History : Project Gimbal

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Keith Adams unearths another fascinating might-have-been from his BL files. Here is the story of Project Gimbal, a feasibility study into a collaboration with General Motors.

This document spells out the pros and cons of a Joint Venture with the American giant. How would it have worked, how could the model ranges and factories have been integrated? Read on…


Dealing with the General

In 1977 and ’78, BL management was feverishly working towards developing a new joint venture with a major manufacturer in order to secure its future survival. We already know lots about the potential deals with Renault and PSA (specifically, Chrysler Europe), which you can read all about in the following links.

However, many other manufacturers were seriously considered, most intriguingly of all including General Motors’ British arm, Vauxhall. The choice of GM for detailed examination stemmed from the analysis contained within BL’s business and planning board paper, ‘Collaboration – Possible Partners for BL Cars’, published in 1977.

In a nutshell, the paper concluded that the most suitable partner for BL would be Honda, as it would allow the British company to retain substantial control over the Joint Venture. Next best choice was Mitsubishi, although with the proviso of positive results from further research, and the results of any initial talks that were undertaken.

Project Gimbal: Moving to a bigger carmaker

The reason for favouring the Japanese companies was that BL thought that it could remain in the driving seat of any Joint Venture. Whether this proved to be the case with Honda is open to debate, but this was clearly the company’s preferred option instead of getting into bed with a larger manufacturer, which would likely consume BL.

The first choice in this category was General Motors and, in the document spelling out Project Gimbal, the reasons were laid out succinctly:

  • GM had very strong financial and technical resources
  • Vauxhall’s model range complemented BL’s better than any rival manufacturer. ‘GM’s small-sector competitor for the Metro (LC8) is not planned for launch before 1982,’ the document said. 
  • GM was significantly weaker in Europe than North America and ‘would potentially welcome a means of strengthening its position.

In 1977, GM was easily the world’s largest carmaker, with 7.05m built by 797,000 employees worldwide. Its model range – globally – encompassed cars, off-roaders, commercial vehicles, trucks, buses, railway locomotives, construction equipment, household appliances, electrical and electronic equipment, automatic transmissions and braking systems. No wonder BL was worried about the ramifications of a potential tie-up.


The state of play at Opel and Vauxhall

In 1977, Opel built more than 900,000 cars and held a 19% share of the German market. According to the Project Gimbal documentation, ‘Opel’s reputation has been based on conservatively-engineered, well-styled products that have retained a strong following on the German market.’ It was considered a relatively-profitable operation at the time across its two major car plants.

Vauxhall was less successful – with 93,237 cars sold in the UK for a 9.1% share of the market, the document summed-up: ‘Since the 1960s, Vauxhall has offered a succession of indifferent products, lacking the styling and engineering flair of its Opel counterparts.’

However, it was on the up in 1977 – since 1975 and the introduction of the Chevette and Cavalier, Vauxhall had been rebuilding its market share in the UK. Also, a significant stage in GM’s integration of its car operations took place in 1976, when imports of the Cavalier commenced followed by UK production the following year. The Opelisation of the UK model range was ramping up, with the arrival of the Carlton and Royale, which were both imports.

Project Gimbal: Why would GM want to work with BL?

Project Gimbal: The Austin Metro, due in 1980, would have given GM an earlier entry into the supermini market than it would have with the Corsa/Nova in 1982.
The Austin Metro, due for launch in 1980, would have given GM an earlier entry into the supermini market than it would have with the Corsa/Nova in 1982

BL management assumed that GM would be keen to join forces because of its weakness in European markets. It lagged behind Ford and, according to BL’s numbers, a combined GM/BL alliance would become Europe’s largest car company.

At the time of the Gimbal project, GM was alone among the volume players in not offering a supermini. Although the Chevette was priced and marketed as a supermini rival, it never really fulfilled this role – and it wouldn’t be until the arrival of the Corsa/Nova in 1982 that this situation would be reversed.

There were also ongoing concerned about the size of GM in the USA. The Federal Trade Commission’s enquiry into the activities of US carmakers was underway and, at the time Project Gimbal was being drafted, there were fears of a recommendation to break up GM – and a strong European manufacturing arm would be more likely to survive being separated.


How would the dealers integrate?

1970s Vauxhall dealer
(Picture: Picador Vauxhall)

In the UK, how the GM/BL model range would be sold was cause for much debate. Given that there would be considerable model overlap, and much in the way of rationalisation that needed doing, it was interesting that BL was considering repeating many of the mistakes it had made in the past. It said: ‘There would be potential for the retention of marque names and for marketing products in competition with those from other GM divisions.’

And that meant a quick move to a two-franchise operation, incorporating selected Opel dealers into the existing Vauxhall and BL networks. In Germany, Opel would retain the single network, with BL discontinuing its dealers there. In the rest of the world, each franchise would be individually chosen, with the stronger marque retaining the dealer network.

In the USA, the divisional approach would result in ‘significant’ opportunities for BL. For example, Jaguar could be sold by the Pontiac Division in competition to Cadillac; the Triumph TR7 by Oldsmobile in competition to the Chevrolet Corvette. The existing BL network in the USA would take a long time time to run down.


How would the model ranges integrate?

Small cars

The Metro (LC8) would be sold throughout Europe by all networks. Badging as an Opel and selective use of upmarket trim/performance packs would be used to give identity to different network offerings.

Medium Sector

In the short-term, BL has a significant product weakness in the UK, due to the lack of a strong medium-sector competitor for the Ford Cortina. A quick move to a two-franchise GM/BL sales operation in the UK gives a potential means of overcoming this weakness by the offering of a rebadged Opel Ascona as a supplementary model to the Morris Marina.

This interim range could continue until 1981/82 when a new medium front-wheel-drive model, probably based on GM designs with Leyland power units could be introduced to replace the Marina. Allegro would be replaced in 1980/81 by versions of the new GM T Car.

To give BL the medium products it needs as soon as possible, it would be desirable to offer versions of both new GM FWD cars (T and U Car replacements – Astra Mk1 and Cavalier Mk2) through the BL  network in the UK. Depending on available components, and the proposed bodystyle offerings, it might be possible to:

  • Offer the GM T Car with an A-Series engine
  • Offer the GM U Car with an O-Series engine
  • Engineer unique sheet-metal for BL-badged models
  • Offer unique BL derivatives (such as three-door/five-door alongside Opel estate)

The rationalisation of the real-wheel-drive Chevette production to Ellesmere Port could go ahead and the Chevette remain as a unique Vauxhall UK offering. This range would be developed as a sports/coupe/pickup/Recreational Vehicle (RV) range alongside the GM T Car versions.

Large/executive sector

In the large sector, the Princess and Carlton/Rekord are aimed at similar market sectors, with the Carlton/Rekord offering a newer, stronger product. A potentially attractive means of overcoming a direct product clash in this sector, giving an incremental model, would be the assembly of the front-wheel-drive GM X Car (below) to replace the Princess, possibly using O-Series engines.

The GM X Car is very similar to the Princess in size and configuration, as well as being significantly lighter. In the long-term, both FWD and RWD cars could stay in the BL-GM range as competing model lines.

The Vauxhall Royale/Opel Senator and Rover SD1 are also aimed at similar sectors, though very different in concept. A separate network approach could allow both to remain in the range, competing internally. Subsequent plans would develop component or body commonality – this would be a long-term exercise as both models are relatively recent.

Luxury sports

Jaguar and sports products could be franchised by one of the combined GM/BL networks throughout Europe according to market conditions, and offered as ‘captive’ imports by GM US. As indicated in the medium sector review, the RWD T Car platform might potentially be developed for sports/RV applications as the mainstream family car business is taken over by FWD versions.

4×4

The 4×4 ranges of BL and GM are largely complementary. Land Rover’s major strengths lie in this the market for commercial and military 4×4 vehicles, whereas GM 4×4 vehicles are aimed more at the recreation market. The potential for a combined 4×4 range using the individual strengths of BL and GM in this field would be considerable. In addition, the Land Rover offers a product that could be marketed alongside the GM BTV (below) as a joint range for markets in developing countries.

3

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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22 Comments

  1. another very interesting article, i drive a 1992 rover 216 cabriolet, registered on 15th april 1992, trying to find development history to launch and cant find anything of use

  2. Interesting, but would GM, whose fortunes were on the up in Britain in the late seventies, really want to join up with an ailing British Leyland. Also I can imagine the unions in British Leyland and the government of the day refusing this sort of deal as it could lead to heavy job losses.

    • The GM tie up was the brain child of Michael Edwards and is detailed in his “Back from the Brink” memoirs. He found a willing accomplice in the form of local Vauxhall management, however GM Europe/US had no appetite for it at all, preferring to press on with consolidating its own European business and effectively killing Vauxhall in all but name.

  3. That sounds like a much more comprehensive deal than what happened with Honda, effectively, BL’s volume car division (apart from the Metro) would end up like one of the VW subsidiaries (Skoda and Seat) with little real engineering independence, but rather rebodying group platforms.

    While the Metro would give Opel a supermini 2 years earlier, it would be completely different from the rest of their rwd range. Presumably they’s still replace it with something akin to the Corsa/Nova during the 80s anyway?

  4. It would have potentially given the Metro a suitable diesel assuming the Nova/Astra’s Isuzu-sourced diesels (possibly adapted to a 3-cylinder) or even the Scamp prototype’s Viva-based diesel engines could have been made to fit.

    The trouble with Project Gimbal is BL would effectively share a similar fate to Saab and still potentially be sold off to PSA if it manages to survive.

      • Am referring to the mk1 Austin Metro, not the later R6 Metro/100 that featured the 1.4-1.5 PSA TUD diesels.

        AFAIK the only diesels considered for the mk1 Austin Metro, were the 993cc Daihatsu C-Series 3-cylinder turbodiesel used in the Daihatsu Charade (G11/G100) or a 1.5 version of the 1.8 3-cylinder VM Motori HR392 used in the Alfa Romeo 33 (saw the latter on a forum a while back).

    • The trouble is the Metro was really a parts bin lash-up hung around Mini/Allegro mechanicals including the A Series with transmission in sump. Installing a modern powertrain with end on transmission would have required major re-engineering along the lines of the 1990 R6. Would GM really have wanted to engage with this when their own contemporary engineered super-mini was only a couple of years down the road? Another quick and dirty Chevette facelift was all they needed to mark time.

  5. Very interesting, but bearing in mind what GM did to Saab and others, I’m glad it didn’t come to pass. Can’t help thinking that Michael Edwardes’ ‘Dovetail’ plan to merge BL with the remains of Chrysler UK would’ve been the ideal scenario.

  6. I remember suggesting a “what if” merger between BL & Chrysler UK a few years ago, which didn’t impress much.

    My idea was to replace the Allegro with the Horizon, & Maxi & Marina with the Alpine, both re-engined with BL units to avoid using the Simca engines.

    • In principal E Series (if it could be made to fit) height may have been an issue but width wise you might even be able to fit in an E6, and without doubt powered Horizon / Alpine range would have been very desirable line up in the 70s for BL. But I do not think it could ever have been a commercial or a political reality.

      The real world discussions between BL / Chrysler or in reality BL was represented by HMG at the table came about in I think 1975 when Chrysler was threatening to pull out of the UK unless they received assistance from the UK Government in line with BL’s support. Had the deal not been brokered between HMG and Chrysler then HMG would either have had to face the closure of Chrysler UK or nationalise it, and nationalising it would have made it part of BL.

      At the time Simca was still profitable and of interest to Chrysler (they also had had a longer and much more successful relationship with Simca) so it’s unlikely Chrysler would have put Simca on the table or licensed the Alpine to BL, the Horizon at that time was still planned to use Chryslers own new FWD platform, it was some 1 to 2 years later that it was decided to adopt a shortened Alpine platform for the European version in the interests of saving costs; again this was unlikely to have been licensed to BL. Whilst everything has its price, it’s hard to imagine the cash strapped UK Government of 1975 being willing let alone politically able to spend UK Tax payers money buying in foreign technology.

      So the reality would have been the following; HMG would have gifted the Chrysler UK factories (Dunstable, Linwood, Ryton and Stoke – and one thing BL did not need was more factories) and the design centre at Whitley which was world class along with the UK workforce. Products would certainly not have been world class, the Arrow, Spacevan and Imp should have pensioned off at the start of the decade, the Avenger which existed in porotype Mk2 form was adequate but its styling had aged badly and really needed a full reskin, that left the Commando Truck which was the most modern UK light truck cab at the time.

      Considering this, you can see why the UK Government gave Chrysler enough money to stay in the UK, long enough I think they hoped till they got the income from North Sea Oil to enable them restructure UK industry, however UK economic policy was to take a redirection first from the IMF and then with the change of Government in 1979.

    • Even second time around when Rover were looking for tie-ups and Daimler(Mercedes) were looking rid of them.
      Imagine a Roverised Chrysler 300.

      A new P5? Or would it sink like the Lancia Thema rebadge did?

  7. I couldn’t imagine a tie up between British Leyland and Chrysler being successful, as both were ailing companies in the late seventies and Chrysler wanted to withdraw from Europe due to mounting losses. However, there was some common ground as both Chrysler and British Leyland were keen on fwd and hatchbacks, and Chrysler would have welcomed British Leyland’s expertise on developing executive cars as their 180/ 2 Litre series had bombed.

    • They were keen in France (Simca) for FWD, but they were not part of the deal, the UK (Roots) end favoured RWD because that is what the fleet market wanted. Had the Alpine been developed as first conceived in the UK it would have been like the SD2, using a stretched Avenger Estate platform.

      In 75 when it was discussed, UK engineering team was pretty much all but finished with work, with the Avenger face lift finished. Although styling in the UK was working on what became the Tagora, the French had engineered the Alpine and were working with Detroit on the Horizon, there was no expectation of the UK being given the executive car to engineer.

      However the cash injection gave them the Sunbeam and Dodge 50 series (US Van Cab, converted to European light truck) as well as Commando and Spacevan face lifts. After that many got the opportunity to move to BL as Edwards got M series cars underway. later followed by styling when Roy Axe moved to BL a few years later.

    • I agree a BL/Chrysler operation would have had limited (if any?) success. Yes, the Chrysler 180/2L were not seen in any great numbers. A shame – my Uncle had a 180 which was nice until it crashed & was written off. He replaced it with a 2 Litre, but then changed to a Sceptre.

      • @ Hilton D, Chrysler’s market share in Britain was fairly consistent at 8-9%, but Leyland would have had to work with a company that was one of Britain’s biggest loss makers in the late seventies, and Chrysler were preparing to jump ship because of this. Somehow a merger would have led to an even bigger lame duck, although using the Horizon with Leyland engines as a replacement for the Allegro and the Metro replacing the Sunbeam in 1980 would have been interesting.

  8. Perhaps using Horizon and Alpine would’ve given Axe time to sort out Maestro and Montego’s styling…?

    • It could have given Leyland breathing space if both cars replaced the Allegro and the Marina, and possibly the Maxi, which was getting old by 1978. However, a merger between two ailing corporations would have seen huge job losses on both sides, and Chrysler weren’t known for the quality of their products, so it would have done little to lift the reputation of British Leyland. The best move was always the tie up with Honda, which generated three generations of reliable cars and helped stave off closure.

  9. I think British Leyland ultimately got the best deal with Honda. A merger of BL and Chrysler Europe would have been a suicide pact between two terminally ill motoring failed states. Mr Edwards made the right decision.

    • @ Mark, Chrysler’s woes in Europe were equally bad in America. Pulling out of Europe did little to stop Chrysler’s decline in America, where a poor product range and falling market share saw them flirt with bankruptcy in 1980, and only massive cost cutting, a government bailout and the K range of cars saved them from collapse.

  10. Ideally BL should have struck a deal with Nissan given the latter’s history with Austin / BMC instead of Honda as well as possibly collaborate with Saab on the Slant-Four / V8 engine family.

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