Was British Leyland Really All Bad?
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, perhaps most of it, was rubbish. There was the Allegro, the Marina and the Montego, all dismal. But it wasn't actually all bad. Here are our British Leyland blooms amongst the weeds.
1. Triumph Dolomite Sprint
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.
2. Land Rover Discovery
The Discovery demonstrates what was great about BL - good ideas, clever engineers and a business that could be fleet-of-foot. Except it did nothing to remove the sense of an ailing, useless firm that gave us the Allegro.
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 wedge. 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, which is a shame because it was innovative and daring when most car makers were staid and dull.
4. Rover SD1
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
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.
20 cars to hire by the day, hour or on one of our brilliant road trips.