Essay : Counterfactual BMC

What would have happened had Issigonis not returned to BMC in 1955, leaving the company with a conventionally engineered range of cars styled by Pininfarina?

Robert Leitch ponders this very question and comes to some very interesting conclusions…


BMC’s alternative ‘60s

The Austin A40 symbolises the start point of BMC's counterfactual history: conventional engineering married with Pininfarina styling.
The Austin A40 symbolises the start point of BMC’s counterfactual history: conventional engineering married with Pininfarina styling.

OUR scenario. In 1955, Leonard Lord tries to recruit Alec Issigonis back from Alvis, but without success. Issigonis is determined to oversee the TA350’s development into a production car, confident that it will have as big an impact on the luxury sector as his Minor had on the small-car market. His instincts prove correct. The fast, comfortable, and efficient new car, combining leading-edge technology with restrained British style and craftsmanship is a runaway success. By the early 1960s Parkes père et fils are well on the way to shaping Alvis into a highly regarded automotive consultancy with Issigonis as its star player. Lord then attempts a reconciliation with Gerald Palmer, but he is not to be enticed away from his well-remunerated and secure post at Vauxhall.

Without a high-profile designer, how would BMC have approached the 1960s?

BMC weathered the late ‘50s well, much of the credit due to the wide range of cars powered by the efficient A-series engine, and a ruthless cutting back of investment in new products. The expectation that in difficult times customers would seek the comfort of the familiar was proved correct. The A35’s modest 1959 facelift – horizontal grille, smoothed out sides, vestigial fins and an 850cc economy model – revived sales without encroaching into the territory of the recently introduced Austin A40 Farina. The decade-old Minor’s sales strengthened, outselling the A35 and A40 combined.

Farina’s Oxford and Cambridge were steady earners, and for 1962 BMC repeated the formula with the Cowley-built Austin Stratford and Morris Woodstock, which bridged the gap between the A40 and Oxford / Cambridge, replacing the Morris Minor and Wolseley 1500/Riley One Point Five. The familiar Austin chassis design, coil springs and double wishbones at the front and a leaf sprung live axle saw yet another outing. 1098cc A-Series and 1489cc B-series engines provided the power, and the Pininfarina saloon bodywork avoided the fin and chrome excesses of the larger cars to look very much like a scaled-down Peugeot 404.

Dick Burzi and Sid Goble worked their magic to produce Wolseley and Riley variants, and a particularly elegant two-door MG coupe. In 1964 the appeal of the cars was greatly improved by the introduction of the E-series engine, a short-stroke pushrod unit in 1300 and 1600cc capacities, far lighter and cheaper to build than the B-Series. The new engine appeared to take more inspiration from Ford’s Kent unit than its own stablemates, but with its five-bearing bottom end and Weslake developed head was considered superior in both robustness and efficiency to Ford’s offering.

The core of the range was technically uninspiring, but BMC’s sales heartland, middle-class owner-drivers remained loyal, and healthy profits allowed BMC to take full control of The Pressed Steel Company by 1964. The steady profitability of the conservatively developed volume products also brought more visible benefits.

A 2.5 litre V6 derivative of the E-Series transformed the MGB and MGB GT. The post-Suez decision to postpone replacement of the Austin A95 / A105 was fortuitous as the eventual BMC big car range could be designed with the Rover and Triumph 2000s available as a benchmark. The Wolseley 6/100 and Riley Monaco, with 2.0 and 2.5 litre V6 power and independent rear suspension, were able to match the best qualities of their Solihull and Canley rivals, while largely avoiding their weaknesses.

Best of all, although a bit player in the grand scheme, was the ADO30 Austin Healey Silverstone, a stylish grand tourer which clothed a shortened version of the big car’s platform in a developed version of Manzu, Werner and Conrad’s prize-winning Firrere design. Offered as a coupe and convertible, and made at Abingdon in numbers which hopelessly underestimated demand, the new incarnation of the Big Healey became an instant classic.

And yet, by the end of 1966, the weaknesses in BMC’s conservative strategy were starting to show. The Pressed Steel purchase had precipitated the merger of Leyland / Triumph and Rover, who had now had a sizeable pressing facility on Merseyside which ended their dependence on BMC as a supplier. As a result of this, and stagnant sales, Pressed Steel found itself with huge excess capacity, and had gone from being a major source of revenue to a financial burden. In the former British colonies, hitherto unknown Japanese manufacturers were mounting an ever-stronger challenge to the old providers of the Empire. Even at home, a better-travelled, cosmopolitan, individualistic middle class was enticed not by shiny grilles, wooden dashboards and moribund nameplates, but by the products of France, Italy, Germany and Sweden.

The new product cupboard was looking worryingly bare. The desperately needed Pininfarina-designed Oxford / Cambridge replacement was still a year away from launch, a neat but visually unremarkable car of similar length to its predecessor, but considerably wider. Coil-sprung five-link rear suspension and a 2 litre OHC development of the B-Series engine would ensure that dynamically it was a huge advance on the outgoing model, and Peugeot would be enraged at the similarity of the BMC car to the design Pininfarina had provided them for its 504.

The new mid-sized car was still in the early stages of design – in essence a re-skinned Stratford / Woodstock with coil-spring rear suspension and an updated E-Series engine with an alloy sohc cylinder head. It would not go on sale until 1969 and in the boardroom, fears were expressed that however good it was, the new car would struggle to compete against forthcoming big-budget rivals from Ford, Vauxhall and Chrysler.

A third facelift for the A40 had done nothing to lift sales. For some years it had been a poor third to the Ford Anglia and Vauxhall Viva, and it was now being outsold even by the troubled Hillman Imp. The advanced chassis design and appealing looks of the second generation Viva had been a shock to the system – although most of the engineering was the work of Opel, it was already known at Longbridge as ‘Palmer’s Revenge”. The Ford men BMC had recently recruited were all too ready to talk of the Anglia replacement, less than a year away and set to make a huge impact on the sector. Among BMC’s directors and product planners there was no consensus as to what had to be done. Building a conventional small car in the Ford or Vauxhall mould seemed ever more a vain exercise, a belated ‘me-too” response to competing products which did the same job, but were built cheaper and sold harder.

There was a modest diversion from this gloomy prognosis in the shape of the car of the moment, the radical Triumph TX. The British car industry had been buzzing with rumours about the Issigonis-designed front wheel drive newcomer for years. The Alvis designer’s spats with Harry Webster and Giovanni Michelotti were already legendary, and the effectiveness of the advanced Moulton interconnected fluid suspension on a small, light car was widely questioned. The prototypes had been awkwardly boxy, but in the production model, Michelotti had made a fine job against difficult odds. What was more, all who drove the little Triumph were agreed that its ride and handling were far in advance of any competitor, and were demonstrated best in the improbably quick Spitfire-engined TX1300 Sprint.

Such praise was rarely heaped on BMC’s products by 1966. The more conservative BMC hands took comfort that the little Triumph could surely never make money, with its complicated transmission and suspension, and the unprecedented price Leyland-Triumph had paid Alvis for Issigonis’ exclusive (meaning not available to BMC) services.

And yet for every blinkered BMC traditionalist who dismissed the small car from Canley as a piece of self-destructive folly, there were two or three who looked longingly not just to Coventry, but to the other side of the English Channel. Those same eyes then focused on their own road ahead, and saw the slowly winding path to oblivion.

Keith Adams

17 Comments

  1. Would to see a future BMC Counterfactual exploring the “What-If” scenario of BMC in the mid/late-1950s implementing the marque rationalization and marque differentiation that was later done by BL in the late-1960s / early-1970s, actions by BL that many believe should have been done much earlier under BMC.

  2. It could be said that it was the Mini that killed BL. It was an amazing car, beautifully packaged. It was due to the success of the Minis that Issigonis became affixed within the company, he was too powerful to move, too big a risk to sack.
    It resulted in both an individual and organization with a god complex.
    The biggest problem was how Issigonis became wedded with certain truisms and his staunch adherence to these truisms. Such as:

    1. It was not BLMC (or any carmakers) responsibility to make cars people wanted. Superior design would always sell more.
    2. Aesthetics were of no importance, people didn’t buy a car because of how it looked.
    3. Maximizing interior space inside was of paramount importance.
    4. Gearbox in Sump offered the most efficient packaging.

    These truisms were confirmed by the success of the Mini. The problem was he then thought to apply his design truisms over the entire range, which was a terrible mistake.

    Ford knew this, they saved money on expensive engineering. Instead, they made drivers feel important. A feeling never truly experienced in an Austin 1800.
    Moreover, up until the early 80’s the gearbox in sump left their FWD cars with a high bonnet line.

    This idea of not building cars that people wanted was never really shaken off. Even into the late Rover years, it seamed that the intention was to build cars that didn’t fit into specific categories.
    I don’t think any of this would have occurred without Alec Issigonis. And unfortunately, it was the amazing little Mini that handed him those powers.

    • Ooh, you’re playing with fire here William. A little while back I suggested that Issigonis’s design dogma was something less than ideal. I got a shoe-ing from the acolytes for my temerity. Watch out, they’re behind you!

      • I love BLMC/BL cars but let’s never try to pretend that failure is anything other than failure. One other thing I failed to mention was that most people wanted basic RWD cars that were easy to fix. The Escort & Cortina prove that. I still love them…..I’m looking for an Austin 1300 at the moment.

      • Can you give me a link to your weaker moment, it would be great to see what you wrote.

        • No link I’m afraid. I merely commented to the effect that The Great Man’s dogged adherence to conceptual purity in the face of commercial failure wasn’t the most enlightened course to follow. It didn’t go down well with the faithful. I may have implied there was some kind of pile-on in my earlier reply. There wasn’t.

  3. Whatever else you might think of the Landcrab, it was one car of that era I’d least dislike to have a crash in and also the fwd meant it was safer in snow and heavy rain, making a crash less likely. Then when it received the E6 and the Wolseley Six version, the car really came good and had an engine and luxury specification it deserved. I think its big failings were the love it or hate it looks and the high price for what was a basic car in Austin Morris form,which harmed sales.

    • I love the landcrab, Ive owned several. My first was in 1988 – I have just finished a vehicle restoration apprenticeship I owned a Mk1 and I sprayed it like Inspector Morse’s MK2 Jag. Vinyl roof and all.
      But let’s be honest, being in a Cortina felt closeted whilst a Landcrab felt was more like taking lots of pointless space out for a drive

  4. I am fascinated by the statement that there was an A35 facelift in 1959 with a horizontal grille , smoothed out sides , and vestigial fins . This is not a beast known to me , and furthermore I don’t believe there was ever an 848cc offering in the cars, although some of the vans may have had this engine size

  5. It is difficult to believe there was nobody at BMC who could have stepped up to the plate and filled the shoes of a departing Gerald Palmer (that IMHO could have been an early Roy Haynes) or Alec Issigonis that opted to stay, or the fact BMC would be allowed to remain on autopilot with a largely dreary range of cars.

    Perhaps the talents of someone like MG’s Syd Enever could have been better utilized and allowed him to play a bigger role beyond MG. Roy Haynes certainty thought very highly of Syd Enever.

    That in turn leads to a scenario where BMC’s saloons cars and MG Midget/MGB/MGC equivalents more then likely, are equipped with IRS whether via a properly developed Panhard Rob or Coil Springs with Watts Linkage to spread out the costs. It is also likely that Enever would have had different ideas on what Pininfarina styling path BMC’s saloons should be clothed in.

    Syd Enever would have also had a more positive effect on the development of the revised C-Series or some other equivalent, as he was said to have desired an oversquare version of the C-Series for the MGC, so as to reduce both the height and weight resulting in a more sweetly revving engine (thereby making it more acceptable to the Healeys for ADO51), which was rejected by Issigonis and Harriman (the latter having spent a lot of money in Germany a block-boring machine meaning the bore centres and diameters was fixed before others could intervene).

    Do agree that in hindsight Alec Issigonis should have been kept on a tighter leash and restricted to the Mini and ADO16 at most, with Duncan Stuart and his Research Team tasked with reducing costs and making the FWD cars more profitable during their development. With the rest of BMC’s RWD cars left to someone other then Issigonis.

    • Taking Fiat and Peugeot as comparisons

      Fiat went FWD with the Autobianchis, 128 and 127, but kept RWD for their mid rangers like the 124 and 131
      Peugeot introduced FWD with the 204 but kept RWD for the larger 504.

      • The examples of both Fiat and Peugeot completely undermine the entire notion BMC should have been fully committed to FWD, instead of initially limiting it to a few models at the lower end of the range and leaving the rest RWD.

        Dante Giacosa at Fiat did develop the FWD Fiat 123 E4 prototype to challenge what became the RWD Fiat 124 for production, only for the 123 to lose out and temporarily gather dust until Fiat later decided to reuse a 123 E4 variant for the short-lived Autobianchi A111, so Autobianchi could replace the Primula with a more conventionally-styled vehicle.

        With the Fiat 123 E1 prototype that featured a short of three-box fastback hatchback, it could be said that Dante Giacosa even unwittingly developed his own Austin Maxi that taking the sizes of the Fiat 123, Fiat 124 and Autobianchi A111 into account would pretty much possess a similar length as the Maxi.

  6. Vauxhall retained design independence until the mid seventies, the last independent design being the FE, and thereafter the cars became lightly restyled Opels like the Chevette. Then come the eighties and the Astra and Mark 2 Cavalier, and Opels and Vauxhalls became identical and shared the same drivetrains.

    • Although Vauxhall had design autonomy, from the 60s onwards there was sharing on components with Opels, especially pressings. And as Vauxpedia page in HB development shows David Jones was overruled by the great Bill Mitchell.

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