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 â€” 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.