Matters of moment, October 1970

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• BLMC quits competition motoring

Last month Lord Stokes, boss of British Leyland, was in the hot-seat for chiding customers who buy foreign cars of anti-British motives and for turning aside publicity for British cars. Now he has astonished the motoring world by pulling out of competition events. The Rootes Group, before Chrysler UK engulfed it, did this, but when you are in financial straits there is some excuse. Dunlop are quitting Formula One and Two racing after this year. Now BLMC has quit.

The disease seems to be catching; it could prove fatal. British Leyland’s excuse, put out over the wires on August 24th, was not lack of money to spend on its Competition Team at Abingdon. It was, in brief, that this vast Corporation is so short of design and development key personnel that its new model programme would be adversely affected were any more management man-hours to be devoted to preparing cars for competition sorties which can provide the finest product publicity there is.

Mercedes-Benz said the same thing, but only at a time when the German company had proved itself to be at the pinnacle of Grand Prix and sports-car racing domination; and it could be that they are now suffering from this competition withdrawal, with BMW and others increasingly active therein. Jaguar of Coventry got out of racing, after their superb showing at Le Mans and elsewhere, some years ago and we think this make, too, has lost useful prestige thereby.

Before the chop, British Leyland were doing very well in the competition field. But they were not at the top. Can they afford to quit now, with Ford challenging so successfully and a host of their sales rivals, in Europe, Japan and Russia, well established on the lucrative rally and race bandstand ? In some quarters the BLMC bombshell is thought to have been fused from the moment Lord Stokes heard that Ford had won from Triumph the strongly-limelighted World Cup Rally. The official BLMC announcement from Berkeley Square House refers to their former interest in “events from which maximum marketing and publicity benefit” accrued. There have been significant successes in important International rallies by the Peter Browning Minis from Abingdon-on-Thames, making that department an extremely valuable prestige, development and publicity cog in the BLMC empire. The unconventional aspects of the Sir Alec Issigonis Mini required lots of Press persuasion before the little things were accepted by the public; it was competition prowess which endorsed the praise we bestowed on them and their Jaguar-baiting on the circuits which sold ’em like the proverbial hot buns. Moreover, it cannot have passed unnoticed by hundreds of thousands of those who follow the Sport that had not Ford been able to modify the rear-ends of their Escorts before the World Cup Rally ended—admittedly all quite fair, as the rules of this rally were constituted—the Triumph 2.5 PI of Culcheth and Syer might well have won the coveted first prize, putting Stokes instead of Batty under the cameras. Anyway, surely Lord Stokes wouldn’t have had the nerve to sack Browning for losing the Cup, with Triumph in second and fourth places overall and an Austin Maxi, which badly needed this publicity boost, taking the Ladies’ Prize ?

Another aspect of the BLMC withdrawal centres round the Corporation’s intention to, we quote, “continue to operate and expand the excellent facilities of the Special Tuning Department at Abingdon”. Some authorities are asking how long this section of BLMC can hope to last, now that the incentive of competition testing and development (and the resulting sales impetus) is denied it ?

In spite of the assurances that it is shortage of skilled technicians and not scarcity of money which has axed the fine BLMC Competitions Department (a department responsible for more successes than any other manufacturer has achieved over the past 16 years, on the admission of George Turnbull, Deputy Managing Director of British Leyland himself), this latest cautious if not economic performance on the part of Lord Stokes is in danger of being misconstrued, especially when coupled with the knowledge that at the end of this year BLMC will axe its house magazine “High Road”, whereas here and abroad most manufacturers—Ford, Vauxhall, Alfa Romeo, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, etc., etc.—can afford this little luxury. In the first six months of this year British Leyland’s production, compared with the same period in 1969, fell by 33,775 cars, according to the SMM & T’s informative statistics. (In the same period Vauxhall and Reliant were also down, respectively by 15,696 and 244 cars, but Ford increased their output of private cars by 8,917, Chrysler UK theirs by 24,496, Lotus were up by 237 cars. These figures require to be read in the context of overall output, agreed, but, even so, the position of our largest producer ot motor vehicles is not exactly scintillating.) Lord Stokes has spoken of a sales challenge from foreign competitors, while withdrawing his challenge to domestic and foreign rivals on the fierce proving ground of rally and race track. To us, it seems a most unfortunate move, in the vital game of motor pawns. Apart from anything else, the cars which have found themselves engulfed successively in the BLMC grasp have been those with some of the finest, most meritorious competition records in British history. Before the war Austin, and MG (from the unique all-sports-cars Abingdon factory), Wolseley and Riley wrote prestige for this country into motor racing history. There followed those indomitable Austin Healeys, the conquering Mini Coopers, the adequate BMC 1800s, and more recently the rugged Triumph 2.5s, even that rapid Rover V8 which, if it had a 4.3-litre engine and not the 3500 of one wishful-thinking scribe, showed the Porsches the way for so many hours before retiring, in the recent Marathon de la Route at the Nurburgring. Now, all the accumulative benefits have been cast away, in a single, short statement from Berkeley Square. where nightingales may still sing for all we know, but no longer about competition-proud BLMC motor cars. The decision seems to have been hastily arrived at, for not all that long ago there was Bob Berry, Jaguar’s popular PRO, saying in the Daily Telegraph that the success of Jaguar in Overseas markets was largely due to their excellent racing record – which makes him look a trifle two-faced, in view of BLMC’s present policy. Meanwhile, Ford is pressing on with an overwhelming competition programme, with the Escort 1600RS seeking homologation. Nearly all the leading European makes are at it, and American publicity is being geared closer and closer to a performance/competition/race-bred image. The Japanese Motor Industry is snapping at our heels and now come these interesting new American sub-compacts. How is Lord Stokes going to proclaim the excellence of all his Stokesmobiles as the results of all those important rallies, the Monte Carlo, the Swedish, the Acropolis, the RAC, the 1,000 Lakes, and of saloon and sports-car races, are flashed round the world with never a mention of BLMC works teams ? Remembering that sales tend to go ever more readily to race- or rally-bred cars (if favourably reported on in Motor Sport!). If Britain ever becomes like Bolivia, where vintage cars pass as everyday transport and modern cars are almost unknown, with living standards to match, it may well date back to 1970, when our largest producer of mechanically-propelled road vehicles (122,497 by BLMC in June alone, the SMM & T informs us) decided not to fight the opposition in open competition. Aided, of course, by some more crippling strikes and go-slows. . . .

No wonder poor Peter Browning resigned (before he was sacked) from sheer frustration! Shame on you, Lord Stokes, sir. Your kiss goodbye to your Competitions Department is shabby thanks to one of the finest rally teams ever brought together and to Marcus Chambers, Stuart Turner (another thing BLMC lost to Ford) and Peter Browning.

NB – Of the World Cup Rally Harry Liddon, who drove a Ford Escort into third place, said that it brought the buying public in their thousands to watch the cars – and that was a good thing in itself. In Sofia loudspeakers in the street told the crowds about the efficacy of the competing Russian Moskvitch cars. We apologise for returning to this particular rally, but it may well be that Lord Stokes’ decision that British Leyland should drop competition motoring activities was made when he knew his entries therein had been beaten by FordMoCo. That he has decided not to fight back in future competitions is, we hope, not the beginning of overall defeat. . . .