Archive : How Harry Webster is going to shape your car

By David Benson

Harry Webster is a quiet, unassuming, generous man of 54. He also has one of the finest technical brains in the country and he is the man who will decide the shape and form of the British family car over the next decade. As the successor to Alec Issigonis and now the ‘supremo’ of engineering at the Austin-Morris division of British Leyland, he will be responsible for one in every three of the cars to appear on our roads in the future.

Yesterday, like most family men, he spent quietly at his home, in Kenilworth entertaining a few friends to lunch and dinner. His wife is recovering from a serious illness so he did the cooking, the carving, and the washing up. Tomorrow morning he will be at his office in Longbridge, Birmingham, master-minding the efforts of his highly talented design team. He told me:

‘Three main things concern us in the cars we are designing and building now for three to four years time — reliability, economy, and a minimum of servicing. Our aim is to build a car that needs little or no attention in the first three to four years of its life. And then when it does need repair the job will take as short a time as possible. In fact, with the soaring costs of labour, no job on a car will take more than an hour. Everything must be designed so that even major repairs can be done at any motorway service station. This means plug-in parts that you simply pull out and replace. The original carburettor, gearbox, or engine will be returned to the factory, and refurbished there under precise conditions and then resold.’.

Harry Webster started as an apprentice at the old Standard Motor Co. in 1932. In his rise to his present pre-eminent position he has been responsible for the design of all the TR series of Triumph sportscars, the original Herald and the Triumph 2000 and 2 5 PI-cars. Just before the merger of Leyland and BMC, he completed work on the outstandingly beautiful Stag and then went on to engineer the fast-rising Morris Marina.

He says: ‘With world fuel supplies being used up, emergent, nations pushing up prices of crude oil and exporting less, the main emphasis must be on conserving what fuel we have. This means using a lower grade of fuel. And lead will definitely, be dropped from petrol within the next three years because of the problems of pollution. The world owes a great debt to the piston ring and the poppet valve and I don’t see any major breakthroughs coming from steam, electric or atomic engines for cars except in the very far distant future.’

A lot of the expense in producing the modern motor car comes from the fact that regulations governing vehicles vary enormously from country to country. Harry Webster says:

‘It is fantastic the number of different cars we have to build to meet the varying requirements. Not just the proliferating antipollution laws, but safety specifications. We are working hard at it getting, first, national standards, then standards for Europe, and then international standards. In Britain the Big Four have got together and are working with terrific co-operation from the Government. Once these standards are set, production costs will drop enormously and so will the price to the consumer.’

Will this mean that cars will lose their individuality and become almost identical?

Mr Webster replies honestly: ‘To a considerable degree I am afraid that this is going to be the case in the mass produced sector – the 1100cc to 1600cc ranges – but no manufacturer can afford to completely lose his identity. I believe that the actual styling will become increasingly more important although it will become very much more difficult to achieve individuality in the product. But they are devilishly clever, these styling fellows. They already have enormous problems in meeting present regulations. If often seems to me that by the time we have met all the mandatory requirements for our various markets we give them a piece of paper like a child’s numbered drawings and yet they somehow manage to connect the numbers up differently. Of course, there will always be a substantial market, for specialised cars to meet.individual requirements, although I think the cost gap between the mass produced car and the specialist one will widen considerably.’

Harry Webster is without doubt the man to watch in the next few years. You will certainly be seeing a great many of his ideas on the roads of tomorrow.

Keith Adams
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  1. Given that Websters main project when he made it into work the next day would be the Allegro, he would probably have been better off staying home and doing the washing up. Lead in Petrol of course remained for nearly 20 years after this!And despite on-going predictions we have still not run out of fuel. Funnily enough I remember one of my teachers in primary school around this time teling us that we would never get to drive a car as there would be no petrol in the future!

    • From what I understand he was very frustrated by the process of engineering the Marina, Allegro along with the ADO74, which is why he was happy to leave for AP.

      At the Standard he had had a small team that wanted to be managed by him. Moving to Longbridge, he apparently found resistance in almost everything he tried to do and also that he was existing in a vacuum created by either a lack of information or out and out misinformation from a team spread between Longbridge and Cowley. Good part of this, was because he was seen as an outsider to the team at Longbridge and an arrogance amongst the BMC teams regarding the quality of their engineering v Standard’s.

      With hindsight, it would have been better to put Austin / Morris brands together with Triumph and so enable Webster and Turnbull the opportunity to use their own people to get a grip on the BMC business. Had they had a better understanding, when directed to build a “fleet car” by Stokes, they would have seen the false economy of using the Minor as a base vehicle and used the Toledo instead. Also with their own people heading up the departments, they would have been better placed to contain the engineering drift and misinformation which ended up in the Allegro.

      • There seemed to be a lot of poor communication between departments at BL, especially when former rivals had to work together & the dreaded “not invented here” mentality was common.

    • Your teacher is a prime example of what happens to the brain if it is fed a daily dose of the Grauniad and the BBC.

      • Just like you are a prime example of a pathetic moron brainwashed by the Murdoch empire & other right wing media outlets who thinks that acting like an idiotic meathead & worshipping Boris Johnson, Trump Putin & other popularists will somehow make you treated like one of the landed gentry & not the pitiful vomit stain of the floor of humanity you are in reality.

    • Peak oil seems a bit quaint these days as prospecting techniques have improved over the years so oil can be extracted from wells that were thought to be dry.

      Similarly with all those speculative science fiction stories about the population increases causing the world to run out of food. Some even state world population figures that have since been passed! Farming have been improved over the years & most hunger is caused by political stupidity!

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