Now it’s time for BL

Graham Eason []

Princess - a great car
Princess - a great car

It has become a matter of historical fact that British Leyland was the worst car maker of all time. Princess, Allegro, SD1, Maxi, Maestro, Montego. A catalogue of duffers that makes you embarrassed to be British.

Or perhaps not. I’m going to stick my neck out on a limb here but could it actually be possible that, like many other car companies during the 1970s, some of it was genuinely rubbish and some was actually heroically brilliant?

In the 1970s British Leyland faced a major problem – it had too many products, too many brands and not enough money. The idea of BL may not have been entirely brilliant – a British motor industry entirely owned by one group of people is hardly a recipe for competitiveness – but at the time it probably seemed like a good idea. Under-investment and market fragmentation were a double whammy forcing some good companies like Austin, Morris, Triumph and Jaguar into an uncertain future. So bringing them all together and combining their resources and investment made at least some sense.

The problem was that British Leyland bit off more than it could chew. By combining several different companies together, all of whom were fiercely proud of being independent, resulted in huge bureaucracy and exactly the inefficiency that the creation of BL was designed to prevent. It didn’t help that several of these companies were misled into imagining they were joining some sort of democratic consortium that would give them investment and expect nothing in return.

From what was undoubtedly a poorly managed mess, British Leyland pulled rabbits as well as turkeys out of the hat and in this they were no better or worse than their competitors. There are no surprises in the list of duds.

The Morris Marina was certainly a spectacularly badly conceived car being essentially a Morris Minor with new bodywork. I know there are plenty of people out there ready to defend it but the Austin Allegro was a travesty. The design was so remarkably compromised by British Leyland indecisiveness and underinvestment that it deserves its reputation for quartic-wheeled, screen-popping mediocrity. This wasn’t a good car built badly, like so much of BL’s output, this was a bad car.

And there, I think, the list ends. Sure, British Leyland spent too much time repackaging aging models for a new era – Jaguar XJ6, MGB, MG Midget among others – but it wasn’t alone in doing this. British Leyland also put considerable investment into new product and we tend to overlook or forget just how much new stuff was punted out of Longbridge and its sister plants.

The Princess is viewed retrospectively as a joke but in terms of design, packaging, comfort and ride it was excellent and arguably ground-breaking.

The Triumph Dolomite Sprint was, frankly, brilliant – the world’s first 16v family car. The Triumph TR7 was badly packaged – 2-litre engine developed from the Dolomite’s, lovely plaid seating and a dashboard seemingly designed to prove just how inexpensive plastic could be – but it was a basically good car with a bold design that moved the Triumph brand forward. The Rover SD1 is possibly one of the best executive cars of the last 30 years.

The Metro really did move the Mini concept forwards and at its launch was seen as a very bold and intelligent step. None of these cars arguably represented the safe option – they were all a valiant attempt to do something better than before. Even the Maestro and Montego were fundamentally right – simple, honest and reasonably attractive cars designed to appeal to a clearly defined group of people and representing good competition in the market.

Mention any of these cars, however, and eyeballs roll. That’s because their packaging and detailing was terrible and they were built very, very badly. The packaging gave us interiors that brought new meaning to ugliness and austerity with grey plastics and rubbish switchgear.

British Leyland bolted stuff together in the same way that I manage DIY – enthusiastically but ultimately very badly. This isn’t really the fault of the workers who, despite Red Robbo, actually liked what they did. It is about bad management and under-investment. It’s about believing that sticking one of the multitude of BL badges onto a fundamentally good car would be good enough. It wasn’t. Reputations can be stained and BL managed this task with virtually every one it touched.

British Leyland didn’t have to be a failure and it didn’t just make bad cars. It actually made good cars and the occasional dud. Today many of them should be revered as great classic cars. It’s been fun kicking this dead donkey.

Now it’s time to bring BL back from the brink.

Keith Adams


  1. If the Marina and Allegro were bad cars, then there are a lot of gullible buyers out there, or they would never have been common.

    At least they were commercially successful, unlike some other ‘worst cars’ like the Ford Edsel and AMC Pacer. (No offence intended to owners of these cars).

    There are a lot of people out there ready to defend these cars. I’m one of them.

  2. Whilst I would agree with most of your view there are some buts. The Marina,hastily conceived out of necessity,was infact the company’s last million seller and apart from the suspect handling on the early 1.8’s there was little to offend. The TR7,probably the best 2 seater budget sports car of its generation never used a Marina engine,it was a Dolomite Sprint engine without the 16 valve head. As for the Allegro,and this for me was BL’s biggest failing,only in the last of the line did the car become what it should have been at launch.

  3. I agree with most of what you say – the Princess, Dolomite and TR7 were good designs, but flawed. The Princess had awful engines (2.2 lites in a car about the size of a Focus, and still with limited performance and awful economy!), the Dolly went on too long, and the TR7 had controversial styling. And it should have been softtop from the start. The key issues for me were poor reliability and build quality (pretty well across the range) and limited investment in the product. Most models stayed in production too long, and were overtaken by rivals.

    I’m still wondering what would have happened if the merger hadn’t gone ahead. Rover-Triumph looked very promising in the mid-60s.

  4. Just to say that the TR7 NEVER had a Marina engine. It was the same engine as the 1850 Dolomite bored out to 2 litre. Another misconception is that it was the Sprint 16v engine without the head, unfortunately not, the Sprint head would not fit the TR7 block.

    Like all cars of this era, the TR7 suffered from very indifferent build quality, but for all that it was a good car.

  5. Good article, but the usual comment about BL being badly managed does deserve some flak from me. You cannot manage any business efficiently if the workforce are unwilling to co-operate with you, no matter how talented the management team are. The BL workforce were gullible and all to easilly swayed by the campaign of disaffection waged by the British Leyland Combined shop stewards committee who successfully undermined workforce morale and sabotaged the sales focussed management from Stokes to Edwardes. The British Leyland Combined shop stewards committee was the one part of the organisation that succeeded brilliantly. Despite repeated efforts to ram home the concept that the needs of the customer was paramount, it was all in vain. Managers had no hope of getting a grip on issues such as build quality if such efforts would result in a walkout. It is said that “selling” is a dirty word in Britain, an alien concept that hails from the brash USA, and certainly the need for BL to sell its wares to pay its way in the world failed to sink into the mindset of the companies shopfloor workers.
    As for the cars, all had at one stage a waiting list except the Allegro which never ever came near its planned output of 4000 to 4500 per week.
    The best it managed was 2500 per week. Demand for the BL models evaporated when the never ending round of strikes tested the patience of potential customers, who defected to other brands.

  6. They sold well in Britain but the exports were about dead. Just too many things went wrong with BL cars. Weak transmissions and rust. Ropey cars as my Mother used to say about 1100’s or 1800’s. Yes sure some people loved them and a few did see 200,000 miles however the majority opinion was negative. Everybody who owned a BL car as I did in my youth can tell you stories of grinding gears, rust and worn out steering racks at 60,000 miles or suspensions either breaking or sinking. They were making 1950’s cars in the 1970’s and into the ’80’s. A Renault, VW, Toyota or whatever just were better cars and in the export markets people abandoned BL cars for a French, German or Japanese car.
    Yes they had some great designs but could not either manufacture them or manage to style them properly. Being in any business is like being in a game of musical chairs. BL was always last to the chair and lost out. As for blaming the workers, well sorry but when things go wrong it is always the mangement’s fault. Moaning workers is just human nature. I would say if BMC had concentrated on developing a good transmission to turn the Morris Minor into a Cortina instead of working on grand theories which just did not work in the real world – the 1800 – or indeed turn the Oxford into an Arrow/Hunter then I reckon things could have been different. A BL car mean’t you were about guaranteed a bust gearbox. This destroyed BL’s reputation.

  7. Its sad what happened to BL and many people, myself included do wish things were different. A great example of how a bad reputation killed a company was the 1990- Rover Metro. Compare a Rover Metro 1.1C to a Fiesta 1.1 pop+ and the Metro was a much better car in all respects. The many problems the Austin Metro were cured and the K-Series engine was excellent so with the new engine, Peugeot gearbox and vastly improved build the Rover Metro was a good car. A MK3 Fiesta was a horrible tappity nasty car. However I can remember very clearly people recoiling at the thought of buying the Metro because of the reputation BL had earned. AR dropped the Austin name, they should have dropped the Metro name as well in this case. Just too many problems in BL in the 1970’s for any one to manage. BMC maybe should have tied up with Ford or GM in the 1960’s. By 1975 I don’t think any other manufacturer would touch BL. Perhaps if Renault stepped in and rationalised by ending BL’s engine and transmission manufacture, used Renault engines and gearboxes then left the remains of BL to design and build the remainder of a car? Who knows.

    • IIRC there were plans for BL & Renault to jointly develop a model, but it never got past the planning stage partially because Renault’s demands were too much, especially regarding export markets.

      Renault was slow to switch to transverse engines & the 14 used the Peugeot suitcase units.

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