1955 was a decisive year for the British Motor Corporation, as it set its product direction for the next decade. A certain gentleman of Graeco-German parentage was said to have played an important part in the process.
The person I refer to is not, as some might think, the confirmed bachelor from Smyrna, but the husband of Queen Elizabeth II.
It is unlikely that HRH The Duke of Edinburgh was aware of Alec Issigonis’ imminent return to BMC when he visited Longbridge on 8 December 1955, but the supposed interaction of Lord and the duke, and the repercussions thereof have become part of the daemonology of BMC.
The widely reported version is that the royal visitor was taken on a tour of the production lines in the morning, in the company of Sir Leonard Lord, George Harriman and Joe Edwards. Some accounts say Lord soon left the company to attend to other matters. The atmosphere relaxed considerably without the chairman, who had a reputation for social awkwardness.
The duke and his minders enjoyed pre-prandial cocktails and Lord re-joined them for lunch. After this, the royal guest visited the design department at Lord’s invitation where he was taken to see models of future cars designed under Dick Burzi’s direction. The duke was unimpressed, and told his hosts “They’re no good. You will never sell them”.
Again versions vary as to the aftermath, one claims that Battista ‘Pinin’ Farina was called immediately, and was flown to Birmingham the next day.
Every aspect of the above account is questioned by Martyn Nutland in his biography of Leonard Lord, indeed he denounces it as “one of the most snide stories of all concerning Lord”. Nutland states that “the story emanates from Edwards”. Joe Edwards left his post as BMC’s Group Production Director in 1956, following an irreconcilable disagreement with Lord. The breakdown in relations goes some way to explain the obloquy against his former employer.
In his researches, Nutland pursued the truth about what happened on that day with The Duke of Edinburgh’s office, and once the seriousness of his quest was recognised, some extraordinary insights were provided following consultation with Prince Philip himself, who recalled the visit and the individuals vividly. The Duke of Edinburgh had personally requested the visit to the styling department “as he did not think the current Austins were particularly distinguished”.
Further to this, the duke observed that he had the impression that Burzi’s “stylist shop”, was an open house for the BMC directors and their wives to visit and suggest changes to the designs. He noted that this was a problem for in-house designers on many companies, and thought that an external “big name” designer would have a better chance to exercise design ideas without interference.
Any criticism of “the Austin style” was denied, but the duke asked Lord if he had thought of employing an outside designer. Lord, diplomatically asked if the duke had any particular designer in mind, and he had replied with “Farina”, the first name he thought of.
The foregoing is a precis of Nutland’s account, and he deserves great credit for his audacity and tenaciousness in researching a pivotal event in BMC history. I will not steal his full thunder, but the popular versions of the events of 8 December are ripped apart piece by piece, and found not to fit together.
The unquestioned fact is that, at some time in December 1955, Battista “Pinin” Farina met Sir Leonard Lord at Longbridge, and an agreement was made to design three cars for a fee of £84,000.
In the context of the time, this is not particularly remarkable. Austin were no strangers to external consultants, having previously used The Loewy Organisation to shape the A30 and Somerset. Loewy subsequently provided design services to Rootes for the Studebaker inspired “Audax” Minx, Gazelle, and Rapier. Standard-Triumph employed ex-Loewy designer Carl Otto for the Vanguard Phase 3, and then used Vignale for the Phase 4 facelift, which introduced them to Giovanni Michelotti, and began the most fruitful Anglo-Italian design relationship of all.
The Rover Company had also been involved with Farina, in 1954 David Bache had arrived from Austin, and quickly developed a reputation as a designer who, at his best, could do Pininfarina better than Farina themselves. Even Alvis turned to the Swiss Carrosserie Hermann Graber, a move which was arguably the saviour of their car making activities, following the abandonment of their ambitious V8 engined TA350 saloon project, led by one A.A.C.Issigonis.
Which rather neatly brings me back to the other BMC revolution…
Alec Issigonis had received his month’s notice of termination of his employment from Alvis on 17 November 1955 and had, some time before, been ‘headhunted’ back to BMC by Sir Leonard Lord. In the following month he was already assembling a team to prepare designs for an advanced product range, in isolation from the main Austin Drawing Office.
Lord had granted Issigonis’ department almost total freedom from management intervention in their work, recognising the need for a ‘free thinker’ to design and develop products to compete with European rivals whose post-war recovery had lagged behind the British industry, but were now making their bids for market leadership, both in technology and production numbers.
From December 1955, two revolutions were underway at BMC; the styling metamorphosis led by Farina, and Issigonis and Moulton’s challenge to the orthodoxies of powertrain and suspension design, packaging, and the very way cars should be built.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can see a dichotomy in strategy. The Farina-styled cars – visually very different from what had gone before – arrived in rapid succession in 1958-59, underpinned by chassis components scarcely different from those used by BMC in the first half of the 1950s. The first Issigonis car appeared in 1959, unstyled in any conventional sense, with fully independent suspension using rubber as the springing medium, and the talismanic A series engine and A30 gearbox in an unprecedented transversely mounted front wheel drive configuration.
The arrival of the Mini in 1959, an extraordinarily fecund year for BMC, demonstrated that Issigonis’ experimental cell was no mere ‘skunkworks’ preparing shelf designs as a hedge against competitors fighting a technological battle.
Was there schizophrenia in BMC’s mid ‘50s product strategy? My thought is that the autocratic Chairman was being astute, and acted in character. Lord had just turned 59 in 1955, and was an ageing man in a hurry. One of his personal characteristics often mentioned is his “inferiority complex”. He was constantly – metaphorically – looking over his shoulder, by the mid-fifties at Europe as well as Britain and the USA. He famously claimed that BMC stood for “Bugger My Competitors”.
The automotive world was becoming ever more complex and unpredictable, and geo-political unrest would soon play its hand. To achieve his coarsely-expressed objective, Lord must have realised that one plan was nowhere near enough.
No Westminsters were mentioned in the making of this “sketch”. It’s a bit of scene-setting. The next instalment will remedy this matter.
Men and Motors of The Austin: Barney Sharratt
Brick by Brick: The Biography of the man who really made the Mini – Leonard Lord: Martyn Nutland