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Selling in a recession

1 year ago

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Andrew Ryan | Automotive historian


28 February 2023

Nobody needs reminding of the current cost of living crisis, but the good news is I’m going to spare you another a probing analysis of how it relates to the beleaguered British motor industry.

Instead we’re going back half a century to see how manufacturers tackled the effects of the oil crisis in 1973, perhaps the greatest peacetime structural change the motor industry has ever faced.

In particular we’ll see how its advertising executives used all their considerable skills to dream up campaigns which may or may not have been distantly related to the truth, in order to sell a new generation of stripped-back, cost-cut cars to people who were more concerned with heating their homes and keeping their jobs than parking a shiny new car outside.

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Fuel economy became the key marketing message in the 1970s

There is so much raw material here we’re going to focus on 1975 alone. And not just because it would require a book to address it all, but also because that was the year when life for the car industry was as grim as it got, and the true representation of the kind of miserable, inflation-prone, deeply grim era we think about when we’re conjuring up images of the 1970s in all their ghastly, glorious beigeness. It’s the year the British motor industry finally ran out of road and the long-predicted downfall came to pass.

It may not be remembered as such, but 1973 was actually a good year for the frequently underperforming British car market – there were record sales aided by the ‘Barber Boom’ of the 1972 UK budget, with some 1.662 million new cars finding homes in the UK, though many were now imports, much to the discomfort of the domestic brands.

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Datsun’s pragmatic advertising underpinned its rapid sales growth

Adding insult to the injury of recession, not only were traditional overseas sellers getting smarter, there were new threats from abroad too. Datsun, for instance, managed to outflank the traditional Big Three importers of Volkswagen, Renault and Fiat through a combination of keen prices and generous specifications (like all Japanese cars at the time). What’s more, importers deliberately pitched cars at ‘ordinary people’, giving customers what they actually wanted – namely a car that didn’t need to visit Halfords for a radio and which started in the morning.

So scoff all you like at the Sunny 120Y, but owners loved them, their advocacy encouraged others and by 1974 Datsun was the UK’s leading imported brand.

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An unlikely brag by BL

As for car advertising in 1973, the general tone still retained the optimistic air of the late 1960s; a kind of don’t-blind-me-with-the-facts bullshit pushed by unscrupulous advertising agencies. Look back now and you really wonder how they got away with it given some of the inexactly constructed, unevenly engineered and poorly styled prospects they were peddling. And if we thought they were bad, they were nothing compared to the cars offered to the public once the combined effects of the oil crisis, rampant inflation and recession had taken their toll.

Even so, to the real masters of advertising with not just a clear idea of the customer, but what they were looking for, this was an opportunity waiting to be taken.

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And Ford of Britain was the best of the best, taking some distinctly average cars and marketing them brilliantly. You can see in the Capri’s iconic launch campaign. That marketing genius would come into play when times suddenly got tough.

By contrast, in the 1970s British Leyland merely continued the marketing ineptness shown its predecessor BMC in the 1960s. It was simply pushing credibility too far to expect anyone to believe the Marina had ‘Beauty with the brains behind it’, let alone that the Allegro was the ‘driving force from Austin’.

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A fine example of Ford’s advertising nous

It was an approach you could perhaps get away with in the good times, but that was really just setting yourself up for a fall. After four years of ever increasing sales from 1970-73, 1974 turned out to be the rudest of rude awakenings, UK sales plunging by nearly 400,000 units. In addition, BL didn’t so much hit the buffers as steamroller right through them and up to the door of Downing Street where in December it found itself begging for a Government bailout. It was that or declare bankruptcy.

Interestingly, just before that announcement came the kind of advertisement that reflected this new reality, noting the fuel economy figures of the various cars from the Austin Morris range. A helpful ad for sure, a sign of the times certainly, but there was more than a whiff of desperation about it too.

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BL soon went cap in hand to the Government for a bailout

With a gallon of four star increasing from 42p to 73p during 1974 (over double what it had been in 1972) the motor industry had to adapt, particularly with fuel shortages, reduced speed limits and the looming possibility of fuel coupons on the horizon. 

However, like a lumbering oil tanker failing to respond to instructions from the helm, so too did it take the industry too long to adjust and get around to producing cars suited to this new normal. Indeed, it would be 1975 before they started appearing on the market in any meaningful numbers.

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The Imp was seemingly well suited to these challenging times, but it didn’t last

In the meantime, manufacturers did what they could with what they already had, and turned to their small cars like BL’s Mini and Chrysler Europe’s Hillman Imp.

As early as January 1974, Austin Morris was promoting the Mini under the clever headline of ‘A little goes a long way’ and over the next two years a series of campaigns all played to its great fuel efficiency. After all, wasn’t this the reason it existed in the first place? It was now.

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BL’s best marketing efforts were saved for the Mini

The Imp was just as well-suited, although it had been practically forgotten by Chrysler UK which had spent just £1000 promoting it in 1972. Suddenly flavour of the month and year, 1974 saw that figure blossom to £134,000 resulting in the ageing Imp being one of few cars to post increased sales; but it was too little, too late. In October 1975, the run-out Imp Caledonian appeared, the kind of ‘accessory magnet’ model which seemed to symbolise the low-ebb at which Chrysler UK found itself that year. And that was that.

But if 1974 was bad, 1975 was the annus horribilis for the motor industry. Think inflation is high today? That year it hit 24 per cent. Cars sales fell to 1.194m, a low point not seen since (some 1.61 million cars were sold in 2022 in what was regarded as a pretty terrible year). Moreover, imports took a third of the market while the British motor industry was never far from the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

So how did manufacturers respond?

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Renault’s approach was interesting, insofar as instead of stripping out its Renault 5 hatch and selling it cheap, it actually pushed it upmarket, creating the 5 TS with the engine from the Renault 12, targeting those downsizing from larger, thirstier cars. It was a clever move.

Some firms used humour to entice buyers who were searching for fuel economy and value. A good example came from a surprising source – Alfa Romeo. With the Alfasud regarded by motoring journalists as the small family car of choice, Alfa UK leveraged reviewers’ praise to flog the car while noting what mattered to motorists – value, fuel economy and low servicing costs – all of it summed up in the line ‘The car you want to own is the car you always wanted to own.’ Just a shame about the rust, but that’s a whole other story.

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A clever ad for a great car

While truly grim fodder like the 850cc Reliant Robin (but 70mpg, of course…) or the fresh arrival of budget marques like Lada or Polski-Fiat may have been appealing to some, even upmarket brands were having to adjust to these straightened times.

Take BMW and its now forgotten 1502, a detuned, low spec 1602, which went on to outlive the entire rest of the ‘02’ range, staying in production when the E21 3 Series arrived and not meeting its maker until July 1977. Interestingly, BMW would do the same with poverty spec 315 version of the E21, which also stayed on sale after the E30 arrived in 1982, the last being made in 1984.

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Would 70mpg persuade you to give up one wheel?

And then there was Vauxhall. During 1975 it discontinued its Viva-based Firenza coupé but, finding itself with a load of surplus bodies to use, launched the limited edition Viva E Coupé.

With a stripped-out spec but an attractive price, it quickly sold out, inspiring a later saloon that remained part of the Viva range until production ended in 1979. It was a brilliant idea even if the car was decidedly not…

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How to use up the few remaining Firenza bodies…

However, it was Ford who could be relied on to push the art of cost saving past all known limits and beyond. This resulted in July 1975 with the introduction of the Escort Popular.

Using the newly launched Mk2 body and reviving a famous Ford name synonymous with value, the Popular was as basic as a two-door saloon could sensibly be in 1975. It was shod with cross-ply tyres and lacked carpets, sound-deadening under those rubber mats, a parcel shelf, dipping rear mirror, heated rear window, reversing lights (or rather the bulbs) and front disc brakes. It also lacked performance, thanks to a special economy-minded carburettor, but then perhaps that was a good thing.

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Cheaper than a Mini 1000 with room for five

Priced at £1299, this was a Ford Escort that cost less than a Mini 1000, the price alone enough to earn the attention of press and public alike. However, how many were actually sold is another story as Ford, the headlines neatly captured, then cleverly offered a Popular Plus version for an additional £100 that added most of the equipment deleted from the Popular.

Ford didn’t stop there. Later in 1975 it launched the ‘Added Value’ campaign increasing equipment on the Cortina, Capri and Granada base models (the latter newly renamed from Consul). As a campaign it was typically clever stuff, but was a Capri II 1300 with a top speed of 90mph and a 0-60mph time of 18.7sec really the car you always promised yourself?

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The Capri you always wanted? Not likely

Probably not, but there was one car that arrived during this time which not only managed to be perfect for the times, but proof that saving money and enjoying your motoring were not always mutually exclusive aims.

In October 1974, Citroën took the opportunity afforded by the oil crisis to relaunch the 2CV into the UK market, and while the previous UK-made model had flopped, this time the car chimed perfectly with the times. With keen pricing and brilliant advertising, it proved a huge success and soon the UK became one of the Deuche’s most loyal markets.

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The 2CV would eventually have its moment in the UK

It’s interesting to see that, back in 1975, one of the most successful solutions wasn’t a poverty-spec model, but a French car already 36 years old.

With car prices today heading ever higher, but our ability to pay for them becoming ever more restricted, I wonder how long it will be before manufacturers start dusting off some 1970s-style sales techniques. A Ford Puma Popular, anyone?

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