You would think it was straightforward. After all, the brief was a simple one – build a small, cheap family car to mobilise post-war Europe. It wasn’t.
When Morris and Volkswagen set to building their competing people’s cars they chose very different solutions. Those alternative approaches, perhaps, demonstrate why today one is a hugely successful company, and one simply isn’t.
The Morris Minor was, believe it or not, hailed as a technical tour de force when it was launched immediately after the war. Designed by Issigonis it fulfilled the brief of a simple, rugged, inexpensive family car brilliantly. The Minor was spacious, comfortable and practical. It sold in droves.
The Beetle, conversely, was none of those things. Not simple, not spacious, not practical. With its engine in the back the humble People’s Car was noisy, cramped, ill-handling and smelly.
So how come the Beetle kick-started a modern day economic marvel and the Morris didn’t?
Looking at the duo of Great Escape Morris and Beetle convertibles side by side it is fairly easy to see why. Between the 40s and 70s VW continuously improved the Beetle, addressing its obvious shortcomings to make it more comfortable, more robust and just better. The Beetle got bigger windows, a wider track, bigger engines, nicer interior and a convertible. The Morris also evolved, but mainly in the direction of new variants like the Tourer and Traveller. The basic package, apart from the introduction of a 1000cc engine, barely changed. Whereas the Beetle became more solid, comfortable durable and faster to meet the dawn of the autobahn, the Morris didn’t. So by the late 60s, when both models were in the sunset of their lives, the Morris seemed like a car from a bygone era, flimsy, weedy and antiquated.
The difference is obvious with the convertibles. To make the Tourer Morris just chopped off the roof and welded in a couple of struts at the base of the a and b pillars. Anyone with a metal cutter and a welder could do the same. For the roof they ignored cutting edge technology in favour of the tried and trusted roof system from a pram. While simple, neither the roof or the cut and shut job make the car watertight or flex free. As a result, the Morris tourer is certainly characterful.
In Wolfsburg they did things rather differently. They outsourced the job of chopping the Beetle’s roof to a specialist, Karmann, who executed one of the nicest convertible systems of the era. The Beetle drop top looks good with roof up or down and the mechanism is a marvel of engineering – simple, smooth and perfectly weighted. Even the rear windows wind down. Alongside this the Morris looks like a cack-handed job executed in a shed. Which it probably was.
Elsewhere the Morris feels flimsy and wobbly compared to the sturdy and sure-footed German. You can power the Beetle long distances without great concern, but not in the Morris.
A late model Beetle is undoubtedly a better car than the Morris. Sure, it has less interior space and a small boot but these are its only shortcomings compared to the Morris.
None of which particularly detracts from the Morris as a classic proposition for weekend use. It is more characterful. It is simpler to maintain and it is more practical for a family.
Considering where both cars started in life it is a great shame to see how they ended their lives. The Beetle’s rugged durability and solidity were born of continuous development and, perhaps, the post-war determination to succeed. The Morris, on the other hand, started so well, so far ahead, but did nothing with its advantage. A lack of investment and forward thinking stalled it in its tracks. The same story is true of so many other British car products – E Type, MGB, Mini, and many more. Great cars that we simply made and then sat back awaiting the applause. While over the Channel engineers toiled on making the ok much better.