David Mullen takes a look back at when the British Motor Corporation decided to bring some Italian styles to its range
For Britain’s car industry, the post-war years were grim. Many companies, having ceased development of new cars during the war years, were still selling lightly updated versions of what they’d been selling in 1938.
Even if the bodies were new, much of what lay beneath the skin was distinctly old-hat. That said, the bodies were nothing to write home about with the kind of upright, worthy styling designed to appeal to buyers looking for something dignified and of good quality rather than any kind of style or excitement.
In 1952, Austin of Birmingham merged with Morris Motors of Oxford to form the British Motor Corporation (BMC), the largest car company in Britain and one of the biggest in the world.
Morris, in addition to being a successful company in its own right, producing cars like the famous Minor, also owned several other car-makers such as Wolseley, Riley and MG. Wolseley was known for its sedate, luxurious saloons while Riley and MG were hailed for their sportier models.
Rather than merging all of the companies together and cutting-down on the vast numbers of models and dealers, BMC decided to leave everything as it was and Austin, Morris, Wolseley, MG and Riley remained distinct and separate companies, all producing different models.
Whereas most British cars in the ‘50s were dull and restrained, the same could not be said for cars in other countries. In France in 1955, Citroen launched its DS a high-tech masterpiece that looks futuristic even today. That same year, Prince Philip visited the Austin plant at Longbridge in Birmingham.
While taking a tour of the factory with Leonard Lord, the BMC supremo, viewing the prototypes in the styling studio, he is reported to have said: “Sir Leonard, I think you ought to have another look at things because I’m not sure these are up to the foreign competition.”
Lord knew that Philip was right about this and the next day, he was on the phone to Italy to the offices of coachbuilders Pininfarina.
Battista Farina, head of the Pininfarina company, was the most famous auto-stylist in the world, designing beautiful, rakish cars for the likes of Alfa Romeo and Ferrari.
Leonard Lord knew that this kind of Italian style was exactly what BMC’s cars needed in order to remain appealing to an increasingly affluent public.