A brief chat with the man who was brought into BMC by George Harriman in 1965, with a view to oiling the troubled waters within the company.
Interviewed by Keith Adams, 14th November 2002
The BMC Juggernaut was heading for trouble, and it was too late in the day even for a luminary like Raymond Baxter to make an impression on the situation.
NEVER has there been a more opportune moment to quiz the great man about his days within BMC. Very few people are around today that can offer such a commanding insight into this fascinating world. I met Baxter at his imposing home on the bank of the River Thames in order to record his thoughts on the key players at the time – as it was, I was not expecting quite such a frank and interesting discussion about the life and times of an empire in retreat, and because of this, I make no apologies for publishing the entire transcript of the tape I made of the conversation:
RB: I was on the staff of the BBC from 1950 and I did the Motor racing and Motor sport commentaries and produced and did quite a lot of other things as well; I was in the outside broadcast department but because of my particular interest in motoring and cars, I was made the BBC’s motoring correspondent. The first BBC motoring correspondent and I have to say, the last motoring correspondent – and you can read into that what you will! (chuckles)
So anyway as a result of this, I got to know people in the motoring industry very well and really counted them as friends of mine, like William Lyons, Sir George (Joe) Edwards, George Harriman, Lester Suffield, Donald Healey and Farmers in Rover too, to a lesser extent. In late 1966 at the Motor Show, this very powerful group consisting of Harriman, Suffield and Healey approached me and it was proposed that I should leave the BBC and join the British Motor Corporation. The brief was to improve the image of BMC, which was pretty diabolical at that time, with specifically, I learned later, a view to fending off the potential attack of Donald Stokes. So that was what I did to the best of my ability, and in order to do this, one of the major dealer range me up and said to me, ‘Raymond, I understand that you are all things to all men!” and I didn’t realise at the time that was probably a snide remark.
Anyway, I took on responsibility of really trying to get complaints dealt with first of all and I ruffled quite a few feathers in that context, but we got it going. But the only trouble was I got an immense workload from that alone! But, not content with that, we invented thing called the Mini festival and I ran two of those in conjunction with the newly formed Mini Seven club and they were a great success. We had racing at Brands Hatch, we had ‘Stuff a Mini” competitions with the students to see how many we could get in, which would be totally illegal these days. I think it was something like 31 and we had ‘paint your mini” and we invited teams from various art schools – and that was a competition judged by Alec Issigonis. We had Chris Barber with dancing on the Circuit at the end of the day…. And both events were a huge success and they have been revived recently. Then another aspect and a very important one was advertising and I dared to put my long finger into the Holy Grail of the advertising agency, and that put a few backs up. I didn’t think much of the standard of advertising. And then of course, there was competition, in which I was extremely interested, obviously. At that time, Stuart Turner was competitions manager…
Perhaps I should go back a little further.
When I joined, the friction resulting from the amalgamation of Morris and Austin was still vibrant and that was another one of my tasks: to try and sort that out. I did say to several people, ‘look, we’re all on the same side here, and get that into your head mate!”
Then of course there was the competitions aspect. I had been active in competition, and I was at that time driving for the BMC Mini works team, but as it were, the spare hand, the three main team cars ran standard and I ran modified to try and get the other class, which I did. So that was pretty satisfactory. As a result of that, of course, and indeed earlier because I had been rallying for a long time by this time, I had got to know Stuart Turner very well. I first met him when he was co-driving with Erik Carlsson when the won the RAC rally. Stuart became competitions manager of BMC and was doing terribly well and asked for some more money – and that was because his salary was pathetic! We were all paid peanuts and I forget the exact figure, but I because I reported directly to Lester Suffield, who was Managing Director of BMC – I went up to Longbridge pretty much every week. We had our offices at the end of Piccadilly in Devonshire house and I had a fabulous office overlooking Piccadilly right on the corner with a little balcony and everything. It was such a culture shock from sharing an office with Brian Johnston in the BBC, which was the size of this room…. – this was big executive stuff!
Stuart Turner wanted some more money, and I begged Lester Suffield to increase his salary because I said, ‘otherwise he will go to Ford – I know he will!” Lester said, ‘no”. Anyway, the raise was not forthcoming and Stuart left and it was a major setback, except that he was quickly replaced by Peter Browning, who was excellent. The competitions department was going great guns, but I had a lot of trouble with the MG Car club who reckoned that I was impugning their independence, which I was . But on the other hand, I knew John Thornley very well and admired him very much.
But the situation was that here was this major manufacturing conglomerate, which had just been pulled together and practically every section in it was at war with the section next door, and Alec Issigonis was, of course, a genius… and a great friend of mine, I knew him before all this happened. Ironically, to some extent, I became a bridge between Alex and the sales people. This was because Alec was up in his ivory tower just designing motorcars, which went into production without any reference to the people that were actually going to sell them. OK, that was fine with the Mini – well, not initially, even it had a lot of problems – which like the Morris Minor was an unqualified success. That really made Alec’s name.
Then the Mini came along, and then the Cooper-Mini, and I knew John Cooper very well. I invited all the leading racing drivers to the MOD circuit at Chobham for a demonstration drive. Of course, they were all racing instantly and that was the first Mini Cooper race . Everyone said, ‘oh God, what a marvellous car”, and of course it was. But, the basic problem was that the whole thing was schismatic: George Harriman’s philosophy was Alec is a genius, give him his ivory tower and let him get on with it. That annoyed Lester Suffield very much because he was a Managing Director, having been sales manager and he was lumbered – there was the MG 1100, which came out, which was not anything to do with MG! But it was a very nice little car, and I drove one on the Monte Carlo rally (and it iced up and we didn’t end up in the money).
Then of course, Donald Healey was in all of this with the Sprite, and I drove the prototype Sprite in the Monte Carlo Rally.
I was personally very much involved and could speak with some authority in certain directions. But all I could do was to try and be diplomatic, knowing that really I wasn’t getting very far.
Then BMC of course expanded and became BMH with Jaguar holding an interest. Of course, next it took over Pressed Steel, at Cowley, which was Sir George Edwards’ baby – he was brilliant, a great chap. So, we went on and then I organized a trip to Canada and the USA for the leading motoring journalists, which was a great success, but while I had taken all the journalists to America, the balance sheet came out, which was pretty horrendous. It was the first horrendous balance sheet, which had been exposed in the motor industry, and I was accused of being party to a plot to get all of the motoring journalists out of the country, when this came out! Which was of course, as far as I was concerned, I was not guilty of that, but I am not at all sure that Lester Suffield hadn’t thought of it – because he was very shrewd.
So then as a result of that, very soon, Stokes effectively made a hostile approach. It all tuned on the share price and in particular, what the trustees of the BMC pension fund would do. I told all my motoring journalist friends that this was the thin end of the wedge; Stokes has got Wilson’s support in this, and Wilson saw it as an excellent first step towards the nationalization of British Motor industry, which of course he very quickly brought about. Apart from that, it was Stokes driving ambition. I had known the man for some years, and I had known him as a brilliant salesman at Leyland (he had sold all his buses to Cuba, and all over the place. The mere fact that he was selling them at knockdown prices, and there was no profit at all, and the buses weren’t any bloody good either, was neither here nor there!) The name of Stokes was legion – he was very popular with the press, and I guess, thereby with the public and that was all to do with Keith Hopkins, his young PRO, who joined him straight from university.
Then the trustees of the BMC pension fund voted for the merger, and that was it…
Stokes got the lot, and I was one of the first people he sacked. I mean, within weeks, because he said, ‘look, I’ve got Keith Hopkins, I don’t need you”. I mean, effectively, that’s what he said. So I settled for what by contemporary standards was a derisory sum for breach of contract and a car. Originally, I was just offered a car and I said, ‘not bloody likely” and so I got this on condition that I wouldn’t publish any of the internal information, which I had, which I was quite pleased to do at that time, because I sensed that it really wasn’t going to do any good.
Then of course once British Leyland was established things actually went from bad to worse! ‘Red Robbo”, who was already on the scene became totally dominant and Stokes was very left wing, and therefore in sympathy with the unions. Whereas Harriman was bitterly opposed to the unions and had built up quite a file suggesting that there was a great deal of subversion behind that lot… and Russian money and all that kind of thing, which I think may have been probable – certainly possible.
KJA: I have actually heard from a reliable source, following Glasnost, that there was Communist money going into Derek Robinson’s organization…
RB: So that was that, and my ambition, which had…. Oh, when they persuaded me to join, and leave the BBC, they said, ‘we want you to carry on broadcasting”. Tomorrow’s World had just started, so I did that, so I was doing two jobs. By God, I worked! Then in summer of 1968, it all went bang, and I got the sack. This left my poor secretary in a terrible position – I was as much concerned about that as anything. Fortunately, we were able to arrange for her to return to the BBC and Paul Fox, who was at that time was the controller of BBC TV rang me up and said, ‘I hear you’ve had a bit of bad luck, Raymond. Would you like to sign a contract to do Tomorrow’s World and other things?” And I said, ‘Would I not!”
So that saved my bacon.
I mean you are familiar with all the absurdities – the badge engineering taken to the ultimate. I mean the Wolseley and Riley versions of the 1100 and indeed the Mini. It was just ridiculous, and I mean the dealership was in major turmoil.
KJA: How did you square the Nuffield and Austin franchises? They were two separate dealer organizations…
RB: Absolutely! They said, ‘we’re one now, and so are you!” Of course, the motor trade being what it is didn’t like that at all. Lester Suffield pretty much stuffed that down their throats and said, ‘Get on with it, or get out!”
Of course, the dealers at that time were actually doing very well. Even though what they were selling was crap!
KJA: Well I know at that particular time in history, BMH still achieved 29 per cent of the market, Ford were nowhere to be seen.
RB: They weren’t all crap… for instance, the 1800, Alec’s great creation, I thought was a good car. A friend of mine is still rallying a team of three in Australia.
KJA: The 1800, actually, was a fantastic concept and I think probably it is fair to say because it was no bigger than the Farina cars – a small package – but it had a huge amount of space inside, huge width. I think it was more a case that buyers did not understand it. Alec Issigonis pulled out this wonderful package and I absolutely adore the 1800, but your average man on the street preferred the idea of buying something he could understand. It probably did mark a downturn… it’s something you referred to then I guess that Alec just built these cars without any reference to sales and marketing. Had they clinicked it, then perhaps the story might have been different.
RB: Well you know he said when he built the Mini, and I was one of the first people to see it, I have to say… he said, ‘What do you think of this?” I said, ‘…amazing”. He said, ‘I only built it for the district nurse, dear boy”. He really said that.
KJA: I guess from what I know of the man, he built it as a blue-collar car. He never even imagined the Motorsport potential of the car, and it was a happy co-incidence…
RB: Mind you, he had built a special before the war and was rushing up Prescott and Shelsey pretty bloody quickly. He had a soft sport for the sport.
KJA: It is so amazing he saw so much potential in front wheel drive, when the rest of Europe was still producing rear-engined cars. Way ahead of his time – I have to say that the Austin and Morris 1100 were a wonderful extension of that, but then with the 1800 – it was a move too far.
Can I talk to you about the 3-Litre – I know from my research that you were the man that actually presented this car to the press. The story was that you rallied up the press with this really charismatic speech and then when he car was wheeled in, the crowd applauded, but then it quickly died down… into an embarrassed silence. The press did not quite understand why it needed to look so much like an 1800. What did you think when you first saw that car? Did you feel you were going to have a tough job selling it?
(I waited seven ticks of the clock before an answer…)
RB: Yeah… Yes, I did. (A smile and then another pause)
One knew already that the 1800 was maybe a bridge too far. But technologically, it wasn’t. Engineering wise it was great – we are agreed on that.
Then of course the other great figure in this whole great saga was Alex Moulton who was Alec’s dear friend, and they worked together. In fact, they both worked in their ivory towers, but he of course, invented the Hydrolastic suspension, which wasn’t entirely a gift from god from the word go, but they got it right in the end.
KJA: They eventually ended up evolving it into Hydragas, and by the end of Hydragas, it was a very well sorted suspension system…
RB: They both admired Citroen very much.
KJA: …As do I. It’s obvious that when you’re designing an advanced car, which Issigonis and Moulton were, they were always going to look across the channel – that’s where the most advanced cars were coming from. I can’t imagine the effect of seeing the DS back in 1955 must have been on the world at large…
RB: Exactly. I saw one the other day and I had forgotten how unique it was.
KJA: BMC: You were there, you right in the middle of it all – it is good to hear your feelings about the events of the time. And how everyone was.
RB: It was all fever pitch, pretty much and I found it enormously exciting and stimulating, and when we lost, I wept, it really broke my heart, but there we are – no good came of it.
KJA: A man that has been helping me with my writing, he was around at the time as well and he said that the hatred between Austin and Morris employees, engineers, vanished when Leyland took over. All of a sudden they realised that, actually they had a common enemy now… so it was a war footing all the way through. It was probably into the ‘eighties, before the Cowley and Longbridge guys started getting along with each other. It is unpleasant to think that people did not sit down and think that they were all working for the same team now…
RB: Yes, there was a cultural difference between the ‘Brummie” and the ‘Oxfordshire peasant” and factory worker.
KJA: Len Lord described them as ‘those peasants down in Oxfordshire”. He had no time for them, but of course he had been turned over by Nuffield before the war.
RB: Len Lord had produced some classic quotes, one was, ‘don’t talk to me about building good motorcars, we’re here to build good money”!
KJA: Did you actually meet Len Lord?
RB: Oh yes, and Nuffield. Totally disparate characters: Lord was a bully Brummie; Nuffield was a very gentle man. A wonderful story about Nuffield going round the factory in Abingdon, and he’d go up to an assembly worker and say, ‘Hello George, how nice to see you again”… and the assembly line chap, whose name was actually Fred, would say ‘good morning, Sir”. Nuffield would then say, ‘has your son gone into university yet?” – and Fred would say, ‘oh, yes Sir”. Of course, he hadn’t got a son at all! But they loved the man.
KJA: I think that people in the factory would love any manager that would actually walk the factory floor. I believe that George Harriman was one of those that did not…
RB: That’s very true, he didn’t really respect the workforce. Because he thought that they were a bunch of commies. I think that’s fair. Then of course, Lester, who was quite an extraordinary chap, went on to become the Director of military procurement and got his Knighthood and everything.
KJA: He was replaced by Joe Edwards?
KJA: Edwards came in and started to try and reform the company, he started by cutting the workforce, brought in new designers, new people and improved efficiency. I believe he even had a hand in revising the Maxi before it was launched – but when he came back from Pressed Steel, it was probably already too late for BMC.
RB: He was a remarkable man. But then he went on to become MD of Harland & Wolff and staved off that disaster for a good while. It is a shame he was not given the opportunity to do the same for the company once Stokes came in.