Allegories of failure.
Urban-planned existences lived out under high-voltage power lines, the yellowed lighting of deserted subterranean underpasses. Dehydrated food – just add water – George and Mildred on the Radio Rentals telly. Modest hopes, unfulfilled ambitions and quiet despair, punctuated by mass unemployment, the three-day week and grinding industrial disputes. The Sixties ‘white heat of industry’ had sputtered – Seventies Britain appeared to be unravelling into a J.G Ballard-esque dystopia.
Should one, for the purposes of shorthand or metaphor wish to illustrate this somewhat bleak view of the times, there are cultural objects and optics available which will serve the purpose. But in purely automotive terms, the Austin Allegro (ADO67) is the vehicle to which most writers default. Heading every tabloid list of ‘worst ever’, the 1973 BLMC product, both in automotive and cultural terms, would become the butt of every populist joke, the default setting for those for whom the only true answers were the obvious ones.
Does a car reflect its times, or do the times reflect the car? It is an apt question – after all, the Allegro’s predecessor, the 1100/1300 (ADO16) was rooted in Sixties optimism; classless, outward looking, reflecting a vision of a modern Britain; one coming to terms with new realities and moving towards a more nuanced post-colonial future. The Allegro by contrast could not help but underline Britain’s subsequent failure to make that leap.
ADO67 emerged from a troubled family. The British Motor Corporation (BMH from 1966) was in significant financial and labour relations difficulty by 1968, suffering from at least a decade of mismanagement. Forced by Prime Minister, Harold Wilson into an unhappy marriage of convenience with Leyland Motors that year, the newly enlarged car business required strong leadership, a ruthless focus on product and some tough decisions. CEO, Donald Stokes was not the man for that job, and rather than confront the issues head-on, elected instead to enact a rapid growth strategy.
BLMC’s volume car business was not in good shape by 1969. Even those models which were selling in meaningful volumes were expensive to build with little by way of profitability baked in – legacies of BMC’s ignorance of cost management and what would later become known as product strategy. Nevertheless, scattered around Longbridge were building blocks for those with eyes to see. Stokes and his new team of managers and engineers however chose to view its new acquisition with a distinctly myopic gaze.
Priority number one that year ought to have been to stabilise the volume business – the obvious means of achieving this end being to on one hand bolster existing product, while on the other, engineer a suitably desirable replacement to ADO16, future-proofed for the new decade. But rather than adopt this pragmatic course, the BLMC board took a momentous and ill-judged leap sideways.
The Marina factor:
In 1969, Donald Stokes fast-tracked the development of the technically conservative Marina (ADO28), intended as a quick and dirty means of regaining lost market share. There was a rationale to this, even if it was one that didn’t quite hold up to scrutiny. The BLMC board believed that it was essential not only to retain their share of the UK car market against the United States multinationals, but to market a car to the growing commercial and fleet markets, there having been some considerable resistance from this area to BMC’s front-drive models.
The case for Marina was predicated upon the organisation’s ability to develop it cheaply and sell it at profit. This however proved more difficult than anticipated, the Marina programme proving more expensive to develop than anticipated and although early sales met expectations, profitability didn’t, not aided by the fact that fleets drove hard bargains and budget-conscious private motorists were hardly in the market for the higher-margin models.
But there were other unintended consequences. Cowley was chosen as the site for Marina production, which had up to then been building 1100/1300 models. Now starved of those volumes, sales of this core model dropped, the smaller-engined Marina essentially cannibalising Britain’s best-seller. In export markets, the Marina was sold in both Australia and New Zealand, along with South Africa and the US, but not without significant re-engineering, adding further cost to the programme, the ends scarcely justifying the means. In mainland Europe meanwhile, the car was greeted with withering disdain, and sales were negligible.
While one can make a logical case for a conventionally designed car like the Marina, the argument dissolves quickly when exposed to the fact that the more advanced front-driven 1100/1300 remained Britain’s top seller, while also proving popular across global markets. In 1969, when Marina was initiated, it was felt that a replacement for ADO16 was not a matter of urgency. This would prove to be a miscalculation.
Indeed, the Marina, often viewed as one of BLMC’s few commercial successes was instead more of an own-goal. Not only did it hurt the core product (ADO16), which by then required support and further development to retain its market position, it diverted significant managerial, financial and human resource at a crucial moment for scant, short-term return. Moreover, by prioritising it over ADO67, the latter’s development, (a far more commercially sensitive model let us make clear) was hampered. It didn’t seem to matter at the time, but it would.
The Max factor:
In gestation under BMC since 1964, the Austin Maxi (ADO14), had suffered a convoluted and protracted path to market, the resultant product showing all the signs of significant mission creep and poor oversight. Worse still, in 1969, despite lengthy development, it had emerged as a flawed product. Its less than auspicious debut was hugely embarrassing for BLMC’s masters and was never forgotten or forgiven.
In 1970, the Maxi was effectively re-launched with a 1750 cc version of the underperforming E-Series engine, along with a re-engineered rod-operated gear linkage. A revised dashboard, some interior enhancements and a minor exterior refresh and that was largely it. These changes addressed the most pressing criticisms levelled at launch, but the Maxi’s continued lack of visual allure and the inability of the market to understand its somewhat oddball appeal remained an impediment to sales, which fell far below (admittedly optimistic) projections.
But there was little fundamentally wrong with the Maxi. By then, it was largely debugged and throughout the Seventies proved one of the more durable (if not all that exciting) of BLMC/BL’s offerings. There was a good deal to commend it, but Stokes and his board, instead of authorising further development, opted for an etch-a-sketch approach. The Maxi became BLMC’s great missed opportunity, arguably the fulcrum upon which the entire volume business would subsequently hinge.
Both these cars would cast a significant shadow over the Allegro’s conception. But with design and development teams so diverted, there needed to be a gimlet-eyed focus on getting ADO67 right. The fact that it was set to replace Britain’s best seller ought to have concentrated minds, but buoyed by the initial success of Marina, a dangerous sense of complacency appeared to permeate Donald Stokes’ boardroom.
Glossary of codenames:
ADO14 – Austin Maxi
ADO16 – Austin/Morris 1100/1300
ADO28 – Morris Marina
ADO67 – Austin Allegro
 It was folly to go after the likes of Ford and Stokes was told as much by allies within the industry. He thought he knew better. The Marina however did provide a basis for popular pick-up and van models, which replaced ancient BMC products which dated back to the 1950s.
 To facilitate Marina production, the Cowley works was in receipt of a £40 million refit, to which can be added to the £21 million it cost to develop ADO28. It’s unclear whether these figures account for marketing, warranty costs or those associated with overseas production.
 BLMC policy was for Morris to represent the traditional (RWD) market, while Austin would be the technology leader. Hence, once the Marina was imminent, not only was ADO16 production stopped at Cowley, but Morris dealers no longer sold the car. The impact upon 1100/1300 sales was immediate and its market position never recovered. It was cannibalisation, pure and simple.
 Both Australian and South African market Marinas received the E-Series engine which was originally intended for the car, in 1.5 litre and 2.2 six form (Australia) and 2.6 litre (SA). US models were fitted with identical federalised B-Series engines to that of the MGB.
 Also significant was the Marina’s effect upon BLMC’s reputation. For all of its contemporary style it was a reactionary car even by 1971 standards and for a car company which had gained a name for advanced engineering, it was viewed as a retrograde step. It should be stressed that it wasn’t a bad car as such, but BLMC’s priorities were all over the place at the time.
 Throughout the 1970s, the Maxi was left fallow, apart from the adoption of Hydragas suspension displacers in 1978 (Maxi was the last model to abandon Hydrolastic) and a mild cosmetic revision in 1979. It never broke any sales records, but it continued to sell steadily until its 1981 demise, when it gave way to the entry-level Ambassador.
 A strong argument can be made to suggest that the Maxi held the key to BLMC’s volume car ambitions during the 1970s. Dimensionally close to the Allegro (wheelbase apart), it was a (largely) fully proven platform with much to commend it and with some sympathetic development, could have formed the basis for a whole family of cars, obviating the necessity for the Marina and bringing an Allegro sized car to market far sooner. That it was ignored to death can best be ascribed to hubris and dogma.
Sources: British Leyland: Chronicle of a Car Crash 1968-1978 – Chris Cowin/ The Men and Motors of ‘The Austin’ – Barney Sharratt – Haynes/ ARonline/ Autocar 17 May 1973/ Car Magazine June 1973/ Car Magazine February 1974/ Motor Sport June 1973. Thanks also to Daniel O’Callaghan and especially to Robertas Parazitas.
59 thoughts on “Running With Scissors [Part One]”
Good morning Eóin. It’s enlightening to read a piece about the Allegro that does not simply take cheap shots at its ‘worst BL car ever’ reputation and focuses instead on the context in which it was developed, with BL’s limited resources squandered on appeasing internecine rivalries and pandering to the supposed (but imagined, or at least defunct) tribalism of would-be buyers.
By the time the Allegro hit the market, it was over twenty years since the 1952 merger that formed BMC, plenty of time during which the group should have been streamlined into, at most, four hierarchical marques, with a clearly defined model structure no ‘badge engineering’ nonsense.
I’m very much looking forward to reading how this story develops.
Reading this excellent piece I saw some parallels between the situation at B(L)MC and VW at that time.
VW also didn’t have a product strategy – they didn’t even have a product beyond the Beetle on which a strategy could have been based. They also were bankrupt.
But what a difference in the outcome.
Thanks to steel minded people like Rudolf Leiding and Professor Fiala, not to mention considerable help from Ludwig Kraus and Audi, they managed to develop products that not only saved the company but also became market leaders just like the ADO16 had been.
Imagine what would have happened if the Allegro had been BLMC’s Golf and the Maxi their Passat and then ask why this didn’t happen. Or imagine what would have happened if VW had made the EA266 a reality.
One thing I see is that VW only needed two basic engines to power their whole model range and the other is that they didn’t do experiments like funny suspensions. And they gave every model some doors of its own…
Dave: one difference, I would argue, is one you point out: VW had only one model (well, one viable one). BL had myriad: granted, the ADO16 and Mini were the stars, but there were many more to confuse the picture. Ultimately though, like you say, it probably comes down in large part to the people steering the ship and executing the strategy. Much ink has been spilled over the merits and demerits of Issigonis and his influence at BL. The different national environments will have been influential as well: I don’t think Germany was as economically disfunctional as the UK, although there was plenty of trouble.
In hindsight, it’s reasonably clear: if you’re a car maker in trouble, you don’t enter a new(-ish) market segment unless you’ve got something spectacular – and the Marina wasn’t that. Also, before anything else, you focus on continuing the success you do have by developing the products in question and diverting resources as needed. At the time however, and in the midst of all the (human) drama, it will have been considerably less clear.
Great article, Eóin.
Good morning Mr Doyle – you sum up the seventies beautifully. I wonder how many of us understood Max factor….
The Cortina and Marina were both old-fashioned designs, simple and boring and therefore of great appeal to fleet engineers and private buyers terrified of stepping outside of the perceived norm. The big difference between then, however, was that Ford could assemble the bits and pieces properly and BL couldn’t. The Maxi was a far superior machine, despite suffering from the same BL disease, but was unfortunately far too advanced for the market to understand.
Another series off to a great start – I look forward to the next instalment.
Morning Eóin, thank you for the piece on my all time favourite car subject.
Totally agree, the Marina was an incredibly costly sidestep that really hindered the new company from the get go. It was foolish of BL to chase the fleet market that Ford and Vauxhall had dominated. They should have thought like their European competitors and concentrated on the private market with its higher profit margins.
Also they really needed someone to come in, blow the whistle and say to all the marques “you’re all in one team now, time to start acting like it”. A proper manager prepared to drop excess marques and push for more parts sharing. And Stokes was not that person.
Do you think the Maxi’s platform could have been shrunken down to make a C segment car while the ADO16 forms the basis of a new super mini? Or would the ADO16 with development have been a better choice? I’m trying to work out if it’s 1960s dimensions were more supermini or small family by the start of the seventies.
“It was foolish of BL to chase the fleet market that Ford and Vauxhall had dominated.”
I can just imagine a stereotypically British manager spluttering “But, but, but – corporate prestige, dammit, man! We’re the biggest company, we have to be in that market segment!”
I totally agree that they needed stronger management to deal with the whole Austin vs. Morris issue. Side thought – should BMC have swept away all the old marque names back in the fifties and made everything a BMC? Then they could have focussed on refining one product rather than developing five or six versions of it. While I would not have liked this back in the day, being a Morris sympathiser, it would have made folding things in with the Leyland side much easier.
@Peter: They had separate sales channels for Austin and Morris up to the Leyland merger, all with their own personal interest. BMC delayed the Austin introduction of the ADO16 for a full year, just so that the starved Morris dealer network could have something unique to draw the customers in. Yes, for it first year the ADO16 was a Morris and MG only alternative. It is absolutely mind boggling! If not selling everything under an umbrella name possibly BMC, at least they could have given all dealers the possibility of selling all their marques under the same roof.
@Ingvar: Hard to imagine now, isn’t it? In Australia we were largely spared this lunacy. I don’t know what went on behind the scenes to expedite it, but the Mini was Morris only, the 1100 likewise was always a Morris, though its predecessor the Morris Major (DO1101/1115/YDO1)had an Austin Lancer twin in its first two iterations. The 1800 was only ever an Austin here, though the Austin Freeway (ADO40/YDO3) had a Wolseley version. And of course we missed out on the Maxi; dodged a bulklet by the sound of things. 🙂 . Earlier Farinas were either Austin or Morris, though the MG Magnette was imported in tiny numbers; the big Farinas were so uncommon that I don’t remember seeing them.
I suspect all dealers got both marques, regardless of their former allegiance.
Leaving aside the common E series engine, 5-speed gearbox and Hydragas suspension. However unlikely the following is, were there any more shared componentry between the Maxi and Allegro to say with more certainty the latter was in some indirect sense possibly based on an extensively modified and shortened Maxi platform albeit one conceived under Leyland influence to put their stamp on it (after inheriting the Maxi in its underdeveloped form from its BMC takeover)?
If there is some validity to the above, while the Allegro was conceived to replace ADO16 perhaps the Maxi with its size and hatchback unfortunately represented a glass ceiling for the Allegro that limited it unnecessarily?
The Marina or something like it with Hydrolastic suspension (that could at least be capable of being twinned with both a larger RWD X6 and EX234) should have appeared in the early-1960s to mitigate segment retreat at relatively low-cost, been used as a way of winding down the Morris marque and prevent alienated BMC owners unsettled by FWD from switching to RWD rivals, until the FWD layout was further refined for the next decade instead of belatedly and cack-handedly been done in the 1970s under BL.
Would the Allegro have been necessary had ADO22 appeared sooner in the late-1960s and the Landcrab been Maxi-sized (as in closer to the Simca 1100 via a 100-inch wheelbase without the constraint of those doors)? The strong sales of ADO16 up to the mid-1970s suggest the Allegro could have justifiably been passed over or evolved into an mid/late-1970s Maestro/Montego analogue.
Fwiw am aware the Maxi was equipped with Hydragas much later from 1978, though more focused on exactly how much in common both it and the later Allegro have with each other.
Excellent piece Eóin, as always! We lived in the UK for a couple of years in the mid 70s; in London, more specifically. However, I was only 3 – 5 years old then, so I obviously can’t recall the dire situation that the UK was going through at the time. I do have fond memories of the car we had back then, a bronze yellow Austin 1300GT that I’ve mentioned here before (in your ADO16 series last summer), so reading about its successor, the Allegro, is always an interesting exercise for me as that could have been our family car in an alternate universe. I don’t dislike the Allegro’s styling, at least in pictures (I don’t think I’ve seen one in the metal yet), but I much prefer our Austin’s crisp, clean lines and I don’t think that’s nostalgia speaking!
Looking forward to the rest of this series.
I would argue with footnote #5 – that the Marina wasn’t a bad car. The ‘A’ and ‘B’ series engines were competent, the gearbox was OK, and the Marina had decent ergonomics (provided one didn’t sit in the back seat). There was nothing else to commend it.
Do these decent ergonomics include the radio which pointed in the direction of the passenger?
Mine never came with any radio, and I fitted the tape deck under the drivers’ seat….
But I was able to work the indicators with my right hand, while changing gear with my left.
That’s because the Marina was designed for old fashioned driving habits like going around a corner in the sequence look-indicate-turn. Nowadays the ‘look’ and the ‘indicate’ parts are optional and mostly omitted.
It’s interesting that cars from countries with standard RHD cars have their indicator stalk on the right hand side of the steering column and cars from countries with LHD as standard have their indicator stalk on the left hand side also in RHD cars.
By the way, do JDM versions of Japanese cars still have the indicator in the right hand side?
Yes Dave JDM cars still have the indicator stalk on the right, where it should be. Even today.
Lovely article, so very evocative of the 70’s, a decade I have come to very much dislike for the factors you mention and personal experiences whilst growing up.
What is it about disasters which fascinate us so much? BL as a whole and some of the cars they produced which ultimately led to its demise are such compelling subjects. The Allegro really is one of those images which comes into my mind whenever someone mentions the 70’s. Everything about its styling was just so odd – like an object trying so very hard to look modern and yet so obviously failing (compare with the GS, Alfasud, R5). Similar could be said for the mechanical set up – the aged A series and bizarrely conceived E series, compromised hydraulic suspension set up (compared with the pressured alternative in the GS), and nightmare build quality (although BL cars weren’t alone in that respect).
Looking forward to further instalments.
Hi S.V. It sounds like we’re roughly the same age. I became a teenager in the early ’70s and came to loath the decade for its general gloom and misery, strikes, terrible fashions and mainly terrible pop music.
Regarding the Marina, it might have stood a chance against the Mk2 Cortina but the 1970 Mk3 moved the game on with its fashionable styling and desirable trim packages. Who cared that it was an old nail underneath when it could be had with twin headlights and a vinyl roof?
BL seemed not to have a clue as to how to make their cars desirable. Even the worthy but dull Maxi could have been easily and cheaply enlivened, as this Photoshop I did recently demonstrates:
You’re right Daniel. The teddy bear transforms it!
That´s one of the keys, why BL had to style their cars to look so undesirable? It seemed they made it intentionally. The Maxi probaby was a good and practical car, but it lacked any appeal. One of the descriptions I´ve read about the Allegro´s styling was “porcine” and it was very accurate. The Marina was dull and even a bit dated when new. Princess, TR7, oh dear…well, at least we had the Rover SD1.
Perhaps, as you say Daniel, a bit of clever detailing could have lifted these models up and gave them more showroom appeal. When life give you lemons…
@ Daniel: Almost looks a bit Alfa-ish. Just needs a smaller version of the A30 grille in the middle, and those luscious “Austin of England” badges!
Imagine that photoshopped Maxi on a lighter 100-inch wheelbase with a similar wider choice of 1.3-2.0-litre engines as what would later appear on the Maestro and Montego.
The front also raises the question of how a more modern Vanden Plas variation of the theme would work (in place of the traditional VDP grille seen on the Allegro and 1975 Vanden Plas 2200 prototype), inspired along the lines of the Lancia 2000 Berlina and Wolseley 2200.
Here you go:
@ Daniel: Hmm, maybe not!
When Leyland took over BMC they had NOTHING in the pipeline as a direct replacement for their entire line-up, something that is crucial in this business. If you have something that actually sells, your first prerogative is to see to its direct replacement.
While the Mini and the ADO16 sold in numbers, they weren’t made for profit but for volume. While the larger cars were made for profit but didn’t sell in any volume. So none of their cars actually made any profit for the company.
But just think of it. In 1968 when Stokes was trying to look for what they had, the had nothing. Issoginis was still tinkering with optimizing the Mini concept, but they didn’t have a real and viable proposition for a Mini replacement they could actually put to market. The ADO16 had been in production for 6 years without a single thought on its replacement. The Farina saloons was still in production, because its replacement the Landcrab didn’t fit the shoes and didn’t sell in any significant numbers to be a direct replacement anyway. The Spridgets was almost a decade old, the MGB was a sales success in the US, and the Big Healey left to die, none of the cars had had any significant updates for years.
The only things they had in the pipeline was the Maxi and the 3-litre saloon, both half baked propositions both at least 4 years late to the market and not a direct replacement for anything but an extension both upwards and down in the line-up. The thought they had no R&D whatsoever for anything is absolutely mindboggling.
To get things in perspective, the Landcrab sold 386000 cars over a decade, where the Volkswagen Type 4 (411/412) sold 367000 cars over a similar time period, and that car is considered the biggest flounder in VW history.
Eoin’s piece is excellent. Too excellent really in conjuring up that dire period and, in particular, in reminding us of the literal car crash that was BL. Like an old horror film, each time you see it you think “they couldn’t be so stupid as to walk down that dark, deserted alley”. But each time they do and …. it’s just all too painful.
@Daniel I’m gobsmacked, those extra lights have completely transformed it! I don’t hate its pervious 2 light face, it’s quite friendly looking actually, but that quad set up makes it look pretty fine indeed imo. Somewhat reminiscent of the Authi Victoria.
This is maddening, they had all the ingredients for a decent 3 car line up, all with a strong family resemblance, all occupying the right segments of the market, all with advanced mechanicals ready for Europe, and just a few tweaks to styling would have made them so much more desirable. How could they have been so stupid.
One thing I’ve always wondered, and might try photoshopping, is how the maxi, 1100 and even mini would look with these clubman style front ends, and the famous Marina doorhandles on them. I can’t explain why, those doorhandles have an oddly likeable and quirky factor to them that imo would have suited the range.
I’m much in agreement, JCC – and I know exactly what you mean about those door handles. I do like Daniel’s Alfa Maxi – but never mind the bear, there’s obviously been a big fall-out on the parcel shelf; the dog is obviously having a right good sulk…….
Even in the ’50s BMC era, there wasn’t a strong or consistent visual theme to define the Morris and Austin brands. The Austin ‘horseshoe’ survived till 1967 with the A35 van, but otherwise was superseded after the Somerset with the horizontal ‘crinkly bars’. Morris got straight horizontal bars, sometimes painted, sometimes chromed.
Move on to the 1961 Austin A40 Mk.2, and rod-straight horizontal bars replace the Austin ‘signature’ crinkly bars. Looked far better, but were they ordered for a badge-engineered Minor replacement that didn’t happen?
Then there’s the matter of the Morris logo which was only ever used on the Mark 1 and 2 1800.
Worked for Nissan – why didn’t BMC/BLMC use it more widely? Perhaps because both BMC factions were cow-fixated?
I’ll mischievously contend that the strongest Austin identity was the angled script of the pre-war cars.
The wings and shields, and the fussy inverted radiused trapezoid just confused the message. Peugeot seem to be going through the same confusion at the moment. I hope their ex-BL and Rover CEO gets it sorted…
Good morning Robertas. Like you, I’m less than convinced by Peugeot’s latest iteration of its ‘lion’ logo:
I’m sure I’ve seen it elsewhere:
Representing their respective country’s politics, the French lion looks left, the Malaysian, looks to the right?
The new Peugeot logo looks very retro, as it resembles the logo used in the 60s.
The Lion of Belfort has the same orientation as the Royal Banner of the Royal Arms of Scotland.
The TPCA joint venture in Kolín spoiled patriotic Scots rotten between 2014 and 2018 with the lion rampant on the 108 and the saltire-faced Aygo.
Was not aware of that Morris badge, second that it is something that should have probably been applied more widely in place of the BMC Rosette or the BL Roundel.
Perhaps Austin could have made use of a version retaining its script yet in contrast to Morris with a red or dark burgundy rectangle?
Would a six-bar rectangle logo at the centre similar to the real-life blue and green logo bar treatment (albeit with variance on colour scheme) or a Union Jack variation as seen on the Metro have been a suitable update?
The piece of music used in their introductory film is called ‘Strange Experience’ (appropriately enough) and is track 3 of ‘The Best of Johnny Hawksworth’ by De Wolfe music. I don’t half know some odd things.
The only BL cars marketed more or less seriously in Spain were the Mini and the ADO 16 (and the three volume derivative Victoria). They were built here, of course. But I wonder how many Allegros, Maxis, Marinas and the like BL sold in Europe. I know that in those years car buyers were a lot more nationalist than today, but did BL ever planned their model range to sell in any numbers in mainland Europe?
Yes – I think Minis were big in places like France. I recall Scandinavian friends rating the fwd cars highly, due to their ability in snow.
In Germany there was no such thing as a BL organisation for a very long time.
A multitude of importers offered selections of cars to their taste, there was one in Hamburg selling everything as long as it had a soft top but nothing else – Spitfires, Midgets, Stags, E-Types and Morgans. Some companies imported Rovers and Jaguars, people like Dieter Lindner only sold Jaguars and there were people like Brüggemann who sold everything no matter where it came from as long as it had four wheels. Brüggemann also had a service operation with contracted garages working on the cars he sold.
Only in the Eighties did BL try to consolidate that mess and most of those dealers got the offer to terminate their contract and most of them happily accepted the offer. The one who didn’t was Brüggemann with the result that there were two parallel sales operations and BL had no service network to rely on. BL signed a contract with a large chain of DIY shops which sold you an MG Metro turbo between bathtubs and toilet bowls. Service was outsourced to a chain of rip off service stations like Pit Stop or ATU (don’t remember which).
It all ended in a large mess.
(Now imagine trying to sell a Rover 75 as a product of a company with that history…)
Wow. Spectacular bit of image-building there in setting the scene. I’ll have to read up on British history to find out what went so wrong to kill off that sixties optimism. I had no idea things were so bad, but then I was only a teenager in Australia. Were things any better in Ireland?
I too will be fascinated to see where you take this.
I remember thinking (as a teen) that the Marina was a retrograde step. A new RWD car when they were thought of as a FWD company? Going back to old-tech? At least they had the sense to use the Morris Minor type front end rather than the wobbly-bobbly Austin Farina setup; those cars always seemed to bounce a lot over bumps – or maybe the front ends wore out quickly on all the ones I saw. We didn’t get the Maxi here, so I never thought of how convoluted and confusing this made the BL range. Yes, something like the Marina should have come out by 1965, and the Farinas put out to pasture. Or did they need a SWB Maxi saloon? Awaiting your next installment…
Slight amendment to footnote 4: the Aussie Marina had the 1750 as well as the 1500, at least it did before the six came on line. Like most Aussie teens I really wasn’t paying much attention to Leyland at the time. I remember walking past Littlehale’s in Warragul with a friend, and us both laughing at a tape-striped Marina in the showroom window. Aren’t teenagers cruel?
Cruel? Not really Peter – but perhaps finely tuned to spotting pretentious rubbish…. as for those wobbly-bobbly Farinas, they were quite refined in comparison to their predecessors. Were you a few years older you’d have been laughing your teenage self sick at the sight of Austin A40 Devons, Dorsets & Somersets with worn front shocks coming towards you. The noses would be doing a slow bounce at the rate of about one per second, while the wheels would be bouncing at six per second. If you were lucky you’d spot daylight under the tyres before the whole thing disappeared into the undergrowth as it failed to negotiate the next corner. We just has to be sure to always stand on the inside of the bend, never the outside…. Transverse sprung Fords might lurch about all over the road but nothing bounced quite like an Austin.
@JTC: I saw plenty of Devons, those things seemed unkillable. Never a Dorset, not sure we even got any Down Under, and Somersets seemed to rust away like nobody’s business. So did the short-tail Cambridge. But these Austins never seemed to be going fast enough for their handling (or lack thereof) to be an issue. Or maybe it was the elderly drivers.
I’m glad I’m not the only one to recall the ‘Austin bounce’. Dad was a Morris man, and turned to F0rd in disgust after the Farina Oxford came out; said it wasn’t a real Morris. Now I have more understanding of what he meant. But he was never tempted back by the Marina.
Great read, thank you.
Re footnote 4, the Aussie Marina had 1500, 1750 4 cyl and 2600 6 cyl E Series. It never used the 2200, which had been seen previously in the FWD Tasman Kimberley. The 2600 was a RWD version developed for the P76 and then later slotted into the Marina.
I was too young to really pay attention to BL when it existed, but many of the “cures” suggested on car forums were tried here in Australia.
They didn’t work.
Amalgamation under one badge, optimal engine mixes, restyles and different products were all tried.
The ultimate issues were engineering ,pricing and quality.
The Marina was a worthwhile concept- a straightforward model, easy to repair and economical to run, with reasonably attractive contemporary styling.
Except in markets like Australia and the U.S, you could get that already from GM and Ford. Then it got worse. You could get all that from Toyota, Honda and Datsun, in a package that was screwed together properly, kept on running, and running and was better equipped. Did I also mention pricing?
I honestly can’t think how BL could have been saved, short of an absolutely ruthless intervention by a Michael Edwards type at the time of the Austin/Morris merger . Most brands should have been culled, engineering centralised and quality made a priority no later than 1960. It was never going to happen until it was too late, sadly.
Any one see parallels with Stellantis?
Well said, GlenH. As for Stellantis, I sometimes cringe at the thought of all those separate brands; they must have more marketing employees than engineers simply to manage all that. The difference with BL I think, is that Stellantis has a solid technical base, with well designed platforms and much improved quality. And even with all that platform sharing, they still manage to keep their cars from looking all alike; you definitely will not mistake a Peugeot for a Citroën or an Opel/Vauxhall. I wonder how long will they be able to keep that up without resorting to over-styling (which they already do on a number of models). They could even drop a brand, without much trauma, if it becomes unviable, because all that sharing of technology and, equally importantly, of manufacturing facilities makes them very flexible (for example, here in Spain they are building the Peugeot e-208 in the Opel plant near Zaragoza).
There is an important parallel with Stellantis and that’s the challenge of trying to knit together existing businesses in order to generate strength and scale.
Underlying BL’s lack of product development, poor management, bad industrial relations, etc, etc, is the fact that management were trying to control a sprawling empire with different products, practices, pay levels, commercial contracts and the rest. Yes, they should have rationalised it more quickly, but I have sympathy with those facing the problem.
On the other hand, they were a very strong / market-leading company for decades, and had it not been for events in the early to mid-seventies, could well have prospered.
Exactly, Glen. Unfortunately there was too much internecine rivalry if not outright warfare going on for that to happen. The man on the street didn’t care what was going on in the back rooms, and why should he? All he cared about was getting a comfortable, reliable, and reasonably stylish car for his money, and it became increasingly obvious BMC/BL could not or would not deliver. Was nobody watching the competition? Was nobody putting themselves in the buyer’s shoes? Ford and Holden’s British-derived designs were similarly deficient in the quality and reliability stakes, though perhaps to a lesser degree. I owned a Cortina; my next car was Japanese….
As Australia became more multicultural and memories of the war faded, it became obvious that Japanese cars reflected a better choice. And now everything is imported, there’s no longer a home team to support.
Stellantis? They’re so big I can’t even remember all the brands they include. Though I hope not, I’m tempted to think – house of cards, anyone?
And can I add the thought- maybe BL was just plain too big? Maybe a business can be too big and too disparate to be manageable.
I’m quietly in awe of what Stellantis is doing: holding so many balls in the air while only occasionally dropping some. That’s probably part of the key: they have so many entrants for a given segment that a few failing won’t matter much, as long as a large enough majority succeeds well enough. With the emphasis on ‘enough’: no champions, no huge failures. The supermarket model if you like: not every item in the basket needs to be profitable as long as the basket as a whole is.
There is to me something postmodern (and very contemporary) about the microbranding that Stellantis is effectively doing, with a lot of brands serving the same segment. The 208 a bit more sporty; C3 comfortable and slightly quirky; Corsa more ‘germanic’ and closest to VW in spirit; DS3 more upmarket and ‘premium’. Alfa, Lancia and Fiat will probably fall into the ‘outright sporty’, ‘very luxurious’ and ‘best value’ slots respectively.
It also seems somewhat akin to the Japanese market where the home grown brands feature a bewildering array of models, sub brands and marketing/dealer channels that together serve the market for – say: a Corolla-sized car, only one is more sporty, one is more rugged, and so on. One difference is that in Japan, Toyota or Nissan are recognised as the overarching brands, while Stellantis is not.
I cannot help but think that somewhere down the line some Stellantis brands will fall by the wayside, but as cesar writes, they could drop a brand (or a few) without much drama.
One can envisage certain parallels between the BLMC and the current Stellantis amalgamation, but I would posit one principal (and telling) difference, namely the calibre and capabilities of their respective CEOs. Say what you will about Carlos Tavares, but he appears to be steering a very deft course.
@Peter I can imagine exactly that scenario too lol And that’s a great question about what to do after the ’52 merger. I too am a Morris sympathiser, I much prefer it to Austin what with the Oxford connection, technical innovation and the nice badge, but considering that it was effectively an Austin takeover we have to assume that the Austin name would reign supreme.
If they did merge it all together under the BMC name, do you think it could have covered all areas of the market? And do you think the existing model names would have worked under a new marque? Or would it have been best to bury it all and start afresh. I’m thinking of the Minor and Major names in particular, which imo were both good names for small and large family cars respectively.
My proposal would be a three badge line up; BMC for family cars and commercial vehicles, MG for sports cars, and Vanden Pla for executive and luxury cars, with great caretaken to avoid stepping on each others toes.
Alternatively, assuming things still played out as they did up to the seventies, do you think that most of the BMC names (and Rover) could have been brought together under a single Leyland brand that combines their products and tec? The Leyland Mini, Leyland Range Rover etc. I imagine such a brand being a bit like a hybrid of the modern day MINI and Land Rover companies with some of 80s/90s era Rover thrown in for good measure.
Exactly how widespread globally was Rover in the early seventies? I know that Triumph was known in the States, although not as much as MG.
@JTC lol I’ve just noticed the dog in the back. And those door handles would have helped build a real identity for the brand, a talking point and stylistic trademark so to speak.
Despite the 1952 merger effectively being an Austin takeover of Morris – in reality a poisoned chalice or pyrrhic victory by the former over the latter, would it have been possible for Morris to strengthen its position a bit more pre-war prior to the formation of BMC to make it more of an uneasy merger of equals?
MG’s John Thornley’s comment at the time of the merger of “Austin having never made a good car and never made a bad engine”, actually sounds like a pretty equitable approach to integrating the two companies given how lacklustre the Cambridge A55 and Westminster A95/A105 were as a basis for the Farina B and C.
Had William Morris invested in modernizing Nuffield and not hamstrung Miles Thomas plans, envision their pre-war and war-time Points of Divergence being:
– Not acquiring Riley Motors, thereby avoiding a needless duplication that helped undermine MG’s post-war prospects.
– The Morris Eight, Ten and Twelve models would end up sharing the maximum feasible number of components The Series II Twelve meanwhile would be kept in production another year before the introduction of a related Ten and alternate Series III Twelve, based around the unitary 10M shell thereby atomizing the considerable costs of this body over two models.
Wolseley’s Series III Ten and Series III Twelve models using the same structure as above to essentially be differently-engined versions of a shared design together with the alternate early 1250cc+ MG Y-Type in addition to an alternate Eight-sized 980cc+ MG X-Type and Twelve-sized 1466cc+ MG Z-Type models.
– The 4/6-cylinder engine in the post-war Morris Oxford MO and Six MS including Wolseley spin-offs (the sixes gaining the Oxford’s Rack & Pinion steering), would essentially be an earlier Morris designed C-Series OHV without the blind-alley underpowered SV or unreliable OHC versions.
At the lower-end of the range, Nuffield’s models would continue to use the 1140-1466cc X series engines that included the Wolseley Eight 918cc OHV (and planned pre-war 950-980cc versions), meaning Nuffield’s engine families would be reduced to two before likely being dropped in favour of Austin’s engine designs post-merger (followed by Wolseley being dropped soon after).
– Recall reading proposals for an A40 / B-Series engined version of the MG TF before it was replaced the MGA. In light of the Marina/Ital-based Naylor TF1700, could a Minor-based MG TF version have been developed as a low-volume sports-car equipped with an MGA Twin-Cam engine and possibly designed / styled to resemble Gerald Palmer’s MG TF replacement proposals?
Basically it would be roughly akin to the Giulia-based Alfa Romeo Gran Sport Quattroruote (with a previous DTW article mentioning the Giulia carrying over much from the Giulietta).
No idea if there is anything else that could have improved Nuffield’s prospects a bit more pre-merger, it seems William Morris gradually became disillusioned with the motor industry over time and with regards to his apparent unwilling to invest like his domestic rival did (with much success) was said to have cited the example of Andre Citroen.
JCC, a lot of interesting questions for speculation there. Pardon me while I assemble my thoughts, and please excuse me when I digress. I may be totally wrong in some of my leaps of logic, but here goes. And please excuse my typos if I dn’t find them all.
First off, we need to consider cultural/racial differences; what works in one country won’t necessarily go down well in another. Here in Australia (from my memory) we didn’t have separate Austin and Morris dealers, just BMC dealers. It might have been different in the big cities. Case in point I’m familiar with: Littlehales’ of Warragul. Auntie Merle traded in the old Standard Flying Nine on a brand new A30 in ’56. When she replaced the A30 in ’66 it was with a Morris 1100 – same dealer. Same BMC rosette on the same rear window decal in both cars. No such thing as an Austin 1100 here, it was always a Morris. So she changed from an Austin to a Morris, sold and serviced by the same dealer. I can’t find what they sold in pre-BMC days; that would be interesting. Every car she ever owned was a dufferent brand; in time the Morris was replaced by a Suzuki; Littlehales were gone by then.
From what I remember of period advertising, BMC was always promoted rather than Austin or Morris. Whatever car was advertised, you’d buy at your BMC dealer. Now Aussies being a rather pragmatic bunch with less respect for history, I can understand letting go of previous allegiances in favour of the new umbrella company. No big deal, especially in the fifties when folk wanted everything new (including me!) .But I can equally see where living in a country with several thousand years of recorded history you’d value ties with the past more, even if only subliminally. (There’s my logic leap)
Going back to the start of BMC here, during the fifties separate Austins and Morrises were sold – to the point that if the mother country didn’t make one we’d do our own! When the Morris Isis died, the Austin A95 spawned the Morris Marshal. I think we got the full set of little Farinas; MGs and possibly Rileys (never saw one) would have been full imports and therefore pretty much priced pretty much out of all contention. And of course we can’t forget the super-popular Morris Major and Austin Lancer; yes there was a Wolseley 1500 but (probably) no Riley. (And Graham Robson said he couldn’t figure out where the Major would’ve fitted into the UK scene! My UK-migrant friends loved their Majors and Freeways).
But the 1960s brought more rationalisation than was seen in the UK – possibly as a result of economic troubles (sound familiar?). The Mini was Morris, always. The 1100 was Morris; the 1300 was sold as 1100S. The big 1800 was Austin. Its Tasman/Kimberley replacement was Austin. There’s your divide – Morris for the small cars, Austin for the biggies.
It worked for us.
The big problem was that the Nuffield organisation had a degree of ‘image separation’ to their marques that was lost after the merger. Morris was basic but nice, MG was sport, Wolseley was luxury, Riley was luxury sport. Fair enough. Commonising parts is all very well, but when an MG only has, say, 5hp more than a Morris, why bother? What’s the point in paying more – what price snob value? And Austin and Morris were direct competitors, and had been so since the late twenties at least. With rivalry going back two generations, I can understand that neither side would want to give. Except in smaller markets like Australia, where pragmatism ruled; call it the remains of that pioneering spirit.
Every time I think of Leyland, I get a headache. Just too many competing brands. Coming on top of the BMC problems, you gained new ones. Rover vs. Triumph, with Rover all set to invade Jaguar territory! I’ve just finished reading Chris Cowin’s “British Leyland: Chronicle of a Car Crash”. That really gave me a headache! Now, I know nothing of management theory but I think I have a modicum of common sense (my family would dispute that). Seeing what needs to be done and actually achieving it are two vastly different things, all the more so when one strong personality is opposed by another equally strong personality.
Not. My. Problem.
We did get Leyland as a brand name: Leyland Mini, Leyland Moke, Leyland Marina, Leyland P76. Once again, I can’t see that working in a British setting when Austin was still digesting Morris.
Rover? Well-known and respected in Australia. Well,until Leyland got involved. At least Rover and Triumph retained their brand names.
Thank you for this beautifully written article. Regarding the first paragraph, the introduction. Were the 70s so bad an epoch? I mean, were the 80s better times?
Good morning Giorgos. The answer, at least in the UK and Ireland, is emphatically ‘Yes’ to both questions. The 1970s were terrible, the 1980s may not have been great, but were certainly better.
Good morning Daniel. Regarding the Peugeot emblems, I like the 1976, 1998, 2002 versions, where the walking lion has the same appearance in a blue background. It seems better to me to look at the whole of the lion, instead of the head only, and to have a colored background instead of white.
At the risk of going off topic, I’d challenge the assumption that the 1970’s was a bad decade. It was an incredible time for creativity (music from prog-rock to punk, films, architecture, design). Britain joined the Common Market, income inequality was at its lowest point ever, and most people’s incomes were growing. Certainly British industry was in quite a state, and the economy as well, but that was the result of decades of bad decisions.
Sounds about right to me Richard. Culturally speaking the 70’s were pretty interesting. As regards industrial relations and employment prospects for school leavers, by the end of the decade it had become a different ball game. The nadir would arrive with The Winter Of Discontent of 1978 which saw rats the size of cats feasting on mountains of uncollected refuse and army personnel replacing striking emergency services. The sight of the reserve fleet of Bedford RL fire tenders, AKA the Green Godesses, pressed into service was at once heart-warming and pathetic. The BL debacle was just another sign of the times, not helped by decades of mis-management. The irony is that ADO67 could have benefited from Britain being admitted into Europe.. imagine that it had been an amazing car and BL had gone from strength to strength, only to have been hobbled by that fine British balls-up, Brexit!