IN ONE of the most memorable scenes from the television comedy Fawlty Towers, John Cleese as Basil Fawlty takes a tree branch and proceeds to beat the living daylights out of his non-starting car. “You asked for this,” Basil screeches, lashing the Austin 1100 across the bonnet. Yet if there was one British car of the 1960s and 1970s that didn’t have a patchy reliability record, this was it.
Introduced in 1962 as a Morris and subsequently available as an Austin, Riley, Wolseley, Vanden Plas and even an MG, the 1100/1300 series family cars were one of the few bright spots for the terminally troubled British Motor Corporation (later British Leyland). It was Britain’s best-selling car in 1965, 1966, 1968, 1969 and 1970.
The fact that it was so appealing to the British in the face of anything Ford could throw at it was due in no small measure to Charles Griffin, one of the best motor-industry development engineers of his generation It was his thorough and painstaking work – under the visionary guidance of his boss Alec Issigonis – that ensured the car’s elements worked so well.
Not only did it possess most of the lightness of control that characterised the earlier Mini, but its advanced Hydrolastic suspension made it extremely comfortable, its front-wheel drive made it roomy, and its smart Italian styling made it chic and modern. For Griffin, its success, with 2.1m examples sold, was just reward for many years playing second fiddle to Issigonis.
Griffin had joined William Morris’s Nuffield Organisation in 1940 after an apprenticeship at the motorbike maker BSA. Wartime opportunities – he worked on glider-wing design – meant he was soon chief experimental engineer, his first, unlovely task being to devise a taxi based on Morris van components.
But he was soon busy bringing what are now classic vehicles to the market, among them the MG TD, the Morris Minor van and the 1954 Morris Oxford Series II, the last of which is still, astonishingly, manufactured in India, where it is sold as the Hindustan Ambassador. By 1961, and after the merger of Austin and Morris to form BMC, Griffin was the company’s director of engineering.
Subsequently, he was the guiding light behind the scenes of many more cars, including the Austin 3-litre and Maxi, the Princess, the Metro, Maestro and Montego. All these cars were curates’ eggs, good in parts, although Griffin was proud of his work on the Metro because he thought its efficient use of space approached the standards of the 1100.
However, with an influx of new managers after British Leyland usurped BMC, Griffin’s plans for an improved 1100 were swept aside in favour of an all-new replacement. Sadly, the subsequent Allegro was a design and quality disaster. Ford leapt ahead in the sales charts, where it has remained ever since.
While company politics got him down, Griffin found solace in God – he was a devout Christian – and in work for the children’s charity Barnardo’s.
Charles Arthur Griffin, automotive engineer: born Birmingham 13 August 1918; married (one daughter, three sons); died Aberystwyth, Cardiganshire 31 October 1999.