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Why Do They Bash British Leyland?

Come on, it’s not that ugly really.

 

 

If you, like me, enjoy picking up the odd coffee-table type of book from the motoring section in your local library (it’s in the low 600s in the Dewey system if you can’t find it), you’ve probably come across books that list bad, ugly and weird cars.  I love them.  However, I have noticed one wee tendency, both in these books and in series such as Top Gear (which my library also helpfully makes available in the motoring section of the library): the tendency to bash British Leyland vehicles.

What have they done to deserve this?  I mean, it’s not like other major marques haven’t had their share of absolute dogs. Dishonourable mention is usually made, in this motoring subgenre, of the abysmally ugly Ford Edsel, the notoriously flammable Ford Pinto, and all those Japanese cars with singularly bizarre names like Nissan Cedric, Mazda Bongo Brawny, Mazda Marvie Proceed, Subaru Touring Bruce and Mitsubishi Mini Urban Active Sandal.  In fact, nearly every big name turns up somewhere in this book I got from the library.  There’s usually a Lada or two in there somewhere as well.  But to hear the likes of Clarkson et al. talk, you’d think that British Leyland was an unmitigated disaster that never did anything right.

I mean, if a car company is really, really bad, it won’t last very long.  This was the fate of some other motoring horrors, such as Australia’s very own Lightburn Zeta (made by a washing machine company) that had no rear entry but did have an engine that, if you stopped it and restarted it, would work the engine in reverse, allowing you to go through the gears while travelling backwards.  That one didn’t last for very long.  Nor did Delorean, which is best known for its appearance in Back to the Future, Peel or Messerschmitt (who didn’t quite have the same aeroplane to car success as Saab and BMW).

However, British Leyland was BIG, and not just because it was a government-owned enterprise.  You’d think it was a sure-fire recipe for success: take wildly successful brands like Mini, Jaguar and Rover (which are still going strong) and some others that were equally popular like Austin, Triumph and Morris and you’re bound to have a winner, right?

Well, it worked on paper.  However, industrial relations in the UK in the 1970s and early 1980s weren’t exactly stellar, though I guess they were a hang of a lot better than what went on at Ford in the 1930s.  Throw in a bright spark up the top who decided that it was time to move on from the old classics and along came the vehicles that everybody loves to bash.

The vehicles that are notorious for ruining the reputation of British Leyland are the Austin Allegro and the Morris Marina.  So what was so bad about them?

The Austin Allegro made a couple of styling mistakes.  In the mid-1970s, vehicle styling was turning to the edgy and linear but the Allegro kept things curvy, earning it the nickname of a “poached egg on wheels”.  The steering wheel, however, was what we’d now call a squoval or a square with rounded off corners.  Apart from that… well, it’s hard to say exactly why the Allegro has such a bad reputation really.  It didn’t come in a hatchback version and the hydroelastic suspension was a bit on the wobbly side.  It picked up a reputation for picking up rust easily but it actually wasn’t too bad compared with others of its time.  Mechanically, it was adequate enough and that suspension did make it corner pretty well.

As a former owner of an Allegro, I’d have to say that it suffered from the reverse of Kardashian syndrome – instead of being famous for being famous, it was notorious for being notorious.  It was, however, one of the top selling cars in the UK all through the 1970s.  It was more a case of being the wrong car at the wrong time.  These days, that curvy styling and the slightly square wheel would be right on trend.

Then there was the Morris Marina.  I’ve owned one of these as well, for all of two weeks until it died.  This one did deserve its poor reputation and in many ways, its quality tarnished Leyland as a whole and it took the otherwise reasonable Allegro down with it.  The Marina really understeered and it really did have the bad rust problems.  It handled atrociously.  This is what happens if you try to rush something into the market when you’ve got a bunch of disgruntled employees.

These days, especially for those of us who entered the world at about the same time as the Allegro, the Marina and all the others of that era, they do have a certain charm, in spite of the vinyl seats and lack of safety features.  This could be a case of nostalgia, or it could be a case of perspective: after all, is there anything really wrong with unfashionable styling?  Or maybe not.  Sometimes, ugly is just plain ugly.

But I really don’t think that British Leyland deserves its poor reputation and the Allegro certainly doesn’t.  As for the Marina, well, that’s another story!

The book in question, in case you want to get hold of a copy for yourself, is “Total Lemons. One Hundred and Eleven Heroic Failures of Motoring” by Tony Davis, published by ABC Books, ISBN 978-0-7333-3086-5 (paperback) 978-0-7304-9983-1 (ebook).  Enjoy.

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