Read the extraordinary story of how the production of glass fibre Minis and 1100s was instigated in Chile. Story by Dennis Harrison.
To octagenarians, Abingdon, the factory home of the MG for half a century, is synonymous with the marque. Few, if any, have heard of another production centre at Arica, a seaport on the Pacific coast of Chile on the edge of the Atacama Desert, 1600 km north of the capital, Santiago, and 50km from the Peruvian border.
Arica boasts a population of 80,000 a small, prefabricated cathedral designated by Alexandra Eiffel, of Eiffel Tower fame, a fake grave of Sir Francis Drake and, for a time, the distinction of being a diminutive Detroit where VWs were assembled, Mini Coopers built and, although the histories donât mention it, MGs too. Both the British carâs bodies were made of fibreglass.
Mini Cooper production by British Leyland’s Chilean subsidiary was already up and running when the parent company, in 1969, sent its senior designer, Syd Horwood, and a 21 year old plastics’ engineer, Martin Ferguson, to set up a parallel operation to make MG 1300 saloons – the badge engineered version of the Morris 1300.
Fergusonâs task was to make one mould and the first car. Horwood was to make sure local materials were available and that the body and the British mechanicals mated happily. At the same time, they were to show the Chileans what to do and Ferguson was to stay on to get them started.
Setting up a car factory, albeit a small one, was an exciting prospect for a 21 year old. ‘The Chileans had shown a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for the project beforehand,’ Ferguson said. ‘They had told British Leyland that they had a factory ready to ensure that the project got to Chile.’
The pair’s spirits were high as they drove up to the Mini factory and saw the Union Jack flying in the breeze. Coming closer, they were amused to notice it had been hoisted upside down – traditionally a distress or warning signal. And unintentionally, so it was. It marked the beginning of a chain of events which would have done credit to an adventure movie with a dash of Alfred Hitchcock.
To their surprise, the Chilean management did not appear pleased to see them, let alone enthusiastic. As for the promised factory, it didn’t exist and no alternative was offered. Angry and disappointed, they decided, with stiff British upper lip, to go ahead anyway. They were determined to build the prototype, factory or no factory, even if it meant working outside in the sand and heat, far removed from the ‘atmosphere peculiar to the marque’, as MG used to say.
But they weren’t expecting the problems posed by the supporting cast from the other side – the local Customs Department which wouldn’t release the materials, parts and tools which the British had brought with them. Frustrating weeks went by until, out of the blue, the first truckload arrived accompanied by Customs officers with a set of scales.
They announced they would weigh everything before handing it over. And they did, down to each nut and bolt, separately. It was a message to which the British gave the appropriate answer. The officer in charge owned a Mini Cooper. Would he like some extras for it? As gifts, of course.
‘They were the horns which played Colonel Bogey and so on,’ Ferguson said. ‘The more auxiliary equipment we supplied, the faster we gained our materials.’ Setting up the moulds for the prototype got under way.
The Chilean management showed little interest. However, one of them was assigned to help Ferguson and to learn how to build a car himself. He said he had been trained in plastics at his father’s factory. Asked what the factory made, he replied ‘Shirt buttons.ä Ferguson couldn’t believe it. ‘Here we had a fellow who was going to build an automobile and all he knew was how to make shirt buttons,’ He said.
So much for ãa car built by enthusiasts’, as MG would also used to say, But Ferguson and Horwood were committed to ‘Maintaining the Breed’ and pressed on. Out of the moulds came the floor, sides, rear and front, and the two doors for the first fibreglass MG. Arica was no Abingdon. Working in the open was tough. Horwood, 20 years older than Ferguson, wore two straw hats, one on top of the other, but he still got sunstroke. That, however, was nothing compared to events after dark when the MG motto, ‘Safety Fast’ became ‘Safety·Fast!’
‘We became aware that we were being followed,’ Ferguson said, ‘And that our hotel was keeping a record of our comings and goings which were passed on to the Chileans at the factory. The factory accountant followed us, we know, because he crashed his Ford F100 tailing Syd who was in a Mini. When he saw who was behind him, he deliberately drove through a narrow gate, just like they do in the movies. The Ford followed but couldnât make it. We saw the damage to it at the factory the next day.
‘Then there was the night Syd found a policeman in the hotel kitchen asking the staff about our movements and what money we were spending.’ Irritated, they tried with British Empire bravado to turn the harassment into a game. ‘We would go out at night and stop a telephone boxes and pretend to make calls and write things down, or sit in restaurants and look at our watches as if we were waiting for someone.’
While such activity might have been consistent with building Îa car born of sporting successâ it was probably foolhardy. Their hosts were obviously after evidence to discredit them, but why?
Ferguson came to the conclusion that the Chileans had put up the MG project to make sure British Leyland maintained its interest in its Chilean operation and the flow of money which went with it ö only they hadn’t bargained on the company responding so promptly.
‘When we got there and there was no factory, they had to stall,’ Ferguson said. ‘One way was not to do too much and say to themselves: When they go, we’ll blame them and say they didn’t show us the job properly’. Evidence of improper conduct would have strengthened their case.’
To the Chilean’s acute disappointment, the prototype ö body and all mechanicals installed – was completed three months after the pair arrived, which was still twice as long as it should have taken. A little longer and a little heavier that its steel counterpart, the fibreglass version was otherwise identical apart from the absence of welding seams. It performed well on its test run and lacked none of its antecedentâs qualities of material and workmanship.
A relieved Horwood could now go home to England which prompted the Chilean factory manager to show a sudden interest in the project, ask a lot of questions and rush off to England ahead of him. They guessed that he was on his way to blame THEM for the delays to the project.
After Horwood’s departure, Ferguson stayed on with some uneasiness.
Fortunately, falling in love with a local girl brightened his existence and training local workers to make MGs, as planned, kept him busy. At long last, too, he got a factory when the VW assembly plant closed down.
With his gradually acquired fluency in Spanish he learned from the workers about the yacht which had been build in the Mini factory before he arrived.
‘Also, I think there was little sideline in cars,’ he said, ‘Whole Minis were going out to relatives of the management and I also saw a sport car being made.’
But his worries weren’t over. Late one afternoon he was driving along the lonely Pan-American highway towards Peru, where shopping was cheaper, when the petrol pump of his Mini pick-up failed. There was no other traffic in sight and, fearful of staying with the car in the dark, he went into the desert and buried himself in the sand, out of sight.
In the morning, he found the pick-up had been broken into. It could have been an opportunist thief but, after being pushed back to Arica by an obliging truck, he found evidence of something more sinister. The breather hole in the petrol cap had been soldered over.
‘It was an early model Mini and didn’t have a breather tube out of the tank,ä Ferguson said. ‘There was this hole in the cap. Blocking it causes a vacuum and eventually a failure to pump petrol to the engine because the electric pump can only pump so much pressure. I’m certain it was someone at the factory and I don’t think it was joke. So many things happened.’
For the first time, and now on his own, he felt afraid. From then on, he carried a Sten gun when on the road. He never had to use it but he felt safer.
Meanwhile, there were signed the MG assembly line was not functioning as efficiently as it opposite number in England. Ferguson noticed that the machinery for building the chassis was being tampered with during the night. He suspected a German who job had never been fully explained. He was just known, ominously, as ‘the overseer’.
One night Ferguson waited ’til all the workers were gone and climbed to where the lengths of steel tubing for the chassis were stacked near to the ceiling, overlooking the entrance to the machine shop. After a time, someone came through the doorway. It was the ãoverseerä. A wave of anger swept over Ferguson as he instinctively leaned forward for a clearer view. In so doing, the stack of tubing shifted and a shower of clanging steel rained down on the man below. Ferguson fled the building. The next day he heard there had been an accident and that the ‘overseer’ was in hospital. When he was released, he did not return to the factory.
After nine months, Ferguson’s job was over. The Chileans were making MGs themselves and he could go home taking with him his Chilean wife. During the last months, he had been dispatching almost daily reports to his boss in England. Slowly British Leyland came to realise that all was not well with its Chilean operation.
Before Ferguson left, representatives of an international accountancy firm arrived to conduct an audit. ‘They questioned me every night for about a week.ä Ferguson said. ãThey were particularly interested in personal assets made in the factory, such as yachts and the like.’
Eighteen months after Ferguson returned to England, British Leyland conducted its own inquiry into the Chilean MG affair. While the facts were being sorted out. Horwood and Ferguson remained under a cloud until the actions and reputations were upheld. It had been a strain on them both. Ferguson, fed up, emmigrated to Australia.
The Chileans went on making MGs and their Minis until the factories were closed down by the new, reformist government of Salvador Allende who came to power at the end of 1970.
Despite the bizarre circumstances of its creation, the fibreglass MGs brought no dishonour to the respected octagonal badge and did not lessen the prestige of the famous marque. The ‘car for enthusiasts’ is still treasured by those in Chile. When the Fergusons went back in the early Î80s on holiday, they saw MGs still on the road and, at Arica, the abandoned factory was still there, littered with parts and the remains of the fibreglass moulds.
Further information, supplied by Rodrigo Toledo
The 1100/1300 was produced between 1969 and 1974, meaning that the factory was closed under the military government imposed after the september 11th 1973.
The glass fibre body was employed through necessity, because of the, “arrogant plan of nationalization of the car components”, which forced to the carmakers to achieve at least 55 per cent national or South American content. It was for this reason that cars such as the Citroen 2CV6 cost almost four-times as much as they did in France. The weather may have played a little part in the decision to go with glass fibre, but central Chile, where the majority of cars would be sold, has Mediterranean weather, and the south is very similar to Britain and Austria. In other words, the reason that British Leyland publicly cited for using glass fibre (i.e., because of the humidity) may well have not been totally correct. According to Rodrigo Toledo, “it is my humble opinion that the national weather was not so important as the economic policy”, and that the choice of glass fibre may well have been down to the lack of an indigenous steel industry.
In terms of content, the engines were shipped from Britain along with the essential mechanical components, and these represented 35 per cent of the total price of the cars sold.
This press advert was, in fact, published in the October 1971 edition of PAULA, an ELLE-style womens’ magazine.
Toledo goes on to say, “…When I was a child, I lived in Arica and the city still was just as it was described in the article, and the BL factory still had all the logos in place, as late as 1989.” If anyone can supply any pictures of the plant, please contact us.
Written by Dennis Harrison, pictures by M Ferguson and M Harrison.
Article submitted by Daniel Lee and transcribed by Susan Hayward.
Footnote information kindly supplied by Rodrigo Toledo