The British Motor Industry - by the Editor



At the conclusion of the “Nostalgic” article in the March issue of Motor Sport, I remarked on the enjoyment I derive from perusal of old motor papers, and this led to a very welcome “Easter egg” from a reader, in the form of a bundle of Show Numbers of The Autocar of the late vintage era. I had only been looking through these for a few minutes before my eyes alighted on the following, in a reader’s letter published 26 years ago: “England has been the home of quality hitherto and has built up the reputation of her manufacturers upon it. It would be a disastrous policy to forsake this for meretricious smartness.”

So, you see, there is nothing entirely new under the sun. Today, in 1956, there are those of us who deplore very deeply the plight of the British Motor Industry and wonder whether the policy of aping American styling and sales methods is sound. Our export drive lacks punch on other accounts, too — loss of reputation due to failings in early post-war models, conservative design and poor spares and after-sales service.

Yet all hope is not lost that our former proud position can be regained. Last year the United Kingdom exported 373,203 cars, or over 53,000 more than her nearest rival, Western Germany, which exported 319,878. America, which has as its mainstay an enormous home market, is estimated to have exported 215,000, France 132,880 and Italy 69,397 cars. Nevertheless, Western Germany is breathing hotly down our neck. She has everything in her favour in some ways, at all events so far as Volkswagen is concerned — a clean start after the war, excess labour happy to work a five-day week for whatever wages were offered, a one-model policy and no shareholders expecting to be paid dividends. But I must confess that when, at the height of the “Buy British” campaign before the war, with the British Motor Industry running a series of advertisements depicting fictitious celebrities on the shaming theme “But Why Doesn’t He Use a British Car?”, I turned to a companion and facetiously reiterated this slogan as Rosemeyer’s Auto-Union crossed the line winner of our 1937 Donington Grand Prix, I never expected to see German exports beating ours in important overseas markets.

The reasons are probably those outlined above and certainly we should be careful not to place too great a faith in styling and new colour schemes to sell our cars unless these are accompanied by technical advances. British engineers are the best in the world —  have they not proved capable of designing and constructing machines which hold the Absolute Speed Records in the three elements, air, land and water? — but possibly our conservative motor-car designs are to some extent due to the fact that most of our best brains have left the motor for the aircraft industry, together with the vast expense of retooling mass-output factories (watched by dividend-hungry shareholders) for entirely new cars. Yet to get back to full-time working in Birmingham and Coventry we should institute rigid inspection of finished vehicles so as to stamp out petty defects, we should create a world-wide spare-parts and after-sales service administered conscientiously by the agents, and we should use every opportunity of demonstrating our wares in open competition.

The British Motor Industry got into its stride slowly, but long before we went to war with Germany in 1914 it had a splendid reputation, making high-quality large and medium-sized cars of individuality and character, exemplified by names like Rolls-Royce, Napier, Daimler, Lanchester, Sunbeam, Talbot, Humber and Rover.

As the years progressed and output rose we proved well able to hold our own. Austin and Morris mastered mass-production of family-type cars; we built excellent sports cars possessed of good performance and reliability from engines of the less extreme type, and we scored major sales-successes in the economy-car field (Austin Seven, Morris Minor, Ford Eight), just as we had made light of the New Motoring movement with G.N. cyclecar and Morgan tricar.

In the light of this past pattern, how is the British Motor Industry constituted today?

The former Big Six have become the Big Five with the amalgamation, regretted in some quarters, of Morris with Austin. Of these, Ford of Dagenham and Vauxhall of Luton trend towards American styling and methods, not unnaturally as the parents of both are in the U.S.A. Both offer medium-quality transport in four and six-cylinder forms, but whereas Vauxhall is content with three models, Ford has an equivalent three together with two versions of small car, now expanded by additional estate-car models, besides the lowest-priced British car of virtually pre-war design. The Rootes Group embraces Hillman, Humber, Sunbeam, and latterly Singer, and consequently covers a wide market, from the family car (Hillman Minx, with the side-valve version in the guise of the Husky estate car), medium-quality and executives’ cars (Humber) and enthusiasts’ models (Sunbeam), while in the Singer they have individualistic family saloons of good quality, one version of which has the attractive oddity of a twin o.h.c. engine designed originally for a 100-m.p.h. sports car. This adds up to a pretty intricate range,”Americanised” perhaps in sales methods even more than in gay-look colour styling.

The Standard/Triumph axis of the Big Five embraces a range of rugged small economy cars, a well-proven medium-quality vehicle rather “Americanised” in its latest form, together with the value-for-money 100-m.p.h. TR2 and TR3 sports cars.

Finally, so far as our big motor empires are concerned, B.M.C. has the most complex range of all, embracing by makes Austin, Morris, Riley, M.G. and Wolseley, all with divers models but simplified by employing combinations of basic engines, gearboxes, back axles and even body pressings for various models and makes.

Our primary interest is in sports cars and high-performance machinery, and it is encouraging to find that B.M.C. and Standard/Triumph both list genuine and very successful sports cars (B.M.C. having the Austin-Healey and M.G. MGA, Triumph the TR2 and TR3, losing nothing by obtaining their performance without recourse to other than quantity-produced power units and components); Rootes have high-performance cars in the Sunbeam Mk. III and Sunbeam Rapier; and Ford, while not listing a sports model, joins with these members of the Big Five in supporting participation in competition motoring.

Of the other sixteen motor manufacturing companies in this sapphire isle, it is a reflection of our national outlook on motor-car production that six of these make primarily sports machinery and all the others, possibly with the exception of Rover, to whom high quality and luxury is the main purpose, include at least one really high-performance model in their range.

Of this sixteen I think Jaguar deserves to be considered the most worthy and outstanding.  Sir William Lyons has for many years displayed a flair for “picking winners” not only in the design and styling of his production models but on the race track, where he is not at all afraid of showing the stuff of which his cars are made.  He uses twin o.h.c. engines of beautiful finish and smoothness where bigger manufacturers pride themselves that they can churn out o.h.v. engines as cheaply as they once made side-valve units, providing the actuation is by push-rods.  His XK120 Jaguar was sensational and its early shortcomings in respect of brake fade and soft suspension were not allowed to impair the excellence of the present XK140.  In the sports/racing field Jaguar have built Le Mans-winning C and D-type cars with resources which must be slender compared with what any one of the Big Five could muster if they took racing really seriously.  The big Mk.VIII saloon is yet handleable enough to win the Monte Carlo Rally.  And the new 2.4-litre Jaguar saloon looks like another winner at the modest price of £1,343, albeit a somewhat bulbous-looking one on first acquaintance.  Jaguar scoops in the dollars and deserves to do so.

In considering the industry as a whole the sports-car specialists, which A.C., Allard, Aston Martin, Frazer-Nash, H.R.G. and Morgan jointly constitute, must be put down to pretty small fry, enjoying varying fortunes in this specialised market, yet of considerable importance because their successes in competition wave the flag for Britain and most of their limited sales are, or should be, in dollar markets.

A.C. joins with Lagonda in being the only British firms to adopt independent rear suspension, if one excepts the specialist products of the smaller concerns – and they are mostly on de Dion axles these days!  A.C. now borrows the basically German-inspired Bristol engine for the Ace, to supplement its antiquated wet-liner, light-alloy single o.h.c. six-cylinder power unit, and builds other things as well as motor cars these days.  Allard seems to have been lying low for some time, possibly because world economics are agin’ performance achieved by brute power from big engines, save in America, where, as they learn more and more of the technique of building fast cars, it could be that this Britisher which uses so many of their own components is no longer so attractive as it was before the war.  Millionaire David Brown’s Aston Martins are amongst the finest of Britain’s competition and super-fast touring cars, price alone being against them, which a really important outright race victory could do much to overcome in export markets.  H.R.G., after producing a very promising post-war sports model of commendably advanced specification, appear to be restricted in their capacity to manufacture it.  Frazer-Nash remains the sportsman’s dream where price is no deterrent and the best of what is obtainable and known about today is combined with the best of the pre-war B.M.W. to make these hand-built motor cars from Isleworth tick effectively.  Morgan offers the least-expensive line in sports machinery, and the price of £893 17s. which buys the TR2-engined Plus Four Morgan makes the smaller-engined M.G. MGA at £961 7s. expensive, especially as the Triumph TR2 is available for £938 17s.

Here I must break off to observe how unfortunate it is that the British Motor Industry is being forced to raise the prices of its cars, due primarily to wage-demands and the rising cost of raw materials, but with dividends and costly publicity stunts possibly responsible to some extent.  For example, the Austin A40 saloon now costs £15 15s. more than the de luxe Volkswagen, although the latter carries the not inconsiderable burden of import duty.

Returning to the products which collectively form the British Motor Industry, luxury allied to high performance emanates from Alvis, Armstrong-Siddeley, Bentley/Rolls-Royce, Bristol, Daimler/Lanchester, Lagonda and Jensen, Lagonda having Royal patronage in the person of H.R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh, which did not prevent Courtney Edwards criticising this twin o.h.c., all-independently-sprung3-litre motor car in the Daily Mail earlier this year, while T. W. Carson, experienced motorist and secretary of the V.S.C.C., has queried, in a letter to a contemporary, whether today’s “Best Car in the World” possesses “anywhere near their pre-war standard of finish and workmanship.”

The market for luxury cars has in any case declined, but fortunately Alvis has strong aero engine interests, Rolls-Royce powerful interests in aero engines and industrial motive power, and Armstrong-Siddeley and Bristol their aeronautical pursuits to carry along their car divisions, while Aston Martin and Lagonda are largely the whim of millionaire industrialist Mr. David Brown.  Amongst these makes the old appeal of British quality, individuality and craftsmanship is evident, and Bristol deserve an extra round of applause because their cars are hand-built to exacting limits and achieve a performance some of the others may well envy on an engine capacity not exceeding 2 litres.

Besides the main manufacturing companies, Dellow, Turner, Paramount, Cooper, Lotus, Lister, Elva, etc., turn out small quantities of specialised cars aimed at the enthusiast, Cooper and Lotus exporting to keen types overseas.

To this overall picture of Britain’s Motor Industry must be added the extent to which Citroen and Renault, and to a lesser extent Fiat, are represented in this country.

While always tending to the conservative in design, the British Motor Industry has displayed notable initiative in the past.  Morgan pioneered i.f.s., Lagonda one-piece body/chassis construction, Rolls-Royce built up a reputation second to none for quality and luxury yet did not flinch from going over to unit engine/gearbox construction, open propeller-shaft and ½-elliptic back suspension on its 40/50 chassis in 1929.  Armstrong-Siddeley gave us a fool-proof self-change transmission in an age of “crash” gearboxes and with Wolseley popularised the diminutive six-cylinder engine, and Wolesley and Singer adopted the overhead camshaft for inexpensive engines.  The Daimler fluid flywheel stands right out as one of our finest technical innovations, while the short-lived Jowett Javelin and its sports-companion the Jupiter showed real initiative in the use of torsion-bar suspension and a flat-four engine.

Before the war we built for the home market, exports being incidental, although the Rolls-Royce was built in America.  After World War II we had to export to survive and it is significant that race-bred cars like M.G. and Jaguar paved the way.

What is so badly wanted are British cars of fresh design and conception which will compete successfully with, as an article in the Observer of April 1st, put it, “the science of design as in France, plans matured over a long period as in Germany and the artistic talent possessed by the Italians.”  Merely rehashing out-moded models by restyling their exteriors and painting them in rainbow colours points the way to disaster, for the countries who should be importing British cars have not the slightest desire to be “colonised.”

Given a return of initiative, of the quality and craftsmanship on which our Motor Industry was built up, and with attention to finish, service and a fair share of competition victories, this great industrial organisation will remain on its four feet and our children will enjoy a standard of living at least as good as their parents know today.  That is if the British worker – individually a good, honest, conscientious fellow and indispensable to motor-car production – does not, through mass-hysteria, choke the roar of the British lion with demands for impossibly high and unrealistic wages.