Peter S Badenoch
I am new to this excellent site and have only just read Ian Nicholls’ essay suggesting that Government interference killed MG and Rover. I appreciate that the site concentrates on the industry from the time of the launch of the Mini, ie., 1959 onwards. However, I think it is critical to understand that the decline of the industry dated back at least ten years before that and it was already firmly rooted by 1959. The cause was the loss of the largest and most lucrative world export market, North America.
Britain was first there following WW2 – in the later-1940s and early 1950s in the USA and Canada, ‘English car’ was synonymous with ‘small car’. Had the British-owned industry maintained that dominance, foresight would have gone a long way – as happened later for Germany and Japan – to building financial stability, that would have made it much more immune to (and able to oppose) Government meddling. Conceivably, it could have resulted in workforces in car factories that were prosperous enough to oppose militants such as Derek Robinson (Red Robbo).
Instead, through myopia and arrogance, the British car industry’s management and their bean-counters ignored the fact that British cars sold in the USA and Canada, such as the Austin A40 Devon and Somerset, the ‘Phase’ side-valve Hillman Minx and the Ford Prefect, were becoming well-known for lack of reliability. They were plagued with relatively small problems which, had they been recognized by Birmingham, Coventry and Oxford and prompt engineering action taken, with relatively small investments involved, would have prevented the disastrous loss of consumer confidence.
Fixed, they could well have maintained market dominance, thereby preventing the Volkswagen Beetle (small, underpowered, noisy and with treacherous-handling but much more reliable than its British contemporaries) from wiping them off the map. The Beetle certainly had problems but, when these were brought to the attention of Wolfsburg, action was fast to correct them. But then, German management (and subsequently Japanese management) realised how critical success in the North American market was to survival.
In contrast, the pleas by the British front line troops in North America (of which I was one, in Canada, an ex-pat Brit trained in Coventry) for corrective measures fell on deaf ears; when action was taken it was after long after the horse had left the stable. Far too often we were told, ‘Oh, we don’t have that problem on the home market’, or even: ‘You don’t really expect a car to start at those sort of low temperatures, do you ?’
No matter how much one despised the Detroit iron of those days – and I did – there was no denying that they were reliable, tough, durable and engineered to cope with temperatures ranging from -20F to more than 100F. They could withstand lots of salt put on the roads throughout the winter months in the rust-belt states and the Canadian provinces.
Those levels of reliability were expected by buyers and it became all the more critical when a ‘small (ie., import) car was purchased as a second car, more likely to be used by a wife and mother. That’s why, if reasonable levels of reliability were not provided, the frustration would become extreme and the owner would vow never to buy another of that make – and this would quickly be expressed to neighbours, friends and business acquaintances. That’s what happened with British cars in the North American marketplace of the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Volkswagen buyers, in contrast, became enthusiastic ambassadors of that brand.
What, then, were these silly little problems, unacceptable to the typical American or Canadian, that could have been corrected with relatively small engineering effort and financial outlay? Let me list, in random order, just a few:
- Brake wheel cylinders with alloy bodies and steel pistons that seized
- Handbrake cables inadequately sealed that allowed moisture entry which froze at below-freezing temperatures causing the rear brakes to be locked on — the only solution for a driver who had been naïve enough to apply the handbrake when parking at night was to crawl under the back of the car and try to haul on the cable to release the brakes
- Starter motors with the Bendix drive, persisting on British cars long after the Detroit manufacturers and, take note, Volkswagen, had abandoned it in favour of solenoid engaged pinions. With the Bendix abomination, on a sub-zero start if the engine as much as coughed on one or two cylinders, the pinion would be thrown out of mesh, following which the hapless driver would have to wait until the armature stopped spinning then try again, and again, and again
- Dynamos with deficient output that would result in flat batteries developing after days of winter commutes involving cold starts and continuous use of wipers, heater fan and headlights
- Heaters that weren’t very effective (about the only problem where the Beetle owner was no better off)
- Headlining and upholstery materials that split in cold weather; substandard exhaust valve materials that resulted in premature burn-out under prolonged interstate/expressway (read motorway) driving
- Inadequate sealing of speedometer cables that would allow gearbox oil to work its way up to the speedometer head and cause the needle to go crazy; carbon clutch thrust bearings that would wear out prematurely
- SU fuel pumps that required a sharp tap to make them function; oil leaks galore (not a reliability issue but intensely annoying to those with paved driveways); ignition systems that would track and short if exposed to moisture, the classic being the early Mini with its distributor behind a token grille and exposed to rain and road splash.
- And, of course, substandard switches and corrosion-prone wiring harness terminals and connectors, giving rise to the ‘Prince of Darkness’ jokes that persist today.
One further point – in Ian Nicholls’ essay and throughout the comments that followed, the problem of poor quality is consistently blamed on the workforce in the factories. Take a look at the list above, though – few, if any, of those problems were the result of poor workmanship.
The problem was detail engineering design shortcomings and/or antiquated design, then refusal by management to face up to the problems and fix them promptly. The Trade Unions certainly caused the industry a lot of grief but, in my ten years as a Service Representative dealing with customer complaints, poor workmanship by the guy on the production line was very seldom a contributing factor.
A ship with wonderful promise sunk for a ha’penny’s worth of tar…
Sadly, therefore, the British-owned industry has disappeared except for the likes of cottage-industry Morgan. However, it is good to know that a car industry does exist today in Britain, albeit not British-owned. That point was made so well on the Top Gear TV show in its wonderful and stirring closing piece at the end of last season.