Historiography: What Became of British Leyland?

This history piece should have been written at the onset of V&R. 

The story of the British automotive industry was one of imperial arrogance and a sense of superiority that would eventually lead to its lowest point several years ago. Many analysts are actually predicting an even lower position when the United Kingdom's departure from the European Union will result in potential tariffs, job losses, factory closings, and a deeper economic crisis. A pox on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government, possibly. 

That is a bleak future that is not for discussion in this story. We have to go back some 50 years or so.

When I became conscious of the automobile and its industry, the only British companies selling vehicles in the USA were British Leyland, Rolls-Royce and Bentley, Lotus, Jensen, Ford, and Chrysler. The latter two imported models from their British divisions to be sold along their American counterparts. By 1970, the British Ford Cortina left Ford showrooms to be replaced by the (West) German made Capri coupe at Lincoln-Mercury dealers. Chrysler-Plymouth dealers had a small number of French Simcas and British Sunbeams at their showrooms, which will be eventually replaced by a rebadged Hillman Avenger – the Plymouth Cricket.

In 1970, the variety of cars sold through British Leyland dealers were selling at steady rates. There was still a generation of MG and Triumph customers that loved their semi-reliable roadsters. You can still get stately Rovers and sleek Jaguars under the same roof. Land Rover would soon return to these stores, along with the newest subcompact offering to compete against the Japanese, the Cricket, Volkswagen, and that new generation of American small cars – the Austin Marina. 

In America, British Leyland appeared to be a hodgepodge of different kinds of vehicles that overlapped each other in market segments and were poorly made. It was as these products soldiered on after almost every former colony in Africa became independent from Her Majesty The Queen. This was a post-empire automotive industry on full display.

To bear witness upon this post-imperial automaker, I would look no further than a corner dealership on Reseda Boulevard and Hart Street in Reseda. Reseda Imports was the BL dealer, selling the latest MGBs, Midgets, Triumph Spitfires, TR6s, and the odd Stag. Their lot and showroom paled in comparison to the Chevrolet, Dodge, and AMC dealers on the same street. You also had Ford, Volkswagen, and Honda dealers in Reseda to contend with the assorted BL models in our community.

Thousands of miles away from Reseda was the complex of disconnected moving parts that made up British Leyland. That story was driven by mergers and government intervention. 

To understand how BL got to where they were by 1970, we should look back further. 

BL was formed in 1968 as a government-sponsored merger of British Motor Holdings and Leyland Motor Corporation. This attempt to create a "British General Motors" (no offense to GM who owned Vauxhall in the UK), by utilizing the brand equity of the best known names in the country’s automotive industry. This conglomeration would include MG, Triumph, Jaguar, Rover, Austin, Morris, and Land Rover.

For Americans, some of these brands were cherished by us for some time prior to the 1968 mega merger. Our love for those brands began at the end of World War II, as our armed forces personnel started bringing home some of the “spoils of war.” In Britain, they found a new love for small roadsters from MG. They could not wait to get them across the Atlantic to take them home.

For the many that remembered these small machines that never got the chance to import them back after the war, a small demand for MGs and other British and European marques began to reach the USA through a network of dealerships that catered to a new generation of sports car enthusiasts. These dealerships received their vehicles through a regional distributor network that were managed through the Hambro Trading Company of America in New York. 

Hambro and their distributors not only sold MGs, but the lineup of models produced by Nuffield Organization, including Morris models. 

Officially, the MG T-Series roadsters sold only 96 units in 1949. That number would grow to 9.901 units in 1952. These roadsters would experience a decline in sales through the mid-1950s until the debut of the modern MGA roadster in 1957. That model alone would rekindle sales of the MG brand in this country. 

Another post-war discovery by the veterans of World War II was the luxury brand called Jaguar. In 1948, the fine purveyor of premium roadsters introduced the iconic XK 120. That model alone captured the desires of sports car enthusiasts who were looking to spend a lot more than an MG-TC with the solid engineering and performance Jaguar promised. 

Another network of distributors brought Jaguar to these shores, yet they understood that they would have to cater to a certain clientele at the price point the XK series and subsequent sedans would fetch. They also understood that these are not Rolls-Royces or Bentleys, which were sold at a much higher price tag and offered exclusiveness beyond Jaguar’s reach. 

Triumph cars also found homes in the USA after World War II. However, they would gain a footing by 1953 after the introduction of the TR2 roadster. The new roadster was lighter than the first post-World War II models Standard produced for Triumph. They were also more modern than the MG-TF, which customers were attracted to. 

It wasn’t just the roadsters that attracted American imported car buyers to the British. Nuffield owned Morris, which produced the small Minor sedan. It was seen as a competitor to the Volkswagen Beetle in this country. However, the Minor's charm was not enough to catch the rear-engined (West) German two-door car. Still, British car loyalists loved their Minors – including the charming small woody wagon that made it to these shores.

In. the 1950s, the British automotive industry was starting to consolidate into larger conglomerates. In 1952, the British Motor Corporation was formed by a merger of the Nuffield Organization and Austin Motor Company. The merger helped all of the brands to improve upon the development of their products, yielding the MGA roadster, a series of Austin-Healey sports cars, and the development of a front-wheel-drive/transverse-engine platform that would transform the future of the automotive industry. 

By 1961, Standard-Triumph would be merged into the Leyland Motor Corporation. The commercial vehicle company strengthened Triumph at its peak, with the further development of the TR series and the introduction of the Spitfire roadster. 

That same year, Jaguar introduced the most iconic model in its history – the E-Type. It would also join the Mark 2 sedans to create a powerhouse lineup in the luxury car field in the 1960s. American consumers focused on Cadillac and Lincoln as their go-to brand in this field. Yet, the sleeker and lighter Jaguar lineup offered old world craftsmanship that the Americans – including Imperial – could not offer. Before the W117 Mercedes-Benz S-Class began its assault on the luxury car field, Jaguar got ambitious and discriminating well-heeled Americans desiring their Brown’s Lane-produced wares. 

In 1966, Jaguar no longer was an independent automaker. They would merge with BMC to form British Motor Holdings. In two years, they would end up with Leyland to form British Leyland. 

One auto brand has not been mentioned here. Rover was not much of a player in the British import scene on this continent. You saw small numbers of Land Rovers, P4, and P5Bs stateside through the 1950s and 1960s. The P5B was an interesting car, as it truly represented a premium British car worthy of the empire. It may have been luxurious enough for American consumers to own, but the flash of larger American mid-priced cars would shove the mighty P4 aside. 

The P4’s successor, the P6, started to attract some American consumers by the mid-1960s. For one, they has more modern styling, a more pan-European interior design, and a strong performing 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. However, Rover purchased the dies from GM for an aluminum V8 that used to reside underneath the hood of the compact Buick Special. The V8 basically changed the fortunes and image of Rover in Britain and its export markets – including the USA.

However, Rover – and Land Rover – would become part of Leyland by 1967. That would eventually set the stage for the 1968 British Leyland merger. 

Into the 1970s, Britain had a huge headache on their hands. The government had controlling stakes in many industries. If the labor force was unhappy with management, they would hold work stoppages to express their grievances. It was no surprise that the automotive industry across Britain – in particular, BL – experienced a huge number of work stoppages during that decade.

In addition to labor issues, BL could not seem to integrate their assembly lines or share engineering and technology across all brands. They tried, but perhaps not to the extent that GM and Ford had in North America and beyond. Platform sharing was completely out of the question, as they ended up selling models that competed against each other on multiple different platforms. 

For example, the MGB was a direct competitor to the Triumph Spitfire. Granted, North American sports car enthusiasts already pledged allegiance to their brand of roadster. Therefore, this was sort of a non-issue. However, there were actual consumers that wanted such a car questioning why these two models were diametrically different coming from the same manufacturer. 

Before I get into one of biggest issues that dogged British Leyland’s in this country, let me tell a story about an MGB. I only knew a few that owned one in my younger years in Reseda. They were actually quite popular for years in Southern California. Perhaps the only one I can remember was a fellow Reseda High schooler who was a close friend of mine during that time. 

The first car he owned was a later model MGB – possibly somewhere between 1978 and 1980. It was white with red pinstripes and a white roof. I believe the interior was black and it has either the factory alloys or wire wheels. He had impeccable taste in everything for the time period, and the MGB fit his profile well. If I recall, he was in an accident in it. Not recalling clearly as to the sequence, but he either replaced it with a first-generation Honda Accord – or, that he had the Accord before the MGB. 

All I can tell you was that it was a fun car to be in. Too bad the MGB and the MG brand would not last before I graduated Reseda High. The dealership on Reseda Bouelvard did last a short time afterward. 

Which leads to the biggest reason why British Leyland fell out of grace in the USA: The overall quality of their vehicles. This was a huge issue that stemmed from the merged company’s structural inefficiencies. The products may have looked good – for example, the Triumph TR7 and the Rover SD1 3500. Yet, they arrived in North American ports with quality issues of all sorts. 

The automotive consumer base was already pivoting towards Japanese automakers in the sub-Rover SD1 price range. Clearly, the Japanese were building high quality and very reliable vehicles that continued to gain favor among import vehicle buyers. By 1980, Japanese automakers focused on vehicles that were more practical, economical, and affordable than anything British Leyland was offering at the time. 

By 1980, things got really interesting back in Great Britain. The government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was bent on selling off their nationalized industries. British Leyland was on that list. 

The first act was to split British Leyland in two. One company, Austin Morris, would retain MG. By 1982, MG was gone from the USA market. Austin Morris has no further intention of maintaining a presence in North America. 

The other half of BL’s split would retain a presence here. The newly former Jaguar Rover Triumph would continue selling all three brands in the USA, but they found that no one wanted the SD1 and the TR7/8. Instead, their North American importer concentrated on selling Jaguars instead. 

By 1982, Jaguar had an uphill battle as the only former British Leyland brand left in the USA. Mercedes-Benz and BMW were taking over the luxury car market, while Cadillac and Lincoln held on to their leadership in the face of superior (West) German competition. 

By 1984, Jaguar returned to being an independent automaker. Land Rover returned to the USA in 1987 bringing the Range Rover across the pond. At the same time, the Rover 800-Series also arrived stateside under the name of the Sterling 825. Then came the ownership of BMW and Ford through the 2000s, until Jaguar Land Rover was finally formed by Tata Industries in 2008.

There is a twist to the story. When BMW owned Rover Cars, they looked fondly at a project that the British were developing for their Oxford plant – the new MINI. To secure this project, the Bavarians casted off Rover and MG and kept the MINI project for themselves. Now, MINI is a part of the BMW Group, along with Rolls-Royce Motor Cars. 

Believe it or not, there is still an MG brand out there. Chinese automaker SAIC Motor now owns MG, producing a line of SUVs and electric vehicles for several markets worldwide. 

Those other historic names from the past – Austin, Morris, Triumph, and Rover – now reside in the dustbin of history. Somewhere many feet below the book containing the Declaration on Future European Union-United Kingdom Relations are the memories of those great British car brands. 

What is left are the memories. Some were fond moments with these popular roadsters and luxury cars. They include moments of college students that were rebuilding the carburetor from their Triumph or MG on the floor of their dorm room kitchen back in the days of Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson. 

These roadsters saw a resurgence thanks to Mazda, as the NA MX-5 Miata harkened back to the days of the MGA, MGB, and Spitfire. This time, Mazda made them more reliable and of higher quality. Still, one could see a Miata and think of an old British roadster made by the companies that would eventually merge into British Leyland. 

Just like my former high school friend’s MGB. 

All photos by Randy Stern

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