small car market with the America was a victim of inadequate development. In its best year of 1969, 17,000 were sold in the USA (which compares to an astonishing 368,000 VW Beetles).
Also – discussion (February 1969) of upgrading Chile bodyshell production from fibre glass to steel. In July 1970, the facelift (Mk3 1100/1300 of 1971) was approved.
In April 1969, ADO20 (the revised Minis introduced in October 1969, above) were under discussion. There was a plan to name the 850/1000 variants Carousel to go along with Clubman and Cooper. (The Climax name was considered and rejected).
At this stage it seems the plan was to keep the Cooper S in the line-up long-term, with the Cooper S Mk3 to have a ‘revised front end’ (the Clubman front presumably). Stokes asked Turnbull to ensure no royalties were to be paid to the Cooper company. (In the event, the Cooper S was left unchanged in October 1969, only being upgraded to the Mk3 bodyshell (round-nosed) in March 1970, with production ending in June 1971).
By May 1970 ways to take cost out of the Mini were being discussed. Paradise was asked to assess the sales impact of reverting to dry cone suspension on the Clubman (which was done shortly after).
New Mini (9X)
In November 1969 the ‘new Mini prototype’ was now ‘in running order’. Webster had driven it and was impressed. In April 1970 Issigonis was asked to prepare a second prototype ‘keeping the length of the vehicle to the same as the existing Mini’.
Stokes requested a paper showing cost improvements, ‘with particular reference to an engine study’. (The high cost of developing the proposed lightweight and compact DX engine intended for 9X would be one reason 9X never reached production).
Mini Coupé (ADO70)
This was discussed at length in April 1970. The model was to be based on the ADO20 Mini components and body under-structure. It was reported that Innocenti was keen to develop it and build it. By June 1970, a full-size model in wood had been completed by Michelotti with a prototype car expected by August.
Webster (who was keen on the project) had seen the wood model in Italy and liked it (a prototype of this car is now on display at Gaydon). As an intended Midget replacement, front-wheel drive would have been an issue in the North American market (the main market) which preferred rear-wheel drive. In the event, they just kept on building the existing Midget through to 1979.
Morris Marina (ADO28)
The original launch date target was the October 1970 London Motor Show (Coupé only). By the April 1970 Board meeting it was accepted that the launch would be in April 1971 when both coupé and saloon would be available. The estate and commercial versions were approved for future (1972) production at the June 1969 meeting.
Later (April 1970) Barber queried why no 1.3-litre estate was included in the plans (not, in fact, introduced until 1976). By March 1970, there was concern at how costs on ADO28 had ballooned from a budgeted £17m to £35m.
The idea of a coupé to rival the Ford Capri was strongly supported by George Turnbull – and crops up at most of the Board meetings of the period – during which plans changed from a coupé based on ADO28 Marina components to one based on ADO14 Maxi components.
The switch to front-wheel drive was being considered in February 1970 when it was reported ‘the Michelotti-styled model has now been accepted subject to minor changes but tooling costs would appear to be exceptionally high and consideration is being given to front-wheel drive in order to minimize the cost of tools’.
- In March 1970 it was reported ‘styling proposals are being investigated for a new body shape on the Maxi chassis layout, with transverse engine’.
- In May 1970 the Maxi base was confirmed. Turnbull believed Condor could be ‘the next major launch from British Leyland’ but Barber counselled caution.
- By June 1970 ‘a styling sketch based on ADO14 had been developed and an E-Series six installed in an ADO14 to start some initial proving tests’. (This vehicle was never produced).
Austin Allegro (ADO67)
- November 1969 – styling was approved.
- December 1969 ‘investigating Hydragas rather than Hydrolastic to save cost’.
- March 1970 – interior styling approved.
- April 1970 – Hydragas agreed on.
- May 1970 three bodystyles (two- and four-door saloon and estate) confirmed as was engine range 1100-1750cc.
Barber was pushing for cost reductions (he identified a need to take out £15 per car) and querying why ADO16 will ‘run on’ and overlap with ADO67 (which it did during 1973/4). Turnbull says this might be the two-door ADO16 only (it was two- and four-door in the event).
- In June 1970 – engineering were directed to reduce costs by re-designing subframes.
- In July 1970 a cheaper subframe solution was discussed which saved 30 pounds of weight on front and 36 at rear… (elimination of subframes was later (after launch) criticized as preventing Allegro from enjoying the full ride benefits of Hydragas).
In 1968, consideration was being given to the assembly of Mazda cars by BMC Australia – because that operation (with its Zetland factory) required 50,000 cars a year to breakeven and the market was only supporting production of 48,000. The board were nervous about the public relations implications of this move stating ‘the Mazda idea should be done with minimum publicity but would be profitable’.
Stokes pointed out that ‘the Leyland group already manufacture the Toyota car in Australia’ (a reference to the assembly of Toyotas by long-standing Triumph assembler AMI in Melbourne). In the event, BMC/BL did not build Mazdas in Australia.
In June 1969, the new sheet metal for the X6 Tasman/Kimberley (YDO19) was approved. At this meeting it was stated that it was the plan to ‘introduce this model into the UK in lieu of ADO25’ (The Austin/Morris 2200 of 1972). That didn’t happen.
Diesel B-Series 1800cc
This was under discussion in April 1969 and by November ’69 was being tested. In March 1970, Webster reported he had recently driven a vehicle with the 1800 B-Series diesel installed and it was ‘the best diesel-engined car I have ever driven’. Six months further work was required before it was production ready. An automatic option would be possible. (In fact BL never did launch a 1.8-litre diesel car in the 1970s despite various trials – only the Sherpa van).
Austin 3-Litre (originally launched late 1967)
- December 1968 – problems with power steering, and a solution, were discussed.
- In June 1970 …. ‘Barber commented on the 3-Litre and efforts being made to keep production going and enquired if it was worthwhile keeping this model in production in view of the small numbers produced each week. Mr Davis (production) said it was the intention to produce 60-70 per week until April 1971 when the new six-cylinder Wolseley would follow in production – probably in June 1971 (It’s unclear if they are referring to the Wolseley version of the 3-Litre once programmed, or the Wolseley Six Landcrab (actually introduced spring 1972) – probably the latter.
There are quite a few references in this period to a small (apparently mid-engined) ‘common’ sports car intended to replace both Midget and Spitfire. At this time (late 1960s) this was envisaged as slotting below the Triumph Lynx which Webster said (in August 1969) ‘is likely to be produced in 1972 or later’, and the ADO21 MGB replacement (which was referred to in July 1970 as work in progress with a plan to ‘build a full size model in the autumn’).
All these projects were swept away by subsequent developments, but the references to the planned ‘common’ small sports cars (referred to elsewhere as Calypso are as follows):
- November 1969 – good progress towards common concept. Considered this model would be built at Abingdon and/or Swindon. Specification agreed.
- December 1969 – Turnbull announced brochure detailing common chassis for Spitfire/Spridget replacement.
- February 1970 – costs of mid-engine seen as excessive and perhaps more appropriate to the higher segment sports cars.
- Swedish management of BMC’s (wholly-owned) Swedish subsidiary resigned en masse in 1968, unhappy with the way the British Leyland merger was implemented in Sweden.
- Belgian Government loans were sought (and obtained) for the expansion of Seneffe.
- Issigonis was actively working on hydrostatic transmissions during this period. He had also had contact with the USSR but, in 1969, he reported that the Soviet industry was very backward, and the links BMC had established with it should be allowed to lapse.
- Stokes and Turnbull visited VW in early 1969 and discussed possible co-operation. VW was interested in using Moulton suspension technology.
- In 1969 Stokes queried the usefulness of the Vanden Plas operation at Kingsbury. Turnbull said it ‘would be phased out in due course’ (In fact, it stayed open until 1979).
- In 1969, Stokes asked about sales of the Morris Minor. Paradise said it is still selling (and therefore production should continue for the time being) – production ceased in 1971.
- Germany was a problem market. The Frankfurt Motor Show of 1969 had proved a disappointment and all they were trying to do in Germany was maintain the basic structure of a distribution network because ‘discounts made it most unattractive (as a market)’ (Paradise).
- In March 1970 pressings for the ‘Mini Elf’ were still being supplied to South Africa from the UK for South Africa’s booted Mini MK3 model, but this seems to conflict with other information which says the Elf rear-end tooling had been shipped to South Africa.
- Development of a new Austin taxi (to replace FX4) was still underway in June 1970 (later cancelled).
- In July 1970 there was concern that Innocenti were thinking of selling its car division to Alfa Romeo. They had agreements with BL which still had five years to run…
(Innocenti had three divisions, the others being Vespa scooters and heavy steel mills. In the event, British Leyland bought out the car division establishing Leyland Innocenti in 1972).
During his time at General Motors, Chris was involved in European marketing strategy and the planning of new products.
Like most "car guys" with an interest in British Leyland, Chris has been a proud (if sometimes frustrated) owner of several of their products over the years, including a Mini Clubman, Riley Kestrel, Triumph Spitfire 1500 and MGB.
His qualifications include an MBA from London Business School and BA in Geography from the University of Oxford (Mansfield College).
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