Blog : Why didn’t BMC imitate the Europeans?

Badge-engineering. Good or bad? For BMC, the first extensively badge-engineered model was the Morris Oxford/Austin Cambridge Pininfarina saloon.

The Austin A55. This should have been BMCs only Pininfarina saloon. And it looks so much neater than the A60
The Austin A55. This should have been BMCs only Pininfarina version of this model series. And it looks so much neater than the A60

Comparing the Farina saloons with lookalikes from overseas gives one a good idea of how this policy blurred brand values for Britain’s largest carmaker. The Pininfarina studios were very busy between 1957 and 1961, designing very similar-looking 1.5- to 2.0-litre saloons for Peugeot, Fiat and BMC. Two are with us today, and one most definitely isn’t.

  1. Austin A55 saloon and estate car (BMC added various clones)
  2. Peugeot 404 saloon, convertible and estate car
  3. Fiat 1800 and 2100

So, effectively Pininfarina used the same design treatment for a number of cars – and did again in the 1980s with the Peugeot 405 and Alfa Romeo 164 – but if you’ve struck a winning formula, why not? In the case of the Cambridge, 404 and 1800/2100, there are similarities in style, but there are many differences in execution, too. The variance in approach between the three hits you straight away. Neither Fiat nor Peugeot were ‘carrying’ multiple names like BMC. No Morris, Wolseley, Riley or MG. Why didn’t Leonard Lord and his management team ditch surplus Nuffield brands after the formation of BMC in 1952? Yes, we know about dealer networks and how powerful they were, but why couldn’t they also be merged like the mothership?

The formation of BMC in 1952 was an Austin takeover of Nuffield, after all. The company could have moved MG from Abingdon to Cowley (combining it with Austin Healey), discontinued Morris and Riley, used the Wolseley name for a decently engineered luxury brand and then doubled Austin production by manufacturing at both Longbridge and Cowley.

Seems so logical now, but back then, obviously not.

How it should be done: the zero-quarterlight, badge-engineering-free Peugeot 404
How it should be done: the zero-quarterlight, badge-engineering-free Peugeot 404

Sadly, because the company’s senior management – initially under Leonard Lord – allowed the tail (dealers) to wag the dog (BMC), the badge engineering subculture took hold as a low-cost way of maintaining brands. By making Austin the mass-market name they would have been besieged by unhappy Morris loyalists – that’s the theory anyway. But these people wouldn’t have included the Cowley workforce because production would have been unaffected.

‘…badge engineering subculture took hold as a low-cost way of maintaining brands’

Of course, with the benefit of hindsight we can see exactly where BMC went wrong. If only it had found the courage to ditch surplus brands and concentrate on the Austin range. They only had to look to France and Italy for inspiration. They might still be with us today if hard decisions had been taken in the 1950s.

Of course there is a ready counter-argument to the sins of badge-engineering – and that is the mighty Volkswagen Group today. But although we know that an Audi A1, SEAT Ibiza, Volkswagen Polo and the next Skoda Fabia are all pretty much the same thing under the skin, they look different enough for their customers to see them as entirely different cars. Honestly, how many people really know that they’re the same under the skin?

Whereas, trying to kid a customer that an Austin 1100 was different to a Morris 1100 was naive at best.

Fiat 1800. Fussy, heavily stylised, but you have to admit it looks Mediterranean. Also appears a little different to the BMC and Peugeot Farina variants
Fiat 1800. Fussy, heavily stylised, but you have to admit it looks Mediterranean. Also appears a little different to the BMC and Peugeot Farina variants
Keith Adams
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36 Comments

  1. Pininfarina?; You missed one/two the A99 and A110 range, with the Wolseley equivalents.
    The trouble with sticking to just one badge is one of image. Hence why the following main stream manufactures have also got up market brands. Toyota, Citroen, VW to name a few. Then there was the example of Ford purchasing Jaguar, because the blue oval does not work on larger/luxurious cars. GM purchased Saab because teh Blitz did not work on larger/luxurious cars either.
    I do appropriate that neither Ford or GM could make their purchases work for them. However they are good exaples of why bmc/BL should have kept with a brand related to luxury and the other for every day cars. Maybe one for sporting aspirations too.
    What BMC/BL did not do was reduce to just three brands, and never kept a consistency in the range name. The mini, Princess, 1100/1300 ranges are good examples of this. Eventually the Metro/Maestro/Montego range went the same way. With the later they kept the Rover name running for cars which one could price compare with some of the 3M range.
    This brings me to my conclusion. It was not the number of brands being used but just how the ranges overlapped with pricing. Even if mechanically these internal competitors were different. Like the Marina and Dolomite; Triumph 2000 and Rover 2000, plus, for a few years, the Princess range.
    Utter madness.

    PS Pininfarina at the same time the BMC Farina/404/A110/Fiat were around somehow the company managed to also design other production cars which were not made from this mould.

  2. Why didn’t BMC imitate the Europeans? Because we are British and we know best – and every time EVERY TIME we are proved to be catastrophically wrong! BMC withered on the vine as a cottage industry sticking bits of chrome on obsolete Hondas – look at the power house VW and PSA are by comparison. They might be a bunch of cheese eating monkey huns, but when it comes to behaving in a sane, rationale manner they run rings round us.

    • You obviously haven’t studied PSA accounts lately when you describe them as a powerhouse . They make very interesting reading. Incidentally, when did you last see a new Peugeot in the UK ? And as for VW, by the time they pay the fines over the emissions debacle…….and the damages in the class actions which are coming………………..

      • I see new Peugeots every day, everywhere. In fact I’ve just come back from a holiday in Scotland where we hired a 19 registered 308 and pretty good it was too.

        What a strange comment!

  3. When I was a small child and knew nothing about the inner workings of the car industry, I can clearly remember wondering WHY a Morris Oxford looked so much like an Austin Cambridge…and that they were essentially the same car. Ditto for Austin Minis with a different grille…with Morris badges. Even Rolls Royces with slightly less opulent Bentley grilles and badges did not escape my attention in my pre-teen years. All I can say is that the child I used to be in the sixties, instinctively DID NOT LIKE this state of affairs. Why not? Because it cheapened the concept of brand distinction, company individuality, and brand loyalty. As an adult well into the 21st Century I will defer to those childhood feelings that were not based on any concrete knowledge, I don’t think I have changed my mind.

    • The Mini was never an Austin. The Mini was a Morris. The Mini was first built at Cowley. The Austin version was the Se7en……I know,rubbish isn’t it?

  4. BMC copied the Americans – Chrysler in particular used the same bodies and engines with different grilles and badges for their different brands. We had a Plymouth Savoy when I was a kid, Dodge and De Soto had variants of the same body in their ranges. Ford had Mercury and Lincoln, e.g. Ford Pinto and Mercury Bobcat. GM had Chevy Monza, Pontiac Sunbird, Buick Skyhawk, Oldsmobile Starfire.

  5. The British motor industry in the 1950s was not given to radical thinking. Companies had enjoyed a secure export market in Commonwealth countries, and there was not much history of competition from imports. You only have to read motor magazines of the era to sense the level of complacency. By the time the ghastly realisation had come upon everyone, that the continental Europeans and then the Japanese were starting to run rings round us, it was probably too late. By then the structure of the industry was a mess, and the trade unions were digging their own graves.

    One thing that strikes one is the unsuitability of the British products for export markets. Too low-geared for long-distance continental motoring, too flimsy for the rough-and-tumble of developing markets. Endless complaints about the unavailability of spares. And bizarre thinking. Who in their right mind would buy a Triumph Renown? What was the point of the ‘Singer Chamois’? How did you pronounce the bloody name? Why would any German in their right mind buy a Morris Marina? When you look back on the 1950s-1970s, it is pretty hard to find models that you can really say were internationally competitive, in terms of design, performance and build quality.

    • My feeling as well, it was a situation that just about worked when the British industry had more or less a monopoly at home & in most Commonwealth countries, but as soon as they started to have serious competition their market share started sliding.

  6. The other problem with the Oxford/Cambridge family was that compared to the Peugeot is it’s scaling. The BMC variants used the underpinnings of the previous model, which meant they looked to narrow and the design therefore looked top heavy, compared to the slightly wider Peugeot which looks just about right. I have never seen the Fiat in the flesh (who outside of Italy has!) but it does look a bit fussy in the pic. I think the best looking variant of the car was the Vanden Plas, which looked better proportioned with the smaller fins.
    I do agree that BMC were looking to America with the same car with different badges – it was what Nuffield had started, and Rootes used as well. VW tried this in the 70s with Audi and VW looking too similar (Audi 70 / Polo differences anyone?), but once they used a different body people saw Audi more upmarket and went from being seen below Mercedes and BMW to an equal.

    BMC should have merged Austin Morris together, either as Austin-Morris or as BMC (as proposed on the Pininfarina creation based on the landcrab in the 60s), with either Riley or Wolsely being used as a luxury brand (my preference would be Riley but I have a soft spot for them) and MG as it’s sports cars brand.

  7. I still rather like the look of the Peugeot & Fiat versions. I remember having a Corgi model of the Fiat (lilac with a purple roof). Also in the late 60’s on a trip to Edinburgh I recall visiting an Austin dealer (Carneys?) and getting a brochure on the A60 Cambridge. In those days the pictures of the cars were artists water colour style… not photographs

  8. Peugeot 404 looked, and still looks, so much better, and with better engines too. Lovely clean and unfussy lines. Tough as boots and it’s successor, the 504 proved strong and competent.

  9. Possible they should have stuck with Austin for black cabs, Morris for vans & lorries, MG for sports cars, Triumph as the budget brand and Rover for the upmarket luxury brand..

  10. Turning the clock forwards …..

    Worth saying that VW has done a fantastic job of brand differentiation . even if they are almost the same car underneath !

    There is a lesson in how to do it badly wrong. The 1993 Saab 900 was based on an obsolete Opel Vectra platform. It had several problems. The result was people said :

    1) The Saab 900 is an Opel Vectra
    but
    2) My Skoda is an Audi

  11. IMO Morris was the weak link in BMC, had Lord Nuffield invested in the company and followed Mile Thomas’s plan for modernizing the Nuffield Group (along with not sabotaging the Minor and following Austin’s goal of ditching Side-valves in favour of OHVs), then it is possible Morris’s merger with Austin to form BMC would have been a merger of equals.

    Even better if Morris beforehand rationalizes its engines down to the Wolseley OHV and an earlier Nuffield 4/6-cylinder that is converted to OHV (like on the related C-Series) as well as a 4.9-litre Riley V8 based on a doubled-up Riley Big Four (the latter appearing prior to WW2 before being revived and sold in the US until the mid/late-50s). The related Morris Side-Valve that spawned the Wolseley OHV was in turn a copy of the Ford Side-Valve, which itself was later converted to OHV and grew to displace as much as 1498-1756cc before ceasing production in the early/mid-1960s.

    While agreeing BMC desperately needed to rationalise its marque portfolio upon its formation (especially with Riley and Wolseley), honestly do not see why BMC could not have been composed of 4 marques (e.g. Austin, Morris, MG and Vanden Plas) with the likes of Austin and Morris being differentiated from each other from the late-50s to early-60s*.

    Or in the event the UK joins the EEC in 1963 thus butterflying away the company car / fleet market segment catering to conventional RWD cars, BMC features a marque portfolio composed of Austin, MG and Vanden Plas (with Rover possibility replacing the latter instead of joining Leyland).

    BMC did try to imitate the Europeans in the sense of that one of its unrealised plans was to become the British equivalent of Citroen and Lancia respectively in terms of sophistication, the former via Alex Moulton’s suspension systems (who was influenced by Citroen’s suspension and sought to develop a simplified version) and the latter via the Lancia by way of Duncan Stuart’s 18-degree narrow-angle V4/V6 engine family (that strangely unlike Volkswagen’s VR6 and VR5 engines could not be mounted transversely likely due to the gearbox layout).

    In terms of styling its seems BMC’s more conservative version of Farina’s exterior styling theme did not fair as well on the Farina B and Farina C models compared to Peugeot and Fiat, though BMC could have definitely benefited from sticking with Pininfarina later styling themes for Peugeot/etc instead of adopting the 1100/1800 Pininfarina styling theme appropriated by Citroen.

    *- Austin and Morris should have been differentiated as follows:.

    Austin: FWD, Moulton Suspension (Rubber-Cone/Hydrolastic later Hydragas). Hatchback later end-on gearbox and Pininfarina styling

    Morris: initially Minor/Oxford/Isis-based RWD conventional suspension, three-box saloon later gradually adopting FWD with end-on gearbox as shared with Austin yet featuring 9X-like conventional suspension (as applied on Polo/Golf) and in-house styling.

    Both would otherwise be featuring roughly the same engines and similar mechanicals.

    Meanwhile MG and Vanden Plas would differ as follows:

    MG: largely RWD (notwithstanding the MG ADO34 and LWB 4-door Elf/Hornet-like three-box saloon derivative or three-box LWB-ADO16/22 both with ADO34 styling) and moved upmarket akin to Triumph (which may entail a RWD only path being more feasible in place of Morris prior to being twinned with Rover in the event the latter becomes part of the BMC stable).

    Vanden Plas: essentially producing 2/4-door three-box versions of Austin’s FWD models with the Vanden Plas 3-litre at the top of the range though with other BMC models also forming the basis of cost-no-object Radford and Wood & Pickett like bespoke variants. Likely gets reduced to being a trim level from the early-70s onwards in the event BMC acquires Rover in the mid-60s or MG ends up pushing further upmarket (like Triumph was envisioned at one point).

    • I don’t know about the other engines that Nate refers to, but the Ford Kent engine was a totally different design with no parts in common with the earlier side-valve engines.

      • The Kent engine is indeed unrelated to the Ford Side-Valve and later post-war OHV versions used in the Ford Taunus P1 and Ford Taunus P3, the latter two are IMHO a rough template for how the 918cc Wolseley OHV could have evolved (plus any Alta head Minor inspired tuning along with any potential fettling by Weslake). Effectively replacing both the 1140-1466cc XP and 1,5 Riley engines.

        Despite claims by others to the contrary based on Jon Pressnell’s book Morris: The Cars and the Company. The Nuffield 4/6-cylinder engines used in the Morris Oxford MO and Morris Six MS (plus Wolseley variants), WAS in fact a precursor to the 2.6-litre C-Series 6-cylinder being in essence an enlarged OHV conversion of the 2.2-litre 6-cylinder.

        Additionally 4-cylinder versions of the C-Series were tested first by Morris via a 1750cc powered Morris Oxford during the 1950s (derived from the 2.6-litre), followed later by MG via a proposed 2-litre C-Series for the MGB (derived from the 2,9-litre)

        So Nuffield would have been able to rationalise its engines down to two engine families, not including the hypothetical Big Four derived Riley V8.

  12. While the BMC badge engineering was clearly a bit silly, and producing Austin and Morris versions in different factories daft, badge engineering wasn’t why BMC was collapsing by the end of the 60s.

    The Peugeot 404 was clearly a better car than the Cambridge/Oxford, but then it served a different purpose as it was a slightly upmarket model, and designed to stay in production for a long time (as was the way of French cars in those days) whereas the BMC products were more like the American manufacturers, with regular updates.

    Indeed the big mistake BMC made was surely not replacing them with a more modern, but conventional new Cambridge/Oxford in say 1965 rather than the 1800 which missed the mark completely

  13. Badge engineering allowed market segmentation – you could charge a lot more for a Wolseley than for a Morris – and it was a much nicer car. The Allegro 1500 Special singularly failed to replace the Wolseley 1300. Journalists hated it because they got invited to a launch of a Morris 1100 then an Austin 1100 then… and they were all in Cleethorpes.

  14. I agree that merging Austin and Morris into a single brand would’ve been the best route to follow – so the same brand would be used on the more advanced Issigonis designs plus the more conventional models demanded by the fleets. Eventually, by today, you could imagine the ‘Austin-Morris’ range diverging into two separate ‘pillars’: one for the more conventional cars/SUVs and the other for something more retro. Perhaps a (hopefully far more successful) version of how Fiat are doing the same thing with the 500 range and their more conventional models.

    That would leave scope for MG to go upmarket as Nate says with Cooper, VDP and Austin-Healey as niche models/trim levels. Nice and simple. Can’t see Wolseley surviving: how would non-Brits pronounce the name?! Shame about Riley. Was there anyone else around that could’ve taken them over before they were swallowed up by BMC? Or, following the Fiat model, could a modern day BMC (not merged with Leyland/Rover/Triumph/Jaguar) consist of Austin-Morris (Fiat), Cooper (Abarth), MG (Alfa Romeo) and Riley (Lancia/Maserati?!).

    • IIRC Riley could have been acquired by pre-war BMW who were interested in expanding its range into the UK though Riley was interested in a larger British concerned and looked to Triumph Motor Company though negotiations were suspended with Riley later falling into receivership (with Triumph later falling into receivership not long after) Seem to also recall Rover being pre-war candidate though that fell through because they had their own issues.

      Perhaps a Singer Cars that never went into decline and retained its place as one of the UK’s top 3 carmakers behind Morris and Austin during the interwar period could have saved Riley?

  15. Hi Keith, I absolutely agree about the badge engineering nonsense, but I’m intrigued by your assertion in the caption to the photo of the Farina A55 that it “looks so much neater than the A60”. I would have said the contrary: the A60’s grille was a much simpler and tidier and (in saloon form at least) the “Wurlitzer” style rearward sloping taillights were replaced with rather more sober upright items. Only the double chrome waistline trim strips and contrasting coloured stripe might be considered a bit ersatz. Looks are, of course, subjective!

  16. Somebody’s got to do it! I’ll take the view that the badge engineering was nothing to do with downfall of BMC/BL. There is nothing wrong with having a Morris slightly different to an Austin, significantly different from a Wolseley, slightly different from a Riley and significantly different from an MG. All this means is that for minimal costs we have five different models covering five market sectors – and keeping five different marques dealerships in business. It was far more cost effective than having a completely different body/chassis/engine for five marques. The process is extensively used today in white goods and brown goods. The error, in my view, was that BMC held on to the Farina A60 family too long. Vauxhall and Ford both changed body shapes every three/four years – which keeps loyalty, continuity and styling fresh. What I cannot support – and thought at the time was utter crackers – was name changing and general mucking about with the models. Goodness me, I’m a real enthusiast but I’m still confused with the dates and what they did to the Triumph 1300/Toledo/1500 thing! (Yes, I know, I can look it up!). What on earth was all that ‘Wedge’ name changing – to a name associated with large luxury barges!
    Possibly the badge engineering could have been better segregated – perhaps thus: Austin – base model – Morris – slightly upmarket – MG – More sporting but not luxurious – Riley – both fast and luxurious and Wolseley not fast but just luxurious! They almost had it – but confused the game with more than one model in exactly the same market slot.
    Of course, you are all right in that complacency set in – and the unions got too powerful. But in all the knocking, remember that at one time the empire had a huge percentage of the UK market – they must have done something right. The Austin Somerset was a huge seller globally and kicked off the Japanese motor industry! In retrospect, given our time again we might not do that last bit!!!

  17. Can I add the Isuzu Bellel into the mix as another lookalike? Probably no official Pininfarina involvement although there was Hillman parentage.

    • Given its Hillman parentage one wonders to know to what degree were the 1491-1991cc OHV engines in the Isuzu Bellel derived from the 1390-1725cc Audax Minx OHV engines, especially in light of the fact the latter could apparently not be enlarged any further despite reputed proposals for a 1948cc engine

  18. As far as underpinnings, suspension and other mechanicals are concerned what would it have taken for the BMC Farina B / Farina C saloons to be as good to drive as the similarly Pininfarina styled Peugeot 404, Fiat 1300/1500, Fiat 1800/2100 and Fiat 2300?

    Would mechanicals from the Morris Oxford III and MG Magnette ZB in the case of the Farina B (in place of Austin A55 componentry) as well as mechanicals from the Wolseley 6/90 (plus Riley version) in the case of the Farina C (in place of Austin A95/A105? componentry) have been enough to deliver comparably good handling as their Pininfarina styled rivals from Peugeot and Fiat respectively?

    • Nate : I think you are under a misapprehension here : the engines used in Austin, Morris, MG , Riley and Wolseley Farina bodies were effectively identical ( small carburation details apart ) from those used in the earlier B series engined cars ( and the C series engine remained unchanged – size and carburation apart – throughout its life apart from the vastly improved porting introduced c 1958 )

      • Was not referring to the engines, rather attention is focused on the steering of the Farina B and Farina C models that been variously described as being stolid / stodgy to drive with Indirect steering / wallowy handling (even in mk3/mk4 MG Magnette form) unlike its similarly Pininfarina styled rivals at Fiat and Peugeot whose driving ability were much more highly regarded.

        Outside of pre-Farina Austin A55 Cambridge and Austin A95/A105 Westminster (that would allegedly underpin the Farina B and Farina C), the Morris/Wolseley/MG/Riley models that were ultimately replaced within the BMC stable were regarded as good to drive in comparison to what succeeded them.

        Of the view it was within BMC’s capability to produce Farina B and Farina C alternatives that are as good to drive / handle as its Fiat 1300/1500, Fiat 1800/2100, Fiat 2300 and Peugeot 404 contemporaries, provided they instead embraced mechanicals and other componentry of other cars within the BMC stable as a more suitable basis.

        • I guess BMC at that point didn’t care how well they drove, after all if the 1800 had taken off commercially the Farinas would have been forgotten about by the mid 60s, whereas the Pug 404 for example was planned to be in production as a front line product for a long time.

          • While the Peugeot 404 remained in production domestically until 1975 (and much longer in other markets), it was pretty much replaced by the Peugeot 504 from 1968.

            BMC’s eggs all in one basket attitude on the FWD trio (that arguably did not even take full advantage of the layout) together with their intent on the Farinas using mainly inferior Austin-derived mechanicals as a cynical stop-gap certainly cost the company big.

            Had BMC adopted a better approach towards the Farinas derived instead from the Morris Minor/Major to Wolseley 1500 (e.g. Farina A), Morris Oxford III to MG Magnette ZB (Farina B) and Wolseley 6/90 (Farina C), etc. They could have expediently rebodied the RWD cars for the 1960s to be more competitive against more conventional offerings until the FWD range is developed enough to replace the RWD range for the late-60s to early-70s, sort of like what Fiat basically did with the Fiat 1300/1500 to create the Fiat 125 with a rebodied Morris Minor also being the original intention behind what eventually became the Morris Marina.

  19. Badge engineering isn’t strictly a British thing and certainly wouldn’t harm the chances of the ADO16, which with all its variants managed to top the sales charts for 8 years. Chrysler’s successful American K car came in Chrysler, Dodge and Plymouth variants, with the Chrysler ones being the luxury models and Dodge and Plymouth more basic, and sales remained high throughout the car’s life.

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