Waiting For the Miracle

Today we posit something of a counterfactual. What if Maestro had preceded Metro?

Madge and Maestro – Downing Street 1983. Image credit: (c) BBC

Picking over the bones of long dead car companies is one of the more futile pastimes one can engage in, but in the case of British Leyland, it’s irresistible. So many factors contributed to the British car giant’s demise however, that to single out one area is to grossly over-simplify the larger, more nuanced, and far more depressing picture.

A former Jaguar engineering director once told me that BL’s senior management were in his words, ‘not of the first order’ and given their respective track records, both during the latter stages of the BMH period, in the years leading up to BLMC’s collapse in 1974, and during the post-Ryder era, it’s difficult to refute this assertion.

Frustratingly, BL in its myriad forms was blessed with many talented conceptual engineers and stylists, none of whom were particularly well served by the those at senior boardroom level.

The current DTW series (which I urge you to read), detailing the gestation and political background behind the 1981 Triumph Acclaim is a telling parable highlighting the path-dependence which had taken hold at Longbridge and just how far behind best industry practice BL’s senior management, product planners and production engineers appeared to be.

In 1983, BL finally announced their C-segment contender, a car which was tasked with not only building on the success of the LM8 Metro, but also to replace two existing models, while siring a three volume replacement to the ‘much-loved’ Morris Ital.

The senior management line was that while the Metro had saved the company, the Maestro and its LM11 sibling would make it self-sustaining. But while small B-segment hatchbacks (and the Metro was small by class standards) are good for scale, they are not and never were profit centres for car businesses, the margins earned on them being vanishingly thin.

The roots of these far-reaching decisions lead back to the torrid wake of BLMC’s 1974 annus-horriblis. It had by then become abundantly clear the Maxi was never going to pay its way and increasingly apparent that the even more expensively developed Allegro was also failing to meet projections. Yet at the same time, the antediluvian Marina confounded almost everyone by being perhaps BL’s strongest product, remaining a best-seller far longer than anyone had a right to expect, or indeed the concept could realistically support.

According to the excellent AROnline profile, the Maestro was believed to have been initiated around 1975. The following year, a styling competition, lead by BL design chief, David Bache, saw proposals from amongst others, BL’s Harris Mann and Ian Beech. With Bache’s enthusiastic backing, BL management approved the Beech proposal, yet it wasn’t until 1978 that LM10 was signed off.

Immediately prior to BLMC’s collapse, the ADO88 project had been greenlighted by BLMC’s John Barber, management having wrung their hands since the late-’60s over how to replace the Mini at the bottom of the range. And while it was obvious that a supermini was required to bolster market share, surely there were bigger, potentially more lucrative fish to fry?

LM8 and LM10. Image: Driven to Write

Set to launch in 1977, the ADO88 programme slipped owing to BL’s descent into a financial and labour-related abyss, with Michael Edwardes appointed to kill or cure. The following year, following a styling review, the decision was taken to carry out a hasty reskin, leading to a revised product code (LM8) and launch date, reset to 1980.

It’s obvious that BL, nationalised and fiscally impoverished in the wake of the calamitous SD1 programme hadn’t the resources to develop both model lines simultaneously, but nevertheless it’s tempting to suggest that the wrong car had been prioritised.

Had LM10 reached the market around 1979/80, shorn of the gimmicks which were added to give a warmed-over design a little pizzaz (body coloured bumpers, digital instrumentation, electronic carburettor etc…), BL would have had a competitive, albeit stark-looking piece of contemporary product design with a good deal more market appeal than the dated-looking product they launched in 1983.

Matters of build quite naturally would have remained – a perennial BL issue, partially due to poor labour relations, partly because BL’s production engineers seemed incapable of designing cars which were straightforward to assemble accurately and especially due to the poor quality of bought in components (a UK-industry bugbear for decades). Indeed, even the VW-sourced gearboxes fitted were rumoured to have been sub-standard.

Would a 1979/80 launch have made a palpable difference to the BL business? It’s difficult to say. But at the time, the UK market was crying out for a modern competitive domestic C-segment hatchback. One thing is fairly certain, it would have been a more profitable product which may have given BL a fighting chance to make good on their promises. As it was, it arrived late, undercooked and certainly by 1983 was not viewed as a stylistic trendsetter.

A further question centres around whether the early advent of LM10 would have obviated the need for the Acclaim? Possibly, which is not to say an alliance with Honda was unnecessary. However, what BL desperately needed was Honda’s powertrain and production-engineering expertise – there being no shortage of talented and resourceful conceptual engineers at Gaydon – what they lacked above all, was money and direction.

There was little conceptually wrong with the Maestro. Spen King had dictated a resolutely conventional design, and in this he was probably correct. The market wanted little else. BL’s engineers did the best they could under the circumstances. However, it could be argued that BL’s product planners either couldn’t or wouldn’t see beyond their obsession with reinventing the Mini.

By 1980, BL desperately needed a miracle, something the Metro couldn’t deliver. When the Miracle Maestro finally arrived, it couldn’t either.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

11 thoughts on “Waiting For the Miracle”

  1. I think you are completely right in every respect. It would not, on its own, have saved BL and ARG, RG, etc. (i.e. Maestro before Metro). However, it might have bought time – time to learn more and more quickly from Honda. BL’s senior management was, generally speaking, exceptionally arrogant as well as ignorant. When journalists followed Ray Horrocks down the Cowley Maestro production line he infamously pointed to a wonkily fitted panel on one of the cars and said something like ‘look at the quality of that, it’s bloody brilliant.’. It clearly wasn’t and one wonders exactly who he was trying to kid, apart from himself.

    1. SV, I believe the arrogance was shared by large sections the UK motor press, who at best wished BL/ARG well, but at worst, parroted the PR-line hook, line and sinker. Ray Horrocks has not emerged from his motor industry era with much credit, I have to say. The description of his boardroom machinations in John Egan’s recent memoir can only be (legally) described as ‘sharp practice’. It’s quite shameful how badly served BL workers and the British public (who were footing the bill) were served by significant numbers of British Leyland’s senior Directors.

      The unions (and workforce by dint) have been accorded the bulk of the blame for BL’s woes, but in my view that’s just a cop-out. No, this was management failure on an epic scale. As Jim Randle once rather memorably pointed out, ‘you tend to get the unions you deserve’…

      Incidentally, looking forward to the next ‘Bounty’ instalment…

  2. My father, who knew him well and whose family firm was a substantial buyer of BLMC engines, pinned the blame firmly on Donald Stokes, condemning him as a jumped-up, over-promoted (both in wartime and thereafter) salesman who was uninspiring, unqualified and lacked the first clue about management. As BLMC went (through my childhood and adolescence) from crisis to indignity to strike to bail-out to fatuous name-change to contraction, Dad would fulminate about Stokes’ world-class incompetence and inadequacy for the task, grudgingly acknowledging only his sharp elbows and effective ‘political’ skirmishing. Fortunately, he died before the final demise of what had become the risible, stunted rump of MG, which was a joke too funny to be laughed at.

    1. Saving BLMC was probably a task beyond anyone, given the parlous state of BMC and the general lack of investment over decades. Stokes had run Leyland pretty successfully up to that point though.

  3. It is really hard not to view this whole sorry story through a Marxist lens: incompetent rentier management taking huge salaries based not on ability but social status; restive workers fighting the class war by means of poor craftsmanship all compounded by the persistent Anglo-Saxon culture of “that´ll do”. There is also a culture of individualism: there were clever and talented people but there is a weak culture of “if we work together we will succeed”. Instead of helping the bright ones, those around them stymied them and cocked things up.

    1. Before continuing, I would point out that it wasn’t really my intention to get into a forensic examination of BLMC/BL’s descent into the abyss – after all, AROline has documented that story in about as much detail as most could reasonably stomach.

      Having said that, my own view is that if blame is to be apportioned, it really ought to be shared, especially as there was plenty to go around. For instance prior to the Leyland takeover, (for it was no merger) both George Harriman & Alec Issigonis were promoted far beyond their abilities, their actions setting events in motion which Donald Stokes subsequently failed to sufficiently acknowledge or reverse. Perhaps the most egregious being the ADO14 Maxi – a car which Stokes failed to realise was pivotal to BLMC’s prosperity.

      Even if that car had to go into production as was, an emergency reskin could probably have saved it had it been carried out (a) well and (b) quickly. A successful Maxi would have made all the difference at the time – which is another potential counterfactual in the making. The irony is that BL made a similar mistake later in the ’70s with SD1. ‘It’ll be a huge success, lets build a new factory at colossal expense, which will remain tragically under-utilised, thereby scuppering any chance of profitability’.

      No, there’s plenty of blame to share around…

  4. I think that, before AR learnt some hard lessons from Honda, the management were living in a self-delusional bubble about what constituted acceptable quality in their products. Certainly, my experience of AR cars in the 1980’s would suggest so.

    I was loaned a Maestro HLE while my company Montego was in for its first service. It rattled like a cement mixer and the dashboard freaked and groaned like a vampire’s coffin lid. As the “fuel economy” model in the range, it had a ludicrous strip of LEDs that lit up from green to yellow then red depending on how hard you accelerated.

    Apparently, you use more petrol the harder you accelerate…who knew?!*

    Take a close look at the photo above of the Maestro Van den Plas brought for Mrs Thatcher’s inspection and approval. Presumably this was a new press demonstrator, fettled to perfection (or as near as they could get) and still the trim on the rear passenger door is already bowing noticeably upwards…

    * Not BMW drivers, apparently: a Efficent Dynamics 3-series hire car I drove recently had an economy gauge that told me exactly the same thing…

  5. Should they have launched the Maestro, in simplified form, before the Metro in 1979 or 1980? I can see the logic, but I’d say not.

    I like the Maestro very much and have happy memories of it, but it was really too big / confusing for the market at the time, and would have been even more so had it been launched a few years earlier. Competitors were smaller, perkier and were available in 3-door format – important at the time (BL produced a 3-door prototype, but decided against it). I guess the rationale of sharing a platform with the Montego seemed attractive from a cost point of view, but it led to (too many) compromises. I have sympathy with those involved, as it’s hard to produce vehicles on a shoestring, with stop-start development stemming from wider crises.

    At least launching the Metro first gave some momentum to BL and plugged a massive gap in their range. It also bought some time to get the Maestro and Montego in to somewhat better shape.

  6. This article as well as truly brilliant AROnline makes for fascinating reading.
    You can’t help but shake your head at project management habits at BLMARG or whatever they were called then. Restarting nearly finished projects over and over again, moving targets that were inappropriately set from the beginning, all that must have cost enormous sums of already absent money. A combination with complete disrespect for the most elementary customer requirements was a sure recipe for disaster.
    It’s interesting that buying habits for supplier parts are mentioned here because that’s something overlooked most of the time. I remember when someone from Amal (ask your dad who they were) told me that British motorcycle manufacturers insisted on buying carburettors developed for small two strokes for their large four stroke engines for no other reason than that they were the cheapest ones available. He also said that he felt sorry for Lucas who were hit by the same problem even worse and had to take much of the blame that should have been directed at the manufacturer.

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