Nuffield House (Part I) … 41-46 Piccadilly, London, W.1
Octagon Newsletter …November 1995
By Robin Yellowlees
I left Victoria Super Service in November, 1951 and travelled to England with the hope of joining the Nuffield Organization in a sales position. I was accepted as a sales trainee and stated work on the 5th of May, 1952.
For me, at that time, it was a dream come true. Nuffield Exports, Ltd., were to enjoy many years where the World couldn't seem to get enough of their products and we were selling Morris, MG, Riley and Wolseley cars to the people visiting Britain who were allowed to purchase cars for use in the U.K. and, provided that they exported the car within twelve months, were not liable to pay the high purchase tax charged to British car buyers. We could also sell to Canadians and Americans residing in Britain provided they paid in the much wanted hard (dollar) currency. They thus avoided having to wait for up to four years on the British home market for delivery.
British subjects emigrating from Britain to live abroad were also customers of ours, provided they could produce an import licence to guarantee the car's entry into the country of destination. Another category of buyer was the Foreign diplomat, resident in the U.K., who was allowed a 10% discount.
We were the sole export retailers of these products in the U.K. and had no competition. We were a branch of the factory and in 1952 the policy laid down was for the salesmen (six in number with one full-time correspondent), to show the products, answer all questions and explain the business procedure rather than applying any sales pressure. I found this difficult to adjust to, but the attitude changed considerably by the time I left in November, 1955, when the selling process had become fashionable!
The beautiful main showroom at the corner of Piccadilly and Sackville Street was a perfect place to show off our wares. Seven cars, at one time, were a normal complement for the main showroom, with three or four additional models downstairs reached by a lift.
The Nuffield range of cars in 1952 was perhaps the best Britain had to offer the World. Consider: The improved Minor Series MM range, Morris Oxford SMO and Morris Six, Wolseley 4/50 and 6/80, Riley RM 1.5 and 2.5 litre, MG TD and YB 1.25 litre saloon
Due to circumstances at the time, we rarely sold an MG. The TD output was virtually all sold to USA dealers and the YB was, to all intents and purposes, a home market model - after all, MG dealers in the UK had to have something to sell!
I think I can truthfully say that this was the most interesting time of my working life and I began meeting interesting people from practically every part of the World. They came from Austrailia, USA, Canada, Africa, India, Pakistan, Malaya, New Zealand, Europe and at least a dozen other countries. They included career diplomats, Sheiks, film stars, people both rich and not so rich. You never knew who would visit us next!
By 1952 the Morris Minor was potentially the fastest selling car in the World and I felt I was alone in caring about the fact that if we could have doubled our production output we could have sold every car and still have had a waiting list on the 'home' market. The answer to this line of thought was "We can sell all we can make, so don't worry Mr. Yellowlees". Discontinuing the Morris Six and the two Wolseley models would have freed another line for more Minors to be made, but this wasn't the Nuffield way and besides, the 'Old Man' had a soft spot for Wolseleys and always used one.
Our boss, Lord Nuffield, was a simple man whom we all respected. He started by manufacturing bicycles, as we all know and he believed that success came by offering the best product at a reasonable price and that it shouldn't be necessary to have to 'sell' it. After the war and in those car-hungry years his beliefs seemed justified.
It was not uncommon for salesmen to take clients to lunch and more than one imagined I must be making a small fortune. If I had told them that I was making 10-0-0 a week, plus expenses, they wouldn't have believed me! No commission on sales, only points, introduced in 1953, when efforts were at last being made to enable us to be a little more aggressive in our approach to customers.
A strict policy often resulted in lost sales and I will try to give a couple of illustrations. There was a rich Chicago businessman whose wife fell in love with a metallic grey 6/80 Wolseley in the showroom. At the time Britain was crying out for customers with payments in US/Canadian dollars. This man was 'loaded', and had a new Cadillac to drive at home. I had the unenviable job of telling him "Sorry, Sir, I cannot sell this car to you because we don't sell Wolseleys in the US of A." It was a dreadful scene that followed and Nuffields nearly had a lawsuit filed against them, but said American never got his Wolseley! A high ranking British diplomat wanted to purchase a Riley 2.5 saloon to take out to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The nearest Riley dealer was the Cairo Motor Co. in Egypt so we, of course, would not supply the car. Would he be a good chap and go down to Henly's and buy a Jaguar Mk. VII?!! These examples are but two of many. Our job was not always easy. The Rootes Group (Hillman, Humber, Sunbeam Talbot and Singer) went about their business very differently, pushing for sales whenever and wherever possible and gaining entree to the exclusive circles of diplomatic and social life in Mayfair and the like!
One Saturday morning there were just two of us on duty and yours truly was suddenly faced with seven Arab men in national dress advancing on our red MG TD in the centre spot of the showroom! I had nowhere to hide, so listened to this group all chattering excitedly in Arabic around the little car we all love. Suddenly they all seemed to see me at once and surrounded me. Through an interpreter I was to learn that I was in the presence of the Sheik of Kuwait, the second richest man in the World! He wished to buy 'that MG there' for his eleven year old son (the present Sheik), to drive around the Palace garden! What would you have done? We had explicit orders NOT to sell MGs to anyone under any circumstances unless they were bonafide Americans or Canadians. We were not to take orders from any Arabs until they could produce an import licence and selling to an eleven year old, well!! I was reduced to jelly and everything came out of my mouth a variation of "Yes, Sir", "Of course we can, Sir", feeling very ill and surrendering completely. With a shaky hand I wrote up the order and after a flourish of a signature from the Sheik the deed was done! We all shook hands and everything seemed a blur. Then they were gone. Had I got a deposit? Yes, thank God!
Monday morning, 9 am. "Mr. Yellowlees, could you come in here and explain this? You know we don't do this ... and this, what were you thinking of?" "But Mr. Bacon, you must understand … ". (The Sheik got his MG alright!)
Nuffield House (Part II) … 1952 - 1955
Octagon Newsletter … February 1996
By Robin Yellowlees
As I continue with my story of Nuffield Exports during the above period, I would like to highlight the diversity of products for all world markets. Apart from the countries behind the Iron Curtain and China, there were very few markets where our products failed to penetrate. The Minor was truly a World Car popular in most of the Third World countries and the Oxford made a reputation as a reliable and roomy taxi in such markets as West Africa, the West Indies and Guyana. Rileys appealed to people who today would buy BMWs, Wolseleys were for civil servants, bank managers and the moderately well-heeled. MGs, well, I don't think much explanation is needed there and a full range of commercial vehicles rounded it all off.
Interesting orders I remember taking, were to a gentleman living on St. Helena who told me that many of the inhabitants would be on hand to view his new Minor upon arrival, as it would be the eleventh car on the island. More interesting still was an order taken, again for a Minor, to be shipped to Sydney, Australia, and thence to an island where the purchaser signed that the car was his responsibility to deal with thereafter. It would be the first car ever to be landed on this particular island in the South Pacific and I often wondered how that car sale turned out!
Perhaps I should mention that shortly after the amalgamation of the British Motor Corporation, our other half, Austin, experienced a long drawn-out strike. This worked very much to our advantage, as their most popular model, the A40 Somerset, outsold our Oxford, and for several months, most of the orders for these cars were diverted to our product. One of the few times when we held the upper hand when dealing with Austin. A senior Nuffield man at that time said to me "A strike like that could never happen to us, because we know who the troublemakers are!" It wasn't too long afterwards that we began experiencing the same sort of trouble!
Much has been written about the results of the merger of Austin and Nuffield and I felt strongly that it was the beginning of the end for us, but it never dawned on me that it would be the end of them too! Today, under BMW management, we await the introduction of a new MG, to be built at Longbridge under the Rover banner!
In 1953 I went on sales courses to Cowley, Abingdon, Coventry and perhaps Birmingham, though my memory fails me there. Highlights were being warmly welcomed by Ken Revis, Morris' blind PRO, and by John Thornley, Manager of MG, who jumped up on a table to talk to us in a most informal manner. He spoke to us about what MG was all about and I am sure we were all committed to 'Maintaining the Breed'. I will not forget the blind women finishing the detail work and installing the instruments on the TD dashboards. Nor will I forget the sight of practically every British car radiator at Radiators Branch, Cowley, (Rolls Royce excepted!). Bentley, Armstrong Siddeley, Alvis, Daimler, the list goes on - all with radiators by Morris!
At club race meetings, such as Aston Martin hosted annually at Snetterton, Nuffields would occasionally become sportscar minded and I remember Ian Grant and myself representing the MG factory at a couple of these events. For me, it was a chance to chat to the drivers of the day (Ken Wharton, Tony Rolt, George Abecassis, Bob Gerard and Roy Salvadori to name a but a few, and of course Reg Parnell) and to examine the cars - mostly Formula Two. Ian used to travel to the USA army and air force bases in an MG TD and sell cars to the servicemen. He is the only one of the old bunch that I am still in contact with.
In 1955, Mr. Holditch, the Manager of Nuffield House, called me into his office ant told me that Head Office wanted somebody to do a full report comparing the VW Beetle of the day and the Morris Minor of the day (the 803 c.c. Series II) and suggest what improvements needed to be done to the Minor to make it better. Would I like to take it on? Yes, I would. So my wife, Jean, (then my fiancée) and I were given a new Volkswagen and drove it from London out into the country. I already had my own Series II Minor. I did what anyone would do. I wrote a précis of the Minor (a car I liked very much) from a salesperson's point of view, not very technical. Several days later I finished, having made it clear that I thought a developed Minor, particularly with a larger (1200 c.c.) motor and improved rear suspension and brakes, is the car the public want. I handed the several pages in and never heard anything about it. It was a few years later that I learned that the Wolseley 1500 had been designed to be the Minor's successor. Of course I have wondered whether my report in any way influenced the continuation of the Morris Minor (in 1000 guise), but no doubt the answer would be "no".
There were some perks with the job - we were given free tickets to some of the best stage shows in town, but it was the people I met or spoke to who were the 'perks' for me. Some I can recall are Rob Walker, Sterling Moss' manager, wondering whether a good word from him could help a friend of his get earlier delivery of a Minor Traveller on the home market. Outside was parked the first Mercedes Benz 300SL in England! A very charming man - Phil Hill, the American champion driver of the time who chatted for about half an hour mainly about the fact that he had found the cure for the overheating problems of Jaguars in California. He did so much to popularise English sportscars in the early days, particularly racing MGs; Mr. M.O.L. Tod, 'The Man From Kenya', who appeared at our showrooms with a Series MM Morris Traveller that he had built in Africa. We sent him to the factory, of course, where they compared his product quite favourably with the Traveller they were about to put into production. I could add to this list many well-known people of the times, particularly from the entertainment business. In closing, I feel privileged to have been the only Canadian to have worked at Nuffield House during that period when the British motor industry was thriving and Morris and MG cars were finding acceptance all over the World. A pity it could not last, but perhaps it has, with all the World-wide clubs that exist for these much loved cars.
Long Live the Victoria MG Club!!
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