Harry George Webster
So the resourceful Webster decided to use a chassis but then gave it modern, all-independent suspension and, of course, those absolutely fabulous metal clothes. Such ingenious thinking defined Webster’s reign in the 1960s and 1970s as one of Britain’s leading automotive engineers. It gave Triumph a sexy image and, when it became part of British Leyland in 1968, an amazing influence for such a relatively minor car industry player. “Our rivals were always enormously bigger than we were,” recalled Webster:
"We had to spot niches in the market and say: This is where a car will sell for a little bit more than the others.” We always looked for the difference between what they were doing and what we could do. We couldn’t compete head-on."
The approach led to a roll-call of fondly remembered classic cars: the sporty Triumph Vitesse, Spitfire and GT6, the 2000 executive car, the BMW-rivalling Dolomite, the glamorous Triumph Stag, and the long-running Triumph TR roadsters. All of these were styled by an Italian, the designer Giovanni Michelotti, who became a close friend of Webster’s, and who helped give a desirable sheen to Triumph’s sometimes rudimentary mechanical hardware. Webster often drove – hard – to Turin in a prototype, discussed his plans with Michelotti, and charged back to Coventry, all in a weekend.
Harry Webster was just 15 in 1932 when he left Coventry Technical College for an apprenticeship with the Standard Motor Company. He worked in the technical engineering department of the company, a manufacturer of mundane family cars, and during the Second World War he toiled in its aero-engine department. Later, in 1949, he was put in charge of chassis development under Ted Grinham. Webster loved high-performance cars and motor racing, Grinham did not, and the two frequently clashed.
However, after acquiring the Triumph brand in 1945, Standard had decided to enter the sports-car market, and Webster was in his element refining the handling and roadholding of what became the Triumph TR2, under a tight budgetary regime and the glare of the company’s tyrannical chairman Sir John Black. When Grinham retired in May 1957, Webster became top engineering dog, immediately setting about replacing the Standard 8/10 cars with the cunningly conceived Herald.
In 1969, a year after the formation of British Leyland (Triumph became a division of Leyland Trucks in 1961, the Standard name axed soon afterwards), Webster’s considerable efforts were rewarded with a promotion to oversee the engineering of the entire car-making conglomerate.
This entailed a transfer from Coventry to Longbridge, Birmingham, but it also included confronting another colossal figure in British car design: Alec Issigonis. His Mini and 1100/1300 cars were brilliant engineering achievements, and deservedly popular, but were unprofitable. Webster had the unenviable task of sidelining Issigonis, putting him in charge of British Leyland’s research arm, so leaving Webster free to plan the corporation’s new range of family models.
There were two of these, the Morris Marina and the Austin Allegro, but neither proved a success for a variety of technical and design reasons. The consensual nature of policy decisions in the political furnace of British Leyland at the time was new to Webster.
In a turbulent five years, he made plenty of enemies in his attempts to make BL’s cars emulate the market leaders from Ford, with a little bit of that old Triumph “cool” thrown in for good measure. In 1974, he left the company for the Leamington Spa-based Automotive Products (AP), a component-maker; a year later, the bankrupt British Leyland was nationalised. Webster retired from AP in 1982.
Published: The Independent 17 February 2007
Henry George Webster, automotive engineer: born Coventry 27 May 1917; apprentice, Standard Motor Company 1932-38, assistant technical engineer 1946-48, chief chassis engineer 1949-55, chief engineer 1955-57; director of engineering, Standard-Triumph International 1957-68; technical director, Austin Morris Division, British Leyland Motor Corporation 1969-74; CBE 1974; group technical director, Automotive Products 1974-82; married 1943 Peggy Sharp (died 2003; one daughter deceased); died Kenilworth, Warwickshire 6 February 2007.
You’d never realise it today but the Triumph Herald – launched in 1959 – was the first small, affordable British car actually to look chic. Its sharp, sleek lines came from Italy, and it was available as a racy coupé and a stylish convertible, as well as a two-door saloon. There was nothing else quite like it, especially at the £702 price.
For the speed with which the car was designed, delighted consumers had a mild-mannered engineer from Coventry to thank. But Harry Webster had a guilty secret. He had reverted to pre-war technology to create the Herald, which had a stout separate chassis to support its La Dolce Vita looks. In motoring terms, such things had gone out with the Ark, replaced by integral “monocoque” body/chassis units. But the investment needed to manufacture them was huge, and the Standard-Triumph company was a financially threadbare organisation.