In a recent discussion on what a
stupid brilliant project sticking a Rover V8 in a Ford Ranchero would be, Biturbo228 commented that "BL should be used in the dictionary to exemplify 'missed opportunities'."
Which got me thinking, how could that have been avoided? Which in turn led to: and what if it had been?
Here's my theory. It all would have worked out fine if instead of merging BMH and Leyland in 1968 to stop BMH going bust, the UK government had instead broken up both BMH and Leyland, injected a bit of capital, and let the parts which could swim, swim and the rest sink.
This would have had two effects. Firstly, it would have got at least some of the brands out from under the atrocious senior management who hadn't quite figured out that the empire no longer existed. Secondly, a few salutary bankruptcies in the early 70s would have convinced the unionised and actively counterproductive workforce that in order to save their jobs they needed to try actually doing them.
Net result, the brands which survived would have saved about 10 years in realising they needed to compete with the Japanese and Europeans, and another 10 years in actually doing so. The Brits aren't inherently incapable of building good, reliable products (ask Rolls Royce Aero Engines, or any of the Japanese manufacturers who've set up there). And they're capable of phenomenal feats of engineering under pressure - if you're not convinced by the difference between the RAF of 1938 and that of 1941, ask yourself why better than half of the world's serious motorsport engineering happens within 100 miles of Milton Keynes. So I reckon (though I admit it's a rose-tinted view) that with the two major impediments out the way, at least some of the brands would have turned themselves around by the late 70s.
And if they had, where would we be today?
The Ultimate Driving Machine would be .... a Triumph. Extrapolate forward from the hairy chested TR6, the small fast luxury 2000 and 2500 saloons, and the 2002-beating Dolomite Sprint (while pretending the TR7 never existed), and what you get is a direct BMW competitor.
Rich orthodontists wouldn't be driving a Lexus, they'd be in a Rover - a P15 or thereabouts. And it would have a turbine-electric hybrid powertrain like the Jaguar C-X75. Rover were into gas turbines in the 60s - they raced one at Le Mans, and the P6 was designed to accept one. Given ongoing co-operation with one of the worlds top jet manufacturers in Rolls Royce Aero, and Europe's less aggressive legislation and liability laws relative to the US, they'd have cracked the vaguely-economical-and-non-pedestrian-frying turbine car by the late 70s. And anybody who's looked seriously at a ship or a train (both of which the Brits know a thing or two about) would eventually realise that the natural partner to a gas turbine in a car is a generator, a few batteries, and a motor: it fixes the gearing problem, the low rev torque problem, and the idle fuel consumption problem all in one go. And electric was perfectly viable powertrain technology in the 90s - the first gen Prius's powertrain is basically lifted from an electric forklift. And because Rover were always the boring but affluent man's car, turbine-electric wouldn't even be exciting. Till TVR got hold of it....
Miata wouldn't be the answer, MG-H would be. MG had the small fun roadster market sewn up in the 50s and 60s, all they needed to do was make a reliable one and bring the handling and powertrain up to date. The MG-F was a perfectly adequate solution, it was just 20 years too late. But there was nothing in it that couldn't have been done in the 70s. And if small, fun, roadster wasn't a totally empty niche, Mazda wouldn't have bothered. Which means MG would still own it. Unless Lotus had learned something from this hypothetical wave of reliability engineering sweeping across the UK....
Land Rover would have kept on doing what they were doing, except they'd have tried putting stuff together properly. And that would have been enough for them to own their niches - in the 70s and 80s the Land Rover and Range Rover were miles and away the best cars in their class, on the rare occasion when they worked. So the LandCruiser, Patrol, G-wagen, Escalade, etc would be just oddball niche vehicles. And they'd have done a proper job of invading the US, starting with giving all those Wrangler owners a proper, Lara Croft spec, auto V8 SWB Defender soft top.
Oh, and they'd have invented the cross-over. That practically happened anyway, the first-generation Freelander was designed and almost built in the early 90s, well before the RAV-4 or Forester came out. But it got mothballed due to lack of cash. And given how well the RAV-4 sold, a take on it with Land Rover brand strength and decent build quality would have been a huge seller if it'd been first to hit the market.
Meantime, Austin would have invented the modern minivan, and own the global soccer mum market as well as the third world taxi trade. By the late 60s they had pretty much mastered the art of the Tardis - the Mini, 1100, Maxi, and even the Princess were ridiculously spacous inside given their exterior dimensions, and hydrolastic suspension meant they could put a decent ride in something with no space for springs. It's not hard to imagine that continuing that trend leads to seating 9 comfortably in something the size and price of a Cortina by the early 80s.
Jaguar would be doing.....pretty much exactly what they are now! Except they wouldn't have subjected us to the X type along the way. And someone would have given Jim Randle a big pile of resources the day the Porsche 959 was launched, so the XJ220 would have turned up in time to sell some. And it would have had a proper, lightweight, 48 valve V12, because that would have been a stock item from the XJ12R by that stage - Randle's team would have just had to bolt some turbos on to get the power and the glory that that car truly deserved.
So by now, Britain would have The Ultimate Driving Machine, The Ultimate Midrange Luxury
Appliance Machine, The Ultimate Fun Machine, The Ultimate Beige Machine, the Ultimate Only 4x4xFar, and the Ultimate Convincing Porsche Drivers to Get a Life Machine. Not a bad return on a few million 1960s government pounds.
Or alternatively, Brits being Brits, they'd have found some new and better way to fuck it all up, and we'd be pretty much where we are now, with the last independent British car manufacturer being Morgan.