Elemental Spirit Part 3: When Donald Met Donald

When two West Countrymen clash.

Image: British Leyland (Austin-Morris) Limited

In his biography My World of Cars, Donald Healey recalled a meeting with Sir Donald Stokes in the first few weeks of British Leyland’s existence:

“I was summoned to Donald Stokes’s office at the Standard works in Coventry, he told me he was going to discontinue MG, together with the payment of royalties to the names associated with what were BLMC cars. This included John Cooper and myself, together with Harry Weslake, and John Thornley (MG General Manager) too, was eventually to be retired. He explained that he didn’t need the help of all of us people to produce a sports car, as his Leyland people were fully capable of doing so themselves.

″′I don’t think there’s any value in names’ he said, to which I replied.  ‘Right then, you don’t think there’s any value in Mr. Chevrolet, Mr. Ford, Mr. Buick and the rest – or Mr. Morris even” – and I left it at that.'”

It’s a snapshot of Stokes’ capricious mindset, still hubristic at accomplishing what looked like the British automobile industry’s coup of the century. In passenger car terms, it really did seem that Standard-Triumph had achieved a reverse takeover of BMC, Jaguar and Pressed Steel. Stokes was at least pragmatic; he would soon recognise that, despite chronic underinvestment, the MG brand was too powerful a profit engine to be abandoned in favour of Triumph.

Donald Healey would have been in his late sixties at the time of the fateful meeting. His standing was still high on both sides of the Atlantic, and his worldly work was far from done. The event is not reported with any rancour; the Austin-Healey venture had served both BMC and DHMC well and had provided Healey with royalty payments for far longer, and in greater numbers than the charismatic Cornishman ever expected.

The biography was published in 1989, the year after Donald Healey died, but long before, he may have taken some amusement that the Plymouth-born truck and bus super-salesman went on to be widely reviled as the figurehead of an industrial disaster which had brought shame on the nation.

The cessation of royalties would come to pass. BMC’s commonplace practice in the Len Lord era was to pay external consultants and contractors per unit royalties, rather than a lump sum fee. In the long term this had proved far more costly, but only because the royalty payee’s designs had usually been produced in far larger numbers than anticipated when they were commissioned.

Time had been called on Austin-Healey, but the Spridget continued to fight its corner. From 1969 to 1971 the ageing former BMC range – with a few exceptions – was dragged into the new decade with a common facelift theme: bright paint and interior trim colours, elimination of superfluous brightwork, new badging typefaces, and sculptured steel wheels or embellishers.

The authors of the new face of Austin, Morris and MG were not, in the main, Leyland people but ex-Ford managers, engineers, and designers hired expensively by BMC towards the end of the Harriman era. They knew the value of having something new to show, but in most cases cost-cutting was clearly evident.

Image: British Leyland (Austin-Morris) Limited

The October 1969 Sprite and Midget facelift had the official designations H-AN10 and G-AN5. but retained their Mark 4 and Mark 3 status. The changes were largely cosmetic: a matt black grille for both marques, black sills with a horizontal chrome divider strip and low-level SPRITE or MIDGET badges, rear quarter bumpers and Rubery Owen Rostyle steel wheels in a design unique to the Spridget.

Image: British Leyland (Austin-Morris) Limited

The Midget lost its chrome side and bonnet embellishment. The interior trim was updated, with ICI-developed embossed knit-backed expanded vinyl taking the place of stitched leathercloth[a]. The facelift ended the differentiation between the Austin-Healey and MG. Marque identification was reduced to badges alone, and the nominal price difference between the Sprite and Midget ended.

Donald Stokes had at least served fair warning on Austin-Healey. The last 3000 was completed in Abingdon on 21 December 1967, three weeks before the formation of British Leyland, and just over three months after Leonard Lord’s death[b].

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The Sprite was on its own, and sales in the USA ended in September 1969. The Healey royalty arrangement came to an end in January 1971. After this, the Austin dealer network was supplied with Sprites divested of the Healey name. This arrangement only lasted until July 1971, with a total of 1022 Austin Sprites produced.

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Now sui generis, the Midget received a further set of mainly practical and safety-related improvements in January 1972, with a collapsible steering column, rocker switches for minor controls, a larger fuel tank, and ‘four spoke’ Rostyle wheels in place of the Spridget-specific type which first appeared in 1969.

Image: British Leyland (Austin-Morris) Limited

A more surprising change was the re-introduction of rounded rear wheel arches, in place of the flat-topped arches first seen in 1961.

Image: British Leyland (Austin-Morris) Limited

The start of 1972 is a good time to take stock of where the Midget stood. Nearly fourteen years had passed since the arrival of the Frogeye, and ten and a half since the New Midget was launched. The cheaply developed little cars had enjoyed a charmed life, mainly through steady demand from the west coast of the USA, which was sufficient to justify continued production, but never lucrative enough to fund a replacement.

For most of its life, the Spridget had only one competitor, the younger, more ‘conventionally attractive’, comfortable and convenient Triumph Spitfire; industrial consolidation did nothing to end the rivalry, but the Canley car was beginning to edge ahead in sales numbers.

Image: mycarquest

The British cars’ only serious rival was the rear-engined Fiat 850 Spider which arrived in 1965 and was aggressively priced in the USA. By 1972 it was on the off-ramp. The 850 berlina had been discontinued, and Fiat had their far more ambitious mid-engined X1/9 waiting in the wings.

Honda S800 Image: Automobile-Club-64

For the MG Midget at least, the once-feared Japanese threat had evaporated. The 1965 Honda S800[c], close in size to the Spridget, was never officially sold in the USA, and production ended in 1970, when the company, having demonstrated their technological prowess, chose to advance their four wheeled ambitions in the mainstream saloon, and eventually hatchback sectors. Nissan’s 1960s Fairlady roadster (Datsun Sports 1600/2000) was closer in size to the MGB and had a strong following in the USA. In 1969, its manufacturer moved decisively upmarket with the Z-series and was rewarded with phenomenal success.

Back in the West Midlands, in 1970 BLMC’s management instigated the plan for their Corporate Sports Car, a conventionally engineered front engine, rear wheel drive platform to be shared by MG and Triumph, which would, during the mid-1970s, replace every non-Jaguar BLMC sports car. The sprawling British conglomerate had no choice, as their hands were tied by unprecedentedly stringent impending US emissions and crash safety legislation, and the need to rationalise their fragmented production infrastructure.

What did this mean for the Midget? Effectively it was placed in free fall, with no direct replacement planned, but remaining in production for as long as it could be made to comply with US Federal regulations, or until demand collapsed.

To be continued.

[a] Actually a vinyl-coated fabric, with a grained finish to imitate leather.

[b] Sir Leonard Lord retired from his post as Chairman and Chief Executive of BMC in November 1961, and was given the largely ceremonial title of Vice-President, rising to President following the death of Lord Nuffield in August 1963.  In May 1962, Len became an actual Lord, ennobled as Baron Lambury, of Northfield in the County of Warwick. He died on 16 September 1967 at the age of 70.

On Leonard Lord’s retirement, his long-time assistant George Harriman took over as Chairman and Chief Executive of BMC. That didn’t go entirely well…

[c] The Honda S800, close in size to the Spridget, was a tiny treasure-chest of technical delights. It featured torsion bar front suspension and a coil sprung live axle at the rear, and its crowning glory was a high-revving all-alloy twin cam four-cylinder engine with two twin-choke Keihin carburettors, which delivered 70-75bhp from only 797cc. Top speed was 95mph, and 0-60 and standing quarter mile acceleration figures bettered those of the MGB.

Image: Auto Blueprints

The little Honda seems to have impressed and alarmed both Healey’s and MG’s engineers. In 1967 DHMC obtained an S800, then benchmarked it against an experimental Super Sprite, a standard production car fitted with highly tuned A series engines in various specifications, all developed by Eddie Maher at the Courthouse Green works. MG set up an experimental code for a “Competition and fuel-injection Midget” in 1967, but there are no records of the outcome.

Had Honda sold the S800 in the USA, and other Japanese manufacturers followed, the Spridget’s charmed life might have ended far sooner.

Sources: See part one.

15 thoughts on “Elemental Spirit Part 3: When Donald Met Donald”

  1. The Honda S originally had a trailing arm rear suspension with chain drive.
    This was changed to a simpler live axle

  2. ‘ he told me he was going to discontinue MG’

    Ironic that of all the marques and brands of BLMC, only Unipart, Jaguar and the sub-marques of Land Rover, Range Rover, and Mini, survive today along with MG. (With an honourable mention of Alvis which wasn’t used by the group, although owned by Rover.) And MG is now the largest seller by far.

    Austin, Morris, Austin Healey, Wolseley, Riley, Princess, Vanden Plas, Standard, Triumph, Rover, Daimler, Lanchester, Leyland, BMC, AEC, Albion, Guy, Scammell, BSA, Prestcold, Aveling Barford, and Coventry Climax are now all gone. Perhaps, never to be seen again.

    Though it is interesting wading through the histories to see who still owns the dead brand names. What does BMW Group plan on doing with Triumph, Riley, and Austin Healey?

    Will we finally see a new, booted version of a MINI as a Riley Elf?


  3. This is turning out to be a cracking story, thank you Robertas.

    I notice from your photos that the Sprite Mk4 / Midget Mk3 briefly festured a black painted (anodised?) windscreen frame. It looks odd against the chromed quarter-light frames. I also notice those nasty corporate Leyland badges on the front wings.

    The black grille with inset MG badge looks cheap and nasty, even moreso on the MGB where the raised central section of the bonnet remained, even though it no longer had any purpose:

    1. Daniel, the black windscreen surround lasted far less than a full model year. I’d imagine surviving examples are now valuable rarities. The contemporary MGB “black hole” grille was replaced for the following model year with a simulacrum of the original, but mainly made with plastics.

      It would be nice to think that BLMC were listening to the worldwide MG ‘family’, but more likely the U-turns were imposed through the judgement and conscience of J Bruce M Williams, BLMC’s US chief, a legendary figure in the industry, whose enduring love of traditional British sports cars kept MG and Triumph alive despite, rather than because of, BLMC’s efforts in the 1970s.

  4. I’ve always wondered if Stokes didn’t make a mistake in priorities because he didn’t understand what sort of companies he had acquired? Considering the fact that the models that sold didn’t make any money, line the Mini and the 1100/1300?

    It’s always been the biggest “what if?” in my mind, the question of being a mass production car maker or a maker of sports- and premium cars?

    What if Stokes had realized what brought home the bacon was the sports car market in the US? Namely MG, Austin-Healey, Triumph, and Jaguar? He could’ve built an empire of premium cars instead of trying to save Austin/Morris.

    I find it absolutely astonishing that both Jaguar and Range Rover had their orders booked solid throughout the seventies but couldn’t make up for demand because they literally couldn’t make any more of them.

    1. Ingvar: I’m not all that convinced that Stokes didn’t understand the BMH side of the business, more that it does appear that in his enthusiasm to become the UK’s automotive ‘big cheese’, the due diligence was either not carried out (unlikely) or derided (more likely). Once the takeover was completed, with a good deal of persuasion from the Ministry of Technology, Stokes went full-pelt towards the mass market in the belief that he could create from this sack of fighting jackrabbits a world-beating automotive juggernaut. That said, it is far from clear that Stokes was the right man for such a role. Saying that, it would have taken someone with the steely determination and managerial abilities of a Michael Edwardes to bash all of the myriad heads together. In many ways, BLMC was ungovernable.

      Frankly, even a grouping as you lay out above would have been almost impossible to manage effectively in practice. Too much product overlap and too many brand loyalties. Austin Healey, MG and Triumph were too similar in their offerings and pulling them apart in product terms would have satisfied nobody. Ditto Rover (as was) and Jaguar.

      Harsh decisions were required in 1969. They weren’t taken. It’s a little like Stellantis, anno-2022. The main difference being that under Carlos Tavares, they have a competent CEO who appears to know what he’s about.

    2. Does this mean that to reign a panopticon like VAG you need someone with the steely determination of Mr. Piech?
      What does this mean for Stellantis?

  5. Following on from what Eóin has written, I suspect that the centralising winner-takes-all logic of capitalism had a role to play in the amalgamation of the also—rans into an apparent behemoth, but one which in reality was doomed as the financially stronger multinational firms outspent and out marketed them. Stellantis may turn out to be a 21st century victim of the same centralising, narrowing effect of (even-)later capitalism

    1. One should not overuse the word “capitalism”. There are a thousand ways of looking at this term and none of them do justice to the reality and impact.

      Stellantis will simply go down the drain because they can no longer offer customer-friendly products. They can no longer offer customer-friendly products because they are no longer allowed to do so – because it is no longer politically opportune to be allowed to offer customer-friendly products. Individual mobility is no longer desired and for the remaining new aristocracy that is still allowed to be individually mobile – and will still be able to afford it – the company is too big and the buyers too few.

      Personally, I can’t really judge whether Donald Stokes was the right man at the right time. Obviously he wasn’t, given the demise of BLMC.
      But perhaps, villain or saviour, he may never have had a real chance. To quote Eóin, “BLMC was ungovernable.” (Which reminds me of a quote from Mussolini who, after coming to power, was asked by a journalist what it would be like now “to govern Italy” and replied: Italy is ungovernable).
      Eóin has explained precisely why BLMC was ungovernable. All the little princes – he called it “brand loyalties”, the product overlaps (too similar in their offerings), and no money. It could not go well. And it did not go well.

      Tavares is going to be the next Donald, only he’s not called that – which is why they’ll have to come up with another apt headline for his demise. But the word acrobats at DTW will be able to come up with a fitting word there, too.

  6. Honda officially selling the S800 in the US with other Japanese marques following suit, would (ideally) have provided the necessary catalyst needed to spur MG/Healey and others out their complacency.

    Nissan was another that could have given the Spridget a particularly hard time via a Sunny-based two-seater roadster up to the early-80s, instead of simply moving upmarket with the Z. It would have also not undergone the drastic power losses the emissions strangled Midget 1275 and 1500 models experienced, while Spridgets have been the recipients of Nissan engines and 5-speed gearboxes.

    In hindsight BMC should have looked past the strong sales and considered a replacement for the Spridget and later the MGB with EX234, which not only made both feel as if they belong to the previous decade but also would have reduced overlap with the TR7/8 had the misbegotten merger still occurred. The reputedly midway size of EX234 would have also created a void below that could have been filled with ADO34 (at 10’6″ length) or ADO70.

    Whereas the Jensen-Healey was said to have been envisioned from its beginnings as a Big Healey successor, did wonder what the Healeys had in mind as far as a Sprite successor was concerned. They did not seem particularly enthused with the Healey ADO36 version of ADO34 or the Healey WAEC prototype. Would they have approved for something like the Banham Sprint in the same way they were with the HMC Healey MkIV?

    1. To my eyes it was a wise decision not to sell the S800 in the US. Imagine a car with an engine capable of revving up to 10,000 rpm with a roller bearing crankshaft and initially at least chain drive to the rear wheels.

      Who would have done the maintenance on such a mechanical marvel (metric tools and precision work required)?

  7. Fred

    Maybe one can say, at least, that like in most other ideologies, the respective theories are not followed when on practice.

  8. Dave

    You ask, “Who would have done the maintenance on such a mechanical marvel (metric tools and precision work required)?”

    Motorcycle mechanics!

  9. I had a week end job at a Florida sports car dealership in 66 and we had a red S800 on the lot. I remember being keen to have a go but at 6′ 2″ didn’t fit in so left the driving experience to my imagination, however it was a marvel to behold!

    1. Ca. 1971 I was driving past a garage in Rhode Island, and they had an S800 out front with a sign on the windshield: “A Mr. Toad special! A 10,000 RPM screamer!” 20 years later I read The Wind in the Willows, and then I got the Mr. Toad allusion. I share Toad’s liking for cars but not his irresponsibility.

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