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 part four, we look back at 1962 – the year of the BMC 1100 – and set the scene with what appeared to be huge and unstoppable success for its maker…
On 4 January 1962, Austin announced that it had built its four millionth vehicle, an A40 Mk2 saloon. It had left the Longbridge assembly lines during the first day’s production of 1962, and was sold to Garfield Weston, a Canadian businessman with interests in the food industry. Then, on 8 January, BMC went to the unusual step of seeking to assure the public that the long-serving Morris Minor was not going out of production.
To offset the rumours, BMC issued a statement saying that the Morris 1000 was to continue in production for some time to come. Rumours had been current for the best part of a year – first that the small Morris was to be restyled and renamed the ‘Major’, and more recently that it would appear with transversely-mounted engine and front-wheel drive, as a larger version of the Mini-Minor.
That referred, of course, to the forthcoming ADO16, which had been intended to replace the Morris Minor. The Morris Minor was a profitable car and BMC, under its new boss George Harriman, was reluctant to see it go. Another factor may have been that it was designed by the corporation’s new Technical Director, Alec Issigonis, who now had a say in the company’s model programme.
Mini: by Royal endorsement
Six days later, the Longbridge plant was visited by Princess Margaret and her husband Anthony Armstrong-Jones. The Royal couple were among the first celebrities to endorse the BMC Mini, and Lord Snowdon, as Anthony Armstrong-Jones became, was a personal friend of Alec Issigonis.
On 19 January, as well as announcing that the Austin Mini Se7en was now to be simply known as the Austin Mini, BMC said Morris Motors planned to increase output from 5000 to 8000 vehicles a week by the next year.
An early sign of George Harriman’s focus on Europe came on 23 February. BMC announced that all makes of Morris cars, with the exception of Riley and Wolseley, would be assembled in Belgium from the early summer of 1962. Morris cars were now imported fully-built or from assembly plants in Holland.
The Belgian firm, Beherman-Demoen, which already held similar contracts with Standard-Triumph and Borgward, would assemble the cars at Wilrijck, near Antwerp, under a contract which provided for delivery to begin on 1 August 1962. Meanwhile, in Birmingham, a BMC spokesman confirmed that these Nuffield products were to be assembled by Beherman-Demoen, and added that the corporation looked upon the new contract as a further step in its efforts to build up Common Market trade.
The BMC 1100 hoves into view
In March 1962, the Cowley plant began to assemble BMC’s next big gamble, the ADO16. On 8 March, the Daily Mirror‘s motoring correspondent, Patrick Mennem, broke the news of an exciting new BMC car, which would be a bigger brother to the existing Mini range.
According to Mennem: ‘The new car will incorporate many of the principles BMC use in the Mini — Including a crossways-mounted engine driving the front wheels. The new saloon will have a revolutionary rubber and water suspension system. Water will be held between the rubber cups at the front and rear—to give a soft, secure, yet floating ride. The new car will look like a lower, longer Austin A40.’
Mennem got the engine size and launch date wrong, but apart from that he was extraordinarily well informed about the forthcoming ADO16 Morris 1100 – presumably, he had been shown the car.
While this was going on, Sir Leonard Lord, Executive Chairman of the British Motor Corporation, who was made a Baron in the New Year Honours List of 1962, decided to become Baron Lambury of Northfield in the County of Warwick. He had denounced the idea of being Lord Lord as ‘too daft for words.’
On 10 April BMC revealed that the new £550,000 building had been completed at Longbridge. It would now house most of the company’s design departments previously scattered throughout its various factories. Alec Issigonis said: ‘Design activities of all our cars have been concentrated in this one building, except for sports cars which remain at Abingdon.’
In the 10 years since the Austin-Nuffield merger, BMC claimed that its rationalisation policy had reduced the 14 bodyshells, which were in production in 1952, to five – and the number of engines from 12 to three.
In 1962 it produced two types of four-speed gearbox, one three-speed type with proprietary overdrive and two optional automatic boxes, while three axle designs covered the whole range of cars. In the new Longbridge design office block, passenger car engineering was divided into sections or cells.
Cell A concentrated on developing and extending the ADO15 Mini design in small cars of less than 1,100 cc engine capacity. Cell B, worked on the ADO16 Morris 1100 which had yet to be announced and had transferred from Cowley. Cell C worked on the ADO17 1800 project which would not appear until 1964.
Financial woes are reported
Two days later BMC’s interim financial statement was released. Earnings for the first 32 weeks of the current period (to 31 July) suffered a severe setback compared with the same period the previous year – this in spite of a rise in output to 385,720 vehicles, against 352,135 in the corresponding period the last time. This was a story of lower profit margins.
A higher proportion of output was of the lower-priced type and this, together with increased sales in highly competitive markets and a number of strikes, were to blame for the setback. There was some good news for BMC on 27 April, though. BMC was given permission by the Minister of Housing and Local Government to build a £4 million spare parts depot at Garsington Lane, Horspath, near its factory at Cowley, Oxford.
The Minister accepted the recommendation of his inspector, who held the four-day public inquiry into the plans in December 1961, that the corporation should be allowed to carry out their proposals to build on 44 acres of the 70-acre site. He had made a condition that the remaining 26 acres should not be developed.
New management blood
On 8 May, BMC announced some appointments. Three key home sales appointments were announced as a consequence of the retirement of Donald Harrison as Director of Home Sales. Thomas A. Sangster, Deputy Director of Home Sales, succeeded Harrison; James W.R. Penrose, Director and General Home Sales Manager of Austin Motors, became Deputy Director of BMC Home Sales.
Bernard H. Bates, Home Fleet Sales Supervisor, for BMC, was now to be General Home Sales Manager of Austin Motors. C.W. Baker, Home Marketing Coordinator of the corporation became Manager of Home Market Coordination. Bill Hooper, Commercial Vehicle Home Sales Manager of the Austin Motor Co. became BMC Supervisor of Home Market Coordination for Commercial Vehicles.
F.B.S. Harnby, was appointed BMC Supervisor of Home Market Coordination for Cars. T.W. Poole became Home Fleet Sales Supervisor for BMC in succession to Mr Bernard H. Bates. Tony Ball, Assistant Commercial Vehicle Sales Manager of Austin became Commercial Vehicle Home Sales manager of that company. Tony Ball would feature prominently in the launch of the Austin Metro in 1980.
Thomas Sangster had joined Riley in 1930, while the Dublin-born James Penrose had joined Austin in 1925. Bernard Bates would go on to higher things in British Leyland.
Beyond the 1100: the 1800 takes shape
On 18 May, the first prototype of the ADO17 1800 ran, driven by Alec Issigonis himself. Then, on 23 May, amid a climate of niggling industrial disputes which made 21,000 men idle, the MG factory at Abingdon built the first example of the ADO23, the MGB.
In June 1962, BMC South Africa built its first Mini Cooper at its Blackheath plant. The same month it was announced that Leyland Motors and Associated Commercial Vehicles were merging to form the biggest manufacturing group of heavy commercial vehicles in the world, with combined total assets of nearly £117 million.
Unlike Leyland’s previous expansive moves, it was a merger of equals, the Leyland men had a high regard for the ACV executives, some of whom would play a prominent part in the events of 1967/68.
Also that month, Tam Dalyell was elected as Labour MP for West Lothian, a constituency that contained BMC’s Bathgate plant. Within weeks of his election he was visiting component suppliers in Birmingham, culminating with lunch at Longbridge with BMC Chairman George Harriman. He recalled what Harriman said to him as he was leaving.
‘Dalyell, I am an old man and you are a young man,’ he said. ‘Before you come to retire as MP for West Lothian, I fear the Bathgate move will end in tears. When this happens, please bear in mind that we never wanted to go to Scotland in the first place – we were pressurised and encouraged by the Cabinet to do so.’
“‘Dalyell, I am an old man and you are a young man,’ Harriman told me. ‘Before you come to retire as MP for West Lothian, I fear the Bathgate move will end in tears.'” – Tam Dalyell, MP for West Lothian
It was possibly at this meeting that Dalyell had his only meeting with Alec Issigonis. He also recalled: ‘It is indelibly marked on my memory that Issigonis argued for tougher laws on defective vehicles, confident in the quality of his own. I am not quite sure that Harriman was equally enthusiastic!’
Building trucks for France
At the end of June, BMC and the Etablissements Willeme of Paris had signed an agreement by which the two organisations would become associated in the development of a range of vehicles spanning 7-14 tons payload for the French market.
The Ets. Willeme, which for more than 40 years had been manufacturers of heavy commercial vehicles and special trucks, would now also undertake in its main factory in Nanterre the assembly of a range of Willeme-BMC vehicles. Within the framework of this plan the Ets. Willeme would develop further their factory at Chabenet near Argenton-sur-Creuse.
The sales organization of the Ets. Willeme would be responsible for distribution throughout metropolitan France of these Willeme-BMC vehicles assembled in their factories. To achieve this the existing network in France which would be responsible for the distribution and service of these vehicles would be further strengthened.
Back at home… trouble
On 14 August, at Bathgate, truck assembly line workers were sent home because of a shortage of cab bodies brought about by a walk out of 40 cab trim men who claimed the factory was cold during night shift working. The men also had complaints about allocation of overtime working.
All the truck assembly workers were members of the National Union of Vehicle Builders. A meeting was held in Bathgate with a Midlands organiser from their union. This was the first reported dispute at the plant. Tam Dalyell MP blamed the decline in industrial relations on the sacking of ex-miner John Boyle, the Bathgate Shop Stewards Convener, for poor timekeeping.
Dalyell wrote: ‘The original BMC Scottish Management were happy to have Boyle as Convenor, partly because he was sceptical about the value of strike action – he was intelligent about industrial relations – and partly because, wearing his other hat as a key Councillor, later Provost, of Whitburn, he had been instrumental in providing an excellent crash housing programme for incoming workers to BMC’s factory and in masterminding with Robert Mickel, the Town Clerk, the transfer of 500 overspill families from Glasgow. It was a triumph of sensible social engineering.
‘Following a ludicrous complaint about his timekeeping on the assembly line (owing to the demands of Council business, involving drainage for the rapidly expanding plant), Boyle was sacked in 1963 by new management from the Midlands. Without Boyle’s authority, built up over years in the pit, and canny negotiating skills, the Longbridge headquarters of Austin could hardly have been surprised that they got involved in a series of damaging mini-strikes and industrial action.’
BMC launches the 1100
The next day was the launch day for the new ADO16 saloon. The location for the launch was Worcester College during the summer break, where the foreign press stayed – and Alec Issigonis was in attendance.
The ADO16 made its debut as the Morris 1100. Powered by a new 1098cc derivative of the A-Series engine, combining Pininfarina styling, hydrolastic suspension and exceptional internal space, this car would be Britain’s best-selling car of the 1960s. The car would prove so successful that other manufacturers were compelled to design similar vehicles and the ADO16 would become the ancestor of today’s Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf class of car.
As with the Mini, the engine was mounted transversely in the nose, driving the front wheels through a four-speed gearbox.
BMC claimed that 10,000 cars had been built so far and every Morris dealer in the world had one in his showroom on launch day. Production initially centred on the Cowley works.
Good-looking and functional
Alec Issigonis told Basil Cardew of the Daily Express: ‘We have tried to produce a good looking, functional car – while cutting out as far as possible the risk of things going wrong. My main plan was to design a motor car to travel as efficiently as possible from A to B, with full comfort over really rough roads. The world will decide whether we have succeeded.’
He also told the American Time magazine: ‘My job is not to design fashion accessories or status symbols, but motorcars, things that travel as efficiently as possible from A to B. A car should take its shape from the engineering that goes into it.’
On 7 September at Longbridge Car Assembly Building 2 or CAB2, which was part of BMC’s £49 million expansion plan, came into operation, producing its first car, an Austin A40.
More jobs for Scotland?
Ten days later Colin Spires, Director and General Manager of BMC (Scotland) Ltd, announced that decisions on whether or not to increase production of tractors at the firms new plant at Bathgate, West Lothian, to 750 a week, providing 400 more jobs for Scotland, would be taken in January or February 1963.
He made his announcement after driving the first tractor off the assembly line and handing it over to the customer, West Lothian County Council. Colin Spires said that installed capacity was for 400 tractors a week, which would require 1200 to 1500 employees, but space was available for 750. The increase of production would depend on demand. The plant was part of a three-bay factory for making commercial vehicles, tractors, engines, and gearboxes.
Colin Spires had started his working life with Sunbeam in 1922, leaving in 1929 to join Morris Commercial Cars Limited.
The new sports car: MGB arrives
On 20 September, the MGB (ADO23) was announced to replace the MGA sports car. The B-Series engine was enlarged to 1798cc for this car, a capacity that would serve BMC and its successors well. One of the most iconic British cars, MGB production did not cease until 1980 after 524,470 examples had been built.
The MGB was the kind of thing BMC were good at, simple cheap sports cars that appealed to export markets. Only the day after, the car that would become BMC’s bete noir was launched, the Ford Cortina. The Cortina was the result of the work done by the company’s Product Planning Department headed by Terry Beckett. Market research and cost control combined with engineering to pre-set targets produced a car that proved highly lucrative to the men at Dagenham.
The Ford way of doing things would be contrasted with that of BMC in the years ahead. Although the specification of the Cortina was focussed on the UK fleet car market, it did prove popular in Commonwealth and EFTA markets, suggesting that it was perhaps the nearest Britain got to producing a simple car with export appeal. However, to some Europeans, it was crudely engineered to a price which was masked by its up-to-date styling, which it was, and there were better quality mass-produced cars available from the big Continental manufacturers.
On 2 October the Morris 1100 was followed by another ADO16 variant, the MG 1100. The Cowley-built MG 1100 was powered by a 1098cc engine with twin carburettors giving 55bhp and a top speed of 85mph.
Also in October 1962 BMC introduced a baulk ring synchromesh for its two front-wheel-drive models. Prior to this warranty claims had been catastrophic, put at £17.28 per car in September 1961.
A month later BMC announced that production at Morris Motors, Cowley was being reshuffled to increase output of the ADO16 Morris and MG 1100 range. The night shift of Morris Minors was to end to make way for the ADO16s.
On 13 November, the diesel-powered Austin A60 Cambridge and Morris Oxford was announced. The factory codename was ADO46. This car was no fireball with a top speed of 66mph. Production ceased in 1969.
The 1961 results are in
On 8 November BMC revealed its financial results for the 1961-62 financial year. BMC produced 600,279 vehicles against 601,399 for the previous year. Profit before tax was £11,573,647, which represented £19.28 profit per vehicle.
Profit per vehicle was declining and production was stagnating. The arrival of the ADO16 would arrest this. On 23 November George Harriman revealed in his company statement that the £5 million-plus fall in profits to £11.5 million for the year ended 31 July 1962 was based on a turnover of £31 million, almost exactly the same level as in the previous year.
In the 1961-62 year, 60 per cent of the group’s total output was represented by products of below 1000cc. This compared with 57 per cent for the previous year and only 43 per cent five years before. Clearly this trend, plus the narrow margins, made it essential to maintain turnover by expanding output. In the last trading period the output of ADO15 Minis reached 182,864 units, of which the home market absorbed 125,877.
Exports were increasing steadily and in the last three months of the financial year were averaging 1308 a week. BMC’s general export performance was impressive. In Europe sales had doubled in the previous four years.
Harriman senses opportunity
Not surprisingly, the BMC Chairman was fully confident about the export outlook and itching for Britain to join the Common Market. ‘It is a sad reflection on political progress that this is the sixth annual statement in which we have only been able to refer to the Common Market in prospect, although… we have not let that hinder our preparations,’ he said.
In the first six months of the 1962 BMC secured 44.6 per cent of the UK market, as against 41.2 per cent for the same period in 1961. Of light commercial vehicles, BMC held slightly less than 1961 but none the less nearly 50 per cent of the total.
George Harriman’s statement indicated that he knew profits on the ADO15 Mini range were low, but the problem would be solved by increasing production. The year of 1962 was the first year that annual Mini production topped 200,000, a previously-unheard of amount for a British car.
Not all good news
There was severe criticism of the spares and service organization of the British Motor Corporation at the annual meeting of the corporation on 18 December. Mr Osborn Bartram, of Corsham, Wiltshire, told the board: ‘I suppose you are satisfied with progress during the past year. But many of us who are ordinary shareholders are not satisfied. For one of the primary industries in the country, the service one gets as a customer is extremely poor.
‘I inquire about the new Morris 1100 and am given a vague delivery promise of three months. I am not interested in that. I want the car now, otherwise I go and get a Ford. I am a traffic manager for a large group and the spares situation is so poor that I wince whenever one of my vehicles is in an accident. I am put off by the dealer, or the person dealing with the repairs or by the board of the company. It is time we had someone new on the board of this company, who has perhaps made his name selling soap or something like it. Let us please see some improvement in the company this year.’
The Chairman, George Harriman, thanked Mr Bartram for what he called his ‘constructive criticism’. He invited Mr Bartram to discuss his complaints with the Directors in private after the meeting.
‘In effect, Harriman was telling me that Alec Issigonis was running the company’ – Duncan Stuart, BMC Research Department
In late 1962 Duncan Stuart of BMC’s Research Department approached the company Chairman. ‘I went to see Harriman at about the time they turned down our V4 engines for the 1100 and 1800. I said “You know we are doing all this research but you don’t use any of it, so why don’t you put the whole of my Research and Development Department on cost cutting the Mini? We could easily take £20 out of the production cost.”’
‘He said “That’s a good idea. Talk to Alec.” I replied “Surely it is you who should talk to Alec?” He answered “If Alec is in favour, I’ll support you.” In effect he was telling me that Alec was running the company. I’m sure that’s where things went wrong, because the gearbox itself was a disaster and the problems of the synchros, and the water and so on, could all have been avoided really.
‘To divorce all our research work from any product planning strategy was almost criminal. We had about a hundred people in East Works (Longbridge), a complete drawing office with test beds and a road test department.’
Harriman confident for 1963
On the last day of the year George Harriman issued a new year message which said: ’We are quietly confident about our prospects for 1963. The reduction in Purchase Tax will stimulate motor car business on the home market as soon as the used car trade has had a chance to settle down.
‘This will help us to achieve the economies of high-scale production, enabling us to compete still more successfully overseas. Worldwide, we consider our prospects reasonably good. We shall do more business with the United States, and our European trade is certainly increasing – in fact, it has doubled in the last three years. Our efforts to increase exports will be intensified even further in 1963.’
The New Year would bring further sales success, but BMC’s hopes of expansion into Europe would receive a serious setback.
Latest posts by Ian Nicholls (see all)
- Opinion : A little bit of politics, 2019 edition - 12 November 2019
- Opinion : Is the sun setting on the age of the car? - 9 October 2019
- History : The Austin-Morris story – Part One : 1968 - 22 September 2019