Ian Nicholls, AROnline‘s historian-in-residence, tells the story of Austin-Morris, and their part in the downfall of the British motor industry.
Here, in the fifth part, we recall the launch of the Austin Maxi, its press reception and the immediate aftermath. It’s going to be an uphill struggle.
The Austin-Morris story: All the fives
The wait for the new Austin Maxi was now nearly over and the era of the free exotic motoring journalist junket was about to begin. For the launch of the Mini, BMC had entertained the automotive scribes at Chobham in Surrey. For the Morris 1100 launch the scene was Worcester College in Oxford, while the Austin 1800 was demonstrated to the press at a hotel in Garve, Scotland.
However, for the Austin Maxi, it was decided that somewhere more exotic was desirable. British Leyland took over the Portuguese holiday resort of Estoril for the first fortnight of April 1969. Three parties of Pressmen, each about 80 strong, were flown out for three days of concentrated road testing – in preparation, some 36 1500s had been driven round MIRA’s high-speed circuit day and night beforehand to ensure that they were properly run in.
Lord Stokes, George Turnbull, the Managing Director of the Austin-Morris division, Harry Webster, the Technical Director and Filmer Paradise, the Sales Director, were present throughout most of the Portuguese testing. The gentlemen of the press were followed out to Estoril by 250 Austin distributors. This was the first occasion on which this important section of the group’s sales network had been invited to take part in an overseas launch. For a nominal payment of £50 each, they were flown out for two days of wining and dining at the plush Estoril Sol hotel.
The Portuguese parties were followed by a series of similar presentations at Longbridge. Some 2300 dealers and their salesmen were shown the new car over a period of three days. They were followed by 3600 British Leyland employees. In all, it was claimed at least 7000 people had been shown the ADO14 1500, now officially known as the Austin Maxi. The one immediate thing that struck journalists at the Estoril junket was the lack of former BMC personnel, despite the fact that the Maxi was very much a product of that now defunct organisation.
The era of the international launch begins
This was followed on 21 April by a Press Day for the new Austin Maxi at Shenington Airfield, near Banbury. Lord Stokes told the assembled media: ‘We have made certain that ample supplies are available in our distributors’ and dealers’ showrooms. In fact, almost 5000 are in their hands at this moment and, with a production rate now running at 2000 a week, the car will quickly become a very familiar sight on our roads so that customers won’t have to wait too long to get one. We are passing the starting line at a gallop as far as production of this car is concerned.’
He said this progress was a tribute to Harry Webster, the Technical Director of Austin-Morris, who had ‘honed to perfection’ the original design of Alec Issigonis, and George Turnbull, the Managing Director of Austin-Morris, who had insisted on the right production level before announcement. For the first six months, the Maxi would be sold only in the home market, to satisfy the first flush of demand there instead of trying to spread the available supplies thinly over the whole world, which satisfied nobody. It would be introduced in Europe in the autumn.
He described the car as, ‘the most thoroughly tested and proved model the motor industry has ever produced. We have done over a million miles of intensive testing with it up and down the motorways of Europe, in the hot summer of Portugal and even inside the Arctic Circle in Lapland last winter.’
Meanwhile, in Cowley…
While Lord Stokes was promising that ample supplies of the new Austin Maxi would be readily available, 4000 day workers went on strike at the Morris Motors factory at Cowley. The strike lasted for one and half days.
The official launch day of the Austin Maxi was 24 April 1969 and the level of hype surrounding the event far exceeded that for any previous product from either Longbridge or Cowley – sadly, that just served to make the disappointment of the actual car all the greater. One thing was true, the Maxi was the first volume production British car to boast a five-speed gearbox and five doors. British Leyland boasted that the Maxi had been developed at more than £9 million, over nearly five years.
George Turnbull tried to be realistic in assessing the Austin Maxi’s impact. ‘I consider it a must if you’re selling in the family sector of the market and are going to spend heavily on advertising and sales promotion, to stock your dealers up before the fanfare. You can’t afford to go into a launch with 500 cars, keeping your fingers crossed. Your dealers must have one or two cars apiece, and distributors considerably more, with a plentiful supply to follow up. I would be very sorry if we have less than 5000 on announcement day, allowing at least two per dealer, and we ought to have something like 7000. Output? We will certainly do 100,000 a year, maybe up to 150,000 even in the first year.’
Pre-launch orders looking strong
Lord Stokes said that orders for 22,500 of the new Austin Maxi, worth in all £22 million, had been received from distributors and dealers even before the public had seen the car. Lord Stokes said at the car’s launch: ‘I expect these orders to multiply considerably during the next few days when the public have had a chance to see the car. It seems from the reaction of the motor trade that we shall be creating an entirely new niche in the British car market.’
Lord Stokes talked up the Austin Maxi in public: ‘We believe that it will create the same kind of revolution in the field of middle-class family motor cars as did the Mini in the realm of small cars.’
He added: ‘Our Designers and Market Research men have carried out detailed studies on the sociological needs of the 1970s and the impact on the automobile and we firmly believe that the Maxi will fulfill the majority of requirements of the middle-class motorist in this context.’
Back to the drawing board
British Leyland’s policy of buttering up the motoring media by and large worked with the Maxi. Most UK reviews were good, except that of CAR magazine’s Jeff Daniels, who complained about the appalling cable change gearbox, the interior noise and the poor breathing of the new E-Series engine in an article entitled ‘Back to the drawing board.’
At Estoril, Lord Stokes team fended of criticism of the Maxi by subtly shifting blame onto the Issigonis-led Design Team. Harry Webster managed to convince Jeff Daniels that the Maxi could not be fitted with a more powerful engine without a major redesign, which was palpably false as a 1748cc E-Series engine had been tested as far back as October 1967. The simple truth was that the powertrain of the Maxi, which it must be remembered was all-new, was not ready to go on sale to the public. The blame for this must lie with Sales Director Filmer Paradise who, as recounted earlier, told the BMC Board in December 1968 that, apart from the disadvantage of low power, the ADO14 was fully acceptable. The Maxi was probably a year away from being fully acceptable.
The April 1969 BMC Board meeting discussed the negative feedback arising from the Estoril road tests of the Maxi, particularly the poor change of the gearbox. Harry Webster discussed introducing a new gearbox. At this stage the four-door saloon was still on track for introduction as George Turnbull thought it would increase volume.
Thoughts turn to the Mini
The forthcoming ADO20 Mini (above) was also on the agenda. There was a plan to name the 850/1000 variants Carousel to go along with Clubman and Cooper – this was after the name of Climax had been rejected. At this stage, the Cooper was still part of the planned range, with the Mk3 1275S earmarked to receive a ‘revised front end’, presumably the Clubman nose. Lord Stokes asked George Turnbull to ensure no royalties were to be paid to the Cooper Car Company.
Lord Stokes would later claim that John Cooper made more money out of the Mini than British Leyland. BLMC still had two more years to run on its agreement with the Cooper Car Company, so the only legal way of getting out of the royalty payments was to replace the 998cc Cooper altogether with the 1275GT, a Clubman saloon fitted with a bog standard 1275 cc A-Series from the ADO16 1300 saloon range fitted with Cooper S disc brakes. The Cooper S would continue for as long as legally necessary for those that wanted the ultimate performance Mini.
Lord Stokes antipathy towards John Cooper had already been publicly expressed in the decision by British Leyland to withdraw works backing to the Cooper Car Company racing Minis in the British Saloon Car Championship. Instead, the Abingdon-based Competitions Department was ordered to compete in the series against the Minis of the-now privateer Britax Downton Cooper team.
Enlargement for Cowley
On 8 May British Leyland announced plans costing £45 million for major expansion of the Cowley carmaking facilities. The expansion centred on the adjoining plants of Pressed Steel Fisher, Europe’s biggest car body maker, and of the Austin-Morris division. It would double car output to make the Cowley complex one of Britain’s largest single car producing areas.
With a 20,000 labour force to remain fairly stable during the expansion, the complex would be producing a wide range of Austin and Morris cars. The plan was for output to rise over the next few years from 5000 vehicles to 10,000 a week. The move, part of BLMC’s £200 million spending programme, was the first major expansion plan to be implemented by British Leyland and was the first example of an almost totally integrated plant being formed from separate facilities. John Lutyens, Managing Director of the PSF Division, said that the £45 million was for long-term expansion at Cowley. He denied that the investment would have any significant effect on future plans for other PSF plants.
The first phase of the plan to 1970 mainly affected PSF and involved the redevelopment of part of the main bodymaking building. The plan included conveyor modifications, site clearance, the provision of a new paint shop, a rearrangement of the existing Press Shop facilities and an expansion of the mechanised delivery conveyor system linking the two factories, which were on opposite sides of the Oxford eastern bypass.
Over the next two years electro-coat paint priming capacity would be introduced on the Austin-Morris south side and the car assembly facilities increased. After 1971, a second new Paint Shop would be developed at PSF and the car assembly facilities on the north side of the Austin-Morris site increased accordingly. Pressed Steel Fisher officials said the new plan would allow a greater proportion of the 2,200 tons of steel it used a week to be transported by rail.
John Lutyens (above) said: ‘Through improved plant, equipment and methods, a substantial increase in productivity will be obtained without expansion of the labour force.’
What was not revealed at the time was that much of this investment was for the under-development ADO28, British Leyland’s contender for fleet sales.
British Leyland again confirmed that the overseas launch of the new Austin Maxi would not be for another six months.
Getting the stock levels right
Lord Stokes was insisting that overseas dealers were adequately stocked, backed up by an efficient after sales service, before the new models were introduced abroad. As 2000 of the new Maxi models rolled off the assembly lines a week for the home market, teams of Engineers were abroad briefing and training dealers in servicing techniques. Austin-Morris hoped that, by the time the overseas launching began in Frankfurt in September 1969 and Paris a month later, production would have been stepped up to more than 3000 vehicles a week, with ample stocks for foreign markets.
A British Leyland spokesman said: ‘We are aiming to cut out the complaints which have been levelled against British car firms in the past of late deliveries and poor aftersales service on new models. We want customers overseas to be able to go into a showroom and buy one of the new Maxis off the peg.’
The honeymoon for the Austin Maxi continued. On 13 May, British Leyland announced it was to introduce nightshift working on its Austin Maxi assembly lines to cope with the flood of orders received since it was introduced three weeks earlier. The company claimed it had an order book worth over £31 million and that was already sufficient to keep the assembly lines going non-stop for the next five months. To prevent loss of customers not prepared to wait several months for delivery on a buyers’ market, George Turnbull had decided to step up production ahead of the build up already scheduled for the new model.
Industrial action hits Maxi production
A nightshift had been introduced in the Maxi body building shops at Pressed Steel Fisher, Cowley, the previous week. It was planned to follow this with night-shift working at the assembly plant just across the road at the old Morris works beginning on 14 May. However, this was delayed by a strike, which stopped all Maxi production for three days the previous week and would not now begin until the next week.
George Turnbull said: ‘We are very encouraged by the response of our distributors, dealers and public to the Maxi. Our only anxiety is that we should fulfil these orders as quickly as possible. We are doing everything we can to build up production.’
Austin-Morris also boasted that production was up by 12.2 per cent in the four months ended 30 April 1969 compared with the same period in 1968. The actual figures were 235,968 and 210,166.
Meanwhile, down under…
The availability of the E-Series engine enabled BMC Australia to launch the Morris 1500 saloon and Nomad hatchback in June 1969. These intriguing models were basically ADO16s modified to take the new E-Series 1485cc engine albeit with a four-speed transmission, complete with bonnet bulge to contain the taller powertrain. The most interesting of the two was the Morris Nomad which featured all of five doors like the larger Austin Maxi. What these vehicles demonstrated was that it was possible to upgrade the existing ADO16 range to add sales appeal, something that had been demonstrated in Britain when the introduction of the 1300 had returned the ADO16 to the top of the sales charts.
However, these cars pose more questions than answers. Why were they never introduced in Britain? Was the engineering the creation of the Longbridge Design Studio for the now-cancelled ADO22 or was it all the work of BMC Australia? One presumes the E-Series installation was designed by Longbridge in order to road test the new engine design in ADO16 mules. BMC Australia managed to sell 5512 of these cars in six months despite them having the same appalling cable change as the Austin Maxi.
BMC Board meets in June
At the June meeting of the BMC Board it was decided to introduce interim modifications to the Austin Maxi to eliminate some of the harshness. The YDO19 X6 Austin Kimberley/Tasman intended for production in Australia was also on the agenda. This was a restyled BMC 1800 modified to receive a six-cylinder 2227cc version of the E-Series engine. The Board approved the sheet metal for the design and stated that it was the plan to ‘introduce this model into the UK in lieu of ADO25’, the Austin Morris 2200 of 1972. The YDO19 X6 Austin Kimberley/Tasman eventually went on sale in Australia in November 1970. The Board also decided to launch an ADO28 Estate car in 1972.
During his tenure as Managing Director of BMC, Joe Edwards had axed many of the models introduced before the arrival of the Mini in August 1959. George Turnbull had held back for the time being in the rationalisation process, but now acted. Lord Stokes had wanted to know why Austin-Morris was still making the Minor of 1948 vintage. Sales Director Filmer Paradise responded that it was still selling and wanted production to continue. But on 10 June, the first of the long serving Morris Minor range went with the last Tourer variant being produced on this day.
Few reasons to celebrate
On 18 June, British Leyland began to celebrate the production of two million Minis officially – in truth, though, British Leyland had little to celebrate. The Leyland brand had come to dominate the UK motor industry because of its ability to sell truck and buses to export markets. The catalyst for all this expansion had been the five plants in and around Leyland in Lancashire. However, they had now been strikebound since 19 May in a dispute about pay parity with the more highly-paid BLMC car workers in the Midlands. This was the first serious strike there in 40 years.
British Leyland put on a brave face as it celebrated two million Minis. George Turnbull said: ‘The Mini will be the backbone of our production in the Longbridge plant, the biggest in the group, for many years to come. Harry Webster, our Chief Engineer, and his team have many good ideas up their sleeves for keeping the Mini ever fresh in the future.’
Lord Stokes, Chairman and Managing Director of British Leyland said: ‘The success of the Mini is a great tribute to its original concept, and its continuing popularity all over the world shows the public’s faith in this reliable, high quality little vehicle. I see no reason why the Mini, albeit in other forms, should not continue for another ten years.’
The state of Austin-Morris in 1969
BLMC boasted that the Mini, 1100/1300 and 1800 held 25.7 per cent of the British new car market. The 1100/1300 was Britain’s best-selling car with a 14.6 per cent market share. The Mini had an 8.1 per cent share followed by the 1800 with 3.0 per cent. The new Austin Maxi was being produced at a rate of 2000 a week. A record 246,066 Minis were produced in 1968 and, in its ten-year life, nearly 43 per cent had been sold abroad, earning £240 million in overseas currency. The Mini was Britain’s leading export car, with 150,632 exported in 1968. Weekly production of all Minis was now nearly 7000.
This was the paradox facing Austin-Morris. The division wanted to continue selling as many Minis as it could, because it reached the parts other Austin-Morris cars could not reach, but was convinced that the model was a loss maker, and therefore did not warrant any serious investment to upgrade it for the 1970s. BMC had believed that volume would solve the problem and author Chris Cowin has suggested that, once annual Mini production exceeded 200,000, which was most years before 1980, the Mini was profitable, perhaps generating a profit of £15 each in 1968.
In the financial year ending July 1966, the last before the credit squeeze, BMC achieved a profit before tax of £34,357,187 and produced around 890,000 vehicles, including 703,576 cars. This was a profit of £38.60 per vehicle. Mini production was about 24 per cent of BMC’s output, while the 1100/1300, which was also lambasted for being under-priced, amounted to 26.7 per cent of BMC’s total production.
Ford, in the same period, manufactured 695,824 vehicles of all types and made a pre-tax profit of £7.4 million, a profit of £10.63 per vehicle. When analysing this period, historians tend to compare a good year for Ford, such as 1963, with a bad year for BMC, 1967 for example, to emphasise the superiority of the Dagenham way. Maybe the Mini and 1100/1300 were more complex than they should have been, and should have shared more components, but was it really possible that BMC was losing money on perhaps 50 per cent of the company’s output? It was only in the 1966/67 period, when various disputes restricted BMC production, that the complex nature of the Mini’s design turned profits into excruciating losses.
Much has been made of the low retail price of the Mini on its launch in 1959 – £496.95 to be precise – but most of the models sold were the Super de Luxe which cost £537. However, in real terms, after taking into account inflation, the price of the basic Mini continued to drop in the years ahead. Its actual 1966 price of £478, still lower than the launch price, corresponded to £378.76 in 1959 prices. In 1967, BMC increased the price to £508.75, but that was £395.30 in 1959 prices, still lower than at launch. In 1968, the year of the Leyland merger, the price of the basic Mini exceeded £400 in 1959 prices for the first time since 1964. This would suggest the newly-imported Cost Controllers at Austin-Morris were getting a grip on the little car’s profit margins – indeed, in 1959 prices, the basic Mini cost £412 in 1968 and £415 in both 1969 and 1970.
That said, what matters in hindsight is not whether the Mini was profitable or not during this period, but what the British Leyland management actually believed to be true. The ex-Ford men transplanted into BLMC such as Roy Haynes, John Bacchus and John Barber were absolutely convinced that the Mini was a loss maker. Towards the end of his long life, Lord Stokes told author Jon Pressnell: ‘We lost about £20 per Mini.’
Why costs are important
It is only in the 21st century, with Britain’s roads crowded with premium German brands, that one can see how the paranoia about manufacturing costs within British Leyland destroyed the engineering integrity of it subsequent designs. The whole issue of whether the Mini was profitable or not was crucial to the design processes adopted for the next generation of British Leyland cars, and not just those from Austin-Morris.
Apart from Ford’s infamous strip down of a Mini circa. 1960, the evidence that it was a licence to lose money is tenuous and, as explained above, in 1966 BMC was actually comfortably more profitable per vehicle than Ford. The impact of the Mini on the European motor industry was enormous but, in Britain, its true significance was lost on those in positions of influence. Anyway, irrespective of whether Ford’s cost analysis of the Mini was correct or not, one of the believers, a colleague of Terry Beckett’s for a decade, was John Barber, and he was now British Leyland’s Finance Director with a crucial input into the company’s future model programme.
The Mini did contribute to the decline of British Leyland, not because it was unprofitable, but because the widespread belief – or perhaps myth that it was a loss-maker resulted in extreme penny pinching in future model development. Time and time again inferior components were substituted for quality items at the whim of some finance expert who deluded himself that the customer would not notice the difference. This was a time bomb that would not fully explode until the mid-1970s when all the new Leyland financed models came fully on stream, just as European competition became serious. Moreover, while in later interviews the then Finance Director, John Barber, liked to give the impression that he was bringing order to a total financial free for all within British Leyland, the Ford-style cost-control methods introduced on his watch were to have a long-term corrosive effect which would not truly kick in until after he had left British Leyland’s employ in 1975.
Rivals left it to the Mini
It appears that, by 1969, the belief that the Mini lost money was an open secret in the British motor industry and the media, although nobody went as far as spelling it out in print. Mini cars made mini profits was the slogan of the time and the Rootes Group had already burnt their fingers with the Hillman Imp. The original small Vauxhall Viva HA (above) had morphed into the larger Viva HB. The other UK manufacturers were leaving the field to the BMC Mini.
No other British manufacturer was likely to build a rival, so starving the Mini of serious investment made sense. Ford had had the chance with its Anglia replacement and had instead produced the Escort. The myth that the Mini was unprofitable effectively killed off innovative passenger car engineering in Britain. As for the continental manufacturers, they were in the Common Market, which Britain was barred from seemingly forever, and any future Mini rivals they exported to the UK were likely to have their prices grossly inflated by trade tariffs. The brilliance of the original Mini design resulted in the car having superior performance to budget rivals such as the Citroën 2CV and Renault 4.
The only serious Mini rival, in terms of size was the Fiat 500, which had been in production for even longer and was in a different performance bracket, but Fiat seemed in no hurry to replace that. In addition to this, the assembly of the Mini in Seneffe in Belgium and Milan, courtesy of Innocenti, reduced the tariffs on cars sold in the Common Market. In 1969, the notion that the Mini would encounter any serious rivals seemed far off – in the event, that proved to be a recipe for complacency…
Mini reaches a milestone
The official two millionth Mini was produced on 19 June. The car was driven off the production line at Longbridge by the newly-knighted Sir Alec Issigonis and George Turnbull, the Managing Director of Austin-Morris. In a brief ceremony afterwards, George Turnbull said in PR speak: ‘Alec is British Leyland’s secret weapon. No one else in the car industry has anyone quite in his class. He is essentially a man of vision, of long-term thinking, but always with a revolutionary approach to design problems. We don’t care how way-out his ideas are. We can soon put them through the commercial mincer.’
British Leyland did not, of course, have any intention of adopting Issigonis’ innovations. Austin-Morris was now adopting Ford-like cost control methods and innovation meant extra manufacturing costs and higher warranty claims. Before the Mini, automotive breakthroughs had usually been introduced on higher-cost models paid for up front by the customer. The ex-Ford Cost Controllers blamed Issigonis’ innovations for high warranty costs and low profitability, oblivious to the fact that these innovations had enabled BMC to ramp up production some 68 per cent between 1959 and 1965 and briefly establish the corporation as the world’s most exciting manufacturer of family cars.
It was BMC’s investment in innovation that had made their cars more desirable. British Leyland had been created to safeguard this achievement. Instead, it would throw it all away. On 27 June, John Thornley, the General Manager of MG retired. He had been suffering from appendix problems. He was succeeded by his deputy since 1967, Les Lambourne.
Expansion in Spain
On 7 July, shortly after the Leyland strike was settled at a cost of £5.5 million in lost production, British Leyland revealed it had acquired a 50 per cent holding in Nueva Montana Quijano (NMQ), the heavy industrial group in the north of Spain, and would now assume responsibility for the management of Authi of Pamplona and the other NMQ automotive operations. This was announced by British Leyland and the Bank of Santander, then a little-known financial institution.
The agreement was signed by Lord Stokes, Chairman and Managing Director of British Leyland, and by Senor Don Emilio Botin, Chairman and Chief Executive of the Bank of Santander. Commenting on the development, Lord Stokes said: ‘Throughout the negotiations I have been impressed by the spirit of friendship and cooperation shown by all concerned in reaching this agreement. Indeed, it typifies the long and happy business and personal relationships I have enjoyed in Spain over many years. In particular, I would like to pay tribute to the important contribution made at every stage of the negotiations by Senor Lopez Bravo, the Minister of Industry, to the mutual benefit of both countries.
‘Last year our cars captured 5.9 per cent of the Spanish car market with sales of 17,340 units. The new management, with their long experience in world markets, are well qualified not only to give the Spanish public the vehicles they want, but to look after them with the finest possible aftersales service. They will use the plant’s capacity of 100,000 vehicles a year, more fully, both by substantially increasing its share of the growing market in Spain itself, and also by supplying to certain export markets.’
How much British Leyland had spent on acquiring its holding in Nueva Montana Quijano is not known.
The end of Riley
Two days later, Austin-Morris announced that it would stop making Riley cars. ‘With less than 1 per cent of the home market, they are not viable,’ the company said. George Turnbull added: ‘We are not contemplating taking action with any other marques in the foreseeable future. The decision to drop the Riley marque has not been taken lightly and is based on sound economic and business considerations. Very few Riley cars are exported and the substitution of export marques will help our overall effort, and assist us to achieve maximum effectiveness as a car-producer.’
The Morris Minor Traveller also reached the end of the line in July 1969, leaving just the saloon in production.
The official two millionth Mini, driven off the production line by Alec Issigonis and George Turnbull on 19 June, had been given or sold to the Daily Mirror which then offered it as a competition prize. It was won by a 56-year-old widow, Mrs Eveline Swift of Harehills, Leeds. She said she would donate it to her son James as an early 21st birthday present.
Alec Issigonis on his knighthood
On 16 July the Daily Mirror published an interview with the now-sidelined Alec Issigonis as the publicity about his knighthood and the two millionth Mini propelled him into the limelight one final time. Issigonis’ opening comment was: ‘I hate all big things. I hate big cars, big organisations, big houses. My house is a matchbox hidden in shame by the trees. I adore ornate buildings. I could sit and look at Brighton Pavilion all day.’
And of the perceived social evil of the motor car, he said: ‘The car is going to contribute very largely to wrecking civilisation.’
When the interviewer had arrived he was smoking a cigar. Did Issigonis mind? ‘Put it out in the flowerbed, my boy, and light another one inside.’ His desire for comfort and need for elegance had their eccentricities. ‘I hate going into a strange bar where they don’t know how you want your drink mixed. I feel it is insufferable.’
In London, he stayed at the Hyde Park Hotel where the barman knew exactly how to mix his dry Martinis. Yet his taste in food was at the simple level of a transport cafe. ‘I adore steak and kidney pudding, bangers and mash, egg and bacon.’ Often he was to be seen dining alone at a reserved table in an expensive Birmingham restaurant off half a dozen sausages and baked beans. Of himself, Issigonis said: ‘I am the last of the Bugattis, a man who designed the whole car – in this age, the committee has taken over.’ Politically he claimed to be ‘completely stagnant.’
‘I could never take any interest in maths’
Of his technical training, Issigonis said: ‘I was no good at physics or chemistry, I was not academic and I could never take any interest in maths. I knew maths would be no use to me in designing. Calculations stem from basic laws and it was those laws I got into my head so that they became instinctive. My advice to a young Engineer is to do practical work as a hobby. They are ten a penny these academic students who come down from universities and have never got their hands dirty. It is only by manipulating materials with your hands that you get a strong feeling of art.’
His approach to designing was definite and autocratic. ‘I like to see the functional properties in my imagination first. It’s meaningless and too complicated to get involved in all the apparatus. But I don’t pander to public taste. I plan to give people the most practical form of public transport and this has a form of its own. I will not design cars for people who like to leave them outside their front gate.’
By this, he meant he didn’t approve of styling and once told an American: ‘I think you are really ashamed of your car that’s why you make them look like Zeppelins.’ On receiving a knighthood Issigonis said: ‘I did not realise the importance of a ‘Sir’ until I received so many letters. Reading them all, I decided the must be something in this.’
More from Alec the Greek
More important to him was acceptance as a Fellow of the Royal Society. ‘To sign the book with all those famous names in – that’s marvellous.’ He was committed to making smaller and smaller cars and said: ‘We have nearly reached the ultimate as long as cars have an engine. The engine is a nuisance, it gets in the way of what I want to do.’
The interviewer was shown a prototype of a Mini for the 1970s, a broader, shorter car, possibly the BMC 9X and witnessed Issigonis’ experiments in steam traction. ‘Experiments with the prime consideration to prevent air pollution,’ he said. Issigonis predicted that there was 15 years work before it would be fully developed. ‘And then we might not only have steam cars, but motorcycles and lawn mowers driven by steam.’
Issigonis also revealed that he refused to use a seatbelt. ‘It is much easier to drive without having an accident. I wish I could design human beings for safety. But it is absolutely correct that safety belts save lives,’ he said. Reading these interviews with Alec Issigonis from a distance of five decades, it is apparent how he emphasised his Englishness, which is ironic considering that he did not set foot in England until he was 16 years old.
Future model development
Also sports car-related, Austin-Morris was already working on a replacement for its own MG Midget and the rival Triumph Spitfire. A Product Policy Group meeting on 21 August stated in the minutes: ‘Engineering reports that the exercise is well advanced on a Midget/Spitfire replacement which will have common (bodyshell) hardpoints, but different skins.’
On the same day, it was announced that the new head of the Ministry of Defence’s Sales Organisation would be Lester Suffield. As related earlier, the formation of British Leyland had resulted in the effective demotion of BMC Sales Director and Deputy Managing Director Lester Suffield to London Sales Manager of the merged combine. Suffield had been effectively supplanted by the man he had hired for BMC in June 1967, Filmer Paradise. Now Lord Stokes used his contacts in the Labour Government to get the 58-year-old car industry career man a new appointment as the head of the Ministry of Defence’s Sales Organisation.
Lester Suffield, who had joined Morris Motors Limited’s Commercial Sales Department in 1936, never looked back and gained a knighthood in the process, while many of his contemporaries went down in the sinking British Leyland ship. If British Leyland was not sinking in August 1969, it was certainly taking on water. Cowley and Longbridge seemed to be constantly beset by stoppages. Despite this, various Austin-Morris luminaries exuded confidence in the 2 August edition of Motor magazine, which was devoted to British Leyland’s volume car division at a time when many thought the Austin Maxi was a success.
The state of the nation in 1969
We do not apologise for reproducing various extracts from the magazine as they illustrate the mindset operating within the company. The first to be interviewed was George Turnbull. Already the decision had been taken to axe the Riley marque, now the Austin Healey brand ceased to be available for export. George Turnbull said: ‘There has been a lot of loose talk that we didn’t want to perpetuate the Healey name because we have to pay a royalty on it but, in fact, we pay on the Midget too so this isn’t material.’
This contradicts the view of some historians that the Healey family received no royalty payment whatsoever for the MG Midget. The front end of the Sprite/Midget had been designed by the Healey company. One of those responsible was Doug Thorpe who went on to head the Jaguar Styling Department.
George Turnbull was also asked about the rambling Dealer Network inherited from BMC. ‘There won’t be any butchering or radical cutting-up of the Dealer Network – there are too many dealers in certain areas, but it may take three to five years to sort this out and make everyone exclusive to British Leyland. In the end, it is the strength of the dealers as well as how good the cars are which is going to determine our future – they’ve got to stock cars and parts, advertise and sell, and they can’t do it on a range as wide as we have at present.’
Turnbull on the sports cars
On the life span of a model, Turnbull said: ‘I would have thought we wouldn’t plan a model life of more than seven years from an economic point of view and I think that the American styling change or ‘facelift’ philosophy will inevitably force other people into line. You run a lot of risks in hanging on to a one-model policy and closing your mind to the fact that you will eventually have to change it. If it is technically a very advanced car you have a better chance of hanging on longer and it will be more difficult to improve when you change it, but the public generally is not technically minded and, in the end, it tends to accept what it is told is the latest thing.
‘People like change for its own sake and also you have to give the salesman something to sell even if it’s basically the same package freshened up. We learned this in the States when I was with Triumph and we found we couldn’t sell the TR4 there any more – the body style was out of date. So we dressed it up as the TR5 – or TR250 over there – with all sorts of interior changes and sales features including the six-cylinder engine, we had a promotion drive and that car was a whale of a success – we couldn’t make enough. The conservative buyers are a diminishing section of the market – people will become conditioned to changing their cars more often and you have to organise your franchises in such a way that out of the same showroom you’ve got a choice – the dealers are all exclusive to you and they don’t sell anything but your vehicles, but these give a very good choice.’
Turnbull commented on labour disputes and the Wilson Government’s ill-fated attempt to regulate the Trade Unions, ‘In Place of Strife’: ‘But the union troubles have to be resolved and we’re kidding ourselves if we think the Government is going to put it all right with a wave of its magic wand, the problem is much to complex for that. We have got to get a situation where the unions realise that they are parties to the overall national plan, that they’re part of a capitalist country whether they like it or not and that they have to make their contribution just as management does.’
The desire to join the EEC
Turnbull added: ‘The biggest single factor, which would contribute to peace in our industry, would be to have only one union as in Sweden, but I don’t see much hope of this at the moment since three or four major unions would have to come to an understanding on membership. Every union worries about membership because at present all of them want to get bigger. So, in the end, the Government will have to take a hand in establishing the ground rules by legislation. We have an extremely keen and efficient top management, we have the production capacity for 20,000 vehicles a week, but we will have to have better understanding on the shop floor and peace at our factories and those of our suppliers if we are going to use this capacity efficiently and effectively.’
The next subject of Motor’s probing interviews was Filmer Paradise, the Home and Export Sales Director of Austin-Morris. He was asked about the pricing of new cars. ‘We’re doing much more sophisticated kinds of financial analysis. When we bring out a car like the Maxi, we are now able to produce a very detailed competitive evaluation in which we take every product feature and price it. One of the more interesting things we were able to do in presenting the Maxi, in fact, was to show that, with its full standard equipment, it was still better value than its major competitors.
‘Fully equipped, it came in under their prices with similar equipment – to the extent that you could have bought a similarly-equipped car from them; you couldn’t get everything, of course, as you can’t get a fifth gear or a fifth door on most of them. That’s helping us to re-align our pricing structure and make sure we are fully competitive. There are two or three people working full time on this kind of analysis now.’
Filmer Paradise on badge-engineering
‘In the past there has been a certain amount of criticism, mainly justified, about what was popularly called badge-engineering, but it actually worked out pretty well for the customer,’ Paradise said ‘He really shouldn’t complain because what it’s led to is an excessive number of outlets selling largely similar cars, which resulted in fairly heavy discounting on behalf of the consumer. The criticism was probably fairly justified and, to give our people a real earnings potential as well as to nail down what we think is an appropriate share of the market, we are constituting three franchises in the Corporation, one of which is called the specialist car franchise and incorporates Jaguar, Rover and Triumph.
‘In the Austin-Morris division, we are developing two completely separate franchises which will have differentiated products as we proceed through the product planning cycle – so that, instead of selling the same kind of 1100, they will be selling different looking and perhaps even different powered, cars in the same price classes. We’re spending a lot of executive time on the product planning process. We shall have a much more profound approach to power and trim options and to derivative models, although we are not going to get into the American kind of frenzy, where the number of different permutations of an automobile not only confuses the customer, but confuses the company as well! There’s no point in our spending all the effort and money that we are spending on improving our efficiencies and then messing it all up again by getting a hopeless products mix.’
Was Riley to be the first of many?
Filmer Paradise was asked whether, following the dropping of the name Riley, other marques would go too, he replied: ‘No, at the present time we have no plans for discontinuing other franchises and this specifically applies to Wolseley and MG.’
But there would be a greater difference between parallel models, bearing different make names. The substantive Austin and Morris franchises would be differentiated from one another. ‘Not necessarily 100 per cent where small volume cars are involved. It doesn’t really pay to develop two completely different automobiles in the small volume class, but the general principle will be to differentiate. We’re staying flexible because if we proliferate, we won’t be able to stand the cost, but they will differ at least in appearance, probably in power, probably in package size and features. We could say that everything that one of our competitors, say General Motors or Ford, might offer, you’ll be able to find in the Austin range; and you’ll find another group of interesting automobiles – different from Austin – in the Morris range.
‘With these, and the specialist franchise, the long-term objective of British Leyland is to arrive at 50 per cent of the market. It seems like a big position, but when you remember that we are the General Motors of England and that General Motors in the United States arrives at 55 to 60 per cent of the market and that Fiat in Italy, which can be compared to us in many ways for range and variety of models, typically run 65 to 70 per cent of the Italian market, we don’t really feel that 50 per cent is an unattainable objective. In April we hit 43 per cent as a group – and we’ve still got to work out our full cycle of new products.’
The aim: to get to 35 per cent
Paradise continued: ‘As for the Austin-Morris division, I got my tender neck way out to hell and I’ve said that we are going back to 35 per cent. It’s not as easy as it once was, but in April we were up to 32.3 per cent without any new products. We’re going to be increasing our media budgets and we’re going to try to get more money into newspaper and magazine advertising. We have a big budget, but not enough of it gets into media where we think we can be relatively effective. You’ve probably noticed that some of our grandmother type of advertising is disappearing; we’re coming out with some fairly sharp and competitive professional advertisements.
‘We’ve tried to analyse the ingredients that have made our cars successful. Some of the cars have been with us for quite a while – the Mini, 1100, 1300 and the 1800 are familiar ranges – and we’re staying with what we think are their intrinsic and attractive features to the British public. We’re not dancing around with gimmickry – we’re trying to repeat and repeat and repeat what we think has made the appeal of these cars so wide.
‘We’re briefing the agencies more adequately, getting them into our planning much earlier and tightening our standards of what we’ll accept. It’s a little hard to work with us, we’ve raised our standards so much. If the advertising fellows want to pick up the billings, they’ve got to produce! It’s really quite exciting. They’ve put fresh young teams of creative people on our account and the results are excellent. I don’t get any more telephone calls from Lord Stokes saying: “Who the hell authorised that?” He likes the advertising, and he’s a pretty severe critic.’
Mini makes hay as the sun shines
On the Mini’s sales, Paradise said: ‘We had a very successful Mini campaign in March and we had contests for the most original Mini presentation in the showrooms – camping, nautical or anything else the dealers could think of. The response was amazing and raised our penetration in that month. The market went up 14 per cent and Mini’s went up 28 to 30 per cent. And we put on another very successful promotion on the two millionth Mini, including these rear window stickers – ‘Don’t play rough. I’ve got 2,000,000 Mini friends’.
‘For the first time in the history of the company we had Foremen in to see the presentation of the new car. We sent Maxis to every area of the factory and we even sent models for the employees of all our suppliers to have a look at. We’re concerned with morale and enthusiasm as much as the concrete organisational things. We’ve pumped a lot of gas into the organisation since the new management arrived and I think it is fair to say that most distributors think their franchises look a lot more valuable than when we started all this activity.
‘There was an old sales-versus-production atmosphere round here that we’ve killed absolutely. Everybody is on the same team and I think this is a great tribute George Turnbull’s real executive ability. He really knows how to bang people into a team and the morale here is quite different. We’ve organised a proper product planning and policy committee and, without wanting to be immodest, I can tell you that the sales personnel are among the more active members. In our marketing services, we include sales planning and analysis and market research; and with this and what we learn about the forward plans of our competitors, we make product proposals. Nothing gets by that the sales area isn’t happy with. We’re gong to be left with no excuses soon – we have to do our job! There’s nothing more invigorating than selling new products. The name of this business is novelty and we haven’t had enough of it.’
‘The only other car that has the personality or the staying power of the Mini is that German insect, and the 1100, 1300 and 1800 are also technically advanced. Minor changes have let us keep them fresh and in good demand abroad. There’s a kind of British reaction against too much debasing of the currency and I don’t think people are too happy to have heavy depreciation bills because someone decided to freshen the product every 18 months. We think we can live in the export market without matching that kind of pace.
‘Obviously, there are very few places in the world where a car is of the age, even if of the sound reputation and value of, say, the Morris Oxford, is looked upon as desirable. On the other hand, there are people in markets similar to the UK who are looking for that kind of car. You couldn’t sell them in Belgium, but you could in Denmark. When I was in Europe, we eliminated a lot of product offerings because it makes no sense to have small numbers of cars with complicated spares systems all over the world, so we cut out over 30 models.
‘Another car that sells very well in Denmark is the old Morris 1000. They like it for exactly the same reasons that rural people do in this country. Sturdy, trouble free, well trimmed, very strong – they appeal to people who take care of cars . People who own Morris 1000s wash them every week. The Danes are like that so we sell a lot of them in Denmark.’
Filmer Paradise on styling
On styling, Filmer Paradise has this to say: ‘Styling is kind of good luck and God bless you! You do what you think is right for your major market, which has to be the UK. You are looking at current, competitive offerings and trying to find out or imagine – both – what they’re likely to look like in the three years that it will take to get them out; and you try to style up to that kind of trend level and hope for the best. I don’t think we’re going to do an awful lot of high styling. We’re not coming out with extremes. The Maxi is a pretty good example of the kind of styling we are likely to do. We’re not going to get into big overhangs and we’re certainly not going to produce odd-looking models like some of the French cars.
‘Cars are not necessarily intrinsically outstanding when it comes to styling alone. It’s really the way you go at it and the way you sell it. If they’re ugly there’s nothing you can do; but if they’re reasonably styled, then it’s up to you.’
He agreed that Austin-Morris had too many outlets and said that they were having a look at this aspect. ‘We are obviously not going to have so many retail outlets, but we are going to find a useful way to employ every good aggregation of capital management and facilities that’s already working with us. We’re not about to make gifts to our competitors of capable merchandisers of automobiles. We want an Austin and a Morris group who are in competition – not who are being managed by the same ownership.’
Too many dealers? Could be worse…
‘One of the happy coincidences of over proliferation has been that you can get BMC service pretty damn near everywhere. We can keep that kind of happy situation if we think it necessary, by appointing service dealers who are not sales points. The fellow who climbs out from under a car to take care of his customer is one of the most convincing salesmen in the world. The tendency of motorists to look for the little mechanic is still very much with us and we’ve got to pay attention. There’s no reason why he can’t be a service dealer.
‘There’s a lot moving and the spirit is good. Turnbull is a helluva guy. He’s at least as good or better than any automobile executive I’ve met anywhere in the world. He’s 43 years old and he makes you feel ashamed of yourself. He’s so bright and capable that it’s a great pleasure to work with him – and everyone appreciates that Donald Stokes is one of the Great Ones. So it’s a lively outfit and we’re not hampered with bureaucracy. We keep it thin, and it works!’
Paradise lost in the UK
Another British Leyland executive Geoffrey Rose recalled Filmer Paradise: ‘Looking back from afar he was a little bit superficial – I think he was a bit bull-at-a-gate. But he was a very entertaining person to be with – Filmer always had his view on things.’
And one other British Leyland Director would say of Filmer Paradise: ‘I personally heard him declare, “we don’t want the rats and mice of the industry representing us. If the bastards can’t sell 150 cars a year, cancel their franchises right now. Let them fold up their tents and disappear into the night. So he sent his minions out to get rid of all the small local dealers.’
Harry Webster on Austin-Morris
Harry Webster (above, pictured earlier at Triumph) was also interviewed by Motor. He was asked if he had experienced any problems at Longbridge. ‘I haven’t really encountered many difficult ones to be quite frank because I’ve found that the Longbridge engineering staff are such a grand bunch of fellows,’ he said. ‘The major problem in dealing with an expanded programme – which we are slowly overcoming – is the recruitment of the right type of personnel. The heads of certain departments in engineering were in many cases of, or approaching, retiring age and they have obviously been substituted by younger people. By and large, I’ve found it a fine organisation and the men who were leading the team when I came here are obviously excellent fellows.’
Webster commented on the proliferation of paint colours at BMC. ‘These are systems, which have grown up over the years and are probably now a bit unwieldy. On the paint side, it was a policy at BMC to bring out a new model with an entirely new colour range to suit it, rather than trying to rationalise. This was something alien to LMC (Leyland Motor Corporation) thinking even at a small company like Standard-Triumph, so we’ve had a drive to reduce numbers, and still have some very attractive colours. This goes for a lot of things and I’m extremely grateful that we’ve a Chief Engineers’ Committee which is working extraordinarily well.’
Webster discussed the possibility of Austin-Morris making a conventional rear-wheel drive car. ‘Well, whether we like it or not the penetration of Austin-Morris is around 30 per cent at the moment which shows that 70 per cent of the car buyers of the country still purchase the other philosophy. We are greedy people and we want some of that as well. If that’s what the buying public want, we are prepared to give it to them.’ By this time Austin-Morris was, of course, already working on the ADO28.
Would he emulate Ford and Vauxhall?
Harry Webster was asked whether, if Austin-Morris pursued the Ford/Vauxhall aim of the biggest car for the money, he felt that it would have to be designed on quite such conventional lines. Must it have a live rear axle, front engine and propeller shaft or could he produce the bigger car for less money with a less orthodox approach than this? Webster replied: ‘No, you can’t. Every time you step out of line – it seems to me anyway – it just can’t be done without increasing the price. It’s damned funny, but that formula always works out right.’
But did he count front-wheel drive as still unorthodox? ‘Yes, it’s more expensive,’ was the reply and then he elaborated, ‘It appears that you’ve got more joints and you’ve got more gears.’
Harry Webster was asked about their policy with styling – were they going to employ consultants or build up their own Styling Department? ‘We are retaining organisations like Farina on a consultative basis only, and we are going to build up our own Styling Department. The staff concerned were associated with our body company until quite recently, but within the last month they’ve moved up to Longbridge. We had quite a good Styling Studio here, but it’s barely big enough now for modern requirements so we are building another one in the end of this drawing office. It’s on the cards at the moment that we shall use one for styling cars for immediate production and the other for very advanced styling.’ He was referring to the move by the PSF Cowley Styling Studio to Longbridge.
Design versus product
Harry Webster was asked if Austin-Morris design would become controlled by their product planning division with engineering subservient, like Ford. He answered: ‘Not if I can help it. It’s been very good up to now and I know that I have the sympathy of Lord Stokes and George Turnbull and one or two more in this direction in that when we give presentations to what is known as the Product Policy Committee they are usually presentations from engineering. Once having made the presentation we then get the criticism. Obviously, if you’ve got the right frame of mind you’ve got to sit back and take it and act on it as the committee decides. When all’s said and done, all Departments must pull together, particularly in an organisation as big as this one.’
Webster was asked to confirm that he didn’t think a product planning approach, based on market research, was the right way? ‘A certain amount of it, certainly. We have to have the benefit of the point of view of all the product policy committee. If they say we ought to do a certain class of car as far as the styling of that car and the contents of the mechanical specification and things like that are concerned, well I would be very anti anybody coming into engineering saying this is what you’ve got to do, and my boys just being pencil pushers without initiating ideas. If you do it that way it’s a policy based on history rather than on fashion and I think we’ve got to set fashion quite honestly.
‘As long as you get the engineering and the sales together and they’re going in the right direction what happen in between is bound to be alright. This is what George Turnbull’s aim has always been.’ Harry Webster had confirmed in a long-winded way that Austin-Morris engineering, of which he was boss, had no intention of being dictated to by Product Planners such as the now-departed Roy Haynes.
Webster on sports cars
Harry Webster was then asked if the British Leyland sports car range needed refreshing. Models like the MGB, Midget and Spitfire had been on sale since the early 1960s. ‘Well, give us time. It’s in the programme. In the first place, we have to do some minor changes to exteriors because we’re spending so much money in keeping pace with American safety, pollution and other regulations that we spend more money on the vehicle than the customer can see. It’s a problem for everybody – it’s going to be a bigger problem as time goes by even in this country. We have to spend money in order to obey regulations and the customer sees nothing so we have to change something on the car to show that we have updated it.’
How about model clashes between the Specialist Car division and the Austin-Morris division? ‘Yes, this obviously has to happen – you can’t just walk into an organisation and throw everything out within a matter of weeks. By the very nature of the thing the policy for the future must be that there is a definite separation in some way, whether it be price or size or something, between the volume car division and the specialist car division.’
Would there be big changes in personnel as far as engine development was concerned in the Austin-Morris division? ‘None at all here except the retirement of Bill Appleby – he had notified his intention to retire before we came here. I accepted the advice of Charles Griffin and promoted a man named Eric Bareham into that position. By and large, the personnel haven’t changed a great deal. We’re trying to give them greater scope to show what they can do; we’re trying to give them more people to work with because they have a tremendous programme. But they would have had a tremendous programme in any case. Quite frankly, I don’t think anybody realises even now how much money and time and effort is being spent on these new regulations. It is really fantastic the time and trouble involved.’
Remembering Eric Bareham
Eric Bareham is generally credited as the man who designed the A- and B-Series engines (former, above). During 1969, Harry Webster had brought Engineer Ray Bates over from Standard-Triumph to be his Technical Manager. He recalled: ‘Stokes said he moved Harry Webster to Longbridge to try to get some of the Triumph flair into Austin design… Mind you, most of the flair had come from Michelotti.’
During early September 1969 the Austin Maxi was launched in Europe when British Leyland announced it was expecting to sell 20,000 on the continent within a year to earn £14 million. The same month Longbridge built the first Mini Clubman estate, although the existing Mk 2 Mini estate remained in production.
Expansion in South Africa
That same month BMC South Africa was renamed Leykor. Leykor announced the new Mini MK3, a unique to South Africa vehicle. From the front the car looked like the Mk3 Mini that was soon to be launched in the UK. However, at the rear, it featured the extended Riley Elf/Wolseley Hornet boot, using the same production presses imported from Britain, when production of those models ceased at Longbridge. MK3 Mini production lasted two years and 3871 cars were manufactured. On 15 September Leykor announced it had produced the 50,000th locally-manufactured A-Series engine.
More significantly, in the middle of the month, it was revealed that, even when Morris Motors at Cowley was operating normally, there were just not enough takers for the ADO14 Austin Maxi to justify a 1600 cars a week output. A second cutback in Austin Maxi production within a month would begin when the Morris Motors assembly plant reopened on 29 September after the autumn week’s holiday. Planned output was now 1600 a week, but this was to drop to 1300.
Day workers were to go on a four-day week and the night shift men would lose one shift, working a 30 hour week. So far more than 22,000 Maxis had been assembled at Cowley since production started at the beginning of 1969. Unfortunately, because of a succession of disputes over piecework rates, production of the Maxi had rarely reached the targets, initially 2000 a week and more recently 1800. A British Leyland spokesman said that the cutback was due to difficulties in getting bodies for the Maxi from Pressed Steel Fisher. It was in no way connected with sales of the car, which were doing as well as expected at home and abroad, he added.
Maxi sales disappoint
However, the claim by Austin-Morris that sales of the Austin Maxi were holding up looked shaky when the actual UK sales figures were analysed. The monthly market share of the Maxi had been;
- May 1969 3.3 per cent
- June 1969 2.5 per cent
- July 1969 2.4 per cent
Austin-Morris claimed that this had nothing to do with the production reduction at its Cowley plant and claimed the group had always been aiming at a 2.0 per cent initial market share figure. Austin-Morris claimed that BMC had actually planned an output of 6000 ADO14s a week. The media now wrote the Maxi off as a flop and one pundit commented that no company could seriously consider a launch of the size and cost of the Austin Maxis if it were not aiming at a market well above 5.0 per cent and claimed the company had been hoping for a share of 7.0-8.0 per cent. One assumes this information had been gleaned from insiders at British Leyland.
The reality was that, back in September 1968, Sir Donald Stokes had been told that the ADO14 would be lucky to capture 4.0 per cent of the UK market. Even so, the reality of the Maxi’s many flaws was obviously dawning on those prospective buyers who, believing the hype, test drove a dealer’s demonstrator and came away disillusioned. At the September meeting of British Leyland (Austin Morris) Limited’s Board – which was effectively the successor to the former British Motor Corporation Limited’s Board – Lord Stokes wanted to know why it was not popular with fleet buyers. Sales Director Filmer Paradise’s response was that the Maxi was £75-150 too expensive.
On 19 September senior Austin-Morris management approved the styling of the ADO67, which would be put to the British Leyland (Austin Morris) Limited Board in November 1969.
Three days later, at the Silverstone motor racing circuit, George Turnbull announced that the company would be spending a total of £70 million in a major expansion of its Cowley, Oxford, carmaking complex over the next few years. The expansion, British Leyland’s biggest single spending item in a current total capital investment programme of £200 million, would make the Cowley complex the most up-to-date car production plant in Europe and push car output from the Austin-Morris division to more than one million vehicles a year, claimed George Turnbull.
This was a bit of a public relations exercise as John Lutyens of PSF had already announced a £45 million investment on 8 May. A British Leyland spokesman in London confirmed that the announcement represented an extra ‘major’ capital expenditure programme of £25 million.
Confidence in the future
It was confirmed that Cowley production was to be stepped up from 5000 cars a week to 10,000, and company chiefs said they were confident that annual output from Cowley and Longbridge combined would rise from the existing 900,000 to ‘well over one million.’ George Turnbull said part of the money would be spent on tooling up for new models, and the rest on modernising factories and building up production.
George Turnbull then admitted to some dissatisfaction over the progress of the group’s Austin Maxi model. He said that 22,000 had been produced, sales had been held up initially by industrial disputes but production was now running at 1600 a week. He added that Austin-Morris was determined to push its share of the British market up to 35 per cent. At a time when the total market had dropped by 17.5 per cent, the Leyland share had increased by 1.0 per cent to 30 per cent, but this was not good enough.
On 24 September, Lord Stokes revealed to the media the British Leyland models to be announced in October. He also attacked industrial unrest within his company. He said that most disputes were unofficial and need never have happened. Despite ‘tremendous efforts’ by the company to reach an understanding with the unions, it had been subjected to an unprecedented state of trouble, he said. Lord Stokes said that, with a few exceptions, they could not supply enough cars to meet demand. Distributors and dealers in America were being lost because British Leyland could not provide their much sought-after sports cars, he said. Five days later at Morris Motors, Cowley, the reduced production programme of 1300 cars a week for the Austin Maxi began.
This was followed on 10 October by the official launch of the Mini Mk3 (ADO20). The BMC Mini was dead and in its place came the British Leyland Mini. Three new models joined the range, the Mini Clubman, the Clubman Estate and the 1275GT. All had winding windows and some features of the outgoing Mk2 range, such as overriders were now only available as optional extras. The Austin and Morris labels were dropped and the little front-wheel-drive car would be known simply as the Mini, although it would continue to be marketed throughout the world by both Austin and Morris dealers. There was also a new choice of paint colours including the infamous British Leyland beige, otherwise known as Harvest Gold.
As an economy measure, the standard Mini 850 and 1000 reverted to rubber cone suspension, with only the higher-priced Clubman and 1275GT saloons retaining hydrolastic, but that too went in 1971. The Clubman saloon was a direct replacement for the Riley Elf and Wolseley Hornet, while the 1275GT replaced the 998cc Mini Cooper, although the Cooper 1275S was still available.
At launch, the Mini 1000 cost £675, while the Clubman saloon cost £720, a difference of 8.14 per cent. The outgoing Wolseley Hornet retailed at £701 and the Riley Elf sold for £720, the same as the new Clubman. The Clubman came with a new longer nose, courtesy of the now-departed Roy Haynes, while the Cortina-esque interior was credited to Paul Hughes.
It could have been more…
British Leyland had obviously baulked at spending the capital to bring the hatchback Mini proposal of 30 May 1968 to production, believing that Mini cars made mini profits and that such a car had little potential as a money-maker for the corporation. Despite a cool reception from British Leyland’s continental dealers, the Mini Clubman did prove to be a very successful car. Those buyers wanting the estate had no choice, as the Clubman nose was the only option, but the saloon did find 275,583 buyers over the next decade, an average of 25,053 a year, compared with an average of 7420 Elf/Hornets a year. Clearly, there was something right about the Clubman, despite some of the brickbats thrown at it.
However, after October 1969 the Mini was effectively left to wither on the vine, with only minor improvements being introduced thereafter.
Despite all Lord Stokes’ bluster about strikes restricting production, it appears that, by late October 1969, Austin-Morris was producing more cars than the UK market could absorb. At Cowley, Maxi production was reduced further to three and a half days a week, which was one thing, but production of the 1100/1300, Britain’s favourite new car, was reduced to four and a half days a week. UK car sales in 1969 were the lowest since 1963 at 965,410, a 12.5 per cent drop over the previous year. The situation was actually worse than the July 1966 credit squeeze that paved the way to the BMC/Leyland merger, but without the drama.
An important new rival
This highlighted Austin-Morris’s dependency on the UK market and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). Access to the larger European Economic Community (EEC) was still hindered by trade tariffs, now standardised at 17.5 per cent. The obstacle to Britain joining the EEC, Charles de Gaulle, had resigned the Presidency of France in April, but Britain made no further attempt to apply for membership. As well as having to deal with a 17.5 per cent trade tariff, Austin-Morris exports to the EEC now had to deal with a potent new rival.
Launched in March 1969, the Fiat 128 (above) followed on from the earlier Autobianchi Primula, and was engineered by Dante Giacosa with an all-new overhead cam 1116cc engine design by a former Ferrari designer, Aurelio Lampredi. This is the very same Aurelio Lampredi who was loaned John Cooper’s Mini at the 1959 Italian Grand Prix meeting at Monza and took it for a long evaluation. John Cooper related how, when Lampredi eventually returned he commented, ‘If it wasn’t so ugly, I would shoot myself!’ Now between them Giacosa and Lampredi had improved on the Mini formula.
As engineered by Dante Giacosa, the three-box 128 featured a transverse-mounted engine with unequal length drive shafts. The layout enabled the engine and gearbox to be located side by side without sharing lubricating fluid. The compact and efficient layout — a transversely-mounted engine with the transmission mounted beside the engine driving the front wheels through an offset final-drive and unequal-length driveshafts — subsequently became common with competitors and, arguably, an industry standard. Fiat was so confident in the 128’s prospects of selling in high volume that the company built an entirely new plant in Rivalta, north-west of Turin, specifically to manufacture the new model. The critics liked it so much that they voted the Fiat 128 as European Car of the Year 1970. It was followed in 1971 by more powerful 1290cc variants. Suddenly, Fiat and not Austin-Morris was the leader in front-wheel drive technology and also had a large enough market to sell the 128 into – in short, Fiat could make it pay.
Failing to see the warning from abroad
By and large the British motor industry ignored the new Fiat 128. When it was launched in Britain the following year, trade tariffs would inflate its price above that of the more powerful BMC 1300, the fleet buyers were not interested in such a car and no doubt Ford of Britain thought it was over-engineered and unprofitable. At the time the Fiat 128 made its debut, the British motor industry was in thrall to the wims of the fleet buyers. The Cortina Mk2 was already firmly established as a best seller, with the Mk3 waiting in the wings. Rootes Chrysler had the Hillman Avenger ready for launch in February 1970. Vauxhall was selling the Viva HB and that would give way to the HC in 1970.
Austin-Morris was working on its own ADO28 fleet car. Indeed, after the launch of the Maxi, the only British front-wheel-drive car in the pipeline was the ADO67, and that was still years away from launch. It seemed like the whole British motor industry was designing cars primarily aimed at a 40 per cent sector of the UK car market and ignoring private buyers and export markets. The complacency of the British motor manufacturers may seem alarming from this standpoint in time but, as long as Britain remained outside the EEC, any new automobile exotica from the continent, however advanced or acclaimed, would be too expensive because of trade tariffs to be a real threat in the UK market or so it was thought at the time.
In its October 1969 issue CAR magazine interviewed Lord Stokes, who said: ‘We had a difference with one chap who wanted to have too much standardisation, to reorganise along American lines; one bodyshell for the whole of British Leyland and make it into an Austin, a Morris, a Jaguar or a Rover. To my mind this would completely ruin things. Our way is a bit more expensive because we have to tool up for more bodyshells, more components, but they needn’t be so many.’
An attack on Roy Haynes
This was the quote referred to by Roy Haynes. His Lordship continued: ‘The position will eventually come when you have one bodyshell for Jaguar with all the various options, I’m not talking about open top sports cars, and one for Rover. In effect, it will be two each, because you’ll have the old model running down and a new one coming in, but you’re only committed to tooling one at a time. The same with Triumph, and then the Austin division will have two basic models if you like, and the Morris two more. These last two, Austin and Morris, are to be split up. Each is already the size of Vauxhall and therefore we can afford to pursue an advanced engineering policy on the one hand and cater for certain export territories and for the commercial travellers on the other.’
CAR then asked if it was possible to turn both Cowley and Longbridge into single model plants. His Lordship replied: ‘We are going to reduce in due course the number of models we make, which is a first step. Things will become clarified; that’s probably a better word. A lot more complete cars will be made at Cowley. Cowley will become one big complex, Swindon will have to be looked at and Longbridge will then have to concentrate on one particular model. Cowley will make another model, or perhaps two models, plus the variants. At the moment we’re actually carting bodies from Oxford to the Birmingham area and from the Birmingham area or Coventry down to Oxford. This is ridiculous. The things we are prepared to cart about are engines or gearboxes because they are in bulk and the transportation cost is insignificant, but the body is a very expensive part to move and it is also very susceptible to damage. So, in future, where the body is made we will try to see that the car is finished.’
The intriguing thing about the above comment is the phrase, ‘Longbridge will then have to concentrate on one particular model.’ Presumably that would be the ADO67 and was there actually any real intention to replace the Mini at all at any stage remembering that Lord Stokes was convinced the car lost £20 on every example sold? Apart from the Clubman nose, all serious work on upgrading the basic Mini seems to have petered out by the time the revised ADO20 was launched in October 1969.
Design moves to Longbridge
That month the Austin-Morris Interior Design Studio was transferred from Cowley to the ‘Elephant House’ at Longbridge. Lord Stokes said: ‘The Austin-Morris styling side has been moved from Pressed Steel Fisher up to Longbridge so it’s all under one central control. Alec Issigonis has his own research and development centre at Longbridge for long-term research in car design, and we have authorised a lot more money for that. Harry Webster had terrible facilities when he went there; some quite good work had been done there, but it was very badly scattered. We’ve set up a whole new shop now to get all this engineering work together. Men like Issigonis have got to work together with the production people and this is why we’ve tried to stress the human side of it – to get these chaps working as a team, prodding one another on, rather than shut up in water-tight compartments. Issigonis is working on forward development. Obviously, I’m not able to go into great detail, but he’s concerned with new types of power units.’
Stokes continued: ‘We have a very complicated, very specific five-year plan. The divisions have all had to agree to it. I don’t always agree with their figures; I sometimes chop them down or increase them as the case may be. Then the plan is integrated so that we make sure what money we’ve got is put where we think it will get the best return, and that what we think we’ll get the best return from is the thing that is going to sell best.
‘In the beginning, with Standard-Triumph, we were trying to exist without volume cars. That is why we did this BMC merger. There was no immediate need to do it; we could have gone on our own. We had Rover and Triumph and we could have built them up to compete with Jaguar. But ultimately you’ve got to have a base – a big volume car business. This is the foundation on which to establish your marketing at home and throughout the world, particularly the latter. Now that we’ve got BLMC moving, building 1100 and 1300s and their successors must be our number one priority. We’ve been left behind by the Cortina in another sector of the same market. We’ve got to catch up. We’ve got to produce in big quantities in both of these sectors to sell economically and to satisfy the demand from the marketing organisation.’
Maxi: the sick man of Leyland
By the beginning of November 1969 the output of Austin Maxis at Cowley was now down to 1000 cars a week. Its sales were 2.2 per cent of the home market. According to its critics, the Maxi felt and sounded unrefined with buzzes, shakes and booms. It gave a bumpy ride, despite having Hydrolastic suspension and the advantage of the five-speed gearbox was offset by the tortuous gear change. Its price of £979, including Purchase Tax, was said to be too high in relation to its closest rivals.
Lord Stokes, defending the car to the media, said: ‘We have 31 basic models under the British Leyland umbrella, the Maxi is only one. Yes, I have heard some of these criticisms, but I tell you categorically that the Maxi is here to stay at least for another ten years. There were similar criticisms when BMC brought out their 1800 model, but now it is one of our best sellers.’ This was a falsehood.
Asked if the Maxi would be improved, Lord Stokes said: ‘At this time, we contemplate no major modifications.’ Trying to fathom out what the British Leyland management really thought of the Austin Maxi at the time is something of a challenge – in 1969, they were, if anything, overenthusiastic in public, while two decades later, with the benefit of hindsight, they had nothing good to say about it.
The retrospective view
Lord Stokes said in the 1980s, ‘It was ghastly. The concept was quite good because Alec Issigonis was good at concepts. But as for a marketing machine it was absolutely impossible. It looked wrong; you couldn’t change gear on it; it just wasn’t developed.’
British Leyland’s Finance Director John Barber said, again in the 1980s, ‘Maybe we should have taken the decision and scrapped it, but they’d invested a lot of money in the Cofton Hackett engine plant, so we soldiered on, made some improvements, but the car wasn’t any good.’
The Cofton Hackett engine plant is often seen as an underutilised white elephant, built to manufacture the E-Series engine. However, the formal application to build the plant, adjacent to Longbridge, began before the E-Series was on the drawing board. One can speculate that perhaps BMC planned to close Morris Engines in Coventry and move production into the more modern Cofton Hackett, which would also reduce transport costs. Whatever the truth, Morris Engines survived into the 1980s.
Government intervention looms
Also in November the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation (IRC) held the first of two full-scale meetings with British Leyland management. The IRC was concerned about British Leyland’s industrial relations problems and its low productivity. The IRC calculated that to match Volkswagen’s level of sales per employee, British Leyland would have to shed 47,000 of its 188,000 labour force. During 1968 the company had actually taken on 8000 more employees instead of cutting back 30,000 jobs as advocated by John Barber.
The paradox was that, while hordes of Cost Controllers were impacting on the quality of the cars experienced by the all-important customers, British Leyland was carrying excess cost in its own payroll and was either unable or unwilling to trim or redeploy its bloated workforce in the face of threats from the British Leyland (Motor Corporation Combined) Trade Union Committee.
At that month’s meeting of the British Leyland (Austin Morris) Limited Board Harry Webster revealed he had driven the first 9X prototype (below) and was impressed. The 9X was still very much live at this stage. At some stage George Turnbull also drove the 9X. On 5 November MG at Abingdon commenced work on the ADO21 project. This was originally intended to replace both the MG Midget and Triumph Spitfire and use both the A- and E-Series engines.
Allegro styling approved
The styling of the ADO67 was approved. It was the work of Harris Mann (below), who had succeeded Roy Haynes as Austin Morris’ Chief Stylist. Mann later distanced himself from the ultimate incarnation of the ADO67, the Austin Allegro, claiming it was a caricature of his original design, but clay styling bucks did look very much like the finished article. Indeed, the whole saga of the Allegro’s styling is confused.
In 1973, Austin Morris Chief Body Engineer Tom Penny, who had been recruited from Rootes, gave the following version of the evolution of the Allegro’s styling. ‘The Allegro’s looks are the work of one man – Harris Mann, to be precise. Harris is our Chief Stylist. He came to us from Ford, and before that he was with, of all people, Duple, the bus builders. His proposal for the new car was one of four or five that we presented to the Board early in 1969. They walked into the big round building where the full-size mock ups were displayed, and immediately they fell for Harris’ car. After that, they just left him to get on with it. The production version you see today is hardly altered in appearance from the original.’
According to Harris Mann: ‘I had designed a completely new car by simply reskinning the 1100, but new requirements kept coming through.’ Because the Mini and ADO16 only shared around ten per cent of components, the Cost Controllers now intervened and demanded that the ADO67 used components also utilised in other Austin-Morris vehicles. Harris Mann continued: ‘They had spent so much money developing a heater for the Marina that we had to use that. It was a very deep heater indeed compared with what was in the 1100, so that began to change the whole package.’
Harris Mann also blamed the decision to use the tall E-Series engine in the ADO67 for distorting his design, but the Australian-only Morris 1500 saloon and Nomad hatchback had got around this problem by using a bulged bonnet pressing. There have been claims that the Austin-Morris management wanted to dispense with the Alex Moulton-designed suspension, but contracts with Dunlop prevented them from doing so.
A common replacement for the MG Midget and Triumph Spitfire was also on the agenda. There had been good progress towards a common concept. It was considered that this model would be built at Abingdon and/or Swindon. The specification was agreed.
Pat Lowry joins the team
On 27 November British Leyland announced that one of the country’s top industrial relations experts, Pat Lowry, a Director of the Engineering Employers’ Federation, was joining the group to head the effort to tackle its huge strike problem. A joint announcement said that Pat Lowry would become British Leyland’s Director of Industrial Relations early in 1970.
At the same time, British Leyland said that Barry Mackie, the Director of Personnel and Industrial Relations in the Austin-Morris division – and, until now, the man handling the group’s industrial relations – would join the Board. The company said that both men would have ‘clear cut briefs’ relating to the group’s industrial relations.
By the December meeting of the British Leyland (Austin Morris) Limited’s Board, plans were well advanced for a facelift of the Austin Maxi. There was discussion over whether the revised car should be called Mk2 or Maxi Super (favoured by Filmer Paradise). The need for a heated rear window was also discussed. The ADO67 was also on the agenda. Austin-Morris was ‘investigating Hydragas rather than Hydrolastic to save cost.’
Sports cars take shape
George Turnbull announced a brochure setting out the parameters for a Midget/Spitfire replacement using engine capacities of 1100/1300/1500/1750cc. ‘The ADO21 project is a new rear-transverse engine, rear-wheel drive, two-door sports car intended as an MG Midget/Triumph Spitfire replacement. The basic body and chassis structure together with the majority of the mechanical components will be common to both MG Midget and Triumph Spitfire models. Body style has yet to be finalized, however a model announcement is tentatively planned for spring 1973.’
Austin-Morris management had begun to wake up to the fact that the Austin Maxi was less than satisfactory. In December 1969, its UK market share was down to 1.4 per cent, a mere 681 cars. Beginning on 17 December, Austin distributors were called to a series of conferences at Longbridge at which their problems in selling the ADO14 Austin Maxi were discussed.
It was in late 1969 that management from British Leyland’s South African subsidiary Leykor travelled to England in search of a replacement for the ADO16 1100/1300 models produced at its Blackheath plant, sales of which were dropping. They were shown the discarded Michelotti ADO16 prototype (below) and were impressed. The prototype was flown out to Blackheath where it was adapted for production as the Austin Apache, launched in December 1971.
On the very last day of the 1960s at a meeting of British Leyland Inc. in the USA, the Chairman, Graham Whitehead, commented on the ideas being put forward for new British Leyland sports cars. ‘Of all the Austin and MG models in the USA, the MG Midget is top priority. It competes in the $2000 Fun Car market, and is under threat from Fiat and Japanese competition. The Spitfire is priced at $2400 and it is important for the Midget to remain around $2000.’
Graham Whitehead suggested ‘either a major exterior and interior facelift, or a complete replacement.’ He liked the concept of the proposed ADO21 mid-engined sports car, but insisted that ‘the base model must retail about $2000.’ The base model would have had a 1275cc A-Series engine.
So ended 1969, a year when the UK car market slumped by 12.5 per cent and the number of aggregate days lost to industrial action in the motor industry rose to 1,636,000, an increase of 82 per cent. To partially compensate for the poor home market, Britain managed to export a record 824,000 cars, a 2.61 per cent increase. The record car exports must have seemed at the time as a sure sign that the British motor industry was doing things right.
- Back to History : The Austin-Morris story – Part Four : January to April 1969
- Forward to History : The Austin-Morris story – Part Six : 1970
Late 1969: Model changes, launches and deaths
- 14 April 1969: The Authi Morris Mini 1000E and Morris Mini 1000S are announced and production starts in Pamplona in Spain. The 1000S is quoted as offering 40bhp from its 998 cc A-Series engine, while the 1000E is advertised as having 50bhp.
- 2 May 1969: The two millionth Mini is built at Longbridge, but British Leyland decides to postpone the official celebrations until the following month.
- May 1969: The first Mini Clubman (ADO20) saloon is built
- August 1969: The posh Minis, the Riley Elf and Wolseley Hornet cease production. Altogether 59,367 of these cars have been manufactured over an eight-year period. They would be replaced by the Mini Clubman.
- 4 August 1969: Another car meeting its end was the ill-fated MGC, which ceases production after 18,201 examples are built. By now the Austin Healey Sprite is no longer available for export.
- 1 October 1969: Austin and Morris 1300GT (above) are launched. Mechanically, it’s the same as the MG 1300 and Riley 1300, but was cheaper with go faster stripes and devoid of the traditional wood and chrome. It’s trendier and aimed at younger buyers.
- 24 October 1969: The last Riley of all, an ADO38 4/72 was produced at Cowley. Only 8,348 Riley cars had been sold in the previous year.
- 12 November 1969: Longbridge produces the last 998 cc Mini Cooper, an Austin-badged car. The last Morris Mini Traveller is also manufactured this month. Although the Mini Mk3 (ADO20) had been announced in October, manufacture of Mk2 Mini saloons continues into December.
- November 1969: The final Austin and Morris Mini Mk2 saloons are manufactured during the same month.
- History : The Austin-Morris story – Part Seven : 1970-1971 - 26 July 2020
- History : The Austin-Morris story – Part Six : 1970 - 5 July 2020
- Opinion : Happy birthday, Range Rover - 16 June 2020