Blog : British Leyland: Betting on a miracle 1978-1986

Keith Adams

Chris Cowin, the author of British Leyland: Chronicle of a car crash and Export Drive: BMC and British Leyland Cars in Europe and the world, has added a third title to his portfolio. The snappily-titled British Leyland: Betting on a Miracle has just been released, and is available exclusively from Amazon. This book is a follow-on to the ‘Chronicle of a car crash’ (covering the firm’s history from 1968-1975), which I blogged about after reading a copy back in 2012 and, given how highly I rated that book, I had high hopes that this follow-up would be equally impressive.

Rather like the Chronicle neatly covers the period between the formation of BLMC and the installation of Michael Edwardes, Betting on a Miracle takes in the era where the company was known as BL Limited, and seemingly looked set to turn the corner with the arrival of the Austin Metro, Maestro and Montego, as well as the Joint Venture products, the Rover 200 and 800. It follows the fortunes of the firm as each part of Michael Edwardes’ product-led recovery over- or under-performed its way into the history books. I don’t need to worry about spoilers, as you know how the story progresses and ends, but it’s good to see this time period painstakingly pored over and presented in a way that’s both easy to read for newbies to the story and informative for the more well-informed.

The good news is that this one is just as impressive as the original, which is reassuring for all those people (like me) who yearn to read historically-accurate books about the British motor industry. The format of this book is changed over the original, and runs chronologically, referring back to the politics, the product and the overseas fortunes of British Leyland. Each year has these sub-sections – National, Industrial Relations, the Marketplace and International – and the contents of each should be pretty self-explanatory. There’s lots to digest along the way, and you won’t be finishing this in one sitting.

We’ve covered this period in some detail on AROnline (and there’s a great deal to come from our own Ian Nicholls on the matter) and there’s probably little in here that’ll be new to the more committed fans of this website, but that’s not to take anything away from Chris’s book. It’s a well-written account, which you’ll keep dipping into to glean yet another vignette of information. Moreover, its logical layout makes it both easy to follow, and puts the ongoing events into perspective beautifully.

As with Chris’s other books, this one is light on first-hand accounts from the important players at the time and, dare I say it, the design work is lacking somewhat, with an uninspiring cover and oh-so-simple page treatments. As an A4-format book, not being a hardback also doesn’t do it any favours at all, as it feels flimsy and lacking in structural integrity – rather like the car that stars on its cover. Would it work better in A5? Probably…

However, despite that, I reckon it’s £15 well spent if you’re not into style over substance, you enjoy a good read and fancy a pretty complete history of one of the most fascinating periods in the firm’s development. No doubt, we can expect Volume 3 (1986-2005) in a couple of years’ time.

Keith Adams


  1. One fascinating tidbit was the styling proposals for the Maestro coming from not only David Bache and Harris Mann, but also from Pininfarina which brings up the question of whether the latter likely bore some resemblance to Pininfarina’s ADO88 proposal (as part of a similar styling family for the M cars) or featured completely different styling (e.g. Peugeot 205, Pininfarina’s SD2 proposal, etc).

  2. I think by 1986, the worst was over for Austin Rover: strikes had become a thing of the past, the 200 was a success and the 800 had replaced the ageing SD1, while a new chairman was desperate to improve the quality of the Austin models. Soon this would bear fruit with a huge improvement in the quality of the M cars, the dropping of the tainted Austin brand, and exciting new models like the R8.

  3. Was originally under the impression of Jaguar being concerned about using the Rover V8 via the Daimlerized SD1 proposal (or some other proposal involving the Series II/III XJ), was not quite aware of Jaguar’s fears being in the context of an improved version of the Rover V8 being considered by BL as an alternative to the AJ6 engine for the XJ40.

    While being aware of the Project Iceberg Rover V8 diesel/turbodiesel being considered for the XJ40 (along with the AJ6 having scope for dieselization and the VM Motori 6-cylinder turbodiesel in the AMC Eagle being considered at one point), is it known whether the Rover V8 petrol’s proposed improvements were simply being converted to 32-valves as was later planned for the Range Rover P38 (or even dusting off the 32-valve Quad-Cam V8 derived from previous work with the Rover P8 via the P10 Slant-4 plus Project Redcap 2.8-litre V8)?

    It is interesting to compare the Jaguar AJ6 and hypothetical updated Rover V8, since both were planned to be spawn diesel versions as well as to feature sub 3-litre variants. Additionally turbocharging and supercharging were considered for both engines beyond the production supercharged AJ6s used in the X300 XJR and Aston Martin DB7 (e.g. XJ41 Twin-Turbo, proposed supercharged P38 and Janspeed SD1 Twin-Turbo).

    This hypothetical Rover V8 potentially has the edge of the AJ6 due to its ability to spawn related 90-degree V6 and P10 Slant-4 variants, that said am glad Jaguar resisted the temptation of using the Rover V8 in place of the AJ6 (thereby retaining their engineering purity / independence) though Jaguar themselves should have really sought to develop their own related 90-degree V8 to begin with (instead of the blind alley that is the V12-based 60-degree V8) or simply made a better V12 that could easily form the basis of 4-cylinder, 60-degree V6 and 90-degree V8 variants.

  4. I am enthralled by all I read on this website – and interestingly have many conversations with my chums on a Tuesday night in our local pub.Three of them are ex BL people, two in design – one at Gaydon, one at Ccwley plus a tool maker from Swindon. I get to read something on AROL and then go and say “so what do you remember about so and so” – and then I get “oh’ yes, I worked with him on so and so project; he was a great bloke” – or not, as the case maybe! Can’t wait for the definitive book on the ‘end’ by Chris. I know nothing accurately about the ‘end’ of MG Rover in 2005. My perception is that I’d like to get a certain four gentlemen in a room and give them a darned good thrashing – but I’d love to understand so much more – and then I might see another side to the situation. I’ve read a lot on AROL but I still feel angry……..

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