Now that Ian Nicholls has completed his masterful account of Austin-Morris, Chris Cowin adds some comments and thoughts, drawing on other articles written for AROnline in the recent past.
Austin-Morris: National Champion
The Austin-Morris division of the British Leyland Motor Corporation (BLMC) was effectively the old British Motor Corporation, even keeping the BMC name until mid-1969 (and incorporating MG). It was the largest division of British Leyland and, as such, tended to determine the corporation’s fortunes.
Austin-Morris was the business entity most observers saw as Britain’s equivalent of Fiat, Renault or Volkswagen. In the late Sixties, there was an assumption the American multinationals would become more formidable competitors in Europe in the coming decade, and that Europe’s four major car-producing nations each needed to nurture strong national players to meet that challenge, as well as ‘fight their corner’ in a world where international exchange of vehicles was expected to grow, not least because the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) process which the UK supported was leading to global reduction in tariffs and protectionism.
For many years BMC (or Austin-Morris) was expected to play this role, and doubts over its ability to do so lay behind the 1968 merger with Leyland, intended to bring greater financial security. However, it also rather blurred the picture by masking the fact Austin-Morris, treated in isolation, was rapidly falling behind those three benchmark rivals in production terms. By 1973, when all of British Leyland built 875,000 cars domestically (and Austin-Morris 672,000), Fiat built 1.5 million, Renault built 1.29 million and Volkswagen 1.36 million.
Government industrial strategy (far from consistent during 1968-75 anyway) and the company’s own efforts could not overcome the combination of circumstances that saw the UK unable to field a volume-car producer to match the French, Germans or Italians by the mid-Seventies, something inconceivable a decade earlier. This was something acknowledged by Austin-Morris boss Keith Hopkins in 1974 when he suggested the future lay in producing ‘niche’ vehicles. But it was something others found hard to accept.
Though the Austin Morris division was subsumed into ‘Leyland Cars’ in 1975, the Ryder Plan which charted the supposed way forward was heavily tilted towards the needs of Austin-Morris, looking for huge increases in sales volumes (which only Austin-Morris could deliver) from exports to continental Europe – if realised (which was unrealistic given the product plan), this would have been a form of ‘catching up’ with continental volume-car rivals.
And even after the Ryder Report was abandoned, the reformed (though short-lived) Austin-Morris division of BL Cars received the taxpayer funding required to develop and build a new generation of ‘volume’ cars (Metro/Maestro/Montego), though by the time the Conservative Government came to power in 1979 it was clear (to them) those cars would never sell in volumes comparable to international rivals, and would be unlikely to generate the profit needed to fund replacements. Only when that prediction came true, and Austin Rover (as they then were) was forced to abandon the development of the subsequent generation of ‘indigenous’ volume cars (like the AR6 Metro replacement) in 1986, can one really say the vision of an all-British equivalent to Fiat, Renault or Volkswagen died.
The economic consequences of exiting the volume car business were huge, not least in terms of employment and the balance of payments, which was why so much effort and money was expended in trying to avert such an outcome. When the development of truly indigenous British family cars ended with the Austin Montego (unless you count the 1995 Rover 200 R3), the pill could be sweetened by the Honda partnership, which would keep Cowley and Longbridge busy, and the arrival of Nissan as a major employer and exporter.
The Austin-Morris story – as covered in great detail by Ian – takes us a long way along the road that led to that outcome. But just as that road continued on beyond 1975, so it began before the creation of British Leyland, when BMC in the 1960s was faced with circumstances that made it increasingly hard to keep pace with continental rivals.
Victim of circumstance
The British Motor Corporation of the 1960s is often portrayed as badly-managed and weak, though certainly before 1965, few would have recognised that portrayal. In the early part of the decade, it was seen as a match (or superior) to European rivals. Prestigious German magazine Auto Motor und Sport could publish an edition with the Morris 1100 on the cover captioned ‘Do the British make better cars than us?’ and the shift to front-wheel-drive cars (of which BMC was the biggest producer worldwide) placed the company in the technical vanguard when Fiat, Renault and Volkswagen were still to varying degrees reliant on rear-engined, rear-drive models. And in a good year, like 1963/64 with production strong, it made good money.
However, as a UK-based volume car producer, there were circumstances beyond the firm’s control which made life increasingly difficult and depressed profits as the decade progressed.
Weak home market
Fewer new cars were sold in Britain in 1970 than 1964 with the home market stuck at around 1 million new cars annually throughout that period, while being subject to volatile swings as credit controls were alternately tightened and loosened, the motor industry being used as an economic ‘regulator’, something explored in ‘The Bottom Line‘. That, in a sense, is all you need to know in terms of BMC’s problems. The company had planned on continued expansion of demand, as experienced in the 1950s, and as enjoyed by Britain’s continental neighbours during the 1960s.
In the masterplan inherited from BMC founder Leonard Lord, capacity was installed to build one million cars annually across BMC (or Austin-Morris), something never realised, while the Mini and 1100 especially (which together accounted for almost three quarters of BMC car production by 1964) were highly sensitive to economies of scale with high break even volumes. A strong home market is vital to the success of a volume car maker and BMC was deprived of that, which resulted in poor profitability and inadequate investment. By 1969, the West German new car market was twice the size of the British.
Though BMC (and later Austin-Morris) may have been seen as ‘national champion’ the company shared the stagnant home market of the late 1960s with three other ‘majors’ which sapped its strength. Ford and Vauxhall were backed by their American parents and, when Rootes was acquired by Chrysler in 1967, that resulted in three American multinationals facing up to the local hero. As also covered in ‘The Bottom Line’ the profitability of certainly Chrysler UK and Vauxhall was dreadful, but the industry shakeout that might have occurred if they were domestically-owned did not happen. Austin-Morris had all three of the American giants on its home turf when Volkswagen(in the much stronger German market) had only two, Renault only one (Chrysler-Simca) and Fiat none.
That situation could have been avoided if Rootes had merged with BMC as was mooted in the 1960s – something Tony Benn tried hard to engineer. He could see how BMC (or its successor) might become the victim of a turf war between the American multinationals for UK market share, and would have preferred to see the UK volume car industry split three ways, not four.
Poor export footprint
Exports are sometimes treated as a side issue, but such a parochial attitude (and it applied in the Austin-Morris era in some quarters) is fatal. British Leyland, despite numerous challenges, exported 49% of car production in both 1968 and 1969. This was half the business. You ignore it at your peril.
As explored a number of times elsewhere on AROnline, such as the recent article ‘Back to 1953 – let’s hope temporarily‘ the British motor industry and BMC especially needed to pivot its export focus away from reliance on Commonwealth markets and towards Europe in the 1960s, something BMC’s Chairman, Sir George Harriman, stated on many occasions.
Simply put, this was because the old model under which Commonwealth markets sourced the bulk of their cars from Britain was fading. (In reality, it was a short-lived model as prior to World War 2 most Imperial/Dominion markets preferred the power, toughness and ground clearance of American-style cars).
Australia and South Africa were two of the ‘big four’ Commonwealth markets and they introduced tariffs and quotas on car imports from Britain in the 1950s, which were progressively stiffened with the intention of nurturing their domestic car industries. That succeeded, and BMC had to accept a transition from importer to local manufacturer. With both those countries having car markets of limited size BMC’s local operations were not contributing much in the way of profit (often the opposite) while the opportunity to spread the costs of UK production was diminishing with every twist of the local content screw.
Meanwhile, Canada, a third major market, imposed tariffs on UK car imports in 1962 then signed the Auto-Pact with the USA in 1965 which eliminated any remaining advantage British cars enjoyed. Only New Zealand among significant Commonwealth markets retained a preference for British cars in its tariff structure, but even there, Japanese cars began to make inroads, as they would in many markets where British cars once dominated. People preferred them.
The Commonwealth was a diminishing asset, with the transition to independence of many other members generally being a negative for BMC car exports, nowhere more so than Rhodesia where the sanctions that followed UDI halted BMC sales completely.
But Europe, where car demand was growing fast and consumer requirements were more closely aligned to the UK, was seen as more than able to compensate for declining exports to the Commonwealth, and to an extent it did, as even in 1968 British exports of 450,000 cars (all makes) to the European continent were double the number exported to the Commonwealth.
Though only six European countries formed the European Economic Community (the EEC) in the 1960s they included the three largest continental markets and BMC was in no doubt entry to the EEC, and a consequent lowering of tariff barriers, was fundamental to its success. Chairman Harriman lobbied hard for EEC entry and efforts were made to strengthen the dealer network, in France especially, in anticipation of that.
The renewal of the model range, with the Issigonis conceived front-drive cars replacing conventional, robust predecessors was a strategy crystallised with at least one eye on Europe. So, when Britain’s EEC entry was vetoed in 1963, it came as a blow to BMC, which was instead faced with a gradual worsening of its competitive position within the EEC as tariffs evolved. The contrast with Renault could not be more stark (and may explain in part that French veto) for, while BMC was fated to remain a minnow in the booming German market, Renault exports to Germany mushroomed.
In 1968, the Germans bought 8000 BMC cars, but 84,000 Renaults and 110,000 Fiats. Contrary to popular belief, West Germany warmed to imports earlier than the UK with around a quarter of new registrations being imports by 1969, mostly from EEC partners France and Italy. Austin-Morris missed out on that bonanza, due to tariffs combined with the lack of effort tariff barriers induced. That was frustrating when the products themselves compared well with certainly Fiat, which was taking over 8% of the German market in 1969 compared to BMC’s 0.5%.
And Germany is just one example of the price paid for exclusion from the EEC, with the extra costs and complications of continental assembly (which only partly alleviated the tariff burden) being another.
As a consequence of exclusion from the EEC, by 1968 when Austin-Morris found itself under the British Leyland umbrella, exports to Europe, though expanding and helped by the recent devaluation of sterling, were doing so from a low base. BMC was a second-rank player, and heavily dependent on the Mini. European sales were still heavily skewed towards the smaller EFTA markets like Denmark which would prove a liability as those countries, mostly lacking a car industry to protect, placed little restrictions on Japanese imports in the 1970s.
One can speculate as to where BMC and consequently Austin-Morris might have been by the end of the 1960s if the EEC veto had not been delivered, especially as many would argue the economic troubles of the UK itself in the late 1960s (sterling crises, balance of payments crises) which prompted the Government to constrain domestic car demand were themselves a consequence of exclusion from the EEC.
They would almost certainly have been building cars in bigger volumes and been stronger as a result. Closer to the ‘cream triangle’ as Sir George Harriman called it where even Mini was delivering useful profits thanks to economies of scale – a subject explored in ‘Did Mini cars mean Mini profits?‘. It’s perhaps no surprise that, by 1971 (as pictured), British Leyland was again lobbying for EEC entry. The advert sets out their thinking very clearly.
As it was, once the UK finally did join the EEC in early 1973, it would be a stretch for Austin-Morris to come from behind and convert the ‘game of three’ in which Fiat, Renault and Volkswagen all exported about half their output within Europe, much of it to each other’s countries, into a balanced ‘game of four’. It would take great products, favourable economic conditions and a dose of good luck – none of which turned up on the night. It should perhaps be added that joining the EEC didn’t somehow curtail continued exports to the Commonwealth (as some will tell you). UK car exports to the big four ‘Commonwealth’ markets (including South Africa which left the Commonwealth in 1960) were only slightly lower in 1976 than in 1972.
The third major export territory for Austin-Morris was the USA where MG (and Austin Healey historically) had carved out their niche in the sports car field. However, attempts to diversify beyond that market had met with little success – and, despite a great deal of effort being put into the federalised Austin America and Austin Marina, nor would they. Although a huge market the USA never realistically held the potential for expanding Austin-Morris (or British Leyland) sales that Europe did, though at times management seemed unduly fixated on the needs of the US market. Prevailing price levels were lower than Europe, the cost of participation higher and mounting with every new federal regulation.
British Leyland (and its combined predecessors), despite devoting vast resources to the task, never sold more than 80,000 cars to the Americans in a year which, as already mentioned, is less than Renault were selling to West Germany year in, year out, with little need for re-engineering of those cars to meet differing regulations (though they were selling to the Americans as well).
Them and Us
Ian’s account has little option but to cover the essentially endless sequence of industrial disputes which bedeviled Austin-Morris. As is made clear, a great deal of those disputes were external to the company, at component suppliers, transport companies or even the power industry and docks.
Even if, rather idealistically, Austin-Morris had been able to forge a no-strike agreement with all its workforce in the late Sixties, production would still have suffered a great deal of interruption due to external disputes. Austin-Morris can, to that extent, again be portrayed as a victim of circumstance, the circumstance being the dreadful labour relations across much of British industry in the late 1960s and early ‘70s.
But the situation internally was no better, and that is something the company had some power to influence. Today, we can portray Austin-Morris as a British company locked in a titanic struggle to remain competitive with often bigger European, American and Japanese rivals, but that description is likely to have jarred with most of the employees at the time.
Despite strike disruptions and much wringing of hands by management, Austin-Morris increased production during the early years of its existence after 1968, while the headcount remained stable. The market seemed set to expand (and did quite forcefully starting in 1971) and new products were in the pipeline. Jobs at Austin-Morris were considered well paid by the standards of manufacturing industry and, from a Cowley or West Midlands perspective, the company would seem much too big to fail. Every other car on the road was built by them.
Anyone suggesting the unions or militants were in danger of killing the goose that laid the golden egg was in danger of being ridiculed, at least until late 1973. Moreover, although the sky then darkened, a change of government in early 1974 suggested the financial collapse of BLMC could be the gateway to state ownership and more ‘industrial democracy’. So bring it on (or so some appeared to think)…
The struggle most identified with was the ongoing fight to improve pay and conditions, intermeshed at times with more political objectives such as opposition to government legislation – and, with that struggle having a record of bearing fruit, why stop? Especially when a backdrop of high inflation favoured unions with the muscle to prevent the real value of wage packets shrinking.
Car assembly jobs were scorned by the national media as unbearably repetitive and dull, workers were characterised as cannon-fodder for the factories. The plants could be noisy, dirty and hot with sweat, swearing and snatched smoke-breaks. You can’t fool the children of the revolution and, by the late 1960s, a form of rebellion was a badge of honour for some.
The strike weapon became not the last resort but the standard response to all manner of grievances and, if the company’s sales and profits suffered as a result, well that was a ‘problem for management’. The management, with their executive canteens and the Chairman’s helicopter commutes, were the opposition.
Many (notably Michael Edwardes who inherited the situation in 1977) were convinced that better communication was key to bringing employees on side, in an environment where most of the messages reaching the shopfloor either originated from or were filtered by the unions. Certainly, a culture shift was possible. By the mid-Eighties, barely a decade after the strike-plagued era discussed in the Austin-Morris story, Austin Rover was essentially strike free whilst retaining the same plants and, in many cases, the same people. That, though, was in the future. In the BLMC era, Austin-Morris undoubtedly operated with one hand tied due to frequent strike disruption and the knock-on damage caused to the reputation of the company, to the quality of product and to profitability.
So, the plight of Austin-Morris reflected in many ways circumstances beyond its control: the legacy of a weak home market and poor export footprint through the 1960s, competitors with deep pockets, and the dreadful industrial relations environment that increasingly put UK manufacturing at a disadvantage to international rivals. However, one can list some self-inflicted wounds that didn’t help either.
Morris Marina madness
The atmosphere surrounding the creation of British Leyland in 1968, when it briefly qualified as the world’s fifth largest vehicle producer (though still behind Volkswagen) encouraged the thinking that BLMC should be present in all segments of the market, rather like General Motors with which comparisons were frequently made.
As Ian’s account details, this led to what now seems a hasty decision to develop an Austin-Morris car primarily for the fleet sector and take on ‘the Americans’ (as British Leyland’s publicity often called them). In 1968, the ‘Invest in an Austin’ slogan still had some credibility while advertising claimed (with questionable grammar) ‘People feel strong about Morris’. However, the influx of Cost Controllers from Ford, and the rash attempt to win sales in the cut-throat fleet sector resulted in the Morris Marina diverging from that legacy of quality and robustness – just as it diverged from BMC’s reputation for technical innovation. This retrograde thrust can be seen in decisions taken during 1970 to cut the PSF body fabrication budget and reduce the use of lead to seal joints, and, of course, in the Marina’s infamous adoption of lever-arm front suspension.
The UK frankly had enough rear-drive saloons with Escort and Cortina, Viva and Victor, Avenger and Hunter, and the Marina was joining a very crowded field domestically while having limited appeal in continental Europe, where the company badly needed to win customers.
Strategically (and hindsight is a fine thing) Austin-Morris from 1968 onwards would have been better advised to concentrate resources on an excellent front-driven, lower medium car to arrive earlier (1971/2), with an upper medium car to follow by 1974. Cars engineered with quality in mind that would have complemented the premium marques that formed the other part of the British Leyland stable.
Between them they could have rendered the Maxi redundant and it would have disappeared around 1974, remembered as a worthy first draft of its much improved successors (a little like the Volkswagen K70). Austin-Morris would have been fielding two models in the medium sector from the mid-Seventies onwards just as Peugeot and Volkswagen did, rather than the four largely unrelated cars (Allegro, Maxi, Marina, Princess) that clogged the catalogue and split sales between them right through to the Eighties. A supermini could have slotted in below and the evergreen Mini been left to continue.
However, the opportunity for such streamlining and focus on quality was ignored by the decision to develop the Marina, and by the decision to retain the Maxi for the long term rather than write the brief for ADO67 (Allegro) and ADO71 (Princess) with the intention of covering the Maxi’s market (giving at least one of them five doors being the most obvious way of doing so).
There were, of course, many pressures on BLMC in 1968, not least the need to make money in the short-term, which influenced the decision to build the Marina. Graham Turner in ‘The Leyland Papers‘ describes it as ‘an attempt to take out a piece of trans-Atlantic insurance’. But then adds presciently: ‘but …. British Leyland’s future ultimately rests on its ability to create cars that offer something different’. So why this diversion into building a ‘me-too’ rep-mobile?
Rather than pursue the profits required to fund the overhaul of Austin-Morris through such a cynical and brand-damaging exercise, this might have been the moment for the Government to offer more assistance, bolstering the new ‘national champion’ it had created at birth, rather than down the line, post-disaster. As it was, a relatively modest £25 million loan was granted to BLMC on its formation (repaid in 1972), and that was about it for several years.
There seems to have been little questioning by the Government of BLMC’s decision to strike out in this direction rather than concentrate on the core Austin-Morris competence in front-drive cars. Had Rootes been included under the BLMC umbrella, then the Hunter and Avenger could have acted as the national champion’s wing for the fleet sector but, instead, a whole new wing was created.
That said, the Morris Marina wasn’t all bad. Early on it sold well, as a new car in a boom, and was hailed as a masterstroke by the business press (people forget). Total production numbers were impressive by the standards of Austin-Morris, though that’s partly because it hung around for so long (until 1984 including Morris Ital) which was never the intention of its Designers. In many further-flung overseas territories and even Scandinavia there was significant demand for this kind of car, though few remember Marina with much affection, and the Japanese rapidly hoovered up much of that market.
One still has to consider the opportunity cost. Not proceeding with Marina would have allowed ‘the best Engineers in the world’ (as the Marina advertising put it) to focus on something more noble: quality front-drive models built up to a standard not down to a price and which, one would like to think, would have been superior to the actual ADO67 and ADO71 which took their time coming while Marina took priority. Sir George Harriman had warned BMC against ‘taking on the Cortina’ and that could be taken as a warning against getting down into the gutter of the fleet market. With the Marina, Austin-Morris tried to do just that and, in the view of the writer, that was a blunder.
In more general terms, the infusion of Ford thinking and the associated drive to become a low-cost producer can be seen as disastrous for Austin-Morris (and British Leyland as the influence was felt on other models like the Rover SD1). It was only really challenged when the partnership with Honda exposed the organisation to another philosophy, which specified components that performed well rather than being cheap (as discussed by Roy Axe in his autobiography). The resulting cars were perceived as better by consumers, so sold better, allowing pricing to be kept competitive anyway, as economies of scale reduced unit costs.
Dual branding diversion
Interwoven with the decision to build the Morris Marina is the dual channel strategy, sometimes called the ‘Webster doctrine’ which saw Austin-Morris continue to be treated as two distinct brands with separate dealer networks (in the UK) and differentiated products. This may have made sense from a UK market perspective (where both were selling more cars than Vauxhall) but, from an international perspective, it made little sense when by 1973 more cars were leaving French factories bearing the Peugeot lion than were built by Austin-Morris in the UK. Even in Britain, it undoubtedly contributed to the situation where Marina cannibalised sales from the unfortunate Austin Allegro, which wasn’t the plan. Within a short space of time it became clear the development of two differentiated product ranges was unrealistic anyway.
With the 1970s being a decade in which Austin-Morris would have to stand up internationally to strong brands like Toyota and Volkswagen, there was a need to settle on and strengthen a clear company brand name, with Austin being the obvious contender (and with MG also remaining an international brand). In North America and South Africa Morris branding was already history by 1970 (hence the ‘Austin Marina’ sold in both).
Within the UK itself there could still have been opportunities for variations on ‘badge-engineering’ (so Morris and Wolseley need not have died). The much-admired Japanese car industry showed itself quite happy to indulge in what amounted to badge-engineering for the domestic market in the 1980s (Eunos, Verno etc.), but it mostly stayed internal to Japan.
Instead, during the 1968-75 Austin Morris era, both names continued to be used in most markets while additional confusion came from the promotion of ‘British Leyland’ as effectively an umbrella brand which left consumers baffled as to whom they were buying cars from, and what they stood for. You don’t see adverts today urging consumers to buy a Stellantis car, but the promotion of ‘British Leyland’ 50 years ago was the equivalent of just that.
Meanwhile, the well-known Mini, from which it was hoped many owners overseas would trade up to bigger cars in the range, was given its own brand, weakening the link to either Austin or Morris – or it wasn’t, depending on the country. In the absence of clear direction, strategies differed markedly between markets.
It’s a thorny issue, and one which BMC had grappled with ineffectually over many years. There was probably more than one way to resolve it, but it needed to be resolved. Eventually, after several switches of policy and the ill-advised promotion of ‘Leyland’ as the marque in the late 1970s, things did boil down to branding all the ‘indigenous’ models either Austin or MG worldwide (alongside the Honda-derived Rovers) in the mid-80s. But that nettle should have been grasped earlier.
Austin-Morris may have been dealt rather a bad hand in terms of the many external circumstances that caused difficulty first for BMC then its successor. There was no shortage of commentators in the early 1970s ready to cast doubt on the long-term future of British Leyland with its appalling strike record, with Austin-Morris responsible for most of the days lost, as it was for production. But there was also plenty of room for optimism until at least May 1973, a watershed month in many ways when the fate of Austin-Morris, as a semi-autonomous volume car maker within a private corporation, was sealed.
Two of the perceived handicaps of the late Sixties had after all been lifted, or so it seemed. The Heath Government’s ‘dash for growth’ had seen UK car sales lifted out of the doldrums to reach record highs, so complaints of a weak home market were silenced, for now. Austin-Morris had been unable to keep pace with demand as detailed by Ian but, once the agonies over the introduction of Measured Day Working were over and a new car introduced in the heart of the market, there was no reason the company should not have been able to lift production volumes and win back some of the market share lost to importers. It was common to find people in 1972 and 1973 describing the sudden surge in imports, particularly the slightly outlandish Datsun cars (a story detailed in ‘Octav Botnar – and the rise and fall of Datsun/Nissan UK‘) as a temporary phenomenon comparable to the flood of ‘bubble car’ imports after the Suez Crisis.
Moreover, with EEC entry achieved on 1 January 1973, Austin-Morris was coming closer to the level playing field it had long sought to compete with the Europeans on their own turf, though tariffs would not fully disappear until 1977.
Assuming the UK car market remained as strong as 1972, and as 1973 appeared to be turning out (over 1.6 million cars), then Austin-Morris with the brand new ‘all things to all men’ Allegro on stream should be able to increase domestic sales volume in years to come, it was believed. Once launched on the continent, the Allegro should be able to replicate the success of the Mini in the segment above and help the transformation of Austin-Morris from ‘Mini supplier’ to ‘range provider’ in those markets, a hope encapsulated in forecasts of British Leyland’s continental sales volume doubling to 500,000 cars by 1975. Parallels could be drawn with Volkswagen’s expansion from foundations laid by Beetle.
Add those two volume forecasts together, and the future looked bright…
However, that was not to be as the ‘Barber boom’ was already turning to bust in May 1973. Faced with mounting inflation and surging imports (including car imports), the Government cut spending and hiked interest rates (to 11.5% by July) which dampened demand including demand for cars. The property market took a tumble. That might have been survivable if the crisis in the Middle East had not then sparked the start of a full-scale recession in October, to be followed by the Three-Day Week and what was termed the ‘industrial crisis’. For 1974, car sales were down to 1.26 million, lower than 1971. But imports had gained an extra 10% of the market since 1971 during the supply-constrained boom (up to 27.9% import penetration for 1974) much at the expense of Austin-Morris and, as experience showed, they would hang on to it.
Meanwhile, on the European front, the progress of British Leyland (largely down to Austin-Morris) in building sales to a peak of 250,000 in 1971 had slipped into reverse as the over-heated domestic market was given priority against a background of strikes constraining production. 1973 was back down to 200,000 cars (including all those produced at Seneffe, Innocenti and AUTHI) – not the best platform for the intended expansion of sales, especially as distribution network reorganisation had thinned the dealer network in many markets.
In a nutshell, Austin-Morris suffered from terrible timing in launching its brand new car, successor to the 1100/1300 that had been market-leader for many years, on the cusp of a downturn which would turn into a slump. It was a timing mishap repeated concurrently with the Leyland P76 in Australia, also unveiled (to the press) in May 1973, and added to the many woes of British Leyland in 1974. On the continent, the sharp contraction in car demand which came with the Energy Crisis saw well-established players like Fiat and Renault discount heavily to maintain volume, so prospects for a new entrant from Austin-Morris were poor when in better times the Allegro (especially if rather better conceived) might have racked up many more conquest sales.
Blame the Austin Allegro?
Despite the gravity of the situation in 1974, an excellent new car could have saved the day for Austin-Morris (and by extension, British Leyland). Volkswagen was in grave trouble at around the same time before the Golf essentially righted the ship. Peugeot-Citroën came close to collapse after the disastrous acquisition of Chrysler Europe, but the Peugeot 205 rode to the rescue.
However, as very well documented by now, the Austin Allegro missed the mark for many reasons. There’s no need to catalogue all the perceived deficiencies of its design here but, suffice to say, it never came close to meeting the production forecasts once attached to it.
This should have been almost the ‘national car’ and heading the best-seller list in Britain as its predecessor had done. Instead, it never came higher than fifth position, and production rarely surpassed 2500 cars a week when BMC had been building almost 7000 of the 1100/1300 weekly at the peak. Within a few years Allegro was down to 1000. Some of that can be blamed on splitting the market with Marina, but that wasn’t the plan.
Austin-Morris, tortured by the sudden sharp recession anyway, had to accept they had a failure on their hands. Mothballing the brand new Trentham paint shop at Longbridge in 1975, a facility designed to paint 5000 Allegro bodies weekly, was about as big an admission of defeat as one can imagine. It was surplus to requirements.
The vision of Allegro spearheading a doubling of continental European sales volume had to be radically revised as a result. Ample production capacity was lined up with Seneffe assembling Allegros from 1974 with Innocenti also building the Regent version (which Geoffrey Robinson believed could be exported beyond Italy). One can catch a glimpse of Allegro’s anticipated success in the Netherlands where it briefly sold almost as well as the Mini, lifting BL’s market share, before enthusiasm waned.
The anticipated demand wasn’t there and although a total of around 150,000 Allegros were sold to Europeans in its lifetime, that wasn’t nearly enough to prevent British Leyland’s sales in Europe contracting rather than expanding as various plans had demanded. They had 3% of the continental European market in the early 1970s, but only around 1% in 1980. (the Ryder Plan had called for 4%).
The Allegro wasn’t a total disaster on the export front. Over 200,000 (close to a third of production) were sold overseas as detailed in ‘Austin Allegro – the export story‘ with markets beyond Europe like Thailand and New Zealand also absorbing fair numbers. But it had been expected to do much better.
One can only imagine the growing sense of despair as the Allegro, on which so many hopes had been pinned, emerged as a problem child rather than saviour for Austin-Morris. Graham Turner in a June 1973 update to ‘The Leyland Papers‘ refers diplomatically to ‘a rather mixed reception’. The quality of the early cars was clearly not acceptable, something which can be traced in part to design failings, but also a troubled plant where workers felt they’d just suffered a stinging defeat regarding the implementation of Measured Day Work. The long-term test reports of early Allegros make depressing reading. ‘All-Aggro’ was an insult first coined by one of the usually quite restrained car magazines. This was a car in respect of which Austin-Morris felt compelled to issue a service bulletin telling dealers to drill a hole in the boot floor, as there was no better solution to the problem of water leaks. The German importer refused to take them for a period, while Auto Motor und Sport were a lot less impressed than they had been with the 1100 a decade earlier.
It got better, of course, with the Allegro 2 introduced in autumn 1975 correcting many of the initial failings, but the model would always be a weak player at the heart of the Austin-Morris team. Like some other cars from Austin-Morris one could mention, there was perhaps ‘a good car struggling to break out’. But the under-whelming Allegro, together with the terrible economic backdrop of 1974 resulted in British Leyland as a company struggling to avoid bankruptcy, conducting a fire sale of overseas assets and cancelling investment.
Chairman Donald Stokes later claimed he had tried to ‘hive-off or give-away’ Austin-Morris during 1974, having presumably concluded it was beyond the abilities of BLMC to turn it around. There are parallels with the exit of BMW from ownership of Rover a generation later. Leyland Motor Corporation, divested of Austin-Morris, could have reverted to being a producer of commercial vehicles complemented by the premium car brands of Triumph, Rover (and now Jaguar) and, in time, might have come to look at its seven-year ownership of Austin-Morris as a ghastly mistake, while thriving as a company more comparable to Daimler-Benz or, indeed, BMW.
That was not to be, though,with the Government taking the whole of BLMC into public ownership (95% shareholding) in 1975, followed by the creation of Leyland Cars as recommended by the Ryder Report breaking down the divide that had previously kept Austin-Morris at arms-length from the premium cars.
When that approach proved unsuccessful, the reorganization implemented by Michael Edwardes in 1978 again created Austin Morris Limited as a division of the new BL Cars. That was, in part, because it was perceived Jaguar, Rover and Triumph were more profitable and could be groomed into a business unit (the short-lived JRT) that could be sold off, which left AustinMorris as more of a rump, rather like the ‘bad banks’ that emerged after the Global Financial Crisis.
MG was transferred from its traditional position under the Austin-Morris umbrella to become the responsibility of JRT from mid 1978, though the ink would be hardly dry on that organization chart before another shake-up occurred in 1980.
Hence, from 1978, the future of Austin-Morris as a volume car producer appeared reliant on continued government subsidy.
Linked to that, the belief the UK could remain in the volume car business in a manner similar to Renault for the long-term was waning, though the Metro was about to come on stream as a consequence of decisions made in the mid-Seventies when it was unthinkable ‘UK plc’ could abandon the sector, so we were locked in.
Even the hawks in the Thatcher-led Government baulked at abandoning support to BL once the Metro had been launched in late 1980 in a sea of patriotic fervour, and thus Edwardes’ decision to prioritize its introduction was a masterstroke. £1 billion of additional state funding was agreed in early 1981 to allow another generation of Austin-Morris (in fact Austin) cars to see the light of day – but they were the last.
Could this have been avoided and does it matter?
It wasn’t written in the stars that British Leyland would fail to transform Austin-Morris into a viable rival to its continental volume-car equivalents. A different strategic direction regarding products (forgetting Marina and concentrating on quality front-drive strength) could have transformed the picture – as could a dose of better luck.
The Government (or successive Governments) could have done more to help. The amount of state aid given BLMC at the start by the Labour Government to restructure Austin-Morris could have been greater and the Conservative Government of 1970-74 could have intervened (contrary to their free-market principles) rather than leaving British Leyland to sink or swim. They might also have realised the folly of turbo-charging domestic demand when it was clear domestic industry would be unable to respond.
Britain could also have moved earlier to restrict imports from Japan though that was easier said than done (the eventual 1977 agreement being inter-industry rather than inter-governmental and voluntary). France and Italy had prudently forged their restrictions in an earlier era.
However, a more blanket restriction on all car imports wasn’t the answer. It would have sparked retaliation, cutting exports and positioning the UK as more of a ‘siege economy’. Rather than shut the country off from free trade in cars within Europe, an industry would emerge in time which would benefit, in a way Austin-Morris in the Seventies could not. What has emerged is a leaner, internationally competitive industry.
Such a development (and we’re standing a long way back here) is what academics would describe as a beneficial impact of liberalized trade.
It’s often stated Britain’s decision to join the EEC was solely responsible for exposing the car industry to greater competition, but it’s important to note that tariffs were falling anyway. The EEC lowered its own Common External Tariff from 22% (on completed cars) in 1968 to 11% in 1972 following the ‘Kennedy round’ of GATT. The UK followed suit, so that tariff protection (which had been 33% in the 1950s and was still 25% in 1968) also reduced to 11% by 1972.
Even if the UK had not joined the EEC, that scale of reduction in tariffs would be expected to result in an expansion of cross-border trade – in practice, European companies like Fiat made great gains in the UK market during 1972, when 11% was the tariff. Only if the UK had opted out completely from the international drive towards more liberalized trade could Austin-Morris continue to have been protected to the extent it was in the past.
Very few people were suggesting the UK should adopt such a defeatist and protectionist stance in the early 1970s, and British Leyland certainly was not. Through the company’s lobbying for EEC entry it was rooting for the opposite, for the reasons stated in that 1971 advert. Though once a level playing field was attained, Austin Morris got slaughtered on the pitch – at least in the short-term.
But by the 1990s, Rover was selling more cars in continental Europe than the UK – Cowley and Longbridge were kept busy as a result. The Honda partnership (which would have made no sense without the UK being in the EEC) allowed the company to do good business supplying continental countries like Italy with cars in the Japanese mould, which restrictions had previously denied them.
Move on to the modern era, and UK car exports have been hitting all-time records (until 2017 anyway) resulting in production matching the levels of the early Seventies. It’s unlikely we would be in a much better place if a tariff wall had been erected in the 1970s effectively forcing people to buy Allegros and Marinas while killing off the opportunity to export. Elements on the left had argued for just that in the late 1970s, and it was a vision that underpinned (for example) the opposition of Derek Robinson and his colleagues to the restructuring of BL, which was intended to make the company internationally competitive.
A big economic consideration which lay behind the desire to maintain an all-British volume car manufacturer was the trade balance, which swung into deficit on cars during the Austin-Morris years (in 1974). However, after several decades in which dreadful deficits were recorded, notably during the 1980s, surging exports resulted in UK trade in cars being in balance in 2012 and only marginally (given the scale of trade) in deficit in 2017 and 2018. An outcome policy-makers of the past would be pleased with.
Another consideration was employment, but if Austin-Morris still existed today as our national volume car producer, and was in any way competitive, employment would be a fraction of the level seen in the early Seventies due to automation. Already in the 1980s Cowley and Longbridge saw headcount contract even as output (and thus productivity) grew as a result of investment in robotized production for Metro and Maestro/Montego. With today’s UK car manufacturing industry (until recently) building as many cars as in the early Seventies, the current employment picture is probably as good as it ever could be.
So, if the UK today hosted a British owned ‘national champion’ volume car producer like Renault, would we be any better off?
Well, Renault now find it necessary to build many of their volume cars outside France (Twingo, Clio, Megane, Captur) and French car production in 2020 and 2021 (as forecast) is only fractionally higher than the UK (semi-conductors allowing). Renault’s giant Boulogne-Billancourt plant, often compared to Longbridge, built its last vehicle in 1992. The French trade deficit on cars is worse than Britain’s (partly because of that ‘offshoring’ of production of so many French cars) – and jobs have been shed.
It’s a difficult call to make, then. One can mourn Austin Morris, but perhaps in a rather nuanced way.