Ian Nicholls, AROnline‘s historian-in-residence, tells the story of Austin-Morris, and its part in the downfall of the British motor industry.
Here, in the fourteenth part, the horrible story comes to its sad conclusion and we discuss the many factors that led to its ignoble fall from grace.
The Austin-Morris story: Why dit it go wrong?
So, why did the British Leyland Motor Corporation run out of money at the end of 1974? Over the decades many theories have been put forward for the financial collapse of British Leyland at the end of 1974. It was the underpricing of the Mini and the ADO16, the size of the 1800 Landcrab, the Maxi, BMC in general, the Allegro, the list goes on.
The principle reason was the Three-Day Week, that ruinous test of strength between Edward Heath and the labour movement for the soul of Britain. Operating at a loss making 60 per cent of capacity for over two months, it was a licence to lose money that sapped British Leyland’s cash reserves. Without the Three-Day Week it is indeed possible that BLMC could have survived as an independent concern a few years longer.
There is a tendency to underestimate the effect of the Three-Day Week by historians, but it hammered other motor manufacturers with deeper pockets than BLMC. Vauxhall alone lost £18 million in 1974. Despite all the turmoil, British Leyland’s UK market share held up remarkably well in depressed 1974 at 32.7 per cent, compared with 31.9 per cent in booming 1973.
The real collapse in its UK market share came in the next five years.
Holed beneath the water line
Reading the news archives nearly five decades on there seems to be an inevitability about the outcome. The story of 1974 was about the struggle to keep BLMC afloat against a background of an Energy Crisis, a Government-concocted Three-Day Week which brought about its own downfall, a new Government that seemed to be waiting in the wings for the company to fail and an ever constant battle against strikes amid a widespread belief that Britain was heading in a socialist direction. After all, Edward Heath had tried to fight the tide and had lost.
The Three-Day Week and February 1974 General Election were seen in some quarters as the British equivalent of the events of May 1968 in France – a mini-revolution that had struck a blow against the oppressive forces of capitalism, except Prime Minister Harold Wilson gradually dampened the expectations of left-wing activists of greater workers’ control of British industry as the nation’s economic plight worsened.
The lack of response by its workforce to its financial plight in 1974 suggests that many British Leyland employees believed the persistent rumours that Tony Benn was riding to their rescue. But what did others think?
Graham’s Turner’s view
Graham Turner, author of The Leyland Papers, gave his opinion of where it went wrong in the Daily Express newspaper in April 1975. He wrote:
- I believe Lord Stokes walked away from the crucial over-manning problem – with the result that, in the first five years of the corporation’s life, the work force actually went up instead of down. It was in those years, I believe, Stokes could without brutality have pruned 40,000 out of the labour force. This would have made a difference of £80 million a year to the company’s cash flow and might well have saved it from falling into Government hands.
- The company tried to behave as though it was a British General Motors, with operations in just about every market in the world. As a result it spread its limited cash far too thin and robbed the home factories of much needed money for modernisations.
- Top management never unscrambled the vast mass of factories and facilities it inherited. The key Austin-Morris division remained a managerial shambles for far too long. The models it turned out fell well below the quality required, cost control was poor, labour relations bad.
- There was virtually no response from the trades unions to Stokes’s generosity on manning levels. With staggering irresponsibility, they took it as a symptom of softness and made some plants a by-word for feather-bedding and skiving.
Geoffrey Robinson’s view
Former BLMC Executive Geoffrey Robinson writing in The Guardian newspaper in August 1975 wrote: ‘With the benefit of hindsight one must say that it was an act of stupendous courage to have embarked on such a mammoth task as establishing British Leyland as a major international motor car manufacturer, in the full knowledge that this could only be achieved if many of the fundamental aspects of the business, including much of its industrial relations history, could be completely changed within the first few years.
‘For it must be understood that such was British Leyland’s general state of backwardness at the time of the merger in terms of industrial relations, capital investment, product development and penetration of world markets that only through continuous and intensive utilisation of such assets as it had could British Leyland have stood any chance at all against continually intensifying international competition, of making the grade on its own as a private sector company.
‘The merger was completed against a background of mutual suspicion between managers and men, of a plethora of piece work agreements, of overmanning, and of a minefield of jealously guarded differentials… But one thing is quite clear, a reform of, or change from, the piece-work system as it was operating in the first years of the merger became an urgent necessity. Whether this had to involve a full-scale switch from piece-work to measured day work will never be known because no alternative was tried.
‘As it was the measured day work system was pushed through, by management against union resistance. On the side of management, from Lord Stokes down to junior foreman there is a strong feeling that they were let down by the unions on the reform of the payments system and more generally. On the unions side, the contention is that management would not act on their proposals for achieving continuous production, increased productivity, and earnings via a reform of the piece-work system. Instead, according to the unions ‘measured day work’ was pressed ahead in spite of their total resistance and with the therefore, for them, predictable consequences……
The ramifications of Measured Day Work
Geoffrey Robinson (above left) added: ‘Whatever researchers may eventually conclude about the responsibility for the British Leyland industrial relations failure, there can be no doubt about the outcome in the short term of the move to measured day work. The results were catastrophic: the introduction of measured day work provoked lengthy strikes, and resulted in reduced effort for a hefty hike in basic rates. Not even the principle of “measurement” was unequivocally obtained by management, and that was what it was supposed to be about.
‘In reality it was a move to day work, without measurement, but less work for more money. It was a policy that could only pay off in the long-term. But British Leyland could not survive to enjoy it. For, having failed to get production really going in the first five years, which included the critical boom years of 1971-73, British Leyland’s financial position was deteriorating to the point of no repair…
‘That a profit ranging from £30 millions to £50 millions was made in some years was quite inadequate to the real requirements of the company which needed to build up to a positive cash flow of £100 millions to £150 millions in the boom years, if it was to stand any chance of achieving the necessary level of capital investment and of establishing the reserves that every prudent businessman knows his company must have for a rainy day. Money of that order could have been generated internally only with the fullest cooperation of the work force in terms of sustaining in all British Leyland’s vulnerably interrelated operations, continuous working and increasing productivity. And this was not achieved.’
Profits and loss
Thus, if Geoffrey Robinson’s analysis was correct, British Leyland needed to make a minimum £100 million profit just to stay in business – on that basis, the 1972/73 profit per vehicle benchmark of £45.35 meant the company needed to produce and sell 2.2 million vehicles per year or cut costs to the point where each vehicle sold made on average £86 profit. That was not going to happen.
Curiously, Ford of Britain did achieve an £87 profit per vehicle in 1973, but the previous year this figure had only been £56 when they had produced 11 per cent more vehicles. But then Ford could rely on its regular customers, the fleet buyers, to come back for more, regardless of how good the cars were.
Lord Stokes himself later said: ‘We ran out of money. We were building a new factory for Rover which was over £100 million and we had a cash flow crisis. All our overseas markets suddenly dried up. But I think the Government, and Benn in particular, was determined to get British Leyland nationalised. The only way they would give us any extra facilities was by taking the company over. All we wanted – though we probably would have needed more than that – was £200 million. If they had left it to private enterprise, desperation would have driven us into effective economies. But they just poured money in.’
Interestingly, the cost of the Rover SD1 plant when completed was quoted at £31 million in 1976.
John Barber’s view
John Barber was in no doubt that the events of 1974 were driven by Tony Benn’s ideological zeal and Sir Don Ryder ‘knew what the Government and particularly Tony Benn wanted… a big nationalised volume car company… and that’s what he gave them on paper.’
With British Leyland shares at rock bottom it seemed a good deal as well.
Tony Benn himself was in no doubt where the fault lay. In a speech in April 1975, after the publication of the Ryder Report, he said: ‘Attempts to blame workers for the state of the company are superficial, offensive, and do not merit serious consideration. The real fault is a chronic lack of investment over many years. The Ryder Report has identified this lack in the manufacturing industry as having brought one of Britain’s greatest firms almost to its knees.
‘The choice now is to pull out of the British motor industry involving directly 160,000 jobs and affecting nearly a million jobs altogether— or to undertake a major re-equipment programme involving public ownership and a major advance in industrial democracy.’
The Labour Party’s view
In the space of seven years Anthony Wedgwood Benn, the neutral Minister of Technology had made the journey left to become Tony Benn (above), the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who received minutes of the British Leyland (Motor Corporation Combined) Trade Union Committee (BLTUC) meetings and addressed at least one such gathering in April 1975. The Secretary of State was well aware that the BLTUC wanted Lord Stokes and John Barber to be fired and replaced by executives more compliant to their wishes.
Tony Benn promised the Shop Stewards that BLMC would pass into state ownership and that they would have a hand in corporate decision-making. Whether such unilateral statements came to the attention of the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, who counted Lord Stokes as a personal friend, is not known, but in the June 1975 cabinet reshuffle the author of the Labour Party’s industrial strategy found himself demoted to Secretary of State for Energy while the man he replaced, one Eric Varley, was promoted to take Benn’s place. With this ministerial game of musical chairs the notion of trade union representation on the British Leyland Board died.
As future Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn wrote in 2014: ‘I worked at the Engineering Union in the early 1970s and Tony came to our offices to seek support for his industrial strategy because he felt he was being obstructed by the dead hand of officialdom in Whitehall. He encouraged us to produce a blueprint for workers’ control of British Leyland. Sadly, he was moved on from his ministerial position before this bold move could take place.’
It is only with the passing of time that we can see that Tony Benn envisaged British Leyland as a blueprint for the Britain he wanted to come to pass, with large state-owned corporations with worker Directors, maintaining full employment regardless of cost to the taxpayer.
Tony Benn passed on to his successor a poisoned chalice, with many within British Leyland now believing they now had a job for life in a worker’s paradise. Eric Varley and the new British Leyland management would have a hard job convincing them otherwise. The removal of Tony Benn from his post at least gave the new British Leyland management a fighting chance of running the company on a commercial basis without the BLTUC having a hotline to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.
Ryder Report ramifications
In 1975, the All-Party Commons Trade and Industry Sub-Committee investigated the British motor industry and the Ryder Report. Its chairman, Patrick Duffy, Labour MP for Sheffield, Attercliffe, said: ‘We were struck by evidence from the Department of Industry which suggested they were not unprepared for the Ryder Report and its recommendations.’
This backed up the contemporary press reports, no doubt based on insider information, that the Department of Trade and Industry had spent much of 1974 preparing to take over British Leyland.
As stated above, British Leyland’s financial collapse was down to the Three-Day Week, but motoring historians have tended to lump in its request for Government aid with all the management mistakes made as far back as the Austin and Morris merger as one and the same thing. There is always a need for a scapegoat. The Three-Day Week burned through British Leyland’s cash reserves and the company ran out of time to rectify the mistakes of the past.
Without the Three-Day Week BLMC would have survived a few more years as an independent concern, how many more years though is open to conjecture. Geoffrey Robinson, writing in 1975, said: ‘I remember during my period as Financial Controller 1971-72 proposing that an approach should be made on the grounds that if things continued as they had since the merger, and there were no signs of a change, recourse to the Government would be inevitable. Many senior people at that time unfortunately may have thought my views more motivated by political considerations than financial judgement. As it was British Leyland aided by a rights issue and the world boom in car sales struggled on for another four years. The crunch came all right, accelerated, but not caused by, the oil crisis and inflation.’
After Lord Stokes was elevated to the honorary role of President of British Leyland, Prime Minister Harold Wilson said: ‘I would join in paying tribute to what Lord Stokes has achieved over the years. I believe, and I take my share of the responsibility, that the merger with BMH did not, as it turned out, prove to be successful because the price paid was much higher than justified by the out turn of the BMH component. Lord Stokes has been a great leader of the firm and particularly been successful in his overseas visits and ambassadorship not only for Leyland, but British industry and exports. I am happy to feel he will be willing to consider continuing as an honorary President of the company, specialising on overseas visits and an ambassadorial role.’
So, was it the finances or the products?
Analysis of British Leyland’s problems in 1975 tended to focus on the finances not the products, yet it was the quality of the new generation of vehicles emerging, authorised by the Stokes’ era management, that would decide the company’s fate. The inference was that, if the existing BMC cars had been costed properly, and the Austin-Morris management more adequate, then the profits would have rolled in.
No in depth analysis at the time commented on the declining sales of the Mini and ADO16/67 range, the core BMC products that had pushed a parochial British manufacturer into the premier league for a brief period, even though the worldwide sales data available to observers indicated so. The British Leyland mantra that the company could sell all it could make until the Energy Crisis and the root of the problem was down to poor BMC management was swallowed hook, line and sinker by the media. The notion that the new generation of British Leyland cars were not good enough to take on Europe’s best was not taken on board.
As related in this series of articles, the notion that BMC did not cost its products as well as Ford’s British operation does not stand up to close scrutiny. After inflation is taken into account, British Leyland’s profit per vehicle produced was actually going backwards, despite the influx of bean counters from Ford. The company had gone woefully over budget with the Marina and its redevelopment of Cowley, and it had invested £25 million in the ADO67 Allegro programme for no tangible gain. In addition to this, it was developing the new PE146/166 six-cylinder engine for its forthcoming Rover SD1 range, when it already had a plethora of suitable and reliable engines available, which the PE146/166 was not. A new factory was being built to produce up to 150,000 of the new Rover a year, which only ever utilised 36 per cent of this capacity and cost another £31 million,
Cost cutting kicks in
BLMC was a company cutting costs where it interfaced with the customer, but spending money like water when it had no need to. Meanwhile, it had already dawned on the American-owned companies operating in Britain that the UK market was too small for them to continue to adopt a go-it-alone approach to model development with escalating costs. Some degree of platform sharing was needed with their continental-based counterparts. The Mk3 Ford Cortina/Taunus already embodied this, as did the forthcoming Mk2 Escort and Vauxhall Cavalier Mk1/Opel Ascona.
But how did Lord Stokes and his management team perform?
In 1968, British Leyland held a 40.6 per cent share of the UK car market, which meant it sold around 448,167 cars. In booming 1973 it held a 31.9 per cent share of a larger market, which meant it sold 530,062 cars. In 1974, BLMC sold 414,850 cars in Britain when its share was 32.7 per cent in a reduced market, courtesy of the Energy Crisis, but still larger than that of 1968. It appears the deficit of around 33,000 cars came courtesy of the Specialist Car Division, in other words the sales of Austin-Morris were holding up well, in Britain at least, with Marina sales offsetting the decline of the ADO16/67 and Mini. Geoffrey Robinson apportioned blame onto the Truck and Bus and Specialist Car Divisions for making inadequate profits in his 1975 Guardian article, suggesting that not all of British Leyland’s problems could be attributed to the former BMC part.
The blame culture within the firm
In truth, although each division blamed the others for the collapse, no one within British Leyland really knew from an accounting point of view which part of it was under-performing.
Lord Stokes and his team had performed an impossible job in trying to bring the former BMC into the 1970s. One of the major tasks had been to replace piecework with Measured Day Work, which had taken five years to accomplish and which was probably five years longer than the armchair pundits thought it would take.
So, what do I think went wrong?
The concept of a national vehicle manufacturer to take on the world was torpedoed from the outset by the BLTUC’s steadfast opposition to rationalisation of the company’s scattered plants. This meant any potential savings that could be redirected for much needed investment was nullified from the outset. Lord Stokes, perhaps correctly, calculated that any attempt at a brutal rationalisation would result in industrial action that would bring BLMC to its knees, much as the ‘Three-Day Week’ did in early 1974.
The whole issue of rationalisation was left on the back burner until the arrival of Michael Edwardes. Stokes and the Ryder Report era management deluded themselves that the overmanning problem could be dealt with by increasing sales, particularly once it became apparent that Britain would join the Common Market in 1973. John Barber’s notion that he could reduce British Leyland’s workforce by natural wastage was a bit of a lost cause. Moreover, his later claim that he reduced the BLMC head count by 30,000 by a policy of not hiring is not born out by statistics. According to figures supplied to Parliament in February 1975, in 1969 BLMC employed 196,400 people, 199,500 in 1970, 193,700 in 1971, 190,800 in 1972, 204,100 in 1973 and 207,800 in 1974.
Far from reducing the headcount, it had actually increased by 5.8 per cent in five years. It appears that, after the grim year of 1970, BLMC had managed to shed labour, but in response to the ‘Barber Boom’ had begun hiring again to ramp up production. Once demand slumped by 23.6 per cent in 1974, thanks to the ‘mutuality’ agreements now in place, BLMC was unable to reduce its labour force but, in fact, it increased by 3700. In the 1971/72 financial year BLMC had produced 5.88 vehicles per employee, in 1973/1974 this figure was down to 4.73. John Barber’s claim to have shed 30,000 jobs was all part of the blame game, to deflect criticism of the Stokes’ era management.
BMC have often been slated for not properly rationalising its production facilities on its formation in 1952, but one suspects that the same shop floor opposition that Lord Stokes and his team later encountered was reason for this supposed inaction. British Leyland carried the millstone of its excess labour force for a decade.
The new model programme was a total shambles. Lord Stokes and his team had no comprehension that they had inherited the future of the family car in the BMC model range and failed to build on it. BMC already had a trained Product Planner in place in the form of Roy Haynes with a proven track record. However, he was soon elbowed aside by Harry Webster, who it appears assumed both the roles of Austin-Morris Technical Director and de-facto senior Product Planner, just like Alec Issigonis had been at BMC.
Harry Webster believed he could design better cars than his predecessor and that all-new models was what the market wanted – and had the ear of both Lord Stokes and George Turnbull. Despite being under-capitalised, the possibility of using the existing ADO16 and Maxi platforms as the basis for a new generation of cheap-to-develop models was not entertained. All-new meant better, and never mind the investment costs. However, unlike at Standard-Triumph, Webster and his team had to accept the input of the new Cost Controllers and Product Planners recruited by John Barber from Ford with a fleet car, UK-market-only mindset, and who focussed on making the next generation of Austin-Morris cars cheaper to manufacture by degrading their engineering integrity.
Because John Barber had been involved in the Cortina and the cost analysis of the Mini by Ford, his opinion counted for a great deal. All this ignored the fact that the opposition was not standing still, and was focussing on improving on the Issigonis formula. Whereas the Mini, 1100/1300 and 1800/2200 cars were, from an engineering point of view, the best BMC could do at the time, the same could not be said of the Marina, Allegro and 18-22/Princess. The management remit to the Design Teams was to excise the robustness and design flair on cost grounds. As a consequence of all the cost cutting, the new generation of Austin-Morris cars suffered from biblical unreliability which sent the sales figures into a terminal dive.
They were simply not good enough for the 1970s and better cars were available from rival manufacturers. Austin-Morris’ Product Planning was totally inept, failing to predict the demand for front-wheel-drive hatchback cars in the 1970s. Product Planning as such tended to rely on what was selling well at the time, rather than any in-depth market research into future trends. One can surmise that one of the reasons the Allegro and Princess did not have hatchbacks was because the Austin Maxi flopped and the best-selling Ford Escort and Cortina did not have this feature, suggesting there was no demand for hatchback cars.
The popularity of European hatchback cars must have come as a rude surprise to all the clever people in Austin-Morris and Ford of Britain. Like the Ford Bobcat/Fiesta, the decision to embark on the ADO74 supermini project (below) smacked of a kneejerk reaction to the Fiat 127 and Renault 5, rather than any detailed analysis of future trends. A consequence of all this is that, from 1975, when its plants were working normally, Austin-Morris was producing the wrong type of car. This was one of the things British Leyland had been created to rectify.
The migration from piecework to Measured Day Work was botched leading to a 25 per cent drop in productivity, because there was no incentive scheme to replace it. The unions had extracted a high price for the end of piecework. ‘Mutuality’ agreements meant that the management could not introduce more modern work practices, such as those used in Japan, without the agreement of the unions, and in their view an agreement was something that had to be stuck to regardless of what was happening in the world outside.
In some plants a quota system operated where employees produced the work required of them and then went home early instead of working to the end of their shift. These obstacles to improved productivity would be left to Michael Edwardes and his lieutenants to deal with.The ‘mutuality’ agreement affected production in other ways as Paddy O’Reilly, the Superintendent in charge of building Allegro bodies recalled: ”If a gang on the track under piecework found themselves a man short through sickness they just worked that much harder and shared his money. On Measured Day Work they wouldn’t even start work.’
Workers would insist on having the agreed number of men for a given task before starting work. A sickness relief man would have to be found to fill the void. Everything would have to be done by the letter of the ‘mutuality’ agreement. In this way the BLTUC could maintain employment at the company’s plants.
Hence, in the place of the piecework rate dispute came the manning and grading dispute. By 1974 BLMC were producing less cars with more employees.
The political and industrial climate of the time mitigated against British Leyland succeeding. A generation after the end of the Second World War, a conflict many people felt Britain had won – often conveniently forgetting the contribution and sacrifices of its allies – many ordinary working people were demanding a greater share of the pie. They had endured post-War austerity and voted for the promises of a new Jerusalem that had failed to materialise.
Alone of the major European car producing nations, Britain had not been invaded, occupied and fought over and had its class divisions destroyed by war. And while many Britons decried the lack of wartime-type unity in peacetime, the period before the First World War had been characterised by serious labour disputes of an epidemic proportion, whilst one of the best known inter-war events was the General Strike of 1926.
Wartime unity was the exception, industrial strife was the norm for most of the 20th century. The British motor industry had become completely unionised after 1945 as workers sought protection against summary dismissal when times were slack. And there were slack times when the same politicians who exhorted the industry to expand, then inflicted one of their periodic credit squeezes on the industry. Employees would find themselves working flat out to meet demand one week, and then would be cast out into the dole queue the next.
Workers became jaded and trust broke down between the shop floor and management as employees were treated as pawns in the game of economic regulation. With memories of the Depression still fresh, workers would resist changes to working practices and the introduction of new technology which were invariably labour-saving. They believed in the right to work and the concept of a job for life.
They were not prepared to suffer a perceived loss of earnings in order to enrich wealthy shareholders. And while managers objected to the degree of union control of the shop floor, it was a consequence of the post-War settlement in British society. Unions were there to protect workers from exploitation. Poverty and unemployment were meant to be things of the past.This was working-class solidarity. Rightly or wrongly, many people in Britain believed the world owed the country a living for standing up alone to fascism in 1940 – that this sacrifice justified an easy ride in the world.
Then there were the often dirty and squalid conditions which many workers had to endure, forcing them into the arms of militant trade unions, while management regarded better employee health, safety and amenities as an unnecessary extra cost in the same way as they looked on exotic suspensions and quality materials. British Leyland could afford to lavish hospitality in exotic locations on influential journalists, but not on workforce amenities.
The claims of Lord Stokes and his ilk that, by striking for better pay and conditions, they would be forfeiting Britain’s industrial heritage seemed like nonsense at the time. It was a recipe for conflict as attitudes in an insular Britain remained stuck in 1945 while the rest of the world had moved on. The notion that great chunks of the British motor industry would disappear in the next decade against a background of record car sales seemed unimaginable.
And for some activists the intervention of the Government in December 1974 was not a tragedy, but something that should have occurred a lot earlier.
The rationalisation of the BMC dealer network resulted in many disenfranchised Austin-Morris dealers taking on franchises for European and Japanese competitors and taking their loyal customers with them.
As Graham Turner remarked: ‘The company tried to behave as though it were a British General Motors, with operations in just about every market in the world.’
The European view
A further analysis of the news archives suggests that, once it became apparent in early 1972 that Britain would be joining the Common Market after all, British Leyland embarked on a programme of buying out its European partners Innocenti and Authi and expanding Seneffe. In addition, it announced in May 1973 that it would be building a new integrated factory on a green field site.
This, in hindsight, looks like a dash for growth funded by borrowing in the belief that the new European markets opening for British Leyland would suck in Austin-Morris cars in large numbers. One can surmise that individual Austin-Morris manufacturing facilities would become one model plants. Cowley would produce the Marina/ADO77, Longbridge the Allegro and the new greenfield site plant would produce a supermini. All these plants would produce kits to be despatched to Innocenti, Authi and Seneffe for assembly for the European market.
Recapping, in June 1972 Lord Stokes had said at Seneffe: ‘Already we are selling 250,000 cars a year in continental Europe and we are going to try to reach 500,000 cars a year by 1975.’
In trying to finance all this British Leyland overstretched itself and, when the double whammy of the Energy Crisis and the Three-Day Week hit, the banks pulled the plug. All this expansion was based on the fantasy that there was a pent up demand for Austin-Morris cars in Europe, which would be available at a more competitive price from 1973. As related earlier, BMC car production had risen 68 per cent between 1959 and 1965. British Leyland not only believed it could maintain this kind of market penetration, but go one step further.
The problem with all this was that by 1973 the Austin-Morris range was no longer class-leading.
So, what of the Austin-Morris range in early 1975? Despite our 21st century view of the Mini as a British icon, it was not always so. In 1975, the hyper-critical CAR magazine tested the Mini 1000 and was not impressed: ‘The Mini is an embarrassment. It is painfully out of date in just about every respect except price, but will continue to find adherents regardless; it may not be a good car anymore, but it is a convenient one that the vast majority understand. What also has to be remembered is that the Mini was rushed into production in 1959 as an antidote to the rash of bubble cars on Britain’s roads. As a consequence it lacked the refinement of the later Issigonis front-wheel-drive cars, with its glaring external seams as one sign of its design crudity.
The problem with the Mini
The decision to defer replacing the Mini in favour of other models was now coming home to roost. The deep-rooted conviction amongst senior management that the car was a loss-maker had prevented any improvements from reaching production. There was no attempt to improve the basic Mini’s rust resistance, refinement or fit a hatchback.
The P53 Innocenti 90/120 was rejected for UK production because of its poor space efficiency. By Charles Griffin’s required packaging standards the Innocenti was way off. Whether it could have been lengthened to solve these problems, or the Bertone design adapted for the longer van/estate floorpan is another matter. The British Leyland Product Planners and Cost Controllers believed the 90/120 was more expensive to produce, although thanks to the wily Geoffrey Robinson, they did not have access to the relevant data.
The conviction that spending millions more on a new car which was theoretically cheaper to produce in Mini-type volume held sway, hence the decision to proceed with the ADO88 project. The problem with this was that it would be 1978 at the earliest before the ADO88 (below) would reach the showrooms. So the Mini would have to continue until it was nineteen-years old and under increasing pressure from a whole host of younger rivals, including the yet-to-be launched Ford Bobcat/Fiesta and Volkswagen Polo. It was not a question of whether the ADO88 would be good enough when it finally arrived, but whether Austin-Morris could persuade its defecting customers to return to the fold.
How to deal with the Mini
The British Leyland management viewed the Mini as an unprofitable millstone that was hindering Austin-Morris’s finances, rather than the most successful British car ever produced, and a brand worth perpetuating. It was the same cost-obsessed management that sold the Mini at its lowest ever price, after taking into account inflation, in 1973 – if the Mini really was losing money, then they only had themselves to blame. In real terms the retail cost of the Mini would not exceed its launch price until 1978 when Michael Edwardes and Ray Horrocks were in charge.
British Leyland’s squandering of BMC’s legacy continued with the next car up in its range, the ADO67 Austin Allegro. Between 1971 and 1974 combined ADO16/Allegro UK sales collapsed by 48 per cent.
In 1971, the ADO16 topped the charts one final time with 10.4 per cent of the market. In 1974, the combined ADO16/Allegro share of the British market was a mere 5.4 per cent. For a car that was meant to top the British sales charts with an eight to ten per cent market share and spearhead Austin-Morris’s assault into Europe, this was nothing short of catastrophic. In 1969, British Leyland had produced 6500 ADO16s a week. It had been hoped to produce 4000 Allegros a week by early 1974 – in the event, Longbridge production peaked at 2500 a week and, by May 1975, had been reduced to 2000 a week.
With Longbridge not working to full capacity, any notion of the Allegro becoming British Leyland’s world car became redundant and any concept of its continental subsidiaries producing it to feed European demand became superfluous. The capital that British Leyland used, or perhaps borrowed, to buy Innocenti and Authi therefore went to waste, and both were disposed of in 1975. The Allegro had represented an investment of £25 million, of which £16 million had been spent at Longbridge on extending and modernising production facilities. This is £287 million in today’s money, and all it had achieved was to lose around 70,000 sales annually in the UK alone.
The new reality
Annual ADO16/67 production had declined in three years by 41 percent. Although the loss of 70,000 UK sales may seem a drop in the ocean for a company that produced 738,503 cars in the 1973/74 period, it amounted to 9 per cent of what British Leyland actually produced and 5.5 per cent of 1974’s UK car market. Another damning statistic is that in 1971 BLMC held a 40.2 per cent UK market share and by 1974 this was down to 32.7 per cent, and it is difficult not to pin most of this 7.5 per cent market share loss on the Allegro.
With the Allegro, British Leyland kissed goodbye to any hopes of being a major player in the European car market. The void was filled by the Volkswagen Golf which by 1975 was being produced at a rate of 10,000 a week. Some 19,000 were sold in the UK that year. Volkswagen Audi Group even recruited Michael Heelas from British Leyland to head up its UK operations in 1975.
The success of the Golf indicated the kind of demand there was for this type of car, a market sector pioneered by the Morris 1100 of 1962. The Golf Mk1 went on to sell 6.8 million examples, ten times that of the Allegro, mostly during the 1974 to 1983 period, and demonstrated that there was a viable alternative to the cut-price engineering techniques utilised by the American-owned giants. This was a market that should have been there for the taking by the BMC ADO16’s successor. The Allegro was the archetypal car designed by committee, its failure was cataclysmic.
The Austin Maxi problem
Then there was the Austin Maxi. After a bad start, UK sales in 1971 amounted to 3.33 per cent of the market, 3.29 per cent in 1972 and 3.18 per cent in 1973. However’ its market penetration in 1974 dipped to 2.84 per cent, suggesting that perhaps potential customers were defecting to the Allegro, which offered the same E-Series engine in a cheaper package, although lacking the Maxi’s awesome load carrying ability. The same trend continued into 1975 when market share dipped further to 2.25 per cent. The Maxi was a marketing disaster because the fleet buyers instantly dismissed the model because it had front-wheel drive. As a concept it was brilliant, it just came along at the wrong time. It is only with hindsight that the Maxi has been damned as a failure, a car that should never have reached the showrooms – it was, though, a brave attempt at building a more advanced car than the Ford Cortina.
It was only in the early 1980s that General Motors was able to sell the front-wheel-drive Vauxhall Cavalier Mk2 to the fleet buyers because they were worried about resale values of the Ford Sierra, their default choice, because of its then controversial body shape. Well, that and some favourable discounts…
Now we come to the ADO17 Landcrab and its ADO71 18-22/Princess successor.
Fleet car issues
With hindsight, the original BMC 1800 was a mistake, despite winning the 1965 European Car of the Year award. The UK fleet buyers did not want it and trade tariffs meant it cost as much as a BMW 1800 in the Common Market. Despite this, British Leyland decided to re-enforce failure by replacing it with the wedge-shaped ADO71, this time designed to a cost. If the original BMC 1800 was meant to be Alec Issigonis’s take on the Citroën DS minus the style, then the ADO71 was intended to rectify this. The ADO71 was an unnecessary gamble that absorbed precious funds in the naive belief that Filmer Paradise and his Sales Team could succeed where BMC had failed.
If the ADO17 launch had been blighted by a mix up over dipsticks, that of the ADO71/18-22 was even worse, thanks to serious design issues that should never have been inflicted on consumers. Everything about the ADO71 was botched, from concept to production. Although Austin-Morris employed Product Planners, the model programme seems to have become muddled by this stage. Instead of rationalising and consolidating its range by pulling the Maxi from production – it was six-years old in 1975 – and replacing both it and the existing ADO17 with a hatchback ADO71 18-22 Series, the Maxi was allowed to linger on until 1981. This product overlap was mutually self-defeating. Maybe the ADO71 looked more stylish, but the Maxi was more flexible. Both cars were even made in the same factory.
The demand for a car more upmarket than the Cortina was answered in 1972 by the new Ford Granada, with engines ranging from 2.0 to 3.0-litres and rear-wheel drive. It had all the marketing avenues covered and, in the years ahead, would slay wedge-shaped opposition from Austin-Morris and Ferrari Daytona-like Rovers.
Whither the Morris Marina?
Now we come to the ADO28 Morris Marina. When pundits criticised BMC for ignoring market research, what they really meant was that the company should have produced a simple rear-wheel-drive fleet car. And on the surface the ADO28 Marina was the one tangible improvement that British Leyland made to the old BMC. In 1973, it was Britain’s second best-selling car with 115,041 units sold, while in the 1972/73 year Cowley churned out 201,724 of them. But behind the gloss lurked another story. The car was woefully over budget. Originally costed at £17 million, by March 1970 this had ballooned to £35 million and by launch this had increased further to £45 million, an increase of 264 per cent! Much of this extra expense went on gutting Cowley. On top of this Cowley productivity dropped by 25 per cent with the abolition of piecework and its replacement by Measured Day Work. This rendered all the various calculations discussed by senior management and the ex-Ford Cost Controllers transfused into Austin-Morris null and void.
Moreover, although Harry Webster was nominally in charge of design, the real shots were called by the Cost Controllers who were only interested in the theoretical cost of manufacture, and theory was all it was. The money men were not interested in re-using existing components with known costs if it exceeded their theoretical manufacturing costs of a new untried component. All this was pure conjecture which bore no relation to the eventual Measured Day Work reality. This mindset was brought into sharp focus by the refusal, by the powers that be, to sanction enlarging the ADO28 transmission tunnel on cost grounds to take the BMC B-Series engine transmission and also killed any ideas that the ADO28 platform could form the basis of more sporting derivatives and generate more income from the initial investment.
Sales projections were as off the mark as the budget, with talk in 1971 of getting 10 per cent of the UK market and a weekly production rate of 5000. As it turned out the best market penetration the Marina achieved was 6.9 per cent in 1973, during the ‘Barber Boom’ when production at one stage reached 5500 a week. By early 1974, production was back down to 4250 a week and the Marina began a gentle decline from then on.
How do you solve a problem like Marina?
The Marina, like the Mini, had been rushed into production, but it lacked the smaller car’s staying power. It was, of course, a terrible car, one of a generation of truly awful British fleet cars designed to satisfy the whims of faceless corporate buyers and represented a regression in automotive technology that enabled European and Japanese cars to gain a foothold in the 1970s British market as private buyers looked for something that would satisfy their individual needs.
And because the ADO28 had been designed to a price, it could not compete with more robust conventional cars like the Toyota Corolla and Peugeot 504 in overseas markets, particularly the former empire territories. Even the market leader, the Ford Cortina, after 1969 wilted against the oriental competition and, of the British made fleet cars, it was the best of a pretty poor bunch. Indeed, so focused was the British motor industry on satisfying the demands of the fleet buyers that no conscious effort was made after 1969 to combat the threat of the Toyota Corolla in world markets. In 1974, the Toyota Corolla became the world’s best-=selling car. Peugeot with its 504 model demonstrated that it was possible for a European manufacturer to export cars to the developing world in spite of the Japanese tidal wave engulfing the global car market. But the 504 cost more than a Cortina, because it was better engineered.
Although the Marina was a stopgap, Austin-Morris did not start work on a properly engineered replacement, the ADO77, until 1973, prioritising the lower volume ADO71, which as related earlier, could hardly be regarded as a priority.
The issue with the ADO77
Had work begun on the ADO77 sooner, it could have arrived on the market place before the Marina had lost too much ground. The belief that there was a profit to be had in chasing after fleet sales was all embracing.
Despite the projections of the marketing men, the Hillman Avenger, Morris Marina and Vauxhall Viva were engaged in an internecine struggle for the crumbs left on the table after the Cortina Mk3 had had the lion’s share of the fleet market. The basic problem with the Morris Marina was that it was a stopgap that by the end of 1974 had shot its bolt. The Morris Marina fell between two stools: it was neither a convincing Cortina rival, which was the fleet buyers default choice, nor was it robust enough to respond to the Japanese threat in the former Empire territories – in short, it was a wasted opportunity.
The British motor industry’s obsession with fleet cars led to the neglect of the needs of the private buyer. As the Common Market nations did not have the company car system, the motor industries of its original member nations focused on cars for private buyers. When Britain joined the Common Market in 1973, the nation’s car buyers were able to go on a shopping spree that brought an almost total collapse of UK car production by 1980.
In the shadow of the Austin Metro
That was the year of the launch of the Austin Metro, the first Austin-Morris hatchback since the Maxi of 1969. By then it was all too late. In a nutshell, the Austin-Morris range in early 1975 was simply not good enough to compete on the European stage.
The window of opportunity for a successful conquest of Europe had been closed by France’s rejection of Britain’s application to join the Common Market in 1963. When Britain eventually joined in 1973, Austin-Morris had been surpassed in technology terms, its products were designed to be cheaper to manufacture, rather than superior to the opposition and were built by a disgruntled workforce. And what is more, to compete in Europe the drawbridge had been lowered. Cars could be exported tariff free, but they could also be imported tariff free….
In the space of a decade BMC/Austin-Morris had gone from automotive pacesetters to sitting on the sidelines watching the big European manufacturers exploiting the demand for front-wheel-drive cars while its own inept management had tried to turn it into a third-rate Ford clone.
What of Lord Stokes?
Now we come to the personalities involved in Austin-Morris during this period beginning with the Chairman of British Leyland himself, Lord Stokes. When trawling through the newspaper articles, one gets the impression that Stokes was just a figurehead, who publicly spoke up for British Leyland, whilst the real business of deciding Austin-Morris policy was left to others. The only time that Stokes comes across as being firm about anything is over the ending of agreements with consultants such as John Cooper.
Roy Haynes described him as ‘a fairly pompous individual’ who did not understand the machinations and complexities of the volume car business.
In fairness, Stokes came from a truck and bus background and knew little of volume cars. Lord Stokes comes across as a vocal but weak leader who was prodded by the likes of Lewis Whyte, Jack Plane and John Barber into taking on British Motor Holdings, but once in control he became reliant on others to formulate policy. And there was plenty of advice both inside and outside of the company, not all of it was actually possible in the circumstances prevailing.
Both during and after his time in charge of British Leyland, Lord Stokes would repeat the same mantra about BMC not having any models in the pipeline and being bereft of top line management and distanced himself from any policy that went pear-shaped. As related earlier he said of the Morris Marina: ‘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.’
This statement reveals a lack of management grip of spiralling development costs, of not knowing when or if to pull the plug on the ADO28 and start again. In hindsight, Stokes only became the Chairman of the Leyland Motor Corporation in 1967 by default because his only rival, Stanley Markland, had quit after falling out with the then Chairman, Sir Henry Spurrier, in 1963.
Lord Stokes was simply a case of public image over substance, and his public image was the creation of Keith Hopkins, his own personal spin doctor, with whom he continued to do business with into the 1990s.
And John Barber?
The man who became the number two to Lord Stokes did not enter the picture until December 1967 when he joined Leyland from AEI. As such he was not one of the STI triumvirate of Stokes, Turnbull and Webster but, as one of the financial wizards behind the creation of the original Ford Cortina, he soon began to have a crucial influence on future model policy.
Credited by Lord Stokes as the only genuine car enthusiast on the BLMC Board, John Barber came across in interviews as the only one on the financial pulse of British Leyland, constantly warning of impending fiscal armageddon if the company did not produce more vehicles.
He later argued that all British Leyland needed at the end of 1974 was a loan of £100 million and that would have seen it through its financial crisis. The problem with this argument was that it relied not just on a cessation of the crippling strikes afflicting the company, but on it building vehicles that consumers wanted to buy.
The minutes of the BMC/Austin-Morris Board suggest that John Barber was really the power behind the throne, whose background in finance at Ford and involvement in the original Ford Cortina, meant his opinion counted for a lot and went relatively unquestioned.
In the long term, John Barber’s background in cost control at Ford was to have a corrosive effect on the integrity of not just Austin-Morris engineering, but that of Rover-Triumph as well. Cost Controllers and Product Planners were imported from Ford with an insular domestic market focus that majored on satisfying the big fleet buyers.
Instead of designing vehicles with reasonable cost control, British Leyland cars were designed with strict cost controls, with the cheapest material or component being substituted for the most durable. Instead of the inadequately tested but over-engineered Issigonis era cars came vehicles that were fragile because they employed cut-price components and low-cost materials that were not up to the wear and tear of everyday use.
All the major problems of the Issigonis cars could be rectified quite easily without a major redesign, but the only way to improve the Austin-Morris era vehicles was often to use the more durable components and materials that had been excised at the design stage, which nullified the whole object of the exercise in the first place. John Barber’s poisonous legacy to not just Austin-Morris but BLMC as a whole was a range of cars designed to a price that lacked durability and reliability as standard.
Moreover, while Rover-Triumph and Jaguar blamed Austin-Morris for the collapse of British Leyland in December 1974, their own new fiscally-challenged models were in the pipeline. The Triumph TR7 and Rover SD1 were developed using cost control methods never before employed by either company, with predictably disastrous results. The whole outcome of all this was to alienate customers, and weaken British Leyland’s UK market share to the benefit of Ford, which then made even more profit and therefore looked even more omnipotent to analysts and historians in its marketing and engineering know how.
The ex-Ford Cost Controllers who BLMC employed seemed to be of the opinion that anything not designed the Dagenham way could not possibly be profitable. Yet plenty of other European manufacturers were selling large numbers of cars, many conventionally engineered, very profitably without the penny pinching methods employed by Ford. Of all the big European manufacturers, British Leyland was the only one who took up the cudgels and challenged Ford head on in the race to the bottom. Instead of responding to the threat from Japan by building more reliable cars, British Leyland did the exact opposite. One can understand why Sir William Lyons and his successors at Jaguar fought to keep the Coventry concern’s engineering independent of the rest of British Leyland.
However, on the continent the drift to front-wheel drive continued with European manufacturers appearing to adopt the Harriman/Issigonis doctrine that the only way to combat Ford’s impeccable cost control was to adopt high technology and engineering integrity. It is a matter of historical fact that the likes of Fiat, Peugeot, Renault and Volkswagen did not go out of business…
British Leyland built terrible cars because designing out the quality on cost grounds was part of the design brief. That was John Barber’s legacy, which might have had its place in pre-Common Market Britain, but in the post-1973 market, the consumer had far more choice and they went for it. John Barber readily gave interviews to writers seeking an explanation for the collapse of the British-owned motor industry, but he was far more culpable than many of the other personalities who have subsequently been vilified.
And George Turnbull?
Of all the major players in this period, the man who actually ran Austin-Morris from November 1968 to September 1973 emerges with the most credit. The former Triumph General Manager had the unenviable task of trying to get the existing product out of the factories and into the showrooms at a time when worsening inflation meant that piecework rates were always up for renegotiation and a new wage structure was being introduced across Austin-Morris in the face of considerable opposition.
That George Turnbull managed this was a testament to his skills as a patient diplomat. All this was achieved against an insane background of class war when, as Lord Stokes remarked in 1970, the whole issue of regulation of industrial disputes was brushed under the carpet as dealing with it was considered too politically divisive.
Whatever the analysts and pundits said and wrote in 1967 and 1968, the problems of BMC did not take five weeks or even five months to fix. The migration from piecework to Measured Day Work took a full five years to be implemented across Austin-Morris – even the most pessimistic observer could not have predicted that. Moreover, Austin Morris was made to pay upfront for the change-over in its wage system which was flawed because it did not incorporate any form of bonus scheme to maintain productivity.
Ford and Vauxhall had had years for Measured Day Work to bed in, Austin-Morris introduced it at a time of industrial strife, escalating development costs and tougher overseas competition and, as a consequence, it failed to provide any immediate benefits.
George Turnbull also found that any attempts to shed labour were met with fierce resistance by the BLTUC. Instead, he had had to transfer workers made surplus to requirements by plant closures to other duties, which partially explains why British Leyland’s head count went up instead of down.
Against this background of stagnation, inertia, opposition and disruption, it is surprising that anything was achieved at all. That George Turnbull quit in September 1973 after British Leyland’s most successful financial year was, in hindsight, not surprising – it was an impossible job done.
If British Leyland was to succeed, then its volume car division needed products to sell. Enter Harry Webster of Standard-Triumph. The belief that Alec Issigonis had lost his magic touch was widespread within British Leyland. In 1967 even the Mini and ADO16 seemed to be in terminal decline. It was felt that new ideas were needed.
What qualified Harry Webster for the job? As Standard-Triumph’s Technical Director, he had overseen a whole series of profitable cars that had enabled the Canley-based firm to punch above its weight. Although Leyland had been appalled by what they had found at Standard-Triumph when they took it over in 1961, Harry Webster, along with George Turnbull and Keith Hopkins, had impressed, and not only retained their posts but became increasingly influential in dictating future policy.
Standard-Triumph’s success prior to 1968, meant that Sir Donald Stokes came to rely on its management for advice on car manufacturing. However, beneath the facade of apparent success at Standard-Triumph lay some more sobering facts. In the 1964/65 period, Standard-Triumph produced a mere 16.68 per cent of BMC’s total car output. STI was a minnow in comparison. Apart from the Triumph 1300 and 2000 models, much of STI’s output was of separate chassis models such as the Herald and its derivatives and the long-running TR series.
One-time STI Managing Director Alick Dick had realised that, in order to survive the company, had to move upmarket and sell sportscars to the USA. It would also give the company some financial cushion against a domestic credit squeeze. This policy had been successfully realised by 1968.
STI were also aided by the ineptitude of Ford of Britain with its misjudged Zephyr/Zodiac Mk4 executive saloon, which created a sales vacuum for the Triumph 2000. However, STI’s own take on the volume family saloon car was the less than sparkling Triumph Herald. Although fondly remembered, technically it lagged behind rivals such as the Ford Anglia, let alone the BMC Mini and ADO16 series.
At STI Harry Webster oversaw simple but solid engineering, but his greatest contribution was the recruitment of Giovanni Michelotti of Turin to style Standard-Triumph’s offerings, giving the public Coventry mechanicals masked over with Turin panache. This, the, was the man parachuted into BMC to replace Alec Issigonis. Sadly, Webster’s reign at Austin-Morris was less than satisfactory and, like the other divisions of British Leyland, the new generation of vehicles were designed with cost constraints which affected engineering integrity.
Reading Barney Sharratt’s excellent book, ‘Men and Motors of the Austin’, one gets the impression that Harry Webster was an abrasive character who was determined to assert his authority over BMC Engineers who had been loyal to Alec Issigonis. He also clashed with Roy Haynes over the issue of future product policy and returned the styling studio to Longbridge from Pressed Steel at Cowley.
Whether the accounts in ‘Men and Motors of the Austin’ are accurate or just plain one-sided is not known, but the descriptions are less than flattering of a man as dogmatic in his control of Longbridge engineering as his predecessor, but without the charm. If BMC product policy was shaped by the duo of Harriman and Issigonis, then that of Austin-Morris was decided by the trio of Stokes, Turnbull and Webster. Harry Webster knew he had the support of his fellow former Triumph colleagues come what may. Whatever the truth, the Webster/Michelotti magic that had brought success at Standard-Triumph was not reproduced at Austin-Morris.
Part of the problem of Austin-Morris in this period was that the company seems to have formulated its model policy around the ludicrous sales projections of Filmer Paradise and his marketing men. These were that the Marina would achieve a UK market penetration of ten per cent and the Allegro would achieve an eight to ten per cent share. In 1974, the combined actual sales of the two models was 142,063, a market share of 11.19 per cent. An 18 per cent share of 1974’s 1.26 million market was 228,357. Austin-Morris was therefore missing its sales targets by 86,294 cars.
British Leyland seems to have borrowed to the hilt to fund a massive expansion into Europe where it expected to sell copious quantities of cars. Yes, the European market did expand, but, no, it did not want British Leyland cars.
It appears that Filmer Paradise was a well-liked man and that possibly prevented his colleagues questioning his judgement, and indeed George Turnbull later re-employed him at Talbot in the 1980s.
The finances of British Leyland as a whole appeared to be based on extremely fragile marketing projections that bore no resemblance to reality or the actual customer appeal of its products. One unforeseen blip, the Three-Day Week, and it all came crashing down in December 1974.
So did Leyland save BMC?
The answer has to be a resounding no. However, because Sir George Harriman declined to put his side of the story on record, the agenda in the story of the collapse of British Leyland was set by Lord Stokes and John Barber. The mantra that BMC had no new models in the pipeline – apart from the Maxi – and was running out of money became accepted as fact. BMC did have facelifted models in the pipeline, courtesy of Roy Haynes.
The hatchback Mini Clubman and the revised ADO16, codenamed ADO22, would surely have bolstered BMC’s sales to see it into the early 1970s, with minimal outlay, when they could have been replaced by all-new models. Had BMC really been running out of money, this would have entailed discussions with their bankers. No records have emerged of any such meetings between BMC and their bankers. When British Leyland was running out of money in the summer of 1974, the press soon got whiff of it.
What actually happened is that British Leyland let the Mini – arguably the greatest ever British car – wither on the vine, replaced the ADO16 1100/1300 series with the made-to-a-price Allegro and surrendered BMC’s technical leadership and sales to a new generation of European front-wheel-drive cars.
The Morris Marina was a ghastly botched concoction that sat between two stools: it was not good enough to gain conquest sales from the Cortina nor was it robust enough to regain the lost markets outside Europe. Lord Stokes, prodded by John Barber, tried to turn BMC into an unconvincing third-rate Ford clone, which, despite all the PR, failed to win over Ford customers and because the Marina, Allegro and 18-22/Princess were all made with the cheapest components, they alienated potential customers with terrible build quality and reliability issues. This was the range that Leyland Cars inherited in 1975 and tried to sell to an increasingly unimpressed public.
British Leyland was an organisation that was penetrated and destroyed from within. I am not referring to militant left-wing activists dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism, but to the various finance men and cost analysts who were recruited from 1968. Their mission was to degrade the engineering of all British Leyland cars, beginning with the ADO28 Marina, and never mind the consequences. And because many of them had been recruited by John Barber when he was at Ford, their opinion overruled that of the Engineers. The proof of the pudding is that the most highly regarded cars produced by British Leyland in its lifespan tend to be those models that were not subject to brutal cost control: Mini, ADO16, MGB, Rover P6, Range Rover, Triumph Spitfire, etc.
The Stokes’ era management wrongly diagnosed BMC’s problems as a consequence of Ford’s cost analysis of the Mini in 1960, and sealed the fate of the British-owned motor industry. British Leyland looked on the Mini as a disaster not to be perpetuated. The number of MINIs on the roads today is a testament to how wrong that was.
Perhaps we should leave the last word to the late Jack Daniels, who until the BMH-Leyland merger was in charge of the BMC design cell at Longbridge responsible for the Mini. He told Miniworld magazine: ‘BMC was accepted as the finest motor engineering set-up anywhere – mostly the Morris section. Excellent until Lord Stokes buggered the whole place up.’