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.


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.


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.

1 Comment

  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.

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