Ian Nicholls, AROnline’s historian-in-residence, recounts the history of the British Motor Corporation (BMC). He follows up his excellent run-down of the British Motor Holdings and British Leyland stories with an eight-part study of BMC from 1959 to 1966.
Here, in the first part, we look back at 1959 – the year of the BMC Mini – and set the scene with the launch of this vital new car, and the uncertainty its maker had in the months coming up to its arrival…
After the effective bankruptcy of British Leyland in December 1974 and its 1980s’ contraction, combined with life-changing mass redundancies, much negative coverage has been directed at the roles of Leonard Lord and George Harriman in the collapse of the former Austin and Morris empires. To their critics they presided over a shambolic organisation that failed to rationalise the merged Austin and Morris operations and was reluctant to respond to changing market conditions.
They have been damned for not focusing on international markets and damned for not focussing on the domestic market. Neither of them was alive to defend themselves. What became the Leyland narrative, propagated by Lord Stokes, that BMC was devoid of competent management and exciting new models, became excepted as fact by many pundits.
We hope to show in this article that what ultimately thwarted the British Motor Corporation was international politics beyond the control of the company’s management, and that they were simply caught out by bad timing. Certainly, BMC was guilty of poor cost control and a failure to introduce modern management techniques, but it gambled on a massive investment in innovation and high technology which, but for the vagaries of international politics, should have seen them conquer Europe. Instead, it led to an industrial catastrophe.
The launch of the first Farina saloon
We begin our story in 1959, a year we tend to associate with the likes of Fidel Castro, Harold Macmillan, Cliff Richard and frothy coffee shops. Britain still controlled a vast number of overseas territories in its now dwindling empire, and many Britons still maintained an imperial outlook, unable to see that the end was nigh and that the country would soon have to find a new role for itself.
This was the year that the British Motor Corporation began to transform itself from a purveyor of bland automotive stodge into the world’s most innovative carmaker. On 16 January, BMC announced the new Austin A55 Mk2 as the Austin Cambridge (above).
The new car retained the 1.5-litre B-Series engine from the out going model, now with an SU carburettor, and producing 55bhp at 4350rpm. Styling was by Pininfarina. The new Austin was the second of the restyled ADO9 models to be announced, the Wolseley 15/60 preceding it in December 1958.
Exact production figures are not available, but it is estimated at around 150,000 were made before the model was superseded by the revised ADO38 in 1961. By employing Pininfarina, BMC was updating the previously bland looks of its cars endowed upon it by its in-house designer, the Argentine-born Dick Burzi.
New cars, new industrial unrest
The same day a strike by 160 men began at the Birmingham body-building company of the British Motor Corporation, Fisher and Ludlow Limited. This dispute soon led to some 14,000 Midlands-based car workers being laid off before it was resolved.
On 3 February, BMC announced another variation on the ADO9 theme, the MG Magnette Mk3. Another Pininfarina styled car, 16,676 were produced at Cowley until 1961. The same month saw industrial disputes at the Nuffield Metal Products plant at Washwood Heath and the Morris Commercial Cars factory at Adderley Park, both in Birmingham. This was, in turn, followed by disputes at Morris Engines in Coventry and another strike at the Nuffield Metal Products plant at Washwood Heath.
Normal working at the Morris Commercial Cars factory at Adderley Park would not resume until 1 April . It was reported at the time that some trade union leaders in the Midlands were known to be disturbed about the series of unofficial strikes at BMC factories in recent months and their effect on the earnings of workers not actively concerned in the disputes.
From Cambridge to Oxford
In March 1959 the ADO9 Morris Oxford was announced. This model was identical to the new Austin Cambridge, albeit costing £14 more. Some 87,432 were built until 1961. It was on 3 April 1959 that the BMC factory at Longbridge built chassis 101 and 102 of its new ADO15 model, the car that was the British Motor Corporation’s major contribution to the history of the automobile.
BMC personnel changes
On 17 April, BMC announced that, on attaining retirement age, Mr Wilfred Hobbs had resigned the post of Joint Secretary of British Motor Corporation. Mr Edward Price was appointed in his stead. Mr Hobbs would continue as a Director of BMC and Morris Motors. Edward Price would retain his position as Deputy Chairman of Fisher and Ludlow, the Birmingham body-building company of the British Motor Corporation.
Bigger BMC news came on 23 April. It was announced that Sir Leonard Lord had decided to relinquish his office as Executive Chairman of Fisher and Ludlow. George Harriman was appointed and now became Chairman and Managing Director.
The announcement added that, as from 1 May 1959, Mr H. T. Wing became Secretary of Morris Motors and BMC Services and the Director and Secretary of the United Kingdom subsidiaries of Morris Motors.
The ADO9 Riley 4/68 was announced on the same day. Described by one writer as a virtual clone of the MG Magnette announced on 3 February 1959, 10,940 cars were produced up to 1961. This was BMC badge-engineering in action. Within a decade BMC would find itself castigated for using such methods.
However, Chief Engineer Charles Griffin later related, ‘I’m not sure whether it was a good thing or a bad thing. It all depends how much profit you make – and I think we used to do very well out of our different marques.’
Then, on 6 May, BMC issued a statement about the possibility of nightshift working at its Cowley factory. ’The management of Morris Motors Limited is discussing with senior Shop Stewards the starting of regular nightshifts in order to increase production, and thus help to meet the overwhelming demand from both home and overseas markets for the new Farina-styled Nuffield models (ADO9).
‘The representatives of the trade unions will be told that the first night shift is expected to total about 1000 employees. Night shift working is already part of the regular production programme in many British Motor Corporation factories, and the Cowley plant will be one of the last major installations to fall into line.’
Mini moves towards production
Then, on 8 May, ADO15 Morris Mini Minor production started at Cowley with 10 cars built on this day. Chassis 101 was registered as 621 AOK and now resides at the British Motor Museum at Gaydon. All but 26 of the first 300 cars were allocated for export.
On 11 May, BMC announced that the Austin A40 and A55 models were to be built at Amersfoort, Holland, under a recently signed agreement. On 13 June, BMC announced more executive moves. Alec Layborn and Sydney J. Wheeler joined the board of the British Motor Corporation. Alec Layborn, Deputy Chairman of C.T. Bowring and Layborn, an insurance company, has been appointed a Director of Austin Motors in 1957. During the First World War he had served with the RFC and RAF.
Sydney Wheeler was appointed a Director of Austin in 1955 and a Joint Secretary of BMC on its formation in 1952. Robin Stormonth-Darling and Edward Price joined the Austin board. Mr Bill Davis was appointed local director. Robin Stormonth-Darling was a partner in Laing and Cruickshank, the London firm of stockbrokers.
Edward Price was, as related earlier, Deputy Chairman of Fisher and Ludlow and a Joint Secretary of BMC. Bill Davis, General Works Manager, had served his apprenticeship with the company and would prove to be one of the great survivors of the constant management upheavals in the years to come.
Mini hints to the press
It was on 17 June that Sir Leonard Lord, Chairman of the British Motor Corporation, stated that, ‘both Morris and Austin new small cars will be announced at the end of August.’
He added that both models would have 850cc engines and, ‘they will be considered to be among the most advanced small cars in the world. The models have been through extensive trials and have taken three years to develop. New buildings have been erected and new plant installed, for their production at a total cost of well over £10,000,000.’
Lord continued: ‘The new cars will be full four-seater cars that will keep up with the rest of the traffic anywhere and will give tremendous economies at a price that will appeal to the family man.’ He was clearly talking about the ADO15.
On the subject of the Morris Minor, Lord said: ‘In fact, the Morris Minor production line has recently been reorganised and separated from other lines to increase output for its worldwide demand.’
BMC C-Series engine deployed more extensively
On 1 July BMC announced the Austin Healey 3000 Mk1. This was the top of the range BMC sports car, with its C-Series engine now enlarged from 2639cc to 2912cc to produce 124bhp.
If that was not enough, only a week later BMC, announced the ADO10 Wolseley 6/99. Based on the similar Austin A99, this marked the end of Wolseley cars being based on Nuffield organisation designs. The model also used the new 2912cc C-Series engine, albeit in a less powerful 103bhp version than seen in the new Austin Healey 3000. Like the ADO9, the ADO10 series was styled by Pininfarina.
On 15 July BMC announced that Major Alfred Charles Herring VC, who was reducing his business commitments, had retired from the Board of the British Motor Corporation. Herring won his Victoria Cross in March 1918 for heroically leading his men in a rearguard action during the German Spring offensive. Herring died in August 1966.
The industrial relations question
BMC had been plagued by niggling industrial disputes in the summer of 1959, but they had only lasted a day or two at most. However, on 15 July the most damaging began. The Chief Shop Steward of the Transport and General Workers’ Union at Morris Motors Limited in Cowley, Frank Horsman, was dismissed by Richard Couch, Branch Manager, and escorted from the factory without being allowed to return to his section.
It was alleged that Frank Horsman was accused of telling two men to stop work the previous day during an overtime dispute. A member of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, he had worked at the factory for 13 years and had been a Shop Steward for 10 years.
The following day, about 350 paint shop workers walked out, shortly after clocking in, when told of the dismissal. After lunch, the number not working increased to 454. A spokesman for the management said: ‘Mr Horsman was dismissed yesterday for a breach of discipline in that he assumed the prerogative of management and instructed employees to stop work.’
Shop Stewards in the paint shop issued a statement saying that the 350 workers had decided to withdraw labour pending his reinstatement, ‘thereby giving him the human right to defend himself against the accusations made against him. This can only be done by full inquiry by the management and trade union officials with the man present. A democratic hearing is all that is asked.’
Both sides had drawn lines in the sand and the dispute only escalated from this point on as talks got nowhere. The TGWU declared the strike official and soon widespread disruption was occurring to BMC production, with 3000 men out at Cowley alone.
The unions saw the dismissal of Frank Horsman as an attack on the role of Shop Stewards and soon moves were made to persuade all 12 unions with members employed by BMC to join in the dispute. Yes, BMC had 12 unions in its ranks, a ludicrous number by 21st century terms.
On 22 July, an ITN film crew at Cowley covering the unfolding dispute got an exclusive, but nobody realised it at the time. A strange-looking small car was filmed leaving the Cowley plant. They were filming a revolution, but it was a motoring one, not a workers’ uprising. At the same time the paint shop men at Longbridge were also in dispute over plans to increase production.
BMC’s successes overseas
Overseas, BMC had some better news. The next day G. A. Lloyd, Joint Managing Director of BMC Australia stated in Melbourne that it was investing £19m in Australia to produce a new Morris car, the Major II. It would retail at £997 10s. including sales tax and would be built at the British Motor Corporation’s Sydney plant.
On 5 August, while the Frank Horsman dispute rumbled on, BMC had some more positive news. Sir Leonard Lord, Chairman of the British Motor Corporation, announced that some of the company’s models would be built in Italy. A joint announcement by BMC and Innocenti of Milan, manufacturers of heavy steel plant and the Lambretta motor scooter, said that these two leading manufacturers had signed an agreement under which Innocenti could assemble and partially manufacture BMC cars for the Italian market.
The first models to be produced by Innocenti would be the recently introduced Austin A40, Austin A55 and the Morris Oxford, all of British design with Pininfarina styling, so the announcement said.
Strikes called off…
It was not until 12 August that the damaging disputes affecting Cowley production were called off, a fortnight before the public announcement of BMC’s new small car range. After six hours of management-union talks it was agreed to transfer Frank Horsman to the neighbouring Pressed Steel Company which supplied car bodies to the British Motor Corporation.
With the Frank Horsman dispute over, BMC could now get on with the business of making motor vehicles. On 18-19 August , BMC let the media test the new ADO15 car at Chobham in Surrey. The wraps were now coming off the car and the media was being given the chance to test it.
On 25 August, BMC announced that a regular night shift was to be started for the first time since the war at Morris Motors Limited in Cowley on Monday 31 August to help to meet the demand for the new range of ADO9 Farina-styled cars. The company said that 1650 men would be involved.
The number of Morris Minors to be produced would not be increased, but the plant capacity made available would enable production of other models to be stepped up during the day shift. The decision followed talks between the management and senior shop stewards.
The Mini is launched to the public
Then, the next day, 26 August 1959, BMC announced the new ADO15 range, then available as the Austin Mini Seven and the Morris Mini-Minor. The world came to know it simply as the Mini, although initially the media dubbed them as the BMC ‘baby’ cars.
BMC told the media that the initial production target was 3000 vehicles a week, divided equally between the Longbridge and Cowley plants, but that this figure could well be exceeded. The Fisher and Ludlow plant was already geared to produce 4000 bodies a week.
The company also stated that preliminary plans had been made for the cars to be constructed by the Innocenti firm in Milan. Some 2000 of the new cars had already been sent abroad and they would be displayed today in motor showrooms in nearly 100 countries.
The press and public love the Mini
The first public reaction to the new cars appeared to prove the manufacturer’s optimistic forecasts. Dealers, who had queues of prospective customers outside their premises before they opened their doors for business on launch day, said that they were unable to quote delivery dates.
The British Motor Corporation’s Head Office at Birmingham received orders and inquiries from all over Europe and Britain for the new Austin Se7en and Morris Mini-Minor cars. A company executive said there had been phenomenal response to the ‘twins’.
‘I have never known anything like it,’ he said. ’Despite the success of our other models, this is the biggest thing we have ever known. The telephone has not stopped ringing all day with orders, inquiries and congratulations from distributors, agents and members of the public all over Europe and the British Isles.’
A British Motor Corporation spokesman also said: ‘Our distributors are flabbergasted at the reception these cars have had from the public. The demand has gone beyond even our expectations. Orders are flooding in — both at home and abroad.’
Goodbye, Austin A35
Bizarrely, the car the Mini was meant to replace, the Austin A35 saloon, ceased production on this day, despite the Mini having been in production for several weeks and a good stock of the new model having been built up.
The following day Sir Leonard Lord said in a statement issued before he sailed for New York, that he was delighted with the reception of the new Morris and Austin Minis at home and abroad. More than 3000 had already been delivered to export markets.
Sir Leonard added that, in addition to the development, tooling and production of the new cars, the outstanding achievement of the last financial year had been the smooth change-over and introduction of the completely new range of Austin and Morris models.
‘Industrial disputes during the period lost us some of the advantage of our extra manufacturing capacity. Nevertheless the output of vehicles for the year was 484,426, which was 20,286 less than the previous record,’ he said. It was claimed that there was already a nine month waiting list for the two new cars, both priced at £495.
The shape of things to come
In fact, the same day as the Mini launch, an unofficial dispute began at the BMC Tractor and Transmission plant at Ward End, Birmingham, which bought Mini production to a halt at Longbridge at noon on 1 September. However, official union pressure soon brought the dispute to a rapid conclusion.
In October Harold Macmillan’s Conservative Government was re-elected with a much-increased majority of 100 seats. Consumer spending was booming and the post war dreams of a New Jerusalem seemed to be coming true. How could it go wrong?
On 31 October, The Guardian newspaper reported that more nightshifts were to be worked at BMC’s factories at Cowley and Longbridge to help to meet the heavy demand for the Morris Mini-Minor and the Austin Se7en. According to the newspaper, details of the extra shift were still being worked out, and it would not be introduced at Cowley before the end of November.
Since the new models were announced two months before, the article said, they had brought in about 100,000 orders from this country and abroad. The original aim of BMC was to produce the cars at the rate of 3000 a week, but this target was raised to 4000 because of their popularity. The aim was now to step up production to 8000 a week in the next two years. Sample models of the cars would soon be introduced to markets in the Far East and Africa.
Debunking the myths
The traditional Mini story is that demand for the car was slow to pick up because consumers did not understand the new concept in motoring offered by the ADO15 design. Total Mini production for 1959 was 19,749 cars, 7800 were sold in the UK, but the majority went for export. So what is the truth?
Perhaps it was the British motorist who did not understand the Mini, for the car took off in overseas markets and in 1960 production exceeded that of the defunct Austin A35 by a handsome margin. But another factor may have been the industrial dispute at Cowley restricting supplies to dealerships. Inadequate supplies at dealers at launch would be a recurring problem for BMC and later British Leyland.
The other factor which contributed to the low Mini production total in 1959 was, of course, BMC’s chronic strike record. Cowley alone was strikebound for three weeks because of the Frank Horsman dispute.
The scores on the doors
On 5 November BMC announced its financial results. The effect on BMC’s profits of the introduction of new models and of recurrent labour troubles had been even more marked than had been suspected. Although output fell only from 504,713 in 1957-58 to 486,048 in the year to 31 July 1959, group earnings dropped from £24,500,000 to £20,315,000.
Other sources claim BMC made a profit of £21,488,823 before tax in the 1958-1959 period. Which ever figure was correct, BMC was making between £41.79 and £44.21 profit on each vehicle it sold. The company claimed that demand for its cars was now probably greater than ever before and the management had already stated that production would increase during the current year by about 40-45 per cent.
Output for the first 13 weeks of the financial year had already risen by 24 per cent, from 118,000 to 147,000 vehicles.
Great results lead to ambitious plans
The extent of the ambitions of Sir Leonard Lord (above) and George Harriman for BMC was revealed on 23 November. A three-year plan for the expenditure of £49 million which would raise the British Motor Corporation’s production potential to one million vehicles a year was announced on this day by the company’s Chairman, Sir Leonard Lord.
In his statement circulated to shareholders with the annual report, Sir Leonard Lord said that the planned output of 4000 of the BMC Minis cars a week had already become insufficient. They were taking steps to double this output to 8000 a week, including an additional range of light commercial vehicles, which it was expected to announce in January 1960.
He was referring to the Mini Van and Pickup derivatives. ‘Currently we are producing at the rate of 750,000 vehicles per annum. When extra facilities become progressively available in 18 months to two years, the magical figure of one million units a year will be within our reach. This cannot be done in the existing factories and it will mean new sites, new buildings, and a fresh approach to the problems of production and automation,’ wrote Sir Leonard Lord.
In the three months August-October 1959 BMC had turned out 147,000 vehicles – against 486,000 in 1958-59 – and output was now running at an annual rate of 750,000 units, while the planned expansion programme would raise the capacity to make one million vehicles a year.
Sir Leonard – as the expansion programme implied – was optimistic about demand, both at home and overseas, and said that home demand had never been stronger and at the year-end the group’s home order book was three times as large as a year earlier.
Sir Leonard Lord’s claim that BMC would make 8000 Minis a week was a bit of a red herring. Within a few years BMC would indeed be manufacturing 12,000 Issigonis’ front-wheel-drive cars a year, but over half of them would be the ADO16 1100/1300 saloon, which in November 1959 was still on the secret list.
Such was their confidence in Alec Issigonis’ and Charles Griffin’s ability (above), the management duo of Lord and Harriman had already given him the green light to go ahead with larger designs based on the ADO15 formula before the Mini had even been launched. Not only that, they believed they could sell them in large numbers, hence the expansion programme. It was a great leap of faith.
International shuffles and developments
A week later the British Motor Corporation (Australia) announced the appointment of Harold J. Graves as Managing Director. Graves, a Director of the Austin Motor Company in England, and associated with that company since June 1919, became Joint Managing Director of BMC (Australia) together with Mr G. Lloyd in January 1959.
Lloyd would relinquish his position as Joint Managing Director in the New Year of 1960, but would remain a Director and also act in a consultative capacity. Mr N. W. Lawrance was appointed Commercial Director and Mr R. L. Abbott Director of Manufacturing. Mr H. Sainsbury and Mr L. Shimmin were appointed as Associate Directors.
Mini production in South Africa began on 21 December at the Blackheath plant near Cape Town. The first car off the line was an Austin 850. Blackheath built 36 Minis before the year was out – of these, 24 were Austin Se7ens and 12 were Morris Mini Minors. The cars were assembled from CKD (Completely Knocked Down) components manufactured in the UK.
Back at home, on Christmas Eve 1959, it was announced that a second night shift employing about 700 men would start at Morris Motors at Cowley on 18 January 1960. It was aimed at increasing production of the Morris Mini-Minor.
Why the Mini was such a big gamble for BMC
BMC had gambled everything on innovation and expansion. It would have been easy for it to coast along with Pininfarina restyles of existing rear-wheel-drive cars, but instead it opted for innovation.
The politicians and pundits had demanded that the British motor industry needed a simple car for export, but every time the UK industry tried to design such a vehicle, it failed. The idea that Britain could replicate the success of the Volkswagen Beetle in the USA was all-pervading. The Beetle succeeded because of its popularity with the vast contingent of American servicemen based in Cold War West Germany.
If Britain did have a simple car that could be exported to the USA, then that vehicle was the Morris Minor and for various reasons it did not sell Stateside. However, Britain did export large numbers of cars to North America, sports cars and luxury vehicles like Jaguar and Rolls-Royce.
If Britain was to produce a car popular with overseas buyers, it had to be something different from the pack, something unique, and that car was the Mini – it is hard to see any other company other than BMC putting it into production.
Suspension guru Alex Moulton told author Barney Sharratt: ‘It couldn’t have come from the existing team at Longbridge. Not in a hundred years. Lord was conscious of that and knew that Issigonis was the only man capable of doing such things.’
BMC Engineer Ron Nicholls commented: ‘Could Ford or General Motors have produced the Mini? Of course not. Under the Ford system the Mini could not have been designed, developed and put into production. There was too much new in it.’
In the pipeline was the ADO16 which became the bestselling BMC 1100 of 1962. Prototypes began running in 1958, overseen by Charles Griffin, BMC’s Chief Engineer, Passenger Cars, operating out of Cowley. During 1959 BMC and Pininfarina gradually evolved the look of the car.
In late 1959 work began on the ADO17 project, a larger car than the ADO16. Sketches by Alec Issigonis from the previous year were passed to Chris Kingham at Longbridge for him to begin to translate them into reality (below).
- History : The Austin-Morris story – Part Eleven : 1974 - 23 August 2021
- History : The Austin-Morris story – Part Ten : 1973 - 19 July 2021
- Essay : Morris Marina – How well did it sell? - 20 April 2021