What trashed the British car industry? – Part 2: The birth of British Leyland

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Issues began in 1965 when BMC purchased a company called Pressed Steel. The main point of contention behind this purchase was due largely to recent advancements in automotive technology at the time; namely the innovation of the monocoque. Prior to this important piece of modern motoring, cars were built as a chassis only with bodies added later by specialist coachbuilders such as Hoopers, Mulliners and James Young. However, the invention of the monocoque meant that body and chassis could now trundle down and roll off the production line as one, removing the need for coachbuilders. Most car builders turned to the Pressed Steel Company, an Oxford based car body manufacturer which made the bodies for Jaguar, Rover, Rolls-Royce and even BMC itself. With its purchase by BMC, the company essentially had rule over all of its rivals and knew all their secrets.

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BMC merged with Jaguar in 1966, thereby putting the legendary E-Type into the company’s hands.

With their enemies now in the palm of their hand, the first to fall under BMC’s domination was Jaguar (and by extension Daimler). The merger of Jaguar and BMC came to form British Motor Holdings (BMH) in 1966. At the time the arrival of Jaguar was, initially, not a bad thing; giving BMH a new marque which could be the lynch-pin of their luxury models. More importantly, it brought into their midst the legendary Jaguar E-Type, a 155mph monster which was taking the celebrity stage by storm.

Soon though, the problems mounted as BMH’s influence began to spread. This caught the attention of the then Minister of Technology Tony Benn. Benn, an idealist who had overseen the development of the Concorde project, envisaged the future of the UK car industry as a facsimile of America’s Big-Three; Ford, General Motors and Chrysler. The concept behind these was to have an overarching company which managed individual marques that served individual market sectors. As such, he encouraged the merger of the UK’s two largest car building groups; BMH and the Leyland Group. The Leyland Group was itself a massive corporation, holding the marques of Leyland Trucks and Buses, Triumph and Rover in its possession.

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The Rover P6 was the high-end flagship of the newly formed British Leyland upon its launch in 1968.

The merger of these two gigantic companies led to the formation of British Leyland, effective on January 17th, 1968. However, contrary to popular belief, the company was not nationalised upon its creation; remaining a private entity throughout its budding years in the late 1960’s and early 70’s.

At the start, the idea of a giant British motor company seemed like a great idea. By then, each individual company had the following highly profitable models under their influence:

  • Rover: Land Rover, P5 and P6
  • Triumph: Spitfire, 2000, TR5 and TR6
  • Leyland Buses: Titan
  • BMH: Austin Mini, Morris Minor, Jaguar E-Type
  • MG: MGB, Midget
  • Austin-Healey: Sprite, 3000

All of these cars were selling massively and had spread their influence to all corners of the earth. The nippy Mini was the star of the hit 1969 film the Italian Job, whisking Michael Caine and his partners in crime through the congested streets of Turin. Meanwhile, the Land Rover had brought motorised transport to parts of the globe which, for the past 4,000 years, had been the sole domain of the Camel. Rover’s introduction to the firm also brought with it the Rover P5; the blue-collar hero of the British motor industry and a car everyone could aspire to own. Its popularity was so great that every Prime Minister from Wilson to Major used them for parliamentary duties, while even the Queen had two herself!

A reorganisation of the marques to form a suitable hierarchy similar to the likes of Ford and GM, while also rooting out the less profitable brands, could’ve put British Leyland onto a winner. I personally would’ve envisaged this hypothetical hierarchy as follows (and their equivalent in the Ford Motor Company):

  • Jaguar – Luxury sports and saloons (Lincoln)
  • Rover – Executive saloons and high-end family cars (Mercury)
  • Austin – Mid-range family cars (High-end Fords)
  • Morris – Base model family cars (Low-end Fords)
  • Land Rover – Utility vehicles (Ford equivalents)
  • Triumph – High-end sports cars (Ford Mustang)
  • MG – Entry-level sports cars (Ford equivalents)
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The MG MGB, while a capable sports car, ended up doing battle with its sister, the Triumph Spitfire.

British Leyland, as mentioned, should’ve discontinued the less profitable brands and killed off badly performing models; reorganising the remaining cars to fit each part of the market. Instead, the company decided that each of its individual marques would continue to build cars essentially against each other as if they were still competing as separate entities. The result was an absolute mess of internal competition, the kind which would have even the most novice market director scratching their head with confusion.

The MG Midget went up against the Triumph Spitfire while the Rover P6 did battle with the Triumph 2000. Models duked it out for domination over their sister cars, causing widespread discontent among the workforce who refused outright to work with each other.

Competition didn’t just come down to cars, but to dealerships and even entire factories. Upon its formation, British Leyland inherited 42 operational factories across the UK, many of which were building cars that far exceeded the demand being placed on models. As for showrooms, former Austin, Morris and Jaguar dealerships in towns and cities across Britain continued to compete against one another for the highest market share and customer appeal. The result was millions of pounds being lost on factories which were surplus to requirement and multiple showrooms selling the same models.

This, however, is before we get to the company’s own new breed of machines.

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The Triumph Stag on looks alone was gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh, but was seriously flawed on a mechanical level.

Upon its launch, many car designs that had been carried over from the days of the independent marques were honoured and brought to fruition. The likes of the beautiful Triumph Stag and the legendary Range Rover were the two most prominent examples of the company’s early successes, both being launched in 1970.

However, the lack of working with one another did the Stag no favours, as Triumph’s refusal to redesign the engine-bay to fit the tried and tested Rover 3.5L V8 (perhaps one of the greatest engines of all time) to make an already fantastic car absolutely perfect resulted in them having to make do with an in-house V8 formed by welding together two Inline-4 engines from their Dolomite family saloon range. The result was a technological nightmare with a woefully bad cooling system which caused it to overheat constantly and warp the cylinder heads. The Stag was laughed off stage for its pathetic performance; a great car ruined.

This, though, was only a sign of things to come.

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The Austin Allegro; the butt of nearly every automotive joke imaginable.

Early designs for upcoming models such as the Austin Allegro and the Princess range looked exciting and futuristic; sleek, streamlined bodies with space-age light clusters indicative of the time. Most of these cars were the brainchild of the legendary Harris Mann, the company’s chief designer, and his styling choices were nothing short of innovative. However, the constant inability for British Leyland to decide on an idea, as well as watering down the designs to appease legislation to an almost fanatical degree turned his sublime concepts into dull and ugly dross.

The Allegro in particular quickly became the face of British Leyland’s misguided ideas on style, with its small piggy eyes, bathtub corners and oddly streamlined rear end making it immediately the butt of everyone’s jokes. What had once been promised as the true face of 1970’s British motoring innovation became a laughing stock, selling only in Britain, Europe and the Commonwealth but never cracking the much sought after U.S. market.

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The Morris Marina; basically a Morris Minor from 1948 with a different body.

When BL weren’t attempting to be innovative, their efforts to create a world beating car were nothing short of lazy. Enter the company’s second crowning achievement of terribleness; the Morris Marina. The Marina was the long awaited replacement for 1948’s Morris Minor, but in truth the car is nothing but a facelift. Aside from its 70’s style body, the car’s underpinnings and mechanics are exactly the same as the outgoing Minor, so much so that these days Marina’s are stripped for spares in order to keep Minors going! Aside from that, the car was straight-up dull, with even the top-end models lacking a majority of the refinements of its contemporaries.

Once again, the purpose of the Marina was to do battle with the Allegro, even though the two models were essentially part of the same company. There was no need for two family-saloons offering the same performance and specifications inside the same manufacturer; it’s both a waste of money and waste of time.

In addition, British Leyland, much like the mindset which had formed the company, was determined to win over the U.S. market and thus designed cars which conformed to stringent American safety legislation to the letter; though in most instances it took this legislation far too seriously.

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The Triumph TR7; British Leyland’s attempt at a low-slung sports car which went wrong in every way possible.

This came to bear in the company’s replacement for the famous Triumph TR6; the TR7 of 1975. The TR7 was envisaged as the company’s big break in America, a car that would line every parking space on Sunset Boulevard by the end of that year. To do this, Mann chose to emulate the wedge-shaped styling of the then-new and highly acclaimed Lamborghini Countach, pretty much a scalene triangle on wheels. While this wasn’t a bad idea and in keeping with the trends of the time, British Leyland chose to completely emasculate its baby by lumping it with every ridiculous safety feature they felt it needed; with disastrous results!

A huge rubber bumper protruded from the front like the pout lower lip of a petulant child, while also inheriting the same preposterously bad engine as the one in the Stag making it highly unreliable and tepid in terms of performance. Fears of banning convertibles in the USA following the death of James Dean meant the car was only available as a hardtop, even though the older Triumph Stag had gotten round this problem by putting a very clever T-bar arrangement to protect the vehicle’s occupants while still providing the sensation of driving a convertible. While the TR7 did eventually have its roof chopped off in 1978, followed by the fitting of the classic Rover V8 in 1979, it was far too late to save the Triumph TR- range from inevitable destruction; its makers had completely sabotaged its chances then found themselves wondering why.

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Cars inherited by British Leyland suffered the worst treatment, as demonstrated on this late-model MGB.

Such horrible treatment wasn’t just limited to its new products, British Leyland also had a desire to ruin age-old classics in order to stringently comply with legislation so it could sell in the USA. Cars such as the the Midget, the Spitfire and the E-Type all suffered greatly at the hands of British Leyland, but none more so than the classical MGB. The smooth lines of the Mighty B were contorted by huge rubber bumpers, while in order to suit the need for headlights to be a certain height off the ground, British Leyland chose to stuff solid blocks under the suspension to raise the ride height which made the steering incredibly light and spoiled the handling.

Perhaps the biggest sin of British Leyland’s attempt at designing cars was the fact that they took no line of innovation. The 1970’s, in spite of the Energy Crisis, was a highly innovative time for motoring, largely due to car builders responding to said crisis by creating highly efficient but incredibly practical machines that would do away with convention and replace it with something much better.

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Hot Hatchbacks, such as this Talbot Sunbeam, were the future of practical and speedy motoring.

The 70’s was the decade that brought us the mighty Hot Hatchback, small, practical little cars with powerful engines and excellent handling. While the invention of hatchback cars wasn’t a new thing, the Hot Hatch was something completely different as it upturned the status quo and made the motor industry profitable again. Cars like the Talbot Sunbeam, the Volkswagen Golf GTi, the Renault 5 and the Ford Escort XR3 are all fondly remembered for their spacious interiors, easy-loading rear hatches, superb performance and for the fact that they were fitted with engines so powerful they could bend time.

The rise of the Hot Hatch was the death knell for traditional sports cars like the MGB and the Spitfire; cumbersome, unreliable and impractical carryovers from a time when corsets were still socially acceptable undergarments and trains still ran on coal and water. So naturally, British Leyland would endeavour to build their own hatchbacks and hot hatchbacks to combat the rise of the Talbot and the Volkswagen.

No.

Instead, British Leyland spent a fortune keeping outdated designs outdated. Common sense and logic would’ve dictated that the likes of the Triumph Spitfire, the MGB and the Midget would’ve been axed in the mid-70’s and replaced with a new Hot Hatch model. Instead, British Leyland unveiled the woeful TR7; its archaic design being one of its many sins and partially the reason why it simply failed to sell. Even on their non-sporty cars, Leyland continued to include outdated measures such as tiny boots on cars which didn’t deserve them.

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The rear quarters of a Leyland Princess, where a small and impractical boot is seen in place of a more appropriate rear hatch.

Take for example the Princess range, which externally one would think was a hatchback given its sloping rear. Instead, the Princess, as well as the Allegro of similar design, was given a tiny boot that would barely hold even the smallest of items. Such was the incredulity of putting a boot on these cars that many customers had aftermarket conversions to a hatchback by converting the fixed rear panel to a tailgate.

Either way, the various questionable design choices of their new models and their mutilation of existing classics to try and make them appeal to American legislation was ultimately futile. In the face of woeful performance, hideous unreliability and ugly styling, British Leyland’s cars failed to sell anywhere outside the UK. Cars tailor made for the U.S. market were shipped to America and Canada, but their reviled reputation meant they would often sit in showrooms and on forecourts for up to a year before purchase. As a result, the somewhat handsome income being made off BMC’s sales in America were slashed to nothing but a dribble of cars no one wanted.

Worse still was the situation in Australia, where the strong market share BMC held in its Australian division was crushed in the face of deteriorating reliability, outdated models and shoddy performance. From the slew of British models modified for Australian road conditions that were on sale in the late 1960’s, by 1973 only four models remained; the Mini, the Mini Moke, the Leyland Marina and, by far the most tragic of them all, the Leyland P76.

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The Leyland P76, a car that was meant to rule the roost in Australia but ended up being an abject failure.

The P76 was a saloon car built to proportions that were much more akin to American saloon cars of the time, a common trait for Australian market models. The car was designed to properly combat the slew of U.S. metal that was starting to appear Down Under, namely products from Chrysler, Holden (a subsidiary of General Motors) and Ford of Australia. The P76, while not lacking the refinements expected for a car of its size, was ultimately wiped out by the car’s use of the legendary Rover V8 engine; though the engine itself wasn’t to blame. Rather than handing over the tricks of the trade to the workers at Leyland’s plant in Australia, engines were instead built by Rover at the Solihull plant in the UK and shipped thousands of miles by slow-moving cargo boat to the Zetland factory in New South Wales before eventually being married to the P76. This move meant supplies of engines were short and production had to be largely curtailed as the builders awaited their arrival. While an Australian-built Straight-6 engine was also available, its tepid performance meant that the V8 was by far the more popular choice; its reputation for sturdy reliability and go anywhere abilities having been proven on the Rover P5, P6 and the Range Rover. The results were P76 shells waiting days, even weeks, for their engines to be delivered so that production could finally be completed.

The term “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime” comes to mind.

Though the car did win Car of the Year in 1973, a mixture of rushed production, poor reliability and the arrival of the 1973 Fuel Crisis making the thirsty Rover V8 about as appealing as a Bear-trap on your leg meant that the car was thrashed by Holden and Ford equivalents. The car would leave sales in 1975 after only 2 years with 18,000 units produced; utterly abysmal for a car of this type. British Leyland in Australia would soon follow, with products sold in the country reduced down to the Mini Moke by 1978 before eventually ending its days assembling license built versions of the Peugeot 505 and Honda Quintet.

However, all these problems and more could not prepare the British public for what was yet to come, as shoddy design and outdated practices were only the tip of British Leyland’s immense iceberg of trouble.

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