Martin Buckley gets the warts-and-all story of gifted designers, flawed gems and closed shops from a quartet of former colleagues. Clockwise, from left: Seth Smith, Pearson, Greenhill and Zafer; ADO16 once held 15% of UK market; under-developed Triumph Stag was meant to beat the continentals at their own game; the XJ-S did e tend to think of British Leyland as a sprawling, unwieldy and inefficient industrial giant shambling its way from crisis to crisis, a universal joke lampooned by everyone from Fleet Street to The Two Ronnies. It garage door remote 9 pin became the great nationalised whipping boy of the 1970s, and by the end of the decade its image was on the floor. Only British Rail and its curly-edged sandwiches ranked lower in the public’s estimation.
BL still conjures images of half-finished Marinas and Allegros on desolate production lines and a militant workforce that appeared to be looking for any reason to down tools. It seemed that if they weren’t being caught sleeping on the night shift they were standing on a garage door remote 9 pin line, the enduring images of TV news bulletins if your memory goes back that far. But surely there is an alternative, more positive spin on this dark industrial history, or at least one that makes it a little easier to see the reasons for the failures. Here, after all, was the world’s fourth-biggest car maker building the planet’s most complete and ambitious range ofvehicles.
At the time of the infamous Ryder Report and nationalisation , BL offered everything from Europe’s most celebrated and imitated small car to a 150mph V12 coupe that was acknowledged as the most refined and accomplished of its type. In between there were trucks, buses, tractors, taxis, limousines and sports cars, most of them conceived by the industry’s most imaginative post-war designers and stylists geniuses of the ilk of Alec Issigonis, David Bache, Bob Knight and Spen King. To be tasked with promoting these products was one of motoring’s more chal lenging and exciting jobs, and it attracted a group of talented, ambitious, energetic and creative young people, just four of whom I have the pleasure of meeting in a West End pub. Today, of course, they are four slightly more mature men with long and garage door remote 9 pin careers way beyond the Leyland debacle, but it’s amusing to note how old passions and frustrations die hard and also that it was a job everyone had great fun doing. The great BL adventure started promisingly, as Tim Greenhill points out: “When I began as an apprentice, the 1100/1300 had 15% of the UK market and BMC overall had 30%: when it joined Leyland, Rover and Jaguar, it had 60%!” In fact, there was never a problem selling Rovers, Jaguars or Triumphs, which didn’t have the image problems of the more strategically important family models.