British Leyland, famous for making rubbish cars, had the wit to use Alec Issigonis to design a few classics – and the Mini wasn’t the best, says Hugh Pearman
Will people ever wax nostalgic about the 1970s industrial and design catastrophe of British Leyland, other than seeing its cars feature in throwback TV cop series?
BL – which started as a privately merged company in 1968, got nationalised and eventually became extinct in its final incarnation, the Rover Group – largely mucked up the better products it inherited from the previous BMC regime. It then produced new cars which were either dull (Morris Marina), misconceived (Triumph TR7), or just plain wrong (Austin Allegro – the one which originally had a square steering wheel and was more aerodynamic going backwards than forwards).
Actually, I don’t think we should hold that against the Allegro. The Volkswagen Beetle was also more aerodynamic going backwards, but nobody ever made a fuss about it. No, it was always ham-fisted old BL which was going to have fun poked at it.
As was said at the time, if Citroen had introduced a car with a square steering wheel, it would have been hailed as genius. But that kind of thing just wouldn’t wash, coming out of Birmingham.
BL also produced the David Bache/Spen Kingdesigned Rover SD1 which was quite a good machine spoiled – as with all BL cars – by atrocious build quality.
Much the same was true of the Jaguar and Land Rover models of the time. Anyhow, I’m not a good person to ask because one of my favourite cars was inherited by the BL monster. It was designed by a genius. It was also a commercial failure.
I’ve just been reading books published to mark the 50th anniversary of the Mini, designed by that weirdly fallible, waspish and ultimately tragic designer, Sir Alec Issigonis.
Everybody talks about the two great cars that he designed – the Morris Minor and the Mini.
Some say Issigonis was not a man for detail – hence the litany of faults with which his cars were routinely launched. But nobody much talks about his other designs, some successful (the Austin/Morris 1100 series, which outsold the Ford Cortina for a number of years), others pioneering (the overlooked Austin Maxi, precursor of all today’s family hatchbacks and the last production car Issigonis designed).
But my favourite is not one of those either. While I tip my hat to the Minor, the Mini, the 1100 and the Maxi, my choice from the Issigonis stable is the plug-ugly 1800 series, made with increasingly desperate facelifts from 1964 to 1975. In all that time, spread across the three brands of Austin, Morris, and Wolseley, BMC/BL only managed to shift 35 000 of the cars a year. The Cortina was selling 250 000 a year.
And yet, the Landcrab (as its fans call it) was brilliant, once all the usual Issigonis teething troubles were sorted. No other car has ever had so much interior space in such a compact footprint. It was effectively a giant Mini. The Pininfarina design studio was involved, although you’d hardly know – it looks all but unstyled. Anyway, they carried on making it into the BL era, and that’s why I have at least a bit of nostalgia for the time.
Because my dad had one of the last Wolseley 1800s, complete with hydraulic suspension, power steering, ribbon speedometer, and leather seats. I learned to drive, and passed my test, in this marvellous car. I now realise that it represented Issigonis at his bonkers best. The Mini? I’ve never driven one.