Erratic leader Sir John Black casts a giant shadow over fascinating story
It comes as no surprise to discover that Graham Robson, the author of Veloce’s excellent new The Book of the Standard Motor Company actually worked there, running the Standard-Triumph motorsports operation in the early 1960s. There are so many insights and asides, and charts and informational graphics that it’s obvious Robson is very well-connected. To find he was actually there makes perfect sense.
Standard dates to the dawn of the motor industry in the UK, with The Autocar announcing the company’s existence in June 6, 1903. By the time the company faded away in the British Leyland takeover 60 years later, 200,000 Standards had been built prior to WWII and more than one million Standards and Triumphs between 1946 and 1963.
The company flourished in Edwardian times, with some enormous 6-cylinder cars, and built RE-8, BE-12 and Sopwith Pup aircraft during WWI. In the ’20s, they settled into well-made obscurity, flirting with bankruptcy in 1927 and only dodging the bullet through a humble side-valve, nine-horsepower compact.
With the exception of providing tuned, 6-cylinder engines to SS-Jaguar in the 1930s, most pre-war Standards were dull, middle-of-the-road machines, depending on flathead 4-cylinder and 6-cylinder engines with modest power outputs to compete with Austin, Morris and Ford in mid- and lower-priced ranges. There was a 20-horsepower V-8 in 1936-38, which bore an eerie resemblance to Ford’s 60 hp engine, but it was too expensive to build and didn’t last. Raymond Mays – the brain behind the ERA racers – toyed with the idea of a sports car based on the V-8 motor, but few were made. Despite the title “Flying” that preceded the eight-, nine- 12-, 14- and 16-horsepower models, the only really speedy item was the handsome waterfall grille.
The marketing drive which saw Standard turn from building slow boxes to at least slow, stylish cars can be laid at the feet of John Black, who came to Standard as general manager from Hillman in 1929. He might have been safe there, married to one of the Hillman daughters, but Hillman had merged with Humber and the Commer truck company and the controlling interest belonged to the meddlesome Rootes family. Black joined Standard as temporary assistant to owner Dick Maudslay but eventually proved invaluable, taking control of planning and production, being knighted for the company’s aircraft work in 1943 and surviving all the way to a boardroom coup in 1954.
Standard prospered through WW2, building Blenheim bombers, twin-engined Beaufighters and the superb Mosquito, and eventually even Rolls-Royce jet engines. Black was able to buy the bankrupt Triumph company in 1944 and followed up with a 1945 contract to build tractors for the dynamic Harry Ferguson. The two butted heads, but the contract lasted until 1959, when Ferguson sold out to Massey-Harris, and Standard made a lot of money from it, with the 500,000th tractor being built in 1956.
Pre-WWII Standards and Triumphs are rare, so most collectors know the companies from the post-war cars. The first new Standards were warmed-over 8’s, 12’s and 14’s, but reborn Triumph started fresh, with the razor-edge Renown sedan in 1946-54 and the similar, chunky Mayflower from 1950-54. The sporting Triumph 1800-2000 roadster is probably the last car to be made with a rumble seat and many of the 4,500 built from 1946-49 went overseas.
Meanwhile Standard came out with the bizarre (and now quite rare) 1948 Vanguard sedan, which was copied from a 1948 Plymouth, shrunk down to a very short 96-inch wheelbase. It was roomy, but tubby, and did not like corners; however, its excellent wet-liner 2-liter engine powered the Morgan Plus 4, Triumph TR2, TR3 and TR4 sports cars through the 1960s.
The brilliant but increasingly erratic Sir John Black was ousted in 1954 and, deprived of his energy, perhaps, the company went into a decline, finally being sold to British Leyland in 1961. By this time, the term Standard had ceased to mean quality, but had been downgraded by terms such as de Luxe and Super, to mean mediocre. The Vanguard had never really been replaced and redesigns looked dowdy, while the solid little Eight and Ten saloons were consistently outsold by the Austin A30 and A40, the Morris Minor and the Ford Anglia and Prefect.
Triumph, on the other hand, went from strength to strength, and the 1959 Herald 4- cylinder and 1962 6-cylinder Vitesse would lead to a new generation of sports cars like the Spitfire, GT6 coupe and TR4, TR5 and TR6 roadsters. The last Standard left the factory in May 1963.
The Book of the Standard is an excellent reference work for students of the marque, but it’s also quite an adventure story, with John Black’s shadow looming over every page.