A car show close to the home of a major manufacturer is always going to attract strong support for the home team, showing local and regional pride, and this is always clear at the Wallingford Car Rally.
Wallingford is a market town in south central England. Apart from being a crossing point on the Thames and having a history as a fortified town back to the 9th Century and King Alfred, it is like many others. The difference is that few others are just twelve miles from the Morris Motors factory at Cowley in Oxford and just ten miles from the MG factory in Abingdon. So, you can probably guess which cars were prominent at the recent event. Here are some of them, as well some which may surprise, but they all came from Cowley or Abingdon.
Cowley is on the eastern edge of the city of Oxford; indeed, the bypass bisected the site until the redevelopment started twenty years ago. William Morris started car production in Oxford, at Cowley, just 101 years ago, and a measure of his impact is in the growth from 3% to 28% of the population employed in the engineering and motor industry between 1911 and 1971. Even now, BMW still employ around 3000 people, producing 300,000 MINIs annually, and Cowley (or BMW Plant Oxford as we are asked to call it) is the only currently active car manufacturing site in the UK which was building cars before 1939.
The photo above is from 1972, looking North, after the investment for the Morris Marina had been completed. In the 1990s, Rover Group extensively redeveloped the site, such that the only part now left is to the northeast of the roundabout visible in the centre. To the south is a supermarket and retail park; to the west, a business park.
In 1925, this Morris Cowley (known as the Bullnose for obvious reasons) came off the line in Cowley. This was during the period of Morris’s rapid growth, from 380 cars in 1919 to more than 60000 by the end of the 1920s, and undisputed leadership of the British market.
The 1926 car is similar, and apparently the owner has a van body that can be swapped out in twenty minutes (takes practice, the correct tools and a couple of assistants, I suspect). Also, it has had a starring role in Downton Abbey!
The 1936 Morris Ten alongside is a credit to its owner, especially considering the condition it was sold in, and represents very well the state of the British motor industry art at the prior to the last war. It was fitted with a 1.3 litre side valve engine, though later cars had a OHV version of this engine. This was the last Morris to feature a traditional chassis, being replaced in 1938 by the Morris Ten M Series, which lasted until 1948.
In 1952, the Nuffield Organization (spelt with a Z in the Oxford fashion, rather than an S in the Cambridge fashion) merged with Austin to create BMC. After the merger, the first cars to be launched were the MG Magnette and related Wolseley 4/44, in 1953. In 1956, these cars were updated with the BMC B series engine (which featured in many BMC and BLMC cars into the 1980s) and larger windows, seen on this 1956 Wolseley 15/50. This car has a 1.5 litre OHV B series, good for around 80 mph and 0-60 in 26 seconds. This and the MG Magnette can, with hindsight, be seen as BMC testing the water for the badge engineering bonanza that followed, with five brands sharing the share basic body for the 1958 Farina range.
From 1959, Cowley was producing the Mini, and this example is a 1963 Morris Mini-Minor with a 850cc A series engine (another long serving engine, lasting until 1990). As is well known, the Mini received very little attention from BMC, with only the switch from rubber to hydrolastic suspension in 1964, and back again in 1971, being the most notable engineering (as opposed to marketing) change for many years.
By 1971 also, production of the Mini was centred on Longbridge in Birmingham, previously the home of Austin.
In 1961, BMC offered the upmarket Mini derivatives the Riley Elf and Wolseley Hornet, featuring traditional radiator grilles, wood veneer dashboards, leather seat trim and an elongated rear boot with vestigial fins, with a style resemblance to the larger ADO16 and much larger Farina saloons. These cars were not built at Cowley but at Abingdon, with body pressings from BMC’s Fisher and Ludlow plant in Birmingham (now Jaguar’s Castle Bromwich assembly plant) and not Pressed Steel at Cowley.
Of course, and quite rightly, no British car show is complete without some Morris Minors, and as Wallingford is only twelve miles from Cowley, truly the home of every Minor, Britain’s favourite classic car was well represented.
Cars on show ranged from the regular 2 door saloon, in this case in 1965 Minor 1100 form, to one of the last Minor Tourers, from 1970.
Car of the show was taken by the black 1968 Minor Traveller, and a special mention goes to the 1971 Traveller, truly one of the last Minors, seen here next to one of the last Morris Oxford (Farina) saloons.
Larger cars from this period were also in evidence. This Morris Oxford saloon dates from 1955 and is actually an Issigonis design, albeit whilst he was still constrained by the Morris attitude and not being free rein by the post merger management (or lack thereof). This is the car that is still produced in India, as the Hindustan Ambassador.
The Riley company, then based in Coventry, was purchased by Nuffield from its receivers in 1938, and moved to a more volume, less high quality business. After the war, Riley’s factory in Coventry was used by the Morris Engines branch of Nuffield and car production moved to MG at Abingdon. This 1955 Riley 1.5 litre, a range produced at Abingdon from 1948 to 1955, was the last Riley produced in anything like the style of the pre-war cars, and was superseded by badge-engineered BMC products.
By the 1960s, Cowley was focussed on the Mini, the Farina saloons and the larger Issigonis cars. There were no Austin Maxis at the show, but this 1968 Morris 1800 Mk2 was present, and it’s a fine example of one of the 1960s’ more distinctive products and, also, an example of what happens if creative imaginations are not kept in check by the pragmatic considerations of management.
CC has covered the 1800 previously; known (semi-fondly) as the Landcrab, it was Issigonis’ third front-wheel-drive car for BMC and shows all the traits of a successful imagination being allowed too much room. The 1.8 litre engine was only used because it was available (it was developed for the MGB) but led to the car becoming too big for the market and its position in the BMC range; the ergonomics were also appalling and the driving experience, less than wonderful. Cowley produced over 300,000 between 1964 and 1975, when it was superseded by the car it is known familiarly, but incorrectly, as the Austin Princess.
The car was initially marketed as the Morris or Austin 1800 or 2200, or as a luxury Wolseley. Within months, BL changed tack and marketed it as the Princess 1800 or 2000, effectively as a marque in its own right, like Mini. This is a 1979 Princess 2000, with the later O-series engine.
The Princess was arguably BL’s last courageous car, featuring hydragas suspension and a very definite ’70s style. With a colour like this, you’d still take the conservative Cortina?
The Morris Marina was BL’s replacement for the Farina saloons and was deliberately a technically conservative but style-driven car, introduced in 1970. It was aimed at the Ford Cortina, as the Austin Allegro was aimed at the more technically complex cars such as the Renault 12 and Citroen GS. Cowley was gutted to build the Marina (BL were hoping for 5000 a week), including adding the conveyor belt bridge from the pressing plant to the assembly plant you can see in the third picture from the top.
This is a 1978 pickup version – the same as the sedan from the B-post forward and fitted with a 1.7 litre O series engine, also seen in the Princess. The Marina was arguably the low point of BL’s products, and had more Morris Minor in it than perhaps would have been ideal. A full CC is coming soon. This example has been presented as a replica of the works runabout used by the Special tuning Department in Abingdon, home of MG and BL’s motorsports activities, with a memory of previous owners on the tailboard.
The Marina died a lingering death in 1983 and was replaced on the lines at Cowley by the Austin Maestro and in 1984 the Austin Montego. The Maestro was a complete Golf clone 5 door hatchback, down to its torsion beam rear suspension, and even used a VW gearbox in some versions, and was one of those cars conceived by a rational decision-making process only to later be denounced for reasons of image and reputation. The MG version was initially powered by a 1.6 litre engine fitted with twin Weber carburettors and later moved to a 2.0 litre fuel injected O-series.
This is a 1984 1.6 litre with the twin Webers and a typical early 1980s MG saloon red and grey interior, and features one of the first talking digital dashboards. A much better car than its image and reputation suggested, reliability was always a lurking concern.
The Montego was a longer wheelbase saloon version of the same platform, sharing doors and much of the engineering. A different nose, courtesy of Roy Axe, gave it a much more modern appeal, as did a much better interior. It was aimed directly at the 1980 Ford Cortina and 1977 Vauxhall Cavalier, and arrived on the market in 1984, two years after the Sierra was launched and three years after the Mk 2 Cavalier (J car) took the market sector by storm.
So, seventy years after William Morris had started, Cowley was building Austins, and Rovers. The Rover SD1 (2000/2300/2600/3500) series moved from Rover’s traditional home in Solihull to Cowley in 1982. This is a 1986 Rover 3500, from the last year of production. It still shows some of the great design that was present on the 1976 original, despite the rather heavy-handed 1982 facelift.
MG at Abingdon was Nuffield’s, and then BMC’s, centre for sportscars. All MG roadsters were built there until 1980, as were many MG saloons and Riley sports saloons, and also the Austin Healey Six and 3000 roadsters. This is a 1967 Austin Healey 3000 alongside a MG BGT, both stalwarts of the British classic car show. Both are flawed cars, but both still have a strong appeal.
And the first of the surprise cars? A 1953 Ford Zephyr convertible. In 1926, Morris, in partnership with the Budd Corporation, established the Pressed Steel Company on land adjacent to the Morris works at Cowley to produce the necessary steel pressings for Morris and for other manufacturers. In 1930, Budd bought out Morris and Pressed Steel went independent, though still supplying Morris. Long term customers included Rootes, Vauxhall and many of the smaller independent manufacturers. In 1965, Pressed Steel was purchased by BMC, as part of the consolidation of the British motor industry.
Until Ford in Britain bought control of Briggs Brothers’ operations at Dagenham in 1953, Ford was one of these customers and this Zephyr convertible was pressed and assembled at Pressed Steel. It was a Ford product in every way, except for the Pressed Steel input.
Rootes was another long-term Pressed Steel customer, and the Rootes Arrow range (the Hillman Minx and Hunter, Humber Sceptre and Sunbeam Rapier) was built of Pressed Steel pressings, but assembled in Coventry and later Linwood. This 1967 Singer Vogue was assembled in Coventry from Cowley pressings, and was the first step up the Roots luxury hierarchy from the Hillman Hunter, with a Rootes 1725 OHV engine, an overdrive transmission, wood veneer trim interior and more chrome.
So, Cowley was initially the Morris factory, but also built MG, Riley, Wolseley, Austin, Rover, Triumph and Leyland branded cars, supplied much of the British (and wider European) industry, and now builds more cars than ever for BMW. Ironically, the BMW factory is actually the Pressed Steel site, not the Morris Motors site.