Here, in full, is the giant 10-part story of the British Motor Corporation, from its beginnings, through the strife of British Leyland, the brief success of Rover Group and then the slow lingering death of the 2000s.
Read the ups and downs, take it all in, and draw your own conclusions over what killed our indigenous carmaker, once the world’s fourth largest…
The British Motor Industry may have only gained momentum ten years after that of our continental rivals, but by the time of the great depression in 1929, there were literally hundreds of car producers, big and small dotted across the country. It could be described as a cottage motor industry in many cases, but there were also the manufacturing giants to contend with.
The situation, of course, is never quite as simple as it would first appear because not only were there the large producers, such as Austin, Morris and Hillman, but there was also the presence of Ford, an American company, that decided early on, to use the United Kingdom as a centre of the European operations, opening up a mass-production site for the Model T, in Trafford Park, Manchester. Then there was Vauxhall, which since December 1925 had fallen under the auspices of American ownership: along with Opel in Germany, the company had become centre of European operations for General Motors.
Some Industry analysts would say that the seeds of the collapse of the British car industry could be traced back as far as the 1930s, where there were too many manufacturers, who remained in competition with each other for far too long. It is true to say that this made the British automotive manufacturing situation was somewhat unique in the Motor industry as a whole. In the USA, for instance, many of the volume producers had already been swallowed up to become General Motors, formed in 1913. This meant in the USA, there was not the same number of competing manufacturers as there was in the UK.
This situation in the UK was also distorted somewhat by the fact that the Two largest indigenous companies in the Country, Austin and Morris, were massively suspicious of each other. The rivalry between these two companies is, of course, legendary, but perhaps it was also rather destructive for the UK industry, with Herbert Austin ((above) and William Morris watching each other instead of the competition.
As these were two major companies, both based in the Midlands, both fighting in the same market sectors and both chasing the same customers, it would make sense that they would become obsessed with defeating the other. However, this intense rivalry was further heightened in 1938, when Leonard Lord, William Morris’ number two was poached by Herbert Austin to run his company when old age (he was 72 years old at the time) meant that he began to lose interest in running Longbridge himself.
Below is a list of principal players in this story – One cannot help but notice that out of all the companies that played a role in this story, only Two remained as survivors into the 21st Century: Rover and MG.
The story of Austin cars begins in Longbridge, South Birmingham, just as it continues at the turn of the 21st century, as the only remaining factory in British hands in what was once, a huge and sprawling empire. Herbert Austin had started out in the Motor Industry, working at Wolseley cars, where he quickly became the general manager. In 1905, he resigned from the company, so he could set-up on his own. Production of his first car, the chain-driven 25/30HP, started a year later – this particular car being noteworthy for being well-made, employing a side valve T-head engine and separately cast cylinders.
Production was expanded so that within Three years, Austin offered a full range of 15, 18/24 and 40HP four cylinder models and a 60HP Six. Four of the six cylinder models were entered in the 1908 French Grand Prix, but two of these were crash damaged in practice. Out of the two damaged cars, one good one was salvaged, but it fared badly in the race, suffering from a seizure. The two that were left did go on to finish, crossed the line in 18th and 19th position.
In 1909, a mini car, the single cylinder 7HP model appeared. It was effectively a re-badged Swift, but it was in no doubt the inspiration for the later Austin Seven of 1922. Austin was growing as a car producer, offering this full range of cars, starting at the 7HP, through the odd 15HP model with its cab-over-engine configuration, culminating with the 60HP model, which boasted an engine of almost six-litres.
Production was punctuated by WW1 in 1914, as was life itself. 1919 saw the next change in the Austin manufacturing philosophy where instead of previously, there had been a wide range of cars, catering for a wide range of tastes, he offered just one car – the 3.6-litre Austin 20. Unfortunately, this large, American inspired car failed to sell in any great numbers and along with mounting losses caused by the government decreed West Works Shell factory, led to Austin being placed under receivership in 1920.
In double quick time, Austin produced a smaller, more UK-friendly design, the 1.6-litre Austin Twelve, effectively a scaled down version of the Austin 20. This car did manage to sell and remained in production until 1936, seemingly beginning the love affair that UK Manufacturers seem to have with long production runs.
The car that saved Austin’s bacon, though, was the legendary Seven, launched a year after the Twelve, in 1922. Conceived as a response to the Motorcycle/side-car combinations that Herbert Austin despised so much, but which were proliferating on our roads. He and draftsman Stanley Edge planned the car using the billiard table he possessed at home in order to give it scale. The resulting car was a 696cc (later enlarged to 747cc) open topped four-seater which could most aptly be described as a scaled down replica of a full-sized car.
Needless to say, the Seven was a huge success, helping put the working class on wheels, and it went on to sell 290,000 in a production that continued through to 1939. The companies that would become BMW in Bavaria began car production building the Austin Seven under licence. Nissan’s version of the Austin Seven, however, was a clone of the car – not an agreed venture – and when Herbert Austin inspected one of Nissan’s cars, it was considered just different enough to avoid litigation…
Because of the success of the Seven, Austin re-embarked on his bid to build larger cars, developing and launching a replacement for the ill-fated Austin 20, this time using a 3.4 litre six-cylinder engine, as opposed to the four of its predecessor.
In the run-up to WW2, as well as the larger cars, Austin’s range comprised of the 2.3-litre Austin Sixteen, launched in 1928, the 1125cc Austin Ten, the 1525cc Austin Light 12/4 and the replacement for the Austin Seven, the unoriginally named 900cc Austin Eight.
After WW2, Austin initially built its pre-war models, but quickly produced, its first post-war model, the Austin Sixteen. This was not an entirely new car, comprising of a new-to-Austin overhead valve engine displacing 2199cc, which was fitted to the 1940-vintage Austin Twelve body and chassis.
The genuinely new cars soon began to arrive, though. In 1948, the Princess, the A125 Sheerline, the A70 Hampshire and the 1.2-litre A40 all appeared in quick succession. The Austin A40 Devon, which boasted independent front suspension and a 1.2-lire engine which was considered to be the direct predecessor to the visually similar and long-lived B-Series engine.
1948 also saw the introduction of the Austin A90 Atlantic, a car pitched unashamedly at the US car market. ‘Export or Die’ was the slogan of late-’40s Britain and the A90 was built with just this in mind. It possessed what could be described as Transatlantic styling intended to appeal to the Americans. Needless to say, it did not – and of course, the British did not find it a whole lot appealing either, if only they could buy it anyway. The 2660cc did, however, outlive the car – ending up in the Austin Healey sports car as well as a few in the civilian version of the Austin Champ.
The last cars to be developed Austin, whilst still an independent company were the Metropolitan, Cambridge and the Westminster. Production of the Metropolitan was purely a contract job for Austin (winning out over Standard and Fiat), to assemble the Nash designed car for sale in the USA. Austin had no involvement in the US sales of this car when it was launched in 1954, although they did end up selling the car in Austin form in the UK. The Austin Cambridge and its larger brother, the upmarket Westminster variant that followed a year later were launched after the age-old adversaries of Austin and Morris merged to form the British Motor Corporation in 1952.
Car production for William Morris was an inevitable development for the Oxford based cycle and motor agent. Taking this step was a large one and although this part of England may have been the heartland of car industry, it took Morris until 1913 to start producing his own cars. The first car produced by Morris was the two-seater Oxford model, launched at a cost of £180 incorporating a power train supplied by White and Poppe, displacing 1017cc. This first car comprised of many bought-in parts, supplied by companies that resided in this fertile valley of automotive parts suppliers, but what set this first Morris product was just how well put together it was.
1915 brought the Morris Cowley, again using a bought-in engine, this time coming from the American producer, Continental Motors of Detroit. This was a shrewd move by Morris, who knew that British suppliers were suffering from the fact that they had to slow down car manufacture in order to make way for munitions production. After 1916, however, this loophole was closed when American imports were banned, other than those that were supplying parts for commercial vehicles.
After the First World War, Continental Motors stopped making their red seal engines, so Morris bought the manufacturing rights for the engine and then persuaded the Coventry branch of the French munitions manufacturers, Hotchkiss to build the engine for them.
The Bullnose nickname was inspired by the rounded radiator of the post-war Morris Oxford and Cowley models. These two models did lose popularity in 1920, in the slump that followed the post-war boom. This almost led Morris cars to bankruptcy, but in an act of impeccable timing, the company dropped their prices to follow Ford’s lead in 1921. This act boosted sales to such a degree that the Oxford and Cowley models became the best selling cars in the UK during the 1920s.
The Bullnose models remained in production until 1926, after a production run of over 55,000. Similar cars (still known as Oxford and Cowley) with a less characterful flat nosed design of radiator replaced them. At the same time Morris attempted to move into the export market with the ill-fated 2513cc Morris Empire Oxford, which featured – among other things – a wide track option which would allow the owner to fit flanged wheels to the car, in order to run it on a standard-gauge railway.
Morris also bought the Leon Bollee factory in Le Mans in order to produce Morris-badged cars in France. The cars were called the Morris Leon Bollee, but as a result of poor sales of this car, which bore no resemblance with the home market model, it was withdrawn and the factory closed, in 1931.
Next to come was the six-cylinder Morris in 1928, that drew inspiration from the Wartime Hispano-Suiza aero engines that Wolseley, freshly taken over by Morris the year before, had produced. This engine featured a single overhead camshaft arrangement, which at the time was very advanced, not seen on something as humble as a mass-produced British car before.
Like Austin over in Longbridge, Morris was expanding their range, although in the case of Morris it was downward to meet the challenge of producing a rival to the Austin Seven. This duly arrived in 1929. Named the Morris Minor, the car was powered by an 847cc OHC engine and was priced at the psychologically important price point of any car manufacturer at the time: £100. The engine only lasted a couple of seasons, to be replaced by a side-valve unit (variations of which lived on until at least 1971 when it was still being used as a tank generator unit), but the name of Minor certainly did. Surprisingly perhaps, this car did not sell, but its two rivals had already established themselves an enviable reputation in the baby-car market, so the chances of the Small Morris were damaged by its late entry into the arena (the Ford Model Y would be later however).
Just as Austin had endured a tough few years in the Twenties, so Morris had their hard times in the Thirties. They launched the 1.3-litre Morris 10/4 model in 1933, which like the original Minor of 1929 just did not sell at all well and it was not until 1935, with the launch of the popular 918cc Morris Eight, that the fortunes of the company looked good again. This car, subsequently known as the Series I Model Eight went on to sell over 250,000 copies and as with the Bullnose a decade before, the best selling car of the decade in the UK was a Morris.
Prior to WW2, Morris launched the Series E Model Eight, which built on the successes of its best selling predecessor. Along with this, Morris also offered four versions of the Series II models, ranging from the popular Series M Morris Ten, which boasted unitary construction, through to the 3.5-litre Morris 25.
But as with everyone in Europe, the events of 1939 would overtake car development.
Immediately after WW2, Morris re-started production of the pre-war Morris Eight and Ten models, but the world would only have to wait until 1948 for something new and exciting. Alec Issigonis is a name that will crop up a lot, but for 1948, he engineered the Morris Minor, which was a radical step-forward for the car company and the first British car to sell more than a million units.
Initially the Minor was available with the Side-valve Series E Morris power unit, but following the formation of BMC in 1952, it was made available with an 803cc version of the OHV A-Series engine. The engines were really the least advanced part of the car, because the Issigonis designed car incorporated torsion-bar independent front suspension and rack and pinion steering. Advanced for a British car of its time, it also boasted a low centre of gravity, which was an advantage bestowed on it by its monocoque construction and 14-inch wheels, specifically developed for the car. After Issigonis had designed the Minor, he left Morris to pursue ambitious design projects at Alvis cars.
The consequences of this car were far reaching, because it vaulted Alec Issigonis to the (relative) status of superstardom and it meant that after the formation of BMC, he was encouraged back into the fold by Leonard Lord, to become the overall chief of car design in the Corporation. Certainly, thanks to the success of Issigonis and the fact his Minor was such a successful design, it meant that Morris management were not entirely swamped after the merger. However, with Herbert Austin long since dead it meant that William Morris would be at the head of BMC at the time of its formation, but he soon stepped down as Chairman to become a non-executive President of the company, thus leaving Leonard Lord to call the shots in the Corporation. So it was the Austin side of the partnership that would prove to be the driving force in the new Corporation.
The name of Rover is the oldest of these principal players in the story of the formation of British Leyland, the company having been formed by John Kemp Starley in the mid 1880s to sell cycles. In 1888, the Rover Company built their first safety cycle, but far more significantly, Starley also showed what he claimed to be the first motorised vehicle produced in Coventry, an electric tricycle powered by an Edwell Parker motor. Starley had to ship the cycle over to France in order to prove the cycle’s maximum speed, which he clocked at 8mph, far in excess of the UK speed limit, of 4mph.
Rover’s cycles soon earned an international reputation, but it was not until 1899, that they entered the realm of vehicle production with the construction of a DeDion engined motorised bath chair.
Starley died at young age of 46 in 1901 but the company branched into car production just three years later. Their first car was the 8HP model designed by Edmund Lewis, noteworthy for its use of aluminium in the car’s backbone chassis. The year after, Rover followed this up with the more conventional single-cylinder 6HP model. These Two cars sold so well that Rover soon expanded the range to include two four cylinder models, also designed by Lewis, the Rover 10/12 and Rover 16/20. The 3199cc 16/20 was significant for the company because it went on to win the 1907 Tourist Trophy race.
Bernard Wright designed the next pair of Rovers to appear in 1908, the Rover 12HP and Rover 15HP, which suffered unreliability problems with the engine, due to the deficiency of the lubrication system. Wright pressed on with the next models, to appear in 1911, the 1041cc 8HP and 1882cc 12HP. These two cars used Daimler parts in the construction of their Knight sleeve valve power units.
In the autumn of that year, Rover’s direction changed with the hiring of Owen Clegg as not only the designer of the new 2297cc Rover 12HP, but also as the production organiser at the factory. In no time at all, he had re-arranged production, abandoning the principle of many differing cars made over small production runs. It may have been a 1912 boast of Rover, that they produced an enormous range of vehicles from the cheapest cycle at £6 10s to their most expensive car, at a cool £600, but there were a lot of inefficiencies in offering such a wide choice of vehicles. Due to Clegg’s single-minded changes, Rover became a single vehicle producer in 1913, offering only the Clegg-designed Rover Twelve.
Rover’s first new car to appear after the War ended was the small Rover Eight, which boasted a 998cc flat-twin engine, designed by noted motorcycle designer JY Sangster. The Rover was so diminutive, that it was almost considered to be a cycle-car, but it did go on to sell 17,000 in the four years that it was in production.
After WW1, production of the Twelve had resumed and it would remain in production until 1924. Clegg’s successor updated the car, to produce the Rover Fourteen, which featured the novelty of a four-speed gearbox. At the same time, the more Car-like four cylinder Rover Nine replaced the compact Rover Eight.
Going into the 1930s, Rover was considered to be the producer of middle-class cars, so it would come as a surprise that Rover designed a sub-utility vehicle called the Scarab. This depression busting machine was priced at £85 was a car/motorcycle hybrid, and incorporated some very clever engineering solutions, most noteworthy being its rear-mounted vee-twin engine and clever suspension system, which at the rear incorporated Swing axles. The car was shown in 1931, but never made it into production, even though it won admirers in the industry.
Throughout the 1930s, the company centred on the production of larger cars, carving itself out an enviable image for solidly-engineered middle class cars, which was nurtured by the new manager SW Wilks and his protégée Frank Ward. The results of this conservative thinking arrived in 1937 with the launch of the highly successful Rover Ten, Twelve, Fourteen and Sixteen, which were collectively covered by the P1 (P for Project) label – a Rover naming system that would remain for many years to come. Following the War, Rover continued the production of the P1 cars, but in a thoroughly revised form (now known as the P2 cars) until 1948, when the Rover 60 and 75 models (Rover P3) superseded them to run until 1950.
The now rather conservative company finally blew away the post-war cobwebs with the new range of four and six-cylinder model range, the P4, known as the Cyclops Rover 60, the 75, 80, 90, 100 and 105. These cars defined Rover’s image throughout the 1950s and ’60s and it was the Bank Manager image of solidity that these cars seemed to possess that BMW called on in the late-1990s when they produced their modern incarnation of the Rover 75. These cars and their descendants proved to be very popular with Rover’s customers – a group of people that the company’s management must have know extremely well – and as a result, enjoyed a remarkably long production run, which finally stopped in 1964.
During the time Rover were producing their P4 range of cars, they made some advances in the field of Jet Engine application in motor cars, with the development of the Rover JET 1 of 1951, which was successfully tested up to 152mph on Belgian roads. The company worked on this form of propulsion all the way through to the early Sixties, when they showed their last jet powered car, the front wheel drive Rover T4, which formed the basis of the David Bache designed Rover 2000. The P6 always intended to use a gas turbine power unit, if it could have been made suitable for production but, alas, it would prove to be a task beyond Rover – and just about everyone else.
The concept may have been an evolutionary dead-end, but there were some benefits of the gas turbine project, not least the bringing to the fore of Spen King – a gifted engineer that we will hear about more throughout the course of this website.
Rover also launched the P5, an upmarket model, which expanded the P4’s image for solidness, employing the newly uprated inline 3-litre six cylinder engine. This engine was soon to be replaced by the remarkable ex-Buick aluminium V8 engine, to create the Rover P5B. Rover had bought the production rights for this engine off GM for a song, when aluminium fell out of favour in US Engine production.
The P6 actually incorporated some design compromises in order to accommodate the potential installation of a bulky gas turbine engine, notably in its front suspension design. Needless to say, this innovation never happened. The Rover 2000 also enjoyed a long production run, by now a Rover tradition, and was at the absolute height of its career when Leyland entered into merger talks in 1966.
Cecil Kimber was the General Manager of the Morris Garages in Oxford and in this role, he commissioned six Raworth bodied, two seater convertibles based on the Morris Cowley chassis, of which the first was sold for the princely sum of £300.
It is unclear as to what would constitute the first MG car proper, but it certainly was not the FC-7900, or MG Number One as it was known, which was Cecil Kimber’s first attempt at building a car exclusively for competition use, in 1924. However, it is generally agreed that this car was the first MG sports car.
Kimber’s first car produced in any serious numbers was the 14/28 Super Sport, based on the Morris-Oxford chassis, of which approximately 400 were built. The 14/28 Super Sport was available with either two or four seats and open or closed Salonette coachwork. This model was developed into the 14/40 and lasted until 1928, when it was replaced by the 18/80, which was based around the 2.5-litre OHC engine that was found in the ill-fated Six-cylinder Morris model that never actually made it into production.
The car that brought MG into the big-time, however, was the MG Midget, based around the 847cc Morris Minor, launched in 1929. It was at this time that Kimber moved his operations into the former Pavlova Leather Works in Abingdon; in order to meet his expansion plans for the marque – and to meet demand for the well-received MG Midget.
This M-Type Midget was developed into the 746cc C-Type Racing Midget, capable of 90mph in supercharged form. At the same time as the C-Type was coming into it’s own, MG entered into a very fertile period of its history: The D type (with longer chassis and either open four seat tourer or closed coupe bodies but still with M type Midget running gear). There was no E type, (probably to avoid confusion with ‘EX’ model numbers).
In late-1931 came the F type Magna – with six-cylinder 1271 Wolseley Hornet engine, again with a variety of bodywork, ‘standard’ 2 seat sports or 4 seat open or closed plus a variety of coachbuilt bodies. In 1932 came the J type Midget which set the trend with the ‘classic’ MG shape of double humped scuttle, cutaway doors, ‘slab’ tank hung on the back. It came in open 2 seat (J2) or 4 seat (J1) and a closed ‘Salonette’ style. This model also came with a variety of engine specs as the supercharged racing J3 and later J4 models.
The K type Magnette was also introduced around this time, again with a bewildering variety of engines, chassis lengths, and body types – the K1 was the long wheelbase version with either four-seat open tourer or four-door pillarless saloon and 1087cc six-cylinder engine in either twin carb/crash box (KB) or triple carb/pre-selector box (KA) formats, then later with the 1271cc Magna engine (KD).
The K2 was the shorter chassis variety with 2 seat sports bodywork and twin carb KB engine though a few were fitted with KD engines. At the time the K Magnettes were getting the old F Magna engines, the F type itself was being replaced by the L type Magna, fitted with the KB Magnette unit. The L type came with the additional option of an attractive ‘Continental Coupe’ body style.
In 1933 the K3 Magnette made it’s competition debut – these used supercharged 1100cc engines giving anything up to 124bhp giving 0-75 times of around 14½ seconds and 125mph top speed depending on gearing and state of tune. This won almost everything in it’s class for two years beating all sorts of exotic opposition such as twin OHC Maseratis.
The production car range was rationalised somewhat in ’33 with the J2 being replaced by the P type Midget (same 847cc Minor engine but now with 3 main bearings) The Magna and Magnette ranges were effectively both replaced by the N type Magnette, but still with two chassis lengths and open or closed bodywork with two- or four-seats.
Back on the competition front the J4 was replaced by the Q type with an even bigger supercharger giving up to 146bhp at 7500rpm from 750cc. This gave way to the single seater R type with all independant suspension, to cope with the increasing performance available. However, it was never fully developed as around this time, William Morris gave up his personal stake and sold MG to Morris Motors Ltd. With the withdrawal from racing, the last of the OHC engined cars, the P type Midget and N type Magnette were both updated to PB and NB respectively, before ceasing production in 1936.
In 1933, the Magnette name appeared for the first time, when MG launched the 1100cc supercharged six-cylinder K3 Magnette. This car went on to win the Team prize in its first showing at the Mille Miglia and it the legendary hands of Tazio Nuvolari won the Ulster Tourist Trophy.
As a result of the Morris takeover of MG in 1935, all Works competition activity was ceased so that the company could concentrate on development and sales of the road-going MG range, which now was comprised of the 1935 MG TA Midget, the two-litre MG SA, its 2.6-litre derivative the MG WA and the 1.5-litre MG VA.
After the war, the MG TC (a wider cockpit version of the pre-war MG TA and TB Models) brought the company international success, thanks to the UK Government’s Export or die policy. This policy also brought us the export-only drophead version of the 1250cc MG Y-Type, which normally came in the saloon version in the UK. The Y-Type also came with the advancement of independent front suspension, which found its way on to the 1949 MG TD – another of the successful line of T models that’s roots lay in the pre-war years.
As part of the Nuffield Group (the group of companies that were owned by Morris), MG became part of BMC in 1952 and it was after the merger that MG found its greatest sales success with the 1962 MGB.
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.