The rather tragic story of the experiment in nationalised car manufacturing that was British Leyland has been well documented.
From its earliest incarnation as the British Motor Corporation, through to its final demise as MG Rover, it suffered a litany of mismanagement, poor labour relations and money troubles.
But there was still a huge amount of creativity in the BMC/BMH/BLMC/BL/ARG/RG/MGR design offices. A lot of very intriguing prototypes and concepts were produced, almost all of which were killed before they could reach production.
Which is a shame, because many of them could have helped turn the company around. Here are five cars that British Leyland really should have built.
(Incidentally, we know not all of these cars came from the BL era, but we use the name for convenience.)
In the early Sixties, many of BMC’s designers were kicking around ideas based on the recently-launched Mini chassis. One such project, codenamed ADO34, was a convertible intended to replace the ageing Austin-Healey Sprite.
The Austin-badged ADO34 prototype was built, and possibly even designed, by Italian carrozzeria Pinifarina. A pretty thing it was, too. MG’s version looked like a scaled-down MGB. Later on, coupe and Austin-Healey versions were developed.
Since there was no real need for a production version of ADO34, nothing came of it. Which is a shame. With the swinging Sixties getting going and the Mini’s popularity rising, a fun little Italianate convertible on the same underpinnings could have been hugely popular.
Rover was still an independent company when the P6BS was conceived in the mid-Sixties. It was designed by the genius that was Spen King and, in many ways, was a long way ahead of its time – a three-seater mid-engined V8 coupe that would have been usable every day.
Development continued through Rover’s acquisition by Leyland Motors and the subsequent merger with British Motor Holdings. The slightly questionable styling was refined into the P9 and it was all set to go on sale in 1973. But BL pulled the plug. Jaguar sat at the top of the tree and management didn’t want to pull focus from the venerable E-Type.
The P6BS could well have been a big seller. The design and engineering were right up-to-date, prototypes had proven very capable on the road and the world loved British sports cars. On the other hand, the oil crisis hit in ’73 and sales of big-engined cars plummeted. So who knows? It’s a shame we never found out.
The original Mini soldiered on in one form or another for 41 years. But it wasn’t meant to. By the end of the Sixties the Mini’s designer, Alec Issigonis, realised it was getting on a bit, so he started work on a replacement, codenamed 9X.
Issigonis set about solving the Mini’s various problems: the lack of space, the bouncy ride, the lack of refinement and the complexity of building it. The 9X was shorter, but wider than the Mini, freeing up some extra space. The separate front and rear subframes were ditched and conventional MacPherson strut and torsion bar suspension was fitted, solving the ride problems.
An all-new, overhead-camshaft four-cylinder engine was fitted, with the gearbox mounted behind, rather than in the sump. That vastly improved refinement. It even had a hatchback. But the Mini was still selling well, so the high-ups saw no reason to discontinue it. And the Leyland merger was on the cards, so the last thing they needed was a costly development program on their hands.
The 9X was possibly even more a work of genius than the Mini. That it never saw production could be the biggest missed opportunity in automotive history.
Italian styling house Pininfarina showed its radical Berlina Aerodynamica concept at the 1967 Turin Motor Show. Though it used BMC 1800 underpinnings, the British Motor Corporation had no involvement in the project.
But that hasn’t stopped commentators wondering what might have happened if BMC had the courage to replace the unlovely 1800 with Pininfarina’s interpretation. The styling directly influenced the Citroen GS and CX, both of which sold in huge numbers, if not in the UK. Perhaps the styling would simply have been too radical for conservative UK buyers.
Then again, inspiration for the Rover SD1 has been speculated, and that sold plenty. Combining the BMC 1800’s keen handling and space with Pininfarina’s forward-thinking style could have been a real winner.
When it was launched in 1980, the Austin Metro could go toe-to-toe with the likes of the Ford Fiesta and Renault 5. But by the end of the decade it was looking decidedly old hat.
Rover Group planned a replacement, codenamed R6, which used a heavily reworked chassis and the new K-Series engine. The trouble was, it looked like little more than a facelift, a consequence of the budget restrictions imposed on the project. Rover’s designers thought they could do better and came up with the R6X.
It used the R6 chassis and engine, but clothed them in a much more up-to-date body. Unfortunately, money and management enthusiasm for the idea wasn’t there. So we were saddled with the Rover Metro, which was actually a half-decent car. It sold strongly too, but always had image problems. What might have been if R6X had gone into production?
Image credits: Minimarcos.org.uk (ADO34); Alvisarchive.com (P6BS); Wikipedia.org (9X); Carstyling.ru (1800); aronline.co.uk (R6X)