Blog : The decline of the British-owned car industry

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Peter S Badenoch

Had BMC been willing to fix the faults of cars such as the Austin A40 Somerset, then Volkswagen may not have become such a dominant force in North America during the 1950s and '60s.
Had BMC been willing to fix the faults of cars such as the Austin A40 Somerset, then Volkswagen may not have become such a dominant force in North America during the 1950s and 1960s

I am new to this excellent site and have only just read Ian Nicholls’ essay suggesting that Government interference killed MG and Rover. I appreciate that the site concentrates on the industry from the time of the launch of the Mini, ie., 1959 onwards. However, I think it is critical to understand that the decline of the industry dated back at least ten years before that and it was already firmly rooted by 1959. The cause was the loss of the largest and most lucrative world export market, North America.

Britain was first there following WW2 – in the later-1940s and early 1950s in the USA and Canada, ‘English car’ was synonymous with ‘small car’. Had the British-owned industry maintained that dominance, foresight would have gone a long way – as happened later for Germany and Japan – to building financial stability, that would have made it much more immune to (and able to oppose) Government meddling. Conceivably, it could have resulted in workforces in car factories that were prosperous enough to oppose militants such as Derek Robinson (Red Robbo).

Instead, through myopia and arrogance, the British car industry’s management and their bean-counters ignored the fact that British cars sold in the USA and Canada, such as the Austin A40 Devon and Somerset, the ‘Phase’ side-valve Hillman Minx and the Ford Prefect, were becoming well-known for lack of reliability. They were plagued with relatively small problems which, had they been recognized by Birmingham, Coventry and Oxford and prompt engineering action taken, with relatively small investments involved, would have prevented the disastrous loss of consumer confidence.

Fixed, they could well have maintained market dominance, thereby preventing the Volkswagen Beetle (small, underpowered, noisy and with  treacherous-handling but much more reliable than its British contemporaries) from wiping them off the map. The Beetle certainly had problems but, when these were brought to the attention of Wolfsburg, action was fast to correct them. But then, German management (and subsequently Japanese management) realised how critical success in the North American market was to survival.

In contrast, the pleas by the British front line troops in North America (of which I was one, in Canada, an ex-pat Brit trained in Coventry) for corrective measures fell on deaf ears; when action was taken it was after long after the horse had left the stable. Far too often we were told, ‘Oh, we don’t have that problem on the home market’, or even: ‘You don’t really expect a car to start at those sort of low temperatures, do you ?’

No matter how much one despised the Detroit iron of those days – and I did – there was no denying that they were reliable, tough, durable and engineered to cope with temperatures ranging from -20F to more than 100F. They could withstand lots of salt put on the roads throughout the winter months in the rust-belt states and the Canadian provinces.

Those levels of reliability were expected by buyers and it became all the more critical when a ‘small (ie., import) car was purchased as a second car, more likely to be used by a wife and mother. That’s why, if reasonable levels of reliability were not provided, the frustration would become extreme and the owner would vow never to buy another of that make – and this would quickly be expressed to neighbours, friends and business acquaintances. That’s what happened with British cars in the North American marketplace of the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Volkswagen buyers, in contrast, became enthusiastic ambassadors of that brand.

What, then, were these silly little problems, unacceptable to the typical American or Canadian, that could have been corrected with relatively small engineering effort and financial outlay? Let me list, in random order, just a few:

  • Brake wheel cylinders with alloy bodies and steel pistons that seized
  • Handbrake cables inadequately sealed that allowed moisture entry which froze at below-freezing temperatures causing the rear brakes to be locked on — the only solution for a driver who had been naïve enough to apply the handbrake when parking at night was to crawl under the back of the car and try to haul on the cable to release the brakes
  • Starter motors with the Bendix drive, persisting on British cars long after the Detroit manufacturers and, take note, Volkswagen, had abandoned it in favour of solenoid engaged pinions. With the Bendix abomination, on a sub-zero start if the engine as much as coughed on one or two cylinders, the pinion would be thrown out of mesh, following which the hapless driver would have to wait until the armature stopped spinning then try again, and again, and again
  • Dynamos with deficient output that would result in flat batteries developing after days of winter commutes involving cold starts and continuous use of wipers, heater fan and headlights
  • Heaters that weren’t very effective (about the only problem where the Beetle owner was no better off)
  • Headlining and upholstery materials that split in cold weather; substandard exhaust valve materials that resulted in premature burn-out under prolonged interstate/expressway (read motorway) driving
  • Inadequate sealing of speedometer cables that would allow gearbox oil to work its way up to the speedometer head and cause the needle to go crazy; carbon clutch thrust bearings that would wear out prematurely
  • SU fuel pumps that required a sharp tap to make them function; oil leaks galore (not a reliability issue but intensely annoying to those with paved driveways); ignition systems that would track and short if exposed to moisture, the classic being the early Mini with its distributor behind a token grille and exposed to rain and road splash.
  • And, of course, substandard switches and corrosion-prone wiring harness terminals and connectors, giving rise to the ‘Prince of Darkness’ jokes that persist today.

One further point – in Ian Nicholls’ essay and throughout the comments that followed, the problem of poor quality is consistently blamed on the workforce in the factories. Take a look at the list above, though – few, if any, of those problems were the result of poor workmanship.

The problem was detail engineering design shortcomings and/or antiquated design, then refusal by management to face up to the problems and fix them promptly. The Trade Unions certainly caused the industry a lot of grief but, in my ten years as a Service Representative dealing with customer complaints, poor workmanship by the guy on the production line was very seldom a contributing factor.

A ship with wonderful promise sunk for a ha’penny’s worth of tar…

Sadly, therefore, the British-owned industry has disappeared except for the likes of cottage-industry Morgan. However, it is good to know that a car industry does exist today in Britain, albeit not British-owned. That point was made so well on the Top Gear TV show in its wonderful and stirring closing piece at the end of last season.

33 Comments

  1. Great post.

    Subsequent re-entries by the BMC -> AR company didn’t fare much better.

    The TR8 sold in small numbers, the SD1 sold poorly.

    The Sterling / 800 wasn’t helped by the poor exchange rate which had also seen Merkur sales of Granadas and Sierras fail in the US.

    The 75 was lined up for possible sale in the US, alongside MINI. They even had sidemarker fitments at the end of the chrome coachline.

    China is the new market du jour, MG Rover saw this but it was too little too late, and SAIC swooped in and took the SW, 75 and the MG brand.

    VW was helped in the US by the fact that for the most part they sold a single vehicle which was simplistic in it’s engineering – rear engined, air cooled. Even the type 2 van (later ‘chicken tax’ camper) was a derivative on a different platform.
    They built upon this ‘reliability’ image with the late 70s Golf (Rabbit), Passat etc.

    Other European brands found it difficult – Renault, after failing to tie up with BL, tied up with AMC. This was wound down and later became Chrysler.
    Peugeot left in the early 90s, the excellent 405 being the last car sold.
    Fiat and Alfa Romeo left in the 80s, their reputation battered by poor reliability.
    Volvo and Saab fared better – especially in Northern or mountainous states. Even on US movies, Saabs are driven by ‘quirky’ characters. Though US Saab fans had to endure the 9-7X SUV and the 9-2X Saabaru.

  2. I have to say that although the writer may have a point in general terms, too many of his examples are repetitions of canards that are, frankly, nonsense. There was absolutely nothing, and I mean nothing, wrong with Lucas products, particularly switches. The only Lucas product that I can recall ever giving significant trouble was the delivery pump in the boot of the Triumph 2.5 PI, and this is nearly 20 years after the date that the writer speaks about ( 1950 ) . Incidentally, my first half million miles out of my 1.5 million mile motoring career were driven exclusively behind Lucas electrics, and I did not have a single electrical breakdown in that time . To suggest that VW charging and electrics were better in the early days also is questionable, to put it mildly. They were 6 volt up to about 1959 as far as I can remember . Similarly, apart from a curious bendix patent called the follow-through or similar, I do not think it is correct to say that pre-engaged starters were widely used until the early 1960s even in the USA. The first British car that I can remember with one was the first 4.2 litre Jaguars ( E and Mark 10 ) in 1964, so they were not that far behind . The worn out clutch thrusts were an endemic problem in the USA because by the 1950s, American drivers, no longer used to “stick-shifts” had the habit of resting their left foot on the clutch pedal. I agree that there were major faults in the British approach to motoring, but they were in my experience more a problem of attitude to the customer ( recurring again per Mike Humble’s posts ) than of any real deficiency in the machines ; that having been said, however, I also agree that by and large our mass market products were unsuited to the USA , whose industry at least until the advent of the compacts in the mid 1960s relied on heavily engineered and – apart from Chrysler – gas guzzlers of very antiquated engineering design . The failure , in other words, was to produce a product which catered to the US market, but the question which then has to be asked is whether designs suitable for the 1950s USA would have had any appeal elsewhere

    PS still the only persistent failures (prior to recent mercedes) I have had were the 2.5 PI pumps, and the Bosch pump deliver pump fitted to the Peugeot 504TI, which nearly resulted in divorce – but that’s another story

  3. An interesting alternative perspective based on considerable experience within the Industry itself.

    At a deeper level, why was there this reluctance to make changes, based on negative feedback received? Was it down to the fact that many of those running the likes of BMC were Old School in terms of physical age and experience, who were thinking about now and were rigid in their mindset, rather than focusing on the future and potential threat from overseas competition? Was there the assumption that British buyers would always remain loyal to British made vehicles and possibly specific companies/marques, no matter what? This might explain the reason why there was not the incentive to recognise the need to address these reliability/quality issues promptly, efficiently and through possibly investing further in testing components and the processes used for manufacturing them?

    The expectation on the continued loyalty may well explain why many British companies were not heavily committed to exporting their products after the end of the Second World War and, even then, focused mainly on the British Colonies.

    At that time British manufacturers were highly constrained where they tested their vehicles, particularly in relation to meeting the expectations of certain export markets. Then again, so were the Americans when it came to considering the needs of export markets such as Central Europe. A shame we did not have ready access to the harshest of weather conditions to test our vehicles in, such as Sweden, which undoubtedly helped the likes of Saab and Volvo engineer some brilliant cars that offered excellent reliability and longevity.

    Roy Church’s (1995) excellent book “The Rise and Decline of the British Motor Industry (New Studies in Economic and Social History)” is a comprehensive account which also looks at employer-employee relations and the concept of reward for loyalty and commitment to the job in hand. It suggests that a number of issues began to emerge in the 1930s which were ultimately still present when car production became more competitive after the Second World War.

    Again, a great, thought-provoking article.

  4. The fact that British cars were tiny, underpowered, ugly, under equipped and slow compared to the chunky, attractive, robust and powerful yanks also helped the clueless, arrogant Brits lose what little foothold they had in the biggest market in the world!

  5. #4 is full of anti-British bile but sadly does not accord with the facts. The only British footholds in the US market were not the volume cars, but were the sports cars , predominantly MG and Triumph , both of which sold well until the regulations militated in the mid 70s against the continuance of open cars, and Jaguar which always remained a prestige product in the US even through the dark days . Although the original post was interesting, I should love to know how many Ford Prefects were ever sold in N.America . Similarly, although it is suggested that the A40s let the side down, there really was nothing wrong with the design, which built under licence was the foundation of the modern Japanese industry

  6. lets clear up a few things. Firstly the VW Beetle heater as standard it, not an option as it was on British motors. the air cooled engine creates enough heat at its heater outlets to melt plastic. If the system is used correctly in conjunction with the 1/4 light windows, even its demisting can be effective, not modern car good but as good as any 50s/60s car.
    As or 6 volt electrics, they are as efficient as a 12 volt system if maintained as any system 6 or 12 volt should be. An alternator, 6 or 12 volt is always better than a dynamo.
    All cars have their faults, some to do with quality of parts and build, some design faults. Either way before we start to criticise other cars or designs please can we ensure our facts are correct

  7. @ #2: Actually, the Golf almost sealed Volkswagen’s doom in the US. The MK I was considered to be poorly built, unreliable and expensive to maintain. While it initially sold in good numbers, it’s issues sent many people to Japanese manufacturers whose cars were not known for electrical problems, expensive maintenance and constant minor breakdowns. Granted, they were built in Pennsylvania and not West Germany, but the basic engineering should have allowed them to be decent cars. Even today, VW is only a small niche player in the US with the Japanese and South Koreans being the dominant import players. Part of that is that they are too expensive and part of that is down to high ownership costs. European cars are seen as more of a luxury good here than a good practical solution to the transportation question.

  8. My father told me about the attempt to sell the Avenger (Cricket) in the US. In principal they had a winner, simple clean sheet car that was cheap to make, reliable and an established dealer network. Should have seen off the Jap cars that were starting to find a market in the US.

    But the focus of the project was on making the car compliant with the Federal Laws and no one looking at what the market needed. For example shortly after launch dealers complained about bent track rods, just a little investigation showed that the curbs stones in the US were much bigger than those in the UK and too late US cars had them beefed up. Contrast this with the Japanese competitors who had cars running in the US with US test drivers as part of the development program.

  9. Great article and follow up comments:
    @2 I think its a bit strong to dismiss the writers observations as nonsense (he was there in the midst of it after all – were you?)
    @4 Steve you are an embittered troll.

  10. @2 Agreed. When 7 series BMWs go wrong (yet again) with a myriad of electrical issues – you don’t get – “here we go, Bosch, king of darkness” jokes, the issues will be excused “these are sophisticated cars you know – bound to go wrong occasionally” etc.

    Similarly when you take (or tow) your 2003-2009 VAG 2.0 TDI to the garage with failed oil pump drive, cambelt tensioner failure, piezo injector failure, injector wiring loom burnout, water pump bearing failure – or any other of the many, many basic design faults that plague this engine – the dealer will suck their teeth in – “we don’t see this very often (stack it up with the others Bert)” and the mug customer will walk away thinking he’s been very unlucky with his unburstable, reliable VW and will blindly replace it with another when the time comes.

    People are all too quick to condemn British cars when other manufacturers get away with launching complete and utter lemons.

  11. @4 – How many people did the Ford Explorer kill before Ford finally admitted to and address the inherent design problems? Fine American engineering! Let the tyres down (then blame the tyre manufacturer when they fail) rather than fix the handing issues!

  12. Maybe the main reason British cars didn’t sell in America was they were too small and almost every car sold in America was American in the fifties as the cars were built for the extreme climate and were far more comfortable and nicer to drive on long journeys. Also would you chance driving your Austin A40 into a remote state where imports were unknown and garages wouldn’t know how to fix them?

  13. One thing that hurt the sales of euro cars in the USA market, but for some sports and luxury cars was price. Often their pricing was close to much bigger and more powerful American cars. Part of that price issue was due to a 10% or so import tax on foreign cars into the late 1960’s. Dealers also had bigger profit margins on USA made models.

    In the 1970’s UK and euro cars failed badly, including VW, with the increase in pollution and safety standards while Japanese cars seemed to be much better. This is not to say the Japanese imports were great either. Their automatic transmissions were very poor, something that was absolutely necessary in the USA market. Nissan (then Datsun) for the 510 model actually imported USA made auto transmissions and pushed that in ads. Even some UK cars, including RR, used USA sourced automatic transmissions. Those made before the early 1980’s had serious problems with rusting, mechanics had difficulty in working with them preferring to work on better known USA iron, parts were not as easy to get.
    Throw in that many mechanics didn’t have or want to work on UK and Euro cars as had unfamiliar systems, difficulty in getting parts, reliability problems, under engineered for USA conditions, workmanship issues, and supply problems due to frequent labor problems.

  14. Another issue was the cost after covering the shipping & importation fees.

    The Austin Atlantic didn’t sell well because it was the same price as a Buick for a small interior & a 4 cylinder engine.

    Even the Indianapolis records it set didn’t prove to be a sales boost.

    At least the same engine sold better stateside in the Austin Healys.

  15. I wouldn’t be keen on driving a US built vehicle over here, like I wouldn’t wish to drive a UK vehicle over there.
    Driving styles are different, as are expectations of a car.

    Homologation can only go so far in adapting a foreign vehicle to local conditions.
    You cannot blame makers for designing for their home market.

    It would be foolish to over-engineer a vehicle for some foreign destination with extreme climatic conditions- only to find in doing so it becomes uncompetitive in its core home market.

  16. On a positive note the ‘Lucas prince of darkness’ epithet is one that is rapidly being forgotten, as are hosts of other jibes (both real or imagined) about British cars. Ask a 20 or 30 year old petrol head and they will view things in a different and oft more impartial way.
    As @11 highlights, attitudes change. VAG group cars are getting a bad reputation, largely because of faults inherent in diesel EGR systems. I own one and it is irritating, however if I trade off the fact that road tax is virtually zero and it will cruise at 70mpg on the motorway it becomes less significant.
    Many Lucas systems REALLY were reliable.
    It is unfortunate but people never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

  17. Pedro@17, British built cars now are as good as their competitors and sales for cars like the BINI, the Nissan Qashqai and Vauxhall Astra are proof of this. Also when was the last time you heard of a British car factory going in strike, probably in the dim and distant past?
    Meanwhile I hear of plenty of faults with so called superior German cars. At work someone bought a Volkswagen, only to have to get the engine replaced at 20,000 miles and then had to spend £ 500 getting it through its first MOT. Also someone who bought a newish BMW X5, supposedly bulletproof and a very expensive car, had rainwater leak into the cabin and has had plenty of electrical problems. I would sooner spend the money elsewhere.

  18. over the last 30 years an awful lot has been written about the decline of the British Car industry. There can be few subjects that have been documented so well. Is it not time to start focusing on the more recent phenomena, the renaissance of the British Car industry? Goes against our natural glass is half empty instincts I know, but represents a far more accurate assessment of the current situation. After all we are building almost as many and exporting far more cars than we ever did before the “decline”.

  19. Carl #10.As a matter of fact, yes, I was there in the 1960s, in British Columbia, although in fairness my motor industry experience ( but not my interest in it which dated back to the 1950s ) came later, back in the Uk as a director of a BLMC franchise

  20. All true, and sadly still true in many British companies. It is a cultural problem to do with ownership of the companies, which affects the way they are managed.

    Everything is about short term return and profit. If it improves this years figure great, if might improve figures in 5, 10 years time. Nobody wants to know.

    So investment is prosponed, with the attitude, it was good enough five years ago, it is still good enough now. Until foreign companies that plan ahead and invest crush the badly managed British company that doesn’t.

    It is easy to blame the unions, but decades after the unions were broken, the British economy is still largely a failure. With a massive trade deficit, and reliant on housing and debt.

    Our car industry in a success these days, because it is mainly out of the hands of greedy, short termist and incompetent British owners.

  21. Look at JLR,BMW and to a lesser extent Ford, all have either family control or influence and are doing either exceptionally well or fairly tidily.

    Its only when the shareholders-and that is not the man in the street but the thieving double crossing hedge funds and banks and finance houses that gamble recklessly does that have a far from positive effect, coupled with piss poor management.

    Then artificial housing bubbles grew out of control, with highly toxic sub prime mortgages with the origins in the USA they burst and nobody buys the next big thing-the car.

    We should be hanging bankers and traders not bailing them out, think about that while working into your 70’s.

    The next crisis is right round the corner and nobody in the know dare talk about it.

  22. Contrary to what we sometimes hear on here, the British car industry is doing very well, thankyou. Nissan exports 250,000 cars a year, its factory provides much needed jobs for 7000 people and thousands more for suppliers and has never lost a day to industrial action since 1986. Also the once troubled Cowley works is now one of the most efficient car plants in Europe and produces the hugely popular new Mini and JLR are undergoing a massive revival and have recruited 1500 staff last year.
    Not bad going for an industry some people think died with MG Rover.

  23. My father-in-law was stationed in the UK during the war. Because of the genuine kindness shown to him during those dark times he bought a new Bentley in 1947. While expensive it was no more than a new Cadillac would have cost him in those “Export or Die” days. This car was dreadful. He owned it until 1949 when he traded for a new Buick Roadmaster. For the next 50 years this gentleman told every single friend, business client and stranger how bad British cars were.

    Now I run a Rolls-Royce Silver Spur as a daily driver. I love my car. I wouldn’t give up my car for any reason but I will not purchase a new Rolls-Royce or Bentley. The new cars might be better in every way but they are not British! I simply do not want a BMW or Volkswagon.

  24. Post 2 (Christopher Storey) is wrong re “very antiquated engineering design”

    Slow to adopt the radial tyre & disc brakes & halogen lighting, yes.
    But who do you think introduced to mass production in the 1950 features like auto transmissions, fuel injection, air suspension (less than successful) lock up torque converters, air conditioning,power steering, fibreglass bodies, and all the power assists we enjoy today.

    Go forward to the early 60s and you can add the pioneering of the alternator, alloy V8s, turbocharging.

    For the record, I’m Australian ( I won’t mention the Ashes!)
    but there’s a Buick in the garage.

  25. @28;
    Thanks for not mentioning the ashes…..
    Should we mention the oz auto industry – how well is that going these days?

  26. Not good.Once Holden & ford leave, that’s the end. I discount toyota as they make mere self propelling appliances & white goods.

    It saddens me that soon there will be no manufacturing in Aus at all.

  27. @6 – what a lot of drivel, the heating was rubbish, the engines prone to HGF and most departed the world prematurely because of a total lack of rust proofing. A subject which returned to haunt VW in the 80’s with older Golf and Polo cars where high quality steel was bought in the DDR.

  28. #5 makes a good point. The post war British Car industry was built on the export or die philosophy. Nuffield and later BMC did extremely well with MG and Austin Healeys as well as TRs. Just about every sports car britain made was eventually modelled on what Ralph Nader decreed but without them the US would have no idea what a proper handling sports car was.
    I also agree the humble Somerset and A70s were solid reliable designs albeit a little small by american comparison.

  29. I had anticipated my blog would generate some hostility. When I arrived in Canada from Coventry in 1962 I reacted similarly — I was appalled that colleagues in Toronto were openly cynical about the suitability of British cars for North American conditions. But after a year or so of dealing with unhappy owners and frustrated dealers I became equally disillusioned, realizing that most of the problems could have been eliminated easily and relatively inexpensively had the decision makers in the UK been prepared to listen and act. Certainly sports cars — Alpine, Big Healey, MGB, Spridget and TR4 — were selling well but growth in the import market depended primarily on mundane family-targeted cars. And in that crucial segment the Beetle was eating our lunch.

    Addressing some points raised as Comments:

    Ford Prefect: English Ford models were sold in North America (as, incidentally, were Vauxhall models). English Ford sales figures can be found on Michael MacSems website “A Brief History of English Fords in North America”.

    Carbon (graphite) clutch release bearing: Like it or not, some people clutch pedal ride, especially in heavy traffic. So a forward-looking designer/marketer finds a solution, rather than just scold the customer. On Detroit’s cars light pedal riding was not a significant problem because drivers had grown up with release bearings of the durable ball-race type, also used on U.S. influenced English Ford and Vauxhall. VW switched to it from the carbon type in the early 1960’s, Standard-Triumph around the same time. But BMC and Rootes continued with the cheap, wear-prone carbon type. To achieve success in a market it is necessary to adapt the product to suit that market’s consumers’ habits, bad though they may be considered to be.

    Bendix-drive starter: Dropped by the Detroit manufacturers, and by VW, in the mid-to-late 1950’s, but remained in use on most higher-volume British cars until at least the mid 1960’s, thereby saddling them with over five more years of reputation as difficult to start in sub-zero weather. Lucas should not be blamed: Lucas could have supplied the better starter had the British car manufacturers been prepared to step up to the extra cost.

    Electrical: In my experience in Canada, most electrical problems on British cars of that era were the result of corrosion of under-bonnet terminals and connectors because they were inadequately protected from salt-laden road splash. Also, the cap-like terminals on battery cables would,over time, begin to cause conductivity breakdowns. The simple split-clamp type was much more dependable. Yes, the cap-like terminal could be maintained to be trouble-free but North American car owners did not expect to have to tinker — they were accustomed to cars that would remain reliable without TLC. That’s what the market expected.

    Canards: The Oxford Dictionary definition of “canard” is “an unfounded rumour or story”. The problems I listed in my Blog were not products of my imagination: I had to deal with them frequently, as did those countless others in Canada and the northern U.S states involved, during the 1950’s to 1970’s, in the business of servicing British cars. The 19th century belief that what was good enough for Britain should be good enough for the rest of the world was not a recipe for 20th century commercial success. Post WWII the British-owned car manufacturers, particularly the managers who controlled engineering budgets and component purchasing, took far too long to accept that. Whether out of myopia, complacency or jingoistic arrogance they handed off what was then the world’s most lucrative export market, thus sowing the seeds for Britain’s downfall. There is a healthy car-manufacturing industry in Britain today but the companies that control most of it are the likes of BMW, Nissan, Tata and Volkswagen. That need not have happened.

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