Remembering the best (and the worst...) from British Leyland
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British Motor Holdings merged with the Leyland Motor Company to form the British Leyland Motor Corporation on January 17, 1968. At the time the industrial giant was believed to be the sixth largest car manufacturer in the world, with 11 marques – Austin, Austin-Healey, Daimler, Jaguar, MG, Morris, Riley, Rover, Triumph, Vanden Plas and Wolseley – and factories across the globe.
The next 18 years saw the unfolding saga that was “The British Leyland Story”, one of missed opportunities, disastrous management/labour relations, strikes, erosion of markets at home and abroad – but, lest we forget, also some quite brilliant cars.
Here we present the 10 greatest achievements of the British Leyland years – as well as five that have come to epitomise its darkest days.
10 of the best
1970 Range Rover
An off-roader that was capable of more than 90mph on the highway with smart two-door station wagon body and the famous ex-Buick V8 engine – all for just over £2,000. The Range Rover was destined to be a classic from the moment of its launch and early examples are highly prized today.
1975 Austin/Morris/Wolseley 1800/2200
The “Wedge” was greeted with considerable acclaim by the motoring press of the day; a fact that is now too often forgotten. Indeed, it could well be argued that the original Wolseley-badged 2200 flagship was the nearest UK-built alternative to the Citroen CX.
1968 Jaguar XJ6
A Jaguar that embodied the very best of the marque’s previous keynote post-war saloons from the Mk7 and the Mk2 to the Mk10. In the words of Car magazine, “It is probably the best this nation can offer, and certainly among the best the nation has known in 75 years.”
1968 Daimler DS420 Limousine
A carriage fit for the Royal Mews at half the price of a Silver Shadow, let alone a Phantom V. And, should you wish to give the chauffeur the day off, the XK-series, 4.2-litre straight-six engine gave the Daimler Jaguar-style performance.
1970 Triumph Stag
Yes, it suffered from poor reliability and, yes, it was an early example of BL failing to engage in economies of scale; the Stag did not share its 3.0-litre V8 engine with any other car. But it was a Grand Tourer in the manner of pre-war Triumphs – and the first “Bond car” of the 1970s.
1975 Triumph TR7
The chiselled coupé that was once regarded as so controversial by die-hard British sports car enthusiasts now seems rather elegant in its angular fashion. The TR7 suffered from Leyland’s ongoing state of chaos – it was built at three factories, for instance – and the debut of its 3.5-litre V8-engined TR8 stablemate was long delayed, but it was a splendid machine.
1973 Triumph Dolomite Sprint
Cracking performance derivative of the appealing Dolomite. 45 years ago, virtually all business executives reeking of Hai Karate aftershave craved the “the world’s first mass-produced multi-valve car” in Mimosa Yellow – especially as it cost £1,000 less than an equivalent BMW.
1975 Jaguar XJ-S
“Overall, the Jaguar XJ-S is superb… We envy those who can find a place for this most covetable car.” That was the opinion of Autocar of a model that upheld the great tradition of Brown’s Lane amid BL’s latest bout of financial woes, despite having to live up to being the successor to the E-type.
1976 Rover 3500 SD1
In June of 1976, the new Rover made several of its competitors look dated virtually overnight. The SD1 became the Car of the Year for 1977 with dealers facing extensive waiting lists, and not even BL’s now familiar sub-par quality control was able to mask its greatness.
1980 Austin Mini Metro
Few cars made their bow under such a weight of expectation, but in the days before the Fiat Uno and the Peugeot 205 the Metro was one of the finest small hatchbacks on the British car market, although it was never sufficiently developed.
And five of the not-so-good...
1969 Austin Maxi
The basic concept was ambitious; in 1969 no other British car combined front-wheel drive, five doors and a five-speed gearbox. Unfortunately, its appearance was comprised with doors from the larger 1800 “Landcrab”, and it entered production before a great many issues had been resolved. A 1970 revamp resulted in a much better car, but by then the damage to the Maxi’s image was already immense.
1971 Morris Marina
A replacement for the Minor and the Oxford “Farina” that set out to provide honest, straightforward transport. Unfortunately, some overseas-built alternatives also achieved this goal with rather greater finesse.
1973 Austin Allegro
Yes, the design was compromised by management interference, and the Allegro’s reputation has suffered from the curse of urban mythology – but when you compare it with the Fiat 128, Citroen GS or Alfasud… Well, you can’t.
1974 Vanden Plas 1500
The idea was for an upmarket version of the Allegro for the retired managing director. The result looked like an escapee from a Hammer horror film.
1980 Morris Ital
Essentially a facelifted Marina, itself using mechanicals from the ancient Minor. It still comes as a mild shock to recall that the Ital lasted until 1984 as BL’s alternative to the second-generation Vauxhall Cavalier and the Ford Sierra.
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