What have Austin Morris been doing since the formation of British Leyland in May 1968? Will Austin and Morris diverge? How good is the new ADO28? What will happen to the 1100/1300 range? George Turnbull, deputy managing director of British Leyland and managing director of Austin Morris, talks frankly to Harold Hastings.
Until very recently many people had felt that nothing much had happened in the volume car division of British Leyland since the merger and I asked George Turnbull if he would like to make a general comment on what is going on.
George Turnbull – ‘I think the problems were rather greater than we envisaged when the merger took place and first of all we had to make sure we had a model policy and a series of new models coming in over the next four or five years. At the same time, we had to plan our factories to suit those models, and simultaneously improve and modernize our facilities to utilize the floorspace most effectively. It took a full year to outline how we would cover the market with a reasonable range of models and how we could adjust our production facilities to make us fully competitive with our contemporaries; and it took most of the second year to develop the plan to a point where we could act on it. But don’t forget that we’ve also done an awful lot of work on new models and on improving existing ones during this period.
Right at the beginning of the merger, within weeks of settling the details, we started in on the ADO28 because, except for the Maxi, the cupboard was bare when we took over. We worked very hard on the Maxi and I think now it is a very successful car, but our main job then was to see how we could take some of the business from our competitors by developing a range of cars which would be more competitive with the American companies in this country. The ADO28 will, as you know, be coming out in the spring and I’m sure it will do this; but it has taken a great deal of hard work over the past two years to bring out a concept like this on time, especially as we had to reconstruct a lot of our facilities in the Oxford area at the same time.
Remember, too, that as well as making a lot of improvements to the Maxi and developing the completely new ADO28 in the short time of two and a half years, we have facelifted the Mini range, improved the MGB’s, Midgets and Sprites, brought out the very successful 1300GT and improved the light commercial range. So really we’ve had a very busy time keeping existing models up to date and in line with safety and pollution regulations, quite apart from bringing out new models, and there’s a lot more in the pipeline.
All this has been done in spite of some factories being in the wrong place. We still suffer from that, because we have 16 factories whereas, ideally, we ought to have only four or five. As you know, we are closing two factories when we stop production of old models. This was really the basic weakness of the old BMC organisation in that a lot of these old models were carried round the countryside in body form, having been made in one place, painted in another and finally assembled and trimmed in yet another. We’re trying to eradicate this as we replace old models. I think it will become very obvious to the public during 1971 just what we’ve already done.’
Next I raised the question of piecework, which has been the subject of so much controversy. Was the attempt to get rid of it, I asked, likely to interfere with the introduction of the ADO28?
George Turnbull -‘We’ve made it very clear to everyone in the Cowley area that this new model cannot be made on piecework. There has been a lot of direct communication with the work people and I think and hope we have convinced them. Even in plants with the best relations, it has usually taken a very long time to get piecework prices fixed and so it has taken months for production to reach levels it should have reached in weeks. We just can’t afford these interminable delays. If the market is there and the product is right, it has got to be made and sold. Otherwise your competitors take your business; and as I think has been very obvious lately, if you give your competitors half a chance they get in pretty smartly. ‘
Next we turned to the public image of the volume division of British Leyland. Was this, I wondered, partly due to its dreadful title, the Austin Morris and Manufacturing Group of British Leyland, which just didn’t compare with the former, succinct BMC? Should not the group try to establish a clearer identity and, as an aid in this direction, should not Austin and Morris be made to diverge into more distinctive makes?
Admitting that the full title is quite a mouthful, George Turnbull suggested that for all practical purposes,Austin Morris Group, could be used and went on to say that he thought they were already beginning to differentiate between Austin and Morris in terms of the product and that he thought it would not be long before there would be no doubt as to what was an Austin and what was a Morris.
Did this, I asked mean that the time would come when all cars with front drive and east-west engines would be Austins and cars of more traditional fore-and-aft designs would be Morris?
George Turnbull – ‘I wouldn’t like to be bound to any particular configuration for any of our marques. In any case, some of our competitors have demonstrated quite successfully that it is possible to go both ways. And don’t forget we sell the Mini in both franchises now and we have no plans to change that.’
If this was the case, I remarked, should one assume that the differences in the marques would be matters of equipment, finish and that sort of thing?
George Turnbull – ‘Take the ADO28 and remember that it’s replacing the Minor and the Oxford, both rear drive cars, and it will fit into the image and help to make the whole range complimentary.’
To my next question I obtained only half an answer, which was really more than I expected as it involved the ADO28. If, I pointed out, you compare the specification of the Victor and Cortina or the details of the Escort, Viva and Avenger, there really wasn’t much to choose between them on paper, and the same went for such cars as the Fiat 124 and Opel Kadett. As all the information released so far about the ADO28 suggested that it followed the same pattern, was there any reason why British Leyland should be able to make this universal type of car any better or cheaper?
George Turnbull – ‘One thing is quite clear: we shall have to be very competitive – and we shall be. It will fit very neatly into our general programme structure and, in particular, it will give us a range of cars which will have a greater acceptability with fleet users and companies who are buying cars for their managers and executives. something like 40 % of all domestic sales are to companies, the figure gets higher as you go up the scale until nearly all the very expensive cars are company owned, and we shall have a very big selection to offer in terms of specification and price and performance. There will be engine options, a wide range of trim options and, of course, the choice of two or four doors. No, I don’t think we’ll have any difficulty in competing ! ‘
While still on models and competition, I asked whether the Austin Morris Division had any plans to enter the £500 market with a comfortable but simple vehicle to compete with the Fiat 500.
George Turnbull – ‘I can tell you this much. We have no plans for getting down to the Fiat 500 market. We have the Mini, we’re very happy with it, it’s got a lot of life in it and we shall continue to improve and develop it as time goes on. The Mini has such a big share of the small car market that there isn’t room for any other manufacturer to enter this particular sector. Fiat are very strong in Italy and that’s why they can afford to export a few cars at marginal prices. But you’d need to sell far more than a few thousand if you were going to tool up for a small car.’
Next we talked of progress (with a capital P). I started the ball rolling by pointing out that although the 1100/1300 range is still a bestseller, some people believe it is now outdated, especially by the Fiat 128. Was it Austin Morris policy to update it, replace it, or to continue the status quo?
George Turnbull – ‘As you say, it’s the best selling car in this country, and while it may not remain so forever, I think it is going to be for quite a few years yet. And we’ve always got contingency plans to deal with the future. But as a concept, it’s going to go on for a long time, many many years, I think, and if we feel it necessary to make changes, we shall do them as and when necessary; but we have no immediate plans for a change now. ‘
I remarked that eight to ten years ago the smaller British cars were leading the world technically. Now the others had caught up and, some believed, had overtaken. Was Austin Morris planning another big step which would put it correspondingly ahead again?
George Turnbull – ‘You’re saying you think our overseas competitors have overtaken us technically? Well, I wouldn’t have thought so myself. Of course, the more you go up the price range, the easier it is to be a little daring and do something unorthodox, but even on that score, where in the world will you get a more refined car than the Jaguar?
But when you come down to popularly priced cars that you are going to make in quantities of up to 400,000 a year, then I think you tend to become a bit limited in how far you can go in an innovatory sense because you’ve got to think what the customer really wants from you. While I’m not suggesting that we’re not continuing to improve such things as brakes, suspension and steering, all are capable of further refinement, we do have to make sure that we don’t put a big cost penalty on the car that will either reduce the return to us to an uneconomic point or make us raise the price to a level which reduces production. The sort of breakthroughs you have in mind were done at a time when the demand for cars was, perhaps, stronger than it is now and the climate was more appropriate.
Mind you, one can’t take up a set position on this because things are changing all the time. But unless there is a big expansion in the market which will enable everybody to produce in very high volume and make very high profits, which always make one think in terms of, what’s the next move, I think the kind of breakthrough you are talking about is unlikely in the next few years. And I think this applies not only here but all over the world, America, Germany, Japan, Britain, Italy, any country you like, because profitability on motor cars is not going to be of the same order in the next five or six years as in the past ten or so. This automatically make manufacturers think in terms of products that will give an immediate return on any investment they make, not exploratory products that might catch on or might not. We’ve got to be very practical and hard headed.
But don’t think from this that we haven’t got our think tank, because we have.I think we’ve got more engineering brains in British Leyland than all the other motor car companies put together; and in Austin Morris, besides Harry Webster and his team, we’ve got Alec Issigonis projecting his mind ten years ahead all the time.’
Like every one else, I wanted to know more of Sir Alec’s present activities. Would it be true to say that he is investigating things that might be thrust on the industry willy nilly, town cars and things of that kind?
George Turnbull – ‘ He’s looking at long term trends and developing and designing alternatives to what we have now, so that if outside circumstances forced a big change, we wouldn’t be caught napping. Whether it was steam car or a new type of engine, at least we’d have done the exercise and would know how it would affect us.’
We turned to sports cars. Did George Turnbull think that the extremely popular MG Midgets and MGB’s might now be getting a little dated? And if so, had Austin Morris anything up their sleeves with an equally big potential for the Seventies?
George Turnbull – ‘I frankly don’t agree with you, because our sales of both models have been going great guns in the two years since I’ve been here. We’ve got very strong demand from the United States and it looks as though it is going to be stronger this year than last. They had some measures of recession over there last year, but our sports cars never stopped selling. If we could have made more, we could have sold more, so I don’t see any need for more than a general updating of specifications, which we’ve already done. Whether legislation in America is going to make it difficult for us with open cars I don’t know, but, apart from Triumph and ourselves, no one else is going into that market. It’s ours, I think !’
I asked if sportscars were a fundamental part of the BLMC range and if demand for the present ones began to fall off, would they have something to take their place?
George Turnbull – ‘Oh, certainly. We have a sporty image in so many aspects of the British Leyland business that we couldn’t conceive of opting out of the sports car side.
How we play it as time goes on depends on what happens in the United States regarding safety regulations, and this is very much in a state of flux. We’ve got all sorts of schemes which might come to fruition one day, but until the safety regulations are clarified, it’s going to be difficult to make a final decision.’
This led automatically to the closure of the Competition Department at Abingdon. Was this done because British Leyland had evidence that the buying public was not impressed by competition successes, or was it simply an economy measure? And as by far the biggest wholly British group, wasn’tt it desirable that British Leyland should show the flag in world competitions?
George Turnbull – ‘If you are asking if we closed the Competitions Department to save money, this was definitely one of the reasons. But one has to look at these things in general terms, how much management effort and how much engineering effort go into it. Competitions are an expensive item. We decided, at least pro tem, that we would withdraw from company entered competition work, although we would still keep the Special Tuning Department at Abingdon which helps people with private entries. We are still giving a strictly limited amount of financial support to a few individuals who have already proved themselves, but what we are really anxious to do is to provide a service to people who want their cars tuned – you know, new manifolds, modified cylinder heads, special carburettors, that kind of thing.
We’ve now set up a series of some 17 distribution points where this Special Tuning service is available and where owners can find the parts, the experience and the know how for a proper job to be done on their cars. We think this is better than having everybody streaming into Abingdon, although Abingdon will always be pleased to help when there’s a real problem.’
Inevitably, our talk did not end without the question of reliability coming up for discussion, or more correctly, perhaps, the teething trouble aspect of it. Did George Turnbull think that Longbridge, in the past at least, had been a little light on experimental and development facilities?
George Turnbull – ‘ Yes and we are strengthening them; but I think it wasn’t only facilities. I think there could have been rather more organization put into making sure that development work was done before getting committed to production. For reasons I’m not aware of because I wasn’t here, I think that perhaps they sometimes had to rush things towards the end so that design features became locked through being engineered into machine tools which cost millions of pounds. If that happened, they’d have great difficulty in making some changes and might have had to make do with second best until a way out could be found.
We are very conscious of all this and you can take it from me that we have done a lot of testing work on any new model that has come out of Austin Morris since I’ve been here. Even when the first few are in production, we work on them day and night to knock up very high mileages, and I personally see all the reports. I’m sure it pays off because it doesn’t matter how much design, research and development work you do in the prototype stage, there are always things that come out in production because you’re working off tools rather than hand made parts. The key to the whole thing is to get 20 or 30 cars produced off tools as soon as you can, assemble them by fairly standard labour, not chaps from the experimental shop, and keep them running. If you hadn’t had any problems by the time they’ve done 30 or 40,000 miles, you haven’t got a bad car.’
That brought us to complaints and service.
George Turnbull – ‘When your producing around 800,000 cars a year there must be some level of complaint, just as with any other manufacturers. And I think the service we have for dealing with letters is as prompt as you can get. We can’t afford to ignore any complaint because we are dealing with customers and they don’t grow on trees. One lost customer means that you’ve got to fight very hard to win somebody else off another product to replace him.
As for overseas markets, I believe that when you are setting up an organization for sales, you must get the service back-up first. Otherwise, you may sell well for the first year if you’ve got good cars, but after that there’ll be a swing back to the local product. Take Europe, for instance, where we have been criticized, and with some justification, I think. We now believe that the only way to be absolutely sure of giving good service is to have the factory out in the field. That is why we are taking over the distribution of our products through out the whole of Europe as a British Leyland exercise. It’s taking time but when the whole operation is completed we shall have our own people on the spot at distributor level. That will mean we can monitor our dealers directly and set our own standards on matters such as interpretation of warranty, training of mechanics, service facilities and all the rest.’
On the subject of the Industrial Relations Bill and the effect of strikes, George Turnbull had this to say.
George Turnbull – ‘In the end, it is continuity of production which is the key. Everyone seems to be battling to get more wages and damaging the one thing that can give them. We’re such a highly capitalized industry that we’ve got to have high throughput to break even, but once you get over that point you can start making reasonable profits. The difference between 20,000 above and 20,000 cars below can be astronomical in terms of profits. I think the thing is a national problem now and that unless the motor industry gets some measure of support from the Government, it’s not going to play the part in the economy that it should. What’s good for British Leyland is good for Great Britain!’
Finally, I asked whether we could go on producing cars at the ever increasing rate that seems necessary for commercial viability without reaching some sort of saturation point.
George Turnbull – ‘I know we all get very frustrated with traffic jams, but even in Manhattan, where I gather the congestion in the morning is quite unbelievable, nobody has ever suggested limiting the number of cars. There’s still tremendous scope for new roads and I’m sure people would much rather pay higher taxes for them than not have their motor cars. The motor car is a symbol of freedom. You get in it and you go where you want. Our children are just the same. The first thing they want is to learn to drive. The motor car is a way of life.’