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While the modern day automotive industry might well seem all but doomed unless it manages to reinvent itself radically in record time, there was indeed a bygone era where it all seemed a lot more optimistic and cheerful. Now imagine travelling back in time and attending the Earl’s Court Motor Show in 1962 – all of 57 years ago…

Things really were decidedly different in the motor industry back then. For starters, the cars from various marques actually looked different from each other, each having their own unique designs and features. Amazingly, this was even the case when badge engineering came into play – take a moment to appreciate how a Riley Elf exudes an entirely different character from the Mini upon which it was of course based. To further emphasise how things have changed, the stylish cars back then were indeed presented in a multitude of pleasing tones rather than just being silver, grey or black as seems almost mandatory nowadays.

But it’s not just the cars which are obviously very different from the soulless creations which litter the modern International Motor Show – it’s also very much the manner in which they are presented to the public. I was quickly utterly absorbed by this British Pathé documentary from Earl’s Court in 1962. It quite obvious that rotating displays were clearly all the rave for 1962. Austin seems to have outdone everyone else though by having three cars rotating separately between each other on their stand. Then there are the perspex body panels which equally seem popular – whether exposing the blinged up A-series engine of a Mini Cooper, the improved luggage space provided by the external boot of a Riley Elf, or indeed pretty much every mechanical component of the Morris 1100 ADO16.

But what strikes me as truly different, is how the public seem to have an interest in the mechanical aspect of cars. There are bare chassis on display, cutout engines and rotating transmissions – even a Riley Elf where the entire body is continually raised, lowered and then raised again by hydraulics to expose suspension, brakes and drivetrain for all to revel at. It certainly seems a lot more relevant to motoring than our current days focus on the cars capabilities on connectivity…

Enjoy this trip back in time as British Pathé presents the Earl’s Court Motor Show in full Technicolour:

With monumental British cars such as the Ford Cortina, Triumph Spitfire, Lotus Elan and Jensen CV-8 all being launched at this motor show there seemed to be real promise on the horizon. Yet I must confess that the otherwise excellent narrative made me giggle on a few occasions. It starts off stating:

“This motor show at Earl’s Court is the last one with Britain outside the Common Market.”

Then as the short film draws to an end, we are told:

“If this year’s motor show is any guide, the British car industry will rise to the opportunity.”

In the painful clarity of hindsight, both remarks are certainly thought provoking if nothing else…


10 Responses

  1. Jens G

    Completely wrong!

    It was not the last show before the Common Market

    I attended the Earls Court Motor Show in autumn of 1970 and I remember Britain entered the Common Market in 72/73 together with Ireland and Denmark.

    At Pathe, maybe they thought it was close in 1962?

    In 1970 I was so dissappointed to see the Mini decline as a Mini Clubman with a build-on nose of no use!

  2. Zack Stiling

    The video began with “Prophets are saying…” I think much of the current commentary regarding Britain and the E.U. is testament enough that commentators often struggle to distinguish between prophets and bulls**ters.

    Anyway, the cars – what beauty! The colours, the curves, the chrome… Although I am left to wonder exactly why my Super Minx didn’t come with three rather charming young poppets. Clearly, a careless past owner must have lost them, so if anyone should have any spares lying around I would gratefully receive them to assist with restoring the car to an authentic period finish.

    It still seems amazing to me to think that 50 years ago even the most basic family car like a Ford Cortina was delicately designed and genuinely beautiful. One can’t help getting the impression that the Motor Show was less of a corporate exhibition than a pageant of design excellence and social pride.

  3. Anders Bilidt

    @Jens G, you are of course right – the UK did not join the Common Market immediately after the ’62 Earl’s Court Motor Show. But I looked into it a little deeper and found that the first time the UK applied to join was in 1961, so I gather this might be what led to the commentary on this British Pathé documentary.

    Hmmm… which has me wondering, if it took the UK 12 years to join the Common Market, do we at this point reckon it might end up taking them even longer to leave it again? Just a thought… ;-)

    @Zack, Are you sure those three charming poppets were standard equipment with the Super Minx? It’s not that I’m too sure myself, but if they were optional equipment, perhaps the first owner of your particular Super Minx skimped a little when it came to ticking the right optional boxes? If this were the case, it would of course explain why you are lacking this lovely feature. Nonetheless, should I come across three such charming Super Minx poppets at an autojumble near me, I shall naturally purchase them for you. After all, having seen the above documentary, it now appears to be a must-have for any respected Super Minx owner…

  4. Dave Leadbetter

    Social pride? Steady on… it was still about churning them out and making money in the fine capitalist tradition! :)

    I think the last time I visited the British International Show was probably 1994 at the Birmingham NEC. Until a few minutes ago I hadn’t realised the last proper one was held as long ago as 2008! I appear to be out of touch.

    Earl’s Court is gone now too. I last visited for a trade show a few months before it was closed for demolition, and although the buildings were careworn it seemed a pointless loss from an architectural perspective. What will go up in it’s place is basically generic rubbish without any soul or lasting value. Parallels with the motor industry indeed.

  5. Zack Stiling

    Undoubtedly it was capitalist business as usual, but I think the state of the motor show speaks volumes about the prevailing social attitudes. Mr. Pinstripe Suit at the head of every motor company may well not have cared much for anything besides profits, but he could only hope to profit if he offered a car that was good in all respects – nice to look at, nice to sit in and well engineered. In short, the sort of car that a society would be proud to call its own. Anything less wouldn’t have held its own in the market.

    The same could be applied to the designers and even lowly factory workers. Yes, they were working to earn a crust, but they had to take a degree of pride in their work. If they were careless or slapdash, their employer wouldn’t have hesitated to replace them. Contrast that with today, when cars are designed and assembled in large part with the involvement of computers, which are incapable of even conceptualising pride.

    There is no hint today that car manufacturers are proud of their products. They are advertised not for their visual appeal or performance but for their fuel economy and NCAP ratings. In many ways, it’s not the manufacturers’ fault because they’re so restricted by legislation, but I can’t help feeling that the modern cars are built and sold with mutual complacency in both maker and consumer.

    Then again, I might be over-thinking it, but that’s my two pence for what it’s worth.

  6. Dave Leadbetter

    We like overthinking here, Zack.

    I think it was a different kind of pride on display. The stock trade of Pathe News was always pomp and flag waving patriotism disguised as factual reporting. When they were helping to boost export sales there was nothing wrong with that, and bear in mind this film was probably shown in cinemas across the colonies before the main feature of Lawrence of Arabia or whatever. Marvel at this man shooting a rifle at some natives, but remember to buy a Cortina on Monday morning. National pride, and reasons for it, is in short supply these days.

    As for pride within the motor industry of the 1960s; in terms of designers and engineers trying to create quality motor cars, they probably did their best given the resources available. But as for line workers lovingly obsessing over tolerances in fear of being fired for small transgressions? The truth was often closer to begrudgingly chucking them together whilst waiting for the next tea break. This was the era of strong union representation within manufacturing with closed shops and job demarcation. A worker had to be a member of the applicable union and no member was allowed to do another trade’s work. This wasn’t conducive to efficiency measures but had only become necessary because of the employer abuses of previous decades. Unions didn’t have to hold ballots before calling strikes and could down tools for any reason they liked. Once you were in, you essentially had a job for life and you we’re about to get marched off site. There’s actually something to be said for that from a societal perspective.

    Two frames from the film bear this out; see the papier mache air filter housing on the Jensen at 2:33 (Brian Rix should have stomped off at that point and bought something foreign), and check out the panel fit when Lord Montagu’s friend closes the door on the Sea Cucumber at 4:37. It looks like I made it.

    When I started in the industry I worked with a few guys at Ford’s who’d been at Dagenham since the 1950s. At no point had they knowingly lovingly crafted anything! As the employers had taken a confrontational stance, it didn’t instil a huge amount of loyalty or pride in a day’s work. Pass the time until the bell rang and go home. As long as you stayed on the right side of the shop steward you could be pretty much fire proof. Why try harder? It was very evident that loyalty was only rewarded with a minimum statutory redundancy come cost saving time.

    I have experienced a firm where an emotion closer to pride could be detected.
    Working for Toyota is a bit like joining a benevolent cult, and spending some time in Toyota City was a real eye opener to Japanese corporate culture. Whether it’s real pride or just a cultural fear of letting everyone else down is debatable, but it probably amounts to the same thing. My own experiences therefore indicated much more pride in the newer products than the old. Note that I am comparing two opposite ends of the industry spectrum and don’t conflate which company’s cars I would rather drive…

    So there is certainly a veneer of pride in modern assembly plants because you can’t just turn up and not give a fork anymore. These days you need to sing the company song and pretend to care about KPIs and seeing through the eyes of the customer. All in return for minimal job security and below inflation wage increases whilst you kill time before the next round of outsourcing. Makes me wish the unions were still running the show and I’m not even in the trade anymore…

  7. Zack Stiling

    Always glad to receive an education! Indeed, I shouldn’t forget that Hillman’s problems were only just beginning at the time of this video. Strikes at the press shop in Acton closed the factory for three months in 1961 and similar unrest cursed the Imp and opened the doors for Chrysler to take over.

    The Japanese comparison is an interesting one. I like all sorts of cars from all over Europe and America, but Japan is the one country whose motor industry output I totally fail to appreciate. It does seem as though the culture and, one might go so far as to say, purpose of the nation is quite different from anywhere else. Japanese cars are famously (notoriously, I’m tempted to say) functional, and yet the styling, the engineering, the materials used and the advertising/wider cultural role of the car has never excited me in the slightest.

    How strange that the manufacturers that take the most pride in their products (i.e. modern-day Toyota) should produce vehicles infinitely less appealing to the discerning motorist than a 50-year-old Dagenham dustbin. But then, as you say, that is corporate pride, and that’s a whole different matter entirely.

  8. yrhmblhst

    Whilst Mr Leadbetter is undoubtedly correct vis a vis union workers not caring, and obviously unions ruined the British motor industry, as well as damn near killed it in America , Italy and France, I will still hafta agree with Mr Stiling. There was, obviously, a sense of purpose, pride and dare I say adventure at the time in question most anywhere beyond the ‘shop floor’ , and I would be willing to bet that there even existed a few individuals with union cards who displayed it. Such is apparent from the design if nothing else, and talking to or reading interviews with those that ‘were there’ , confirms it. Additionally, as has been suggested, this was not just limited to design or management, but was pervasive across much of society. I was there for a small part of it, so I know its true. Were I to launch into a discourse telling who and what was/is responsible for the change, I would be banned and ViaRetro would be deplatformed by WP, so I shant.
    As for tojo et al… Again w/o risking [too much] being banned, lets just say that the ‘asian mind’ works much differently than the Western man’s, and only in that ‘culture’ could something like ‘toyota city’ and corporate ‘fight songs’ to be recited daily exist . The KPI may be high, but Quality is absent.

  9. Anders Bilidt

    Well there’s a debat which took an unexpected turn! :-) All of that from an exhibition hall full of gleaming 1962 models…

    Well now that we’re here; my take on it would be that said pride would most likely have been plentiful among the skilled engineers and designers who developed the cars, while it would have just as likely been quite devoid from the assembly line. But what do I know…??

    Oh and @zack, don’t get me started on Nippon steel from the sixties and seventies. Do so, and this debat may never end!!

  10. Dave Leadbetter

    See, on many sites people would just look at the pretty colours and be happy with that. We obviously have a better class of commenter.

    One thing that occurs to me (beyond management alienating the workers and the general breaking of the social contract within society, obvs), is how many separate brands were on sale in 1962 compared to today. I mentioned the silo culture at British Leyland in my recent and frankly outstandingly insightful article about Rover Group, and a fair proportion of the cars on display at Earl’s Court would have been products of BMC. The 60s were the start of badge engineering but I’d expect there was still a residual pride in how a Riley was distinct from a Wolseley, and so on. The same would have been the case over at Rootes Group; a Singer Vogue was closely related to a Hillman Super Minx but appealed to a different demographic.

    I feel that over time, industry consolidation has taken much of that tribal attachment away. If I look around the office car park, it’s all financed BMW M-Sports and Mercedes AMG lines. Traffic has become much more homogeonous and even the badges which once meant something have been devalued. Mercs are now ten a penny and AMG is just a trim level rather than a fearsome tuning division creating racing cars for the road. Does the current state of the industry generate pride? Even the consumers view the cars as 36 month disposables. Can you take pride in something that is so easy to obtain?

    People are a social species and they find pride in knowing thier own identity. Without a tribe to follow (regional identity, football team, car brand) something gets lost. That kind of brings me back round to the Japanese. It’s correct to state their culture works entirely differently to the west, and this is a hangover from being deliberately isolationist from the rest of the world for many centuries. They went their own way and only engaged on their own terms. That kind of thing breeds a conformity that’s only just beginning to be challenged. But the whole set up of a company like Toyota is very much cradle to grave. The social contract is still in place and if you play the game you’ll generally be ok. It is starting to change though.

    In summary though, and to answer the question of why there was a pride (in whatever form) in 1962 that doesn’t exist today; instant gratification and and homogenous products means nobody gives a toss anymore.



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