Matters of Moment, December 1957
New Cars, Old Names
The British are traditionalists. The protests which have greeted the new Rileys are evidence that we do not suffer mildly any tampering with tradition. The old saying about giving a dog a bad name has changed to a discussion in the World’s Motor Press as to the wisdom of giving old names to new cars.
Modern production methods make permutations of components a necessary economy when a range of different models has to be produced within one organisation. There are three broad manufacturing principles which can be followed: concentration on a single design, as successfully followed down the years by Ford, Citroen, and now by Volkswagen; variation of a basic model — e.g., Alfa-Romeo Giulietta, Rover; and permutations of basic components to form a wide range of models. The British Motor Industry considers a wide range of models desirable and frequently adopts the last-named course. The policy of employing as many basic components as possible is not in question. But there is evidence that the buying public is suspicious and resentful of “old wine in new bottles,” i.e., of new cars which bear little or no resemblance, in specification or character, to the proud old names they carry.
After Rolls-Royce Limited bought up the original Bentley Company they modified the 20/25 Rolls-Royce and called it a Bentley. We remember clearly what a splendid and distinguished car this was. But it wasn’t long before the 3½-litre Bentley had acquired the clumsy appellation of “Rolls-Bentley,” proof that the public couldn’t accept this as a car in the true Bentley tradition. In view of the prestige earned by the “Alpine Eagle” Rolls-Royce before 1914, one wonders what objection there could have been to calling the “Silent Sports Car” of 1933 a sports Rolls-Royce. Had this been done, those sensitive about the demise of the great and very different Bentley would have had no cause for comment and that unhappy composite marque-name need never have been composed. Today, when only the radiators of Bentley and Rolls-Royce cars differ this argument still applies.
Other British cars have lost their former identity — Riley, Sunbeam, Talbot, Humber and Wolseley, for example. The One-point-Five Riley is the quick version of the hybrid Wolseley 1500. The 2.6 Riley has an Austin power unit. The Sunbeam Rapier is just a “hotted-up” Minx. Talbot, like Lanchester, has ceased to exist. The modern Humber, with its new grille, has the appearance of a swollen Hillman. Gone forever are the o.h.c. Wolseleys.
Fortunately, certain British makes have managed to retain their former character, sometimes in a manner more subtle than obvious. Alvis, Aston Martin, Armstrong-Sideleley, Daimler, Ford, Jaguar, Lagonda, M.G., Morgan and Rover have not departed too drastically from tradition.
Cars whose only traditionalism is the time-honoured name they carry are criticised, not as motor cars, but on account of what they attempt to falsely represent. We have no doubt that the Wolseley 1500 and Riley One-point-Five are jolly little saloons possessing excellent performance, and we are arranging to report on them in an early issue. But many peopIe consider that they have no right to their make-names. Perhaps they would have had a less-stormy reception had they been termed, simply, B.M.C. Composite De Luxe and B.M.C. Composite Sport, or something similar. The Sunbeam Rapier might, we think, have an even greater appeal to sporting motorists had it been sold as a Hillman Minx Gran Turismo. Think of the prestige of owning the two-carburetter, two-door, version of that highly-popular family saloon! As it is, the present-day Sunbeam has lost its identity, bearing no resemblance to tbe cars once built so meticulously in Wolverhampton, having no affinity to a rather jolly but now defunct twin-cam Lagonda design, and having little in common, technically, with the rally-winning Sunbeam Mark III.
When a big combine buys up a derelict company it is obviously going to employ to the best advantage, factory, machinery and staff — but, however great the temptation to steal prestige from the past for vehicles that are sans history, is it prudent to put time-honoured names on entirely new products? Permutation of basic components is an economic necessity. Thus the smallest Wolseley and Riley share the same engine and body pressings; Hillman Minx, Sunbeam Rapier and Singer Gazelle do likewise, although, mercifully, the Singer retains its traditional o.h.c. engine. In an age when large-output production is the only way to peg down prices, it is expedient to use identical engines, suspension units and axles, etc., in different models. B.M.C., however, have earned adverse comment through applying the age-old name of Riley to a car which owes its origin to a permutation of components from all four of the other B.M.C. “makes” and which, instead of being made in Coventry, is assembled at Longbridge. Is this critical reception of the new Rileys as bubbles in a wine-glass or will it have a lasting influence affecting the future of these latest B.M.C. permutations?