The Maclaren Baby Buggy changed image and owner but kept its doughty reputation. Like its Spitfire relative, it hopes to see off invaders from Europe, says Charles Darwent.
Imagine a pushchair hell, a baby buggy Hades. In one corner an unfortunate victim is strapped to a machine apparently designed by Hieronymous Bosch. Its little rubbered wheels bounce and oscillate their way over an eternally turning treadmill, its track textured to produce all the variants of pushchair agony: kerbs, cobbles, cat's eyes. In another, a second buggy is getting the Stair Treatment. Burdened with a malevolent-looking 15 kilogram canvas and sawdust infant, it is being dropped repeatedly, incessantly, down a single wooden step. It has had 10,000 falls so far; it will have another 190,000 before its agony is over. Around the walls hang the remains of previous pushchair victims, some burned, some mangled, some torn wheel from diminutive wheel.
"We've always believed in exceeding BSI standards testing requirements," says Denzil Lee, managing director of Maclaren Ltd and keeper of this perambulatory underworld, with the faintest hint of relish. "Believe me, it pays dividends later." Indeed it has. Since its invention in 1965, the Maclaren Baby Buggy has remained the unchallenged leader of British buggydom, largely because of its reputation for uncompromising engineering standards.
For all its apparent modernity, the Maclaren Baby Buggy has changed little since its creation by one-time test pilot and aeronautical engineer Owen Maclaren in a Northamptonshire stables. Maclaren's most notable previous invention had been the self-lowering undercarriage of Spitfires, which, like his eponymous buggy, demanded lightness and strength. The term "Baby Buggy" is now a registered Maclaren property, its prototype pushchair reposing in the Design Museum, an engineering classic.
There are problems involved in making design classics. First, their apparent perfection discourages reinvention. Second, other people tend to copy them, and more cheaply. These facts have caused immense soul-searching at Maclaren's Long Buckby headquarters over the past two years, prompted largely by the firm's own corporate comings and goings: bought by the multi-conglomerate Hestair plc in 1988; taken over, with the rest of Hestair, by services giant BET in 1990; hived off by BET in a £8.5 million management buyout to Lee and his team later in the same year. Research undertaken in September 1989 revealed two facts, says Lee, one sanguine, the other less so. The first was that Maclaren had managed to retain some 75% of the UK baby buggy market; the second, that this figure was down 5 per cent from 1987, and (obviously) down 25% from 1965.
The reasons for this drop became clear during what Lee refers to as "the vast amount of qualitative and quantitative research" undertaken by Maclaren prior to the MBO. The first of these was what might loosely be termed the Model-T Syndrome: based on its 25-year headstart, Maclaren's potential purchasers were expected to waive all personal preferences in deference to superb engineering. For all the reassurance that this offered mothers, says Lee, the Maclaren pushchair was perceived as being "not especially modern or attractive". The buggy's logo told the story: a Union Flag, with the bare word "Maclaren" next to it in late-'60s type, it could have advertised armoured personnel carriers as easily as pushchairs.
A second reason for the Maclaren buggy's downhill ride was that its market was not, as had been supposed, homogeneous but divided in two: first-time mothers and repeat offenders. Roughly speaking, Lee's research showed that its customers split two-to-one in the latter's favour. This stems from discrete priorities in the two groups. "First-time mothers", says Lee, pointing to a graph with axes labelled "Baby safety and comfort" and "Mother practicality and convenience", "are highly confused people, with a very emotional approach to buying. What they want is a product that says 'softness' and 'comfort'. Subsequent mothers want a product that says 'wipes off easily' and 'can be folded up using one hand'."
Lee's response to these two lessons has been wide ranging and impressive, involving nothing less than a complete corporate reinvention. While the basic buggy remains a testament to Owen Maclaren's aeronautical provenance (indeed, Maclaren's present design director is also an aeronautical engineer), its presentation and image have been carefully ruched and primped.
Take, for example, the vexed question of fabric design. Gone are the hearty deckchair stripes on which a generation of British baby derrieres had wriggled. The Maclaren-buying mother can now choose to have her disconcertingly named "E-Type" (the world's fastest pushchair?) clad in Criss Cross or Pearl, her "Tourer" in Regency or Regatta Yellow. More expensive ranges having Sloanier options, though Lee baulks at suggestions of perambulatory elitism. "The old Maclaren way was for the MD and sales reps to sit down and pick fabrics," says Lee. "This time we sat down with the entire team of ad people, marketing, and young managers - total input."
This holistic approach has been a symptom of Maclaren's corporate rebirth, equally well summed up by the firm's new logo. Gone are red, white and blue: in are pastel pink and blue, with an abstractish line drawing of a baby's head cradled in a mother's hand. "We now offer a range of products aimed both at various price spends and at our newly perceived double market," points out Lee, "but we have to have a single image that communicates to both. We have to say 'Maclaren is a company which cares equally for the needs of mother and baby'."
This product rethink has been matched by a concurrent reinvention of Maclaren's self-image, summed up by Denzil Lee as "a move away from thinking of our core competences as being those of a light engineering firm towards thinking of them as those of a nursery products manufacturer". As well as instituting all the arcana of JIT (just-in-time) practice at the Long Buckby plant - aluminium tubing is now pre-tooled by Maclaren's down-line supplier, rather than being tooled on site and sent back for painting, for example - Lee's production lines now bear evidence of a more numinous change: signs throughout the factory exhorting workers not to smoke. "If you're making nursery products then you want to instil a sense of care and cleanliness in your product from the word go," says Lee.
This roots-to-roses redefinition is impressive, but has an implicit problem. Had Lee chosen to define Maclaren's competence as, say, wheeled goods, then all sorts of potential expansion might have presented itself, but by concentrating on nursery products Lee is limiting his range to a single, problematic and highly competitive market. Lee maintains that his image reinvention was aided by the fact that "there is no continuity in our market. Remember, it is transient, customers moving in and out within an average of three years. We talk to them on average 2.4 times, and then bye-bye."
Nonetheless, and with the threat of European competition post 1992 hanging over him, Lee has elected to go up the stairs to Bedfordshire: new products on offer from Maclaren include the firm's Scandinavia range of pine changing units and drop-side cots, and Lee's vistas take in "areas in nursery manufacturing where we as yet have no presence at all, here and in Europe". Overseas nursery manufacturers have the same idea.
Since 1988 Maclaren's main competitors in the UK market have been European companies such as Babycomfort and Mamas and Papas. Once again, the shade of Owen Maclaren may come to his company's rescue. Where his Spitfires helped to see off previous Euro-competitors, Maclaren's rigorous engineering looks set to become Lee's chosen single-market weapon. The shedful of mangled buggies tells the story: whatever frills others offer, few can match Maclaren's orgiastic BSI testing.
Already the "hommes grises" of Brussels are wrinkling their brows over a single European Community safety standard, committee TC255 occupying itself with everything from feeding-bottles to stair-gates; TC207 pondering furniture, including nursery furniture. "Consumers in this country believe that all baby products are safe," Lee suggests. "They actually have a touching faith that the Government wouldn't let anything nasty happen to their babies. But will that still hold after next year? It's going to be much easier to level standards down to the levels of some other European countries than to bring them up to ours."
There is worse: "If no CEN standard has been set by 1992," confides Lee, darkly, "then we go into mutual acceptance. That means that if a Greek pushchair meets Greek safety standards, it can be sold here." Maclaren's MD does not elaborate. Clearly the picture is of nasty, foreign pushchairs careering off down high streets pursued by shrieking British mothers; of lightly singed Anglo-Saxon infants having to be plucked from flaming foreign buggies. It is a prospect that obviously fills Lee, father of a fine two year old, with genuine horror, but Lee the marketeer with something approaching unalloyed glee.
Meanwhile he has more mundane matters on his mind. A £250,000 investment in integrated computer systems means that each of the firm's 29,000 separate buggy components (an average of 150 per individual buggy) can now be charted from the design blueprint on the design department's AutoCAD screen through to warehouse stock in any of the firm's three manufacturing sites. This, together with reshuffled production lines, means that what is a piece of fabric on Monday can be a Super Dreamer - Maclaren's new pushchair-cum-car-seat - by Thursday, production having more than doubled on the same floorspace.
Maclaren's split sites - one each in Northampton and Driffield, as well as the Long Buckby plant - pose their own problems, as does the labour-intensive nature of multi-variant manufacture: with a hazarded turnover of some £25 million, the firm employs a staff of 800. "Still," shrugs Denzil Lee, philosophically, "you can't change history, can you?" Given his radical corporate reinventions over the past two years, this does not seem an entirely just conclusion.