It has become a matter of historical fact that British Leyland was the worst car maker of all time. Princess, Allegro, SD1, Maxi, Maestro, Montego. A catalogue of duffers that makes you embarrassed to be British. Or perhaps not. I’m going to stick my neck out on a limb here but could it actually be possible that like many other car companies during the 1970s, some of it was genuinely rubbish and some was actually heroically brilliant? In the 1970s British Leyland faced a major problem – it had too many products, too many brands and not enough money. The idea of BL may not have been entirely brilliant – a British motor industry entirely owned by one group of people is hardly a recipe for competitiveness – but at the time it probably seemed like a good idea. Under-investment and market fragmentation were a double whammy forcing some good companies like Austin, Morris, Triumph and Jaguar into an uncertain future. So bringing them all together and combining their resources and investment made at least some sense. The problem was that British Leyland bit off more than it could chew. By combining several different companies together, all of whom were fiercely proud of being independent, resulted in huge bureaucracy and exactly the inefficiency that the creation of BL was designed to prevent. It didn’t help that several of these companies were misled into imagining they were joining some sort of democratic consortium that would give them investment and expect nothing in return. From what was undoubtedly a poorly managed mess, British Leyland pulled rabbits as well as turkeys out of the hat. And in this they were no better or worse than their competitors. There are no surprises in the list of duds. The Morris Marina was certainly a spectacularly badly conceived car being essentially a Morris Minor with new bodywork. I know there are plenty of people out there ready to defend it but the Austin Allegro was a travesty. The design was so remarkably compromised by British Leyland indecisiveness and underinvestment that it deserves its reputation for quartic-wheeled, screen-popping mediocrity. This wasn’t a good car built badly, like so much of BL’s output, this was a bad car.
And there, I think, the list ends. Sure, British Leyland spent too much time repackaging aging models for a new era – Jaguar XJ6, MGB, MG Midget among others – but it wasn’t alone in doing this. British Leyland also put considerable investment into new product and we tend to overlook or forget just how much new stuff was punted out of Longbridge and its sister plants.
The Austin Princess is viewed retrospectively as a joke but in terms of design, packaging, comfort and ride it was excellent and arguably ground-breaking. The Triumph Dolomite Sprint was, frankly, brilliant – the world’s first 16v engine in a family car. The Triumph TR7 was badly packaged – 2.0 litre engine out of a Marina, lovely plaid seating and a dashboard seemingly designed to prove just how inexpensive plastic could be – but it was a basically good car with a bold design that moved the Triumph brand forward. The Rover SD1 is possibly one of the best executive cars of the last 30 years. The Metro really did move the Mini concept forwards and at its launch was seen as a very bold and intelligent step. None of these cars arguably represented the safe option – they were all a valiant attempt to do something better than before. Even the Maestro and Montego were fundamentally right – simple, honest and reasonably attractive cars designed to appeal to a clearly defined group of people and representing good competition in the market. Mention any of these cars, however, and eyeballs roll. That’s because their packaging and detailing was terrible and they were built very, very badly. The packaging gave us interiors that brought new meaning to ugliness and austerity with grey plastics and rubbish switchgear.
British Leyland bolted stuff together in the same way that I manage DIY – enthusiastically but ultimately very badly. This isn’t really the fault of the workers who, despite Red Robbo, actually liked what they did. It is about bad management and under-investment. It’s about believing that sticking one of the multitude of BL badges onto a fundamentally good car would be good enough. It wasn’t. Reputations can be stained and BL managed this task with virtually every one it touched.
British Leyland didn’t have to be a failure and it didn’t just make bad cars. It actually made good cars and the occasional dud. Today many of them should be revered as great classic cars. It’s been fun kicking this dead donkey. Now it’s time to bring BL back from the brink.