With me being the Brit and Anders being a bit of a globetrotter (albeit with a Scandinavian background), we quickly agreed that when covering this enormous show for ViaRETRO readers, I would focus on the local, regional perspective with an emphasis on the period when I lived and worked in Birmingham, and he would do the rest of the world! I should add that this is not intended to be a comprehensive history of the motor industry in the Midlands – scores of books have been written on the subject; this is just a somewhat simplified, personal overview in the context of the show. Nevertheless, it’s grown and grown to the point where it needs three instalments, so please have patience with me!
First, a little background. The Midlands is not only the centre of England but was for decades the hub of the motor industry. In particular the line across Birmingham, Solihull and Coventry has a long and complicated motor industry history at least as deep and as wide as any of Detroit, Stuttgart, Wolfsburg or Turin.
If you extend that line out to draw an approximate kite-shape, with the top point at Tamworth in Staffordshire, the cross-brace taking in West Bromwich, Birmingham, Solihull and Coventry, and the bottom point being Abingdon, 111km from top to bottom, you have an area of incredible motoring heritage riches, maintained nowadays primarily by classic car enthusiasts, their clubs and the specialists who serve them. A few of the manufacturers – those that are still in business – help by continuing to supply parts for old cars. Jaguar are very good at this, but it’s largely the car clubs and the specialists who are keeping the spirit and the history alive.
As well as car manufacturing, there was a sizeable parts industry in the region, led by big names such as Lucas Industries in Birmingham, primarily supplying lighting and other electrical parts. But there were many others such as Unipart in Cowley, and Dunlop (whose iconic Fort Dunlop building near the M6 motorway is now a hotel, office and residential complex) also in Birmingham. Some of these companies are still trading, though not all in the Midlands.
I lived in Birmingham – initially as a student and then for the first part of my career with British Leyland – for over five years in the late 1970’s and early ‘80’s. When I moved to the South East, I was still with BL in their Fleet Sales division, selling their cars to the likes of Sun Alliance, Swan Leasing, Visionhire, and many others. During that time, Longbridge – which first built cars in 1906 as the Austin Motor Company – was still a fully-functioning production factory, churning out the Mini and then it’s successor, the Austin Metro. Just along the A45 in Coventry, Triumph, Jaguar and Chrysler UK (new owners of the Rootes Group) were still churning out Dolomites, Toledo’s, TR7’s, XJ6’s, XJS’s, Hillman Avengers and Chrysler Alpines. In West Bromwich, Jensen’s struggles to survive by trying to produce a more affordable sports car, the Jensen Healey, had ended in 1976. Alvis in Coventry was already long gone, as were former Rootes Group marques such as Humber, Singer and Sunbeam. In between the two, in Solihull, Land Rover was building early Range Rovers alongside the old faithful Land Rover. Finally, at the northern tip of our “kite”, just north of Birmingham as Coventry is east, let’s not forget Reliant.
Only a couple of decades later, most of these marques had disappeared, and the factories shut down – the conclusion to years of gradual and depressing decline, with causes ranging from disastrous labour relations to under-investment and poor management decisions. Even BMW, who acquired Longbridge from British Aerospace in 1994, couldn’t make the factory pay, and they sold it just six years later to the Phoenix Consortium for just £10, under whose further mis-management it closed in 2005. Only the combined Jaguar Land Rover group now remains and, fortunately, thrives.
This history makes the impressive National Exhibition Centre, situated roughly mid-way between Birmingham and Coventry and opened at the same time as so much of the local motor industry was slowly dying, a perfect location to host what has grown to become the UK’s biggest classic car show.
Indeed, the NEC itself has direct historical connections to the motor industry, having been the site of a number of British International Motor Shows – previously held at Earl’s Court, London – from its opening until the demise of the show in 2004. I actually worked some of those shows on the British Leyland/Austin Rover Group stands, fending off technical enquiries such as “What’ll it do, mister?” and “I had an Austin Cambridge in 1965, terrible car”, as well as trying to stop people stealing gear-lever knobs and rear view mirrors, among other things. What they did with their loot when got home I’ve no idea, but every stand suffered from the magpie tendencies of visitors.
So to the Classic Motor Show itself, sponsored this year by Lancaster Insurance and Discovery. Well, it’s huge. Absolutely huge. Some 3000 cars and bikes, 300 car clubs, 650 trade & specialist stands including the UK’s biggest indoor auto-jumble, and a significant auction held by Silverstone Auctions. A substantial one million square feet of floorspace, across half a dozen halls, and just short of 72,000 visitors over three days. Even if the halcyon days of the motor industry in the region are long gone, the classic car scene dedicated to it is clearly thriving.
The show’s overall theme was “Built to Last”. Clearly, you don’t have to work too hard to spot the irony, though I am sure none was intended, and with my agreed mission in mind, I started to search out the stands that were most closely tied to the region’s, and in many cases, my own motoring history, and there were lots of them.
The bulk of the region’s motoring heritage can be divided between two main corporations, the British Motor Corporation, later to become British Leyland, and the Rootes Group, later the Chrysler Group (itself eventually acquired by the Peugeot Citroen PSA conglomerate). For the first part of this piece, I’ll focus on British Leyland – not least because it was where I started my career following graduation at the University of Birmingham – and their Austin and Morris brands – not forgetting the various badge -engineered cars they became so famous for.
The main manufacturing centre in Birmingham was BL’s Longbridge plant on the south side of the city. During the 1960’s and especially the ‘70’s, Longbridge became a byword for industrial unrest, it’s most famous name not being that of a car, but of shop steward Derek “Red Robbo” Robinson, who seemed to be on the news every week.
When the factory was fully up and running, however, it built millions of cars, perhaps most famously, the revolutionary Alec Issigonis-designed Mini. The Mini caused a sensation and was many young people’s first car. Like the VW Beetle, it was a truly classless car, driven by anyone and everyone, and despite being launched in 1959, it was still being sold – mostly in Clubman form – by the company when I joined it 20 years later.
The Mini was a huge success (except financially with BL notoriously losing £5 on every one sold), becoming a cultural touchstone. They still turn up at shows across the country in healthy numbers – indicative of both their success and the affection in which they are held. This was certainly the case at the NEC as well, with a broad variety of Mini’s on display. There was a lovely fully-restored mid-green 1966 Cooper S at the show, a very smart blue with white striped Cooper from the later Rover period, and even a couple of first-year-of-production Mini Minors, but I didn’t spot a Clubman anywhere.
The Mini’s hugely anticipated successor was the Metro, built on Longbridge’s new robotic production lines, and launched in my second year at BL, in 1980 – I remember picking up a demonstrator the day before launch and have never been in a car that attracted so much attention. The Metro was a more modern car than the Mini and was also a success – we sold many thousands to BSM (British School of Motoring) and Visionhire, to name but two. As the Austin Metro alone, over one million were sold, and its most famous owner was certainly Lady Diana, future Princess of Wales. Across the range of all Metro variants, over two million were built – but see how many you can find now. The smart black MG version on the club stand was a nippy little car, one of the earliest hot hatches, especially in Turbo form, and of course its ultimate incarnation was as the utterly bonkers 6R4 Group B rally monster. After its initial success, the Metro, like so many BL cars, began a long decline, eventually ending its life as a Rover in 1998. Astonishingly, the original Mini was still being made and would be for another three years. Hmmm… shades of Porsche’s attempt to replace the 911 with the 928 (and there the similarity ends!).
A car celebrating its 70th anniversary this year was the venerable old “Moggy”, or Morris Minor. Basically, Morris’s VW Beetle, it’s simple and robust design – and affordable price – made it a huge hit for many years, with 1.6 million manufactured between 1948 and 1972, and Alec Issigonis’ design is perceived by many as an example of “Englishness”. It still has a very healthy following today, and the club stand, besides showing an early 1948 split-window version, also displayed the 1,000,000th example to roll out of Cowley, presented in its distinctive commemorative lilac paintwork with a white interior!
Over on the Allegro club stand, (a zircon-blue metallic Allegro 1500HL was my first company car), it was a delight to find a young woman under the age of 30 who owned not only an Allegro but also a Rover P6 and a Land Rover – enthusiasts such as Alex are the people who will take our hobby into the future. Another amazingly detailed Allegro was participating in Meguiars’ concours competition. But despite these devoted enthusiasts, the Allegro is still often ridiculed and sometimes even voted the worst car ever made… and yet, much as I disliked mine, it certainly didn’t deserve that level of abuse. Like the Princess, it really should have been a hatchback from day one, and the Vanden Plas version is much-mocked for its ugly duckling appearance. In common with almost all 1970’s BL cars, it suffered significant quality problems. Only few survive of the over 640,000 sold, not least because many were broken up for parts that were interchangeable with more popular BL models.
Before the Allegro, from 1962 to 1971, except for the year of the Summer of Love (1967 in case you’ve forgotten!) the best-selling car in the UK was the Austin/Morris 1100/1300. In fact, this was a period when BL’s brands enjoyed a market share of a staggering 40% – hard to imagine now.
Austin’s were assembled at Longbridge, Morris and MG versions at Cowley, and Wolseley, Vanden Plas and Riley versions were also available. Ultimately the ADO16 – it’s internal code-name – was built all over the world, including in the US, Spain, Australia, Malta and several other countries. A true “world car” with over two million produced. Perhaps the pick of the range – certainly for me – was the 1300GT, and there was a terrific orange example at the show.
On the Austin Maxi club stand was a car to send some of the ViaRETRO team into colour spasms of joy – a Russet brown 1979 Austin Maxi 1750, which had the seats folded down flat to demonstrate the famous “car bed” feature. It’s owner from new – and Austin Maxi Owners Club Treasurer – Roy Heighington (pictured alongside his car) and I both agreed that the 1750cc version in particular was a pretty good family car. The Maxi Owners Club has just 192 members, but Roy is hopeful of attracting more.
If the Maxi was let down by anything, it was perhaps it’s conservative interior and exterior styling – compare it with the chic Renault 16, for example. It was the first car launched by the new British Leyland conglomerate, and was produced until 1981, when it – and the Allegro – were replaced by the Austin Maestro.
The Maestro, launched with much fanfare in Marbella, was possibly the car the Allegro should have been, but even it – despite initial success – never really got over the quality problems. My father – loyal to BL for as long as I worked there, not least because I could get him a good deal – ran a 1.3HLS for a year; it was OK, but not his favourite. Yet, even the police force used them in period!
The ultimate versions of the Maestro – the MG and MG Turbo versions, came with an early version of a digital “speaking” dash, which turned out to be less than popular. I drove several of these back in the day – they were a lot of fun, and there were a couple of neat examples at the show, especially one particular black one.
The next big launch after the Maestro was the Montego, targeting the family-sized saloon market dominated by the Cortina and Cavalier. Launched in Cannes, it was reasonably well received, but never quite as good as it could have been, although the 7-seater Montego Estate was a handsome and popular derivative with my customers. Unfortunately there wasn’t one at the NEC – unsurprising since there seems to be only one left in the UK. The drop in Montego numbers is staggering – only 50 remain in the UK out of 436,000 sold; this for a car that only stopped being produced in 1994. Nevertheless, there was a tidy metallic beige over grey 1987 1600HL present and correct at the show.
Ultimately, quality control again let these cars down, and compared to the Escort, Astra and Cavalier – especially the Cavalier, in the case of the Montego – were always fighting a losing battle.
Nearby was the A40 Farina stand, which was celebrating the model’s 60th anniversary. One of the most intriguing parts of the display was a letter from Prince Philip, recalling a conversation he had had with Leonard Lord, then Chairman of BL, suggesting that he should approach Pininfarina to design the successor to the much-loved A35. The car had to be built around the A35’s platform and mechanicals, and that suggestion led to the A40 that emerged from the Longbridge factory. Austin’s Italian connection – echoing that between Triumph and Michelotti – continued across the Morris Oxford/Austin Cambridge/Westminster ranges, as well as the Wolseley, Riley and MG versions of these cars. To think it all started with a princely word!
Morris cars were generally built at the Cowley plant, and one of the cars least fondly remembered by the infamous Top Gear team was the Marina, later succeeded by the barely any different Morris Ital, so called because it had been “designed” by the Ital Design house; in truth, this was at best a minor update. I was at the (relatively low-key) launch in 1980, and production ended in 1984. For a short while I ran a russet brown one as my company car – I don’t think it’s unfair to say it was uninspiring. In fact, I preferred – and still prefer – the Marina. There was a smart blue Marina estate on display, but sadly not one of the 1.8TC coupés, the best of the range.
The 1800/2200 series fondly known as the Landcrab – we featured one as our Prime Find just about a month ago – was very well represented by the International Landcrab Owners Club, displaying various examples of the differently badge-engineered versions. The Landcrab was another range available with Austin, Morris and Wolseley badges, the only difference being the levels of trim. My father ran one in the early 1970’s, and he also ran two of its successors – the Princess and Ambassador – entirely trouble-free.
There was a small stand representing the Princess Owners Club, with a 2000HL and a 2200HL. These Harris Mann-designed wedges (he also designed the TR7, and in fact turned up to visit the stand, unfortunately an hour before I got there) shared the Landcrab’s comfortable ride and family-friendly spaciousness but in a much more sharp and modern body. Again, however, there was an opportunity missed – the Princess should have been a hatchback from the start, and by the time it got one and became the Austin Ambassador, it was already too late.
Maxi’s, Maestro’s, Montego’s, Landcrabs, Princesses and Ambassadors were all built at the Cowley plant (although some Montego’s were also built at Longbridge). Besides Longbridge and Cowley, the BL group’s other main manufacturing bases were Coventry and Solihull, which is up for scrutiny next…