The Man Who Broke BMC? (Part Three)

The story continues: BMC struggles with the failure of the 1800 and Maxi, but Issigonis has moved on.

(c) curbside classic

The Austin Maxi was reluctantly launched by BLMC* in 1969 and was greeted with a similarly lukewarm reception to that given to the 1800. With its five-door layout, it was an eminently practical car, but it lacked any element of desirability and, as launched, was plagued with technical issues. Increasingly desperate, BLMC hurriedly cobbled together a conventional RWD saloon and launched it in 1971 as the Morris Marina. It sold well enough, on the back of conventionally attractive looks and simple, proven (if antiquated) mechanicals, but it was still very much in the shadow of the all-conquering Cortina from arch-rivals, Ford.

Conceptually, there was much to like about the Maxi, but Donald Stokes, now chairman of BLMC, would not sanction any serious remedial work, a disastrous decision for a car that had much potential. For his part, Issigonis appeared indifferent and simply abandoned the Maxi to move on to his next project, the 9X, potentially a replacement for both the Mini and 1100.

Stokes seemed to view the Maxi as a BMC legacy car, and that by improving it, he would be tacitly accepting it. As it was, its shortcomings proved a useful stick with which to beat Issigonis and his former employer. In the aftermath of the merger, Stokes effectively demoted Issigonis, consigning him to a skunkworks role as Special Developments Director, responsible solely for the 9X programme. While this should have suited Issigonis temperamentally, he detested the loss of status and influence and felt the perceived (and probably intended) snub keenly.

(c) auto classiques

BL would go on to endure a torrid decade in the 1970’s, hobbled by poor product design and terrible build quality, ineffectual management and an increasingly restive and militant workforce. Facing bankruptcy, the company was nationalised by the UK Labour government in 1975.

Now largely insulated from the company’s wider difficulties however, Issigonis could focus wholly on his latest brainchild. The 9X was another clean-sheet design, 4″ (100mm) shorter than a Mini but even more commodious, with an all-new modular engine including a transverse 1,300cc in-line six-cylinder engine for the larger five-door version. The 9X was undoubtedly clever, but would have been another hugely expensive programme with its all-new drivetrain; one which would not have aligned with where the market was going, towards larger supermini cars like the Fiat 127 and Renault 5. Was Issigonis either too arrogant or too self-absorbed to recognise this?

Issigonis spent the rest of his career at Longbridge vainly trying to get management interested in 9X, but to no avail. He formally retired in 1971 but carried on with consultancy work for the company until Graham Day, CEO of what was then called Rover Group, dispensed with his services. By the mid-1980s, his health began to fail, suffering from a form of vertigo which left him bedbound and ultimately in need of round the clock care. Issigonis died on 2nd October 1988, aged 81.

It could be argued that the circumstances that ultimately led to the collapse of BL can be traced back to the design and launch of the Mini in 1959. Sir Alec was a brilliant and highly talented engineer, but he always designed cars that he would drive, rather than those that would appeal more widely. He seemed to have little regard for anything as trivial or ephemeral as styling. By implication, he had little regard for the tastes of the car-buying public.

Issigonis’ clean-sheet approach to his designs undoubtedly appealed to the purist in him but was commercially disastrous. He seemed not to appreciate that his primary responsibility was to design cars that were well regarded, popular and, above all, profitable, to sustain the business and fund future model development. Had he looked to successful competitors, most notably Ford or Fiat, he would have seen how this required a pragmatic approach to design, carrying over proven mechanical parts from the outgoing model where practicable, to expedite development and curtail costs.

(c) Birmingham Mail

The Mini was, of course, hugely popular because Issigonis’ singular approach was wholly appropriate to the design of a small economy car. However, BMC and its successors seemingly never made sufficient profit from the Mini to fund the development of a replacement. In a 1979 interview published in Vogue magazine, Issigonis alluded to this in characteristic fashion; “The question of the unprofitability of the small car depends entirely upon the number you make, and we never made enough.” They made 5 million of them.

The 1100 was rescued by Leonard Lord’s decision to ask Pininfarina to style it. It was the only truly successful and profitable BMC car of the Issigonis era. This makes the lack of serious further development once it entered production all the more inexcusable: instead of capitalising on the 1100’s success, BMC allowed it to wither on the vine, starving it of investment which could have bolstered it further against its rivals, potentially mitigating the losses made by its stablemates. Creating numerous badge-engineered derivations was a pointless waste of time and effort, kowtowing to internal politics and historic but largely irrelevant customer allegiances.

The 1800 was misconceived and drifted even further away from the requirements of its target customers, while the Maxi simply repeated the errors of the 1800, thanks to those infamous doors and its chronic lack of customer appeal.

External factors also played a part in the chain of events. One wonders for instance, what might have happened had the Suez Crisis not caused a reordering of the rollout of the XC range. If the large car had been released first and struggled in the marketplace, would the 1100 and Mini have even seen the light of day, at least as Issigonis conceived them?

We will draw our conclusions in the final part of this series.

* The name of the company following the 1968 merger between BMC and Leyland, subsequently abbreviated to BL.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

15 thoughts on “The Man Who Broke BMC? (Part Three)”

  1. Good morning Daniel. This really is the best retrospective analysis of the subject and the era I have seen so far. And at last we perhaps see the reason for the title question mark.

    If any one person could be held responsible for the farcical tragedy that BMC/BLMC/BL became it was surely Donald Stokes. He had, after all, plenty of form. It was on his watch that Leyland lost its highly respected status as a commercial vehicle builder as it acquired and killed off AEC. The sudden growth of the Leyland empire smacked, at the time, of megalomania and coupled with abysmal after sales service drove many us to turn to the likes of Volvo, Scania and DAF, all of whom looked after and listened to their customers. We also found it very difficult to see why Leyland had decided to expand into the car industry…..

    I am really enjoying this series and look forward to your conclusions

    1. Hi JTC. Thank you for your kind words. Eóin and I have put a lot of thought into this series and have strived to be fair and even-handed to all those involved. I won’t scoop our conclusions, but rest assured that Donald Stokes does get a (dis)honourable mention!

  2. The main weak point of the 9X was said to have been its gearbox when compared to the Mini, Clubman and Autobianchi A112 (mentioned in Gillian Anderson’s biography on Issigonis), which along with the Primula and A112 should have been a sign for Issigonis to embrace the end-on gearbox layout he was working on in the early-1950s with the experimental FWD Morris Minor prototype. Also Issigonis did not appear to realise or be concerned with the fact that the 750-998 4-cylinder / 1125-1490 (or 1275-1490) 6-cylinder engine he was designing for the 9X/10X would have actually made more sense had it been conceived from the beginning as a 3/4-cylinder engine like the Volkswagen EA111 and Suzuki G engines.

    The 1275cc 9X 6-cylinder engine in the later MG Metro prototype was said to have put out 100 hp. While some suggest via a stretched 1500 version of the 4-cylinder 9X engine in the Gearless Mini prototype that Issigonis apparently also envisaged a larger 11X project to replace the 1800/2200, powered by a stretched 2200 6-cylinder 9X engine. Which does not make sense given the existence of the E6 engine that featured a similar displacement unless Issigonis lost interest in the E-Series and sought to develop a more purist orientated compact 6-cylinder of similar displacement.

    However it is obvious a ~1500 4-cylinder version of the 9X engine would have been a more viable proposition (even more so had it there been more room to increase it to 1600cc) than the existing 4-cylinder 9X unit’s 998 displacement. Apparently there is a sketch suggesting the 1.5 and 1.75 E-Series were to be dieselized to replace the 1.5 and 1.8 B-Series diesels (also mentioned in mentioned in Gillian Anderson’s biography on Issigonis).

    Issigonis did indeed make a lot of mistakes and his purist approach precluded him from further developing what he already developed such as with the post-war Morris models and the FWD trio by losing interest and starting from scratch once more with a clean sheet project (let alone learning his lesson), yet at the same time of the view his flaws have made it all too easy for him to be blamed for BMC’s issues and have made him a boogeyman / scapegoat used to cover the flaws of management and others at BMC later BL from Leonard Lord to George Harriman, Donald Stokes, etc.

    It was certainly within BMC’s capability to reduce costs and increase profitability on the FWD models, it was also within their capability to bring forward an improved E-Series like engine by some 5-7 years in place of the blind-alley narrow-angle V4/V6 pushed by Lord as well as further enlarge the B-Series (including a UK built Blue Streak) and significantly improve the revised C-Series.

    In the case of the latter for example, Abingdon wanted the revised C-Series to receive a larger bore and shorter stroke to reduce both height (thereby butterflying away the MGC bonnet bulge) and weight as well as make it sportier during the development of the MGC (and related Big Healey successor). While it is mentioned that Issigonis was in charge and would not alter the engine to such specifications (and despite his motorsport background and the success of the Mini Coopers was said to be anti-sportscar thereby effectively being biased again the MG ADO34 and MG EX234 prototypes), it should be noted much of the issue in that particular instance was the limitations of the block-boring machinery at Longbridge made the idea unfeasible along with the fact that Harriman spent a lot of money in Germany on a block-boring machine meaning they were tied for bore centres and diameters (interestingly some like to draw comparisons with BMW’s inline-6s and the C-Series in terms of their almost identical bore and stroke).

    Additionally Harriman’s suggestion for Duncan Stuart to speak to Issigonis and getting the latter’s support about helping to take the cost out of the Mini and make it profitable in late 1962 could be interpreted as Issigonis wielding considerable influence within BMC, yet it could also be interpreted as Harriman indirectly declining Duncan’s idea without outright saying no by simply passing the buck off to Issigonis.

    As for Donald Stokes, it makes one wonder how Leyland and later British Leyland would have fared with the likes of Stanley Markland in charge in the same way had Leonard Lord been succeeded by Joe Edwards.

    1. Hi Bob. Thanks for the additional information on Issigonis’ plans for the 9X engine. As someone with only a layman’s understanding of engine technology, even I recognise that a six-cylinder 1.3 litre engine sounds like showboating on Issigonis’ part, and it would have been totally inappropriate for a mainstream small car that sells mainly on price.

      Even if it produced more power and torque than a three or four-cylinder unit of the same capacity, the additional cost and complexity could never be justified or recovered. Moreover, Issigonis’ refusal to try to improve and refine existing designs, be they engines or cars, was enormously costly and wrong-headed.

      The suggestion that Harriman just pointed Duncan Stuart in Issigonis’ direction is entirely plausible, given that Harriman was seemingly afraid to confront Issigonis directly. A more effective manager would simply have insisted that the two work together to improve the Mini’s unacceptably poor profitability.

    2. The 1.3-1.5 9X 6-cylinder 9X/10X engine was apparently envisaged for the ADO16-replacing 10X project and is something one would have typically expected either in pre-war times, a financially confident post-war carmaker like Mitsubishi and Mazda with their sub-2-litre V6s (or DKW with their last-gasp V6 two-stroke project unlike BMC during the mid-to-late 1960s) or as a low-volume successor to the compact Vanden Plas 1300 ADO16.

      There might have been some limited value in the 750-998 9X 4-cylinder engine had BMC embraced an earlier 70.6mm common-bore+ meets A-Plus and A-OHC style 970-1275cc+ update of the A-Series or opted for an earlier slightly enlarged A-Series derived 970-1596cc replacement. It is also possible the same engine was conceived for the Innocent 750 and Mini-Mini projects prior to both evolving into the 9X, however it would have made an inadequate successor to the A-Series without being capable of enlargement up to 1600cc as a 4-cylinder.

      Perhaps Harriman’s reliance on Issigonis was due to perceiving his position at the top of BMC being insecure upon succeeding Lord or some other factor? On the other hand Harriman’s decisions and ineffective style of management certainly did not help matters.

  3. I find the proliferation of unsuitable engine designs envisaged by BMC and then Issigonis to be quite amazing. A 1300cc small six might have worked for a motorcycle or racing car, but the inherent lack of torque and poor fuel economy would have made it unsuitable for a family car.
    Surely the underlying problem for the motor industry was the state of the economy post-WW2. Major American manufacturers were financially secure, but UK manufacturing was more of a cottage industry and was hobbled by material shortages, lack of investment, and serious government meddling. I remember in the Jowett story the point about sales collapsing at a crucial time because buyers were waiting for an expected cut in the punitive purchase tax rate. Reading Autocar editorials in the 60s there were constant warnings that the government was using the motor industry to control the economy and this was doing lasting damage. Even the consolidation of the industry under the Leyland banner was under government pressure.

  4. 9X had its origin in the XC/8368 ‘Mini-Mini’ project, developed in response to a request from Innocenti in early 1967 for an even smaller car than the Mini. The November 1967 prototype had very simple steel suspension – a dead axle on semi-elliptical leaf springs at the rear according to the Bardsley Issigonis biography. The reduction in length could only be achieved by shrinking the engine and ancillaries compared with the A series, hence the overhead camshaft and combined starter and alternator.

    The project had George Harriman’s support, but regime change soured the relationship with Innocenti, when Luigi Innocenti and his Chief Engineer Bruno Parolari were treated shabbily by Donald Stokes and George Turnbull, to the affront of Issigonis (who the Italians adored) and Harriman. Effectively the Leyland regime had commandeered the Innocenti project as the new Mini, and what Innocenti got – if anything – would be at Leyland’s discretion and on their terms.

    It’s questionable how serious the new management were about 9X. It was a convenient and appropriate vehicle for Issigonis’ “Forward Research” department, but remote from the main BLMC product development programme.
    The 9X project was aborted in October 1970 in favour of what became the – ultimately unrealised – ADO74 supermini.

    Issigonis REALLY wanted the 9X engine to go into production. Although well into his sixties by then, he proclaimed his Damascene conversion to become a world class engine designer, citing his ingenious expedients which would allow the power unit to be produced on simple low cost tooling. He was probably deluding himself – others pronounced the 9X powertrain to be unbuildable. In any case he was repeating the errors of the Minor’s flat-four and the Maxi’s E series by designing the engine to fit the car, rather than the other way round.

    Everybody in BMC except Issigonis questioned why the Italians wanted a shorter car than the ADO15 Mini. Did Innocenti have access to misleading intelligence about the upcoming Autobianchi A112? For Greek Al it was a challenge to relish, given his packaging obsession. Did nobody have the nerve or seniority to take him aside – preferably in the early ‘60s – and tell him that his fixation with designing deceptively spacious snub-nosed cars that occupied a minimum of road space was neither big nor clever?

    The 9X project was abandoned before the Renault 5 and Fiat 127 went on sale. They set the parameters for the class for at least a decade, and had the Issigonis swansong made it to market, would have relegated it to the margins. There’s still a thought – dangerous drift into armchair product planning here – that a 9X reworked from the bulkhead forward to accommodate the Mini drivetrain could have been a worthwhile stopgap, and a useful profit engine. There was promising thinking there, particularly in the front MacPherson strut / rear torsion bar suspension, and the clean and functional styling, intended to be refined by Pininfarina.

    Anyway, the Italians got the last laugh, going it alone with the 1974 Bertone styled Mini 90 /120 on a scarcely altered ADO15 platform. A miracle of arrangiarsi, that one lasted 19 years, albeit with a change to Daihatsu powertrains and steel suspension at half-time.

    1. Thanks. Suspected some link ties together the Mini-Mini and Innocenti 750 with the 9X projects, reputedly the Italians wanted to ambitiously challenge the Fiat 500 in terms of size while offering significantly more performance compared to the Fiat 500 yet would have obviously been more costly compared to its intended rival unless it was planned for the Mini-Mini to be sold outside of Italy.

      There is a morbid curiosity in seeing how at least the 4-cylinder 9X engine would have turned out had it entered production despite it being unbuildable in its form at the time and Issigonis’s poor record at engines from the Morris Flat-4s, Alvis 4-cylinder / V8 and E-Series engines. It was said the 9X unit could have easily slotted into the engine bay of the Mini without any apparent issues. He was apparently influenced by the pre-war Austin Seven engines and it seems the later K-Series engines drew some influence from the 9X and Austin Seven engines, along with the Triumph Sabrina Twin-Cam.

      At the same time surely Issigonis must have continued to work on attempting to make the engine production worthy by the time it was fitted into the MG Metro body, since even though it was a losing proposition by that point it is difficult to believe he would constantly make the case for the 9X engine without ever seriously improving it.

      As for the ADO74 project the only interesting thing would be the engine, since there were some parallels with the PSA-Renault X engine before the latter evolved into the PSA TU and perhaps the ADO74 engine could have drifted into a similar direction had Webster not sought to limit enlargement beyond 1300cc.

      The same curiosity goes with the Mini-Mini project or rather a hypothetical earlier version equipped with a 500-650/700cc 2-cylinder A-Series (ADO11) engine had more work been done at remedying the 2-cylinder A-Series unit’s deficiencies years prior to the likes of the conceptually similar Honda N360/N600 as a FWD 2-cylinder challenger to the Fiat 500, even if there would have been little to no case for a sub-Mini except in the Italian, Japanese and other markets.

    2. The Peugeot ‚suitcase‘ engine had the separate gearbox stacked vertically under the engine with the gearbox mainshaft under the engine’s crankshaft, placing only the differential under the cylinder block. The engine itself had wet liners and a chain driven cam with V angled valves operated by rockers in a crossflow head.
      The ‚K‘ had its gearbox as an integral part of the engine block arranged horizontally with the whole gearbox under the engine block. The engine itself had siamesed bores and a belt driven cam with parallel valves and bucket tappets in a reverse flow head.
      So except for the 72 degree rearward inclination of the block there were absolutely no parallels.

      Peugeot suitcase engine

      K engine

    3. Meant parallel with regards to how the ADO74 engine was mounted at a similar angle like the PSA-Renault X engine, the inspiration the BL people apparently drew upon during the engine’s development (unless they had other rivals engines in mind) and its potential to evolve into a much better engine for transversely-mounted end-on applications like how the X became the TU.

      Obviously it would have been a bonus if the parallels between the two engines were more literal beyond the TUD engine later finding its way into the Metro/100.

  5. Thank you for learning more about the shallows at Morris…Et al.

    BTW, the best Mini of all was the Innocenti 90 anyway. Unfortunately, I never had one. But if I see someone should sell one, I will buy it no matter what my wife says…

  6. The man appears to have been arrogant, patronising, condescending, and beyond an undeniable (if narrow minded) engineering talent he was a fool, but the fault lies with the people who placed him into that role, gave him that much influence and power, and then did nothing when it was obvious he wasn’t up to the job they’d given him that he clearly lacked the talent for while he turned out one piece of horrifying unsellable rubbish after another.

    You don’t blame the hammer if you drop it on your own foot.

  7. For those that would be interested in hearing first-hand accounts of the events surrounding the collapse of BL, there’s a programme on BBC Radio 4 tomorrow (Sunday 23rd August) at 11.00am called ‘The Reunion’. It brings together BL senior managers, union leaders and workers to recall those tumultuous times.

    Hopefully, it should be illuminating. I’ll post a link to the podcast when it becomes available after the programme has aired.

    1. Here’s the link to the Radio 4 podcast of the programme:

      It’s not particulatly revelatory, but the animosity between Harold Musgrove and the union representative and shop floor worker featured is still evident, as are the mutual recriminations for the company’s failure. Certainly worth a listen.

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