Auction Site Classics: It’s 1977 Again, And We’re At The Leyland Cars Dealer

We’re not allowed out except foe essential activity at the moment. Despite what a Curbivore may think, poking about a used car dealership or looking through an auction pre-sale inventory is not considered an essential journey. So, we resort to the online sources, and go window shopping to fulfil fantasy garage dreams, and resist the temptation of the “Buy Now” button. Sometimes, that’s hard, as you’ll see in a few minutes.

But what to buy admire at a safe electronic distance? Let’s take our cue from TV advertising!

Back in 1977, Leyland Cars (as it was known at that time) had quite a complex range, with many brands, some old, some made up, some regular Joe cars, some special purposes only, and all from the same government owned stable. Some brands lent themselves to TV promotion – Mini or Princess for example and some didn’t – Jaguar, Range Rover, and some suffered from only othering old product, such as the Morris Marina and Austin Allegro. So, Leyland Cars had to come up with a composite advertisement that caught most, allowed the new to be promoted and let the glamour be read across to the unglamorous. Here’s that’s 1977 advert in full.

Supercover was Leyland Cars’ warranty package, with breakdown recovery and generous mileage limits.

So, which shall it be? I’ve managed to find examples of each on auction and sale sites over the last week or so, some better than others.

First is the Austin Allegro. The green car in the montage shot is clearly a modestly upscale version, with a vinyl roof. The closest I can find is this 1977 car that is closer to the French registered car in the film.

Engine size were not reported in the advertisement – but this car is clearly an A series 1300, the most popular engine in the Allegro.

This car was in Ireland, with a reported 18,000 miles only. There aren’t many Allegros for sale these days, but there is still an active and proud owners’ community.

Was it a bad car? Was it the worst car BL built? Probably not, but it didn’t hit the spot as it was supposed to, and as the ADO16 had done. The awkward styling was partly to blame, as was the square steering wheel on early cars,  and these gave an easy way in for the critics, along with the lack of a hatchback and stories (some true, some anecdotal, some blatant nonsense, but many believed) about quality and reliability, and which were enough to prevent it succeeding.

Next along, the MGB roadster. Have you seen how much these are going for these days? £10,000 is no guarantee of a top car, a very early or very late car (the 1981 LE anniversary editions for example) can be £17,000 or more. You can get a very nice Alfa Romeo Spyder (Graduate) for that…….

This is a 1976 car, albeit modified with the wire wheels, old style leather (-ette) seats rather than gaudy stripes, and non-standard steering wheel.

The side markers are not UK specification either, so I wonder if there’s been a bit of re-importing going on?  Where from?

The seller proudly announces there are “no leaks, which is rare for an MG”. Otherwise, it appears to be well presented and maintained, and low mileage. The black rubber bumpers get a bad press, for raising the ride height and messing up the handling and styling, but to me they work visually with the bright colours of this period.

Another old car that was being pressed into continued service was the Triumph Dolomite, which may be more unfamiliar to North American readers. Triumph fans like to draw parallels between this and the BMW 1602/2002, or even as the precursor to the BMW 3 Series. In reality, it was a rear wheel drive derivative of the front wheel drive 1965 Triumph 1300 saloon. That car had a longitudinally mounted four cylinder engine with the gearbox underneath.

In 1971, when it was already seven years old, BLMC extended the tail, updated the front end and interior, and added a version of the 1854cc slant-4 engine developed in partnership with Saab (for the original 99) with around 90bhp. The prime Dolomite was the 127bhp Sprint, with an innovative 16 valve single camshaft 2 litre engine. This version had some success in circuit racing and rallying.

Inside, the car had a traditionally finished if attractively styled interior with space for four (really). Image wise, this car was upscale of the Ford Cortina or Vauxhall Victor, below a Rover. Was it equivalent to a BMW?

Well, it was also styled by Michelotti, and fitted the sporting saloon template reasonably well. But it was hard to hide the 1960s and smaller car origins, especially as this was on the market until 1981.

This example clearly has a history. It has been fitted with the engine from a Triumph TR7, which was an eight valve version of the Sprint engine. Overdrive was a common option, and standard on some versions, and this car has it.

In the UK, by the time of this advertisement, Triumph saloons most definitely have an image as an old person’s car – they were not seen as BMW 1602 or Alfa Romeo Giulia competitors but a sober car for sober people. The caricature in the advertisement is not far from many peoples’ perceptions, despite the motorsport activity and Dolomite Sprint.

Do I need to introduce the Mini? By now, it was being sold as a separate brand, rather than as Austin or Morris, and all the brand engineered Wolseley and Riley variants had long gone, along with the Cooper. Instead, these variants had all been replaced by the Mini Clubman, seen in the advertisement, with the longer, square front.

My chosen car is a 1979 Mini 850, the entry level Mini and entry level BL product. 850 means 848cc, probably about 34bhp, four speed box and rubber cone suspension.

There’s little Alec Issigonis would not recognise here, apart from the wind-up windows.

Despite this, or perhaps because if it, the Mini was by now seen as a car in a class of one, unashamedly smaller than anything identified as a potential competitor. Sales were on price, running costs, familiarity and ease of parking.

This example has just 11,900 miles on it, of which 11,500 were completed before 1995. Two owners from new, bidding currently at £5800.00.

And now, one of the highlights of the advertisement, and of my shopping. A Jaguar XJ6 series 2. At the risk of being controversial, there’s a strong argument that in 1977 this was the best saloon in the world, with an unmatched combination of visual elegance, refinement, comfort and driving pleasure that only Jaguar seemed able to combine with value for money.

The car I found is perhaps the best example in my selection – a 1975 XJ6 series 2 4. 2 litre long wheelbase saloon, with the rarely fitted four speed manual transmission. It’s another of those low mileage cars that always attract when we go shopping – just 9700 miles in 45 years with a certified number of exposures to rain of one.

Seen side on, the elegance of the car is a little lost on the long wheelbase version – 113 in against 109 in – with that elongated rear door. Space in the rear was now, if not generous, at least better than adequate.

But the combination of Jaguar factors is enough to tip the scales, and this car could legitimately claim to be the best saloon in the world in 1975. Yours for just £25000.00.

The next car is an unusual choice for advertising on television, and indeed you’d be very unlikely to see one in a showroom without an appointment.

The Daimler DS420, commonly referred to as the Daimler Limousine, was a staple of the wedding hire, funeral director and mayoral markets from 1968 to the present day, as well as providing service to royal families across Europe, Scandinavia, the Middle East, the Gulf states and south Asia, and was apparently the most popular car ever for reigning monarchs.

British Consuls, High Commissioners and Ambassadors were another big market, as well as top class hotels.

It was based on the Jaguar 420G, recently seen on CC, and production ran from 1968 to 1992, when the last one came out of Jaguar’s Coventry home at Brown’s Lane. Power came for the same 4.2 litre engine as “my” XJ6, linked to an automatic transmission.

And despite the success and market dominant position, only 5000 cars and chassis (for hearses) were built in 25 years. So, quite a surprise to see it advertised during Charlie’s Angels.

Next is another Marmite car – the love it or hate looks of the Princess. This is Leyland being confusing again. When first introduced, the car was sold as the Austin and Morris 1800 or 2200, or the Wolseley which had only the six cylinder 2200 option.

Within months, Leyland had rebranded the cars as Princess (with no marque, in the same way as Mini). For whatever reason, many referred to them as the Austin Princess, and if you say Austin Princess now most people will assume you mean these cars.

Technically, these cars were essentially a reskin of the Austin-Morris 1800 and 2200, the Landcrab. The engine was still the B series 1800 four cylinder or E series 2200 six cylinder, placed on top of a four speed gearbox or three speed automatic, and the suspension was the Hydragas system used on the Allegro.

The styling was polarising – personally, I like it, especially in strong brighter colours with the black vinyl rear quarter panels. Size wise, it was between the Ford Cortina and Ford Granada, and more spacious and comfortable than either, albeit pretty slow, and sadly quickly got a BL quality reputation. Still any appealing car, for its difference, broadly competent dynamics and comfort, and let down only by the lack of an obvious hatchback.

The feature car is a 1979 2200HL series 2 with automatic transmission. Series 2 was based around the new O series 1.7 and 2.0 litre four cylinder OHC engines, though the 2200 six cylinder continued pretty much unchanged. It has been subject to a renovation and respray in a Toyota white for some reason. Yours for a smidge under £6000.00.

And, sadly, now something we must do, look at a Morris Marina. The example car is a 1976 1.8 Coupe in Special trim. The Marina was a parts bin stop gap special, brought to the market in 1971 to fill the glaring gap in BL’s range where the Ford Cortina sat. To get to the market quickly, some major chunks of Morris Minor (the 1948 Issigonis car) were used, including the front suspension and steering, along with a Triumph gearbox, the A and B series 1.3 and 1. 8 litre engines that powered everything BMC from the Minor to the MGB and Austin Maestro, clad in a body prepared by Roy Haynes, poached from Ford UK after he’d finished the Cortina Mk 2.

The result was as good (or as disappointing) as you’d expect based on the ingredients. Arguably, this was the most inadequate new car BL offered, although it did achieve a large proportion of its early commercial targets. In the early 1970s, UK sales were pretty good, regularly holding the third best seller slot, and was BL’s best UK seller and second most produced car, behind the Mini.

On road performance was pretty awful – little grip, masterclass levels of understeer, poor ride and undistinguished engines. The car came as a four door saloon, an estate and as here a two door, badged as a Coupe. It used the same doors as the saloon and estate and thus had a slightly odd profile and cramped access to the rear seats. The interior was a pretty unappealing place, that got worse as Ford showed us what showroom interior appeal really was.

Life was tough enough against the Hillman Avenger and Vauxhall Viva; it didn’t see which way the 1976 Vauxhall Cavalier or Cortina Mk4 went, not that BL could have afforded to do anything about them.

It lived on to 1983, as the facelifted Morris Ital saloon at a bargain price. This example is not presented as anything it isn’t, and to be fair to it, it has done 540,000 miles. Still not tempted.

And now for something to cheer us all up. A Rover 2600 from 1980, and six cylinder engine apart, pretty much the same as the Rover 3500 V8 that is the focus of showroom scene in the advertisement.

We’ve seen the 3500 (SD1) a couple times on CC; this is the six cylinder version introduced in 1977, using an OHC conversion of the old Triumph straight six cylinder used in the 2000 and 2500, and TR5/TR6.

Aside from the styling, there was little actually innovative about the SD1. MacPherson struts, a live rear axle, and rear drive were pretty cautious in 1975. A hatchback was not in that part of the market, and an interior with no wood or leather was not in a Rover, until you remembered the early P6 saloons.

This example has been re-imported from France, and after 65000km (40000 miles) it’s back home and looking good, in one of the launch colours.

The advertisement reports that a lot of money has been spent at Rimmer Brothers (the go-to guys for SD1 spares). An SD1 in this condition and standard of preparation, and an interesting back story for £6000.00? You saw it here.

So, there you are, a quick tour round the BL showroom of 1977, and some contemporary temptations.

It’s interesting to note what is not in the TV advertisement – no mention of Land Rover or Range Rover, only film of the TR7 and Austin Maxi, but there is a bit of XJ-S to get your attention at the beginning.

This advertisement presumably worked, as Leyland Cars did something not dissimilar a couple years later, hung around British eccentricities. Never met those myself, of course, and I wouldn’t be able to write it up as I know nothing of shotgun. Or hats.

And the flying plughole of despair? Still miss it.