Home » How Beautiful Sketches Become Ugly Cars: A Redemption Of Triumph Designer Harris Mann

How Beautiful Sketches Become Ugly Cars: A Redemption Of Triumph Designer Harris Mann

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“A camel is a horse designed by a committee”

Anyone in the creative profession will fully understand that famous idiom. Most designers have experienced the pain of seeing one of their creations mercilessly altered by vice presidents and focus groups into something far less than their original vision. Typically, it’s just something everyone in the field understands and rolls with. In a job interview, if you show a prospective employer your portfolio of initial concepts for something that was produced at a less-than-stellar standard, they’ll typically accept that the end result was not your fault. Most important, you won’t go to your grave with epitaphs worldwide stating that you were “the designer of the world’s worst object.”

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However, not all creative people are so lucky. Recently, English car designer Harris Mann passed away at the age of 85, and his obituary from many news sources did in fact claim his responsibility for a number of products dubbed “Ugliest Car Ever” or “Worst Motor Vehicle in History.” At least most of these stories admitted to the sad fact that had he been working in France, Italy, or likely any place other than British Leyland that the production versions of his most maligned designs, particularly the Austin Allegro and Triumph TR7, would have turned out far better than they did.

We’re late at the Autopian in giving Mann an obituary ourselves, so we’ll explore a bit of his work and see if we can imagine an alternate reality where his original designs, or at least something similar, came closer to fruition. The guy deserves that, doesn’t he?

The Mann Himself

Harris Mann started his design career at, of all things, a UK bus company before eventually joining Ford in time to contribute to products like the first “dogbone faced” Escort and Capri that are almost universally accepted as “cool” cars. Mann’s boss at the time, Roy Haynes, left Ford for what was then called BMC and persuaded the young designer to join him. Initially Harris worked on the Morris Marina, a car that eventually gained a poor reputation but typically not for its rather harmless styling. When Haynes eventually left the company in 1970, Mann moved up to lead of design at what had then become British Leyland.

British Leyland

During his tenure at the infamous firm, Mann was involved with a number of high-profile projects that were intended to change the course of the ailing giant. In virtually every case, the good intentions of the designs were somehow twisted or altered in such a way as to hinder the greater success they might have had. Let’s take a look at those two well-known, often-crapped-upon examples of his work and try to change the course of history a bit.

Austin Allegro

How, exactly, would a horse be turned into a camel by group decision making? Well, some higher-up demands a larger on-board water capacity, which requires the big hump on the back, while another insists on better visibility through a long, ungainly neck. The design gets killed by a bunch of tiny decisions that ultimately ruin what was a sound concept. [Ed Note: At Chrysler, one Jeep Wrangler JL engineer called it “Death By A Thousand Cuts.” -DT]. Harris Mann’s Allegro is probably the ultimate group design input “camel” ever in the history of the automobile.

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YouTube screenshot

The proof is in this initial Mann sketch from the late sixties of his vision for Austin’s new small car to replace their current “bigger Mini” 1100/1300 series. Looking a bit like a sleeker Alfa Romeo Alfasud or the Volkswagen Scirocco that wasn’t released for another half decade, the rather slick coupe in this rendering has “European Car Of The Year” written all over it. If produced this way, it certainly would not have ever been a contender for an “Ugly Car” list. So, what the hell happened?

According to excerpts from a Mann interview in 2002 shown on aronline, it was the “camel” syndrome:

‘We wanted to make a far more modern version of the 1100/1300, keeping the long, sleek look. Then a lot of other things affected it. A heater was developed at astronomical cost which was very deep. That had to go in. Then we had to put in the E-Series engine, which was more suitable for putting in a Leyland truck.’

…the whole car gained in height. That made it look shorter and stumpier. Thicker seats were added inside, which cut down on interior space. It was getting bulkier inside and out, and lost the original sleekness. That was what happened unfortunately.’


Indeed, a few little changes affect everything. Insist on a firewall and engine that are a few inches too tall and your wedge-shaped car turns into a lump of coal. It didn’t help that Leyland exaggerated the gentle curves of the sketched car since engineers wanted to incorporate developments they had made in body strength and packaging in a concept called the “Barrel Car”; that name alone tells you that “sleek” is not going to be the result of their changes.

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British Leyland

Let’s do Harris Mann a solid and imagine what an Allegro that matched his vision might have looked like. Forget that stupid heater, screw the “barrel car” bulbous curves, and stick with the smaller A-series engine. You can see that the sum of all these seemingly minor changes dramatically alters the car. I also really pumped up the “wedge” shape that I somehow think Harris would have wanted to do by the time of the Allegro’s introduction since, at that point, his next creations (the TR7 and much-better-resolved Leyland Princess series) were all ‘bout that rake.

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The animation below shows it pretty plainly:

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Wait, why are there giant bumpers and a US license plate on the car in the sketch? Why not? The styling alterations have turned the All-Agro into a Alleg-Scirocco. Remember, the Big Three were offering the Pinto and the Chevette as subcompact choices at the time, so anything would be more appealing than that (if it would stay running, of course, and that’s a big “if”).


Strangely enough, the Allegro did not offer a hatchback which competitors like the VW Golf and Renualt 5 (Le Car) had by the time of the Leyland car’s launch in 1973; we’d certainly want to add that. What about the need for a larger engine option that wasn’t some big boat anchor like the E-series? An extreme alternate reality might involve Honda, the company that less than a decade later partnered with BL to save their ass with an English-built Civic called the Triumph Acclaim.

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H&H Classics (car for sale)

Honda could have provided the larger motors, and later had the UK manufacture the motors themselves as with the Acclaim. Combined with the styling changes, would that have been a game changer for the big UK firm? One would hope so, but if the labor strikes and quality issues of 1970s Leyland were still there, we’d probably still have a car like the actual Allegro where the rear window could pop out if you jacked it up in the wrong place. A pity, but at least it might have looked better, and our man Mr. Mann could have held his head up higher.

Triumph TR7

Here’s another truly important design idiom: a concept that’s difficult to translate to production will almost certainly not translate to production well. It’s quite possible that we’re seeing that today with the Cybertruck. Leyland seems to have made this mistake with a certain Triumph.

However, when looking to replace some of their very aging sports cars in the seventies, there is at least one thing that British Leyland did right: they chose to aim the design directly at their biggest market, the United States. The idea of a modern looking but technically rather simple targa-topped sports car was determined to be the winning formula against competitors such as the Datsun 240Z and Porsche 914. Mann was of course tasked with the styling, and his initial sketches shows a dramatic wedge similar to something Bertone might have done (and in fact did sort of do with the Runabout concept that became the Fiat X1/9). You can see below that the wedge is accentuated by a sharp, prominent character line that runs from the bottom of the front wheel arch to sweep over the back fender.

Tr7 Sketch
YouTube screenshot

To replicate this concept faithfully on a production car would require a manufacturer that put design above all else and refused to make compromises for the sake of economy. You might already know this, but British Leyland was most certainly not such a firm.


The production TR7 did have fans, and the car hit the target American market to become the best-selling Triumph TR sports car model of all time. The low nose and design of the entire front end of the car was generally well received, with the possible exception of the pop-up headlight design that looked to many like lids for gnomes’ toilets. Everything between the neat “kamm” tail and theA-pillar, however, became the brunt of much criticism.


Here’s the famous US commercial once again; the guy in the igloo will have a hard time starting that thing tomorrow morning:

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We can’t say for certain, but the translation of Mann’s notchbacked styling likely didn’t really come off exactly as he’d planned. The targa roof that would have suited this design rather well never came to fruition, and the ribbed trim detail that Harris had indicated on his drawings ended up as black plastic trims that looked a bit like BL had accidentally put speakers on the outside of the car. Also, the lower body “sweep” from the sketch has been reduced to a tiny depression that’s far too shallow to bring to life the cut on the original rendering. If you haven’t seen the initial sketch, you might wonder why this drooping shape is there in the first place. One would surmise that Harris should have changed course when he realized that his design would ultimately be so watered down (and not be an open car at all), but likely the die was cast at that point.

I personally like the quirkiness of the TR7, but then my dream car is a 1969 Lamborghini Espada in the metallic-Kermit-Frog green so you need to take my opinions with a grain of salt. Still, even if the notchback of the TR7 appealed to you, it’s unquestionably a divisive styling element that alienated a big chunk of potential buyers. The issue with the roof becomes readily apparent when you do something similar to the beloved early RX-7:

RX7 club.com  (car for sale)

The angled glass back of the RX-7 seems to perfectly complement the wedge nose. Worse than that, the fastback hatch of the RX-7 allows for a much larger cargo area and even space for tiny rear seat in non-US markets. My guess that such changes to the Triumph (which pre-dated the Mazda sports car by four years) would have increased its popularity immensely.

2880px 1975 Triumph Tr7 3 1

Miniscule seats in the back of a TR7 might seem like a silly thing, but as a person who was about seven when this car debuted, I would have gladly ridden in back (and my parents would have been able to consider such a car, if my dad didn’t already know about Lucas electrical systems).

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British Leyland / The Bishop

I fully understand what Harris was doing with the side sweep, but the car honestly does look less controversial with the sweep following a line more parallel with the hood (or bonnet, sorry). A sharper cut line above the rocker panel connects the detent above the rear bumper and below the front bumper, and also serves to break up the thick side profile of the body. I am sure that there is a reason for the funny looking pop-up light cut lines, but a far smoother hood with cleaner-closing lamps would be a final detail to really improve the car.

Used 1976 Triumph Tr7

Yes, I’m well aware that Triumph attempted to make a larger 2+2 version of the TR7 called the Lynx, with a hatchback and different rear end treatment. BL’s woes killed its chances for production. Honestly, this thing is a bit heavy looking in back. It’s certainly no longer even remotely a sports car yet it doesn’t have the panache of larger sports coupes like the Ford Capri or Opel Manta that it was supposed to compete with.

Wikimedia/Mark Brown

One more thing- why couldn’t BL have offered the Rover V8 engine right at the beginning of the TR7’s life instead of throwing it in when the car (and the company) was in the death throes? A small three-and-a-half liter V8 in a mid-seventies affordable sports car? Even with Leyland quality, many would consider it. Hell, the small block V8 in the concurrent Chevy Monza required you to drop the motor to change the rear spark plugs so it isn’t like the competition had it all wrapped up, right?


The Mann Lives On

In reality, the downward spiral of British Leyland was likely going to happen regardless of the design of the cars. Let’s face it: there are few better examples of outstanding transportation design than something like a Jaguar XJ6 or an original Mini, but the poor execution couldn’t save them or the auto industry of Old Blighty as a whole. Still, we need to recognize the talents of the people at BL that really tried. If nothing else, while pouring one out for Mann, in recent months the general public got to hear more of the truth behind the wrongs done to his creations by a careless corporate conglomerate.

We can only hope that wherever Harris is now in the great beyond, he is designing wedge-shaped cars to be developed by engineers and executives from Toyota.



The Triumph TR7’s Taillights Were Way More Influential Than You Think – The Autopian


A Daydreaming Designer Imagines If Triumph’s Shape Of Things To Come Gave Way To A Full-On Eighties Wedge. – The Autopian

Let’s Figure Out The Best ‘Worst Car’ From Those Stupid Lists Of ‘Worst Cars’ – The Autopian

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3 months ago

Just posted the Allegirricco mock up over on facebook and it’s all going off. Personally, I liked it. https://www.facebook.com/groups/729338430573719/posts/2579458325561711/?comment_id=2579613145546229&notif_id=1704760593103321&notif_t=group_comment

Morgan Thomas
Morgan Thomas
4 months ago

I had to go check in a mirror to see if I was you – I thought I was the only weirdo who dreamed of cruising about in a Kermit-green Espada! I also like the TR7, as a confirmed wedge-car obsessive (another dream car is a Subaru XT, and I used to own a few Leyland P76s) but looking at those TR7 pics, I now realise the main thing about the styling that looks wrong to me. It might be a minor detail, but the way the top of the door frames ‘dip’ very slightly at their rear ends rather than follow a continuous long gentle radius like the RX7 pictured really makes me irrationally angry.
My personal choice for a restyle would be to replicate the rear roof/B pillar styling of the AW11 MR2 – square off the door corners, add short triangular sail panels and some extra triangular windows to continue the side glass a bit further back.

4 months ago

Nah man. No redemption for Harris Mann. Grew up in 70s / 80s New Zealand and his designs were everywhere and they all sucked. Anyone can draw a cool wedge shaped concept on a piece of paper but a good designer can work around the restrictions of packaging to still make something that looks amazing whether an economy car or not.

4 months ago

I saw the early Mann sketch of the TR7, and instantly thought it was Inspector Gadget’s car. It looks very similar.
Other than the car turned into a van, was his car supposed to look like anything existing?

Carlos Ferreira
Carlos Ferreira
4 months ago

I had never seen the Allegro concept sketches, and it’s sad to see what could have been.I prefer the production TR7 over the imagined hatchback version however. The C pillar and Kammback rear reminded me of the Alfa Romeo P33 Roadster concept car from the eary 70’s. I always thought the TR7 just just need a lower ride height and bigger diameter wheels.

4 months ago

I think the TR7 isn’t terrible, but could have been a lot better with a few changes, most of which I don’t think would have been difficult or expensive from a production standpoint.

The sweep on the bodyside lacks all the tension and dynamism that the sketch had, with its tight radius and slight kick in the front fender that sort of unfurls as it moves rearward. (GM was good at doing this kind of thing right.) The sweep on the production car, by contrast, is a relatively constant radius that sort of lazily fades out on either end. This alone would have done a lot to improve the car, and something like the glass hatch you suggest would have done the rest. The rear on the sketch is well balanced, but in production it ended up very bottom-heavy, with a greenhouse that is a bit too short for what it relates to, and all that mass in the lower rear at the valence, lower fender and the massive black bumper. OK, you’ve got to keep the bumper so it needs more in the upper body to keep it from looking heavy.

Urban Runabout
Urban Runabout
4 months ago

The only thing wrong with the production TR7 was that it wasn’t a convertible from the outset. But I can see why they did what they did because everyone was fearful of imminent US rollover standards that never came to be.
That sweep was just fine- look at the 69-70 Mercury Cougar for a similar sweep (which also looked better as a convertible)
The headlamps had the notch below the pop-ups because without them, the lights would have had to flip up and inch or so higher to get the lamps to clear the bodywork.
But the TR7 concept sketch – i hate to say – that’s utter grade-school crap.

As for the Allegro – designing a car from the outside in never works. You need to work from the hardpoints out to have any chance of a practical and successful end-product.

So maybe old Horace wasn’t such a great designer after all.

Gerontius Garland
Gerontius Garland
4 months ago

I like the sweep on the TR7. My mother has one and painted it two-tone.

The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
4 months ago

> you won’t go to your grave with epitaphs worldwide stating that you were “the designer of the world’s worst object.”

I tried to order a headstone with that epitaph on it. The manufacturer told me I was in luck because someone had ordered one for Jony Ive and they still had the templates.

Last edited 4 months ago by The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
4 months ago

Lengthen the bonnet a bit on the TR7 and you have the front end of my (late, lamented) Supra.

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