Alexei Sayle: 'A monument to our motoring insanity has been sold off'

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Indy Lifestyle Online

For anyone who cares about design, specifically car design in the UK, there was a minor catastrophe last Sunday. The British motor industry heritage trust at Gaydon in Warwickshire auctioned 80 of its exhibits, most of them in running order.

The Gaydon museum was built in the 1980s to provide a home for historically significant versions of all British car brands, but since it was owned by what was then Austin Rover group, almost all the early exhibits were from the old British Leyland and its constituent companies. These cars were assets overlooked by changing managements; if they had known of their existence would have sold them for short-term finance. So the collection consisted of mainly Austins, Morrises, Rovers, Land Rovers and Jaguars.

Ford took control of the Trust in 2000 as part of the deal in their takeover of Land Rover from BMW/Rover, and the auction is the first step in a new policy: to create a more "inclusive collection", likely to feature Fords, Vauxhalls, Talbots and Hillmans.

The reason the break-up of this collection is a disaster is that when it consisted solely of BMC/British Leyland models we had a physical record of a time when UK society, as represented by its largest manufacturing concern, went insane. The nearest animal equivalent to these post-war British cars would be the wildlife of Australia: because there were no large predators to enforce natural selection, all sorts of wild, unlikely and impractical animals managed to survive there, the kangaroo, the koala bear and the Tasmanian tree goat for example.

The difference between the native British motor industry from the 1950s to the 1990s and the Queensland hopping land duck was that while the motor industry developed as if it had no predators, in reality it had many: which is why it is now almost extinct.

If you begin to dilute this collection at Gaydon with cars from foreign-owned manufacturers, you diminish the sheer, metallic insanity of the British Leyland era, and lose a vital lesson. In the Warwickshire collection you can see for example the Rover range for the 1960s/1970s consisting of three executive, four-door saloons that looked nothing like each other yet were aimed at the same person; so the Rover Company's main rival was Rover itself.

You can study the link between the Issigonis Mini on which BMC lost £30 for each model it produced and the 1800 "Land Crab" which was a Mini inflated to executive car size and put off in their hundreds of thousands the company managers who were supposed to buy it.

These status-conscious men did not wish to drive round in a squeaking front wheel drive saloon the size of a bungalow and instead chose the German-made MK 1 Granada. Then you could see Leyland's reply, the Austin Ambassador, a triangular saloon furnished in brown velour that had the few executives not driving the MK 2 Granada phoning their Ford dealers right away.

The Gaydon collection was a much-needed monument to the monstrous outrage that was British management. Now, I fear, it is gone.

Alexei Sayle's new novel 'Overtaken', which has a lot about cars in it, is published on 1 September

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