Not what you would call a people person, but a ferocious businessmen and something of a motoring visionary. Words Giles Chapman.
It’s not conventional wisdom, and especially not in the burnished year of the Mini’s 60th anniversary, but without Leonard Lord, Britain’s most influential car would never have happened.
Perhaps he was stung into action by journalist Bill Boddy. The two men reputedly had a robust exchange at the 1955 London Motor Show, in the dazzle of the new Citroën DS, when Boddy bemoaned the British Motor Corporation’s humdrum cars. ‘Tell us what you want and we’ll bloody well make it,’ Lord bellowed, and shortly afterwards hired Alec Issigonis to start designing advanced front-wheel-drive cars – the 1100 and 1800 models of the 1960s – that would catapult Britain to the vanguard of automotive technology.
Then events overtook the strategy. The 1956 Suez Crisis caused panic in the car industry and gave a fillip to microcar manufacturers. Lord ordered Issigonis to put the bigger cars on hold and focus instead on a four-seater economy car. Austin Drawing Office project No 15 (ADO 15) became prototype XC9003 in 1957, and just two years later the revolutionary Mini was launched. Issigonis was granted unparalleled freedom to design it, and Lord was behind him every step of the exciting way.
The Mini isn’t the only car that existed thanks to Lord’s trenchant convictions. In 1952 he created the Austin-Healey marque after seeing the potential of theHealey 100. Before that he’d made a bold grab at the US market with the Austin A90 Atlantic and, when that failed, was back in the USA with the contract-built Nash Metropolitan. In 1947, he challenged Bentley with his Austin A125 Princess and Ford with the Austin A40 Devon, a modern small car pitched – you may be surprise to learn – as the ideal second car for suburban America. On the product front, Lord was a real try-hard.
Born on 15 November 1896, Leonard Percy Lord’s parents ran a Coventry pub and, with assisted fees from the council, he benefited hugely from the technical focus provided by the local Bablake School. His first job was as a draughtsman for textiles firm Courtaulds, but his career took him to several engineering firms until he joined engine manufacturer Hotchkiss in 1922. A year later the company was bought by Morris, its biggest customer, and Lord rapidly came to the attention of William Morris when he streamlined the factory.
So effective were Lord’s methods and take no- prisoners style that in 1927 the boss put him in charge of Wolseley, and in 1933 made him managing director of Morris Motors itself. In 1936, Lord ‘retired’. He’d actually fallen out with Lord Nuffield, who refused to step aside to let him run the company, as he’d promised. Mr and Mrs Len Lord then toured the USA, where the automotive tycoon enriched his knowledge of the biggest consumer society on earth.
Morris’s arch-rival Herbert Austin gladly offered Lord the position of works director of his Longbridge factory in 1938. When Austin died in 1941, Lord was in total control and steered the company into profitable war work that included making everything from tin helmets to entire fighter aircraft. But it was in the post-war scramble to establish Austin as Britain’s leading car manufacture and exporter that Lord’s drive and energy shone through.
His pushed through Austin’s transition to monocoque construction with the A30 and then became leader of BMC when rivals Austin and Morris merged in 1951. He was constantly modernising factories and he made deals to build BMC cars in Italy and Belgium so the company wasn’t locked out of Europe’s new Common Market. With MG and Austin- Healey, he made BMC the world’s biggest sports car producer, and another audacious move was to hire Pininfarina, shaper of Ferraris, to inject style across BMC’s portfolio.
In 1961, the big man ceded chairmanship of BMC to long-serving protégé George Harriman, and a year later his achievements were recognised with a baronetcy. Lord Lord would have sounded daft so he picked Lord Lambury of Northfield, and he spent his retirement farming cattle in Gloucestershire.
His death came on 13 September 1967; heart disease finished him after decades of ferocious chain-smoking, but perhaps he might have choked-and-croaked anyway the following year when his beloved BMC was forced into the merger that created British Leyland.
Leonard Lord was considered rude and coarse by almost everyone, even friends who knew of his personal warmth. His biographer Martin Nutland, however, uncovered some insecurities, such as Lord’s cultivation of a Brummie accent to mask his Coventry roots. ‘I don’t think Leonard Lord was a psychopath, although he had some very deep-rooted personality flaws,’ he says.
Lord summed up his business philosophy by bellowing ‘If the door’s not open, kick it open’ and cheerfully declaring that BMC stood for ‘bugger my competitors!’ His vehemently right-wing, anti-union outlook, meanwhile, was probably the incubator for the industrial relations disaster that plagued British Leyland in the 1970s.