History : The Road to Perdition – Part Three

In Part Three of this fascinating series, which originally appeared in Vehicle Engineer, AROnline Contributor Ian Elliott brings us the insider’s perspective on the formation of British Leyland and the subsequent introduction of the Maxi and Marina…

The 1968 Austin Maxi: All the ingredients for world success...
The 1968 Austin Maxi: All the ingredients for world success…

FROM today’s perspective, where every last pundit happily excoriates British Leyland and all its works, it is difficult to remember just how much of a management challenge the new company represented in 1968.

No-one in the world had ever attempted to weld together such a disparate range of different automotive companies in one fell swoop. There were no textbook, no route map, and certainly no fairy godmother – unless you consider Tony Benn, the then Labour Government’s technology minister (1966-70), to fit that description. If there was any guidance at all, it must surely have been the salutary experience of BMC itself, in its not wholly successful 16-year battle to integrate the Austin and Nuffield operations.


IN 1968, because several previous mergers were still settling down, there were not merely two major companies to weld together, but eight: Leyland, BMC, Rover, Triumph, Jaguar, ACV (Associated Commercial Vehicles), Pressed Steel Fisher and Aveling Barford. Many of these had smaller subsidiary companies associated with them, and all had different ways of designing, making and selling their products at home and overseas.

Contrary to the mythology, the people involved were not universally stupid or incompetent – they simply represented a typical cross-section of British people, with the same balance of good and bad attributes that you would find in any large sample. Samples didn’t come much larger than the 200,000-odd employees of the original British Leyland, making everything from Minis to rock crushing plant. And Sir Donald Stokes did not underestimate the task ahead of him and his team.

He is quoted as saying: ‘I had the feeling I had grasped a monster by the tail. How the hell were we going to control it?’ A task force of study teams was set up in March, 1968, and they worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week for six weeks to produce the initial analysis of how to ‘tame the monster’. They concluded that it would take five years to create an integrated corporation.

Viper’s nest

Here, we are primarily concerned with product planning and engineering, but it should be remembered that there were many other demanding matters to grapple with, including a real vipers’ nest of industrial relations across the board. The traditional and deeply ingrained piecework payment systems had created a huge disincentive for even minor product improvements, and the BLMC merger coincided with a really urgent need to reform payment and bargaining systems.

The motor industry did not have a monopoly of absurdly fragmented multi-union pay bargaining, but the very complexity and breadth of its activities meant that it suffered more than most industries from the crippling effects of such archaic nonsense. Most of the first five-year period was to be consumed before more rational systems such as measured day work were in place in all the car factories.

It cannot be over-emphasised that industrial relations problems within BLMC – and at its suppliers, it must be said – were a major drag on product evolution and quality over the first 20 years. Without the strife, new model programmes would have progressed faster and the end products would have been consistently better – there’s no doubt about that.

With more predictable output and better product quality, BLMC might well have been strong enough to weather the crises of the early 1970s. It might have even generated sufficient profit to make at least some of the extra investments that everyone knew were needed. Since the problems of BMC had precipitated the merger, this was seen as the most urgent area for attention.

In the first iteration of the new corporate organisation, BMC was briefly renamed as the ‘Volume Car and Light Commercial Division’, or ‘Austin Morris’ to the outside world. Within a year it became the ‘Austin Morris and Manufacturing Division’.

It was recognised that BMC had mismanaged Alec Issigonis‘ inspiration, in a classic example of the Peter Principle, then a fashionable management theory. In essence this postulated that being good at doing something didn’t necessarily mean that you’d be good at managing it, or vice versa.


The Farina saloons were in dire need of replacement by the mid-1960s
The Farina saloons were in dire need of replacement by the mid-1960s

A FURTHER perceptive theorem of Dr Laurence J Peter was that people tended to be promoted until they reached a job they couldn’t really cope with, and then stayed there.

Issigonis had certainly been given far too much autonomy for BMC’s good. The solution was to bring Harry Webster over from Triumph to head up Austin Morris Product Engineering, and to sideline Issigonis, rather firmly, as a notional ‘forward research director’. Sir Donald Stokes famously declared that BMC’s new model cupboard was bare, aside from the ADO14 – Maxi.

This was a little unfair, because Issigonis and his team were working on very interesting potential replacements for the Mini and the 1100/1300, known collectively as the 9X family (and to be covered later in this series for Vehicle Engineer). They also had an interesting potential niche product known as the Austin Ant – a small 4×4 that anticipated the entire 1970s class of small Japanese four-wheel drive models.

However, in 1968 ADO14 was indeed the only new product that BMC itself regarded as ready for production, although the new Leyland management was not convinced. Originally intended to be called the Austin or Morris 1500, ADO14 was a rather awkward conception that had begun life as a slightly shrunken 1800 – hence the carry-over 1800 doors that severely compromised the styling.

Pininfarina had tried to marry up a short, stubby nose to the long cabin, and came up with a curious ‘beak’ bonnet profile. We now need to divert a little to explain that in its final months as part of BMH, BMC had tried quite hard to rectify its acknowledged failings.


JOE Edwards should ideally have taken over from Leonard Lord, but regrettably fell out with him before this could happen. Edwards had been the head of Pressed Steel at the time of the BMC take-over, and had duly become managing director of BMC.

He understood far better than George Harriman that BMC needed more professional disciplines in its product planning, engineering and cost control. He had therefore recruited a considerable number of highly-trained experts in these fields, many of them from Ford. The often rueful joke around BMH was that no one could get on without a ‘BtF degree’ – Been to Ford.

One of the most significant recruits of 1967 was Roy Haynes, the man behind Ford’s Cortina MkII. Haynes in turn persuaded a virtually complete styling department from Ford to join him at Pressed Steel, Cowley. However, Harriman didn’t want to upset long-time Longbridge stylist Dick Burzi, so he insisted on a bizarre, if short-lived, state of affairs: two independent styling studios for BMC.

Haynes was horrified by ADO14, and would have preferred to can it. However, to the side of the Longbridge East Works, there was a complete new engine factory, known internally as ‘Cofton Hackett’. This was initially devoted to the Maxi E-Series engine, while at Cowley the former Mini production facilities had been re-tooled for ADO14.

It was that very rare thing, a completely new car – aside from the 1800 doors. This meant that there was simply too much investment already committed to stop the car at this stage. Accordingly, Haynes’s styling team attempted to turn the Maxi into a quasi-Cortina, extending the nose a little and squaring everything up as far as they could. Their first efforts on the interior were not too successful.

When Stokes and Webster first saw even the modified Maxi, they also wished that it could be stopped. Stokes described the interior as a ‘hen-coop’ – an allusion to its starkness, not its space, which was in fact outstanding.

Two versions had been worked up – a five-door hatchback, proposed as the Austin version, and a four-door notchback Morris with a boot lid that appeared to have come from a piano.


The ADO17 wasn't without its faults
The ADO17 wasn’t without its faults

THE latter version was rejected in short order, while development engineers did their best to ready the five-door for launch. Their key headache was the five-speed gearbox with a cable remote control shift – a considerable novelty in the late 1960s, but under-engineered. Now, the 1800 had begun life with a cable shift, and once a schoolboy error of hydraulic-locking caused by grease behind the cable ends had been cured, it had worked tolerably well. Incidentally, how many people remember that Ford briefly used cables to operate the column shift fitted to a few early Cortinas? But the Maxi cable shift proved more intransigent, especially in combination with under-specified synchromesh.

The E-Series engine had its moments too. The architecture had been compromised by the projected requirement to mount a six-cylinder version transversely within the ADO17 body while retaining the side-mounted radiator. This led to narrow siamesed bores, limited valve sizes and an odd slight inward tilt of the valve stem tops to package the valves within the cramped overhead camshaft head.

When combined with the traditional Issigonis gearbox-in-the-sump, these E-Series design features produced a very tall unit, something that was to have considerable ramifications subsequently.

Thanks to intensive detail design work by the late Stan Johnson and equally assiduous attention from all of the power unit and vehicle development engineers, the four- and six-cylinder E Series units eventually worked far better than they had any right to. Indeed, the four-cylinder types were to evolve quite usefully for more than 20 years, as we shall see later.

No effort was spared in setting up the new Cofton Hackett factory for E-Series manufacture. A large brand-new building was erected well in advance – in fact, for some months before the transfer lines were installed, it was used as handy covered storage for stocks of slow-selling Austin 1800s.

Teething problems

WHEN the equipment went in, it was state-of-the art machining and assembly automation from companies like Ingersoll and Archdale. Like a lot of new technology, it had teething problems – I spent a few months of my apprenticeship logging the reasons for production stoppages, with the most common cause being limit switch failures.

Oddly, the system was generally more reliable on the night shift, possibly because of lower ambient temperatures. Looking back on all the effort and resource that went into the E-Series, it has to be said that the timing of the BLMC merger was unfortunate in this respect.

A major rationalisation opportunity was lost because BMC and Triumph had each developed brand-new medium-sized engines just before the merger. This was just one of many examples of duplication that was baked into the new company simply by happenstance. Once an expensive investment in a new engine has been made, it tends to become a tail that wags the dog.

Even as the new management was rather apologetically launching the Maxi in April 1969 – with off-the-record hints of ‘not invented here, at least, not by us’ – work was in hand to address the more glaring weaknesses of the car.

Ian Elliott

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