Archive : Harriman takes over from Lord

Man In The News
From Our Midland Correspondent

Harriman, Lord and Issigonis - BMC power brokers

Young George has taken over at last. It was officially announced today that Mr G. W. Harriman is now to be both chairman and managing director of the British Motor Corporation. After 38 years in the car industry Mr Harriman has become the most powerful single figure in a company which claims to be the fourth largest manufacturer of motor cars in the world.

“I shall paddle along for a few years more and then let young George take over “, Sir Leonard Lord, the retiring chairman, said some years ago, and there was a good deal of respect and affection in that remark. Mr Harriman has been a protege of Sir Leonard’s since taking his first job at the Morris engine factory, Coventry, in 1923, there he collected both a patron and a nickname, for his father, ” Old George ” Harriman, was works manager of the Morris Motors engine branch.

One of the central experiences in Mr Harriman’s life was a voyage across the Atlantic which he and Sir Leonard undertook shortly after the war. In the hold of their vessel was a range of cars from Longbridge. The two merchant adventurers from the Midland car industry had no showrooms arranged in America and no assurance that anybody would want to buy their vehicles.

“People told us we were mad”, says Mr Harriman, but the trip laid the foundations of the British car industry’s post-war export drive in the new world. At 53, Mr Harriman retains the cheerful will to have a look at new horizons, allied with the cool eye for the possibilities in any situation, which have distinguished a certain type of man for very many centuries. Men like this no doubt traded for tin with the ancient Britons, ambushed gold trains on the Spanish Main, or set off across the Gobi desert with a string of camels to bargain with the Great Cham.

The painting of a Longbridge production shop floor behind his desk nevertheless reminds the visitor that this is also very much a production man. Mr Harriman became assistant works superintendent to the Morris engine factory in 1938: by 1944 he was production manager at Longbridge. He had managed to combine this rapid rise towards the top with a good deal of Rugby football. A captain of Coventry and of the Warwickshire County team, he had a trial for England as a three-quarter in 1933.

Reared in the Leonard Lord tradition, Mr Harriman has not always too much patience with people who need to look things up. On tours of the works he gives subordinates the frightening impression of knowing everything about every piece of equipment there. At press conferences he can reel off lists of statistics in answer to spontaneous questions. He knows exactly what is what at B.M.C. The problems facing Mr Harriman in the future will nevertheless be far more complex even than the assembly lines here, and he has been groomed to deal with them. He has had years of experience in high command: Mr Harriman became deputy chairman of the company in 1952 and managing director in 1956. He is an optimist about the expanding world market for cars.

Firmly convinced that the greatest new potential for the industry lies in Europe within the foreseeable future. Mr Harriman is a supporter of the idea that Britain should enter the Common Market if this can be done without injuring Commonwealth trade. He asserts, with heart, that the British car is good enough to compete with anybody else’s vehicle on equal terms. He is, appropriately, an advocate of big battalions in car production. Wages and prices of raw materials are unlikely to go down, he points out, and in order to compete one must increase the volume of production and do more intensive tooling to bring prices down or even maintain them. Smaller firms are likely to be less capable of weathering uncertain conditions in the industry, he believes.

Apart from his family-he is a married man with a daughter-Mr Harriman’s other interests nowadays are golf and fishing. He was appointed an O.B.E. for his wartime work on the manufacture of aircraft engines, and promoted to C.B.E. in 1951.

Keith Adams
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  1. The next to last paragraph is very prophetic. None of what he wanted came to pass and BMC was condemned to supplying a zero growth UK car market in the 1960s, while exports faced barriers. Production volumes didn’t grow as hoped (not at all after 1964). The root (or a root) of the troubles that beset BMC in the mid sixties.

  2. It would be an absurd stretch to compare Lord to Churchill, but Harriman, dutifully plodding along and awaiting his turn at the top, does have a touch of the Anthony Eden about him – finally given command, he makes an unholy mess of it, and a few years later gifted Leyland a business bereft of strategy or much in the way of future new models.
    The idea that Lord just picked a successor, years earlier, and that the board and shareholders rubberstamped it, beggars belief. BMC should have hired one of the best auto executives in the world, with vision and breadth of experience, not just allowed Lord’s No. 2 to slide unquestioningly into place. This “what-if” really does underpin most of the other “what-ifs” in the whole BMC/BL/AR saga.

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