People : Harris Mann

Former Classic Car Weekly Features Editor, and Allegro and Princess owner, Richard Gunn talks to Harris Mann about his life and career. Interestingly, Mann confesses that not even he liked the Quartic wheel…

As a classic motoring journalist, I guess I lead a pretty privileged life. I get paid money to write about a subject that fascinates me, and that I’d be quite prepared to do for free if people didn’t insist on constantly paying me for my words.

Every so often, dealers or owners ring me up and plead with me to come out and drive their Ferraris, Rolls-Royces or Aston Martins and the like, something I usually begrudgingly agree to. And I’ve met some of the true stars of motoring, people like Sir Stirling Moss, Sir Jack Brabham, David Coulthard and Damon Hill to name but a few, plus many other celebrities from all walks of life. There are worse ways to earn a living.

However, there are times when even a cynical old hack like myself can be overawed by the sheer magnitude of a situation. One such moment happened back in 2011. On an otherwise dull and ordinary Monday afternoon, the ‘phone rang, and the voice at the other end announced itself as Harris Mann…

Meet Harris Mann

There can be few British Leyland fans who don’t know who Harris Mann is. In fact, there can be few British car enthusiasts of any persuasion who don’t know the name. As BL’s controversial Chief Designer during the Seventies and early-Eighties, Harris Mann was responsible for introducing three very distinctive shapes into everyday motoring. Most dramatic were his two wedge-shaped wonders, the Princess and the Triumph TR7. But most famous – or perhaps I should say notorious – of all was the Austin Allegro.

Much has been written in the past on the subject of Harris Mann and the cars he came up with in the Seventies. Little of it has been that complimentary though. Journalists looking for an easy target to make fun of were handed not one but two by British Leyland with the Allegro and the Princess. The cars might as well have come out from Longbridge with ‘Kick me’ stickers glued onto their boots. Despite the fact that I own both cars myself – or, then again, perhaps because I do – as a motoring writer, I’ve been responsible for casting a few poison-tipped arrows in their general direction. Most of my jibes have at least been, at heart, good-natured though. But there have been a lot of other articles that have just gone straight for the jugular.

There are two sides to every story, though. To many people, Harris Mann is on a par with Guigiaro, Bertone or Pininfarina. An always-adventurous designer responsible for some of the most radical stylings ever to appear in Britain, he’s never received the recognition many feel he deserves. That isn’t so much to do with a lack of talent as a lack of geography.

Built in Britain…

If Harris had been born in Italy or France, then we’d probably have seen extraordinary Ferraris, stunning Maseratis and awesomely quirky Citroens bearing his touches. And he would definitely have done the Lancia Stratos. Instead, though, he was born in London, and ended up working for British Leyland during its committee-led nadir of the Seventies. It was a set of circumstances which would have been enough to doom any stylist, however innovative and talented.

Yet all designers strive to design something memorable, something instantly recognisable and individualistic –  in the case of Harris Mann, he did three in quick succession. That what eventually emerged caused controversy is a sign that he tried to do something to stand out from the crowd. The new and radical always divides opinion.

It’s also important to point out too that, in the case of the Allegro, what Harris Mann actually designed, and what British Leyland actually built were two completely different things. Once the Production Engineers were let loose to wreak standardisation and cost-cutting vengeance on the Allegro, all that remained of Harris’s original plans was a mere caricature.

On to the wedge production cars

He was allowed a freer hand with the Princess and TR7 and, as a result, came up with two of the most distinctively-styled cars ever to emerge from a mainstream British car company. The dramatic wedge shapes were totally of their era. That the cars themselves later became to be regarded in an unfavourable light was largely the result of British Leyland’s financial crisis, appalling quality control record, atrocious industrial relations, a laughable attitude towards marketing and an inherent lack of managerial ability.

British Leyland wouldn’t even have been able to find a brewery, let alone organise anything approaching a bloody good time in one. When the Princess first appeared, the media loved the shape, citing it as “futuristic”. By comparison, its nearest rival – the Ford Granada – looked boring and dated. And however much traditionalists scoff at the TR7’s appearance, the cold hard fact still remains that it was the biggest selling of all TR models, shifting 112,368 (114,865 if you include the TR8) in just six years.

There’s also far more to Harris Mann than just British Leyland. He had a long and varied career within the automotive industry, and remained very active as a freelance designer, working with some of the biggest firms around on some very exciting projects.

That’s clarified the Why question. To answer the question of How, who better to explain than Harris Mann himself?

And what of the man himself?

The history of the man called Mann started in London, in April 1938. As far back as he can remember, there was an interest in cars, and when the opportunity presented itself, he went to engineering school. “It was a great help in a lot of ways,” he recalls. “That gave me a very good practical understanding of things.” He was able to put this understanding into practice when he got an apprenticeship with the coach and bus firm of Duple soon afterwards, which sent him for training in motor body engineering.

“After I’d finished the apprenticeship in London – it was a draughtsman role – I looked around for something new. However, it was difficult to get into the car industry in those days, there weren’t the opportunities there are today. So, I emigrated to the States, towards the end of the Fifties, to look for work. But it was the wrong time when I got there. There were problems in the steel industry.”

Harris stayed in America for just six months, working for the Raymond Loewy Company, although his personal contact with the legendary designer himself was limited. “I was introduced to him, but that was about it,” he remembers. “I was just part of a team, doing things like designing tread patterns and sidewalls for tyres. Then the work dried up. I came back to Britain and got nobbled for the army. It was meant to be two year’s National Service, but I got stung for another six years due to a crisis in Germany.”

A start in buses

After demob, Harris went back to Duple, but didn’t appreciate still being regarded as an apprentice. He was soon at Commer at Luton as a Draughtsman/Design Engineer on commercial vehicles. “That didn’t last very long, I had nine months at Commer. Then I saw an advert for a job at Ford for a Feasibility Engineer. I got that job and got into the design studios there. This would have been around 1962.”

During the Sixties, Ford must have been a great place for a young designer keen to learn more and show his own worth. It was a golden era for the company, when it expanded from Fifties austerity and a limited model line-up, to become arguably the prime mover in the British car industry, with a varied range of products.

“I did about nine months in the feasibility area, then I presented the Head of Styling with a portfolio of my own stuff,” says Harris. “I was breeding off a lot of Americans at the time, and they gave me an insight into what they were doing.”

The portfolio was impressive enough to land Harris a “proper” job in the styling studios at Averley and Dunton. In total, he was at Ford for five years, working on Escorts, Capris (“I did a reasonable bit on the Capri,” he points out), D-series trucks and some bus projects that Ford was contemplating at the time.

Moving to Oxford

His next move took him to the Midlands and eventual national prominence. “The person I worked for, Roy Haynes, secured a job with the British Motor Corporation to set up a studio in Oxford. And he asked me to go with him. I felt it would be a bit more of a step up a level. And so I went to Oxford, and the Cowley plant.”

At the end of the Sixties, BMC was still in the Issigonis era. However, Sir Alec hardly went out of his way to welcome the new young gun on the team. “He had a big influence. But Issigonis wouldn’t talk to me because I didn’t have an engineering degree.”

The first major project for the Haynes and Mann partnership was ADO28, instigated just months after BMC and Leyland Motors (Rover and Triumph) merged to become British Leyland. The car that would eventually become better known as the Marina was intended primarily as an Escort/Cortina competitor. It represented the first part of an overall plan Roy Haynes had come up with for BMC, whereby there would be just three basic chassis, onto which a variety of different bodies could be put, “…everything from Minis to Jags,” explains Harris.

The work at Ford

“When Roy worked at Ford, he’d come up with the conclusion that BMC didn’t have an Escort competitor. The nearest thing to it was the Minor. The Marina took the concept of the Minor and blew it up with a new body. It was an effort to try and split the product range and get some money back.”

Harris was also working on his own individual projects. One of more distinctive was Zanda, a styling exercise exhibited throughout 1969 as a showcase for products by Pressed Steel Fisher, the Cowley body-making company. The car was uncompromisingly wedge-shaped, showing the way that Harris Mann – and, separately, others like Giugiaro and Bertone – believed car design was evolving.

“In the back of my mind, I saw that as the route MG should take. I thought they should look at mid-engined designs (a configuration to which the wedge-shape is ideally suited). It was my way of tickling management. When you looked around at what the rest of Europe was doing, BMC was like a mausoleum.”

It tickled management enough to earn Harris the chance to be Chief Stylist on Austin’s next family saloon. Codenamed ADO67, design work on the car had already started at Cowley, before there was, as Harris puts it, “…a falling out between Roy Haynes and Longbridge. The people at Longbridge didn’t like a separate outpost not under their control. So Roy departed, and we were all pulled up to Longbridge.”

Mann on the Allegro…

The Allegro has become a notorious car for many reasons, but early Harris Mann design sketches reveal it was at least intended to be far more attractive. Explains Harris, “We wanted to make a far more modern version of the 1100/1300, keeping the long, sleek look. Then a lot of other things affected it. A heater was developed at astronomical cost which was very deep.

“That had to go in. Then we had to put in the E-Series engine, which was more suitable for putting in a Leyland truck. So the whole car gained in height. That made it look shorter and stumpier. Thicker seats were added inside, which cut down on interior space. It was getting bulkier inside and out, and lost the original sleekness. That was what happened unfortunately.”

And at least Harris wasn’t responsible for the infamous square Quartic steering wheel. “That came from engineering,” he says. “It wasn’t very good at all. But we were instructed to do it.”

Although he has often confessed himself “disappointed” by the eventual appearance of the Allegro, Harris is still defensive of it. “You still see more Allegros around than Cortinas of the same era. It took a lot of stick, but it wasn’t that bad a car. The trouble was that every one off the line was different in some way, thanks to quality control. I had one as a company car, and it was one of the good ones…”

The Princess was better

Next project was the Princess, and once again, Harris’ original ideas failed to make it to the metal. “That was conceived as a five door,” he says of the car now universally nicknamed the Wedge. “If you look at the rear, it’s the ideal shape for a hatchback. But we were told that would take away the major selling point of the Maxi. In today’s climate, you just can’t understand a decision like that. It was a boo boo. By the time the Ambassador came along with a hatchback, it was just all far too late.”

Like the Allegro, the Princess picked up a dubious reputation for lack of quality. “It could have been a good car. Unfortunately, design or styling seemed to take a lot of flack for what was engineering’s fault. It got let down by the details.”

The spin off from the Princess was the TR7, which continued with the wedge theme. “Over at Triumph, they couldn’t re-engineer the TR6 to get it into the States. They asked us to do a replacement concept, in just weeks. Lord Stokes was around at the time, and decided to put it into production with few modifications. It was done in a very short period.”

A trip stateside

“Before I looked at the TR7, I went to the States to see what was going on there. That’s why it was a bit more extreme. It was really only planned for America. There was no reason to think it would be a European car. It was also intended to be a Targa roof, but Engineering just couldn’t work it out. Which was a pity.”

Again, the TR7 has been regarded as something of a dark hour in Triumph’s history, but there was little chance for a car beset by so many quality problems, thanks to appalling industrial relations at the Liverpool plant where it was built. “The TR7 could have gone on longer, but the company ran out of money. Leyland had this ability to do a product, then let it run itself into the ground, not looking at the marketplace. The engine was another tragedy. Saab took that and made a great Turbo out it. Now that would have been something, a TR7 Turbo…”

Harris was also involved in the tricky task of trying to replace the Mini. Under the ADO74 and ADO88 codenames, Harris Mann’s new themes were radical departures from the cuddly persona of the original. ADO74 was cancelled in 1973, due to the £130-million needed to produce it, but ADO88, on which work started in 1974, eventually metamorphosed into the Metro in the Eighties. “We had the same sort of problems that Volkswagen was having replacing the Beetle. It was the same trauma as the Mini. There was just this love affair with it.”

Towards the end of his time at BL

Harris’ final days with BL saw him working on the Maestro project. David Bache at Rover was in overall charge, resulting in Rover’s design plans being pushed through in preference to Harris’ ideas. But he was called in to do modifications on the car though. “The big scallop down the side was derived from the SD1. The line was meant to link up with the lights at front and rear, but the rear lamps were made bigger. So the line looked like it was running down towards the end. I called it the Hyena look, down at the rear.” And the solution? “We had to jack up the suspension at the end.”

Other modifications were new headlamps – “they originally stuck out from the body” – plus efforts to try and reduce the panel gaps. “In those days, before computers, everything was just slapped on. David Bache’s ideas were to leave gaps on it, which just looked a bit much when they saw the mock-ups. To me, it just made every car look wrong.”

A few of the inherited features of the Maestro went over to the Montego. “That looked even more like it was dropping down at the rear. So we added an extra wide trim strip to make it look like it was running parallel.”

Harris Mann left British Leyland in 1983 after 15 years, with, one senses, a sense of frustration that whatever he tried to do was bedevilled by other factors out of his control. “I’d had enough, the pernickety attitude approach to things There was something of the Chrysler approach coming in, which was not to be in any way adventurous…”

Freelancing away…

Working as a freelancer, Harris went to BMW for an old friend, Hans Mutt, who’d become the Head of Design for motorcycles at the German firm. That eventually lead to more work on BMW cars in the company’s Advanced Concept Package Department, with one effort becoming a show car.

After BMW came various concepts for buses, lorries and trains, including Channel Tunnel freight locomotives. More recent work has seen him facelift the Subaru Impreza – “the latest one, seen at the motorshow” – plus the current ERF truck which he did three years ago.

Currently though, he’s back with a very familiar marque. “I can reveal what I’m doing at the moment. I’m working with Peter Stevens, the director of design at MG Rover, on the SV sports car project, getting it ready for production.”

Having also collaborated on the new MG Z-cars as well, the current incarnation of what was once British Leyland seems a much better place to work these days. “It’s been quite a project to work on, and it’s a great team. In comparison to working in a mainstream production facility, it’s all very refreshing, no politics. I’m on a freelance basis, but in a sense, I’ve come full circle.”

Back to Birmingham

With – at last – an increasing adventurousness in current car design generally, perhaps the time is finally right for Harris Mann’s radical and distinctive approach to car design to receive the recognition many feel it justifies. “I think there’s a lot of weird stuff around at the moment. I’ve got a great admiration for Renault with the Vel Satis and the Avantime. I think it takes guts to do that, and what they’ve done is really admirable. They’re a real revelation, and a step forward, I hope!”

Harris also professes a respect for Cadillac, which has completely revamped its range lately thanks to Simon Cox, a young Birmingham-based designer, and almost a protégé of Harris Mann. “The stuff that he has been doing is very good. It’s great to see them getting their identity back again. It’s all very interesting.”

“When I look back on my career, it’s been fun. It’s such a pity that it ran through the period of discontent at BL. It’s hard to stake your claim in this country and get the rewards you get in other countries. That said, I’m still doing it, so I haven’t gone off it.”

And there are probably many fans of his efforts who hope he never does.

Thanks to Richard Gunn for forwarding this extended version of his original magazine article. This version of the article was originally first published on AROnline in August, 2011.

Harris Mann picture courtesy of Kevin Davis of the Leyland Princess website.

Keith Adams


  1. Harris Mann was definately one of the most talked about and admired British car designers in the 70’s, his work was very exciting and adventurous,and as good as the designs that had previously could only come out of Italy, I loved looking at his renderings which possesed a very dynamic feel to them.
    I always wished I had his level of tallent!

  2. Would definitely buy a book by Harris Mann if it showcases his sketches and elaborates on other projects, along with Roy Haynes where the latter elaborates on his common platform proposal.

  3. It’s an interesting reflection of Harris Mann’s slightly left field tastes, that he was a fan of the Vel Satis and Avantime both of which flopped badly!

    A really interesting interview, it’s interesting that he came over to BMC with Roy Haynes, who seemingly had completely different ideas about what cars should look like.

  4. A man I have much admired for many years. With regards to the two Renaults – there is in my view very little relationship between superb design and commercial success. Even a cursory look through the pages of automotive history will reveal that there is little correlation. Commercial styling success is so often determine by the bland and mundane – if it were not so, the Audi A4 and Vokswagon Golf would be ‘duds’.

    • Those two Renaults are certainly distinctive, whether they are “superb design” is more debatable!

    • Well it would have looked silly with each side looking different (or pre-empted the Nissan Cube and Mk 1 new Mini clubman by a good few years) 🙂

      • Styling bucks often had different styling on either side for the purpose of evaluation, hence the insult.

  5. Interesting how his national service lasted six years, the maximum was normally 24 months, although a few of the last conscripts had to serve 30 months if they were posted to Berlin when the wall went up. I haven’t heard of anyone having to serve six years, unless he wanted to stay in longer.

    • I think the “years” is a misprint for “months” because he says he was back in the motor industry by 1962

      • @ Christopher Storey, I was thinking another six months as I do recall the last entrants who did National Service and were posted to Berlin when the Wall went up had to serve an extra six months. National Service was abolished in 1960, probably when Harris Mann returned to Britain and as he was born before 1940, he was eligible to be called up.

  6. Every interview with Harris Mann that I’ve ever seen, or read, seems to consist of him blaming the failure of his designs on everyone but himself. If he had taken ownership of a single mistake, he would carry a little more credibility!

    I am sure that he’s not the first designer to have to adapt to the needs of engineering and the accountants and others seem to manage it rather better.

    Alternatively, he could have taken the view of a talented designer, like Frank Stephenson; when asked what he thought the most important jobs of a designer was, he said that it was to defend their designs from corruption by Management (or something very like that!).

  7. Sir Alec would not talk to me because i did not have an engineering degree, sir Alec disliked book engineers but was very close to the shop floor mechanics, i am talking from experience.

  8. I agree with this. You need to work from concept sketches up to a full set of working drawings and bucks. Mann seems to suggest he did the concept sketches and then left the “design team” to get on with things.

    In his defence I actually think the Allegro styling was fairly decent and remember this was replacing the morris minor (in terms of market if not engineering) and some of that cute rounded style has been incorporated into the design. I also remember the Allegro’s styling being quite well received.

    The allegro had many good points but it developed a reputation for unreliability ( fairly or otherwise) had noisy engines (in A series form) and a poor gear change (sounds a bit like the Citron GS). Yes it was no alfasud, but the sud wasn’t exactly a big seller in the UK.

    What it lacked was a bit of flair. But in no way was it any worse than an escort or a chevette or an avenger.

    • The Allegro looks terrible, the problem for me is the front end. The grill and the wings look like they belong to two different cars that have somehow merged together.

      I don’t buy Mann blaming others for the styling failures of the Allegro. For a start, my understanding is the design sketches he brings out to show what he wanted the Allegro to look like, was actually a sketch of a reskin of ADO16.

      Even if that isn’t the case, as a designer he had to create a design which would work with the parts the company had available. He knew the E-series was a tall engine, he knew the heater was bulky. Instead of coming up with an attractive design which would work with the restrictions the available components imposed. He came up with a wedge design with a low bonnet line, that was never going to work.

      With the result that the car looked awful when it was modified so those components would actually fit.

      • Agree with you regarding the Allegro’s front end, perhaps Mann was too heavily invested in realising his Wedge theme idea that he was unwilling to embrace alternative ideas from his time at Ford (he was involved in the Capri after all)?

      • The problem with your argument is the design was probably made before the parts were decided. In most cases, designs for ideas are put together and shown to those in charge who make a decision, and then the winning design gets passed to the production engineers to get ready for production.

        A perfect example of designers work being modified is the Mk2 Capri, where there was two competing designs put in front of Henry Ford II. Ford liked one design from the front, but not the rest and the other he hated the front, so the production engineering team just merged both cars together.

        And it is well known that PSF did mess up with the spring back of the side profiles which ended up more being more bulbous than it was supposed to be.

  9. I worked at Longbridge Styling DEPT as a clay modeler untill Dec.1971.When Roy Haines left I thought the writing was on the wall for a future.I left to seek my fortune in South Africa,which to some extent I achieved.I was taken to Harry Webster for an interview but the Leyland guys had a own gang and the Ford boys had theirs. TIME TO LEAVE FOR SANITIES SAKE,I remember I was very upset on the last day.

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