AROnline Contributor and former BMC manufacturing apprentice turned British Leyland retailer Richard Williams recalls the launch of the miniMetro aboard a cruise ship on the Irish Sea – what could possibly go wrong?
Back in 1980, British Leyland, the huge conglomerate made by merging most of the British-owned motor manufacturers, was lurching from one crisis to the next. Product quality was poor, delays in deliveries were endemic but, worst of all, was the lack of new models.
The product range consisted of the Mini, by then 21 years old, the Austin Allegro, a bulbous two- and four-door car which was something of a failure, the Morris Marina, the replacement for the Morris Minor, the Austin Maxi, a great concept but an ugly car with many faults and the Princess, a large initially-stylish, wedge-shaped car which had rapidly gone out of fashion.
Dealers were becoming very disillusioned and terminating their franchises to take on those from imported manufacturers, whose product ranges were growing with more practical and stylish models.
The launch of the miniMetro: the BL fightback begins
The biggest growth in the market place was coming from small hatchbacks which were stylish and economical. The European OEMs like Fiat and Peugeot were all represented – the two key players were the Renault 5 and Volkswagen Golf – and the Japanese OEMs were also making inroads into the market. British Leyland needed one badly.
In mid-September, Williams Automobiles received an invitation to attend the launch of the new, much-needed hatchback and celebrate the Mini’s 21st Birthday. The event was to take place on a small cruise liner sailing out of the West Gladstone Dock in Liverpool. It was a time of great excitement – although the Metro project had been well publicized, the development work had been done secretly and very little was known about the car. The press buzz was growing fast.
A few days before we were due to arrive in Liverpool the remains of a large hurricane called Ivan had blown across the Atlantic and decided to end its life by stirring up the Irish Sea just before we set sail.
Heading for the Irish Sea
We arrived at what was a cargo dock to see a lovely small cruise ship, the MS Vistafjord (above), waiting for us alongside the dock. We parked in the designated parking close by and boarded. It was mid-afternoon so it would give us time to settle in our cabin before we ventured up to the lounge to attend the Mini’s 21st Birthday celebrations. In every nook and cranny, there was a Mini with a big 21st birthday card on it. Not a sign of the new car at all…
Ivan was busily doing his work. There was a strong swell in the docks and the boat was swaying gently. That’s when the sea sickness got me, before we had even left dock. The good thing was I had recovered enough to attend the evening celebrations with the ship steaming out into the Irish Sea and the weather getting rougher.
The champagne and canapés flowed along with the sea sickness that was beginning to claim more and more victims. Apart from that, it was a lovely and well-thought-out celebration. Who could not love the little Mini, the world’s most innovative car? A truly classless car, which appealed to everyone, the Mini was fantastic for motorsport, leisure and town use, a true all-rounder. However, for its manufacturers and retailers the Mini had only one small problem – it was so keenly priced that it didn’t make money.
Minis were everywhere
It was amazing just how many Minis there were on board. They were on the decks, in all the large public areas and all around the ballroom. However, the surviving party goers made up of the toughest car dealers and their wives were rapidly succumbing to sea sickness as the boat, now well clear of land, was taking on the characteristics of a fairground roller coaster. Before midnight just about all had surrendered and headed for the sanctuary of their cabins to regain their strength for the much-anticipated launch the following day.
Breakfast was a rather muted affair as most of those attending had developed a rather greenish hue, but anticipation was high. We were all going to see a fantastic new model that would restore British Leyland’s market share, revive dealer profitability and give us the ‘jam tomorrow’ much promised by our Regional Managers.
The launch was to be in the morning and we were then to be offloaded on the Isle of Man to actually drive the new car. It was an incredibly well planned and thought out launch – probably the best to date – but the one uncontrolled variable was still wreaking its deadly force.
‘The surviving party goers made up of the toughest car dealers and their wives were rapidly succumbing to sea sickness as the boat, now well clear of land, was taking on the characteristics of a fairground roller coaster.’
All the retail network and their wives – well, those still standing – made their way past the Minis to the ballroom which had been now laid out in a conference format. At the front, facing a bulkhead, were the display screens for the videos along with a giant round British Leyland sign that, a few years later, was to gain its own rather derogatory name. The Minis from last night were all covered up and there was no sign of the new vehicle.
Building up the tension
The sense of anticipation rose: we were given a great motivating talk and visual display by the Directors, we were given market data, profit projections and reasons why the entire British population was a market for the car. It would appeal to everyone from dustmen (recycling officers as they are known now) to royalty and they were right. They told us how it would roll back the tide of foreign imports, and they were right about that too.
‘They told us that it would be the best quality car built and that the factory could supply enough to satisfy the market quickly. However, they got that one a little wrong.’
At last the presenters announced ‘…and now the new miniMetro!’ The screen displays and the music were fantastic – it was like being at a rock show. Compounded with the effect of being inside a capsule on a roller coaster, it was an awe-inspiring experience. The British Leyland roundel suddenly lit up in a vivid neon blue light and then, horror of horrors, it started to rotate. The motion of the boat and visual motion of the rotating sign swiftly finished off the less hardy, who turned Opaline Green and made a swift exit to deposit their breakfast. For those who survived, the result was spectacular and probably the best launch since Ford launched the Mustang.
The rotating roundel slowly opened and smoke came out lit by the blue light then, from out of the smoke, on an hydraulic arm, appeared the new miniMetro. It was spectacular. There was a huge and much-deserved standing ovation then, to add more excitement, the covers were removed from the previous night’s Minis to reveal that they had been replaced by Metros. It was an incredible achievement. The car was every bit as good as described. It had its own unique style, it was spacious yet economical. It was competitively priced and made you proud to be British.
Excitement was running high during the storm
We all clustered round the new cars, excitement was running high. We all knew that there was a huge market for it from our loyal customer base, but we did have a few questions on quality and supply and were assured all was planned for. The other amazing thing was that every Mini on display all around the ship had been replaced by a Metro. Considering the rolling of the ship, the logistics and execution of this was incredible and highest commendations should be awarded to the team that carried it out.
‘Ray Horrocks, the Managing Director of British Leyland, was transferred to another boat by breeches buoy to get him back quickly to an urgent meeting with the Government in London.’
Then it was off to lunch to await the anticipated drive of the cars around the Isle of Man TT course. However, unbeknown to us, Hurricane Ivan had other ideas and increased his wind intensity to something that Rear Admiral Beaufort had given up measuring when he devised his wind speed scale.
The Isle of Man was in sight but only fleetingly between the monster waves that were rolling by. One second there was a great view of the island when we were on the crest of a wave, the next view was of another large wave rolling in when you were in a trough. It soon became obvious that there was no chance of us making landfall as it was simply too dangerous.
…but the seasickness was claiming victims
More people were succumbing to the dreaded sea sickness and retreating to their cabins leaving a very hard core of survivors whose afternoon’s entertainment was to see Ray Horrocks, the Managing Director of British Leyland, being transferred to another boat by breeches buoy to get him back quickly to an urgent meeting with the Government in London.
My wife very wisely avoided sea sickness by finding the indoor swimming pool which was rocking in time with the waves. By swimming in it, she found the rolling motion of the boat was absorbed by the water in the pool – a true MS Vistafjord survivor…
The boat steamed back to Liverpool, the pounding of the sea subsided and the passengers looked a little less green. As we went down the gangplank some people were walking in a drunken manner as they were adjusting to the land not rolling and that brought on a few more bouts of sickness. The whole event – whatever the weather – was a fantastic experience and one I will never forget. I am really pleased that my wife and I survived the ‘miniMetro Launch.’
Back to land with a bump…
Buoyed by great hopes from the event, we returned home determined to host a great Metro launch party for our clients. We arranged a large evening party in our showroom – we would have trained ladies to demonstrate the cars on display, lovely food and wine. We mailed our customers and had an almost 100 per cent acceptance. However, shortly after that reality struck – our questions on quality and delivery proved to be very prescient.
We had been promised 10 cars, but were only offered three due to delays in production and, to top this, there was very little promotional material available. It was quite clear that the agency that had produced such a slick launch to the dealers and press was not involved in the main launch which was being organised by British Leyland in-house – for a huge party, it looked like we had three cars and about thirty catalogues. We would look absolute fools, urgent action was needed.
I swung into action persuading some of my old apprentice colleagues, who were still involved with the factory, to get me two more cars which had been stuck in rectification. We said we would rectify them ourselves.
Sidestepping the ‘system’
Having worked in the publicity stores, I knew that they were an entity in their own right and took a gamble. I drove our trusty Sherpa van up to Oxford and parked at one of the loading bays. I wandered inside and introduced myself to the Foreman – I explained that I had worked there about 10 years before and that I had come up from the British Leyland’s Regional Office in Bristol with a letter on their headed paper asking for urgent brochures for the region.
The signature was illegible and the Foreman was so busy that he did not have time to check the authenticity of the letter so he swiftly arranged for me to load what we needed. Needless to say the van was loaded to the gunnels and swiftly driven away before my ruse had been rumbled.
Anyway, with the two extra cars, now making five, and a van load of promotional materials, our Launch Event could go ahead and it did. Hundreds of our customers descended, they loved the car and, even though bits like the bumper ends and trim fell off and door handles broke, they were not deterred from buying them. We sold them like shelling peas and then, guess what?
Supply was awful with huge delays and quality was poor. Our worst fears had been justified, but that did not stop this fabulous little car from saving our business for several years. Had the quality had been excellent, the supply adequate for the market and the model constantly refreshed, then the story of British Leyland might have had a happier ending.
What of the Metro?
Williams Automobiles soldiered on with British Leyland until it morphed into Austin Rover. The Metro was indeed our saviour. As the new sales waned, the used ones grew. British Leyland found a great ruse by sending new Metros to the Channel Islands to act as hire cars, many never turned a wheel. The cars were then re-imported in their droves and sold to a select few dealers – luckily, we were one of them. Coupled with the warranty work, due to the poor quality of the cars, that kept the workshop going and the Metros, we remained profitable until it was obvious that Austin Rover was a basket case and we needed to change franchises.
Fortunately, we successfully managed to do that by changing to Saab then, on that marque’s demise, we re-located the company to rural South Gloucestershire from where we now operate a multi-award winning, Internet-based niche franchise business with a worldwide client base – but that’s another story…
Meanwhile, the latest incarnation of the car which the Metro was intended to replace, the MINI, is still going strong and is a transport fashion icon in most developed countries – especially China, where its sales are rocketing – whereas the Metro has gone. However, had the Phoenix Four, who bought the remains of British Leyland from BMW Group, revived the Metro in the same way BMW resuscitated the Mini, the story could have been so different.
There is still, though, one small ray of sunlight for the Metro – at least some remaining examples are being restored to their former glory so future generations will see them in the coming years. Would I buy and restore a Metro? Well, probably not, but I hope many people do to keep the legend alive. I do, though, still have two boxes of the launch catalogues left in my attic!
And the MS Vistafjord?
Well, it’s a story which has more than a few parallels with that of British Leyland. The MS Vistafjord was the last cruise ship to be built at the majestic Swan Hunter & Tyne Shipbuilders Limited shipyard at Wallsend on the Tyne and, indeed, the last cruise liner to be built in the United Kingdom. Swan Hunter was, like British Leyland, suffering from lack of investment, union strife and Government interference and, just as British Leyland produced the iconic Metro, Swan Hunter produced the elegant, though rapidly outdated MS Vistafjord.
Norwegian American Line, the shipping company which originally commissioned the MS Vistafjord, struggled for profitability and was purchased by the Cunard Line, the UK’s luxury cruise company. The MS Vistafjord therefore joined the Cunard fleet in October 1983 – just three years after the miniMetro Launch.
Like the Metro, the ship, although still elegant, dated quickly and, as Cunard moved on to bigger and more modern ships, the competitiveness of the MS Vistafjord waned. In 1999, Cunard like British Leyland, made one of those disastrous moves and renamed her MS Caronia – a name that was supposed to be a more traditional Cunard Line name. Bookings slowed and finally, in 2004, she was sold to a company that understood her market, Saga Cruises, which commissioned a £17 million refit and re-launched her as the MS Saga Ruby in March 2005. Her market was, like the Metro’s, made up of older people who still had brand loyalty and a resistance to change.
Meanwhile, British Leyland had lurched through similar crises of trying to trade with an ageing model range. The company was bought by British Aerospace, which stripped a lot of surplus property from the company to keep the cash flow going, but didn’t invest in the necessary new products which were so desperately needed. A year after the MS Vistafjord was bought by the Cunard Line, British Leyland was sold to BMW Group which soon realised that this manufacturing conglomerate was well past its sell by date. The company ceased making the Metro in 1998 and, in 2000, what was by then known as the Rover Group was finally broken up. The part which was sold into private ownership, MG Rover Group Limited, finally expired in 2005.
However, following her refit, the MS Vistafjord had a new lease of life and cruised on for several years, but her age was showing and what proved to be her final cruise from the 7 December 2013 to the 10 January 2014 was marred by mechanical problems which resulted in the itinerary being revised. Saga Cruises her sold for $14M USD to Millennium View Limited, a Singapore-based company which planned to convert her into a floating hotel in Myanmar. The cost of converting her was reportedly $10 million USD but, just as with the privately-owned MG Rover Group, anyone with an ounce of commercial sense could see that was unlikely to be financially viable, and it wasn’t.
The new owners of the now-renamed Oasia went into administration and, after two years of sitting unloved, this grand old lady embarked on her last voyage from Sattahip in Thailand to “the place where ships go to die” at Alang in India, which was to be her final resting place. Sadly, as this was being written, the last of her hull was being dismantled. She was a wonderful, elegant ship which outlived the Metro by 19 years – a fantastic achievement – but, unlike the Metro, the poor MS Vistafjord will now only live on in pictures and the happy memories of her former passengers…
[Editor’s Note: Richard Williams is still a Director of the company founded by his grandfather 106 years ago, Williams Automobiles Limited, and represented the smaller retailers on the National Franchised Dealers Association’s National Executive for many years. The company, which was highly commended in the Best Dealership category of the 2014 Automotive Management Awards, currently has franchises for three of the UK’s leading low-volume sports car manufacturers, Caterham, Lotus and Morgan.]