The combination of Google and a couple of spare hours is a deadly combination. Last night, in an attempt to find a copy of the Ryder report (a sort of post-nationalisation master plan for ailing British Leyland) I stumbled across a fascinating 1971 interview with a chap called Harry Webster.
Published in the Daily Express, Webster was national news because he had just replaced Alec Issigonis as the engineering boss of Austin Morris.
Issigonis had become a household name, media star and friend of the royals in the 1960s after the success of the Mini and Austin 1100/1300.
So his replacement, as the Express pointed out, would be a very influential man, responsible for ‘one in three of the new cars on our roads in the future’.
Webster (who started as a Standard Triumph apprentice in 1932 and led on projects such as the 200 saloon, Spitfire and Stag) talking the day before he took the reigns at Longbridge outlined his vision of a car of the future.
“Three main things concern us in the cars we are designing and building now for three to four years' time – reliability, economy, and a minimum of servicing.” Webster said that he wanted to see cars that needed “little or no” servicing in the first three or four years of the car’s life.
He also wanted to engineer cars where no repair took “more than an hour” (partly because of “soaring labour costs”) and even major components could be “unplugged” and replaced “at any motorway service station”.
The faulty part, such as the gearbox, would be sent back to the factory for refurbishment and re-sale.
Webster went on to look into his crystal ball.
“With world fuel supplies being used up, emerging nations pushing up prices of crude oil and exporting less, the main emphasis must be on conserving what fuel we have. This means using a lower grade of fuel.
“And lead will definitely be dropped from petrol within the next three years because of the problems of pollution. I don't see any major breakthroughs coming from steam, electric or atomic engines for cars except in the very far-distant future.”
Webster also bemoaned the wide range of differing regulations and wanted to see national, European and then global regulations, which, he thought, would allow mass-standardisation and much lower production costs.
Webster also told the Express reporter that this standardisation would inevitably lead to mass-produced cars looking increasingly similar.
“The actual styling will become increasingly more important, although it will become very much more difficult to achieve individuality in the product. But they are devilishly clever, these styling fellows.”
Now, 39 years down the line, it’s fascinating to see his vision of making car ownership much more affordable and reducing unreliability to no more than an hour’s inconvenience through standardisation and plug-in, plug-out, engineering.
It never happened at BL, of course. Webster (made a CBE in 1972) struggled to make things happen as BLMC plummeted towards collapse. He did, though, commission this admirably basic and Michelotti-styled Mini replacement, a project which eventually became the Mini Metro.
However, that vision of engineering simplicity did make it into the Maestro prototypes being developed in the late 1970s, but it was judged too austere for the family car of the early 1980s.
What changed was that the Japanese nailed reliability without the need for simplicity.
No wonder, then, that BL boss Edwardes flew to Japan to licence Honda technology almost exactly eight years after Webster first walked into his Longbridge office.
How ironic that this foreign tech was first sold by BL under the Triumph badge.