William Richard Morris, who was to become Lord Nuffield, established Britain's favourite car factory and built an empire to be matched only by his generosity. Rhymer Rigby looks back.
'Giving it away is very pleasant,' Lord Nuffield once said, explaining his largess. It is estimated that during his lifetime he gave away about £30 million, back when that was an awful lot more money than it is today. Nuffield, likened by some to Henry Ford (but without Ford's unpleasantness), was an exceptional industrialist and businessman, but more than anything he was an extraordinary philanthropist, making a fortune and then giving it away.
William Richard Morris, as he then was, was born in Worcester in 1877. His parents, who were farmers, had six other children but only William and a sister survived childhood. The family moved to Cowley near Oxford when William was three, and he attended the village school. He left school at 15 to work for a bicycle company and, a year later, set up his own business - with capital of £4 - making, servicing and racing bicycles. Morris then became interested in motorcycles, and with a partner he started a garage in 1903, but this went under in 1904 (the same year he married) with debts of £50. Undeterred, he set up in business again - this time alone - and by 1910 was a self-styled garage proprietor and motor car engineer. He also had plans to build a car.
This car became the 8.9hp, 50mph Morris Oxford which was launched at the 1912 motor show, priced at £165. Morris received an order for 400 and was in business as a carmaker. He turned out to have a flair for business and ran an impressively profitable factory with good working conditions. The company's fortunes were buoyed by the town of Oxford's wealth, which made for a healthy demand. In early 1914 Morris went to the US - where mass-produced cars were rather more commonplace - to procure components for his second car, the Morris Cowley. But the Cowley's production was interrupted by the first world war when Morris turned his facilities over to the war effort, for which he received an OBE.
The company did well in the post-war boom, but it hit the skids in the slump that followed as unsold stock and debts piled up. Morris then made the decision that was to prove his making: he slashed the price of his cars, reducing the Cowley's sticker price from £525 to £425. Other manufacturers followed suit, but they were not quick enough. Before long the company was struggling to meet demand for its cars: business boomed and by 1926 Morris was producing 50,000 cars a year, roughly a third of the total UK production, and had also founded the MG Car Company.
This was also the year that Morris and other vehicle companies pooled resources to form the Pressed Steel Company to provide car bodies. He also founded Morris Motors (1926) Ltd, a public company, to take over the four firms he already owned. Ignoring the advice of the City, he issued only preference shares, retaining the entire ordinary shareholding himself, and so provided the company with a cheap source of capital for future expansion. The company continued to prosper and didn't do too badly even in the depression when Morris - the lessons of the early 1920s slump still with him - switched production to smaller, cheaper models including the celebrated Morris Minor.
It was in the late 1920s that Morris' legendary generosity began with the funding of a chair of Spanish studies at Oxford University. He went on to endow, among other things, hospitals (he said he had always wanted to be a surgeon), a medical school at Oxford (to the tune of £2 million), Nuffield College, Oxford (a site plus £900,000) and the Nuffield Foundation (£10 million). Nor did these good works escape the attentions of those who awarded gongs: he became Lord Nuffield in 1934 (Morris and Cowley were taken) and a viscount in 1938. Throughout this period, the company's fortunes continued to rise: it took over Riley in 1938, and during the war Cowley was the headquarters of the Civilian Organisation. By 1947, the company was producing 150,000 vehicles a year, but Nuffield was aware of the increasingly competitive nature of the global marketplace. So, in 1952, he merged Morris with Austin to form the British Motor company, then the third largest in the world. He was chairman for six months but then retired and became honorary president. Although he continued to work for the company, he was no longer at the helm; instead, he devoted much of his time to his philanthropy, such as the handing over of his shareholding in Morris Garages Ltd to the Nuffield Foundation, a one-off gift worth around £500,000.
By the 1960s Lord Nuffield had more or less bowed out of public life. With great regret he gave up driving in 1961, and died two years later, aged 85, at his home in Henley-on-Thames. Because his marriage was childless, he had no heirs and his title died with him. What survived, however, were the innumerable, imaginative causes and institutions he had used his wealth to fund. In current terms, he gave away almost half a billion pounds.