Running With Scissors [Part One] (2023)

Allegories of corporate failure.

Running With Scissors [Part One] (1)

Urban-planned existences lived out under high-voltage power lines, the yellowed lighting of bleak subterranean underpasses. Dehydrated food – just add water, George and Mildred on the Radio Rentals telly. Modest hopes, unfulfilled ambitions and quiet despair, punctuated by mass unemployment, the three-day week and grinding industrial disputes – not to mention the spectre of the IRA’s terrestrial bombing campaign and the rise of the National Front. Beneath the Spacehoppers and dayglo fabrics, Seventies Britain appeared to be unravelling. The Sixties ‘white heat of industry’ had sputtered amid a sense of nihilism and hopelessness.

Should one, for the purposes of shorthand or metaphor wish to illustrate this state of affairs, there are cultural objects and optics available which will do so. But in pure automotive terms, the Austin Allegro (ADO67) is the vehicle to which most writers would probably default. Heading every tabloid list of ‘worst ever’, the 1973 BLMC product, both in automotive and cultural terms, would become the butt of every populist joke, the default setting for those for whom the only true answers were the obvious ones.

Does a car reflect its times, or do the times reflect the car? It is an apt question – after all, the Allegro’s predecessor, the 1100/1300 (ADO16) was rooted in Sixties optimism; classless, outward looking, reflecting a vision of a modern Britain; one coming to terms with new realities and moving towards a more nuanced post-colonial future. The Allegro by contrast could not help but underline Britain’s subsequent failure to make that leap.

ADO67 emerged from a troubled family. The British Motor Corporation (BMH from 1966) was in significant financial and labour relations difficulty by 1968, suffering from at least a decade of mismanagement. Forced by Prime Minister, Harold Wilson into an unhappy marriage of convenience with Leyland Motors that year, the newly enlarged car business required strong leadership, a ruthless focus on product and some tough decisions. CEO, Donald Stokes was not the man for that job, and rather than confront the issues head-on, elected instead to enact a rapid growth strategy.

BLMC’s volume car business was not in good shape by 1969. Even those models which were selling in meaningful volumes were expensive to build with little by way of profitability baked in – legacies of BMC’s ignorance of cost management and what would later become known as product strategy. Nevertheless, scattered around Longbridge were building blocks for those with eyes to see. Stokes and his new team of managers and engineers however chose to view its new acquisition with a distinctly myopic gaze.

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Priority number one that year ought to have been to stabilise the volume business – the obvious means of achieving this end being to on one hand bolster existing product, while on the other, engineer a suitably desirable replacement to ADO16, future-proofed for the new decade. But rather than adopt this pragmatic course, the BLMC board took a momentous and ill-judged leap sideways.

The Marina factor:

Running With Scissors [Part One] (2)

In 1969, Donald Stokes fast-tracked the development of the technically conservative Marina (ADO28), intended as a quick and dirty means of regaining lost market share. There was a rationale to this, even if it was one that didn’t quite hold up to scrutiny. The BLMC board believed that it was essential not only to retain their share of the UK car market against the United States multinationals, but to market a car to the growing commercial and fleet markets[1], there having been some considerable resistance from this area to BMC’s front-drive models.

The case for Marina was predicated upon the organisation’s ability to develop it cheaply and sell it at profit. This however proved more difficult than anticipated, the Marina programme proving more expensive to develop than anticipated and although early sales met expectations, profitability didn’t, not aided by the fact that fleets drove hard bargains and budget-conscious private motorists were hardly in the market for the higher-margin models.

But there were other unintended consequences. Cowley was chosen as the site for Marina production[2], which had up to then been building 1100/1300 models. Now starved of those volumes[3], sales of this core model dropped, the smaller-engined Marina essentially cannibalising Britain’s best-seller. In export markets, the Marina was sold in both Australia and New Zealand, along with South Africa and the US, but not without significant re-engineering[4], adding further cost to the programme, the ends scarcely justifying the means. In mainland Europe meanwhile, the car was greeted with withering disdain, and sales were negligible[5].

While one can make a logical case for a conventionally designed car like the Marina, the argument dissolves quickly when exposed to the fact that the more advanced front-driven 1100/1300 remained Britain’s top seller, while also proving popular across global markets. In 1969, when Marina was initiated, it was felt that a replacement for ADO16 was not a matter of urgency. This would prove to be a miscalculation.

(Video) Running with Scissors (Part 1)

Indeed, the Marina, often viewed as one of BLMC’s few commercial successes was instead more of an own-goal. Not only did it hurt the core product (ADO16), which by then required support and further development to retain its market position, it diverted significant managerial, financial and human resource at a crucial moment for scant, short-term return. Moreover, by prioritising it over ADO67, the latter’s development, (a far more commercially sensitive model let us make clear) was hampered. It didn’t seem to matter at the time, but it would.

The Max factor:

Running With Scissors [Part One] (3)

In gestation under BMC since 1964, the Austin Maxi (ADO14), had suffered a convoluted and protracted path to market, the resultant product showing all the signs of significant mission creep and poor oversight. Worse still, in 1969, despite lengthy development, it had emerged as a flawed product. Its less than auspicious debut was hugely embarrassing for BLMC’s masters and was never forgotten or forgiven.

In 1970, the Maxi was effectively re-launched with a 1750 cc version of the underperforming E-Series engine, along with a re-engineered rod-operated gear linkage. A revised dashboard, some interior enhancements and a minor exterior refresh and that was largely it[6]. These changes addressed the most pressing criticisms levelled at launch, but the Maxi’s continued lack of visual allure and the inability of the market to understand its somewhat oddball appeal remained an impediment to sales, which fell far below (admittedly optimistic) projections.

But there was little fundamentally wrong with the Maxi. By then, it was largely debugged and throughout the Seventies proved one of the more durable (if not all that exciting) of BLMC/BL’s offerings. There was a good deal to commend it, but Stokes and his board, instead of authorising further development, opted for an etch-a-sketch approach. The Maxi became BLMC’s great missed opportunity[7], arguably the fulcrum upon which the entire volume business would subsequently hinge.

Both these cars would cast a significant shadow over the Allegro’s conception. But with design and development teams so diverted, there needed to be a gimlet-eyed focus on getting ADO67 right. The fact that it was set to replace Britain’s best seller ought to have concentrated minds, but buoyed by the initial success of Marina, a dangerous sense of complacency appeared to permeate Donald Stokes’ boardroom.

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Glossary of codenames:

ADO14 – Austin Maxi
ADO16 – Austin/Morris 1100/1300
ADO28 – Morris Marina
ADO67 – Austin Allegro

[1] It was folly to go after the likes of Ford and Stokes was told as much by allies within the industry. He thought he knew better. The Marina however did provide a basis for popular pick-up and van models, which replaced ancient BMC products which dated back to the 1950s.

[2] To facilitate Marina production, the Cowley works was in receipt of a £40 million refit, to which can be added to the £21 million it cost to develop ADO28. It’s unclear whether these figures account for marketing, warranty costs or those associated with overseas production.

[3] BLMC policy was for Morris to represent the traditional (RWD) market, while Austin would be the technology leader. Hence, once the Marina was imminent, not only was ADO16 production stopped at Cowley, but Morris dealers no longer sold the car. The impact upon 1100/1300 sales was immediate and its market position never recovered. It was cannibalisation, pure and simple.

(Video) Running With Scissors (Part 1 of 4)

[4] Both Australian and South African market Marinas received the E-Series engine which was originally intended for the car, in 1.5 litre and 2.2 six form (Australia) and 2.6 litre (SA). US models were fitted with identical federalised B-Series engines to that of the MGB.

[5] Also significant was the Marina’s effect upon BLMC’s reputation. For all of its contemporary style it was a reactionary car even by 1971 standards and for a car company which had gained a name for advanced engineering, it was viewed as a retrograde step. It should be stressed that it wasn’t a bad car as such, but BLMC’s priorities were all over the place at the time.

[6] Throughout the 1970s, the Maxi was left fallow, apart from the adoption of hydragas suspension displacers in 1978 (Maxi was the last model to abandon Hydrolastic) and a mild cosmetic revision in 1979. It never broke any sales records, but it continued to sell steadily until its 1981 demise, when it gave way to the entry-level Ambassador.

[7] A strong argument can be made to suggest that the Maxi held the key to BLMC’s volume car ambitions during the 1970s. Dimensionally close to the Allegro (wheelbase apart), it was a (largely) fully proven platform with much to commend it and with some sympathetic development, could have formed the basis for a whole family of cars, obviating the necessity for the Marina and bringing an Allegro sized car to market far sooner. That it was ignored to death can only be ascribed to hubris and dogma.

Sources: British Leyland: Chronicle of a Car Crash 1968-1978 – Chris Cowin/ ARonline/ Autocar 17 May 1973/ Car Magazine June 1973. Special thanks also to Daniel O’Callaghan and Robertas Parazitas.

Running With Scissors [Part One] (4)

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.View all posts by Eóin Doyle

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