Blog : Two Septembers of contrasting fortunes

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Keith Adams

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As we move into September, thoughts always turn to what’s been achieved throughout the year. I usually look at it as the start of the downhill run to Christmas, helped by the fact we’ve just had our final Bank Holiday of the year – and large companies get back to work (properly) after four weeks of people taking time off. It’s also good to look back at what was going on in the company’s history – and to see that both 30 and 40 years ago, it was turning for the better, and the worse.

Thirty years ago

In September 1985, Austin Rover was definitely on the up. New investment from the Government had secured engine and model development, the new Design Studio in Canley was knocking out some of the best work in the industry, while it looked like the company’s relationship with Honda was really about to bear fruit.

Exciting-looking cars like the AR6 supermini and AR16/17 medium saloon were on the (distant) horizon, while the XX – Rover 800 – was within months of being launched. Okay, so the Maestro and Montego were underperforming on the marketplace, but the Metro was still flying high, and after years in the BL doldrums, company insiders really were beginning to speak, quietly, about an optimistic future.

What we couldn’t have known, as the calendar flicked from August to September, was that we’d have our collective breath taken away by a concept car from MG. The wraps came off the EX-E at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1985, and here was a concept that looked (and as it transpired, was capable of being) ready for production. It was loosely based on the MG Metro 6R4 rally car, and the styling was pure ’80s supercar.

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However, getting back to the serious business, Austin Rover was readying itself for the launch of the Rover 800 (above). At the Frankfurt Motor Show, the Chairman of Austin Rover Group, Harold Musgrove, told the press: ‘This car will challenge the best Germany has to offer, clinic results in Europe and North America have been emphatic in that opinion. We have to tailor our cars to suit individual export markets. In the case of Germany, that has meant spending considerable time and resources on meeting the emission regulations, whether we approve of them or not. But our range of compliant cars benefit both the consumer and the environment.

‘But we have other advantages. Austin Rover products are not dependent upon the availability of lead-free fuel, essential if a catalyst is fitted, at present stocked by just about 10 per cent of the fuel stations in Germany and difficult to obtain elsewhere, so that, in effect, catalysts are placing travel restrictions on one of the most outwardly mobile populations in Continental Europe. Catalysts are expensive to buy and maintain and their fitment inevitably means loss of fuel efficiency.

‘It is true that with current technology, catalysts will be required to meet the low emission levels for large cars but in the longer term, Austin Rover is developing new lean-burn technology which will result in significant advances in emission performance and fuel efficiency.’

There’s nothing like turning a negative into a positive. Read into that what you will, but it certainly reflects the company’s bullishness 30 years ago. Contrast that with how things were a decade previously…

Forty years ago

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In September 1975, BL was in a state of barely concealed panic. Although the recommendations of the Ryder Report were far-reaching and would assure financing the now-Government-controlled car company (following its 1974 bail-out) would stay buoyant until the late-1970s, there were still big problems in the day-to-day running of the company. Industrial action was causing continued sales losses, imports into the UK were rising and the national press was rapidly turning against the Birmingham-based company.

New cars were flowing through, though, hangovers from Donald Stokes’ time at the head of BLMC, and although we might not have appreciated at the time, they were a bold and interesting selection of cars. The BLMC 18-22 Series was the company’s newest range of cars, and looked very promising indeed. But it also ended up falling victim of the confused marketing that hit BLMC the hardest – so what was launched as a range of Austin, Morris and Wolseley saloons, would end up being rechristened the Princess in September 1975.

Although this was a sensible decision in terms of rationalising what Austin and Morris meant in the post-BL world, the rebranding exercise proved to be a PR disaster, thanks to it proving to be the deathknell of the still highly regarded Wolseley marque. But despite that, the Princess would go on to live a reasonably long-life and, although it never threatened Ford in the sales charts, it won friends as it was continuously developed throughout its life.

The big news was that September 1975 was probably the month that sealed Morris’ (and probably Triumph’s) fate as a viable concern in the mid-market, with the management decision to kill the Triumph SD2 programme and replace it with the joint Triumph-Morris TM-1, which was designed to replace the Dolomite and the Marina.

Given the resources already thrown at the SD2, the TM1 could have been just the ticket to maintain a serious presence in the mid-market, but as it happened, this programme was already in the process of being chopped in favour of ADO99, which would later become the LC10/LM11 programme – the Maestro/Montego (coincidentally, the styling of the former was well advanced by this point).

That does, though, prompt one of those many delicious questions which our eternal soap opera poses: would the rear-wheel drive mini-SD1 have worked as a repmobile-cum-upwardly mobile saloon in the late-1970s? Perhaps canning it was the only way the company would be able to continue paying wages – we’ll never know for sure.

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Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

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.
Keith Adams

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7 Comments

  1. In hindsight, SD2 may have sold moderately for a couple of years before sakes tailed off.

    RWD would have appealed to the fleet market who would also have been more receptive to a hatchback than that other “modern” concept, the hatchback.

    However I have never liked the styling and the Mark 2 Cavalier would probably put SD2 to bed so to speak.

    • Yes, I remember that the Mk1 Cavalier did seem to have a rather more up-market image in the late 70s – more Dolomite than Cortina. The dash for market share with the Mk2 in the 80s put paid to that though.

  2. Was that the same press conference where Harold Musgrove stated that the 800 didn’t need ABS because it was front wheel drive? If ever there was a case of over promotion he was it!

  3. Lumping in SD-2 with the Marina replacement did show how, long term, they misread the market, when you consider that BMW launched the 3 series around that time, a car that has sold in vast numbers for 40 years, and with the same formula of a sporty RWD saloon, with an upmarket image. Instead they dragged a potential Dolomite replacement back towards the Cortina bashing market, and eventually ended up losing the premium product completely, launching a not very aspirational FWD saloon (LM11).

    It’s taken JLR with the XE to finally produce a worthy 3 series competitor!

    • Then again the Dolomite had “cooking” versions so a single model to replace both it & the Marina doesn’t seem to wide of the mark, especially as standardisation was badly needed.

      The to compete with the 3 series QC would have needed to have been upped, something which ruined the chances of the SD1 after the original goodwill.

      Could the 2.3 6 cylinder units haven been able to fit in the SD2? so it could compete with the larger 3 series & even the top of the range Cortinas.

      It’s impressive that the 3 series sold amost 1.4 million in 7 years, about 200,000 a year!

  4. Things were pretty grim as well actually 30 years ago, sales were sliding, the Maestro and Montego were gaining a very poor reputation for quality, the company was nearly sold to Ford, and a year later Musgrove would be given the push…

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