Driving me crazy - the engineering issues behind the decline of the car industry

Materials World magazine
2 Apr 2012
Fred Starr

‘What’s the name of the orange stuff that grows on the outside of cars?’ ‘Is it poisonous?’ These were questions an Iranian industrial trainee put to me in the early seventies. Coming from the Middle East, he had never seen rust. I also remember a Swedish girl who laughed about the weekend scenes in London, when someone in every street would be working on their car. Rust and bodywork perforation, along with 3,000-mile maintenance intervals, have disappeared but their departure coincided, more or less, with the disappearance of a truly indigenous British car industry.

Cars are still built in Britain, but of the big names only Ford and Vauxhall remain, and even their products are European rather than home built. What remained of home-grown manufacturers became first BMC Ltd, then British Leyland, and then the Rover Group. The latter became bankrupt in 2005 when its sole product, the Rover 75, failed to sell.

There are several mainstream stories for the decline and fall of BMC and its successors. Some focus on industrial conflict, others on uninspired stop-gap makes. From what might be called a worm’s eye view, I would like to highlight how a combination of materials and bad detailed design would have caused buyers to steer clear of BMC/Leyland/Rover products.

An obvious materials issue in the 1960s was the reluctance of all of these organisations to recognise that if there was anywhere in the world needing cars to have top-class protection against corrosion, it was here in the British Isles. We have what is jokingly called a maritime climate – high humidity and average temperatures above freezing, seasoned with a dash of industrial pollution. The last car I had from the group was a late model Austin Montego Estate, whose bodywork after four years was in good enough condition for it to be stolen and shipped off to India for parts (that’s another story!). But the early models had a bad reputation as rot boxes.

My material problems were apparently trivial, but shocking, given that the Montego Estate had been in production for years before I got mine. One chronic issue was with the ‘loom’ of electrical wiring that passed from the roof into the rear tailgate door. Actuation of the door caused the insulation to abrade, the wires then shorting out, making it impossible to lock the car. This happened approximately once every 18 months, and at £80 a time, must have been a nice little earner for Rover.

I now come to my 1960s Minivan, the ‘constant velocity joints’ and the furore in the national press. When Alec Issigonis conceived the front wheel drive Mini, his biggest challenge had been to arrange a smooth connection between the engine and the two front wheels. The constant velocity joints made it possible, but were something of a metallurgical nightmare, using sets of ball bearings that moved over a limited track. The assembly was packed with high duty grease and encased in a rubber sleeve. If the joint broke, the wheel could come adrift.

During a court case following a serious accident, a metallurgist of some eminence suggested that joint failure might have been the cause. The reaction from the newspapers was scornful, to say the least – how could a mere metallurgist throw doubt on the wonderful products coming from one of our top car makers?

But one would have to be barmy not to realise that joints were beginning to fail, so whoever was driving the crashed car would have had plenty of warning. A year after starting driving my two year old Mini, I heard the joints beginning to knock, and had them replaced, thinking I was just unlucky. Then, about a year later, once again I heard the ominous knock. Again they were replaced, but after a few months the knock came back. The root cause was nothing to do with the joints themselves. It was a rubber grommet, costing 3p, which stopped vibrations from the engine getting into the passenger compartment via a stabilising bar, which stopped the engine thrashing back and forth as power output changed. Without it the constant velocity joints were forced out of position, hence when the rubber grommet perished, the engine was no longer held firm. So instead of British Leyland specifying an oil-resistant polymer, costing a few pence, I had to spend the equivalent, in modern money, of about £2,500! If others had the same experience, the people selling car spares must have been hugging themselves with glee, but I know what those in car sales were thinking – and I also know why the company went out of business.