People : Lord Stokes interview
Autocar, 26 July 1973
Lord Stokes Speaks
What I Plan For Triumph
In an interview with Graham Robson, Lord Stokes laid bare his plans for sports car motoring at Triumph, and went on to make several provocative remarks about motor sport, new legislation and the future for sports cars in general.
Graham Robson – The future of sports car production
Lord Stokes – We have always felt that the sports car operation is a fundamental part of Triumph, not only from its profitability point of view, but because of the image it gives the company. I think that sports cars are a very necessary adjunct to our business. They’re profitable in themselves. I think the danger in the sports car as I see it is that a few companies have removed it entirely from the realms of sport, and they put sports car activities into merely a battle of money.
In the Monte Carlo Rally which this company won for three, maybe four years, and other events like the East African Safari, they’ve just become exercises in which certain companies have decided to spend enormous sums of money in attempting to win by any means, and this includes having helicopters overhead with spares. The whole element of sport has gone out of it. I know certain companies once announced that they were going to win races because they had calculated it on a computer – they didn’t win as it so happened, which is at least a plus point for freedom – but I think that this is what has ruined a sporting image.
I think the public are not quite so simple as some people think they are, and they realize this now, too. On the other hand I don’t know how you put a bar on this, it’s very difficult to say you should spend only so much, because people do have a habit of going right up to the limit of a rule and taking every advantage unless it is absolutely water-tight. It’s very difficult to restrict it. I might add that none of those companies have done anything improper because they all acted within the rules of the game, but they have all broken the spirit of the thing.
We make cars for people, and there are a lot of people who seem to want sports cars.
I think one has to define exactly what a sports car is. Motoring correspondents have one interpretation, but the buying public seems to have an entirely different one, and I think we have to aim ourselves at the majority of the actual buying public. In Europe and in America particularly, I think that you will find that the buying public tends to go towards a car in which they can enjoy themselves in a sporting manner.
I don’t think they’re looking for all out racers. The people we are after are the people who buy and continue to buy Spitfires, MG’s and TR’s in America – continue to buy them for the enjoyment and fun of having an open car. It so happens that Triumph in particular win an enormous number of local races and rallies in the States, and have a very good image, because people tune them up. They’re all little events in which there is an enormous amount of fun. This is the sort of car we are interested in and we must not make this car too expensive to take it away from the chap who is looking for a piece of fun equipment, in the same way that you or I might buy a sailing dinghy. But against that there are people who want the sort of sports car we provide in the E-Type Jaguar’s.
I think the development of the sports car as such is going to be dictated to a certain extent by legal requirements, particularly regarding safety in various countries. You see that we have started a trend with the Stag – roll over bars and so on. I think most people who want sports cars want open cars – I’m not quite sure frankly if we are going to be allowed to perpetuate open cars. It may be that you will get a car with roll bars, or some other form of head protection in the interests of safety.
This may mean that you get a sort of sports coupe with a sliding roof, so that you still get open air ; but that is the general way that our new cars will go.
We have a minimum sales rate below which it is not economical to produce. This happens with every type of car ; but we still see a big future for sports cars in the world, and a big share of that business for us with the models we now have, and those we intend producing.
Graham Robson – Future of the names.
Lord Stokes – The names we have in this Corporation are among the most valuable assets we have, and certainly the envy of, I should think, nearly every other manufacturer in the world. Names like Jaguar, Rover-Triumph, MG, really are household names with everybody, and we appreciate this. I hope we are being clever in this. We allow – for instance – Jaguar to be encouraged to develop their own identity, their own personality. Jaguar are self contained in engineering, and given a lot of freedom. But to gain the benefits of a large firm we have cross fertilization of ideas, and we also have common development in certain areas such as pollution control, safety and so on.
A lot of development work rubs off from one company to another, but basically we allow a firm like Jaguar to develop – I think they have developed the best roadholding production car in the world today, proved by a number of magazine tests, and I think it would be foolish to destroy that. Rover will be allowed to develop their own kind of character, and Austin – Morris will have a separate one. I think it is terribly important not to have an overall engineer who say “We will do this for sports cars and that for passenger cars “. Engineers are very individualistic period, and they have their own mentality, and I’m determined to retain the individuality of the various companies.
Rover and Triumph are being merged together. We have one executive in charge now. This is because we believe that Rover and Triumph are very complimentary makes, and we have by co-incidence a Rover 2000 and a Triumph 2000, both of which were designed before we took over the Rover company. I think it makes sense not to perpetuate that in the future – two similar cars of exactly the same capacity. Rather we are going to put all our resources at Triumph and Rover into making cars which are better and do not compete with each other. I’m not going to give too much detail of what it will be, but there will also continue to be Triumph sports cars as well.
We are very fortunate in having a brilliant Chief Engineer in Spen King, who was at Rover, then went over to Triumph, and now heads the Engineering team for the two firms. The old Triumph team will probably concentrate on sporting cars, which have been their forte, and the Rover people on developing successors to the Rover and Triumph 2000’s, which will take on a world wide reputation.
Graham Robson – MG and Austin Morris
Lord Stokes – The whole of the MG line has been developed from basic Austin-Morris parts, and therefore it is built at Abingdon, because it is based on various engines that are produced at Longbridge. They will continue for some time to come, but again I think our intention is not to make our own products compete head on with each other ; we like to slot them one above the other.
Graham Robson -Styling
Lord Stokes – We are trying to develop British stylists. We believe there is plenty of talent among the young people in this country, and we are trying to encourage them. Michelotti did a good job for us on one or two models, but we are not tied to him any more than we are tied to anybody else, and we will certainly look around.
I think you will find a growing emphasis on British design but where we can get some ideas, or styling thoughts from abroad, we will obviously pick them up. We are building up a much better in-house facility than we ever had before. A preponderance of our future models will be styled by our own stylists.
Graham Robson – Motor sport
Lord Stokes – I like competitions if I think I have a chance of winning them. I think also we have to consider what the purpose of competition is. If we take Grand Prix racing. I wouldn’t like to see Grand Prix racing stop, because I think it is all a tremendous challenge for drivers skills, and for engineering skills, but not quite the sort we want. I believe that if you can arrive at a formula where an unmodified saloon can be raced, this is much more interesting to the general public. I think it is much more interesting to the manufacturer in the development sense, because this does develop a car.
We will continue to enter a number of rallies – many more than people think – and we have developed and improved our cars a lot from those rallies, because we have entered standard production cars. Now they may not have won them because other people enter souped-up things which have no relevance to what they were actually producing. Where we put in standard cars, in certain instances components have failed, because the events have been on terribly rough roads. This is where we have had a good spin-off which has actually benefited our production, by running – and testing – a car under the stress of competition. This sort of thing is good, and I would like to encourage this aspect of motor sport.
Graham Robson – Production car racing
Lord Stokes – I am not enthusiastic about big motor manufacturers cornering the business of saloon car racing. It is all very exciting to say that XYZ company has decided to sponsor so-and-so, but here again this will eventually end up as just a money battle between giants. I feel that it is much better if you can keep it in the hands of amateurs, enthusiasts, with the general support of the manufacturers but if the manufacturers go in I think there is a danger of it all being ruined.
There’s no pressure whatever on us from dealers to go back into motorsport. I think we must make this clear. Certain companies may need to do more to get a good image than we do. I think British Leyland has a good image with this. Motor sport, if done on a sensible basis, is fun, and I like to see it, but I think certain companies are ruining it.
I have a budget and a certain financial programme. I try to keep to this budget. All I try to do is not look back over my shoulder at what other companies are doing. We have a plan, a policy ; we know where we are going ; we know what we are trying to do, and I think we must keep to this, and I think 90 % of sports cars are sold in the United States. This is where we are finding private entries winning races and rallies hands down gain a lot of goodwill for us, and a lot of fun for the people who do it. If manufacturers went into these areas they would ruin that sport altogether.
The best and most well known of our sports cars is the Jaguar. That was developed from, and got its reputation from, racing as did a continental manufacturer. I think both of us have managed to keep up with the reputation of those cars without going back into this form of racing. I think I said earlier on, the Jaguar’s reputation for roadability and performance is far better than any car produced by another manufacturer in the volume field who goes into motor sport.
Graham Robson – Production and sales
Lord Stokes – At first, when we took over Triumph, we had a problem selling the cars. It was only when we started changing the models, and began to get the engineering and quality improved, that we began to build in volume and overcome production difficulty through not being able to build enough ; we still have that difficulty – we are not making enough Triumph cars, not as many as we can sell. But there’s a limit to the rate of expansion in this country. We have suffered from an inheritance of rather antiquated factory facilities and an inability to expand due to the Government’s policy of making you go to the development areas. It’s only been in the last six to twelve months, that we have been allowed to expand in the Birmingham area which includes Coventry.
Graham Robson – Safety and pollution legislation
Lord Stokes – I think there is a great danger that countries will impose legislation as a form of tariff or import deterrent. This is unfortunate, and I think there is quite an element of this that does arise. How much one should make regulations on a safety basis that can be described as restraint of trade ….I don’t know ; this is a very difficult marginal area. No one can object to making cars free from obnoxious fumes but I think we have got to keep it in perspective, and in the United States they never do things by halves. Now they are making the car the bogey of all pollution, whereas pollution is from a variety of sources of which the car is but a small one. All these anti-pollution requirements are going to increase fuel consumption and make motoring more expensive. I think one has to balance up the benefits one gets as well as the disadvantages. The Americans, you know, have been very fair on their import policy. It must have been very shattering for them to find themselves, the worlds major producer of motor vehicles with negligible imports, suddenly swamped with small cars, Japanese cars, sports cars and what-have-you.
The state of the art on pollution is interchanged among professional engineers. All of us depend on hang on catalysts, reactors, air pumps and so-on to take away the obnoxious gasses ; and, so far as I am aware, if anyone solves this problem the solution will be sold freely to British Leyland in the same way as to any Japanese or other company. We are honest in that we do say we have got a problem. All the Americans have to meet the same limits, and relatively they have few models.
Graham Robson – Dealer rationalization
Lord Stokes – We are already on a very big programme of dealer rationalization. The United States is such a huge country and there are such complicated laws regarding dealers and distributors franchises and so on that you just cannot do it by a stroke of the pen, but it is roughly our policy to control about half of the distribution overseas and have the other half in the hands of competent distributors. Generally speaking we are aiming to get the whole of the British Leyland range together, so that one dealer handles the lot. This is not invariably possible, because of old customs and practices, and there may still be odd cases where you get separate dealers for Triumph and for MG, but that is our policy and it’s going very well.
Graham Robson – Meeting the demand
Lord Stokes – Sales are going well, and provided nothing ghastly happens in the way of new regulations we are fairly optimistic about our position in the States. Our big problem at the moment is in meeting the demand for our cars from all over the world.
This is the tragedy of this country – we have the opportunities there and unfortunately there is a rather short sighted few prepared to walk out and argue about getting more money, and forget the tremendous opportunity that is just passing by. I can’t do more than get the business. We have designed the right sort of cars ; we have set up the right sort of sales and service network ; we have got the financial backing. We would just like to have more co-operation from the very people whose livelihood depends on the success of our efforts.
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Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Clsssics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
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