All that's left of a once global UK car industry are oddball sports car brands like Morgan, BAC, Ariel, Westfield or Caterham, or hi tech, Russian oligarch chariot makers like McClaren and Noble.
How did car makers like Austin, Jaguar, Healey, MG or Morris bite the dust? Part of the answer lies in the structural decline of the UK economy in general during the 1970s and a failure to invest in modern production line machinery to keep pace with rivals from Germany and Japan.
But the big problem was often very simple; British cars were crap. Here are five of the biggest lemons in UK motoring history which all played a much bigger part in the decline of the entire industry than Red Robbo ever did.
Surely not??! The Mini was a work of engineering genius; cheap to run, roomier than it looked and very cool when racing through the streets of Turin in The Italian Job?
Yes it was. Austin Morris group also LOST money on every single Mini they produced in the early 60s, as the thing was so fiddly to weld and bolt together. Let's also talk sub-frame collapses, rust traps and boiling engines in summer too shall we? The Mini was an OK city car, but on Britain's hill roads, or motorways, its feeble 850cc and 1000cc engines soon overheated if you drove over 60mph for any length of time.
As BMC became BLMC, then British Leyland, then Rover Group, the Mini staggered on into the 1990s, even the 2000s, staying in production so far past its sell-by date that it was an affront to NCAP crash testing frankly.
The original Mini should have been put to sleep like a lame terrier sometime around 1972. By keeping the Mini in production BL wasted valuable manufacturing capacity and hung onto a vanished past for too long, as the Germans and Japanese busily made small hatchbacks that were faster, quieter, more frugal on petrol and more practical.
Did VW carry on making the original Beetle until the 21st century? Nope, they designed the nimble, classless and fun-to-drive Golf in the 70s and sold the Beetle tooling to Mexico instead. Good move.
|They say genuises choose green. They're wrong.|
So much depended on the Maxi, that you would've thought BLMC would have got things right. But no, the Maxi was bodged up at birth, assembled by bolshie workers and incompetent managers, creating shameful reliability problems right from its launch in 1969.
The 1500cc engine was woefully underpowered, unable to pull the car uphill at a decent speed if four adults were in the Maxi. It also had a new five speed gearbox operated by cables - yes cables - not rods and selector shafts. The Maxi should have been an original, new design, but to save cash BLMC used doors, windscreen and other parts from the `land crab' 1800/2200cc models.
Despite having a handy hatchback tailgate, plus seats that folded all the way down to provide a rough sleeper's delight, the Maxi wasn't the familiy car flagship that British Leyland desperately needed in the early 1970s. Early models suffered problems like sheared engine mountings, so the arthritic 1500cc four cylinder unit fell out onto the road - best place for it some might say.
With the bigger 1750cc engine fitted, plus the later rod-operated gearbox, the Maxi was a bit more acceptable, but still looked stodgy as a maiden aunt's sherry trifle compared to a sleek 1970s Ford Cortina.
Oh and one more thing; Hydrogas suspension. I rest my case...just as a Maxi rested at least one wheelarch on its soggy as rice pudding suspension.
3. Morris Marina
This 70s masterpiece of mediocrity sums up everything that went wrong in the British Leyland empire at that time. It was marketed as a family car, and a salesman's repmobile, a rival to the Ford Cortina, Escort and Vauxhall Viva. But a sad litany of penny-pinching, rehashed designs, inter-factory squabbles within BL and the usual strikes and `Friday afternoon' cars, put the Marina at a distinct disadvantage.
This cost-cutting R&D plan, plus the usual `Up the Workers' type industrial disputes at Leyland's outdated Cowley plant, all helped to produce an ill-handling dog of a car, styled like a chintz sofa and frequently painted in baby poo yellowy-green, or a pensioner's anorak shade of beige.
Thanks to a rock bottom price tag, BL shifted lots of Marinas and even set up `kit' type manufacturing in far-flung countries like New Zealand, where people were grateful to drive anything locally assembled.
The reason the Marina and its ilk helped to kill BL is summed up in its pedestrian performance, the shabby unreliability of the car and its overall lack of ambition.
In a sense, BL had already thrown the towel in by the early 70s and by producing cheap, second rate rubbish, they were asking the Japanese and the Germans to pick up the technological baton and run with it. Toyota, Nissan, Mazda, VW-Audi and Honda didn't need any further encouragement, they got on with making better cars.
4. Triumph TR7
Words cannot really describe how repulsed most young men were by the pig-ugly, wedge shaped TR7 when it made its debut in 1975. Guys who thought wearing 10 inch flares, platform shoes and listening to Emerson, Lake and Palmer was acceptable choked on their Corona cherryade when they first saw the horror that Triumph attempted to foist on the sports car world. In America Burt Reynolds personally shot the first three candy-ass guys who bought a TR7.
Compare the slice of red cheddar cheese that is the TR7 to other sporty cars of the era; for example, the outgoing TR6 was perhaps the most Italian looking British sports car of the 70s, undeniably beautiful and could have worn a Lancia badge with justifiable pride.
A Triumph Spitfire was tiny, a bit slow too, but hey, it was a genuine soft-top and some might say, it looked quite sexy compared to a TR7. A Datsun 240Z might have rusted faster than a Fiat 124 Coupe, but it passed for a Ferrari Daytona...from a distance, on a foggy day.
Not only was the TR7 an ugly tin top, but as ever with 70s BL cars, it proved unreliable, prone to rust, had ropey electrics and the usual niggling engine and gearbox faults.
Matters weren't helped by the TR7 being assembled at the BL Speke plant near Liverpool, where a determined cadre of union members did their level best to sabotage production at every opportunity. They eventually succeeded, and the Speke plant was closed in 1978, with TR7 production moving to Coventry, and then Solihull.
The failure of the TR7 was a crucial nail in the coffin for BL because since the 1950s British sports cars had a big share of the US market and the MG, Triumph, Austin-Healey and Jaguar names actually had some kudos from California to North Carolina.
But baffled US buyers didn't know what to make of the TR7 and even the TR8 - fitted with the Buick V8 that Rover used in the 3500 series - failed to save the British sports car from becoming a relic of the past across the atlantic.
Another export market dried up for the British car industry because of the TR7's dismal failings. Brit sports cars had gone from being cool, to pathetic, in the space of ten years.
5. Hillman Imp
Here's another example of a good idea; a compact city/commuter car, almost a Smart car of its time, which went badly wrong in terms of its development and manufacture.
They started working on the Imp in the mid 50s, but progress was slow and the UK goverment wasn't keen on letting Rootes extend their Coventry works to make the new small car. That meant building a new factory in Scotland, but the upside was the government chipped in £10 million of the £22 million costs - a bribe basically.
So Linwood became the all-new centre of the Scottish car industry and in `63 the Imp made its debut.
The spec was great on paper; an 875cc all-alloy engine, trick carb operated by pneumatic air valve, not a crude throttle cable and an auto choke. The engine was canted at an angle and slotted into the back of the car, leaving plenty of luggage space at the front - something that the BMC Mini didn't have.
But the Imp's hi-tech engine tended to warp its heads, as the cooling system wasn't perfect and owners tended to flog the Imp mercilessly, racing bigger engined vehicles. It handled really well, but a stream of build quality faults and the expense of maintaining an alloy engine properly did for the Imp. The idea that penny-pinching small car owners would spend big money on maintaining a high performance engine, was a bit flawed.
But the Imp wasn't as simple to fix as a Mini, arguably looked a bit oddball and, in the finest traditions of UK car making, it rusted like a bucket of nails in a salt mine.
The later twin-carb Hillman Imp, with the `fastback' Coupe styling, could have been the first `hot hatch,' but instead, it remained firmly in the Mini's Cooper's shadow. Imps never seemed as cool as Coopers.
After the Chrysler takeover of the Rootes Group in `73, the US parent company seemed baffled by small cars and had no clue as to developing or marketing them. The Imp was dropped three years later and Linwood closed in the 80s.
Move Over Austin Rover
The story of the British car industry in the 1960s and 70s is one of wasted chances, clever engineers being hampered by cost-cutting accountants and directors more interested in corporate takeovers than selling well made, innovative cars.
Defeat was always snatched from the jaws of victory, as the once mighty Rootes and BMC/BL Groups repeated the same basic mistakes in R&D, marketing, plant management and labour relations. Almost all middle class professionals in Britain once drove Humbers, Jaguars, Rovers or huge caravan-towing lumps like the Triumph 2500. That entire market was slowly, but surely, handed over to the German makes of BMW and Audi.
The astonishing thing is that Austin-Rover survived the 1980s at all, given that its best mass market efforts were the Metro, Maestro and Montego. Middle managers were offered dullsville motoring in the shape of the Rover Sterling. Thankfully, almost every single one of those cars has now been consigned to breakers yards.
You could argue that the last truly great, bang-on-the-market, innovative British car was the 1970 Range Rover - a durable, versatile design that carved out its own niche in a global market. Fact is, the Range Rover was so good, other brands copied the formula - nobody copied the Marina.