Essay : We lose, they win?

Mike Goy discusses how BMC slipped from the position of innovator and industry leader.

Expanded and revised from his original blog thanks to popular demand, Mike Goy discusses how we had it all… and frittered it away.

BACK in 1968, a major concern amongst UK vehicle manufacturers was that imports – after being restricted in the immediate post-war years as the industrialised world got back on its feet – would soon take a 15% market share. BMC enjoyed a domestic dominance cemented after the 1952 merger between the Nuffield Group and Austin, but their subsequent decline as BMC, British Leyland, BL, Austin-Rover, Rover and finally MGR has been relentless and well-documented on this web site and elsewhere.

What has not been so well-documented, however, is the context in which BMC operated throughout the 1960s. If we look at the competition (both domestic and European) the British Motor Corporation were not the only manufacturer of motor vehicles experiencing problems. In Germany, VW were producing some appalling machinery and their entire range was rear engined, from the ubiquitous Beetle through to the 1500 and the 411/412. BMW, following their 1950s adventures with bubble cars and subsequent financial difficulties, had a very average range of family saloons spearheaded by the 1500 and 1800. Mercedes-Benz were conventionally engineered and somewhat dull, with their diesel cars being the preferred transport for German taxi drivers. Then there was NSU. The sublime and beautifully styled Ro 80, which, I believe (if memory serves) won Car of the Year in 1968 and topped the range. Unfortunately for the manufacturers, the seals on the Wankel engine failed spectacularly every few thousand miles. Warranty claims buried the car. The rest of the range consisted of very upright, two-door, rear engined saloons. When I was a boy, I remember sending for NSU brochures. The local dealer called and thought it was his birthday, finding someone to buy one of his cars. He was not amused when a 13-year-old answered the door.

The sublime, slippery, superior NSU Ro80. Think of it as Germany's Triumph Stag inasmuch as it was pretty much the perfect car, spoiled by a troublesome engine. Shame really, as it was so far ahead of the game, rivals only really caught it up in the Eighties.
The sublime, slippery, superior NSU Ro80. Think of it as Germany’s Triumph Stag inasmuch as it was pretty much the perfect car, spoiled by a troublesome engine. Shame really, as it was so far ahead of the game, rivals only really caught it up in the Eighties.

The last NSU product was the midsize K70 saloon prototype, which, following NSU’s bankruptcy, eventually saw production as a VW in the early Seventies. That reflects the financial difficulties VW were experiencing, taking on board another company’s product lock, stock and barrel. These days we think of VW as a financially rock solid organisation.

And remember Wartburg and Trabant (East German two stroke cars)?

In France, Simca had the boxy, rear engined 1000 and the extremely average Aronde. Peugeot had the Farina styled 404 (a very similar, but visually cleaner design than the Austin Cambridge/Morris Oxford), the space efficient and quirky 204 but very little else. Panhard had a very unusual range of cars that seemed to appeal only to the French, Renault were still working with rear engined saloons such as the 8 and 10, although they showed their hand with the innovative 16 in 1965. Citroen were obsessed with variations of the 2 CV concept such as the Ami 6 and 8 (the basic 2 CV was already 20 years old by the mid-sixties) and the wonderful but incredibly complex and expensive DS. A few years later, they took on an inexplicable challenge when they merged with Maserati. The delightful but idiosyncratic and complex SM coupe was the result, but the marriage was short lived and financially disastrous.

Citroen SM: the quirky result of a short-lived alliance between Maserati and Citroen.
Citroen SM: the quirky result of a short-lived alliance between Maserati and Citroen.

Moving north to Scandinavia, Volvo were virtually a one model manufacturer, only producing the 144 and 1800 coupe (remember Simon Templar in the Saint?), and Saab were totally reliant on the quirky 96, essentially unchanged since the early Fifties. Remember DAF in Holland? Another one model manufacturer with innovative Variomatic transmission but little else. Moving south to Italy, yet another rear engined range from Fiat with the 500/600 (which later morphed into the 126), 850 and, with the exception of the Car of the Year award-winning 128 in 1970, some pretty dull machinery with the 124, 125 and later the 132. Some exciting cars came from Alpha Romeo, particularly the Guiletta range, but they broke easily and were sadly prone to rust. The delightful and extremely pretty Fulvia coupe was made by Lancia, but these specialist Italian car manufacturers were hardly a threat as they appealed to a more select market. Staying with southern Europe, we had the Fiat clones in Spain, otherwise known as SEAT. And then there were Tatra and Skoda in Czechoslovakia – rear engined of course.

So much for the foreign competition, but what about threats from other domestic manufacturers? Well, there was Vauxhall (very similar to Opel in Germany) with a traditional, leaf sprung and rear wheel drive range in the Viva, Victor, Velox and Cresta. And then there was Ford (again, closely following the range from their counterparts in Germany) who really didn’t find their feet until the Escort and Cortina Mark 2 of the late Sixties.

Finally, we come to one of my personal favourites, the Rootes Group. I wonder how much of BMC’s badge engineering was influenced by this organisation? They too had taken on-board the philosophy that seemed to be rampant amongst British car manufacturing at the time – Hillman, Singer and Sunbeam were all essentially the same car cut three ways. The range was topped by Humber – large, staid and appealing to a similar market as the P5 Rover. But the innovative Hillman Imp was a step too far. Conceived as a rival to the successful BMC Mini, it had to be sold by dealers more used to larger cars. It was rear engined, unreliable and made in a brand-new factory in Linwood, Scotland – not a recipe for success. The Rootes Group were taken over by Chrysler at the end of the 1960s, flourished briefly, failed in 1976 and were then reborn as Chrysler branded vehicles (finally ditching the Hillman name) and later becoming Talbot. Along the way they launched a range of cars that initially looked quite promising (Alpine, Horizon, Solara) but these managed to completely underwhelm the public and the fleet market, especially the 1984 Tagora, a top of the range vehicle that no one wanted. Chrysler UK staggered on, finally becoming what they are today – the UK arm of Peugeot.

Ford Cortina epitomised the conservative tastes of British buyers and its low running costs ensured that fleet buyers favoured this kind of car over the more mechanically adventurous BMC oppositon.
Ford Cortina epitomised the conservative tastes of British buyers and its low running costs ensured that fleet buyers favoured this kind of car over the more mechanically adventurous BMC oppositon.

So just how did BMC manage to throw it all away? Again, this web site has closely documented the decline and fall of BMC/Leyland but the lacklustre nature of the competition in the 1960s, both domestic and continental, has not been discussed in detail. Perhaps being surrounded by mediocrity tends to dull the senses. Or perhaps it was just luck? VW only survived their rear engined escapades because the 1974 Golf was so right and they obtained a multimillion Deutschmark loan from the German government to prop up their failing business. Ford finally moved to front wheel drive with the 1977 Fiesta and set the tone for future hatchback design. It seems that Fiat are permanently struggling and have only survived intact so far because of a huge domestic market share and the deep pockets of the parent Fiat group. Like VW, they have got away with producing some appalling machinery over the last 40 years.

The future for British Leyland could have been so different if the 1973 Austin Allegro had been a decent hatchback development of the 1100/1300. This vehicle, like so many BL products, was a compromise and a poorly finished article but it still contained many innovations. Sadly, the one that people remember is the useless square steering wheel, but the marvellous interconnected Hydragas suspension and the innovative wiring loan developed by Lucas are rarely mentioned. CAR magazine produced a booklet inset for the Allegro launch and commented after driving over a dirt track Spanish course that on UK roads people would not realise just how good the interconnected suspension had become since the bouncy Hydrolastic days.

A final postscript to the whole Hydragas saga is that when the revised Metro was produced in 1990, the suspension was finally interconnected correctly according to Dr Alex Moulton’s original ideas, with a correspondingly dramatic improvement in ride quality. Such a shame that Leyland didn’t get it right in the first place.

Rover Metro boasts Hydragas suspension that actually worked.
Rover Metro boasts Hydragas suspension that actually worked.

The company had so many opportunities, starting with the runaway success of the 1959 Mini and the 1100 four years later, but a simple accounting problem allowed them to produce these vehicles for so long at a loss that the money just ran out. After Donald Stokes came to the rescue in 1968, more money was made available but this was diverted from the Leyland Trucks operation and bled that company dry. From the mid-seventies onwards, British Leyland were totally reliant on government funding and swallowed up hundreds of millions of pounds during the decade. But the crucial difference between BMC/Leyland and the European competition is that our continental cousins learned from their mistakes, using government and commercial funding wisely to produce winning ranges of cars. A double irony is that the same foreign manufacturers who were producing such mediocre passenger vehicles in the Sixties also went on to produce wonderful commercial vehicles and are still setting the standard today – think Scania, Volvo, Iveco, MAN and Mercedes-Benz. Once upon a time, Leyland Trucks would have beaten them all…

If we fast forward to 2004, the VW Group, Ford, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and General Motors have cleaned up between them, collecting (in no particular order) Skoda, Seat, Bentley, Jaguar, Volvo, Land Rover, Mazda, Daewoo, Saab, Mini, Rolls-Royce, Chrysler and in General Motors’ case, a substantial stake in the Fiat organisation…

Hard to believe then that British Leyland were once the fifth largest manufacturer of motor vehicles in the world. But it is also hard to remember just how poor the opposition was 35 years ago.

It is very sad that MGR has finally closed, ending over 100 years of domestically owned vehicle manufacturing. The Chinese alliance looked promising in the short-term, but SAIC were not prepared to sink more money into a cash devouring business. A crying shame, as MGR was the genuine article offering design, development and manufacture together with a well established British and European dealer network. The Chinese only have manufacturing and domestic sales facilities. It’s their loss, but comes at the expense of 6500 UK manufacturing jobs and countless design, development and sales personnel.

Ian Nicholls
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  1. Speaking of Wartburg prior to their departure from the UK, it appears there was talk of shipping Wartburgs to Finland where they would be retrofitted with the 1275cc A-Series engine though ultimately nothing became of it (with Wartburg themselves attempting to replace the old two-stroke with either Skoda, Volkswagen or Dacia/Renault engines).

  2. That picture of the red Rover 5 door mock up above looked really promising… another “what if” car?

  3. The picture painted of the European opposition is a bit too gloomy.
    Volvo: 142/144 saloons, 145 Estate and 164 3 litre barge. A complete range, though a one car company, admittedly.
    Saab: The 99 was presented in 1967 and was launched the year after as 1969 model year.
    Peugeot: The 504 came in 1969
    Simca: The 1100 lefyt out, transverse fwd 3 and 5 door hatchback was France´s no 1 selling car.
    Renault: Why leave the R4 out? FWD 5 door hatchback
    However, I do admit the british by comparison DO look VERY strong in 1968!

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