Disasters waiting to happen: Nuffield

Disasters waiting to happen: Nuffield


Morris, who became Lord Nuffield / bbc.co.uk

Morris, who became Lord Nuffield / bbc.co.uk

William Richard Morris Nuffield started off well, but ended as the man who almost singlehandedly destroyed the British car industry. I don’t suppose this was his intention, but he did, helped by his opposite number at the Rootes Group.

In the 1950s, Britain had a long line of prosperous carmakers, famous for the typical British design, safety, elegance and comfort. The names of these motor cars filled two columns on a double page spread in Motor Magazine. Now only Morgan, LandRover, Jaguar and Aston-Martin and perhaps Bristol remain British and independent. Rolls-Royce and Bentley are German. The Mini is German. Vauxhall is American, and designed by Opel. Nuffield is solely responsible for the loss of Austin, Morris, Wolseley, Riley, MG & Rover (he started the rot here). Jaguar survived, though it was briefly a Ford. Here is how the disaster happened.

William Nuffield was born in 1877, the son of an Oxfordshire farmer. While still very young, he set up a series of bicycle shops and repair businesses. He was sixteen years old. He moved on to motor bicycles before he was twenty and then in 1907 he established Morris Garages to sell and repair automobiles.

Following the excellent example of Henry Ford in America, Morris built cheap mass-produced cars, such as the two-door Morris Oxford in 1913, the first British car specifically designed for the family. He built a new factory at Cowley to make the ‘Cowley’ model in 1915, and by the middle of the 20s was Britain’s leading car manufacturer. Sadly, he bought up the ailing companies Riley, Wolselely and MG, three cars renowned across the world for quality, sophistication and speed. At one point the Morris 6 and its Wolseley equivalent were the only police cars on Britain’s roads. You can see these splendid cop cars in action in every British film made in the 40s and 50s, and hear their traditional warning clangs.

Nuffield was using American-style assembly line production methods, with standardized parts. When he needed more steel, he bought up Pressed Steel. The undoubted success of this British corporation encouraged foreign buyers to buy British cars regardless of price, so already established names like Armstrong-Siddeley, Rolls, Bentley, Jensen (the fabulous Interceptor),  Allard, AC Ace etc. did well out of Morris Motors. But then, in the late 30s, things began to slide downhill.

Nuffield was right-wing nationalist, giving money to Oswald Mosley’s New Party, supporting British re-armament. He spent a large part of his considerable fortune on medical and educational charities (the Nuffield Foundation).

He formed the British Motor Corporation and launched the Morris Mini, a revolutionary concept designed by Alex Issigonis. But he standardized it, so that buyers could choose a Morris Mini, or an Austin Mini (almost exactly the same) a Wolseley Mini (called Hornet), a Riley Mini (the Elf), a Cooper Mini, even a fix-up with Rolls-Royce called the Radford Cooper Mini S, all walnut and leather and very high speeds. They were all Minis. Then he did the same thing with the Austin 1100. And the once singular fame of companies like Wolseley and Riley disappeared through standardization.

In 1952 BMC was the third largest motor manufacturer in the world, but the Japanese and the Americans knew it couldn’t last. Nuffield stayed only a year as Chairman of BMC before retiring. BMC became British Leyland, and not very long afterwards collapsed, taking with it Rover, MG, Jaguar (bought by Ford), Riley, Morris, Austin, Austin Princess, Austin-Healey etc. etc. Nuffield became Lord Nuffield. Meanwhile the Rootes Group was also in the process of removing great British names from that Motor Magazine double page – Triumph Standard, Humber, Hillman, Singer, Sunbeam and so on. After the Seventies the greatest names of all – Rolls-Royce and Bentley (the same company since 1931) went singly to Volkswagen and BMW. It was a tremendous success and filled the order books. These cars from a fable are still made in England, but they are German.

Lord Nuffield became a Viscount and died in 1963.

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.


  1. Bob June 18, 2015 at 3:26 pm - Reply

    What drivel! Morris was nothing to do with the Mini…. he’d left the organization SEVEN YEARS before the Mini. This entire article is inaccurate.

  2. Henryk Belda July 3, 2019 at 8:00 pm - Reply

    No dates given which makes the whole article meaningless and without context

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