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Downton & BMC

Making a deal with the Devil

The fact that throughout the 1960's Downton Engineering and their owners the Richmond's benefited hugely from their partnership with B.M.C. is indisputable, it appeared that Daniel & Bunty had finally found a group of people they could deal with. They had a partner in one of the most prestigious and highest volume car manufacturers in the world. Their partnership, informal though much of it was in the early days offered opportunities that they could have previously only dreamed of.

A few months earlier, things couldn't have been more different. In 1959 Downton were appointed as the official "Lotus Center" for Wiltshire, Dorset & West Hampshire. You would have thought that this would have been a marriage made in heaven, two of the most visionary automotive thinkers of the period working together on a series of projects ranging from road going tourers through to the cutting edge of Grand Prix racing. However, after only a very short period of time the coalition fell to pieces and no one was to ever mention that dreadful man (Colin Chapman) again. Needless to say that was the end of that.


          Influential character in the Downton story. John Cooper, Colin Chapman

          & Enzo Ferrari

In 1961, when Ronald "Steady" Barker tipped Issigonis off about a totally practical converted Mini Cooper that was not only more pleasant to drive than the standard model but would travel in excess of 100 mph an irresistible chain of events would begin to take over. Initially Richmond & Issigonis would meet up informally to discuss their latest ideas and new thinking in the field of Motor mechanics, usually over a superb meal and fine wines. This very soon progressed to Richmond being formally offered development work for BMC. The first project he worked on was the 12G 295 cylinder head for the "New" 998cc Mini Cooper. This new head developed by Richmond and his Downton "boys" not only gave vastly superior performance, but would increase fuel economy too.


          Richmond designed the cylinder head on the 1800.

As Daniel Richmond was now an official consultant to BMC he was required to sign a binding contract where he more or less had to sign away his rights as an independent engineer. Amongst the requirements demanded of him were that he was not allowed to carry out any development work for any other motor manufacturer. I imagine he didn't see this as a problem in the early days. After all, the royalties for his 295 head will have been flooding in by the mid 60's, and he was already well on the way to a similar deal for the 1800 range. A few years later, on the face of it, the situation got even better. Downton were made the sole official suppliers of "Special Tuning" equipment for the BMC range of cars.

By 1969, Daniel was receiving at least two major sets of royalties one for the 998 Cooper head and one for the 1800 head, this was money that he did not need to do any work for, it just dropped on the door mat. The Engineering Works was working flat out producing the kits that BMC couldn't shift enough of, and everyone was blissfully happy. Or were they?

Daniel had always been most interested in development work, he was at his happiest while in the experimental shop thinking about some new tuning problem or other, trying to come up with a solution to this or that. Although the development work hadn't totally dried up, BMC were no longer in a position to develop new engines. After all, he had seen the X9 alloy engine project that he had spent so much time on bite the dust, and BMC seemed to have no more interest in competition either.

Downton had gone from being a hot bed of new ideas to being a production facility almost exclusively dedicated to churning out stage 1 kits for BMC / BL. I suspect that it is not a coincidence that it was at exactly this time that Daniel seemed to become more unpredictable and spend more time away from both the works and from Bunty, traveling down to his "second home" in Devon. He spent his days fishing and his evenings drinking, even more heavily than usual. One time when he was at the works, an employee was seen producing a "Ford" engine from the boot of his car, that was the last that anyone saw of him. He was escorted off the site and given his marching orders.

Daniel also became convinced that "Ford" were out to get him, believing he was being spied on. This apparent paranoia can not have been helped knowing that not only had he become totally dependent on BMC / BL for almost all his income, but he could not have failed to have noticed that Ford were becoming the manufacturer of the 70's. The Escort was taking off where the Mini had finished, the Cortina was now the best selling car in the sector previously occupied by the 1100 / 1300 range. I am sure he recognised that the writing was on the wall.

Through the early 1970's Downton became stuck in an ever descending spiral. They were tied to a manufacturer who's credit was dropping like a stone, who were producing cars that people didn't want to fit performance conversions to. And yet their work for BMC / BL still accounted for the vast majority of their income. They couldn't develop new partnerships because of the consultancy agreement, in short they were stuck.

By 1974, the works looked a shadow of its former self.

Daniel's early death in his late 40's or early 50's was certainly hastened by too many superb lunches and a few too many bottles of fine wine, not to mention the cigarettes, but I can't help feeling he was never cut out to be stuck in a rut grinding out the same thing day after day. The consultancy agreement with BMC undoubtedly made Daniel Richmond a very wealthy man, but I believe it also removed most of the challenges that had kept this very unconventional man, relatively speaking, on the straight and narrow for so many years.

In this article, I have focused exclusively on Daniel Richmond, but I am sure the same applies to a great extent to his long time partner Bunty, equally unconventional and unpredictable. She ended up presiding single handedly over a business that was by that time more or less exclusively concerned in shifting kits to BMC. Its no wonder that once Daniel passed away, she claimed she only carried on for the sake of her Dog, Samantha.

Downton & BMC
Tied in to a dying manufacturer, doing work you don’t want to do.