Was British Leyland Really That Bad?

1w ago


Despite winning the war and popularising potatoes and tea, our little island on the edge of the world has a tendency towards self reflection and criticism. Like our cousins in Australia, we don't like Tall Poppies. We're much more at home with plucky failure than shining success.

Case in point is British Leyland. Of course a lot of it was rubbish. There was the Allegro, the Marina and the Montego, all mediocre. But it wasn't actually all bad. Here are our British Leyland blooms amongst the weeds.

1. Triumph Dolomite Sprint

In 2020 people willingly pay £60,000 for a Ford Escort. Nobody pays a 10th of that for the car that is arguably better and more sophisticated. The Dolomite Sprint was a typically BL response to an ageing product - reheat it with clever but inexpensive ideas. And the Dolly was clever - the world's first multi-valve engine in the form of its blistering 127 bhp 2 litre 16v version of the Triumph slant four engine. All this in 1973.

The Dolomite Sprint was, on paper, brilliant. It looked good, it went like a rocket and it was more luxurious - yet cheaper - than a BMW. Sadly, it was built by British Leyland, which couldn't get the hang of making it properly or reliable. The engine developed lots of problems and those in search of a fast saloon migrated to Ford and BMW.

But a well sorted Dolly Sprint is a revelation. So much sweeter and engaging than an Escort and much rarer too.

2. Land Rover Discovery

Before it went all sophisticated and sub-Range Rovery, the Discovery was a utilitarian 4x4. Its rear lights were from a Maestro van and it used a 20 year old Range Rover chassis, but there was nothing like it. It created a totally new market segment that was then leapt on by BMW with the X5 and Mercedes with the M-Class. Yet unlike them the Discovery combined proper off-road ability with on-road manners. Buyers lapped them up. It was an inspired and profitable gambit by a cash-strapped manufacturer.

The Discovery demonstrates what was great about BL - good ideas, clever engineers and a business that could be fleet-of-foot. Of course, true to form it wasn't built very well and when the competition piled in Land Rover was slow to react. But in its way it was as revolutionary as the original Range Rover.

3. Austin Princess

Stop laughing right now. The Princess was an innovative, well packaged and smooth-riding executive car that should have worked. It looked good, but not in a way that car buyers wanted. Middle management and regional sales managers wanted conventional three-box designs like the Cortina and Granada, but Austin gave them a wedgy. Instead of simple and durable BL went for complicated and clever.

The Princess was a flop from its launch, not helped by BL's confusing branding which started with badge engineering then tried to sell it as a stand-alone marque. Today it's a footnote even to the BL story. That is a shame because it was innovative and daring when most car makers were staid and dull.

4. Rover SD1

The Rover SD1 got everything right except being built properly. When it was launched Rover couldn't meet demand. SD1s were selling for more second hand than they were new.

It's easy to see why. The SD1 looked brilliant - where the Princess was quirky, the SD1 was offbeat but hugely desirable, bringing Ferrari Daytona style to Britain's executive parking spaces.

The car also met its brief perfectly - aspirational, practical, quick and it handled well. It successfully copied the Ford approach of style concealing convention. Under the skin the running gear was rudimentary and simple, but it didn't matter because it looked so good.

If any other company had brought the SD1 to market we'd be applauding their chutzpah and creativity. But the Rover was so, so badly built. Britain's upper management still wanted them but eventually their patience was stretched to breaking point by their broken down SD1s. By the mid 80s Audi and BMW were eating into Rover's market. And the SD1 was to blame.

5. Leyland Sherpa

It's hard to believe now but when British Leyland was created it had a virtual stranglehold over the UK van and truck market. But, true to form, the model range was ancient. In 1974 that changed with the brand new Sherpa.

The Sherpa makes this list because it was well executed and ideally suited to the market. After all, it remained in production virtually unchanged until 2006. Lets pause there - a van launched in 1974 remained in production for 32 years. During the same period Ford sold three different generations of the Transit in 5 different evolutions.

The Sherpa was always in the Transit's shadow but not because it was a bad alternative. It was, in many ways, a more capable and comfortable van. But it was, inevitably, unreliable. And when you're transporting building materials to Enfield or a Scout Troop to the Lake District, reliability is quite important. Leyland, which became LDV, outlived MG Rover, but not by much.

6. Range Rover

Having successfully launched the utilitarian Land Rover in 1948, Rover soon felt that there was demand for a more civilised version. But nothing much happened until, as usual, the rest of the world caught up. So it took the arrival of the Jeep Cherokee and Ford Bronco in the mid 60s to put the idea back on the table.

The Range Rover was launched in 1970. And immediately it was different - and better - than those rivals. It looked great, blending utility with style, and it was brilliant off road. Where its rivals struggled on road, the Range Rover was equally at home ploughing up motorways and crossing ploughed fields.

It was a British Leyland success story. Naturally, it wasn't built terribly well. And, despite having a great cash cow success story on its hands, BL didn't bother to develop it (four door versions only became available in 1981). It got posher and there were more engine options, but fundamentally, not much changed.

So rivals caught up. But the Range Rover, then and now, has always been The Daddy, the best luxury off-roader money can buy.

7. Mini Metro

Of course, Austin pioneered the small car with the Mini. But that preceded the formation of BL. It took until 1980, over 20 years after the launch of the Mini, to announce its replacement - the Metro.

The Metro was therefore quite late to the small car party. Every car maker had already taken huge chunks out of the Mini's market with cars like the Fiesta that were really very good. So the scene was set for yet another British Leyland disaster.

Except it wasn't. The Metro, it turned out, was really good. It was fun to drive like a Mini but practical like a Fiesta. There was also a Metro for everyone, from the lowly L to the tyre-scrabbling MG Turbo. Here, finally was a British car that British people could be really proud of.

In fact it was so good that it stayed in production, essentially unchanged - except for several new names - until 1998.

Yes, it was badly built. And rusted. And it was a bit uncool compared to a Fiesta. But Britain loved it and over 2 million found homes as second cars on suburban driveways.


Graham Eason runs Great Driving Days, the classic car experience company. 01527 893733.


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