I was there : Working in the Engineering Block at BL during the 1970s


The A-Series OHC engine

Working in the BL Engineering Block during the 1970s was a truly exciting experience. 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 a 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, some of them were not up to the job, but those who weren’t knew who they were and did their best to wrangle themselves through the system. 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?’

Some very clever patents

Many engines, such as the OHC-headed A-Series above, were experimentally built and tested to prove the viability of their Designers’ ideas. How about an engine with a self-adjusting fanbelt 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/retard 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 start in… er… TOP gear!

When is an O-ring not an O-ring?

These are just two of the patents a diligent search will turn up (neither of which were invented by me) 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 and then mould a sealing ring to fit the shape of that groove. Join the two pieces and note the 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 mention facilitating faster assembly and a reduction in warranty claims for oil leaks.

But no, ‘if it’s not round, an O-ring doesn’t work!’


  1. Ray’s insights are always a great interest. It shows the innovation was there at BL, just the people running the place were clueless! Even if some of these ideas had come to fruition in BL products, they probably would not have been tested enough before they became available and lead to a further terrible reputation for a stricken company.

    • Yes there seemed to be lots of bad communication at BL, where departments didn’t seem to know what the others were doing.

  2. Beans Industries, as mentioned in this article. supplied engines for three wheel Reliants and were based on a pre war Austin design. Actually the small engines and the light bodies of cars like the Robin gave these cars performance that belied their looks, I have heard of people driving Robins at 85 mph and being able to keep up with bigger cars. Also they were simple to maintain and very economical.

  3. My dad had a Robin before I was born, buying it after he met my mum and she hated his Vespa. He didn’t want to have to take his driving licence so bought the Reliant, which he could drive on his motorcycle licence. My dad always use to say how he leave my family behind when they went for a day out, as it had really good pickup and would leave my grandads Hunter behind. Unfortunately as Robin’s have a tendency to flip, my dad’s ended up on it’s roof and he then got a proper licence and bought a Mk1 Escort.

  4. Beans Industries ended up buying Reliant in the nineties, but this wasn’t a good move as the market for three wheelers was drying up and they were no cheaper to buy than four wheel cars, and both companies are dead now.

  5. It is clear that there was a lot of innovation at British Leyland, but the problem is that British Leyland had little scope to utilise it, it simply did not have the money, nor the ability to make it, to be able to invest to bring these innovations to market. If you look at their products, putting the leap backwards with the Marina aside, the Allegro, Princess, TR7 and SD1 all suffered from being under developed of development.

    They are not alone in this, my favorite example of ambition not being tempered by reality in Norton Motorcycles, who despite being effectively bankrupt pursued the objective of making the Wankel engine work, taking over I kid you not from where NSU had given up having bankrupted themselves with it, buying the rights to their motorcycle engine in 1972. Having Starting in 1969, taking until 1987 to have a product for sale in limited numbers (110 made) and the 253 of the later water cooled bikes.

  6. Here’s a rotary engine story from Longbridge.

    Around 1974, Longbridge’s Advanced Engine Design team were given the job of critiquing the Wankel engine (BL were probably considering a licence at that time). We hung out in the TIB (Technical Information Bureau) one floor down from the Engineering floor. We read all the serious technical books and in one book a typical American V8 engine was compared with an equivalent Wankel engine. It showed that the former engine had 150 moving parts to the Wankel’s 10. (The figures may be wrong but I believe they were of this magnitude).

    This was pretty impressive stuff. Actually, it was Wankel’s own propaganda, revealing a Wankel engine’s strong-point.

    Later, with more knowledge of Wankel engines, I concluded that the engine and its exclusive ‘Club’ of members, was a marketing illusion. It was also inconceivable that Norton would have the funds and technical ability to do anything commercial with the Wankel. After all, of those motorcycle brands taking out Wankel licences – IFA/VEB (Feb 1965), Suzuki (Nov 1970), BSA (Jul 1972), Yamaha (Sep 1972) and Kawasaki (Oct 1972) – only two produced mass-production quantities (say more than 1,000 units). Hercules (part of the IFA/VEB group) produced under 2,000 units in its 3 year production run whilst the Suzuki RE5 was quickly withdrawn from their catalogue. Production numbersa are unknown but with a cautious 620 units ordered by the UK importer it is doubful that total production exceeded 3,000 uits. The remaining brands chose not to exercise the manufacturing rights their Wankel licences provided or they produced miniscule quantities. If the remaining big spenders couldn’t make the Wankel work as a viable product, what chance Norton?

    Nevertheless, Harry Webster (BL’s engineering director) was a big fan of Felix Wankel’s rotary and an early adopter of the rotary principle. He even designed his own rotary engine.

    On the day I joined Advanced Engine Designs in the Roundhouse at Longbridge (around 1974), I couldn’t use the footrest of the new drawing board due to a large wooden crate (about 30″ x 15″ x 12″) stored beneath it. This steel-bound and padlocked box was so heavy that a colleague had to give me a hand. He told me the following story of what was inside the crate.

    With ‘Rotary’ the buzz-word of that era – think Felix Wankel; think Ralph Sarich (Orbital) – and with an NSU already tested by BL, Harry Webster designed his own rotary engine. Webster’s rotary is probably the engine described in BL’s Patent No GB1275544A – ROTARY-PISTON INTERNAL COMBUSTION ENGINES (published in May 1972) which names Webster as its inventor.

    As BL’s engineering director, Webster was well-placed to have his own engine patented, detail drawn and its prototype manufactured and tested in his own departments at Longbridge. It was Webster’s rotary engine that was locked inside the wooden crate beneath my drawing board.

    The reason it was locked away was the maxim that an engine must produce enough power to overcome the frictional resistance of its moving parts at all given speeds. If it doesn’t, the engine will slow down and stop. The Webster Rotary produced so much internal friction and so little power that it couldn’t idle under its own steam. Changes were made but the engine was a faux pas. It cannot have been easy for some development engineer to tell Webster, his ultimate boss, that the Webster Rotary was fundamentally flawed.

    It was Webster’s defunct rotary engine that had been locked inside a wooden crate stored beneath an unused drawing board in reputedly, Longbridge’s most secure building, the Roundhouse. Well, it did have a magnetic card entry system with a password keypad, both quite revolutionary for the early 1970s.

    Too much friction and resultant heat. That was the thing with Rotaries and in my later experience with Suzuki’s rotary engine RE5 model, that was always the thing.

  7. Hercules was not part of the East German IFA group (there also was no VEB group. VEB just means volks eigener betrieb = compaby owned by the people ).
    Hercules belonged to West German Sachs group, itself part of the giant Fichtel&Sachs corporation. F&S made millions of Wankel engines with air cooled rotor (induction air was routed through the rotor) for lawnmowers, chainsaws and snow mobiles. They sold their engine to BSA where it became the root fir the Norton wankel bike.

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