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Modern Classic - Steve Harper Interview

Modern Classic - Steve Harper Interview

Thu 24th March 2016

In late 2015 Keith Adams of Modern Classic interviewed Steve Harper in his Studio about this past...

Austin Maestro Vanden Plas wheel trim

The 1980’s were very much a time of conflict within the Auto industry, especially at British Leyland. There was the crippling Toolmakers strike led by the infamous shop steward ‘Red Robbo’, one of many disputes that gradually brought the amalgamated British Motor Industry to its knees.

It was an ‘Us and Them’ syndrome that had become infused into the whole manufacturing base of the UK.Even within the merged Empire there still existed the individual Cultures and mistrusts between their neighbouring divisions. Austin and Morris were just able to get along, but resented the ‘High-brow’ attitude of the Specialist Car Divisions of Rover, Triumph and Jaguar, who were themselves still in ‘competition’ with each other.

At the lower levels there was the shop floor versus the Management attitude, a mistrust of the business and graduate practices, which even permeated into the classic mistrust and misunderstanding between Stylists and Engineers.

No where was there an understanding of ‘working for the common good’.

As a result of the turmoil, the cars being designed, engineered and produced lost out in the marketplace due to inconsistent quality and reliability.

So when a new car project was being developed, its success was critical to the survival of the company, which in turn led to decisions being made under pressure, without enough time to ensure the products quality and success.

Within BL, there still existed the individual Styling studios for each brand, which meant that projects were designed in competition with each other.

Whilst Jaguar seemed able to work in a splendid isolation, the ROVER studio, under the guidance of David Bache, was able to lord its success of the SD1 and Range Rover, over the Austin-Morris studio at Longbridge.

So whilst Harris Mann and his team were busy completing the Metro design, the team at Solihull began work on the replacement of the Allegro & Maxi, the LM10 Maestro.

Both studios did offer a design proposal, and Harris Mann’s model clearly showed a more blended and sculptural development of his earlier ‘wedge’ design philosophy, as seen on the Allegro, Princess and TR7.

Nevertheless, under David Bache’s management, his studios design theme by Ian Beech, soon became the main route for the design.

Ian Beech had trained as a jewellery designer, and his Viking Ship logo was one of the key modernist features on the front of the SD1, replacing the old traditional enamelled badge, original adorning Rover’s first bicycles.Ian design philosophy was more Product Design inspired, and developed on from the popular ‘Folded Card’ school of design as seen on the VW Golf, Citroen BX etc. In fact it was in many ways it was an Anti-Wedge design.

The large open green-house, was clearly inspired by the Maxi, but to match with the low rear tailgate window line, the waistline actually dropped as it developed towards the rear. The taught almost flat surfaces were abrupt and very angular, and following on from the SD2 project, it also featured a strong bodyside feature, which in this case was a large parallel semi circular groove running along the car.

These two features alone would prove to be the most critical details as the later versions of the model range was developed.

Many of the shut-lines and exterior features were designed to be disguise any poor alignments in the manufacturing process. But as a result of having shut-lines on the changes of surface, actually they proved to be a nightmare for quality alignment of the panels in practice.

After years of Badge Engineering by BMC in the 50’s & 60’s, where all but for a few details, the same car was produced under the varying brands of Austin, Morris, Riley, Wolseley etc. The 1970’s had focused upon unique cars for each brand. Austin made the front wheel drive Maxi & Allegro, Morris made the rear wheel drive Marina, and Wolseley and Vanden Plas, became all but a grille and a trim level.

For the 80’s and 90’s the advantages of economy of scale, which developed from sharing as many components between vehicles as possible, led to the LM cars being engineered around a modular system of interchangeable parts. Hence the floor, windscreen, doors, etc were meant to be shared by all of the vehicles which followed. This also meant any issues with the first car, would be difficult to adjust in latter designs.

The Interiors of the cars were also designed with as much commonality as possible. The result for the Instrument Panel, was an idea to be able to change parts, not the whole panel for right and left hand drive markets.

This resulted in the IP have many joints and interface panels, which ultimately would lead to squeaks, rattles and poor alignment, which reduced the visual and tactile qualities of the whole interior design.

So there was lots of good intent throughout the design process, but sadly many details were unresolved and lacked that final finesse, which could have turned mediocre to competent.

Even the final ‘Unique Selling Point’, the digital instrument display and ‘talking’ warning system proved to be one step too far.At a considerable development cost, which meant that it ended up as an option, rather than the rule, the use of NASA technology, sold to a generation which had thought their red glow digital watches to be ‘so cool’, proved that BL  just wasn’t as grand as it thought it was.

Besides, even when today’s SatNav systems annoy most people, 20 odd years ago, when your unreliable car, had a posh Southern Counties lady reminding you so, it was hardly, the ‘Right Stuff’. Especially when they couldn’t even make the tailgate seal properly against the rain. 

As a Junior Designer, after leaving the Royal College of Art, Steve Harper was set to work into the middle of this turmoil. Like all junior designers, his work began with the devil of detailing. His ‘design teeth were cut’ on looking after the design and engineering liaison of parts such as the roof drip seal, engine covers and wheels for the Maestro. 

The wheel trim for the Vanden Plas high spec version of the Maestro was Steve Harper's first designed part to make it into production, with the assistance of the late Percy Haynes in the chassis dept at the Longbridge Austin Design Office. 

As part of the on going design revisions and updates of the LM product range, this sketch was one produced, during Steve Harper's tenure at the Canley Design Studio, to show the potential to expand the Maestro vehicle range into a new niche – a four door convertible.