Continental Drifter -- Shape Of Things That Were

Oct. 14, 2005
An inside look at the world of manufacturing: A new thought-provoking bimonthly column that delves into the social, cultural and economic conditions of manufacturing across the world.

The two most prescient statements of the 20th century were made at almost the same moment in history.

The first, in 1968, sprang from the lips of a goggle-eyed screwball in a white fright wig. The second, in 1975, came from the pen of an anonymous advertising copywriter with a taste for the novels of H.G. Wells.

"In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes," was the dictum coined by artist Andy Warhol, the aforementioned kook. An odd duck of epic proportions, Warhol was nonetheless nearly Delphic in his insight that celebrity would one day become a mere commodity, as rare as corn flakes and just about as valuable.

The century's second dead-on prognostication arrived only seven years later in the form of an ad campaign for the Triumph TR7, a sports car introduced 30 years ago by British Leyland Motor Corp., then manufacturers of Triumph, MG, Jaguar, Land Rover and a host of other marques.

The TR7 was, said its advertisements, "The shape of things to come." Seldom has an epigram been so acute.

At a time when conventional cars looked like bricks on wheels, the TR7 was a revolutionary design. With its hood sloping downward and its tail in the air, the little two-seater became known informally as "the wedge" -- a vehicle seemingly as futuristic as the plot of the 1933 Wells novel whose title inspired its advertising slogan.

Nothing like the TR7 had been seen before. And it did prove to be the shape of things to come, because within a few years almost every production automobile on earth displayed the same rakish, sloping profile. Almost all still do today.

But this is a cautionary tale. Because although the TR7 would be the biggest seller in Triumph's history, by 1981 it was history -- crushed by a variety of forces, not least of which was the incompetence of Leyland management.

Almost immediately upon the car's introduction, for example, demand in North America exceeded the company's entire productive capacity. Consequently, the TR7's European launch had to be postponed. A recalcitrant British workforce then caused Leyland to move production to three different facilities over six years, resulting in a rash of quality issues, a four-year delay in the introduction of an eagerly awaited convertible model and further delays in promised performance upgrades. Amidst the confusion, Leyland never even kept track of the exact number of vehicles it made.

Today, the TR7 is remembered only by collectors and enthusiasts. Leyland's assets were inexorably sold off beginning in the 1970s, its last incarnation being "MG-Rover Group," which died earlier this year but has recently been resurrected -- by a buyer in China.

So "the wedge" had its 15 minutes of Warhol-style fame. And it did indeed change the look of automobiles for the next three decades and, presumably, for years to come. But British Leyland? Well, it proved the veracity of another wise saying of 20th-century origin.

"You know what makes a good loser?" asked the writer Ernest Hemingway. "Practice."

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