History : The Austin-Morris story – Part Eight : 1971

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 eighth part, BLMC finally unveils its first new car developed after the merger – a lot rested on the Morris Marina.


The Austin-Morris story: Enter Cowley’s Cortina

Morris Marina at launch in 1971

The ADO28 was announced to the world on 27 April 1971 as the Morris Marina. It had been a long time coming, despite it being rushed into production – a reflection of the situation BLMC found itself in during the early months of 1971.

Austin-Morris Managing Director, George Turnbull, said at the launch of the new car: ‘We haven’t abandoned the Issigonis front-wheel-drive concept, but for the new car we gave simplicity, ease of maintenance and value for money, the top priority. The engines are the well proven and reliable A- and B-Series BMC products, the gearbox and rear axle are developments of the tough Triumph Vitesse units and the front suspension is the simple but effective torsion bar layout used so successfully on the Morris Minor and Morris 1000.

‘We think the family man looking for value for money with simple servicing will buy the Marina as will the big fleet owners. I am aiming for ten per cent of the total market and I think I am going to get it.’

Gunning for a bullish market share

In 1971 a ten per cent UK market share amounted to at least 128,000 cars, a target the new Morris never realised. British Leyland claimed at the time that the ADO28 Marina was much more than one car designed for a specific purpose. It insisted that it was the start of a new family of cars. The media was told that there was a need for a whole new range of cars, with which to supply the group’s 2000 Morris dealers.

Rather than further reduce its 3800-strong Austin-Morris dealerships, by far the biggest in Britain, the newly-merged group told the media it had decided to split its franchises down the middle with the Austin network operating independently of Morris. In this way British Leyland retained its saturation coverage of the market, but it also meant that Austin and Morris dealers were no longer competing for the same customers with identical cars – well, that was the theory.

It was hoped that arrival of the Marina family would go a long way towards rectifying this wasteful situation. The Marina would be handled exclusively by Morris dealers who would have to hand over their existing best-selling range, the 1100/1300 (with the exception of the MG, Wolseley and estate versions), to their Austin counterparts. The Morris network would thus be better placed to meet Ford head on. The dealers would end up waiting a long time for the next Morris-branded model…

Designed to complement the FWD cars

BMC 1100/1300 remained fresh-looking into the 1970s.

Filmer Paradise, Austin Morris sales chief, said: ‘As a group we are uniquely placed to cover every conceivable customer requirement in the dominant C-class sector of the market. The ingenious way in which today’s car has been designed to complement rather than compete with the best-selling 1100/1300 (ADO16) range will allow the two sales networks to work far better as a team.’

At the time the 1100/1300 series still maintained an amazing 12 per cent market penetration in the UK, despite its age.

There were many industry observers who still insisted that British Leyland had too many dealers. Even with the addition of the new range, the proliferation of outlets made it extremely difficult for the company to give each dealer a territory big enough to generate the increasingly high level of sales necessary to stay in a business, which was one of the most competitive in the High Street. At a pre-launch pep talk to dealers, Filmer Paradise warned them, ‘in the coming 12 months there will be absolutely no place in the Austin-Morris division or in your own organisation for apologists. This car will move on plan to the head of the United Kingdom sales league.’

Cowley still under development

At Cowley rebuilding work was still ongoing at the South Works and only one of the two new parallel assembly lines had been completed. This line was producing around 1000 Marinas a week at the time of the launch. The second line would be phased in shortly and, by the end of the year, George Turnbull, Managing Director of Austin-Morris was looking for a weekly production of around 5000.

That would be similar to the then output of 1100/1300 models, although the latter would be reduced as the Marina was expected to cut into some 1100/1300 sales.

Of prime importance to the profitability of the new car was the fact that it was the first British Leyland model to be produced without using the outdated piece-work system its American-owned rivals had shed long since.

Strikes are still perennial issue

More than 50 per cent of all Austin-Morris disputes had been caused by piece-work rows. Barry Mackie, the Division’s Personnel Director, said: ‘This system has bedevilled every opportunity to build up sound industrial relations because it created a climate of friction and envy by producing different levels of payment between sections and between plants and it has severely interfered with the introduction of new models to the point when our carefully-calculated marketing launches have been so delayed that we have lost the peak of the marketing opportunity.’

Cowley in particular had a dreadful record. From January to October 1970, there were 347 disputes including some very lengthy stoppages. After the introduction of the flat rate system there was a sharp fail in disputes and those occurring were of a minor nature.

The switch from piecework to flat rate wages in a mass production industry meant as many revolutionary changes for management as it did for workers. As Pat Lowry, BLMC’s Industrial Relations Director, explained: ‘One is upsetting a whole way of life. Tremendous new challenges are given to managers and supervisors in particular. Many of them are now being asked to manage or supervise for the first time instead of spending their working lives as glorified progress chasers. New training processes have to be developed. A new generation of industrial engineers is required.’

A new car – a new way of working

What the media were not told at the time was that the British Leyland management had been so determined to launch the Morris Marina on Measured Day Work, that it chained itself to the millstone of mutuality, virtually as demanded by the TGWU. ‘Man-assignments shall be mutually agreed.

‘Standard performance, i.e. effort, shall be mutually agreed on the basis of normal output without over-exertion, with due consideration to fatigue, and the need for an agreed amount of personal time,’ stated an agreement with the TGWU.

Changes in effort or manning, mobility and relief, times were all lumped under the heading of mutuality – in effect, if management wished to ramp up production, i.e line speed, they had to gain the agreement of the workforce. This was what was known as a mutuality agreement.

Marina: just what the dealers wanted

Morris Marina represented a new start for British Leyland Motor Corporation
Morris Marina represented a new start for British Leyland Motor Corporation

Morris dealers were jubilant at the launch of the new Marina. One of the largest distributors said: ‘No one will look at the Marina and turn a somersault in sheer excitement but, as a value for money package, it is exactly what we in the trade have been asking Lord Stokes to provide. If we cannot sell this we might as well pack it all in.’

The new Morris Marina was crucial to British Leyland because the company was short of cash. The group had been unable to produce profits at a time when its capital spending was running at around £60 million annually. The previous year, for example, it generated cash of £42 million entirely by depreciation. So it spent on modernisation, £14 million more than was available, and one of the reasons it was able to do so was by borrowing from the banks. This, of course, was a short-term expedient, and did not alter the underlying difficulty.

Thus, as both the company and City now fully recognised, the only way out of this predicament was for British Leyland to start earning real money. It cost British Leyland around £45 million to modernise and re-equip Cowley. Part of this cost, perhaps £30 million, was for basic modernisation of the plant which it was hoped was now capable of producing cars efficiently for at least the next decade. If normal depreciation policies were applied, that sum would be written off in British Leyland’s books over the next 15 to 16 years. The cost directly attributable to the new car’s manufacture was about £14 million. The bulk of this related to special dies and tools which could only be used for making the Marina.

Closing in on Ford’s efficiency

Shortly after the Marina was launched, Desmond North, a Senior Cost Controller was reported as saying: ‘We are aiming at 90 per cent of Ford’s efficiency with 50 per cent of the people.’

Although British Leyland boasted of modernising Cowley, had they got it right? Bill Roche of the TGWU later said: ‘Up to the Marina we were building cars at Pressed Steel effectively by hand, almost everything had to be worked and re-worked. It was the old way of building a motor car. You built it from the rear end, then the front end, and a middle post, and a floor and a roof from different components all made separately in different sections and then brought together and assembled. You can imagine that if they didn’t fit, which they never did, everything had to be changed – re-soldered and re-welded – that sort of thing.

‘But with the Marina they installed the gate line, which meant that the two sides were each built in a jig and then the two were put together. But when I had the opportunity to go to Renault and Fiat in the early seventies, I found that our competitors were disposing of the gate line as obsolete. So we were ten years behind them – and that’s forgetting the Japanese.’

Lord Stokes on the Morris Marina

Donald Stokes - Morris Marina

Lord Stokes (above) later said: ‘Before the Marina went into production I was assured that it was going to be quite reasonably costed because we were going to be able to use a lot of the facilities available from the Morris Minor. Later on, I found that a lot of the machine tools they said they were going to use were so obsolete that we had to get new ones and we would have been better in retrospect to have designed a brand-new car altogether. But we were in such a hurry; we had to get something. We had nothing to sell. It was marvellous getting that Marina out on time. Although it didn’t really hit the markets, it did quite well.’

British Leyland expected the Morris Marina to start producing profit early in its 1971-72 financial period. The Marina was planned to be a much more profitable car than any other volume model produced by the company at the time. Unlike the over-engineering that went into the BMC models, the Corporation’s policy, which was now in line with everyone else’s, was to design out cost.

George Turnbull (above) commented: ‘To invest this sort of capital, there can be no gamble. It’s been a very hard three years, but I think we have produced a winner. When I moved to Longbridge and came face to face with the scale of the operation it took some absorbing. It took time to comprehend that I was in charge of 81,000 people with factories in Longbridge, Cowley and in the North. The problems were immense; new system, modernisation, new management and new pay structures had to be planned and negotiated.

‘Lord Stokes said we must have a new car built quickly to feed the vast dealer organisation. So we went ahead to build a new car. First problem was where to build it, Cowley or Longbridge? It was going to have to be made in one place in a fully mechanised facility. So we opted for Cowley in the old Morris plant just across the way from the Pressed Steel body factory where the bodyshells would have to be made anyway.’

Filmer Paradise: how to beat the Americans

On 29 April The Times published an interview with Filmer Paradise in which he extolled the virtues of the newly-launched Morris Marina. Filmer Paradise insisted that, to beat the American-owned companies at their speciality, the car would have to be similarly conventionally engineered, It would have to be easy to service and to have especially good looks, ‘so that the men who drive fleet cars will tell the men who buy fleet cars that they want the new Morris.’

He added: ‘My attitude was linked to the philosophy that this car should be seen as a clear value-for-money package. We were aiming to take sales from the Ford Cortina, Escort, Hillman Avenger and, to some extent, the Vauxhall Viva. In fact, we reckoned that half our sales would be what I call “conquests”,’ he said.

The Sales Department had to agree that the fleet operators might be wrong in their shunning of front-wheel drive and transverse engines. ‘But it was our job to give the fleet operators what they wanted, not tell them what they wanted,’ he said. ‘We looked at what we were good at and known for, strong quality and reliable engineering, and tried to match it with something we were not so well known for, good looks. We feel we have combined both these qualities in the Marina.’

Fantasyland: Marina sales targets

Ever the fantasist, Filmer Paradise talked of selling 180,000 Marinas abroad in 1973 and about 125,000 in the UK, a combined production figure of 305,000 cars! More ominously for Austin-Morris, while it returned to rear-wheel drive, Fiat continued its drive towards front-wheel drive with the announcement that April of its new 127 model.

The Fiat 127 was arguably the first of the breed that would be branded as ‘superminis’. Originally launched as two door model, it would appear with a hatchback in 1972. Like the Fiat 128 (below), the 127 used a transverse engine mated to an end-on gearbox. This was a 903cc overhead valve unit making the 127 a Mini rival. There was probably a simple reason why the 127 was not smaller and that was to prevent product overlap with the long-running Fiat 500, which continued in production.

The 127 was voted European Car of the Year 1972 and 3,779,086 were produced in the next 12 years, considerably more than British Leyland Mini production in the same period. The new Fiat brought to an end the golden era of the Mini as a front rank family car.

Fiat 128 - 1970 car of the year

The situation at home and abroad

With Britain still exiled from the Common Market, the Fiat 127 was little threat in the domestic market for the time being, but it would now put the Mini under pressure in the EEC car market, which was supplied by Seneffe in Belgium and Innocenti in Italy. The year of 1971 was the apogee of Mini production with 318,475 being produced from British Leyland’s worldwide plants, including 258,427 from Longbridge.

In The Times of 4 May 1971, George Turnbull explained his long-term strategy: ‘Our 1975 objective will basically be the position where the only substantial movement will be of steel panels from Swindon for assembly in Longbridge. We are currently at the half-way stage, which is best illustrated by showing the model terminations and movement in the current year. By the end of this year Cowley will be largely tidied up and the main movement of body sub-assemblies remaining will be into Longbridge from other plants. One major plant, Adderley Park, will have been closed together with two smaller ones at Coventry.’

British Leyland claimed that it had sold 20,000 Morris Marinas in the week since it was launched. In addition, orders from hire and fleet users for another 25,000 Marinas were under negotiation. The sales performance represented more than £40 million to the company and a spokesman claimed that 75 per cent of sales had so far been at the expense of competitors’ products.

And right on cue…

However trouble was ahead. On 12 May a strike by 80 maintenance fitters and their mates at Cowley halted production of the Marina. The strikers were ordered by their union to return to work on Monday 17 May, which they did, and then promptly walked out after two hours having discovered that foremen had removed some car bodies from paint hardening ovens. Although it was pointed out that this was an emergency measure to prevent the paint being ‘overcooked’ the maintenance fitters and their mates told the management that they were staging a 24 hour protest strike. No sooner was this dispute resolved, then another one broke out involving 147 fitters which again halted Marina production.

British Leyland was reportedly making hurried changes in the model mix of the production line of the Morris Marina following reports from dealers indicating a greater customer preference for the four-door model.

At the time of the launch three weeks before, production schedules at the Cowley assembly plant set the mix at about 60 per cent four-door models and 40 per cent two-door coupes. This was based on the result of market research and on pre-launch reaction from the trade and motoring press. Once the models were on display in dealers’ showrooms motorists were quick to point out that for a premium of only £39 the four-door 1300 saloon at £962 was a much better buy than the coupe.

Giving the customer what they want

An Austin-Morris spokesman said that, with five versions of each model, making a total range of ten, some weeks would clearly he needed to enable the company to arrive at a more realistic mix. ‘That information is now coming through and we are realigning our production to give the customer what he wants.’

Marina production, which started at 1000 models a week, was by now about 1500, following the introduction of a night shift. Once a few night shift production problems had been sorted out the company was confident of achieving an output of 3000 cars a week by midsummer, and 5000 by the end of 1971.

On 27 May, the 250,000th MGB was produced at Abingdon in the presence of George Turnbull (below). The car, a Blaze left-hand-drive MGB GT was given away in a sweepstake in the USA in September 1971. That same month Syd Enever retired as Chief Engineer at Abingdon to be succeeded by Roy Brocklehurst.

MGB reaches quarter of a million
MGB reaches quarter of a million

Delivery dates start to slide

By 17 June, it was being reported that, while orders for the new Morris Marina were estimated to have exceeded 60,000, only between 12,000 and 14,000 had been made. British Leyland was already suffering some embarrassment over delivery dates – some dealers were quoting two, three, or, in rare instances, four months.

The disputes at Cowley were said to have lost nearly 3000 cars and set back by more than a fortnight the planned boost in production from 1500 per week to 2000. The launch stock of 7000 cars was swallowed up almost immediately and the only saving factor had been that many of the sales were to fleet operators who neither required nor demanded immediate delivery. Indeed, some had phased their acceptance of the cars over a period of many months.

‘We may not be perfect, but I think we are going completely nuts in this country’ – Lord Stokes

The Guardian newspaper interviewed British Leyland Chairman Lord Stokes in a long-winded article for its 21 June edition. After discussing safety, Lord Stokes was asked why consumers should buy British.

‘I get criticised because I stick up for British cars. I believe British cars are best. I believe the cars that we make are best value for money. If I didn’t I wouldn’t be in this job. We sell twice as many Mini’s in Italy as all Italian cars put together sold in Britain. That’s not bad. Can’t we get some pride in something British.

‘Can’t we get some pride in having a British company, which sells 50 per cent of its output overseas. We may not be perfect, but I think we are going completely nuts in this country. We denigrate everything we do. The newspapers are full of information about strikes, but the fact is that we made over a million vehicles last year. If a man from Mars came down here and looked at the headlines, he would say that British Leyland can’t have made a car, they are always on strike.’

Putting a positive spin on things

Lord Stokes added: ‘Actually, we have 200,000 people and about 199,000 work bloody hard all year. Unfortunately, we have got the odd two or three per cent. We have got a jolly good car industry. We are pace setters… I believe in competition. I can’t go abroad and say you must not buy a foreign car. But in England the price of foreign spare parts is quite fantastic. If you back a Maxi into an Audi it costs you £10 for the rear light on the Audi and 50p the rear light on the Maxi.

‘If you take the Renault 16 and compare it with the Maxi 1750. Our independent assessment says that Maxi is a better value-for-money car than the 16 in this country. Of course, they will sell a few, but we are going to sell Maxis in France. They can’t get enough of them. That’s our trouble. Of course, an awful lot of people in this country are so peculiar that they buy a foreign car and spend the rest of their lives justifying it even if it breaks down every five minutes. Of course, this happens in reverse. You go down to the South of France and the snob thing to have is a souped up Mini and swear it is the best car there is.

‘The Maxi, for instance, is the lowest cost/guarantee car that Austin-Morris has ever produced. In the three years that we have had Austin-Morris in the corporation, I would say that the guarantee costs have come down about ten per cent, not taking into account inflation. These are, to the best of my knowledge, being treated on a comparable basis. Normally with a new car, you generally get an upturn in the guarantee claims for the first few thousand cars because there is always some little adjustment or bits that you find.

‘Of course an awful lot of people in this country are so peculiar that they buy a foreign car and spend the rest of their lives justifying it even if it breaks down every five minutes.’ – Lord Stokes

‘On the Marina, we are changing brake pads over to a softer brake pad where people want it to reduce the pedal pressure. If you took it to your agent you could get softer brake pads under the warranty. From now on all cars will have softer brake pads. We have far better inspection, far better quality control than ever we did do and far better measuring and checking and instrumentation to make sure that cars are better.

‘But, on the other hand, this is where you have to put things in perspective, we are making a million vehicles a year and we are bound to get some complaints. It is inevitable. You can’t make a million vehicles and not get some problem. We had recently to change steering column locks, but it wasn’t our fault. You can inspect and double inspect.’

Rushing to meet demand

By late June 1971, it was revealed that British Leyland had told its 1800 Morris distributors and dealers to ease the sales pressure on the new Marina during the next six weeks while it reduced the backlog of orders to more manageable proportions. The company feared that customers faced with delivery quotations of four or five months would go elsewhere for their new car.

Filmer Paradise said: ‘We are not pushing for additional Marina business at this time.’ He said the present production was about 2000 a week, and should be increased to 3000 before August 1971.

In effect Austin-Morris was saying that it could not satisfy customer orders, but how many orders for the Marina were because the fleet buyers could not get hold of a Cortina because of the after effects of the long Ford strike? Austin-Morris was squandering the window of opportunity offered by the long Ford dispute.

The end of Mini Cooper and sports car plans

The Harris Mann-led Longbridge design team's effort was chosen over Triumph's more conservative scheme...

Then, on 28 June 1971, Longbridge produced the last Mini Cooper 1275S of all, but as it turned out the absence of the Cooper from the Mini range was merely temporary. In July the last example of the Austin Sprite sports car were produced. Like the Cooper, the Sprite name would resurface in the 1990s as part of the Mini range.

During July 1971 British Leyland held a meeting at Longbridge to thrash out who would develop the corporate sports car: Austin Morris in the guise of an MG, or Triumph, which already had a running prototype of its Bullet proposal (above). Harris Mann of the Austin-Morris Styling Studio had responded to BLMC’s rejection of the mid-engined layout by combining the wedge nose of his rejected ADO21 proposal with a more conventional front-engined, rear-drive car to produce a clay model badged as an MG.

Despite the £2 million which had already been expended on Bullet, Lord Stokes preferred the wedge-shaped Harris Mann design. As compensation Triumph was given the job of engineering the corporate sports car. In a nutshell, Triumph now had to adapt the Harris Mann design to their mechanicals to create the corporate sports car.

Credit restrictions ease, sales boom

That same month the Government announced it was to abolish all hire purchase restrictions in order to stimulate consumer demand. It certainly had its effect on the UK car market, which expanded by 19.8 per cent to a record 1.28 million. On 4 August BLMC instructed MG at Abingdon to build an MGB GT V8 prototype, following the evaluation of a Ken Costello-converted car.

Ken Costello was a Mini racer who ran a business installing Rover V8 engines into MGBs. The following day the controversial Industrial Relations Act 1971 became law, and some time in August 1971 the two millionth ADO16 1100/1300 was produced.

Longbridge expansion continues

On 24 August, it was revealed that British Leyland was installing a £1 million body preparation and paint plant for Austin-Morris at Longbridge in the first step towards integration of its biggest car complex. An overhead conveyor would be built across a public road in Longbridge to carry bodies from Welding Shops to the new Preparation and Paint Shop which was to be built on the site of the existing No. 2 Trentham Paint Shop. Trentham No. 1 was to be demolished.

Final assembly lines at Longbridge were supplied with a mixture of bodies. Some were built on the spot from panels supplied by group factories at Castle Bromwich and Cowley near Oxford while others were assembled at these plants and only required painting.

George Turnbull said he was giving priority to the integration of Longbridge to end the costly transporting of steel boxes ‘containing nothing but fresh air’. Body panels would continue to be pressed in the former Pressed Steel Fisher plants but would be dovetailed into each other and moved by road with considerable cost saving.

ADO16 starts to wind down

A week later the MG 1300 (above) was dropped, although CKD production for export continued until 1973. On 15 September the last Austin J40 pedal car was produced at BLMC’s Bargoed factory in South Wales. The next day the ADO16 based MGS (also known as MG S 1300) was launched in Spain by Authi.

The Mk3 ADO16 1100/1300 models were launched on 23 September. Featuring a revised matt black grille, 1100 two-door de luxe were models fitted with a single chrome bar while 1100 super de luxe and 1300 models were fitted with a cluster of three bars. A revised mock wood dashboard featuring two round dials was also fitted. The ADO16 Austin America was discontinued. Also on the ADO16 front, Morris saloon cars were discontinued in the UK, but the Morris 1300 Traveller was still available.

Austin-Morris, in its press release, boasted of having built two million ADO16s, with some 600,000 going for export, 33.69 per cent of production. ADO16 production had now ceased at Cowley to create more capacity for the Morris Marina. It is doubtful any Mk3s were built there. The loss of Cowley’s production capacity immediately reduced annual ADO16 production by some 40,000 to 50,000 units, which at last enabled the Ford Cortina, now in MK3 guise, to become Britain’s best-selling car.

Confidence is still high

On 26 September, The Observer interviewed Filmer Paradise. As British Leyland’s financial year drew to a close there was a confident atmosphere permeating the company. The Austin-Morris division, which had lost £15.95 million in 1970/71 and accounted for 40 per cent of BL’s sales, was back in the black and steaming ahead.

Throughout the first eight months of 1971, the company’s share of the United Kingdom car market had averaged 41.14 per cent, more than its three American-owned competitors, Ford, Chrysler and Vauxhall, had achieved between them. In the same period, BLMC sold 352,800 cars, an increase of 61,094 on the same period of 1970, while total car output at 574,200 was up 14 per cent. In the first eight months of 1971 it surpassed its sales budget by 21,163 cars. In the group’s last really good year, in 1969, when pre-tax profits reached £40.4 million, car output was 869,000 units. Abroad, helped by the unstoppable Mini, exports ran 15.2 per cent up through the first seven months of the year.

What The Observer did not mention was the fact that Ford of Britain had been strike bound for ten weeks, which was probably why things looked so rosy. ‘They look very good,’ said Filmer Paradise. It was predicted that by 1975 European sales would reach 500,000, double the 1971 level.

BLMC sales: flattering to deceive

The Morris Marina was now up to sixth place in the UK car market, production was now running just below 3000 a week, with a target of 3500 by the start of November 1971. The lame duck Austin Maxi was enjoying a resurgence, the next two years would be its most successful, before the Austin Allegro came on the scene.

The Observer claimed that even the production of the BMC 1800 (ADO17) could not keep up with sales, which was not born out by the annual production figure, which had stabilised at 42,000 to 45,000 annually since the model’s mechanical maladies had been sorted out in 1967, and they were about to decline. The newspaper also claimed that the evergreen Mini, now in its twelfth year, and the second-best seller in the British market after the ADO16 1100/1300, was becoming increasingly profitable.

At the start of the year, Filmer Paradise, supported by a much-improved market forecasting team, took the calculated risk of stepping up production and stocks. Indeed, at one stage, Paradise admitted that BLMC had more stock in hand than the rest of the industry put together. However, he was convinced that no Government could allow such a key industry as cars to slip any further into recession. Thus, British Leyland was better placed than any of its competitors to take advantage of both the long Ford strike and the July 1971 hire purchase changes.

Paradise shrugged off competitors who claimed it was a risky gamble: ‘A guy who gets nervous should get the hell out. We had to drive for home sales and you can’t target from scarcity.’

Imported cars on the rise

Buttressed by the availability of stock, BLMC’s market share stood rock solid in the face of the upsurge in imported cars, which took 22 per cent of the market in August 1971. Much of Paradise’s confidence as stocks accumulated, also stemmed from his conviction that BLMC was now as good at selling its products as anyone in the business. The sales team at Austin-Morris was revamped from top to bottom, with what Paradise calls the ‘executive deadwood’ going.

‘We lost 32 high people as generously and gracefully as possible,’ he said.

BMC’s sales philosophy was crudely simple, the more outlets there were, the more cars that were sold. But this created wasteful competition between BMC dealers and failed to provide the level of sales throughput to justify expansion or investment by dealers and distributors.

BLMC slashes its dealer network

Now the number of franchises available had been cut to two from five; the number of dealers slashed from 5000 to 3900; and the distributor chain had been reduced from 500 to 460. Salesmen were decentralised into regional offices; the dealer and distribution network retrained; and promotions and advertising carefully targeted and analysed.

Of course many of the disenfranchised Austin-Morris dealers defected to the Japanese manufacturers, some of whom embraced front-wheel drive and took their customers with them. ‘We don’t want to dance around in a frenzy of new ideas,’ said Paradise.

There was even a two-man team watching for every opportunity to slip a car into a joint promotion with manufacturers from other industries. Filmer Paradise claimed he was delighted to have confounded the competition with the Morris Marina. To a man, they expected it to poach sales from the existing 1100/1300 cars. But his analysts insisted it wouldn’t.

BLMC claims to be taking Ford’s sales

In the autumn of 1971 it was claimed that the Morris Marina was had around five per cent of the market, the ADO16 1100/1300 range were still top sellers with a shade over ten per cent and this despite the fact that they were now sold only by the Austin arm of the sales network. ‘The Marina is doing precisely what it is meant to do, taking fleet sales off our competitors,’ said Paradise.

This may have been true in the case of Chrysler and Vauxhall, but the Marina hardly dented Ford sales, if at all, and there is some indication that Morris dealers, deprived of the 1100/1300 model, instead sold Marinas to regular customers, or what would be called substitutional sales.

The boast that the 1100/1300 was still the UK market leader may have been true, but in 1970 it had a 12.3 per cent share. A combination of the decision to cease ADO16 assembly at Cowley and its supplanting in Morris dealers by the new Marina had led to its market domination declining by nearly two percentage points. And while the Marina held a five per cent share, this apparent gain was offset by the disappearance from the Austin-Morris range of the Minor and Farina saloons.

Equally important was the transformation of the Austin-Morris division from production to sales orientation by what Paradise called ‘product refinement’ – that really meant paying rather more attention to what the customer wanted than BMC’s Engineers did. However, what was defined as the ‘customer’ in the case of the Marina, were the big fleet buyers, not the private individuals.

Paradise: Marina casts a halo over the range

The Observer claimed a new saleable gloss had been added to cars like the Austin Maxi, ADO17 1800 and, particularly, the Mini. ‘Now we have the wonderful combination of basic strength with new cars to come as the industry moves in to a period of boom,’ said Filmer Paradise.

Quite why The Observer thought the Mini was more saleable, when the range had been stripped of its premium models, and even the basic Mini 850 and 1000 had been deprived of features that came as standard on the outgoing Mk2, all in order to save cost on a car that senior management were convinced was a loss maker, is difficult to explain.

The Observer was confident enough to predict that, given stability on the labour relations front, BLMC seemed poised on the verge of great things. The newspaper claimed there was a growing feeling within the motor industry that Ford’s forecasters had pressed the wrong button and taken their car range too far upmarket. Even regardless of this, Ford itself said that its output and stocks would not be back to acceptable levels after its long strike until the start of 1972.

Stokes: Beware the Japanese carmakers

Early in October 1971 Lord Stokes wrote an article published in all the group’s internal newspapers. He gave a warning to the group’s 180,000 employees that Japanese car makers, deprived of some of their sales in the United States by a ten per cent import charge, would make a concentrated attack on Europe.

‘They are going to have a go at Europe and this country. They must all laugh like drains when they see us going on strike because they have the opportunity to sell more to our domestic customers. People will not wait. They have got money in their pockets to meet the pent-up demand, which has been released by the July measures for whatever is in the shops. We are finding overseas particularly that people will not wait for cars, and if distributors cannot get them from us they will seek other suppliers.’

While Lord Stokes was right to be concerned by the Japanese threat and the need to reduce stoppages, he did not address the reason why Japanese cars were so popular.

Trouble brewing…

On 1 October, preliminary redundancy notices were served on 900 workers at the Austin-Morris van body plant in Common Lane, Birmingham. Four days later, several hundred employees at the plant were conducting a ‘sit-in’ which had halted production for the previous two days. They were protesting at Lord Stokes’ refusal to meet their Shop Stewards to discuss the preliminary redundancy notices served on 900 workmates.

The next day all 2300 employees at the Common Lane van body plant answered a Shop Stewards’ call to walk out in protest at management’s refusal to withdraw the preliminary redundancy notices served on 900 of them on 1 October. Their action followed the two days of sit-ins and more than five hours of talks with management.

The company offered to suspend the notices for several weeks if the workers returned and dropped their overtime ban, but the Shop Stewards insisted that the notices be withdrawn. They claimed management had breached an agreement concluded in May 1971 that provided for joint discussions on manning levels and the transfer of labour. The company said the redundancies were foreshadowed eight months earlier, before the agreement was signed.

Cowley workers walk out

Meanwhile, 300 workers at the Austin-Morris export packing factory, Cowley, walked out after the management refused to delay plans to close the factory in 1971. The company said the closure was brought forward because alternative jobs in the Cowley complex were available.

On 11 October British Leyland forestalled possible union plans to stage a work-in at its Common Lane van body plant in Birmingham. It withdrew preliminary redundancy notices served on 900 employees, and 2300 workmates immediately agreed to end their week-old strike against the redundancies. A Midland union leader claimed that the change of heart was a victory for tough action by a labour force facing redundancy.

George Wright, Birmingham official of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, said: ‘This shows what happens when we flex our muscles and we shall take similar steps every time we are faced with redundancy which in our view is not necessary. We shall do everything possible to make life difficult for management which has fallen down on the job and believes the only answer is to sack men.’

British Leyland denied that its change of heart on the redundancy issue had been influenced by reports of a possible work-in at the van body factory or by the tough action taken by the whole labour force of 2300. A company spokesman said it had become possible to withdraw the notices because Shop Stewards had now agreed to discuss redeployment. ‘The company has been concerned to minimise hardship to the majority of people as there are other jobs available in other parts of Austin-Morris,’ he said. Again British Leyland had fudged the issue of redundancy.

Stokes: Still a confident man

Donald Stokes
Donald Stokes

On 19 October Lord Stokes told the press: ‘All of us at British Leyland have a quiet ring of confidence.’ Production rose by more than 14 per cent during the 1970/71 financial year with ‘substantially’ fewer workers on the payroll. BLMC’s own figures still indicated that it employed 6000 more people than in 1968.

Since 1968 British Leyland’s share of the UK car market had edged up from 40 to 41 per cent, despite the increase in imported motors from nine to 21 per cent. Lord Stokes claimed Austin-Morris was producing 3000 Morris Marinas a week. ‘We reckon we are making money on it already,’ he said.

He hoped to sell 4000 a week by Christmas 1971, rising eventually to 5000 a week. He summed up: ‘It does look as though we are now starting to achieve the results of which we have always known the Corporation was capable.’

Turnbull announces new Austin-Morris jobs

Two days later George Turnbull announced that the division was to take on more than 1000 new workers at the plant at Cowley and hundreds more at Longbridge, Birmingham. Under the group’s recruitment plans, men made redundant when the division closed two plants in Coventry and Birmingham earlier in 1971 would have first option for the new Longbridge jobs.

In early November 1971 Lord Stokes was about to embark on a world tour of British Leyland plants and markets. However, Austin/Morris 1800 and MGB production had been at a standstill for over a month because of a strike by B-Series engine assemblers at Longbridge. In a wide ranging question and answer session, Lord Stokes was asked whether he thought that, after the setback of a year before, British Leyland had now turned the corner and would go ahead rapidly.

In reply, he said: ‘We can only get security of employment if we can satisfy customers that we can keep faith with them by delivering vehicles. Our model range is better than we have ever had in our history. We have a better sales organisation. We are better prepared to meet the competitive challenge.’

During his world tour Lord Stokes would finalise arrangements for an assembly plant in Bangkok, check progress being made on a new car shortly to be manufactured in Australia and launch the Morris Marina in Canada.

Final flowering for the ADO16 as Issigonis leaves

Austin Apache

On 26 November, Leykor in South Africa launched the Austin Apache, the Michelotti restyle of the AD016 1100/1300 design originally requested by Harry Webster back in 1968.

On 21 December it was announced that Sir Alec Issigonis, Designer of the Mini, among other cars, was to remain a Design Consultant with British Leyland after he went into semi-retirement at the end of 1971. He had reached the company’s official retiring age of 65. George Turnbull said at a ceremony in honour of Sir Alec: ‘we have had to bend the rules because we do not believe that Sir Alec’s extraordinary talents have suddenly waned or dried up.’

George Turnbull, speaking at the Longbridge Austin-Morris works, added that Sir Alec would be doing exactly what he had been doing for the previous three years. ‘But, I hope perhaps working slightly shorter hours.’ He said one of the difficulties of describing Sir Alec’s new position of Advanced Design Consultant was that almost everything he was doing was on the top secret list.

The reality was that British Leyland had to keep Sir Alec Issigonis under contract to prevent rival manufacturers from getting access to his innovative ideas.

George Turnbull and Alec Issigonis

In his retirement Issigonis would concentrate on the concept of a ‘gearless’ transmission, which involved having an engine with a wide torque range, a complete contradiction to today’s torque-shy engines mated to multi-speed transmissions.

Also that December Adderley Park produced the last Morris Minor Light Commercial Van.

Harry Webster on the future of Austin-Morris

The 28 December edition of the Daily Express featured an interview with the Engineering Director of Austin-Morris, Harry Webster, who it claimed, was the man who would decide the shape and form of the British family car over the next decade.

Harry Webster said: ‘Three main things concern us in the cars we are designing and building now for three to four years time, reliability, economy and a minimum of servicing. Our aim is to build a car that needs little or no attention in the first three to four years of its life. And then, when it does need repair, the job will take as short a time as possible.

‘In fact, with the soaring costs of labour, no job on a car will take more than an hour. Everything must be designed so that even major repairs can be done at any motorway service station. This means plug-in parts that you simply pull out and replace. The original carburettor, gearbox, or engine will be returned to the factory, and refurbished there under precise conditions and then resold.’

Harry Webster

Harry Webster (above) added: ‘With world fuel supplies being used up, emergent nations pushing up prices of crude oil and exporting less, the main emphasis must be on conserving what fuel we have. This means using a lower grade of fuel. And lead will definitely, be dropped from petrol within the next three years because of the problems of pollution.

‘The world owes a great debt to the piston ring and the poppet valve and I don’t see any major breakthroughs coming from steam, electric or atomic engines for cars except in the very far distant future. A lot of the expense in producing cars came from the fact that regulations governing vehicles varied enormously from country to country.

‘It is fantastic the number of different cars we have to build to meet the varying requirements. Not just the proliferating anti-pollution laws, but safety specifications. We are working hard at it getting, first, national standards, then standards for Europe, and then international standards. In Britain the Big Four have got together and are working with terrific co-operation from the Government. Once these standards are set, production costs will drop enormously and so will the price to the consumer.’

Webster on convergence in car design

Morris Marina vs Hillman Avenger

Would this mean that cars would lose their individuality and become almost identical? Harry Webster replied: ‘To a considerable degree I am afraid that this is going to be the case in the mass produced sector, the 1100cc to 1600cc ranges – but no manufacturer can afford to completely lose its identity.

‘I believe that the actual styling will become increasingly more important although it will become very much more difficult to achieve individuality in the product. But they are devilishly clever, these styling fellows. They already have enormous problems in meeting present regulations. If often seems to me that by the time we have met all the mandatory requirements for our various markets we give them a piece of paper like a child’s numbered drawings and yet they somehow manage to connect the numbers up differently.

‘Of course, there will always be a substantial market, for specialised cars to meet individual requirements, although I think the cost gap between the mass produced car and the specialist one will widen considerably.’

Meanwhile, in Longbridge…

That December 1971 saw the first H-Series engine run on the test bed. It was an extremely compact unit which featured Siamesed bores and an OHC cylinder head. By all accounts Harry Webster was strict in its specification, mirroring Alec Issigonis and the E-Series, and there was no room for upward expansion.

It was reported that British Leyland’s reorganisation of output and the system of payment at Austin-Morris Cowley had proved so successful that instructions were given to speed up similar far reaching changes at Austin-Morris Longbridge – which was similarly being prepared for new models beginning with the ADO67 replacement for the 1100/1300 front-wheel-drive range.

The only outward sign of the extensive work underway at Longbridge at the time was a huge conveyor being built over the main road which separated the body building plant in West Works from the final assembly lines in South Works. An identical conveyor linked body and assembly at Cowley. The Cowley pattern was being followed in other ways too. The gate line system of body shell assembly, which had immensely simplified Morris Marina construction, was also being installed. This was the same system that some observers already thought was obsolete.

Pressings and sub-assemblies from Birmingham, Swindon and South Wales would still have to be transported to the new body line but they could be dovetailed into each other and carried at a fraction of the then cost of moving hundreds of thousands of complete bodyshells.

Body and Paint Shop upgrades

Work was well advanced on a new body preparation and paint plant which was being built at Longbridge on the site of the old Trentham No. 1 Paint Shop. When completed Trentham No. 2 would be demolished. The new body preparation and paint plant was costing BLMC a further £1.5 million and was designed to handle up to 4500 cars per week.

A £7 million gearbox works, £97 million in 2018 money, had already replaced the old Flight Shed, a reminder of Longbridge’s role as an aircraft factory. The new works was producing gearboxes for Austin-Morris and Triumph and the intention was that it would become the chief gearbox centre for all British Leyland cars, which in the end did not materialise, as Pengam near Cardiff ended up producing transmissions for Rover and Triumph.

‘The plan was to convert 24 widely scattered plants into three complexes based on Cowley, Longbridge and Swindon’

The rationalisation of Austin-Morris, the heart of the old BMC operation, was now beginning to fall into shape. All 1100/1300 final assembly had been concentrated at Longbridge. This permitted Cowley to increase production of the Morris Marina and Austin Maxi while Longbridge produced Mini, 1100/1300 and 1800 models.

The plan was to convert 24 widely scattered plants into three complexes based on Cowley, Longbridge and Swindon. The Swindon body plant was the group’s principal Press Shop supplying Longbridge and Cowley with panels. The plant also assembled bodies for MG Abingdon and some specialist cars.

Running parallel with plant reorganisation was the vital change over from the strike prone piece-work system to a flat day rate. The changeover had met with success at Cowley, but Longbridge was probably the most tightly organised stronghold of piecework in the country. Shop Stewards had refused a management request for them to pass on the results of the first eight months of working the new system at Cowley. BLMC claimed that average pay at Cowley had risen from £25-02 a week to £46 a week and that man hours lost through strikes had fallen from 895,000 to 9000.

1971: the year of opportunity

And so ended 1971. Because of the Ford strike the Austin/Morris 1100/1300 (above) yet again emerged as Britain’s favourite new car with 133,527 sold, a figure consistent with UK sales in the previous two years. Although not on a par with the glory days of 1965, 1966 and 1968 when UK sales topped the 150,000 mark it did indicate a gentle decline which British Leyland could manage while they got on with the task of replacing it with something with similar customer appeal.

With Longbridge as the sole UK plant producing Britain’s favourite new car, predictably total ADO16 production fell by 8.6 per cent to 182,060 in a car market that expanded by 19.8 per cent. It appears that it was again the overseas markets that were denied shiny new ADO16s, creating sale opportunities for the likes of Fiat and the Japanese manufacturers. The impact of focusing ADO16 production on Longbridge would not be felt until the following year. Indeed, it is possible that some ADO16 customers defected to the improved Maxi, which increased production by 47.7 per cent to 40,816 units.

Austin-Morris managed to sell 41,164 Marinas during the year, having produced 36,039 at Cowley between January and September 1971. Making sense of the figures is difficult as the sales data is for the calendar year and BLMC’s financial year ran from September to September. Overall, British Leyland’s UK market share increased to 40.2 per cent, no doubt at Ford’s expense. Another beneficiary of the Ford strike was Chrysler UK, which saw its UK sales jump to 159,571, 12.4 per cent of the market. This was an increase of 24 per cent, no doubt courtesy of the Hillman Avenger, which was ready to fill the void left by the absence of Cortinas and Escorts from Ford showrooms. Vauxhall also managed to ramp up their car production by 11 per cent.

How the rivals fared

As for Ford of Britain, the ten-week strike was in theory a loss of 20 per cent of production. In reality, the company lost 14.66 per cent of car production in comparison to 1970, which revealed their ability to ramp up production to make up lost ground.

However, that didn’t stop Ford making an enormous pre-tax loss of £30.7 million though, and its UK market share dropped from 26.9 per cent in 1970 to 19.2 per cent in 1971.

Because we know that British Leyland eventually ran out of money and had to go to the British Government for help, the automatic assumption is that it was incompetently managed and the other UK-based motor manufacturers were not – that is certainly what many of the ex-Ford executives recruited by British Leyland wanted motoring historians to believe.

Setting up for a boom in 1972

However, perhaps we should look at that analysis in another way. All the British-based manufacturers had their troubles and their moments of crisis. For Ford of Britain the moment of crisis was the 1971 pay strike. The difference between Uncle Henry’s UK arm and British Leyland was that Ford of Britain was part of a larger organisation that could absorb a loss of £30.7 million and continue to invest. The same applied to Vauxhall and Chrysler UK. When British Leyland’s crisis came in 1974, it could only turn to the Government for help.

The end of hire purchase restrictions and the shortage of domestic manufactured cars due to industrial action created a vacuum into which imported cars found a ready market – no doubt many were sold by disenfranchised Austin-Morris dealers who took their regular customers with them. In 1971, imports leapt from 14.3 per cent to 19.3 per cent.

The threat from the East

1971 Datsun Cherry

In 1971 Datsun, the then brand name of the Nissan company, sold 6000 cars in Britain. As the British manufacturers increasingly focused on satisfying the needs of the fleet buyers, the Japanese began to chew away at the market for private buyers. And they demonstrated that they were quite capable of offering high technology, front-wheel-drive cars such as the Datsun Cherry 100A/120A series (above) which threatened the Austin-Morris front-wheel-drive range in all markets.

Moreover, cars like the Toyota Corolla (below) demonstrated that it was possible to design and manufacture a conventional car without the hideous design compromises inflicted on the development process by teams of financial specialists. Japanese cars benefited from lean production techniques, unthinkable in the unionised Britain of 1971.

Body panels were designed to fit and hence eliminate rectification work on the assembly line and components, many made by Nippon Denso, actually worked in comparison with those made by Joseph Lucas, nicknamed the ‘Prince of Darkness.’ Clearly, the Japanese assault was already underway in the former British Empire territories, with UK car exports sliding further in 1971 to 714,000, a drop of 1.2 per cent. This would accelerate in 1972. The British response to the threat from Japan was non-existent. Instead of beefing up the engineering integrity of its products to meet the Japanese head on, the UK motor industry had gone down the road of drastic cost control to meet the demands of the fleet buyers.

1971 Toyota Corolla

11 Comments

  1. While questions can be asked as to why Cowley was not modernized earlier (thereby leaving some £30 million to be better spent elsewhere), should the failure to modernize the Cowley plant be laid at the feet of BMC under Leonard Lord and George Harriman (possibly stemming from some underlining anti-Morris bias) or at the feet of Nuffield under the notoriously parsimonious William Morris?

    Also find it intriguing BL and constituent precursors were some 10 years behind the likes of Renault and Fiat when it came to building cars, no clue how much further ahead the Japanese were compared to continental European rivals – be it a few years, half a decade or a decade+ thanks to them embracing the ideas of William Edwards Deming and Frederick Winslow Taylor to great effect.

    Was there anyway the British could have at least achieved parity with Renault and Fiat by ditching old transfer machinery and gate lines for modern production lines and tooling?

    • Nate – Ford were using the gate system at Dagenham until the early eighties and the advent of the Sierra (the Fiesta line was modern, the Cortina not so), so although the continent had moved on, for the Ford men that came into BL the system was probably light years ahead of what BMC had been doing.

  2. I heard Renault had to bring in an automated production line for the 4CV because demand was high & the assembly process needed to be speeded up.

  3. Good to see the old pic of the Datsun Cherry 100A. My brother owned both a 100A (1975) then a 120A coupe (1977). To me this was the start of the growing stampede of Japanese cars impacting on the sale of UK built models… as BL’s reputation declined. My first Japanese car (Datsun Cherry) was in 1979. The reason I bought it was I could get a new better equipped car for less than a used, less equipped UK one

  4. Fascinating article. There is something odd about having to reduce production of a popular car (ADO16) to make space for the Marina; if the Allegro had been a big success, would Longbridge have had enough space to make it?

    I would quibble about the suggestion that the launch of the FWD Fiat 127 went against returning to RWD for the Marina, as Fiat stayed with RWD for it’s mid range models, including the 1975 131. The Japanese (other than Honda) stayed with RWD for their mid range cars too right throughout the 70s

    • In the early 70s, there was a debate in Chrysler Europe over the design for their mid-range car that became the Alpine. At the time (before Chrysler cost-cutting got hold of it) the concept was for something a cut above the offerings of Ford and instead inline with where the Lancia Beta, VW Passat, Audi 80 ended up, to replace the Arrow (Hunter etc), Simca 1500, 160, 180 and 2 Litre.

      The French were insistent that it should be FWD, the British that it should be RWD, the French were to win this argument, the launch of the Lancia Beta confirmed that the French were right until the launch of the Fiat 131 which led to a lot of finger-pointing in the other direction.

  5. Yet again we have the Prince of Darkness canard . Give it up Ian , it is not worthy of you in your otherwise splendid articles, and more to the point, it is completely untrue

  6. If there’s one thing you can’t knock Donald Stokes for, it was his optimism. His interview in this article is full of praise for British Leyland, his belief in the corporation, and his feeling that things would get even better in the following years. Of course, we all know what happened after 1971, but in 1971 British Leyland was on a roll and taking 41% of the new car market, and not forgetting its huge share of the bus and commercial vehicle market.

  7. 1971 Was also when the USA market was in serious decline for BL. Terrible reliability, poor dealership networks, lack of or poor automatic transmissions, the growing strangling of engines to meet increasing USA/Canadian pollution and safety standards, and as this article noted as to the UK the rise of more reliable Japanese brands (although weak as to Auto transmissions, with Nissan/Datsun with the 510, purchasing a USA made Borg-Warner unit).

Add to the debate: leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.