The demise of Standard is a puzzle. It came out of the blue, in the summer of 1963, a time blessed by relative peace and prosperity throughout the Western world and the throes of Beatlemania at home. I’m not sure many Brits noticed – let alone mourned – Standard’s passing. Just one fewer boring and badly-built blue-haired-lady saloon. As their makers had failed to meet standards, Standard had to meet its maker. Leyland carried on with Triumph. No regrets, no flowers, no eulogy – just business.
With 20/20 hindsight, it isn’t quite that simple. “Consolidation” is a positive word for what is essentially a mass extinction event. The US automotive industry went through two such events – the ‘30s and the ‘50s. The same could be said of the French and German car sectors. Things went a little differently in Britain, though. The Standard marque was arguably the first domino to fall as part of the long and chaotic implosion of the British automobile titans later known as British Leyland and Chrysler UK. From this point on, the death toll, which was near zero in France, Germany and the US in the ’60s/‘70s, began to rise dramatically in Britain. The ancient and sometimes glorious names of Riley, Singer, Wolseley, Healey, Humber, Hillman, Sunbeam, Morris, Triumph, Austin and, ultimately, Rover, collapsed one after the other. So what happened to domino one?
The Standard Motor Co. was founded in 1903 by Reginald Maudslay (1871-1934), an enterprising engineer based in Coventry. Standard cars quickly found the favours of the Edwardian motorists and, by 1914, it became a publicly traded company. Standard grew during the Great War, with a new large factory opening in 1916 at Canley, hereafter the main Standard works, initially used for manufacturing aircraft. In the inter-War years, Standard became the biggest carmaker in Coventry, itself a major car-producing hub.
The company was a major player, making around 10,000 cars per year by the early ‘20s. Standard’s market share was similar to Austin’s then. The rough came with the smooth: bad product planning (e.g. the botched “small six” of 1932-33), slow big car sales and the general economic climate hit the company hard, but it had the resources to engineer a complete turnaround.
The quick-thinking company’s genius creation was the 1935 “Flying Standard” look, as trumpeted by the admen. This was a timid, but distinctive and rather handsome attempt at streamlining the whole range and it was a perfectly executed PR coup: Standards suddenly became modern, sleek and desirable in the eyes of many.
In the second half of the ‘30s, Standard proposed a typical-for-the-times range of small-to-large-ish (9HP-14HP, 1.1 to 1.7 litre) 4-cyl. model lines, whose capable engines, proven mechanicals and decent build quality ensured that the company competed effectively against Austin, Morris, Rootes and Ford as a key player in the British automotive landscape. Standard also returned to larger cars from 1936, with the 16HP and 20HP (6-cyl., 2.1 and 2.7 litre, respectively), as well as a 2.7 litre Flying V8 derived from the 10HP engine. If the factory body did not appeal, there were several options. Big Standards were always available as chassis-only, but Standard wisely struck deals with several local coachbuilders to provide affordable custom-bodied cars for their more affluent clients. For most of the ‘30s, Avon coachworks (below) made beautiful saloon and drop-top specials using larger Standard chassis.
Avon may have faded into oblivion, but not all of Standard’s then-partners fared badly. William Lyons co-created the Swallow Sidecar coachbuilding concern in 1922, moving to cars (mostly Austin and Morris) by the late ‘20s. In 1929, Standard supremo John Black struck a deal with the dynamic SS firm to develop sporting versions of the smaller Standards, badged as Standard Swallow (SS). By the mid-‘30s, SS started to move upmarket, introducing a home-grown sports chassis and turning their saloons’ glamour and luxury dials up to eleven.
Later known as SS-Jaguar and finally just plain Jaguar, this living legend of a company would not have existed without the success enjoyed by Standard Motors before the war. Until the XK engine was designed and put in production in 1948, all Jaguars were motivated by modified Standard mills (some built by Jaguar themselves after the war) – and many chassis components were still stamped with Standard’s Union Jack. Jensen, another coachbuilder-turned-automaker, also used Standard chassis for their initial cars.
In 1939, over 50,000 cars came “flying” out of Canley, now all benefiting from a brand new IFS. The latest model, a tiny 1-litre Eight introduced in 1938, looked like it was ready to become a surefire hit for the early ‘40s. Alas, the good times were not to last very long. Standard had already printed some brochures for their newest addition to the Eight when production switched to mar materials.
The Eight never got its extra doors, but that small tragedy was lost in a somewhat larger one. As a key industrial centre, the city of Coventry was pretty much razed during the Blitz. Standard’s factories were reduced to rubble, as were Daimler’s and many others. “Shadow factories” were almost immediately set up to continue with vital war production, and Canley was eventually re-built.
In 1944, when the above advert was published, Standard bought the pitiful remnants of Triumph, which had no plans to return to car production after the war, having gone into receivership in 1939. But Triumph was a highly respected and fairly ancient marque with a great name and sporting pedigree, so Standard’s newly-knighted director, Sir John Black, figured a completely new Triumph range would be just the ticket.
Several new cars were making the leap from the drawing boards to the partially renovated assembly halls. Though no longer “Flying,” Standard’s pre-war cars made a quick comeback in 1946, even as the company was in the midst of a busy re-organization into a fully-fledged Nuffield- or Rootes-like automotive “group,” which included a new logo. It was still the era of the “Big Five.” Austin, Ford, Nuffield and Rootes were the other four, with Standard-Triumph always a distant fifth, in terms of size.
The most urgent need was to revive Triumph while the company’s name still had an aura. It had to be a completely new car, as Triumph’s factory, blueprints and stock had been wiped out by German bombs. Debuting in 1946, the Triumph 1800/2000 Roadster, soon followed by a saloon stablemate, were aimed towards a more conservative customer than Standard usually catered for. It was styled much more traditionally, but with enough flair that the Alvis, Rover or Riley buyer would certainly also give it a second look.
Over on the Standard front, the all-new streamlined Vanguard was unveiled in February 1948. Standard earned quite a lot of kudos for making the leap to the pontoon / fastback era and this well-born car was to be the marque’s greatest post-war success. Indeed, aside from the Jowett Javelin, most British cars of the late ‘40s seemed stuck in the mid-‘30s, and some would continue to be so for quite a while.
A rather good example of that was the awkward and pretentious 1949-53 Triumph Mayflower, which utterly failed to meet its buyers. Razor-edge styling with a big vertical grille and small cars do not mix. In addition, the Mayflower’s cramped, narrow body and high price were deemed unacceptable for a car with a wheezy 1.2 litre side-valve engine. The Vanguard, on the other hand, hit a certain middle-class sweet spot.
For one thing, Standard cleverly eschewed engineering a two-door version and went for an all-steel four-door wagon instead, setting a promising trend soon followed by most automakers in the UK. The Vanguard also heralded the arrival of a brand-new 2.1-litre OHV 4-cyl., initially designed for the Ferguson TE20 tractor. The TE20 was made by Standard starting from 1945, initially using Continental power. Standard and Ferguson soon developed their own engine, which Standard promptly used for their new car. This agrarian pedigree was, in a society still very hung up on class, not a great selling point. But at least the big four was a very good and rather advanced engine, serving under the bonnets of Standard saloons and Triumph sports cars for many years.
Export markets were now absolutely key for any British automaker, and Standard-Triumph were no exception. We’ve seen in a previous episode that Standard-Triumph cars were assembled in Belgium by Impéria, but they were also made in Australia, Brazil, India, Ireland, Malta, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey. One ever-pressing issue was sourcing bodies. Keen to avoid being snookered like Jowett, Standard-Triumph bought out Mulliners of Birmingham in 1953, though the coachbuilder’s facilities were insufficient to cover all of Standard and Triumph’s needs.
Standard-Triumph did a few things right in the ‘50s, such as the Triumph TR2 and the introduction of both monocoque construction and, for the first time by a British automaker, a Diesel option for the Phase III Vanguard, but the firm’s financial health began to take a turn for the worse by 1957. The reverberations of the Suez Crisis hit the auto industry quite hard for a few months. Most companies stayed the course, but it seems that was enough to start the Standard into a slow-motion tailspin.
Suez was just the straw that broke Standard-Triumph’s back. On the home front, the smaller Standard cars were deemed unexceptional and were not very popular, reminiscent of the miserly Kaiser Henry J: in an effort to beat Austin and Morris on price, the cars were simplified in the extreme (no rear boot opening, for instance), somewhat negating the all-new (and rather good) 0.8 and 1-litre OHV engines. The Vanguards were falling prey to the new generation Ford, Humber or Vauxhall 2-litre cars that showed up the Phase III’s slightly awkward unibody, which it was going to have to live on for years to come. Export sales had been stagnating for most of the decade as build quality began to slide and parts availability became a pressing issue. Now, exports were starting to shrink, as were domestic sales.
The ship of Standard-Triumph was not ready for the rough seas of Suez also due to a collection of flat-out blunders. In 1954, getting ready to retire after all these years, Sir John Black decided to pool the resources now available within the Standard-Triumph group to launch a new sports car. The chassis was new and advanced, the Triumph TR2 mechanicals were sound and it was built by Swallow Sidecars (which had been sold off by Jaguar). The Doretti was a strange diversion, as the last thing Standard-Triumph needed at this point was a new marque. On his way out, Sir John recommended to end the Doretti experiment forthwith. His advice was heeded: the Swallow Doretti was killed off after 276 cars had been made in about 18 months.
The acquisition of Triumph had clearly destabilized Standard’s decision-makers, production planners and marketing department. They tried to pitch Triumph as a snobbish small car with the Mayflower, but the public only had eyes for the more traditional 1800/Renown. Small car duties switched to the Standard marque, but the Eight / Ten was not a runaway success. Triumph was firmly repositioned as a sports car marque by the mid-‘50s, yet it was denied the 1956-57 Vanguard Sportsman, which ended up being sold as a Standard (and bombed).
Switching things around again, Standard then decided that the new small car they were working on frantically would be a Triumph. It could be said that the Herald was probably the last throw of the dice for Standard-Triumph. The car’s all-independent suspension and modern looks were sure to wow the buying public, and the return to a separate chassis would ensure that several body variants could be introduced at limited expense. It seemed a well-conceived plan.
In the meantime, seeing the developing trends, Standard wisely farmed out the Vanguard’s re-style to Vignale designer Giovanni Michelotti for the 1958 model year. The 2.1 litre Vanguard Vignale’s Lollobrigidesque grin and snazzy two-tone paintwork could not hide the bodyshell’s overall dumpiness. Yet it had to soldier on. Though it did debut a new 2-litre 6-cyl. that went on to a long and distinguished career, by 1960, it seemed that both the Standard and the Vanguard names were no longer with the times. The Vanguard’s image was perhaps also affected by the introduction of the Ensign, a simplified and cheaper Vanguard with a 1.7 litre engine, which sold relatively well, at least initially.
Being already rather passé, the smaller Standards were tarted up like an Essex girl on the pill to usher out the ‘50s, à la Vanguard Vignale. The lowly Eight was ditched after 1959; the Ten, rechristened as the Pennant, kept on going for a little while longer, but the Herald was slated to kill it soon enough. If it didn’t finish off Standard-Triumph first, that is.
Introduced with fanfare in 1959, the Triumph Herald was off to a shaky start. Standard’s production methods were overly complex (especially body panel production) and quality control issues were rife in the early cars. Production bottlenecks, recalls and warranty repairs, especially related to the car’s bodywork, were causing an acute cash-flow crisis within the whole company. Standard had sold off their share of Ferguson in 1958, but the proceeds of the sale evaporated almost instantly into the acquisition of Fisher & Ludlow, a large pressed steel firm that was a key body-maker for both Standard and BMC. Investments in the new big car (the Triumph 2000, then code-named “Zebu”) were put on hold as the Standard-Triumph board sought some sort of merger.
A curious courtship dance took place for several months between Standard-Triumph and the lorry-maker Leyland, including rumours of deals with Rover, AMC and Chrysler, which may have been liberally spread by the increasingly desperate Standard-Triumph executives to spook Leyland into action – and to keep the price up. And it worked: Leyland ended up “buying out” – only stocks exchanged hands, not actual money – the beleaguered Coventry concern in the closing weeks of 1960. This suddenly whetted Leyland’s appetite, leading to the 1962 amalgamation of ACV, 1966 purchase of Rover and the inevitable marriage to BMC in 1968 to create the monstrosity that was British Leyland. This, coupled with the contemporary takeover of Rootes by Chrysler, signaled the start of an unparalleled consolidation process that ended with the demise of virtually all non-specialist British marques.
But the first victim was Standard. The brand had a long but checkered history, with little of the brand recognition and cool of Triumph. Standard cars were routinely rebadged as Triumph for certain export markets, notably North America. Switching from a Union Jack emblem to the Vanguard’s less jingoistic (but quite abstract and generic) logo was probably an unavoidable decision, given the frantic push for exports.
“Standard” lost their flag and the second meaning of the word, as in run-of-the-mill, became all too heavy to bear for cars that were, effectively, rather just plain standard. The decision to drop the Standard was taken almost immediately by Leyland, who no unreasonably figured that Triumph sounded much better. As Leyland began to turn the company around, inevitable cost-cutting killed off the Pennant and the Vanguard Vignale in 1961, and it increasingly looked like the Ensign and the Six were on borrowed time.
The Herald’s initial maladies were soon sorted and progress on the new big car, basically a longer and wider Herald up to that point, turned into the Triumph 2000, whose introduction at the October 1963 London Motor Show signaled the death knell of Standard, whose last old-generation cars were still on some dealers’ lots.
Well, it was almost the end. Some utility vehicles such as the quirky-looking Atlas kept the Standard marque alive in the UK until 1965, it seems. But the one place where Standard really refused to die was not in its country of birth, but in a faraway land immune to the sirens of the Triumph name.
Standard had started assembling Vanguards in Madras in 1949, but never introduced Triumph there. When the Herald came to India a decade later, the increasingly independent Madras factory sold it under the Standard marque. The Standard Herald initially looked almost identical to its English parent, but it began to diverge in the late ‘60s, undergoing several bizarre facelifts. A locally-designed 4-door body was also added to the range, which the Triumph never got.
Standard of India also produced their version of the Atlas van as the Standard Twenty. A boxy new body was introduced sometime in the mid-‘70s, keeping production going for another decade. The Gazel was finally extinguished in 1977, and for a while, only the vans kept the Standard name alive.
In a final, brief and rather depressing postscript, Standard attempted to entice the wealthier Indians (and the Indian government, no doubt) to forego their trusted Ambassadors in favour of the sexy new Standard 2000, a Rover SD1 assembled in Madras, albeit powered by an 83hp 2-litre 4-cyl. that came from the van – a direct descendant of the 1947 “tractor” engine. Introduced in 1985, the swankiest car ever made in India featured luxuries such as A/C and power windows. Rover soon shipped over the entire line to India; Standard became the sole manufacturer of Rover SD1 panels and parts for a few years.
Unsurprisingly, Standard’s revival misfired badly: workmanship and quality control were abysmal, the transmission – a locally-made 4-speed manual – was dreadful and the fuel economy of the ancient twin-SU-carbureted four was markedly worse than the Rover V8’s. All this and more for an astronomical price, of course. The Madras factory was so underused that Bollywood used it as a movie set. Production finally stopped in late 1987 and the company went into liquidation in 1988, having built less than 5000 cars in two years.
On this unexpected note, the Standard Motor Co. finally left the face of the Earth, having existed for over 80 years. Yet it has vanished from most memories, after having breathed life back into Triumph, the adopted son who helped kill off its parent. It’s hard to pinpoint one Deadly Sin in particular. One might argue that Standard’s failed “return to small cars” with the Eight / Ten (a.k.a Triumph TR10) was a leading cause of death, but it was a combination of factors, including the Leyland buy-out, that conspired to kill Standard off (in the UK, anyway).
Tune in tomorrow for the third British oddball – quite a long-lived and successful one, too: Reliant.
Storage Yard Classic: Standard Vanguard Vignale – The Rarest CC Find Yet?, by David Saunders
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European Deadly Sins series