River Wissey Lovell Fuller

British Leyland

March 2002

The story behind the company and its cars

Poor old BL they got a lot of stick towards the end, but were their cars that bad? How much of the company's difficulties were due to bad management? Without doubt Mrs Thatcher was the final nail in their coffin. She was unwilling to help with further taxpayer's money, perhaps understandably, but to sell it off to British Aerospace for such a ridiculous price was a crime. British Aerospace cashed in with some asset stripping, making a tidy sum on the deal, and then got shot of the last truly British large scale car manufacturer to BMW, doing the dirty on Honda at the same time.

Forget the politics, the management and the unions, however - what of the cars? Right from the early post war years Austin of England was ahead of the rest. A 2.2 litre Austin engine was designed and produced in the early forties. This overhead valve engine was a winner, it saw service in a number of wartime applications before appearing in the Austin 16 and Austin taxi immediately after the war, as well as in commercial vehicles. By the late forties it was used in the all new A70 with a scaled down version of 1.2litres in the new A40. In addition to this modern engine, these cars had a specification that included independent front suspension, four-speed gearbox, hydraulic brakes and 12-volt electrics. The A40 was a big success. Austin engaged in a number of striking advertising stunts, and broke numerous US records for production cars, one of the more memorable stunts was when an A40 covered 10,000 miles in 10,000 minutes, quite outstanding for those days, and no mean feat for a small car today.

Most of the competition was pretty pedestrian by comparison. Ford cars of that period had side valve engines, transverse semi-elliptic springs with rigid axles, causing rather alarming body roll on corners, rod brakes, 3 speed gearbox, 6volt electrics and vacuum operated windscreen wipers (that practically stopped when you put your foot down to overtake). They were no match for Austin on performance or fuel economy. Ford gradually improved their act but it was years before all their models had overhead valve engines and 4 speed gearboxes. Morris produced the new highly acclaimed Minor but they retained a pre-war side valve engine as did Rootes in the Hillman Minx. Standard followed Austin with an engine similar to the Austin 16 which they fitted in the all new Vanguard (and to the Ferguson tractor), Vauxhall also had overhead valves but they were not as good as the Austin and both manufacturers retained 3 speed gear boxes.

The basic Austin engine design was further scaled down to produce what was to become the ubiquitous A series engine. This was first fitted to the A30, a small car that offered good performance with outstanding economy. In the early fifties Nuffield Motors, which comprised Morris, MG, Wolseley and Riley, merged with Austin to form BMC, the British Motor Corporation. This meant that the Nuffield cars could be fitted with Austin engines that turned the Minor from a good car into an outstanding car. A subsequent enlargement of the A series resulted in the A35 and the Minor 1000. In my view the Morris Minor was a far better car than the overrated VW Beetle. It would out-perform the Beetle, it was more economical, it was less cramped in the back seat, it was available with four doors, it was less noisy and, as has been shown, at least as durable.

At this time the British motor industry was second only to the USA for size. Sadly the management were arrogant and complacent, reluctant to invest, not listening to customer complaints and failing to inculcate the right attitude in their workforce. Technically, however, their cars continued to lead. They introduced the revolutionary Mini, the first car in the world to mount the engine transversely driving the front wheels, now almost universal in small and medium sized cars. The Mini had all independent suspension and set new standards for road holding, handling and passenger accommodation within given external dimensions. Fitted with the Cooper version of the A series engine it was outright winner of the Monte Carlo Rally at least twice, defeating the best sports cars in the world. The Mini was followed by the highly successful and best selling 1100 and 1300 range, and the basic engine design went through another metamorphosis to become the B series used in the 1800 and the MGB. By this time, however, the international competition was growing and the complacency and lack of investment in British industry was beginning to tell. It was evident that only large companies, capable of investing huge sums of money in modern manufacturing plant and in developing new models, could survive. BMC were in difficulty as was Standard, which had been taken over by Leyland, the truck manufacturer, and had long since merged with Triumph to form Standard-Triumph, which later also encompassed Rover. The two companies came together to form British Leyland under the chairmanship of Lord Stokes. Triumph and Rover had some good models, the old Vanguard engine had been updated and extended to a very smooth six cylinder unit in the Triumph 2000, a car which competed directly with their other good car the Rover 2000.

It is possible that the very history of British Leyland was its undoing, it was formed from too many companies with outdated factories on too many sites producing too many models in too small numbers. At one stage they were producing Mini's, Austin/Morris 1300's, Cambridges/Oxfords, Westminsters, MGB's, MGBGT's, MGC's, MG Midgets, Austin Healey 100/3000's and Sprites, Triumph Heralds, Spitfires, TR's, GT6's, and 2000's, Rover 2000 (P6) and the luxury P5, Land Rover and a whole range of commercial vehicles from the very large Leylands down to mini-vans. Not to mention Riley and Wolseley variants of some of these models. Many of BL's cars did well in international competitions for production cars, notable, apart from the Mini, were the Austin Healeys. The big Healey set many international records and, despite its low slung chassis, did well in rallies, often finishing first second and third. But the Company was not big enough to produce such a range of vehicles profitably, a major restructuring was required with a sharp reduction in the number of models, but that did not happen until it was too late. As a result build quality started to suffer.

Nevertheless the engineers struggled on: They produced the Maxi, a car whose reputation was spoiled because of a decision to launch the model before development bugs had been sorted. The specification for the Maxi was very advanced and included; transverse mounted overhead camshaft engine, front wheel drive, five speed gearbox, hatchback body with very roomy interior, disc brakes, all independent suspension and a number of features that no car has matched since. Not until almost thirty years later did Ford produce a car with a similar spec in the form of the Mondeo. Once the bugs had been sorted the later Maxi's, although not pretty or of sporting appearance, were very good cars, they were hugely practical, rock steady on the road and the HL model was capable of over 100mph.

Leyland cars continued to suffer from under-investment. Nevertheless there were some outstanding successes. The superb aluminium V8 engine developed from an old American design greatly enhanced the Rover 2000, which became the Rover 3500, and the big Rovers that were used by Mrs Thatcher and her cabinet and many leading politicians before her. Land Rover and Range Rover (with the V8) were world leaders in their class. The Mini continued to sell well and the MGB was hugely popular, when fitted with the V8 engine it was an outstanding sports car in the classic tradition, but, instead of cashing in on the immense following of the MGB, both in the UK and the USA, the management amazingly dropped the MG in favour of the dubious and mechanically unreliable Triumph TR7. More recent cars, in the form of Maestro and Montego were better cars than they were given credit for and the aluminium K series engine, that first appeared in the later Metros and forms the basis of the engine design for the current range of Rover cars, is in the forefront of engine technology.

The national press and Jeremy Clarkson seemed to be determined to kill British Leyland. It was sad to see so much heritage, expertise and experience discarded, it could have provided the foundation for a successful motor industry. The co-operation with Honda provided an excellent opportunity but British Aerospace had no interest in preserving the British motor industry.

The current range of Rover and MG cars are, without doubt, excellent cars. They sell well, although they may not have the 'street cred' among the younger buyers, but maybe the latest MG versions will change that. Nevertheless the future of this remnant of British Leyland remains uncertain, new models require such a massive investment that they can only hope to survive through co-operation with another manufacturer. I know that foreign companies manufacture some very good cars in the UK but I would be sorry to see the day when there was no car produced by a British owned company employing British engineers. Perhaps that just shows my age.

Ron Watts

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