Archive for November, 2018

Cart before horse

November 4, 2018

Every year our Virtual Organisation students do a workshop on approaches to innovation with David Barry, who draws on the concept of horseless carriage thinking.  He uses as a metaphor for innovation the idea that motor vehicles only really developed once it became apparent that they could do things that horses and carriages couldn’t.  And it has been pointed out that one factor is that you no longer needed to put the horse in front of the cart.

This made me think of a particular episode in the motor industry that does provide a lesson in innovation, and it’s a story of what went wrong when a British car manufacturer put the cart before the horse.

In the 1950s and 1960s, particularly in cars made in continental Europe, it was common for small cars at least to have the horse behind the cart – that is to put the engine at the rear of the car.  The original Volkswagen Beetle was probably the most notable and must surely be the one that’s most widely recognised today.  But Renault, Fiat, Skoda, and long-forgotten continental European manufacturers such as Simca and NSU, made small rear-engined cars for many years.  The catalyst for change came in the late 1950s, when the British Motor Corporation’s famously eccentric engineer Alec Issigonis devised a very small car with the engine at the front, but turned 90° compared to what had been normal practice.  This meant that the long side of the engine ran across the car, thus saving space, and the result was the first Mini.  There are exceptions and the Smart car is a 21st century take on the idea of a small rear-engined car, and there are significant engineering differences between the original Mini and a modern car, but most small and medium-sized cars made today follow the engine layout pioneered by Issigonis sixty years ago.

Another British manufacturer, Rootes, also started developing a small car in the late 1950s, and the resultant product arrived on the market in 1963 as the Hillman Imp.  This was the first British car with the engine at the back, and while it remained in production for a respectable period of 13 years, it sold in limited numbers and didn’t catch the public’s imagination, especially compared to the success of the Mini.  Placing the cart before the horse didn’t seem to have been good for the British motor industry.

In the 1960s automotive companies were encouraged by the British government to build new factories in areas where other heavy engineering industries were declining.  Ford and Vauxhall both expanded on Merseyside, and both factories are still going (the former Ford plant at Halewood now part of Jaguar Land Rover, who somehow pulled off the trick of selling ever-increasing numbers of luxury cars in the years following the 2008 financial crisis).  Rootes built the Hillman Imp in a factory in Linwood in central Scotland, which closed, and prompted a wave of urban deprivation (which is another story) in around 1980.

Rootes, and their well-respected designer Tim Fry, took some trouble to learn from other manufacturers, and the Imp was an ingenious design which, despite using an engine layout which was soon to fall out of favour, had some technically advanced features.  Unfortunately they lacked the financial resources to develop the Imp, and the Linwood plant was beset by fraught industrial relations and poor build quality.  So it is tempting to regard the Hillman Imp as a good idea which was poorly implemented.

But the real lesson from the Hillman Imp in terms of innovation is this: when its development started, and the transverse engine at the front was a wild idea sketched out by Alec Issigonis on a paper serviette, the choice to put the engine at the back was a perfectly rational one.  With hindsight, it was a poor decision.  But when planning for the future you can never tell whether it would be wise to put the cart before the horse.