The designer: Harris Mann
“I set out to design tomorrow’s luxury family saloon… A car that would instantly make the competition seem old fashioned.”
For those of you who don’t recognise the name - though there can be few British car enthusiasts who don’t – Harris Mann was the British Leyland designer who’s most famous works are the Austin Allegro, Princess and Triumph TR7. Much has been written on the subject of Harris Mann and the cars he came up with in the Seventies. Little of it is complimentary though. All designers strive to design something that is instantly recognisable as individualistic. In the case of Harris Mann, he did three in quick succession. That what eventually emerged caused controversy is a sign that he tried to do something that stood out from the crowd. The new and radical always divides opinion.
It is important to point out too that, in the case of the Allegro, what Harris Mann had designed and what British Leyland actually built were two different things. Once the production engineers were let loose to wreak standardisation and cost-cutting vengeance on the Allegro all that remained of Mann’s original design was a mere caricature. He was allowed a freer hand with the Princess and TR7, and as a result came up with two of the most distinctively styled mainstream cars ever to come out of a mainstream British car company. The dramatic wedge shapes were totally of their era. That the cars themselves eventually became to be regarded in an unfavourable light was the result of British Leyland’s financial crisis, appalling build quality control record, atrocious industrial relations, laughable attitude towards marketing and inherent lack of managerial ability. British Leyland wouldn’t even have been able to find a brewery, let alone organise a bloody good time in one. When the Princess first appeared, the media loved the shape, citing it as ‘’futuristic’’. By comparison, its nearest rival - the Ford Granada – looked boring and dated. And however much traditionalists scoff at the TR7’s appearance, the cold hard fact still remains that it was the biggest selling of all the TR models, shifting 112,368 (114,865 if you include the TR8) in just six years.
There’s also far more to Harris Mann than British Leyland. He’s had a long and varied career in the automotive industry, and is still active today as a freelance designer, working with some of the biggest firms around, and currently involved in some very exciting projects.
The history of Harris Mann started in London, in April 1938, As far back as he can remember, there was an interest in cars, and when the opportunity presented itself, he went to engineering school. “It was a great help in a lot of ways,” he recalls. “That gave me a very good practical understanding of things.” He was able to put this understanding into practice when he got an apprenticeship from the bus and coach firm Duple soon afterwards, who sent him for training in motor body engineering.
“After I’d finished the apprenticeship in London – it was a draughtsman role – I looked around for something new. However, it was difficult into get into the car industry in those days, there weren’t the opportunities there are today. So I emigrated to the Sates, towards the end of the fifties, to look for work. But it was the wrong time when I got there. There were problems in the steel industry.”
Harris stayed in America for just six months, working for the Raymond Loewy Company, although his personal contact with the legendary designer himself was limited. “I was just part of a team, doing things like designing tread patterns and sidewalls for tyres”. Then the work dried up. “I came back to Britain and got nobbled for the Army. It was meant to be two years National Service but I got stung for another six due to a crisis in Germany.”
After demob, Harris went back to Duple, but didn’t appreciate still being regarded as an apprentice. He was soon at Commer at Luton as a draughtsman/design engineer on commercial vehicles. “That didn’t last very long; I had nine months at Commer. Then I saw an advert for a job at Ford for a feasibility engineer. I got that job and got into the design studios there. This would have been around 1962.’’
Ford during the sixties must have been a great time for a young designer keen to learn more and show his worth. “I did about nine months in the feasibility area, then I presented the Head of Styling with a portfolio of my own stuff,’’ says Harris. “I was feeding off a lot of Americans at the time, and they gave me an insight into what they were doing.’’ The portfolio was impressive enough to land Harris a “proper’’ job in the styling studios at Aveley and Dunton. In total he was at Ford for five years, working on Escorts, Capri’s (“I did a reasonable bit on the Capri,’’ he points out), D-series trucks and some bus projects that Ford was contemplating at the time.
His next move took him to the Midlands and eventual national prominence. “The person I worked for, Roy Haynes, secured a job at the British Motor Corporation to set up a studio in Oxford. And he asked me to go with him. I felt it would be more of a step up a level. And so I went to Oxford, and the Cowley plant.’’
At the end of the sixties, BMC was still in the Issigonis era. However, Sir Alec hardly went out of his way to welcome the new young gun on the team. “He had a big influence on me. But Issigonis wouldn’t talk to me because I didn’t have an engineering degree.’’
The first major project for the Haynes and Mann partnership was ADO28, instigated just months after BMC and Leyland Motors (Rover and Triumph) merged to become British Leyland. The car that would eventually become better known as the Marina was intended primarily as an Escort/Cortina competitor. It represented the first part of an overall plan Roy Haynes had come up with for BMC, whereby there would be just three basic chassis, onto which a variety of different bodies could be put, “…everything from Mini’s to Jags,’’ he said.
“When Roy worked at Ford, he’d come up with the conclusion that BMC didn’t have an Escort competitor. The nearest thing to it was the Minor. The Marina took the concept of the Minor and blew it up with a new body. It was an effort to try and split the product range and get some money back.’’
Harris was also working on his own individual projects. One of the more distinctive was Zanda, a styling exercise exhibited through 1969 as a showcase for products by Pressed Steel Fisher, the Cowley body making company. The car was uncompromisingly wedge-shaped, showing the way that Harris Mann, and, separately, others like Giugaro and Bertone – believed car design was evolving.
“In the back of my mind, I saw that as the route MG should take. I thought they should look at mid-engined designs (a configuration to which the wedge shape is ideally suited). It was my way of tickling management. When you looked around at what the rest of Europe was doing, BMC was like a mausoleum.’’
It tickled management enough to earn Harris the chance to be chief stylist on Austin’s next family saloon. Codename ADO67, design work on the car had already started at Cowley, before there was, as Harris puts it, “…a falling out between Roy Haynes and Longbridge. The people at Longbridge didn’t like a separate outpost not under their control. So Roy departed, and we were all pulled up to Longbridge.’’
The Allegro has become a notorious car for many reasons, but early Harris Mann sketches reveal it was at least intended to be far more attractive. Explains Harris “We wanted to make a far more modern version of the 1100/1300, keeping the long sleek look. Then a lot of other things affected it. A heater was developed at astronomical cost, which was very deep. That had to go in. Then we had to put in the E-Series engine, which was more suitable for putting in a Leyland truck. So the whole car gained in height. That made it look shorter and stumpier. Thicker seats were added inside, which cut down on interior space. It was getting bulkier inside and out, and lost the original sleekness. That was what happened, unfortunately.”
And at least Harris wasn’t responsible for that Quartic steering wheel. “That came from engineering,’’ he says, “It wasn’t very good at all, but we were instructed to do it.’’
Although he has often confessed himself “disappointed” by the eventual appearance of the Allegro, Harris is still defensive of it. “You still see more Allegro’s around than Cortina’s of the same era. It took a lot of stick, but it wasn’t that bad a car. The trouble was every one off the line was different in some way, thanks to quality control. I had one as a company car, and it was one of the good ones.’’
Next project was the Princess, and once again, Harris’ original ideas failed to make it to the metal. “That was conceived as a five door,’’ he says of the car now universally nicknamed as the ‘wedge’. “If you look at the rear, it’s the ideal shape for a hatchback. But we were told that would take away the major selling point of the Maxi. In today’s climate, you just can’t understand a decision like that. It was a boo-boo. By the time the Ambassador came along with a hatchback, it was all just far too late. ’’
Like the Allegro, the Princess picked up a dubious reputation for lack of quality. “It could have been a good car. Unfortunately, design or styling seemed to take a lot of flack for what was engineering’s fault. It got let down by the details.’’
The spin off from the Princess was the TR7, which continued with the wedge theme. “Over at Triumph, they couldn’t re-engineer the TR6 to get it into the States. They asked us to do a replacement concept, in just weeks. Lord Stokes was around at the time and decided to put it into production, with few modifications. It was done in a very short period.’’
“Before I looked at the TR7, I went to the States to see what was going on there. That’s why it was a bit more extreme. It was only really planned for America. There was no reason to think it would be a European car. It was also intended to be a Targa roof, but Engineering just couldn’t work it out, A pity really.’’
Again, the TR7 has been regarded as something of a dark hour in Triumphs history, but there was little chance for a car beset by so many quality problems, thanks to appalling industrial relations at the Liverpool plant where it was built. “The TR7 could have gone on longer, but the company ran out of money. Leyland had this ability to do a product, then let it run itself into the ground, not looking at the marketplace. The engine was another tragedy. Saab took that and made a great Turbo out of it.”
Harris was also involved in the tricky task of trying to replace the Mini. Under the ADO74 and ADO88 codenames, Harris Mann’s new themes were radical departures from the cuddly persona of the original. ADO74 was cancelled in 1973, due to the £130-million needed to produce it, but the ADO88, on which work started in 1974, eventually metamorphosed into the Metro in the eighties. “We had the same sort of problems as Volkswagen was having replacing the Beetle. It was the same trauma as the Mini. There was just this love affair with it.’’
Harris’ final days with BL saw him working on the Maestro project. David Bache at Rover was in overall charge, resulting in Rover’s design plans being pushed through instead of Harris’s ideas. But he was called in to do modifications on the car though.
“The big scallop down the side was derived from the SD1. The line was meant to line up with the lights at the front and rear, but the rear lamps were bigger. So the line looked like it was running down towards the end. I called it the Hyena look, down at the rear.’’ And the solution? ‘’We had to jack up the suspension in the end.’’ A few of the inherited features of the Maestro went over to the Montego. ‘’That looked even more like it was dropping down at the rear. So we added an extra wide trim strip to make it look like it was running parallel.’’
Harris Mann left BL in 1983 after 15 years with, one senses, a sense of frustration that whatever he tried to do was bedevilled by other factors out of his control. “I’d had enough of their pernickety attitude – there was something of the Chrysler approach coming in, which was not to be in any way adventurous…’’
Working as a freelance, Harris went to BMW in the company’s Advance Concept Package Department, with one effort becoming a show car. More recent work has seen him facelift the Subaru Impreza for 2003 and, at the time of writing, is back with a very familiar marque, MG. “I’m working with Peter Stevens, the director of design at MG-Rover, on the SV sports car project, getting it ready for production.’’
Having also collaborated on the MG-Z cars as well, the incarnation of what was British Leyland seems a much better place to work these days. “It’s been quite a project to work on, and it’s a great team. In comparison to a mainstream production facility, it’s all very refreshing, no politics. I’m on a freelance basis but in a sense, I’ve come full circle.’’
“When I look back on my career, it’s been fun. It’s such a pity it ran through such a period of discontent at BL. It’s hard to stake your claim in this country and get the rewards you get in other countries.’’
Which car is Harris most proud of? “The Princess, which I designed to be a hatchback but they didn’t want it to compete with the Maxi so they swapped the tailgate with a boot lid. It was taking the Land Crab and making it more modern. But even that one with its winning formula was ruined by Longbridge.”
In the last few years Harris enjoyed retirement and was a regular visitor to classic cars shows and always took time to chat to owners and enthusiasts of his creations and answer their questions with his affable charm and wit.
Harris died on 14th August 2023.
The Allegro Club International paid tribute to Mann’s innovative legacy with these words:
“He will be missed not only as the designer of British Leyland cars, including the Allegro, but also as a pleasant and generous person. We have been fortunate to have had his support over the years. Our thoughts are with the Harris family and many friends.”
Certain parts reproduced from January 22nd 2003 edition of Classic Car Weekly.
By kind permission of the Editor.