I was there : Austin Allegro memories

Austin Allegro (ADO67) testing in Finland

I was a Petrol Engine Designer at Longbridge from 1970 to 1976, and saw some very interesting sights. In the pre-launch days of ADO67 Austin Allegro, Harry Webster and Ray Bates were the big beasts in the Engineering Block at Longbridge. Bates was a big man whereas Webster was small and slight in stature.

Bates test drove the ADO67 one weekend and came back saying that the throttle action off-idle was too fierce for his Size 12 shoes (unlike Harry Webster who had no trouble with his Size 4s).

This led to kangaroo starts from the traffic lights. I had the job of redesigning what we called the ‘snail cam’ throttle lever on the SU carburettor. But whenever it was ‘soft’ enough to satisfy Bates, Webster would say that the throttle pedal had too much movement for too little throttle action. There was no compromise.

Austin Allegro interior

Seeing the big picture

Some management report must have said that we Designers were too close to our individual parts and too far from the whole cars. We were unable to see the big picture.

The answer was to erect a dozen or so trestle tables in the Engineering Block and to cover them with every single component of an ADO20 Mini. Each part was tagged with its part number, material, weight and cost.

It took a couple of days before I noticed the shiny new alternator had been substituted by a rather secondhand oil-covered unit – though still with the tag attached. Over the next few weeks, many of these new parts went missing and I could even name one Designer (who raced a Mini), who was figuring out how he could remove the entire body-shell one weekend without removing the double swing-doors into the block…


  1. An ex-colleague who worked at Longbridge in the 1970s told a tale of a Longbridge apprentice who parked his 1960s white banger Mini in a yard next to new, white unregistered one, and at some point transferred his number plates onto the new car. It served him well for a few months, with nobody at work noticing. At worst people assumed he’d re-shelled a banger. But a few months later the Old Bill realised it looked suspicious and checked the serial numbers, leading to him being nicked and losing his job. There are also tales of employees deliberately damaging parts, to render them unsuitable to fit on production cars, but being allowed to take them for use on their own cars. My wife’s uncle bought a new SD3 216 cheaply in 1988 via the employee discount scheme, thanks to a ‘brother-in-law’ he’d never met, but paid a backhander.

    • I was an Austin dealer in Redditch at the time and we had lots of Longbridge employees as customers and heard and witnessed lots of theft stories, the problem being management hands tied by the string militant unions. I was a technical apprentice in the 1960s and also learnt of these mal practices. People logging on night shift and going home . I remember going to a mark 2 launch of the 1100/1300 range and seeing employees mk 1 cars parked with mk 2 features already on them, the whole thing a joke. Now Live in New Zealand but was sad to drive past Longbridge some years ago on a visit home to see demolished pile of bricks.

    • It was common practice at Ford at Dagenham too. Recall my father telling me the story of a whole truck load of engines vanishing overnight, and z guy who brought in his damaged Cortina which went out as good as new (well it was new with the chassis number having being moved across)

  2. If I had anything to with Leyland’s Longbridge output in the 70s I wouldn’t dare say a word and I’d carry that shame with me to my grave.

    • Lloyd John should be the one who’s ashamed because whilst it’s true that there were a few of the old ‘pipe and carpet slipper’ engineers still at Longbridge in the 1970s, the younger engineers were literally fizzing and popping with fresh new ideas. Check the number of Patents granted to BL at Longbridge in the 1970s to prove that. There are literally hundreds (seven bear my own name as ‘inventor’ from my time as an petrol engine designer in the Engineering Block from 1970 to 1976). One of my petrol engine designer colleagues left and joined Rolls Royce where he was later named as inventor on well over 100 Rolls Royce patents. Make no mistake about it. These were extremely good engineers, believe me. Yes there were some idiots but those who weren’t knew who they were and did their best to wrangle themselves through the system whilst avoiding the prats. For example, I was once hauled to the Suggestion Scheme office where I was told that I was posting too many suggestions. “Could you slow it down a bit?”

      Many engines were experimentally built and tested to prove the viability of their designers’ ideas. How about an engine with a self-adjusting fan-belt or an engine running without camshafts? In the latter, the valves were magnetically operated and controlled by what we’d call an ‘ECU’ today. As an aside, the early 1970s was in the infancy of ECUs. Electronic calculators only arrived in the early 1970s and apart from the ‘stress’ section, all the engineers used a slide rule like me. The ECU allowed the valve timing, the lift and the valve acceleration to be optimised in real time to match engine speed, throttle demand and economy/emission demands.

      At a time when ‘pointless’ ignition systems (such as Lumenition) were the latest innovation, that simply replaced a set of contact points with a ‘chopper’ and a light beam, this magnetic valve system worked hand in hand with an ignition system that had no distributor, no points, no mechanical or vacuum advance/retardan ECU and a very special ignition coil. The ECU could vary ignition timing on the hoof to match engine speed, load and throttle demand.

      This engine was built and tested. Indeed it was fitted in the only car that ever climbed the Longbridge Test Hill from a standing star…er…in TOP gear!

      These are just two of the patents a diligent search will turn up (none of which did I invent) and I’m talking here only of Patents submitted in the period 1970 to say 1978 and only those involving BL at Longbridge.

      Many engineers left when the Ryder report did nothing to clear the blockage preventing such great ideas from reaching production. These were the pipe and slipper guys sitting at desks behind the rows of drawing boards and who really just didn’t get it. My own example (and a really nice guy socially) had been a Beans Industries apprentice in the 1920s when they made cars that looked like char-a-bancs. Now he was judge and jury on some of the most advanced engine ideas ever seen in the automobile industry. He certainly didn’t get it. For this guy, if a rubber sealing ring wasn’t circular it wouldn’t work. Pity Soichiro Honda didn’t know that. The benefit of such a seal is ‘cost-down’. Mould a groove around the edge of one cast component. Mould a sealing ring to fit the shape of that groove. Join the two pieces and notethe lack of oil leaks. The new sealing ring saved drilling and tapping many holes, many studs/screws, machining two surfaces and also saves the gasket. Not to mentions faster assembly and reduced warranty claims for oil leaks. But no. ‘If it’s not round, an O-ring doesn’t work!’

      So before ‘shaming’ the excellent engineers that worked hard at Longbridge in the days of the ADO67, you should do a bit more research and resolve never to tar everybody there with the same shameful brush.

      • I don’t think this sort of thinking was limited to the car industry.

        A while back I was reading about how it seemed that every home electronics company seemed to have a production engineer who would randomly rubbish ideas to make TV sets easier to assemble & especially work on by service engineers. A lot of old TVs ended up with a rat’s nest of wiring between circuit boards because someone didn’t like the idea of a neat ribbon cable linking each circuit board.

        • Yep that’s totally true. My grandfather worked for Ecko, Pye and Philips in the repair department and hated when new products came out that he knew would be back in the shop within a few months of being bought. This was mostly down to poor development engineering, not the creations themselves.

  3. Roy
    I don’t suppose the Mini racer you declined to mention had the initials CB and went on to head the Rover transmissions department?

  4. CB? What? Did he really? It was CB who gave me a taste for Marmite on a thick slice of fresh white bread. If you’re a Trans-man, what about HH and WW?.

  5. I met CB at a Birmingham Mini show.
    He was a bit stand offish, but told me how they tested and then rejected the Jack Knight 5 speed gearbox for the Mini and other FWD cars, circa 1978.

  6. That was strange behaviour for a man as likeable as I recall. What a character.
    CB once needed that most coveted Mini-racer’s item, a laminated front screen – pronto and cheap. Such a screen was mandatory for racing and, as CB knew, was standard fit for the Canadian Spec Mini. We started our search at the Salvage department in the South Works tunnel (where else?). They didn’t have one but gave CB a Requisition Note allowing us to go to the windcsreen fitting section in CAB2 and pick up a scrap item directly from the fitter on the line. Despite CB introducing himself in his best “I say old boy…’ voice, the fitter didn’t have a scrap windscreen. He made amends by taking a brand new laminated screen from his hopper and carefully striking the edge with a metal tool. With yellow crayon he circled the resultant minor chip (small enough to be hidden by the windscreen rubber) and handed the screen to CB. We returned to Salvage where CB negotiated a giveaway price and all was suddenly well with CB’s racing world.

  7. Here is the salient passage from your hyperlink.
    The aluminium engine blocks were fitted with spun cast iron cylinder liners that were initially manufactured by GKN’s Sheepbridge Stokes of Chesterfield, but replaced by spun cast iron liners made by Goetze after some seminal research conducted by Charles Bernstein at Longbridge, which proved influential even to Ducati for their race engines.
    Having departed Longbridge for pastures greener some 10-12 years before this research seems to have been undertaken, I have no idea (though I am somewhat doubtful that a reknowned trabnsmission engineer would be involved in developing the production process of an engine component). Out of curiosity, I indulged in some Google-research.

    There are a number of other websites publishing this identical article (though not Wikipedia, the usual source for multiple articles) which I felt was rather strange. I checked Wikipedia and found the identical article though missing the text in question ‘…after some seminal research conducted by Charles Bernstein at Longbridge, which proved influential even to Ducati for their race engines.’

    Wikipedia’s audit trail showed that their article was created in March 2004 and that the text in question had been removed on 26 August 2020 text because ‘…uncited Charles Bernstein. Who he? not the American poet, I suspect.’

    Clearly, at least one of the websites quoting this K-Series History must have copied Wikipedia’s article some time before 26 August 2020!

    With no origins cited for the relevant text, it would be interesting to read what CB has to say about this historic mystery.

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