Badge-engineering. Good or bad? For BMC, the first extensively badge-engineered model was the Morris Oxford/Austin Cambridge Pininfarina saloon.
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.
- Austin A55 saloon and estate car (BMC added various clones)
- Peugeot 404 saloon, convertible and estate car
- 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.
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.