50 years ago, the UK industry was given a sudden shock upon the formation of the titanic motor manufacturer British Leyland. With its establishment in 1968, a wave of trouble and strife saw the UK car industry torn apart and left in the gutter; our once proud car building tradition which had previously held sway over the entire globe being brought to a torturous end over the span of nearly half a century.
So what happened?
In modern days, there’s a common misconception that Britain doesn’t build cars any more. The truth is actually quite the contrary, in fact we build millions of cars across dozens of plants from the far north to the south coast. However, the most crucial factor of it all is the reality that none of the cars built by these factories are the products of British companies. Indeed while the likes of Rolls-Royce, Bentley and Land Rover are British brands, they’re not exactly our own anymore, having been taken under the wing of BMW, Volkswagen, Ford and even TATA Steel. At the same time companies such as Rolls-Royce, Jaguar and Bentley are not mass-producers; building luxury, executive or specialist machines that aren’t sold in huge numbers or are created to customer request.
While most will cite the Trade Unions, hopeless designs, a weak and feeble government and an inability to evolve our design and construction practices to suit the modern day, the truth is far more complicated, stemming back to the very ethos of the British workforce as a whole.
Our story begins in the 1930’s, back when the UK was the workshop of the world. Britain had cornered large swathes of the automotive market with a variety of models which were innovative, easy to use and cheap to buy. Most prominent of the hundreds of car manufacturers during this early period of motoring were Austin and Morris. Both of these companies had made a name for themselves with two legendary mass-production models; the Austin Seven and the Morris Eight. Both of these cars put their respective companies on the map resulting in fierce competition between the two in the Inter-war era car market.
However, things took a turn when in 1934, the founder and then CEO of Morris, William Morris, took on a man named Leonard Lord. Lord had made a name for himself modernising Morris subsidiary Wolseley Motors, thus putting him in perfect stead to become General Manager at Morris; later being promoted to Managing Director. Problems arose though when a confrontation between Lord and Morris was sparked by a war of personalities, resulting in the former’s departure from Morris in 1938.
Lord, not one to relinquish power so quickly, used his considerable reputation to get a job in the higher ranks of Austin. The arrival of Lord, followed by the passing of Austin founder Herbert Austin in 1941, resulted in his rise to Director General and finally Chairman following the end of World War II.
In 1952, Austin and Morris eventually merged to form the British Motor Corporation (BMC), the fourth largest car builder in the world. Under the umbrella group titled the Nuffield Organisation, the merger brought with Morris its subsidiary marques MG (Morris Garages), Riley and Wolseley. The merger put Lord in charge of Britain’s biggest car builder, with a prominent slant towards benefiting the Austin side of the company. The company was based at the Austin factory in Longbridge, Birmingham, but continued to maintain the MG factory in Abington, the Morris factory in Oxford, the Riley factory in Coventry and the Wolseley factory in Adderley Park.
During the tenure of BMC, the company essentially became the UK’s General Motors, a large number of marques determining different model ranges from luxury to base. As a result, BMC made cars for every need and every price bracket, from the high-end luxury Austin Princess and executive Cambridge to the sporty MG MGB and Austin-Healey Sprite, as well as humble family saloons like the Morris Minor. However, the company’s magnum opus came in 1959 with the launch of the Mini, a slow burner to start but soon a sales hit which would last nearly half a century. BMC’s influence, fuelled largely by the presence of the British Empire and its colonies, meant that its products could be sold across the globe, even getting a foothold in the United States through a partnership with Nash (although Austin products were sold in the USA under their own marque).
However, in spite of all this success, BMC was just barely turning over a profit. A mixture of outdated work practices and equipment meant that many models were being sold at a loss; none being more prominent than the legendary Mini. Following the car’s launch, Ford, who had been baffled by its success, bought one for the base price of £497 and took it apart to find out BMC’s secret as to how they were building the car and turning a profit. Once their study had been completed however, they found that BMC were losing £30 on every single car they sold.
The company remained afloat, however, through its brand recognition and its size, with its sales representing 38% of the UK’s motoring output. With all other countries having been bombed to pieces during World War II (with the exception of the USA), BMC had almost a monopoly on the domestic market as well as heavy influence in Europe too. It would be decades before the likes of BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen would be able to regain proper footing in the same way BMC had.
However, BMC’s lead was about to take a massive, massive turn for the worse.