Anniversary Waltz 1958 – Going Down With All Hands

Reviewing 1958’s British offerings, DTW experiences a sinking feeling.

(c) collidecolumn

The RMS Titanic sank many times in the intervening years since it first slipped beneath the waves with terrible loss of life in April 1912, but perhaps its definitive cinematic retelling dates to the Roy Ward Baker directed A Night To Remember, starring Kenneth More. The most expensive British made film when it premiered in July 1958, it was notable for its historical accuracy and the fact that several first-hand survivors of the sinking were employed as advisors to the production.

But not simply a faithful telling of a fable about hubris and man’s incapacity to truly overcome his environment, it also served as a potent metaphor for Britain’s fading grasp of empire and diminishing global influence.

Comet 4. (c)

Already, its lead in civil aviation was coming to a crushing, titanic halt. While the elegant if ill-fated, De Havilland Comet, in heavily revised fourth-series form began its first transatlantic service with BOAC that autumn, so too did Pan American Airlines a month later with the faster, more cost-effective and considerably less tainted Boeing 707.

Alongside the Comet’s disintegrating reputation, the UK also mourned the loss of the Manchester United football team as their BEA Airspeed Ambassador aircraft crashed on take-off one freezing February night at Munich airport.

Daimler Majestic. (c) classiccarcatalogue

British establishment to its fingertips, the Daimler Company was still (for a few years yet) clinging to its Royal Warrant. A development of the One-O-Four series, first introduced as the Regency in 1951, 1958’s Majestic was anything but a new car. Featuring a separate chassis which dated back to 1937 and a rather upright, narrow and slightly old-fashioned six-light body, the most appropriate adjective one could append to the appropriately-named Daimler was stately.

Inside it offered the full gentleman’s club environment, passengers sitting loftily amidst soft leather and polished walnut splendour. The driving position was upright and somewhat vintage in feel, the generous instrumentation sited centrally. Daimlers were built in relatively small numbers with a good deal of hand crafted assembly and to a high standard of finish. But even the later advent of the fire-breathing 4.5 litre V8 engined Majestic Major couldn’t save matters, with Daimler selling out to Sir William Lyons in 1960, the marque ending its days as an ennobled Jaguar.

Alvis TD 21. (c) wheelsage

Motorcars had become very much an inconvenient sideline for Alvis, the carmaker having successfully diversified into aero engines in 1935, then later into military vehicles. By 1950, car production had virtually ceased and might have remained so but for Swiss carrosserie, Graber, who in 1951 debuted an elegant, modern looking five-seater coupé/convertible on an Alvis chassis.

Red Triangle management entered into an agreement with Graber to produce a version of the car in the UK, employing Park, Ward and Co, who also built bodies for Rolls Royce. Press reception was overwhelmingly positive, Autocar declaring the TD 21 to be “one of the most enchanting owner-driver cars imaginable“.

But what success there was however, would be fleeting, and with the car business again faltering, Rover purchased the brand and in August 1967, the final Alvis motorcar was built. Rover made several attempts at relaunching the marque, but all efforts would come to nothing as the disintegrating BLMC combine blundered its way towards perdition.

Super Snipe in flight. (c)

Rootes’ Humber marque was established as the maker of sturdy, upmarket and conservative vehicles backed with a quality image. Based on the unitary bodyshell and mechanical package of the previous year’s Hawk model, the 1958 Super Snipe, a more compact car than its pre-war-based predecessor, was introduced, powered by a new 2.6 litre in-line six, designed by fading car and aero-engine maker, Armstrong Siddeley.

The big Humber was finished in a manner in keeping with its upmarket aspirations, the roomy cabin fitted with leather, burr walnut and folding picnic tables. Styling was in the mid-50’s pre-finned American idiom and the Snipe was also offered in both estate and limousine versions, with division. Produced until 1967 in five series’, it too would mark the end of the line, the final dedicated Humber model line produced.

Riley two-Point-Six. (c) classics.honestjohn

BMC’s two divisions continued, it appeared, to be run as individual fiefdoms, with the Nuffield side of the business, having introduced the Pathfinder-based Two-Point-Six Litre the previous autumn, saw the ill-starred and watered down variant of the Wolseley 6/90 Series III, enter production. Neither car hit sales chart heights, the Riley in particular proving a tough sell, being discontinued a year later. It was to be the last of that particular line, although the brand was retained in undead form for another decade before its ignominious end.

Austin A40. (c)

Meanwhile at Longbridge, the Austin division introduced the Pininfarina designed A40, a compact saloon based on the popular A35 model. The car’s striking design was the major point of significance, being the first BMC product to be dressed by the fabled Italian carrozzeria, combining aspects of previous work carried out for Lancia, Peugeot and GM and previewing the following year’s A55 model.

Technically unadventurous and inferior (in some aspects) to Nuffield’s Morris Minor, the A40 nevertheless was developed into a thoroughly competent motor car, if one whose appeal in the market proved shorter than that of its in-house antagonist. However, had BMC’s two Lords a’ leaping been in possession of more genuine insight, the A40 (in Countryman form) could have been at the forefront of the hatchback revolution.

1958 Bristol 406

Timing is everything of course. While De Havilland were getting to grips with with the troubled Comet, at Filton, Bristol’s aircraft business backed the wrong horse entirely with its ‘Whispering Giant’ Britannia airliner, which arrived just in time for the jet-age. Bristol’s carmaking sideline was on slightly surer ground, introducing new, more contemporary styling with 1958’s 406 model.

A stylistic evolution of earlier Filton offerings, the 406 would be the final Bristol motorcar to employ the BMW-sourced in-line six engine, and would be notable for a run of special-bodied versions being offered by carrozzeria Zagato. Bristol maintained a modicum of success with evolutions of broadly similar cars to a diminishing customer base. But by 2011, they too went the way of the others – revivals notwithstanding.

Bristol Britannia (c) stinsonflier

By 1958, old certainties were already in the process of being upturned. Across the Atlantic, the apparent success of their domestic motor industry was counterbalanced by the demise of the once mighty Packard Motor Company, while Ford’s act of Edsel-branded corporate hubris also made its ill-starred debut. More significantly however, were the opening salvoes from the far-East, with the advent of Toyota and Nissan to US shores.

For Britain however, it was a case of looking on impotently as the European Economic Community came into being in 1958, its seat at the table conspicuous by its absence. And while on the surface at least, its motor and aviation industries appeared to be thriving, appearances were deceptive. The truth was that they were already holed below the waterline and their administrators were at best, fruitlessly rearranging the tea services.

Never again has Man been so confident. An age had come to an end“, intoned A Night To Remember‘s narrator. Britain’s age of the motorcar was passing from its grasp and like Kenneth More’s characterisation of Officer Lightoller from the Titanic, it would “never feel sure again. About anything“.

Some of the class of ’58 we did write about.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

13 thoughts on “Anniversary Waltz 1958 – Going Down With All Hands”

  1. Dear Eóin
    Highly interesting piece if somewhat depressing; is modern life so different or just as rubbish? I’m not sure.
    On the Riley front, there was a club gathering to celebrate 70 years of the 2.6. It’s an active club and out of a possible thirteen taxed UK based cars, five made it. Add one more, driven from Spain. Six working and mainly wonderful examples left. Now THATS depressing.

  2. Andrew – there was a fine Two Point Six on the Riley Motor Club – I hope I’ve got the correct faction – stand at the NEC CCS in November, but surprisingly no Pathfinder. Maybe I wasn’t looking thoroughly enough. It was very busy and I had a lot of ground to cover. It’s good to see the last big Riley given its proper place in the marque’s history.

    Looking back on ’50s BMC product planning, I think that Len Lord was, at best, not well disposed towards the ‘premium’ Nuffield brands; Wolseley, Riley, and MG. His widely reported bad-mouthing of the Wolseley 6/90, and the subsequent dismissal of Gerald Palmer were worthy of Sergio M at his most self-destructively candid. Also Lord effectively created Vanden Plas and Austin-Healey as car brands in the 1950s rather than invest in the established Nuffield product lines. If Len Lord was malicious, his successor Harriman just hadn’t a clue, and thought badge-engineering would be his salvation.

    There does seem to be some love amongst modern-day Rileyists for the Hornet, 1100/1300 (don’t call it Kestrel) and 4/72. I suspect that sixty years ago most purists would rather have seen the marque die honorably than be kept on life support by badge engineering.

  3. Hi there Robertas

    I didn’t go to the NEC show but you are correct that a 2.6 was on the Riley Motor Club stand and that no Pathfinder was visible. The 2.6 was having a bit of a push in interest whereas my favourite, the Pathfinder isn’t so “hot” but those in the know, know it was a superb car, eventually. Even Gerald Palmer realised that initial examples were hopeless and needed the public to “test” them as it were due to management pushes to get the Pathfinder out there. Recalls were frequent and expensive to Riley but matters were sorted soon enough. Alas, the minority’s judgement didn’t persuade the majority and sales never really took off for either model.

    As for allowing Riley to die rather than become yet another badge engineered marque, I believe you are correct again. The Elf and 4/72 were decent cars, decent sellers but the writing had been scrawled on the wall for years and the end did seem swift and unceremonious.

    Some years ago I wrote to BMW enquiring if they might just resurrect the Riley brand name and make a MINI style sub-brand even offering club assistance with naming them RMA for the 3 series based saloon, RMB for the convertible, RMC for the touring style and naturally the RMH for the 5 series based Pathfinder luxury but sporting model with easy electric adaptations built in.

    I’m still awaiting a reply.

  4. It’s always interesting trying to identify where the rot set in – and Eóin does it very well. As for badge-engineering, I always thought that Roots were rather better at it than BMC (only my opinion). I also remember that there were those who at the time thought that Palmer’s Magnette would have been more appropriately a Riley (MGs should be open sports cars; Rileys were sports saloons!). The Farina Cambridge & Oxford were the final straw for most enthusiasts, even if a fair proportion of the buying public thought otherwise.

    Robertas’ honourable death comment is spot on . . . although maybe if the Austin 3-litre had been a Wolseley it might have found a corner of the market . . ?

  5. Interesting juxtaposition between cinema and industrial decline. It now seems like the 70’s Hollywood disaster movies previewed USA industrial decline (esp. GM) after 1980.

    To me, both the Comet and the FWD vehicles of BMC illustrate the dangers of first mover “advantage”.

    The UK led the way in small, FWD, traverse engine cars, yet they had their lunch eaten in the 1970’s by the Japanese imports with much more conventional car designs.

    What industrial innovators often do is provide cost-free development lessons for their competitors, while destroying their own reputation and brand-value in the process.

    The second mouse gets the cheese… etc.

    1. Good point. First-mover advantage is only a thing, though, if you continue to advance your position. BMC took five years to put a piece of cardboard on the front of the engine in Minis and 1100s to stop the ignition cutting out in rain. Around that time, in the early 60s, Issigonis made a list in his notebook (see Gillian Bardsley’s excellent biography) of how many ways the VW Beetle was a poor rival to his genius: this was after the Beetle had sold about 10m units. Apparently Harriman didn’t have the wit to ask him to list why he thought the Beetle was selling quite well.

      Those annoying Japanese and German chaps paid relentless attention to detail improvements and production quality – neither of which were features of life at Longbridge or Cowley – and so chipping away at the initial advantage of BMC. This resulted in the considerable irony of Datsun’s early small-car offerings in Europe, such as the Sunny and Violet, both deeply conventional vehicles, being powered by well-developed, oiltight, non-rattling versions of the Austin A-series of 1952.

  6. Much to think about here.

    If I was given to becoming lachrymose over the extinction of car brands, I’d shed fewer tears over Wolseley than Riley. The former had been badge-engineered Morrises long before BMC, although they used more sophisticated engines.

    It seems mean of Nuffield not to have included a Riley derivative in the Magnette / Wolseley 4/44 programme. Logically the Wolseley should have been paired with the Oxford Series II, and may have been the better car for it, as the Morris was arguably a superior car to the Magnette, and unarguably better than its BMC stablemate Cambridges.

    The Palmer designed quartet were woefully starved of worthwhile development, particularly the intended twin-cam B and C series engines, which could have made them serious Jaguar challengers.

    Would a Riley-flavoured Magnette have made an acceptable RME replacement? I don’t think the purists would have taken too kindly to it, but it would have been more palatable than the 1957 One Point Five. That car and its Wolseley 1500 sisters were the jokers in the BMC ‘premium pack’. Based on on the Minor chassis with a ponton style body designed by Dick Burzi and Len himself at Longbridge, they were effectively imposed on the Nuffield side of BMC, and were remarkably successful; the 1500 was the best-selling Wolseley ever. Nearly 40,000 examples of the Riley were produced – nearly One Point Five times as many as the RM Series. Two and half times as many of the cheaper, but slower Wolseley 1500 were sold.

    Len Lord probably loved them because it cost little more than the Minor to build, but could be sold for 50% more: there was even a plan for a major facelift applying a home-cooked version of the Farina design recipe, but instead the original design continued until 1966, to be replaced by far slower-selling ADO16 derivatives.

    1. The One Point Five/1500 pair did at least handle reasonably well, thanks to their Minor underpinnings; the Riley performing well (still doing so) in competition. But as for that ADO27R . . . I can imagine Richard Herriot’s analysis of the styling of it! Although it is certainly no more repulsive than the latest efforts being foisted upon the gullible by the cynical.

  7. much thanks Eoin for this evocative piece. the Pathfinder was my favourite saloon
    of the time. a new one lived in our street in Melbourne circa 1960, and my brothers
    and I liked to ogle it, “gee, it’s got a right hand floor shift like Dad’s Bean!”
    I think it was car magazine, Andrew, that also floated the possibility of BMW
    doing a new Riley, complete with Pathfinderesque illustration. hard to imagine though,
    that there’d be enough Riley tragics left to fund that possibility.
    given our dad’s unfortunate fondness for English cars – he spent a lot of time under them –
    I resisted their charms as an adult. now that we have a Swindon-built 2012 Civic hatch in the
    drive I’m finding that I now look at the 50s Englishers burbling around our country town
    with renewed affection.

  8. I don’t find the ADO27R too objectionable, although there’s far too much going on with these rear wings. If there had been money for new doors, it would have been a more convincing design.

    Had they given it a Morris badge, an Oxford-style front end, and 1098cc and 1622cc engine options, BMC could have had a proto-Marina in the early 1960s for those wary of front wheel drive.

    In any case it’s far better than the absurd BMC Australia Morris Major Series 2, with a 6″ (152mm) wheelbase extension, rendered pointless by retaining the original passenger compartment.

    1. I do actually see the point of the Morris Major II. The extra wheelbase made the choppy ride less so. But the extra space beneath the floorpan should have been used to improve the 1.5’s pre-war suspension, which had done so much to make it so tail-happy.

      The 1.5 already had a biggish boot, although to save costs the Mk II and III lost the fold-down rear seats, so handy for the annual Christmas tree transport.

  9. The Pathfinder was a worthy, fine looking and somewhat forgotten motorcar which probably deserves a more comprehensive telling upon these pages than I have provided – and I suspect I know a man amongst our number who might be qualified for the job…

    A counterfactual for new year’s eve: Had Len Lord retained Gerald Palmer and instead installed dear Alec as his subordinate, one has to wonder how BMC’s model lines would have evolved? More pragmatically, I am tempted to imagine…

    1. Coincidentally, while dropping off some departing relatives at Cork airport last night, what pulled out in front of me? A beautifully restored duotone 1960 Humber Super Snipe. A pre-facelift car, it was driven spiritedly towards the city before heading onto the Western Link bypass. A dignified and rather uplifting sight for a damp December night.

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