Richard Truett
Richard Truett
Technology and Engineering reporter

Will the quality ghosts of British Leyland haunt Tesla?

A Tesla Model 3 outside the company's Gigafactory in Sparks, Nevada, in July 2016.

Photo credit: BLOOMBERG
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Elon Musk, born in June 1971, may know little about the defunct UK automaker British Leyland. But he may very well learn -- painfully -- some of the lessons that eventually killed what was once the General Motors of Britain.

In the summer of 1968, a massive merger of British Motor Holdings and Leyland Motor Corp. created the world’s sixth-largest automaker. British Leyland consisted of Jaguar, Land Rover, Rover, Triumph, MG, Austin, Morris, Daimler, Alvis, Riley, Wolseley and several others -- many that were once the crown jewels of the UK’s postwar auto industry.

The company never gained traction, lost money almost every year, was bought and sold, had its assets stripped and lingered in a managed decline until the last embers finally died in 2005, at which time what was left of the company was known as MG Rover.

But back in the ’70s, when Musk was getting around on a Schwinn Sting-Ray, poor quality prematurely killed many British Leyland vehicles that should have been segment leaders or at least very competitive. Cars overheated, shorted out, leaked every fluid under the hood and suffered egregious quality problems that saddled the company with a reputation it could never outrun, even when quality improved.

Why does this matter to Tesla? During a recent conference call with investors, various news reports say, Musk revealed that the Model 3 -- the company’s new, smaller and more affordable electric sedan -- will not undergo beta, or prerelease testing, but will go straight into production.

While the Model 3 will use many of the same proven components from the same suppliers that are in the Model S and Model X, that doesn’t mean testing is any less important.

Ask any product development engineer at Toyota, Nissan, Ford, General Motors or Hyundai how important it is to thoroughly test every nook and cranny of every vehicle in real-world situations before shipping the vehicle to dealers. Automakers have to test cars in the real world for hundreds of thousands of miles in every driving situation and weather condition to ensure that all of the components, from major mechanical systems right down to the rubber seals that keep water out of the trunk, work properly, all the time, every time.

Take, for instance, the diesel version of the Chevrolet Cruze arriving at dealerships. The current-generation Cruze has been on sale nearly two years, but just installing a different type of engine brought about a massive testing regimen designed to ensure a trouble-free launch.

For almost a year, 50 GM engineers drove diesel-powered Cruze test vehicles more than a million real-world miles in broiling Death Valley heat, in high altitudes in the mountains, in punishing stop-and-go L.A. traffic jams and elsewhere to catch any potential problems before regular production.

While it is true that much development testing can be done on computers, and analytical equipment and programs have never been better, there is no replacement for real-world testing. Costs rise exponentially when a faulty part slips through and the car has to be recalled and fixed.

This brings to mind how hard British Leyland tried to bury its quality problems in 1987 with the launch of the Sterling 825, which was made in a joint venture with Honda. Here was a car that had classy British styling and a bulletproof Honda drivetrain, the same one used in the first-generation Acura Legend. What could go wrong? Plenty did.

Just before launch, the UK's Motor magazine published a detailed report on how British engineers tested the Sterling in the U.S. and Canada and piled on a million miles in their quest to find potential quality problems.

The Sterling was launched in the U.S. in January 1987, and immediately the problems started. The leather upholstery turned green in the sunlight. Trim parts fell off, air conditioners and electric windows failed. The company worked hard to fix the problems, and 1991 Sterling models were far better. But the brand’s reputation for poor quality dogged sales and British Leyland, then called Rover Group, yanked the car from the U.S.

Tesla’s first two vehicles have had their share of quality glitches, electrical and software gremlins in the Model S, and problems with the falcon-wing doors in the Model X show that, even with testing, plenty of issues have slipped by Tesla’s product development engineers.

We don’t know if Musk has overruled Tesla’s engineers about testing the Model 3 before regular production begins. But it’s a grave mistake not to put the car through the most rigorous real-world testing Tesla is capable of performing.

Don’t forget: This is the car on which nearly 300,000 consumers have placed $1,000 deposits. Tesla has everything riding on the Model 3 as the company aims to reach high-volume production and profitability. It must be a success for Tesla.

An automaker can save money in many areas, but scaling back testing means taking chances and angering customers with problem-plagued cars that are not fully developed. That’s not a strategy to stay in business. Musk should read George Santayana’s 1905 book, Reason in Common Sense and pay close attention to the part that says: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

You can reach Richard Truett at rtruett@crain.com.

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