Blog : A little bit of politics

Ian Nicholls recalls a couple of moments when the General Election trail intersected with the motor industry. It wasn’t always that positive…

The current General Election campaign has given me an excuse to delve into the archives for politician-related material. We start with an image of Conservative Party leader Edward Heath being greeted at Cowley by BMC Managing Director Joe Edwards (above).

I believe the occasion was during the 1966 General Election campaign, but I cannot pinpoint the date. It is said that BMC were disappointed that Mr Heath turned up in a Ford. The next image dates from early 1965 and is of Quintin Hogg MP, better known as Lord Hailsham, taking delivery of his brand new Austin 1800, voted European Car of the Year 1964 (below).

In his time Lord Hailsham was a soldier, barrister and government minister and, unbeknown to him a BMC test driver, as indeed were all the early ADO17 owners. It is not known what his Lordship’s ‘customer experience’ of CLA 620B was, to use modern vernacular.

Did the Landcrab meet ministerial expectations?

What exactly was wrong with these early ‘Landcrabs’?

One early production car, probably AOB 987B, was driven by Philip Turner of the now defunct Motor magazine. In July 2016, his son Tony Turner wrote in Classic Car Weekly: ‘It spent its early life pottering around London testing accessories but became a motorway express once my dad got his hands on it.

‘This is when the first of three engine blow-ups occurred. Eventually the truth dawned that the B-Series engine had the same dipstick markings it wore in the Austin Cambridge- even though the sump was now full of gearbox. Correcting that cured the blow-ups.’

On one long run for the magazine he recalled: ‘We had to juggle the heater and blower controls to keep the engine temperature gauge out of the red during the last hour of the return journey and emerged kippered at the finish.’

Cars and politics don’t mix

In 1988, Labour MP Tam Dalyell recalled his only meeting with Alec Issigonis at a prolonged working lunch with BMC Chairman George Harriman to discuss the Bathgate plant situated in his constituency.

‘It is indelibly marked on my memory that Issigonis argued for tougher laws on defective vehicles, confident in the quality of his own. I am not quite sure that Harriman was equally enthusiastic!’

Maybe Issigonis was arrogant, but arrogance is the personality trait that distinguishes politicians from the rest of us ordinary mortals.

Happy voting!

Ian Nicholls
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  1. I can think of one embarrassing politician/ motoring incident from 1983 when Michael Foot lost the election big time. Losing the election was bad enough for Foot, but the shabby looking R reg Rover 3500 that was to transport him from Labour headquarters struggled to start and it looked like Foot might have to wait for the bus, until the old Rover finally spluttered into life and drove the poor old boy away. Embarrassing to say the least, as Maggie’s Jaguar took her away without a complaint to meet the Queen.

  2. Hugely Political Embarrassing moment for me to observe was back in April 2005.

    When the team in Red then occupying No.10 turned their backs on many thousands of the “Bruvvers” and the receivers were called in. Previously, on many occasions, that same Red team ploughed millions into maintaining many overborne jobs for the “bruvvers” rather than invest in the actual manufacturing, research and development plus adjusting staffing levels to a more sustainable level. That means cuts.

    Mind you, in April 2005, the asset stripped remnants of the former massively rich Rover group … was in private ownership.

    Since April 2005, unlike previously, the team in red has not been top of my list when the time came to place an X in the ballot box.

    “Cars and politics don’t mix”

    They should do! Don’t take my word for it, ask the Germans who support their indigenous Industry at all levels and directions.

  3. Must have been one of the first Mk 4 Zodiacs off the production,Ted Heath liked to show himself as the face of “modernism” hence the brand new Zodiac, but given his usual crassness he turned up at the BMC factory in a product of the rival & American owned Ford Motor Co. You could look at this as an omen of what was to come during Heath’s own term as Prime Minister four years later

    • I’m not sure what suitable BMC product was suitable though?

      Was an 1800 too low rent?
      Was a Westminster too old fashion looking?

    • I think Ted Heath’s Ford was actually a Zephyr MKIV not Zodiac. The Zodiac had better wheel trims, the Zephyr got hub caps.

      I never realised the Landcrab got Car of the year award in ’64. I think the Rover P6 2000 got it in ’63. The ministerial Rover P5 always looked good and authoritive, just like the latest Jag XJ does.

  4. Didn’t Tony Blair start the trend away from ministerial Rovers to people carriers, using an Austrian built Chrysler Voyager( actually one of the worst cars I’ve ever been in, with terrible handling, awful performance and a hefty thirst even in diesel form)?

    • You actually travelled in one of those Chrysler Voyagers, Glenn? You’re lucky to have escaped without injury! In 1999, the Voyager scored a staggering zero stars out of five in Euro NCAP’s frontal impact tests.

      I think the Voyager was Tony Blair’s private car at the time; the official prime-ministerial limousine was a bespoke Jaguar XJ6 with bullet-proof glass, integrated blue lights and other additions.

      • The Voyager was hopeless, an automatic diesel that really struggled and overtaking was impossible.

  5. Didn’t Teresa May arrive at Downing Street in a BMW 7 Series last year and make the short walk to outside No. 10 to make her formal announcement as our new Prime Minister? I seem to recall seeing her in the news footage stepping out of a BMW.

    What happened to the Range Rovers and Land Rover Discovery used by former PM ‘Dave’?

    Mind you, if I became PM I would probably court controversy by stepping out of a well polished Rover 75 to remind the nation of what we once had – a lovely car with timeless elegance, refinement and a sense of subtle wellbeing, rather than out and out showmanship.

    • Remember the Rover P5s that transported every Prime Minister from Alec Douglas Home to Margaret Thatcher( until about 1982). Jaguars were considered too raffish and flash for the leader of the country, so the natural choice was the big Rover, a very durable, conservatively styled car that also had a fair turn of speed in V8 form. It was only when the P5s became too old and the Rover SD1’s reliability wasn’t good enough that Jaguar XJs became the car of choice.

      • I am pretty sure that during Harold Wilson first tenure in government that ministers used Humber Super Snipes. When Rootes Chrysler axed the model Rover P5B’s filled the breach.

    • An excellent idea. Whatever way MG Rover may have ended up it was a great training ground and employer for thousands of car workers and automotive industry suppliers. Governments cannot simply let such an important resource fade away. Seems they only see cars as something that appears from the ether with no comprehension that skilled designers, engineers and trained manufacturing operators actually build them.

    • Yes, but the 75 seemed to carry on the tradition of formal Rovers and like the P4 and P5, the 75 has proven itself as a very durable car with nearly all I still encounter in excellent condition. As I have pointed out, the P5 was a government car for nearly 20 years and had the government chosen Rover in the Blair years, I reckon the 75 would have been in service for a long time like the P5.
      Thankfully when we had a car industry that produced executive cars, no PM was ever tempted to use a Mark IV Ford Zodiac( like the one in the Ted Heath photo) as this had all the class of a rat with a gold tooth and would have proven lethal if the chauffeur had to make an emergency manoeuvre.

    • @Christopher Storey:

      I must admit to liking the Rover P4 as my late grandparents had one, only to replace it with a lovely P5B Coupe. Both Rovers are a good choice if a Prime Minister was looking to partake in Drive It Day (which I doubt they are).

      I was actually referring to the R40 generation Rover 75 as my preferred choice if I suddenly became Prime Minister. Looks photogenic too.

  6. The move to SUV type vehicles means that new Jaguar XJ’s are a rare sight these days apart from use as ministerial cars. They are no longer automatically first choice for chief executives. I wonder how long it will be until a government minister is seen in an F-Pace?

    • They will use the electric Jags when they come on the market. Ministers are really keen to promote local products, especially when they’re excellent products at the forefront of technology. And of course, they’re green and they’ll avoid the congestion charge. The car park at Parliament is packed with Priuses and Insights, and the rest, these days

  7. I worked for several junior ministers at the Department of Employment in the 90s, and had many rides in ministerial vehicles. The junior Minister’s car of choice in those days was the Rover 414 Si, with Cabinet Ministers getting an 800 – always known as the ‘Sterling’ whatever spec it came in. On visits to other parts of the country we would be picked up in whatever the Government Car Service had to hand – often a Granada, or my preference, a Vauxhall Senator. On one occasion each we ended up in an XJ40, a Range Rover and a Toyota Land Cruiser. But the best of all, reeking quality and a powerful engine, was an Audi V8 (the one based on the 1982 Audi 100) which was lent by the local VW/Audi dealer.

    • I too worked for various government Ministers during the nineties and remember being driven through the gates at Parliament in the Minister for Sports Vauxhall Cavalier. Car of choice for any Secretary of State was a 800 Sterling in British racing Green.

      • John Major was a huge fan of Rover 800s and had one for personal use. It’s just the sort of car you associate with him, traditional, safe, fairly dependable. Incidentally his car was involved in an amusing incident where the chauffeur skidded into a set of roadworks in Whitehall and Major got out of the car looking embarassed.

  8. Interesting that the Rover P5B was still in Prime Ministerial service long after it had ceased production. Obviously,these huge barges were regarded as solid and stately without appearing flash.

    We also had the embarassment of PM Blair turning up at Longbridge in a Jaguar at the time of BMW upping stumps.

      • She kept hers until 1982 when it was becoming elderly and then was persuaded to have an armour plated Jaguar XJ6. Actually the reason the P5B was kept on for nine years after it ended production was James Callaghan had a very bad experience with a Rover SD1 when the electric windows jammed and decided to go back to the P5B. Also the Granada, which would have made a viable Prime Ministerial car in black and in Ghia trim, had moved production to Germany by the end of 1976 and the only British options left were Jaguar and Rover.

  9. Alan Clark somehow managed to wangle a Jag when he was a relatively junior minister in the 80’s. Al liked a spacious and comfy back seat…

  10. Growing up in the 1960s / 70s I always associate 10 Downing Street with a black Rover P5B.

    As posters above have pointed out, it was in government service for nearly 20 years, almost a decade after production had ceased. Also used by the Royal family if memory serves.

    What was interesting about these cars is that they had the gravitas of a Rolls Royce or Bentley with none of the flashiness of the Jaguar.

    Just a shame that Rover were forced into that disastrous marriage with Jaguar which forced them to drop their planned P8 flagship luxury saloon so that Jaguar could have a clear run at the executive market with their own top of the line model instead.

    • The P5B oozed British class and restraint, but I’m not sure the photos of P8 here on this site show a great deal of gravitas!

    • The Rover P5 proved to be a very durable car and had none of the quality issues that dissuaded later governments from buying the SD1. I think the P5B models are best, as the V8 adds a considerable amount of power and more refinement, and were probably launched at a time when 2.8 and 3.5 litre Mercedes were attracting interest from wealthy car buyers. Indeed both the P5B and the stacked headlight bigger Mercedes of the late sixties seem to smack of quality and restraint.

  11. I’ve a picture somewhere of Margaret and Denis Thatcher visiting Rossendale about 1985. Transport was a Jaguar.. Maggie and John Egan were massive mutual fans.

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