Blog : What if they’d not backed BL in 1979?
In 1980, BL’s terminal decline was arrested. Firstly, by the newly installed Conservative government’s decision to back the company’s corporate plan by investing more than £100m, and then by the arrival of the popular and likeable Austin Metro. But as we saw in the recently declassified government documents, which recount this period completely, it had been touch-and-go for a for BL for a good few months following Margaret Thatcher’s installation as Prime Minister.
But then, BL was a basketcase in 1979. Its product line was aging and unappealing, but far worse than that, market share was dissolving and its reputation both in the UK and overseas was tatters. And almost as soon as Thatcher’s government set to work, BL came under intense scrutiny in Westminster – as did all publicly-funded organisations. In the end, and against the advice of a number of high profile cabinet colleagues, Margaret Thatcher signed the cheque, and BL was allowed to continue.
Why? Because there were two major factors in the company’s favour: the presence of Michael Edwardes as chairman and chief executive, and the recently-signed deal with Honda to build the upcoming Acclaim. Edwardes was popular with the public, and in being seen to support him, the Tories knew they’d be seen as siding with one of their own – a strong manager unafraid of fighting the unions. And Honda’s deal with BL certainly had potential for the future…
But what if Thatcher hadn’t been convinced, instead backing her chancellor, Geoffrey Howe, who’d already said, ‘Parts of BL are profitable and there is no reason why they should not continue in business. Other parts could be run down over a period rather than closed immediately. To the extent that BL loses its previous market share, it must be the case that other British manufacturers will pick up at least some of their business.’ What if in October 1979, she made that fateful call to Michael Edwardes, saying – you’re on your own.
Without the injection of cash from the government, BL would have continued, at least in the short term. But Edwardes would have immediately began the process of breaking up the organisation, selling off the most profitable and desirable parts first.
First to be sold would have been Land Rover. In 1979, it was undoubtedly the jewel in BL’s car making crown, and that would have been snapped up by an acquisitive rival – perhaps Ford or GM. The Range Rover was the goose that laid the golden egg, but Land Rovers were still being bought in numbers. And let’s not forget all those juicy defence contracts.
MG could also have been parted out quite quickly. In 1979, it was in an interesting place – it was making losses on big export sales, and it was still one of the most evocative marques in the business, and there was still a great deal of equity in the brand. Downside was that notice had alredy been served on Abingdon. There was a deal to buy MG on the table from Alan Curtis of Aston Martin, and in late 1979, it was still very much an option. Would the canny Edwardes have off-loaded MG to Aston Martin, without the possibility of serious future investment? I think so, yes, probably reversing the decision to close Abingdon in the process now it was off the books. Would it have worked, given the mess Aston Martin was in at the time? Perhaps not. But Victor Gauntlett was just around the corner, and who knows what great things he could have gone on to do with a combined MG and Aston Martin?
Jaguar was more of an inponderable in 1979 – it was before the John Egan miracle, and his appointment in March 1980 might not have happened at all in a BL that was being wound down and split off. On the positive side, the XJ Series 3 had just been launched, and was greeted with rave reviews across the world. But countering that, the XJ-S wasn’t selling at all. Would a rival such as Mercedes-Benz or BMW have considered picking up the tarnished Jaguar of 1979-’80? Or maybe, as happened in 1989 via the ’84 privatisation, might Ford have gone for the leaping cat as that all-important luxury brand to top its European range? Either way, BL’s most prestigious marque would be heading overseas.
Would that also be true of Rover and Triumph? Hiving off this part of BL should have been simple, as it meant a simple extraction of Solihull and Canley, which built the SD1 and TR7. Although both model lines were in mild trouble in 1979, there was plenty of potential for the future, thanks to platform and component sharing, as well as relatively (for BL) young drivetrains and model ranges. I suspect that packaged up with a new factory and innovative future model line – as well as healthy export sales (for the sports cars at least), Rover-Triumph could have made a case for itself.
Even if it had not found a suitor, with careful management, and without the albatross of Austin-Morris around its neck, Rover-Triumph might have made it. But personally speaking, it think it could have been a long shot, as 1979-1982 would prove to be lean years, and without a cash benefactor backing the company, it probably wouldn’t have made it to the point where new models could be rolled out.
And that left what had been described as the ‘unsaleable rump’. Austin-Morris would still have had the Metro to sell in 1980, but there was no way the Maestro and Montego could have been developed, at least without external investment. Could a mid-1980s range comprising only of the Mini, Metro, possibly the Allegro Mk4 and Ambassador have sustained the dealer network without significant new car product introductions? Undoubtedly not. Even with the Metro, it’s likely that Austin-Morris would have faded away quite quickly. Unless…
Would another carmaker have been interested in taking on Austin-Morris without the massive improvements made during the early-1980s? again unlikely. It’s interesting to consider Honda, though – would it have gone ahead with the BL deal, knowing the government was no longer backing it? My hunch is the Japanesse might possibly have continued, but only by taking a big stake in the company, eventually converting Longbridge and/or Cowley into Honda assembly plants. Unless of course that Michael Edwardes identified Austin-Morris as a dead duck, steering Honda in the direction of Rover-Triumph…
Either way, I reckon we’d have ended up with a landscape that looked like this:
- Austin-Morris: Dead
- MG: Life support
- Jaguar: In foreign hands
- Land Rover: In foreign hands
- Rover-Triumph: Life support/In foreign hands
Not awfully different to how things ended up anyway, but although the ultimate outcome might have similar, it would have happened sooner, denying us that generation of Rovers – the 200-800 – that you all love so much. Having said that, had by some miracle the Rover-Triumph plan worked, I wonder where that would have been following the Rover Bravo/Triumph Boxer plan? Could it have become the British BMW, with Triumph serving up sporting saloon and roadsters, and Rover servicing the executive car market? Stranger things have happened…
Over to you.