In July AROnline reviewed Martyn Nutland’s Brick by Brick, a biography of Sir Leonard Lord. It is an extraordinary and important work, the product of over 25 years of research, and establishes its author as the foremost authority on the enigmatic and oft-maligned man who wielded immense power over the British motor industry for over 30 years.
Robert Leitch was delighted to have the opportunity to put some questions to Martyn about Lord the man, the cars, and the industry he shaped.
Thoughts of Leonard Lord
AROnline: It seems that, even in the early 1920s, the technology in the British car industry’s products was advancing rather faster than the systems which produced them. How much of an advantage did starting in the relatively mature textile manufacturing industry give Leonard Lord?
Martyn Nutland: Perhaps not so much the technology of the products. For example, cars like the Austin Seven, and many others, still relied heavily on pre-First World War practice. But certainly the technology to produce them in the increasing quantities that the market demanded in the early 1920s was absent. Hence William Morris’s dependence on transfer machines to achieve the volumes that would lead to his spectacular success at this time.
It was Leonard Lord, of course, who made the equipment originally designed by Taylor and Woollard at Morris Engines, viable. I think his experience outside the motor industry contributed greatly to his ability to do so. As you say, textile manufacturing, where Lord began his career, was a relatively mature field and would have been a vivid example to him of the importance of production engineering techniques in achieving both volume and consistency. ‘Closer to home’ would have been his time spent with various quality machine tool manufacturers and no doubt gave him the confidence to adapt the transfer machines when he arrived at Morris.
AROnline: Lord doesn’t appear to have been a ‘car guy’, in the W O Bentley or William Lyons style, or anything like it. Is this a fair judgement?
Martyn Nutland: That is very fair. Bentley did begin his career as a railway apprentice but soon transferred locomotive technology to his cars which was not the most sensible, and certainly not a visionary, nor indeed imaginative, approach. Initially, Lord seems to have had no inclination towards cars. It was probably Carl Engelbach at Coventry Ordnance, when Lord was completing the apprenticeship he had begun at Courtaulds, who opened his eyes to the potential of the motor car.
And although he dabbled very briefly – just eight weeks in the toolroom at Daimler – he was still not committed to the automotive world and continued for some years in the broader engineering field. This placed him in a very strong position when he eventually settled in the automotive industry. His breadth of knowledge and varied experience could be applied very widely indeed, perhaps the best example of which is his leadership of Austin, with its diversity of products, during the Second World War.
AROnline: You have stated that, after the Second World War, Lord was the saviour of the British Motor Industry, not just Austin. How much influence did he have on what Morris (pre-BMC), Rootes, Standard-Triumph, and even Ford and GM’s largely autonomous outposts, were doing? He doesn’t come across as a man to lend rival companies a helping hand – refer to “BMC stands for Bugger my Competitors!’”.
Martyn Nutland: I think you are right to say Len was not the sort of bloke to give a competitor a helping hand. Didn’t he ‘stitch Standard up’ in blocking Fisher and Ludlow bodies for the Phase II Vanguard and a new Standard Eight at the time he took the coachbuilder over? ‘I don’t see why the hell I should put money into your company’. On the other hand ‘Bugger my competitors’ is one of his more ambiguous utterances. It is not entirely clear who the ‘competitors’ are. We assume, reasonably enough, Rootes, Ford etcetera, some suggest, rather foolishly, Morris, but it could equally well have been his foreign rivals at this time when export sales were crucial.
But to return to the essential point. I’m not trying to suggest, in claiming Lord was the saviour of the British motor industry, that he had any personal input to, or direct influence upon the UK companies you mention. What I am suggesting is that there was such a paucity of ideas and originality in those companies, whereas Lord was displaying the converse, that without his influence – albeit from the confines of Longbridge – the British industry may not have survived.
For example, if you look at what the popular British car producers had on offer in dollar-desperate post-War Britain, you see little more than mildly revamped pre-War models with an extremely limited market potential. Remember, Morris had a pre-War Eight and a pre-War Ten. That’s all.
Mighty Ford a minimalist ‘Ten’ and an anglicized gas-guzzling ‘Yank’. None of these cars were saleable in America from whence revenue was absolutely essential for bankrupt Britain’s economic survival and, had anyone had any surplus cash, which most people didn’t, few of those cars could have even held their own at home.
Lord, by contrast, had connived a perfectly balanced (8/10/12/16 horsepower) range of ‘new’ (1939-designed) cars. The ‘Sixteen’ (not available in ’39), with a versatile overhead valve engine, was genuinely ‘new’. By 1947 he was aggressively – and successfully – attacking the American market with a car (A40) that, although not brilliant, was stunningly modern in every respect, competent mechanically and brilliantly promoted as the ‘American’s second car’ and was a spectacular dollar earner.
This is where I’m coming from when I suggest Lord was ‘the saviour of the British motor industry’. That A40 got the industry back on its feet (wheels!) Other wonderful British cars followed – Jaguars, MGs, Austin Healeys, but later.
AROnline: The Austin AS3/A30 was a hugely important product for Austin, in many ways more advanced than the Morris Minor, yet the Cowley car consistently outsold the Austins. It seems possible that the pared-down version of the Somerset/Hereford design ‘vocabulary’, imposed by Lord in place of the Raymond Loewy Organisation’s original concept, may have done no favours to the car. Was it a mistake for Lord and Burzi to ‘water down’ the Bob Koto styling proposals for the A30?
Martyn Nutland: I think it is easy, and quite understandable, for us to think that something that came, albeit indirectly, from the pen of the man who designed the Coca-Cola bottle, Shell emblem and streamlined Greyhound bus would be superior to anything schemed by Lord or Burzi.
But Lord, like Herbert Austin before him, was a marketing realist. He fully understood what the conservative (small and capital ‘c’) customer wanted and would accept.
When Lord allegedly said to Bill Boddy, at the 1955 London Motor Show, Boddy being one of the most vituperative critics of the British motor industry and all its works: ‘Tell us what you want and we’ll bloody well build it’, Lord, almost certainly didn’t mean it.
What Boddy, Laurence Pomeroy Jnr. and their ilk craved was something from the British industry like Citroën’s brilliant DS19, launched that very year.
Lord knew though that a BMC equivalent of a car like the Citroën, however much it was acclaimed by a small coterie of motoring aficionados, would be a showroom disaster. Citroën’s British ‘DS’ sales prove it, as do those for the equally brilliant ‘Traction’ of almost a quarter century before. And look at the Austin-built 1953 Nash Metropolitan – an avant garde looking car if ever there was. It couldn’t even be tried on the British customer until a few years after its exclusive availability to UK based North American Service personnel.
To be fair to Lord, I think it is significant he was making a conscious effort to move the styling of Longbridge’s products forward. The Nash was not the right route, as sales proved. Nor was Loewy. For all that I don’t think Dick Burzi, for whom I have the greatest admiration, made a bad job of the A30, Somerset or Hereford. All very ‘Austin’!
AROnline: The appointment of Issigonis to lead the design of the XC cars, and similarly the BMC support for the ERA Maximin project, seemed to go against Lord’s characteristic engineering conservatism. The Jonathan Wood Issigonis book suggests that there was unease in the mid-1950s among BMC’s management that the car industry in Europe was advancing so fast that their future products could render BMC’s cars uncompetitive. Does your research suggest that this could have motivated BMC’s significant investment in such innovative concepts?
Martyn Nutland: There was certainly a lot of ‘dead wood’ within BMC, not least because of the predominant policy of promoting from within – successional promotion if you like. Yet to be fair to Lord, I think there is evidence that from the early 1950s he was alive to the need to make the products more attractive and across a wider market.
This was the thinking behind the Loewy contract but, of course, Lord got ‘cold feet’. Then if we look again at that Earls Court Motor Show of 1955, Lord did listen to the protestations of the likes of Laurence Pomeroy Jnr. when they argued British models were falling behind the Continental competition. And as you say, the XC and the ERA projects were the response; and a fairly swift one at that.
Ultimately, of course, it was left to Farina to give BMC models with a pan-European look. But the awareness was already there and Lord seems to have had the will.
AROnline: Still on the XC projects – the Mini happened largely as a result of geo-political circumstances. Had there not been a supervening reason to put the Mini into production – and quickly, is it possible that the whole XC9001/2/3 series could have ended up on the shelf, never to see production? This seems to have been the fate of many things which were going on behind closed doors at BMC in the late 1950s, for example Duncan Stuart’s ohc narrow angle vee engines.
Martyn Nutland: This does rather bring us back to the point of ‘dead wood’.
You cite the narrow angle vee engines and there are other examples. For instance, a viable independent front suspension system was available for the 1940s Austin Sixteen but shelved because of opposition from the design ‘establishment’ at Longbridge and when Garrett and Duncan, the latter on a short term contract, were working on the advanced design of the A30, Lord had to segregate them from those same people.
True, the Suez Crisis, was the trigger for the Mini, but I think Lord would have had to move in this direction in any event.
And maybe we should take on board that he was essentially a ‘small car man’. His first major involvement in a car was re-working the diminutive pre-War Morris Minor followed by creating the Morris Eight. He was looking at ‘mini car’ projects from the very late 1930s onwards and using that term around the same time, and when the early rounds of negotiation over a union with Morris failed and he had no access to the post-War Minor, Lord went ‘full-square’ behind the A30. So I do think he knew the way the ‘wind was blowing’.
AROnline: Is it possible that Lord was a psychopath? He displayed many of the textbook characteristics – ingratiating manner, high ambition, outward self-confidence, capacity for ruthlessness combined with personal charm and charisma. I don’t claim any professional knowledge here, but it is widely reported that the condition is far more common at the upper levels of corporate management than among the general population.
Martyn Nutland: Like you, I have no professional knowledge in this field but am aware from personal observation in a number of organisations that the condition is not unheard of in corporate management! But actually, I don’t think Leonard Lord was a psychopath, although he had some very deep-rooted personality traits/flaws. I can’t agree that he was ‘ingratiating’ – the opposite according to most sources! ‘Ambition and outward self confidence’, however extreme, were probably no more than a simple compensation for, and reaction to, a relatively deprived – and it was only relative – childhood and adolescence. The ruthlessness was largely the product of circumstance, particular situations and the times in general. The charm was largely reserved for women – and I mean that very much in a non-romantic sense. After all, he had considerable experience of them – mother, sister, wife, three daughters, long-term secretary, Ruth Bailey! Ms Bailey’s loyalty and regard is interesting in as much as an executive’s secretary’s view is usually an extremely good indicator as to the acceptability of the boss’s behaviour. Charisma was inbred.
But to return to the question: was he a psychopath? One of the classic characteristics is, I believe, amorality and Lord was certainly not amoral. On the contrary, he had an extremely strong sense of fair play and what was right and what was wrong.
One flaw though in Lord’s personality, that, in my opinion, often shows him, undeservingly, in a bad, but not psychopathic light, is the failure to act ‘at the time of the offence’. The time to fire Gerald Palmer was when the Riley Pathfinder was a catastrophe, not when the Wolseley 6/90 earned some fairly mild press criticism. It was no doubt correct to be shot of Joe Hancock, but the case for dismissing the ‘venerable old retainer’ was not he failed ‘to come when called’. Lord hesitates. Awaits the wrong moment. Perhaps because secretly he wants approbation. And what he gets is a reputation for being, petty, ruthless and vindictive.
AROnline: Is there any evidence that during his period as honorary ‘President’ of BMC from 1963-67, Lord was concerned about Harriman’s management of the firm. Lord was an astute product planner, but Harriman appeared to be spectacularly clueless in this matter.
Martyn Nutland: None of which I’m aware. We have to take on board that the relationship between Lord and Harriman was very special. For some of the reasons discussed earlier, Lord was flattered by Harriman’s doting admiration. And, they had been together for many years. Since Morris Engines. I suspect Lord, however foolishly, did not look beyond the fact that Harriman was, actually, a very competent engineer. He certainly never looked critically at his broader competencies. He was, perhaps, be-dazzled by the fact they were a winning team. But ‘team’ is the operative word. Lord does not seem to have realized Harriman was ‘ever the bridesmaid, never the bride’.
Or that as a ‘bridesmaid’ he was not that engaging, and as a ‘bride’ a spectacular ‘turn-off’.
All that said, we must take on board Lord was physically ill in that period from 1963-67. It may not be going too far to say dying. You can’t chain smoke from adolescence until your 60s and realistically hope to avoid lung cancer (which Lord didn’t have) or chronic heart disease (which he did). In addition, and how ever much he tried to shrug it off, the desperate industrial relations situation in the mid to late 1950s must have damaged, if not broken, his spirit.
Which does rather leave us with the question. Did he care?
AROnline: Finally, after “25 years with Len”, are you contemplating any similar projects in the future? Could the world be ready for a biography of “Young George” (Harriman)?
Martyn Nutland: Oh, dearie me… Len was hard enough, largely because he expressed himself so little in any medium. ‘Young George’ is worse! Someone once said to me apropos a biography of Lord: ‘Is there a book in it? An article maybe.’ I wonder if there is a book in Harriman that brings anything new, that’s printable, to the subject. But I would just love to be proved wrong.
For my part – maybe Louis Renault. Just like Len, in a sense. Much maligned. Much misunderstood. The tasteless oddball, who had no time for politics yet was murdered in the most vicious political environment of all time.
AROnline: Thank you for your enlightening and thought-provoking answers, and we look forward to your next project, whatever it might be. The Louis Renault idea would strike a chord with the fans of La Regie and its forerunners at AROnline – we’re a pretty broad church.
- Martyn Nutland’s website
- Brick by Brick: The Biography of the man who really made the Mini – Leonard Lord is available from Amazon at an eminently reasonable £11.97, or a mere £2.71 as a Kindle download.