Pressed Steel

(No, it's not a page about steel which has been pressed, that would be silly. It's about a company with a very unimaginative name that made steel pressings.)

The rather good website at has a considerable number of articles about why British Leyland or BMC or BLMC or whatever the fuck they were calling themselves at any given time became shit. Unfortunately, there are quite a few points which they miss, get wrong, or contradict themselves over, and one matter which seems to have gone over their heads several times is Pressed Steel, or Pressed Steel Fisher as the site pedantically insists on referring to them although nobody else ever does.

Indeed, hardly anybody ever even refers to them at all. I first heard them mentioned as a supplier of bodywork for DMUs (DMUs which then got fitted with bus engines built by Leyland or bits of it, as it happens...), and never hearing of them in any other context I assumed they were one of those smallish internal industry suppliers who would run off a few hundred pressed-steel anythings for anyone who wanted some, this week it's DMU bodies, next week it's enamel bedpans or whatever.

It was quite a while before I discovered that they were not just a little overgrown-garden-shed type outfit; in fact they were a bloody great big overgrown-garden-shed type outfit, and things like making DMU bodies were just a minor sideline alongside their main business as a major supplier of car bodyshells, not only to BL (to use a convenient shorthand for all the things that went into it), but to lots of British car manufacturers. I guess it's only natural that one of the largest such should want to gain control of one of their most important suppliers by buying it out when the opportunity arose, but on the other hand, this is where we come to the point which the lot seem to have missed...


Their bodies were overweight, overcomplex, full of rust traps, difficult and expensive to put together, and fucking badly put together. And unfortunately they were also pretty much of a monopoly. So all the car manufacturers who made cars using Pressed Steel bodyshells had to spend a considerable amount of time unfucking the crap they'd had delivered before they could actually use it, straightening out the bits that didn't line up and bodging them extensively with lead body filler. Which is why you can be doing some welding on any kind of boring British family car of that era, no matter how lowly, and suddenly find yourself having to deal with a deluge of molten lead when the heat gets to some lead filler you had no idea was even there: you've just found another Pressed Steel fuckup that the factory had to bodge over before they could build the car.

It wasn't just the cheap models that suffered. If anything the expensive makes had it worse. One of the main reasons Jaguar's production was never up to scratch was the amount of time they had to spend unfucking Pressed Steel's junk. Bigger and more complicated bodies just meant many more ways to cock them up, while quality control remained nonexistent. Missing out spot welds was a favourite trick: Jaguars of the Mk2 era would sound like they were falling to pieces after a couple of years, which on investigation turned out to be because Pressed Steel had not bothered to do up to 60% of the spot welds. Rolls-Royce similarly had a long-term problem with the number of bodies rejected for missing spot welds by their incoming quality inspectors because Pressed Steel didn't bother inspecting them themselves before they went out. And the lack of any alternative basically compelled them to continue putting up with this shit, which is why it was a long-term problem for Rolls-Royce, and is also why Jaguar freaked out at the possible loss of their bodyshell supply and rapidly took themselves into their own assimilation by the BL borg as soon as it had eaten Pressed Steel.

There is a most enlightening direct comparison possible between two cars produced at the same time using the same mechanical parts, one with a Pressed Steel body and one with an intelligently-designed one: the Volvo 1800 and the Volvo Amazon. The Amazon body is both legendarily strong and unexpectedly light for its size and strength. (It is quite accurately described as "built like a tank", since the tremendous weight of a tank is such a fucking nuisance for basically everything that tank designers put a great deal of effort into making them as light as possible without losing strength.) All the steel is put where it's doing something useful and not just adding dead weight. The panels are relatively small in number and large in size, and joined together in a constructionally simple and structurally efficient way; it is pretty much free of areas where moisture can hang around and fester, and even the pre-galvanised bodies last well.

The pig's ear Pressed Steel made of the 1800 body is a shocking contrast; to be sure it looks gorgeous, but that's the only gorgeous thing about it. It actually manages to be heavier than the much larger Amazon - as a performance car the 4-seater Amazon 123GT is better than the same drivetrain in the 2-seater 1800 bodyshell. This is basically because it's made of lots of fiddly bits of steel stuck together in an overcomplicated and structurally ill-conceived way, with lots of dead weight from steel that isn't being used sensibly in regard to the forces that need to be dealt with. This in turn means there are lots of silly places where rust can get a hold on some concealed scrap of metal and spread out into the surrounding structure, so by the time you notice it there's a fucking horror story hidden behind what you can see, and the amount of taking apart of the actual bodyshell you have to do to repair all the jiggly bits that have disappeared usually means you'd be better off just getting a whole new bodyshell entirely if you only could.

In other words, it's a typical British bodyshell of the period. If you found yourself having to repair one without having any idea what it was, you would still be saying as soon as you began to find out what the repair involved, "this has got to be some odd British car, it's got Pressed Steel all over it". And you'd be right, about the design, if not the nationality.

It would appear to make sense if whatever the BL entity was calling itself at the time (I can't be fucking arsed with naming it accurately, and it doesn't make any difference to the point) reckoned it would be a good idea to take this fucking shambles under its own control and finally be able to compel them to start taking notice of basic things like proper quality control. Only what they actually did was do the takeover bit but not bother to implement any unfucking measures. So basically all that happened was that the need for the factories to unfuck the bodyshells they got lumbered with became especially bloody stupid, but didn't actually get any less.

(Aside: yes, the Volvo 1800 is another attractor of pointless pedantic niggles over what letters you should stick after or before the number to still mean basically the same bloody thing, and again, I can't be fucking arsed with it. Volvo only ever made one steel-bodied sports car and it used a Pressed Steel body design; even after they took over building the bodies themselves, while they put them together more competently, they didn't bother redesigning the structure and retooling for something they only made a few of, so apart from not rusting quite so fast it was not much different from when Pressed Steel were putting it together, and still had all the same basic faults. Bugger listing all the prefices/suffices for all the irrelevant minor variations, it was still the same body so "1800" on its own is good enough: for all the people who always stop me when I mention the "Volvo 1800" and say "do you mean the {$prefix}1800{$suffix}?", no, I mean all of them, you know bloody well what car I mean so fuck off.)

Nor did anything change regarding Pressed Steel's inability to design anything other than overweight, inefficient, complex-to-assemble bodyshells full of hard-to-repair rust traps. The BL entity simply carried on struggling under the same affliction while not appearing to recognise that the problem was even there, as if they had no idea that bodyshells didn't have to be like that. They would fret about their new models coming out heavier than they should have been, but at the same time somehow didn't twig that indeed they were heavier than they should have been, and making them lighter was not something that could only be achieved by the approach of making them out of water-soluble tinfoil that manufacturers like Vauxhall and Ford turned to. About the only half-way decent (which is still short of "ideal") BL bodyshell was the Marina, simply because it was so close to being a soap-box cart that there was little opportunity to fuck it up.

A huge proportion of the chronic deficiencies in British car body design were down to Pressed Steel, whether directly by being shit themselves or indirectly by being so great an influence that manufacturers attempting to ditch the Pressed Steel complex lard approach tended to overcompensate and go to the opposing extreme of putting wheels on a wobbly biscuit tin.

All the BL entity achieved by ingesting them was to transform an undesirable feature of the external environment into an internal source of chronic gutsache. They would have done better to resolve the conflict between dependency and lack of control not by acquiring control but by severing the dependency, and putting the money into hiring some Swedish engineers to set up their own plant. And if it wasn't enough money it would also have been a better use for the money they spent on the plant to build the E-series engine, which was a shit design that should never have been signed off for production and fucked up every car they put it into (except the 6-pot Landcrab), but that's for another rant.

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