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 third part, we look back at 1961 – the year BMC reached some amazing landmarks, car design and development were pushing forward, and the company looked like it had the world at its feet…
BMC began 1961 by announcing the Mini Pickup. Like the van, it would last in production until 1983. On 4 January 1961, Morris Motors Limited announced that one million Morris Minors had been made since the car was introduced in October 1948. It would not take the Mini as long to reach the same milestone.
On 12 January, BMC announced some more cutbacks in production. Workers at Morris Motors Limited in Cowley and the M.G. Car Company Limited in Abingdon, were told that they were to go on a two-and-a-half day week from the beginning of the next week. Night shift workers would be on a two-day week. The announcement of this further cut in production was made to the 10,000 Oxford and Abingdon car workers at lunchtime by the BMC management.
The announcement said that some reduction and alterations in production programmes of certain models were being discussed by the management and trade union representatives at both factories. In effect, the necessary adjustments meant that there was enough work for the equivalent of two-and-a-half day shifts and two night shifts.
A spokesman said: ’Every effort will be made to decrease the effect on workers of this shorter working week.’
Sales not going as well as expected
Even demand for the Mini was slowing. Sharp cuts in the production of the Morris Minor and the Mini, which had led to the introduction of two-and-a-half day shifts and two nights a week for about 1800 men at the Morris plant in Cowley, caused a good deal of anger and gave an edge to those trade unionists who had argued that redundancy was preferable to excessive short-time working.
The Mini men objected strongly to this extension of short-time working on their lines while other sections of the factory were still working a five-day week. The men wanted to keep the three-day week. They wanted the displaced workers to be placed in jobs in other parts of the factory, especially in the department which made parts for the British Motor Corporation’s assembly plants abroad.
So far this department had been unaffected by the cuts in production over the previous few weeks. The Times newspaper published inaccurate production data leading to a correction from BMC.
Mini production affected
BMC Minis and 1100s in production at Longbridge – between car strikes
A BMC statement from Longbridge, Birmingham, said: ’The production programme for the Austin Se7en and the Morris Mini-Minor and their derivatives at Longbridge and Cowley is running at more than 2000 a week – one of the highest output figures for any British vehicle at present. Figures published in the press about production at Cowley are misleading because they do not include the entire range of vehicles of this type.’
On 18 January, 2000 workers at Cowley began a half-pay week. That meant working for two and a half days and a drop in earnings. The following day the message got through to the Conservative Government when it relaxed the credit squeeze. It had hit the British motor industry hard. Protests from the opposition Labour Party proved to be nothing but hot air.
Troubled Standard-Triumph falls into Leyland’s hands
The 1960 credit squeeze enabled Leyland to get their hands on a weakened Standard-Triumph. The next serious credit squeeze would occur in July 1966 and would be imposed by Harold Wilson’s Labour Government. Then it would enable Leyland to take over BMC.
The relaxation of the credit squeeze quickly brought an improvement in trading conditions. By 21 February about half the 60,000 employees of the British Motor Corporation were now working a five-day week. A BMC official said they were anxious not to be over optimistic about the future at this stage, but added that production of Minivans would double in the next month. The demand for smaller vans had been tremendous.
A Birmingham car dealer said: ’We are busier than we were last February and the outlook seems bright. Secondhand prices are going up. There is a feeling of buoyancy on the home market at the moment.’
Leyland Motors Limited’s takeover of Standard-Triumph International Limited was confirmed on 6 March, when its nominee, Stanley Markland, was confirmed as Managing Director. It was Markland who knocked the firm into shape, but others in the Leyland hierarchy would take the credit in the years ahead.
Bright times ahead
Then, on 15 March in Geneva, Jaguar Cars announced the sensational E-type. There was more good news on 21 March, when a British Motor Corporation spokesman said in Birmingham that working would be normal at Morris in Cowley, in the next week for the first time since the start of the motor recession the previous autumn.
The spokesman added: ‘This will mean a return to the basis of five days or four and a half nights. A night shift is working on two models: the Morris Minor and Mini-Minor.’ At the time, three-quarters of the 8400 labour force were working five shifts and the rest were on four and a half or four shifts.
The spokesman added: ’Production is being increased to meet the improved demand. At home, orders have been stimulated by the recent good weather and the ending of hire-purchase uncertainties.’ Overseas, a more healthy stock position was developing and there were already signs of increasing orders. ‘In particular, we are stepping up supplies of sports cars to America once more.’
Production steps up again
Because of this, it was almost certain that everyone at the MG factory at Abingdon would be back on a five-day week from Monday, 27 March. About ten per cent were at the time working four days. Five days later, BMC announced that new workers would be recruited at Morris in the coming week for the first time since the beginning of the recession in the motor industry the previous autumn.
As related earlier, this week also marked the return to a full five-day working week for the first time for several months. A BMC spokesman said: ‘There is a limited intake of people into the plant which will go some way towards replacing the losses we have experienced during the winter.’
No BMC workers were made redundant during the recession, but a larger number of workers than usual had left the factories of their own accord and no new workers had been recruited. The spokesman also said that, with effect from 15 April, there would be overtime on Saturday mornings for 1500 workers on the Morris Minor and Mini-Minor. ‘These measures will help the company to keep pace with the growing volume of orders.’
Abingdon steps up amid expansion plans
Of the 800 employees at the MG factory at Abingdon, only about 70 would still be on a four-day week. The reason for the improvement was that the MG company was feeling the benefit of fresh orders for sports cars from the United States. By 10 April nearly all BMC’s labour force of 60,000 workers were back on a five-day week.
On 26 April, BMC announced that plans were coming to fruition for expanding output to a million vehicles a year. A spokesman said that it was again producing at 750,000 vehicles a year, the then full capacity of the group’s factories, and it was a sign of their confidence in the future that the £49 million expansion programme had been going forward steadily throughout the winter recession.
One of the biggest single contributions to the extra 250,000 vehicles a year would be made by the second car assembly building at the Austin factory at Longbridge, which would be completed in November 1961. The plan was that this building, costing £3.5 million, would be in production in early 1962, and would raise the capacity of the Austin factory from 8000 vehicles to 10,500 a week. However, as it turned out it was September 1962 before CAB2 produced its first vehicle.
BMC to double the output of the Mini
It was planned to double the output of the Minis shared between the Austin works and the Morris assembly plant at Cowley from 200,000 a year to 400,000, which would be the biggest output ever achieved by a British car. The new assembly building was believed to be the most advanced in the world.
Production would be almost fully automatic, and each new car, rolling off the assembly lines at the rate of one every two-and-a-half minutes, would be storm tested. The cars would be driven at varying speeds on rollers in a special tunnel in simulated storm conditions.
The epic multi-story car park
On 2 May BMC showed off its half completed nine-storey car park to invited guests and journalists. Intended to store finished vehicles awaiting dispatch, it was finally opened on 25 September 1961. Costing £550,000, it was intended to take 3300 vehicles. Seventeen acres of effective floor space would stand on two acres of ground.
The lift slab principle was being used in the construction. The huge concrete floors and roof, cast at ground level, were lifted into place by hydraulic jacks. All parking floors were ramped and a double spiral system segregated up and down traffic. Geoffrey Eyre, BMC Buildings Project Engineer, said: ’We have no more ground space for our vehicles during the brief time between coming off the assembly lines and delivery, so we have had to go upward.’
The multi-storey car park survived 40 years, being demolished in August 2001 after it was deemed a safety hazard.
More new metal
On 29 May the ADO41 Austin-Healey Sprite Mk2 (above) was announced along with a revised ‘big’ Healey 3000. The Sprite Mk2 replaced the original ‘frogeye’ Sprite, and was a bizarre restyle. The nose was the work of the Healey Motor Company while MG reshaped the rear. It would not be the last time a car from the BMC/BL stable was the work of two different stylists, but on this occasion it worked.
Then, effective from 1 June, Barry L. Mackie was appointed as Director of Personnel and Welfare for the British Motor Corporation, and Richard O’Brien was appointed as Director of Industrial Relations. Barry Mackie had come to BMC via Fisher and Ludlow, which he joined in 1934. He had worked there, and before that at Thorneycroft, as an accountant, so what qualified him to deal with personnel and welfare matters is not known.
Richard O’Brien came from a Northern steel firm as Director (and repairer) of Industrial Relations. Mild-mannered and intelligent, O’Brien was considered to be a skillful background boy in his early 40s, who normally stayed away from the negotiating table.
From Sprite to Midget
The revised Austin Healey Sprite was followed on 30 June by the ADO47 MG Midget. The ADO47 was the badge-engineered version of the ADO41 Austin Healey Sprite Mk2. However, the Healey family received no royalty payment for the ADO47, no doubt to its displeasure, even though it had a hand in the original basic design and the styling of this MG version.
On 5 July, Joseph W. Bache was appointed as Director and General Manager of BMC. Bache had joined Austin in 1950 as Sales Manager, becoming Sales Director in 1952. The company also announced that Eric M. Gibbs had been appointed Sales Director, Mr Louis A. Beare Director of European Sales and Service, and Michael J. Trodd Sales Director and General Manager, Nuffield exports. Eric Gibbs, an ex-RAF pilot, had joined BMC in 1953.
Apart from wartime service with the RASC, Louis Beare had worked for Morris Motors and BMC since 1929. Michael Trodd was an ex-Indian Army officer who had worked for the Nuffield Organisation since 1948.
The next day Directors of the British Motor Corporation announced in Birmingham that after ‘preliminary studies’ they were not to make any attempt to take over Borgward-Werke AG of Bremen, West Germany. It had been suggested that BMC might take over Borgward to give British cars a stronghold in the Common Market, now known as the European Union.
Mini-Cooper hoves into view
Then, on 16 July, BMC held a pre-launch dinner for the ADO50 Mini Cooper at the Kensington Palace Hotel. Alec Issigonis made a speech. ‘About a year ago my old friend John Cooper, who is an enthusiastic user of the ADO15, suggested to me that BMC ought to produce a sports version of this car. I thought it was a good idea and oddly enough so did the management,’ he said.
This speech totally contradicts the accepted view that John Cooper had to go over Issigonis’s head direct to senior management to authorise the ADO50 project. An amazing 27 Grand Prix drivers attended, but it took two months to manufacture 400 cars. Internal BMC memos of the time suggest that BMC was tardy in bringing the car to fruition.
In late April 1961 the public announcement was originally scheduled for June that year. Bill Davies, the BMC Director of Production, had wanted 100 cars for the media to test but was told by Alec Issigonis that ten were enough.
More personnel changes
On 22 July BMC announced it was to have three Deputy Managing Directors. The then existing Deputy Managing Director, Jim Woodcock, would become responsible for home and export sales, service, and advertising. He was joined by Bill Davis, Director of all BMC factories producing vehicles, tractors and domestic appliances; while the third Deputy Managing Director with responsibility for the finance of the group would be Sydney Wheeler, who was a Director and Secretary.
Twelve other appointments and promotions to directorship were also announced. A spokesman said these were ’in furtherance of the policy of expansion and to support the export drive.’ Another appointment was that of W.J. Borough to take charge of BMC’s city publicity office.
European outlook: good
On 1 August, in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan (right), announced that Britain was to apply to join the European Economic Community. Britain’s rocky relationship with Europe has caused endless debate, but back in 1961 the EEC was a trade bloc and not a project for a European super state.
In order to join the EEC Britain would have to leave the EFTA. For the motor industry there were various pros and cons about EEC membership. In EFTA the only serious competition was from Sweden, best known for Saab, Volvo and Scania. In 1960, Sweden produced 108,000 cars while Britain produced 1,354,000. EEC imports into Britain were subject to a 30 per cent tariff, which made them uncompetitive.
In the summer of 1961, apart from the Mini, a lot of British cars were uninspiring, and continental manufacturers could offer products just as good if not better.
British car industry in expansive mood
British motor manufacturers were planning a massive expansion programme. As well as BMC, Ford would build a new plant at Halewood, Vauxhall would go to Ellesmere Port, Standard-Triumph to Speke and Rootes to Linwood. All this would result in a production capacity estimated at 2.2 million cars in 1973.
The British motor industry was nearly doubling its capacity, but who was going to buy all these shiny new cars? Quite clearly there were a lot of economic forecasts predicting that the domestic economic boom which had secured Harold Macmillan’s General Election victory in 1959 would continue. Between 1950 and 1960 production of all types of vehicles had increased at a rate of 130 per cent. At this rate of growth, Britain would need a production capacity of over four million vehicles by 1970.
In 1960, 68 per cent of all British car exports went to the Commonwealth countries, while only 10 per cent went to the EEC, and they were subject to trade tariffs that rendered them uncompetitive. In 1960, Japan produced 165,000 cars and did not seem a threat. There were 805,000 new car registrations in Britain that year, while in the EEC, there were 638,000 cars built in France, 970,000 in West Germany and 381,000 in Italy.
Britain therefore seemed to be doing well. The dilemma was could Britain continue to sell vehicles to the Commonwealth as rapid de-colonisation was taking place or re-focus on Europe and the EEC? In August 1961, the answer was not altogether clear.
Personnel shifts, declining production
On 26 August, BMC announced that Charles S. Jarrett, Secretary of Austin Motor Company, and Mr H.J.T. Wing, Secretary of Morris Motors, were to be local Directors of their respective companies. Charles Jarrett had joined Austin in 1936.
On 29 August, it was announced that production of vehicles by BMC declined to 601,000 in the year ended 31 July 1961 from 669,000 in 1959-60. Output in 1958-59 was 486,000. The company pointed out that the 10 per cent fall in overall production was incurred in spite of a rise of about 62 per cent in the production of the Mini.
The company then stated that from this it was clear that the poor winter and the lessened demand for the more expensive types of car must have had an adverse effect on earnings, ‘bearing in mind that the margin of profit on the smaller cars must be a good deal less than it is on the higher priced models.’
It was later revealed that BMC had made a pre-tax profit of £16,642,604 which equated as a £27.69 profit per vehicle. Profit after tax was £5,878,507. To the corporation’s later detractors, the drop in profit per vehicle was a sign that the Mini was underpriced, but there were extenuating circumstances – with the credit squeeze, it had been a difficult year of short-time working.
Mini-Cooper officially announced
Then, on 20 September, the original ADO50 Mini Cooper was finally announced. Available in both Austin and Morris versions, the twin-carburettor, 55bhp, 997cc engined car had a top speed of 85mph. The car arguably was the original hot hatch, with apologies to Volkswagen Golf GTI enthusiasts, and amazingly the Mini Cooper brand is probably even more popular in the 21st century.
The following month brought more product announcements with the unveiling of the Austin A60 Cambridge and A110 Westminster on 11 October. The ADO38 was a revised ADO9 saloon with a longer wheelbase, wider track and a larger 1622cc B-Series engine. Production lasted until 1969.
Around the same time the similar Morris Oxford Series VI also appeared. This was the longest lasting of the Farina saloons, not disappearing until April 1971. The ADO53 A110 Westminster was a revised ADO9, again with a longer wheelbase and a revised engine.
The following day the Riley Elf and Wolseley Hornet were revealed, the upmarket versions of the ADO15 Mini platform, a sort of downsized version of the Jaguar MkX announced the same day.
Bathgate opens, Washwood Heath expands
On 13 October 1961, the first lorry built at BMC’s new £11.25 million factory at Bathgate, West Lothian, was driven off the assembly line to the cheers of more than 300 employees and visitors. The factory was intended to produce the BMC group’s total output of trucks, diesel engines, and tractors.
When in full production, which was planned for the autumn of 1964, it was hoped it would turn out 1000 trucks and 750 tractors a week. The first vehicle, assembled from parts produced at the company’s Longbridge factory, was driven off the line by Keith Sinnott, the Managing Director, who said later that production had started exactly on time – 15 months after the inaugural ceremony.
It was hoped to turn out 100 trucks a week by the end of 1961. It would all end in tears.
Another part of BMC’s expansion plan was revealed on 1 November. An extension, costing more than £750,000, was now working at its plant at Washwood Heath, Birmingham. It had stepped up production of axles and front suspension units from 16,000 to 20,000 a week.
Leonard Lord out, George Harriman in
On 7 November 1961, Sir Leonard Lord (centre), Executive Chairman of BMC, officially resigned. He was replaced by George Harriman (left, with Alec Issigonis) as both Chairman and Managing Director. After 38 years in the car industry, Harriman had become the most powerful single figure in a company, which claimed to be the fourth largest manufacturer of motor cars in the world.
The Times said of George Harriman: ‘On tours of the works he gives subordinates the frightening impression of knowing everything about every piece of equipment there. At press conferences he can reel off lists of statistics in answer to spontaneous questions. He knows exactly what is what at BMC.
‘The problems facing Mr Harriman in the future will nevertheless be far more complex even than the assembly lines here, and he has been groomed to deal with them. He has had years of experience in high command: Mr Harriman became Deputy Chairman of the company in 1952 and Managing Director in 1956. He is an optimist about the expanding world market for cars.
Harriman’s heart is in European expansion
The Times continued: ‘Firmly convinced that the greatest new potential for the industry lies in Europe within the foreseeable future, Harriman is a supporter of the idea that Britain should enter the Common Market if this can be done without injuring Commonwealth trade. He asserts, with heart, that the British car is good enough to compete with anybody else’s vehicle on equal terms.
‘He is, appropriately, an advocate of big battalions in car production. Wages and prices of raw materials are unlikely to go down, he points out, and to compete one must increase the volume of production and do more intensive tooling to bring prices down or even maintain them. Smaller firms are likely to be less capable of weathering uncertain conditions in the industry, he believes.’
Clearly, George Harriman’s strategy for BMC was to take it into Europe big time.
B-Series dieselised, Issigonis promoted
Three days later, BMC announced a new 1.5-litre diesel engine, already in production, as an alternative to the B-Series petrol engine in light commercial vehicles. Some components were common to both engines, which were similar in appearance and dimensions. The diesel weighed only about 50lb more. The makers claimed that it used up to 35 per cent less fuel – but would cost only £85 more.
On 13 November, BMC announced that Alec Issigonis, the Chief Engineer of BMC since 1957, had been appointed Technical Director of the company. One of his first tasks would be to supervise the amalgamation of the design units at Cowley and Longbridge.
In the next year BMC design work would be centralised in Birmingham under his personal control. He rejected any suggestion that this increased centralisation would tend to decrease the number of points of difference between BMC models. ‘I think the change will make everybody’s job much easier and we shall still be able to impart individuality to the various models. In fact we are going to make the differences bigger where we can.’
This statement implied a commitment to badge engineering.
BMC cars to be made in Scotland?
The media was speculating that BMC might also produce cars in Scotland, if the existing Bathgate venture succeeded. George Harriman, Chairman of BMC, said in Glasgow the next day: ’Bathgate is going along on schedule. We have high hopes about it. If things go to our original plans there is no reason why we should not do more. It depends on all of us – trade unions and management – to make a success of the Bathgate enterprise.’
On 24 November BMC revealed that ADO15 Mini production was now running at 3800 per week. In early December came two more BMC appointments. Charles Griffin became Chief Engineer, Cars. Griffin had joined the Nuffield Organisation in 1940. He had been Deputy Chief Engineer of BMC for two years. Gilbert Argyle became Chief Engineer, Commercial Vehicles. He had joined Morris Commercial Cars Limited in 1930.
On 15 December at BMC’s Annual General Meeting it was revealed that Sir Leonard Lord, who retired as Chairman in November, would be staying on as an advisor and consultant to the company. Lord’s protégé and successor, George Harriman, had Sir Leonard’s Longbridge office preserved as he left it. Meanwhile, BMC’s expansion programme continued.
Oxford under scrutiny
A public inquiry into BMC’s proposal for a £4 million spare parts depot was underway at Oxford that December. Mr H.H.E. Hill for the Council, said the 70-acre site, at Horspath, was the most satisfactory from planning and highways points of view.
The Council now suggested that the 70 acres be excluded from the original Green Belt proposals for Oxford. Mr Hill said the Council rejected the corporation’s application relating to a site at Kidlington and thought of Didcot, in Berkshire, but they now accepted that this was not a suitable proposition.
It was not a matter of going back on a principle of support for the Green Belt. Lord Harcourt, Chairman of the Oxford Preservation Trust, said its object in supporting the Green Belt was the proper control and balance in the public interest of three factors: residence, employment and amenity. It was estimated that about 120,000 tourists visited Oxford every year. The city suffered from over-employment, it was unbalanced employment: one-third of insured workers were employed in the motor industry. Apart from the question of damage to the Green Belt, expansion of the motor industry in Oxford needed to be halted.
Why Oxford? Why not Didcot?
The next day, 21 December, BMC was invited by Mr J.K. Boynton, Deputy Clerk to Berkshire County Council, to take its new depot to Didcot. He said a War Office depot was to close there in 1964 and would release enough land for the town to expand from its present population of 10,000 to a total of between 40,000 and 50,000.
Didcot would then accept surplus population from London and Oxford. Sir Sydney Littlewood, for BMC, said Didcot was totally unsuited to the firm’s needs. It wished to build up the most efficient spare parts service ever known in the British car industry. One reason for this was the need to compete in the Common Market against the efficiency of German manufacturers.
Rolls-Royce and BMC in partnership?
On the last day of the year it was announced that Rolls-Royce and BMC were examining the possibility of technical collaboration. The two companies considered that, in view of the economies to be gained by large-scale manufacturing and the ever-increasing importance of quality in the world’s car markets, there was a prima face case for such an investigation.
Lord Kindersley, Chairman of Rolls-Royce, said that the talks were only at the stage of exploratory discussions and it was far too early to say what the future would bring. ’Discussions will be held to examine the problems of both teams. It will take some months before we can see clearly what we are to do. BMC and Rolls-Royce are two leading British manufacturers of motor cars, one making large quantities and the other smaller quantities at the high-priced end.
‘Both have fundamental problems in common and the joint engineering skills of the two can be put to the best possible purpose. I am looking for a partnership between the two concerns to work out problems in the best way possible.’ This culminated in the Vanden Plas Princess 4-Litre R of 1964 to 1968.
So ended 1961, the year that saw a change at the top at BMC. The next year would bring another exciting new BMC model, but also a rival car that would prove to be the corporation’s bête noire.