Authi : The full story of British cars from Spain

BMC’s involvement in Spain came about as a result of the company’s desire to crack the market, despite its steep import tariffs.

The way to circumvent these taxes was to produce locally. However, thanks to the Spanish Government’s insistence on a very high local content, BMC set-up a production facilities to produce not only finished cars, but the engines, gearboxes and trim that went into them. Truly, Authi cars were as Spanish as Paella.


Authi: a potted history

What a difference a decade makes. During the 1960s, and in the midst of a sustained expansionary phase, the British Motor Corporation looked overseas to set-up production and distribution facilities in order to find more sales success. Enthusiasts will be intimately familiar with Innocenti and its appealing Minis, but are probably less aware that the same process occurred in Spain under the Authi banner.

To understand why BMC needed to build cars in Spain, and do so by pairing up with a local partner, we have to understand how industry worked there back in the 1960s and what events shaped it. In the run-up to WW2, General Franco seized power in Spain following a long civil war and, throughout the 1940s and early-1950s, the country found itself devastated by the conflict. Thanks to a costly trade embargo with the USA and Europe, it was also in economic isolation.

Rebuilding an industry

However, the country rapidly rebuilt, and following a warming of relations with its former trading partners, Spanish industry began looking at foreign companies to work with. SEAT was set-up by the Spanish Government in 1950, and partnered Fiat for its new car development. For other carmakers wanting to gain access to the rapidly expanding Spanish market, the only way in was to set-up car assembly in the country – Chrysler paired with Barrieros, Renault with FASA, and Land Rover with Santana – as Franco wanted to maintain a policy of partial industrial isolationism.

BMC was late to the party, and when it went into negotiations with a small car component and body panel manufacturer known as NMQ (Nueva Montaña Quijano, SA), SEAT and Renault, particularly, were already well established. But that didn’t stop BMC having ambitious plans for the Spanish market. A deal was struck in June 1965 and, initially, plans to manufacture the BMC 1100 under the name Authi (Automoviles de Turismo Hispano Ingleses) were drawn up.

Spanish aristocrat Marqués de Huidobro, who was already a member of the Board of Directors of NMQ, signed the agreement with BMC Chairman George Harriman to create Authi and became its first President. A new factory was established in a 446,000 square metre plot, in Landaben, near Pamplona, and took a mere 14 months to build.

Anticipated production volumes were high, and the factory itself covered 200,000 square metres at the start of operations in early 1966. In June 1966, the first Spanish-built Morris 1100 was shown to the press. It was the dominant car in that sector of the Spanish market, and BMC executives confidently expected it to give the Renault 8 and Simca 1000, the best-selling mid-range cars in Spain, a hard time. It wasn’t launched by Authi, but by NMQ, which was a bit of a culture shock considering the company’s heritage of component manufacture and low-profile outside of northern Spain.

However, as Authi had yet to be officially set-up, this was the only option. On 30 September, the Morris 1100 production line rolled into action, and cars were soon coming off at the rate of around 100 per day.

Authi is born

Authi officially came into existence on 12 November, set up with a capital investment of 200 million pesetas and registered as a holding company. By January the following year, production was already in full swing with 70% local content, and additional versions of the 1100 were introduced, starting with the sporting MG 1100 (above).

Next up was the Morris Traveller version of the 1100 in January 1968, and production continued to rise. Prices were higher than the immediate competition, but Marqués de Huidobro, had cleverly been selling the 1100 as a prestige car.

The Authi story was beginning to look like a success and, as BMC became British Leyland in 1968, it looked as though Spanish expansion plans would rapidly bear fruit. With the 1100 now well established in Pamplona, Authi turned its attention to developing and launching the Mini. The plan would see Authi taking the battle to the SEAT 600 – the little rear-engined Fiat that was already seen as Spain’s national car.

The Mini joins the 1100 range

On 30 September, the first Mini, the 1275-C, was introduced at a media event at the Jarama racing circuit, going into production the following month. It came with a high level of equipment, such as a dash-mounted rev-counter and bumper-mounted driving lights – both firsts on a factory-produced Mini. The plush interior was nicely finished in leather, with a wood-rimmed steering wheel and a wood dash panel. However, despite the suggestive ‘C’ name it was not as quick as a UK Cooper S, thanks to its single carb 59bhp engine.

The 1275-C was launched alongside the uprated Morris and MG 1300s, both using the same engine. Anticipated production volumes at Pamplona were ramped up to 40,000 – a 10% share of the market.

By now, the Mini was considered a locally-produced car, with just the bodyshell being imported from the UK. The engine and the gearbox were manufactured at NMQ’s own plant at Los Corrales de Buelna, while other important components, such as suspension, windows and smaller components were all produced locally in order to comply with the Government’s protectionist trade policies.

British ownership beckons

Weeks after the Mini officially went on sale in Spain, British Leyland grabbed a larger stake in Authi. In 1969, Spain had the fastest growing car market in Europe and, within its first full year, Authi had already taken 5% of it. BL wanted more though, and anticipating the Mini launch, as well as MG 1300 – both priced at a premium – decided to take a controlling 51% of the shares owned by NMQ.

This represented a mighty 1.4 billion pesetas investment, up from 200 million. The new models rapidly began to roll out from Pamplona. In April 1969, the Morris Mini 1000E and Mini 1000S were launched. The S, for ‘standard’, had a basic spec and a 40bhp engine, while the E had 50bhp, a full-width wooden dashboard, servo-assisted disc brakes and ventilated wheels.

In October, the Mini 1000b special edition was introduced. The ‘b’, incidentally, stood for ‘blanco’, or white. For 1970, the Mini range expanded with the launch of the 850 in February. The Morris name seems to have been phased out too, as the cars began to wear the same badges as UK Mk3 models. Oddly, they initially they had sliding windows, but the launch of the Mk3 shell with its wind-up windows in October (a year after the UK) saw the range adjusted again.

The 850 and 1000 were now available in Normal or ‘Lujo’ (DeLuxe) guise, with both 1000 models sharing the 40bhp power unit. During the same period, list prices were steadily dropped in order to make the Mini more competitive against the SEAT 600.

The 1275-C was discontinued in February 1971, replaced by the cheaper but less luxurious Authi 1275 GT. Like the UK edition it featured side stripes and Rostyle wheels, but with a centre dash binnacle and a round nose front end rather than the Clubman type. A few months later, Minivan production was phased in too.

Industrial strife

In May 1973, British Leyland grabbed pretty much the rest of Authi, taking 98.4% of its shares. It was an audacious move, not least because the British company claimed that the deal for the Spanish operation had cost ‘a little over £4 million’. Expansion was very much in the minds of BL executives, who were already wrestling with a declining market share and poor productivity at its UK plants. At the time of the much-vaunted deal, profits were yet to materialise from Spain, but they were looking forward to that changing.

BL claimed that the aim for Authi was to produce 140,000 cars a year by 1977, of which 50,000 would be for export. But Pamplona was having productivity issues of its own. Just one month after BL took its final stake in Authi, it was required to lock out 1700 workers who refused to resume work after a general strike. This had been the most damaging in a series of smaller stoppages to this point – and further dented the image of the Mini and 1100, which were beginning to earn a reputation for both poor reliability and build quality through an inexperienced and sparse dealer network.

This very damaging strike in the summer of 1973 began when the Motor Iberica tractor factory, which was partially owned by Massey-Ferguson, had sacked 17 Shop Stewards and the rest of the city went out in sympathy – a total of more than 20,000 workers. This was typical of the problems which began to affect the Spanish motor industry as the 1970s progressed.

In October 1973, there was some good news for Spanish Mini fans, though. The Mini Cooper 1300 was introduced in place of the 1275 GT, a welcome return of the famous name which had been lost in the UK since 1971. It looked similar to the Innocenti Cooper, but with UK-type doors and other minor differences.

Soon after, in 1974, the 1000LS replaced the Deluxe. But just as quickly as the success of Authi began to build, major problems at the factory manifested themselves, placing genuine strains on a company that was quickly running into trouble at home.

BLMC tries to build an exit strategy

As 1974 dragged on, and just months after its outright purchase of Authi, British Leyland’s troubles became deeper, and it began to look for an exit strategy from Spain. In July, General Motors expressed an interest in taking over the Authi factory. It offered Authi a guarantee that it would continue car production for a further three years, supply parts for another five, and offered British Leyland the distribution and export contract.

The GM deal needed to be approved by the Spanish Government, which initially backed it, happy in the knowledge that the factory wouldn’t be closed in the medium term – as it would have been by a retreating British Leyland.

However, Ford protested the deal, causing delays to the approval process which dragged on long enough to see British Leyland caught in its own crisis that would result in it being bailed out by the UK Government in December 1974. If that wasn’t bad enough, fire had swept through the Pamplona plant in October 1974, resulting in at least half a billion pesetas’ worth of damage, and forcing at least 1700 workers to lose their jobs temporarily as the factory was crippled and repairs were made.

Of course, rumours and counter-rumours spread about the origin of the fire but, in the end, foul play was never proven. However, the final irrevocable damage had been done to Authi. It had been a miserable year, which had started out so promisingly, but ended up seeing British Leyland’s subsidiary lose 500 million pesetas. Although few were prepared to admit it at the time, it was game over.

BL’s Spanish demise

Production continued as a buyer was sought. Even though GM was keen, the Spanish Government bowed to pressure from Ford (which was about to make a massive investment in Valencia, with its Fiesta factory), and blocked the sale to GM.

In February 1975, Authi filed an application for suspension of payments with the Court in Pamplona, stating that the sale was the Spanish Government’s responsibility.

Three months later, SEAT commenced talks with British Leyland. A deal was wrapped up quickly with Spain’s national maker, which concluded a sale worth 1.1 billion pesetas (about £8.8 million) in July 1975. The deal coincided with the final Authi coming off the line, drawing to a close one of BMC/BL’s most promising might-have-beens. The sale of Authi to SEAT ran concurrently with the move to drop Innocenti in Italy (which was picked up by De Tomaso), leaving BL with just one mainland European production site at Seneffe in Belgium.

Throughout its short existence, Authi had suffered from severe problems with build quality and industrial relations. The Spanish Government stood the losses and brokered a deal with SEAT to ring-fence production (and therefore employment) in the area. Today, Pamplona remains in the ownership of the Volkswagen Group (which acquired SEAT in the late 1980s).

As for the Minis and 1100s, during those eight short years, a number of unique variations were built. The Mini 1275-C and Cooper are particularly desirable, while the saloon-bodied Austin Victoria, based on the Morris 1300, is an appealing car that represents yet another missed opportunity.

In total, 126,567 Authi Minis were built, with the 850 cars the best sellers overall. And Authi? The company went from hero to zero in less than a decade, and it’s impossible not to conclude that this was down to mismanagement on a truly industrial scale.


Authi timeline

June 1965

Agreement signed between Nueva Montaña Quijano and BMC to produce BMC cars in Spain. The first President of Authi, who was also a member of the Board of Directors of Nueva Montaña Quijano, the Marqués de Huidobro and George Harriman signed the agreement. The new factory in Landaben, near Pamplona, took 14 months to build and occupied a plot of 446,000m² of which 200,000m² was the factory at the start of operations

June 1966

The Authi Morris 1100 was first shown to the press by Nueva Montaña Quijano. As can be seen this was even before Authi had been officially set up.

30 September 1966

The Morris 1100 production line started working.

12 November 1966

Authi (Automóviles de Turismo Hispano Ingleses S.A.) is officially set up as a company with a capital of 200 million pesetas.

January 1967

Production of the Morris 1100 was in full swing from this moment onwards and there were regular deliveries of the new car.

September 1967

MG 1100 launched.

1968

Introduction of Morris Traveller.

30 September 1968

First Mini launched in Jarama – the Morris Mini 1275-C. Also announced at the same time were the Morris 1300 and MG 1300, both using the same engine as the Morris Mini 1275-C.

14 April 1969

Morris Mini 1000E and Morris Mini 1000S announced and production starts.

May 1969

Sales start of Morris Mini 1000 E

7 July 1969

BLMC acquires 51% of Authi and the capital of the company goes from the 200 million pesetas to 1,470 million pesetas. Lord Stokes is present at this meeting.

October 1969

Mini 1000b introduced. (The ‘b’ stands for ‘blanco’, meaning white)

February 1970

Introduction of Mini 850 (ADO15 specs)

May 1970

Introduction of Mini 1000, which replaces the Mini 1000E, Mini 1000S and Mini 1000b.

November 1970

Introduction of Mini 850 Normal and de Luxe and Mini 1000 Normal and de Luxe (ADO20 specs, below).

February 1971

Introduction of Mini 1275 GT.

24 April 1971

Mini Van 850 and Mini Van 1000 launched. Introduction of Austin 1300 Traveller.

September 1971

MG 1300 S introduced.

April 1972

Introduction of Austin 1100.

October 1972

Introduction of Austin Victoria (below).

May 1973

BLMC acquires all the shares of Authi (98.4%).

October 1973

Mini Cooper 1300 first shown to the press.

December 1973

Mini Cooper 1300 introduced officially

February 1974

Capital value of Authi is now 2,400 million pesetas. Introduction of Austin de Luxe (The famous lost cause of ADO16).

April 1974

Mini 1000 LS introduced. Replaced the Mini 1000 de Luxe. Warranty of one year or 20,000km introduced for all Authi models and included parts and labour.

July 1974

GM interested in taking over the Authi factory and offers Authi a guarantee that it (GM) will continue production of Authi cars for another three years and guarantee the production and supply and availability of spare parts for Authi cars for the next five years. Leyland would have to take over the importation of BLMC and GM cars into Spain. It also offers Authi 3,600 million pesetas. The Spanish Ministry of Industry is delighted with the idea as this would relieve any social and political tension on the area as the factory would not be closed down and there would not be an resulting unemployment, but Ford protests against it after it had had to spend millions setting up its Almusafes factory and starting from scratch.

9 October 1974

Disastrous fire in Landaben. It’s an accidental fire although rumours go round as to the origin of it. Losses of 500 million pesetas were incurred. 1,700 workers lost their jobs. During this year Authi makes losses of 800 million pesetas.

February 1975

Authi files suspension of payments with the Court in Pamplona as the Spanish Government would not let the GM plan go ahead and Authi claiming that subsequent losses are the Spanish Government’s responsibility.

May 1975

SEAT starts talks with BLMC Europe Directors with a view to acquiring the Landaben factory. Last Authi model rolls off Landaben production line.

July 1975

Agreement announced between SEAT and Authi regarding the purchase by the former of the Landaben factory. Seat is paid around 1.25 billion pesetas, it is thought. SEAT sells the Authi factory in Manresa (which manufactured Authi car seats) to Cometsa, which continues making car seats, but for SEAT. Cometsa pays Seat 150 million pesetas for this factory.

February 1976

Last time Authi models figured in the price lists of car magazines. First Seat 124 rolls out of the newly-refurbished Landaben Seat factory.


The Authi Models

Authi Mini (1968-1975)

The Spanish variation of the Mini was launched in October 1968, as the Morris Mini 1275-C. A wide range of other models followed. There’s a more detailed model breakdown here.

Authi Mini-Cooper (1973-1975)

Although the Authi Mini was available in 1300cc from the beginning, it was not until 1973, that it gained the Cooper moniker.  

ADO16 models and variations

Morris/MG/Austin 1100/1300 (1966-c1972)

The release of the Authi-built ADO16 models in Spain mirrored the order in which the first three marques were launched in the UK, with the Morris version coming first, followed by MG and Austin derivatives. While ostensibly similar to their UK counterparts, some of the Spanish versions featured more luxurious Innocenti-sourced interior trim, and the MkII version of the MG was built in four-door form.  

Austin Victoria 1972-1975

With a little help from Michelotti and Leykor, Authi was able to offer this appealing three-box version of the ADO16.

Austin de Luxe (1974-1975)

A 998cc engine in the ADO16? It was done in Spain, and in some markets it proved something of a minor success in the light of the Allegro’s failure…  

Austin De Luxe

Footnote:

According to Rafael Neira Márquez, these cars were built at Pamplona after the end of BLMC’s involvement there:


left: Seat 124. Right: Seat 131


left: Seat Panda. Right: Lancia Beta HPE


Lancia Beta Coupe


Thanks to Graham Arnold and Declan Berridge for their major contributions to this page…

Keith Adams

9 Comments

  1. An exhaustive and fascinating story! The Spanish civil war was, of course, fought and finished before WW2.
    It has to be said that the evacuation from Bilbao of 4000 Basque children aboard the SS Habana in 1937, despite official government non-intervention, left a strong pro-British feeling in northern Spain (particularly in the Bilbao area where I live), boosted a generation later as the influx of British holidaymakers to the Costas helped swell the tourism sector and the ‘Spanish miracle’.
    My wife’s grandparents bought a Victoria in 1971 (as a replacement for s Morris 1100) t a time when an Austin was an aspirational middle class car and it was on the road for 30 years.

  2. All through that period the philosophy at BMC/BL was “export or bust” and ideally they would have importers assemble knocked-down kits – supplied from the UK – built in overseas factories which therefore needed little investment in tooling and all those build support functions such as QC. The vehicles would be sold in huge numbers and due to their imagined superiority (in believing it was still 1947) would be a financial success in feeding mega-profits into the UK bottom line.

    Financial justification was from the procession of whizz-kids who came and went with rapidity saying “as the labour rate is only a third of the UK rate, this operation must be profitable”. Deeper financial analysis was obtained by guessing costs, volumes and profits on redundant fag packets. Simples.

    At the sharp end, KD kits often arrived at the satellite factories with major components missing or incorrectly supplied, causing hilarity and increasing stocks of unfinished vehicles which inevitably weren’t paid for and stimulating the satellite to increase local supply and in turn incorporate useful improvements. But without an efficient baseline, all honest attempts at success would be thwarted.

    I spent a lot of time negotiating with foreign politicians at all levels who appeared to understand just how tenuous a trans-plant can be, understood the need for local employment, and were very adept at setting (and then increasing periodically) their requirement for local content and local management. When the resultant ill-conceived hybrid started producing, they could smell the rot. At the home plants. negative publicity did not help the reputation of any of our vehicles, or our management.

  3. I wonder why all the industrial unrest broke out in 1973, when Franco was still alive and strikes would have been illegal in Span. However, the old general was to die in 1975 and he could have been losing his grip on the country, which very quickly went from fascism to democracy after Franco, so people weren’t so frightened of going on strike as they would have been in the sixties.
    Whatever people might think of Franco, and he wasn’t the nicest of people, he did have the good sense to keep Spain out of the Second World War after rebuffing Hitler’s demands to join the war and stayed neutral. After the war, he did build up the country’s industrial base and the tourist industry, allowing Spain to become a much more prosperous country than the agrarian backwater it was in the 1930s.

  4. I lived in Spain as a child, with my family, throughout the sixties and early seventies. I well remember the explosion of Minis in Spain–in 850, 1000 and 1275 cc guise. A German friend of the family bought a BRG 1275 Mini in 1970, and she used to drive it fast all along the coast of Malaga province. With my parents I also spent time in an Authi dealership in Malaga in ’70 or ’71, and all three Mini variants were going ’round on display platforms. I well remember seeing big BMC signs everywhere and no Authi ones. My father decided in the end that a Mini was just a bit too small for our family of four. The Spaniards were also building American Dodge Darts and French Simca 1000s under licence in Barreiros factories (not “Barrieros”, Keith). Since the early ’50s they had been building FIATs under licence as SEATs.

    Glenn Aylett: strikes were indeed illegal in Franco’s Spain, but by the late ’60s strikes that were about more pay, to keep up with the obviously increasing cost of living (due mainly to the massive influx of tourism) and NOT POLITICAL (Marxist) in nature, were turned a blind eye to. I can remember that even in my Jesuit religious school during the 1970-71 school year, the “civilian”, non-priest teachers went on strike for a reasonable pay increase. They got it, and no one was arrested or thrown in prison.

  5. Why on with did they use 3 brands, plus Authi, in Spain? Presumably through one dealer network.

    • It sounds like some localised badge engineering. The VDP Princess would have been too expensive and I’d wager the Riley Kestrel and Wolseley variants were ruled out because of pronunciation difficulties – I’m not joking: Pall Mall brand cigarettes sold well in Spain after the fracas of Park Lane, which Spanish smokers found too difficult to ask for at the Estanco!

      • I’ve also heard about Park Lane having to be renamed for the Spanish market.

        British Aerospace named the Harriers made for the Spanish Navy Matadors as it was tricky for them to say!

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