History : The Road to Perdition – Part Two

In Part Two of this fascinating series, which originally appeared in Vehicle EngineerAROnline Contributor Ian Elliott applies his insider knowledge to the chain of events that started with the launch of the Mini and culminated in downfall of BMC in 1968…


The 1959 Austin Se7en and Morris Mini-Minor: Setting new standards.
The 1959 Austin Se7en and Morris Mini-Minor: Setting new standards.

ASIDE from its basic A-Series engine, Issigonis’ ADO15 Mini, revealed to an astonished world on August 26, 1959, had absolutely no engineering commonality with previous BMC models. It really was an off-the-wall, genuine revolutionary. Despite being seriously under-developed – with several weaknesses that could have been avoided had Issigonis been willing to listen to comment from his staff – the Mini overcame a slow start to become a huge sales success.

The same formula was duly applied to a larger format to create the ADO16 1100, which appeared in 1962. This combined Issigonis packaging, Moulton inter-connected suspension and Farina style to even greater effect, making it the UK’s best seller for much of its life.

Badge engineering played a considerable role in this too, with all of BMC’s car marques applied progressively to ADO16 between 1962 and 1965. At the top end of this array, the Vanden Plas 1100 set a unique benchmark for ‘wood and leather’ luxury in such a small car, and created its own little oasis of profitability.

Extrapolation of the Issigonis transverse engine, front-drive concept further up-range led to a fatal stumble with the 1964 ADO17 ‘1800’. As subsequent experience has proved, there is nothing inherently wrong with the idea of applying the Issigonis template to larger cars. In fact, the rest of the world motor industry has been doing this happily for decades – even to the extent of a Cadillac with a transverse 4.6-litre V8, or a Lancia with a transverse Ferrari V8.

However, the execution of the 1800 was not well-judged. While it was robust, honest and supremely functional, it was again under-developed and this time insufficiently appealing to buyers. BMC was already making very slender profits on its big-selling Mini and 1100 ranges, so the disastrously low sales of the 1800 really set off the train of events that led to the Leyland merger.

Successes

IN areas of BMC that were under less direct Issigonis influence, there were other successes. The 1958 Austin Healey Sprite, which began very much as a Healey project, was an interesting example of a minimum-cost small sports car, its unitary body not even having a boot lid. It was originally styled for ‘pop-up’ headlights, but substitution of cost-saving fixed lights instead gave it the cultish ‘frog-eye’ appeal.

It must have galled the people at Abingdon who assembled the Sprite that an Austin Healey should have resurrected the ‘budget fun’ concept of the original MG Midget. However, in 1961, when the MkII Sprite was introduced with more conventional styling and a boot lid, there was a slightly more upmarket version called the MG Midget (MkI).

Inevitably, the pair were dubbed ‘Spridgets’, and ran together in various forms until 1971, the Midget then continuing alone to 1979. Lifetime sales of more than 300,000, huge for a sports car in that era, suggest that something was right. MG did even better with its own first integral-body sports car, the MG B, launched in 1962, and this was to prove the biggest selling MG of all time. Entirely conventional and straightforward, but stylish, well-balanced and reliable, the MGB hit the spot.

In Roadster and elegant GT forms, it proved very popular in the US, and sold more than half a million in total over 18 years – the world’s first sports car to attain such success. Today, the Spridgets and the MGB are popular classic cars, with better parts support (including Heritage body shells) than many modern cars.

The knitting unravels

IN 1965, BMC did something that really upset the British motor industry apple cart: it bought out Pressed Steel, a key supplier of body shells and body shell engineering not only to BMC but also to many of its rivals. The implications of this event were huge, and it could be argued that this was the point at which the UK car industry knitting really began to unravel.

Almost immediately, Sir William Lyons – keen to protect his sole source of Jaguar bodies, and ironically to fend off possible unwanted takeovers – responded positively to an approach that led to Jaguar joining up with BMC to form British Motor Holdings in 1966.

Although Pressed Steel worked hard to reassure its non-BMC customers that it was ‘business as usual’, most of them began to plan alternative sourcing. Only one ‘outside customer’ was to stay with the Cowley body plant in the long term: Rolls-Royce and Bentley sourced its ‘standard’ steel bodies from there until 1997.

Now, Leyland Motor Corporation, which had already diversified into car production by taking over Standard Triumph in 1960, was a little miffed that Jaguar had chosen BMC – rather than Leyland – as its partner.

Thus Leyland turned its attention towards Rover. For, despite some overlap in the new 2-litre executive car sector created in 1963 by Rover’s and Triumph’s quite different 2000 models, there was otherwise quite a good ‘fit’ between the two companies’ product ranges. And the Land Rover offered a useful complement to Leyland commercial vehicles, especially in export markets.

Even Rover had already been dabbling in the merger game. After an approach from Alvis, Rover had agreed a friendly take-over of Alvis by the summer of 1965.

Military

ALVIS was just squeezing the last drops out of it ageing T-series 3-litre sporting coupé car line – in 1955, the company had taken the decision not to pursue the Issigonis V8, and thus had no replacement car on the stocks. Alvis’s primary products were now the Saracen and Saladin amphibious military vehicles. These sat very comfortably alongside military Land Rovers from Solihull – and indeed for a few years, Rover and Alvis jointly marketed their military hardware, including Rover gas turbine power generators, to armed forces around the world.

Alvis had spare machining capacity that Rover needed, especially for its new GM-derived V8 engine project. So, for once, this proved to be a happy marriage, which might have produced some fascinating offspring, had it not been quickly overwhelmed by even bigger mergers.

Over ambitious

WHEN Leyland Motor Corporation approached Rover towards the end of 1966, Rover’s board was concerned about long-term factors such as the Pressed Steel situation, and it welcomed the apparent security of a larger grouping, which it duly joined in March, 1967.

I stress this because it is often mistakenly claimed that Rover was dragged unwillingly into British Leyland in 1968. Many wish that Rover had maintained its independence in 1967 and thereafter, though there is some doubt that it could have done so for much longer anyway.

It is widely believed that the Land Rover 4×4 business must have been subsidising Rover’s cars for several years – you don’t need to be a vehicle cost analysis expert to realise that high-quality cars like the P4, P5 and even the modern P6 were very expensive to make in relation to their selling prices. Had Donald Stokes been satisfied with simply a Leyland/Rover/Triumph grouping, perhaps there might have been a happier outcome, with a smaller and more manageable company. Unfortunately, as BMC began to look increasingly wobbly, putting really huge numbers of jobs at risk, the temptation to become involved was more than Harold Wilson’s Labour government could resist.

The rather simplistic equation was: Profitable Leyland +Rocky BMC = BMC saved. As should have been obvious, the profits Leyland could generate were scarcely sufficient to sustain its own future investment requirements, let alone those of the much bigger BMC concern.

However, the ambitions of Leyland – or more specifically of Donald Stokes – appeared to prevail over prudence. It also seems that industry minister Tony Benn harboured ambitions of his own for a state-owned motor industry – ambitions that were to be realised rather faster than he perhaps anticipated.

Common enemy

Lord Stokes became the face of British Leyland in 1968...
Lord Stokes became the face of British Leyland in 1968…

IT has often been said, not entirely in jest, that the one good thing to surface from the merger that created the British Leyland Motor Corporation (BLMC) was that it finally brought a halt to the internecine warfare between Longbridge and Cowley. For the former Austin and Morris camps now faced a common enemy in the form of an upstart truck maker from Lancashire.

This business of tribal pride should never be discounted, and it should exist in any worthwhile enterprise, especially in product engineering departments. However, it requires psychological insight of a high order to bring together such teams successfully in the course of a merger.

Whatever qualities Leonard Lord possessed – and no one can gainsay his production engineering expertise, dynamism and decisiveness – psychological subtlety wasn’t one of them. On the contrary, he seemed to enjoy stirring up animosities and rivalries in the constantly bubbling BMC cauldron. Considerable ill-afforded resources were wasted in design ‘competitions’ such as that initiated for the design of the twin-cam engine for the MG A.

After both the Austin and Morris engine teams essayed the task; the lower-cost B Series-based Morris version went into production. Essentially sound but insufficiently developed, it gained a predictable reputation for fragility and was withdrawn before even the MGA Twin Cam initial production sanction was completed.

Had the parallel engineering resources all been channelled into a single engine project, this should have created a successful unit, not only for the MGA, but also for what could have been a genuine Alfa-beating twin-cam ZB Magnette sports saloon, potentially pre-empting the Lotus Cortina by five years.

With the formation of British Leyland, the problems of welding disparate product plans and product engineering teams together became even more complex. It was not the size per se of the new conglomerate that was the problem – plenty of big companies have thrived. It was the fragmented and awkward nature of the mixture that caused the headaches.

22 Comments

  1. Just an aside, nothing to do with the cars, but the picture at the top of the article was taken at a picturesque little place called Allerford. This is just down the road from Porlock in Somerset; and if you went there today, it looks just the same.

  2. It is unfortunate the balance of the production B-Series Twin-Cam engines in the MGA was well below the levels of precision that engineering had recommended as a result of poor quality control.

    Had they been remedied from the outset it would have been quite a sight seeing 2-litre B-Series Twin-Cam reaching similar levels of power as the later 136-138 hp 2-litre M/T-Series some 2 decades earlier, thereby putting it on a more equal footing against both the Alfa Romeo Twin-Cam and Fiat Twin-Cam engines. Found it strange over the years how the later naturally-aspirated 2-litre M/T-Series could not even reach 150 hp or more as was the case with later versions of the Twin-Cam engines from Alfa Romeo and Fiat.

    • A successful B-Series Twin-Cam would have also created an interesting situation for BMC regarding its eventual replacement.

      Option 1 would essentially be an earlier possibly clean-sheet version of the O/M/T-Series (Perkins/L-Series) from the mid-1970s, maybe with some elements that potentially foreshadow the early 8v versions of the Alfa Romeo Twin-Spark by almost a decade (on the basis the earlier Alfa Romeo Twin-Cam provided some inspiration for the B-Series Twin-Cam).

      Option 2 would be a more ideally developed S-Series meets EA827 composite of the E-Series capable of reaching 2-litres.

      Option 3 basically draws upon what Nissan had done with the knowledge it learnt from Austin and the fact for many decades afterwards, many of its engine were said to feature design elements with roots back to Austin, its rough O/M/T-Series equivalents being best exemplified by the Nissan CA and Nissan SR engines as well as the Nissan CD diesel/turbodiesel.

      Beyond the E6 doubt BMC would be thinking of modular engines like Volkswagen, even if the latter were able to utilize the EA827 architecture to develop the narrow-angle transversely mounted VR6 engines. Whereas it appears Nissan did not consider using the CA or SR to spawn 6-cylinder or more variants, apart from the Nissan CD diesel/turbodiesel.

      It seems however BL / Rover did later consider a modular design for Project Storm / Td5 derived from the L-Series for 4/5/6-cylinder versions.

      Question is which option would BMC have been better off following since apart from the extra 10 hp in the 2-litre EA827 16-valve and the greater diversity of variants, there appears to be little in it between an alternate O/M/T-Series(etc) path and a properly developed (S-Series/EA827-like) E-Series path. Not to mention the Nissan CA and Nissan SR pretty much exceeding both in terms of outputs in naturally aspirated forms.

      Even the figures of the 2-litre Turbo engine used in the mk3 Golf A59 prototype virtually match what a 2-litre M/T-Series Turbo (were the latter not limited by Rover’s own PG1 gearbox), not forgetting as well the 2-litre Nissan SR20DET (in tuned form including the Nismo 270R) and Nissan SR20VET.

  3. MG was left to wither away during the seventies and by the end, the cars were outdated and lacking in power. Also to cash strapped British Leyland, sports cars were a luxury and they decided to rationalise production by concentrating solely on the TR7, which was coming good by 1979 and a V8 and convertible option were nearing production. MG just weren’t a viable option to Michael Edwardes, although it is a shame the sale to Aston Martin never went ahead as they had plans to revamp the MGB.

    • Even had it been sold and the towns face-lift gone ahead, Aston went back into trouble and it would probably killed MG for good. Edwards kept hold of the brand, probably because they saw it as something that could be used on the upcoming M cars to compete against the gti golf, and thankfully it worked and we got the f. Shame we didn’t see the rwd v8 or prototype.

    • What-if in a scenario where the Twin-Cam was a success and it (along with the B-Series was enlarged to 2-litres), BMC acquired Rover instead of Jaguar?

      The 145-158+ hp 3.5-litre Rover V8 had it appeared earlier within the BMC stable would have provided a suitable option for the alternate MGC in place of the C-Series, while the alternate MGB makes use of the 100-136 hp 1.6-2-litre Twin-Cam. OTOH both the Twin-Cam and Rover V8 engines would have also potentially been a straightforward fit in the EX234 prototype had it reached production, whilst being smaller compared to both the MGB and MGC.

      Where that leaves leaves the Triumph TR7/TR8/Lynx/Bullet in such a scenario if BL still happens is another matter, however the EX234’s smaller dimensions compared to the former and its conception as a replacement for both the Midget and MGB would have made things significantly easier (since EX234 could have also replaced the Spitfire).

      • In that scenario, leyland probably would have bought Jag, and triumph would have been leyland mass market car targeting BMC and Ford saled. The Stag would probably only had a slant4 two litre, and the TR sharing this engine as not to harm Jag. A junior Jag gt could have been based on the 2000 using a triumph 6 redesign by Heynes and Hassan.

        • It is possible the Stag would have initially featured the Triumph-6 or a Jaguar V12-derived 60-degree V6, with Jaguar in turn and together via further Leyland co-operation with Saab opting to enlarge a properly-developed version of the V8 from its 4-litre limit to 5-litres (in place of the Jaguar V12-derived 60-degree V8).

          Jaguar under Leyland could either retreat from 6-cylinder cars or decide to stick with larger inline-6 engines above 3-litres, while Triumph’s 6-cylinder engines would be 3-litres and possibly utilize a more compact V-layout.

          Things would have been much clearer on the engine front come the 1980s where the engine families are reduced to down two, one being a small 0.75-1.4-litre 3/4-cylinder engine resembling the Rover K-Series (whose design was said to largely be a product of Triumph thinking), the other being essentially production version of the modular 1.6-6-litre 4/6/8/10/12-cylinder engine family that eventually became the Jaguar AJ-V8.

          • Another option could have been a slant 6 based on the v12 for triumph, with the triumph v8 becoming a Jag unit. Never understood why Jag persisted with a wrong angled v8.

          • A V12-derived Slant-6 akin to the AJ6 is an option along with all-alloy short-stroke 24-valve 2.6-3.2/3.5-litre versions of the XK6 (allowing for 1.8-2.0 XK4 units), however the former would equate to a long bonnet making it difficult for Triumph to downsize its large cars unlike a V6 while Triumph invested much in the slant-4 / V8 to ever consider dropping it in favour of an all-alloy short-stroke XK4 (with scope for 16-valves).

            Criticism of the PE146/PE166 and overlap with the Slant-4 aside, a properly-developed 4/6-cylinder engine family would have given them a 1.3-2.0-litre 4-cylinder and 2.0-3.0-litre 6-cylinder without treating on the toes of Jaguar.

            Meanwhile a properly-developed 2500-4000cc Triumph V8 (with more then a few elements from the later Saab V8) further enlarged to 5-litres would have allowed Jaguar to focus on V8 and V12 cars as well as finally drop the XK6. Whilst leaving open the possibly for Jaguar or Triumph to either make use of a V8-derived 90-degree V6 or a V12-derived 60-degree V6.

          • Nate I is was talking about triumph using a slant 6 version of the v12 to replace its larger engines if old lyons would have allowed it, to replace the old triumph 6. However a 60 degree v6 based on the v12 would have probably been a better option, while the triumph v8 being properly developed by the jaguar dream team could have replaced the xk, meaning truimph could have used slant 4 and v6, while Jaguar used v8 and v12 defining the difference between the brands. However I think leyland would have seen triumph been pushed down market to take on Ford/BMC marketplace, with Jaguar concentrating on the prestige end. So we could have seen a tr7 slant 4 16v against a twin cam mg, a triumph slant 4 2000 against a princess, a jaguar junior v8 against a rover P10 slant 4 2.2, the xj v12/v8 against the v8 p8 and a jaguar f type v8/12 against the v8 powered v8

  4. A very interesting article – and it points up ( without really saying it openly ) that the demise of the British owned volume motor industry really can be laid at the feet of two individuals – the irascible and foul mouthed Leonard Lord, who managed to leave ill-feeling behind him wherever he went, and the arrogant Stokes who thought ( and I have first hand knowledge of this as the one-time Finance Director of a BLMC distributor in the 1970s ) he could dismiss customer complaints as coming from people who didn’t matter. Of the two, I think it was Stokes who dealt the fatal blows, but both bear a heavy measure of reponsibility

    • Stokes was an arrogant idiot who thought, in his words, anyone who didn’t buy a British Leyland car was potty, and by the time he left the company, market share was crumbling, exports were drying up, strikes were rampant and quality was going down the drain. Those potty car buyers were increasingly flocking to other marques and in the vital fleet marker, Leyland had totally lost out to Ford and Vauxhall.

    • I think Leonard Lord made the biggest mistake by putting George Harriman in charge. A yes man, he though Alec was God and allowed his technical director to make the land crab different to what the market wanted, with no styling compared to the ado16. He was also the man who wasted millions on a Healey replacement that never was, saddled the Maxi with those doors and spent millions on expanding the UK operations so we could expand into Europe when we joined the EEC, when everyone knew De Gaulle wouldn’t accept it.

  5. The failure of the landcrab was a pivotal moment, as it left a massive hole in their range. It didn’t appeal to those wanting a conventional saloon (such as the Farinas and Ford/Vauxhall competition), but also didn’t have the style to attract those tempted by more exotic European competition.

    If they had sold 150000 a year, at a sensible price so that they made a decent profit, that would have made a big difference to BMC’s viability as an independent entity.

    • It was also the wrong price and size, had it been on a 100″ wheelbase as planned with a 1500 /1600 engine its ado16 looks would have worked better and pitched it into a bigger market. Issue though would have been still BMC’s ability to build it cheap and well enough to turn a profit.

      • Based on Chris Cowins detailed work as used by Ian Nicholls in the Austin Morris story, BMC were making more profit per car than Ford, so a right sized landcrab with the right engines and styling would probably have seen that figure grow.

      • I had also thought that the Landcrab should have set the alarm bells ringing, being too big to replace the mid sized Farinas, too complicated mechanically and / or dull styling for the market sector and a few other issues that should have been sorted before it went into production.

        • The Landcrab was too big with dull styling, however its large engine bay meant it did not need to be mechanically complicated as it was and could have been salvaged in 2-litre B-Series X6 Vanden Plas form as BMC’s entry in the 2-litre segment against Rover and Triumph.

          Even had ADO17 achieved its originally conceived Maxi-like dimensions as well as featured better styling and end-on gearbox, that still potentially leaves a significant gap between it and the 3-litre that would have either needed to have been filled by an enlarged version of the FWD ADO17 or a shrunken version of the RWD 3-litre (or both).

    • The Landcrab always reminded me of a diesel locomotive due to the bulbous styling and large front lights. However, I will defend it as it was a very robust car that I’d probably feel confident in if it crashed, it seemed to resist rust quite well, had a huge interior and a cossetting ride, handled well and was quite reliable after the initial faults were ironed out. Then there was the Wolseley Six that was like a Rolls Royce inside and was a near silent car on the motorway. Yet the locomotive like styling( although the Landcrab looked better from the back), high prices, basic interior on 1800 models, a lack of development and heavy steering at low speed counted against it.

      • What was a shame was that we didn’t get the x6 due to blmc pulling it for Britain. It would have looked right against the Cortina mk2 and Hilman Hunter, and would have had a similar style to the upcoming marina giving a family look. I think the new look plus power assisted steering would have given the car the boost it would have needed, especially when the mk3 cortina up sized and the corsair was dropped.

  6. Could see Triumph being ok with 6-cylinder engines below 3-litres for the Stag, TR7 family and Puma, while if required the Triumph V8 was capable of being reduced to as low as 2.5-litres that would be useful for Jaguar to use as tax-specials variants in certain markets (though it would have needed further reduction to 2-litres if deemed necessary for Italy and possibly equipped with a turbocharger/supercharger similar to the supercharged Rover V8 2-litre V8S used in the TVR S-Series).

    A Slant-4 and 6-cylinder (especially V6) TR7 family could work, yet could see a Triumph Broadside approach being taken with a smaller version to possibly replace the Spitfire akin to a properly designed version of Michelotti’s Reliant Scimitar SS1 (that was said to have been loosely derived IIRC from his own Broadside proposals) with displacements as low as 1.6-litres with outputs of 82-120+ hp NA (whether via Slant-4 or a 4-cylinder version of the PE146).

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