Indian or Chinese take-away?
(First Published in the XK Gazette in 2008)
By Paul Abadjian
In case you haven’t heard-it’s XK60 this year. 60 years ago, the XK120 was launched at the first Motor Show to be held in Britain since the War. More than half a million flocked to this event, which was a bright spot in an otherwise very drab Britain. London and most other cities were still heavily scarred with bombsites. Many food items were on ration which hadn’t even been rationed during the War. Even the Olympics, held that summer at Wembley, were nicknamed ‘The Austerity Olympics’ because every possible superfluous expense or luxury had been spared. A virtually bankrupt Britain had relinquished much of its Empire, the jewel in the crown, India, being given its independence just the year before. Chairman Mao was about to take the reins of power in communist China. The world was indeed a changing place. To this backdrop, there were 3 seminal cars launched at the 1948 Motor Show. The Morris Minor, the Land-Rover and, of course, the XK120.
The Minor, later to become the Morris 1000 (or the ‘Nuffield 1 litre’, according to one of my student friends, anxious to add a veneer of class to his decrepit first set of wheels!) was the brainchild of the brilliant, if eccentric and somewhat austere, Alec Issigonis. A rather advanced car in many ways, it set, to some extent, the groundwork for the forthcoming Issigonis-designed Mini-Minor which with its cousins the 1100 and 1300 models became the best selling cars in Britain throughout much of the 60s. Lord Nuffield, founder and chairman of Morris hated the Minor on sight, declaring loudly that it ‘resembled a poached egg’. At his instigation, they split the prototype down the middle, and grafted in an extra 4” of width.
The Land-Rover was designed to take up where the Jeep left off. It was created by Maurice Wilkes, design manager at Rover, as a basic go-anywhere 4 wheel drive vehicle for British farmers. The XK120 was designed by William Lyons in a matter of a few weeks before the ’48 show, in order to showcase the XK engine, and bring some much-needed glamour to the stand, which otherwise was likely to look a little dull. The new Mk V was clearly just a warmed-over pre-war design, and the planned Mk VII was not yet ready for launch. The XK120 was made by hand in the traditional way, of aluminium panels formed over an ash frame. Lyons intended to make no more than 240 or so, and for this low number, this labour-intensive manufacturing process made sense. It is interesting to now look at how the paths of these 3 cars, and, more specifically, their creators, crossed and became intertwined to lead us to where we are today.
The Morris Minor went on to sell in very respectable numbers, and was built right up until the early 70s. Morris and Austin combined to form BMC, for which Issigonis created the Mini Minor/Austin 7, known later simply as Mini, whose radical space-efficient design formed a template for small to medium sized cars that has become the norm today. The problem was that they were technologically-dense cars, that, because they were small, needed to be sold cheaply. Not a good combination. BMC lost money on every single standard Mini they ever built, and barely broke even on the 1100 and 1300 models that followed. This single fact, combined with the dire industrial relations of 60s Britain, sowed the seeds of trouble that was to cause so much havoc and strife in the future British Leyland.
The Land-Rover also sold well, especially overseas, bringing in much-needed foreign currency to a cash-strapped Britain. After one or two false starts in the 50s, Rover introduced a more civilised Land-Rover in 1970, and the Range Rover formed the basis of the successful company we see today, and also spawned the whole luxury 4x4 market segment worldwide.
The XK120 wowed everybody who saw it in 1948, and the US distributors, Hoffman (East Coast) and Hornburg (West Coast) immediately undertook to divert as many of the first 240 cars as they could to the US market. The XK series went on to sell in excess of 30,000 cars across all its iterations, and, of course the XK engine remained the principal source of power for Jaguars up until the mid-80s.
In 1955 John Lyons, Sir William’s son, was killed in a head-on crash in a MkVII, whilst driving through northern France to Le Mans. In an autocratically-structured company like Jaguar, John was being groomed to take over the reins from Sir William. With his passing, and with an ageing management team in place at Coventry to whom Sir William didn’t like to delegate, the stage was set for the company’s eventual absorption into what was to become British Leyland .
Rover were recognised in the 50s and early 60s for good solid well- engineered, if rather dull upper-middle class saloons, beloved of country doctors and solicitors. Having also done much of the pioneering work on the jet engine in the 40s, which they later passed on to Rolls Royce, Rover also carried out a lot of research into the concept of using small gas-turbine engines in cars. They produced two record-breaking jet cars prior to engineering the forthcoming Rover 2000 saloon to take both a choice of piston engine as well as a jet engine. If one looks at the front suspension design of a Rover 2000, it is unusual and very compact, and this was to allow enough room for a gas turbine engine. Despite this type of innovative thinking, Rover, together with Land-Rover, were considered to have insufficient production to be competitive in future world markets by the mid/late 60s, and they too were absorbed into British Leyland.
The hideous problems of British Leyland have been too well-chronicled elsewhere to be gone into in much detail here. In brief, abysmal management, intransigent workforces with antiquated demarcation policies, ill-advised government tinkering, overlapping ranges of ill-conceived, ageing and poorly assembled cars, combined to wreck what once had been several fine British firms with proud histories. It was a miracle anyone made it out alive. But they did, and Jaguar eventually fell into the hands of Ford. Land-Rover and Rover, now two potentially separate entities, with ‘Rover’ representing Morris, Austin, M.G. et al, went to BMW. This marriage went the way of many modern marriages and Rover, or what was left of it, eventually was bought by the Chinese. Now Jaguar and Land-Rover have just gone to the Indians.
Its ironic to consider how those events of around 60 years ago, and the launch of those 3 cars at the ‘48 Motor Show have become so intertwined all these years later.