Essay : My 12 years at Solihull
Mike Jenks recalls his time spent at Solihull…
Seeing the birth of the SD1 was a fascinating process, and here is an insider’s view of the event that broke a thousand hearts…
I WAS fortunate enough to join the Rover Engineering department in June of 1970 on the crest of a wave of company optimism. Recruited with a number of Engineers to support the introduction of new models, I witnessed possibly the most ambitious time in the company’s history. At the time of my induction into the company, the Rover P8 was well on its way to production, and it was this car that gave me my first sight of Rover’s new Model programme for the Seventies (and hopefully beyond). At the time, we believed that the new P8 would replace the P5B, and take its place at the head of the Rover range. The P8 was a large luxurious model with some styling features that were to eventually find their way into the SD1.
A new sports car was also development at the time – still in its early stages. It was known as the Rover P9, a racy looking beast and the project was lead by Rex Marvin and Spen King.
The main focus of our attention at the time, was the replacement for the famous P6/P6B, which at the time was known as the P10. A new 4-cylinder engine was under construction led by Norman Bryden and Dave Wall, and we were charged with the design process. It was conceived to take a modified V8 later to go into the SD1, as well as the new four-pot. The style of new P10 project was a 4-door saloon, and several schemes were mocked-up in clays. As with the P6 and Range Rover, the new car was styled by David Bache, who had led Rover styling for many years.
We all knew that his designs led the world for their futuristic styling, although some of us felt that he was in love with the French company Citroen.
P8: Great white hope…
With the new factory being completed for the new P8, we all felt a sense of optimism – it looked good, and it was thoroughly engineered. Advance build versions were all over the place. it seemed, and it really seemed as though the new car’s launch was a foregone conclusion. Certainly, the focus of the engineers was now firmly set on the P10 and P9, and for us, it seemed that the prospects for rge future of this company was looking fantastic.
At this point in time, management meetings regarding company profitability and performance were always concluding that we should be making thumping profits in the future, with a profit of around £25 million in 1970 alone, despite the launch of the Range Rover and the development of three new cars.
Part of this company’s operation was its 4×4 division – something not always appreciated by outside commentators. It might have been seen as a separate operation within Rover, miles away and known as “the black hole”, but the vehicles it churned out left the line like shit off a shovel, and made the company lots of money. The Land Rovers they produced a million miles away from the luxury Rover saloons, being of a strictly utilitarian nature.
However, this situation was to change radically, bringing the off-roaders closer to the cars. At the South works, a new line had been installed, and rolling off it was the new 2-door Range Rover, introduced in the June of 1970. Donald Stokes and John Barber were supposedly not very happy with it (although they loved the design concept) and told us that they saw no real market for such a vehicle, and felt that 25 a week was the maximum production volume for it.
At that point in time they were right, as SUVs were an unknown quantity – but they did not appreciate that the Range Rover created a new niche and brought new customers to the company. Bache and King had, it seemed, a great deal of foresight. But in 1970, a small line built 25 per week, and a large waiting list rapidly built up. Part of the car’s initial success must have been the reasonable price: £1998. At the time, the P6 cost £1200 and a Mini, around £600.
Rover Cars at Solihull was dominated by its huge North Works churning out the P6/P6B range at around 50,000 per annum. This car made an absolute fortune for the Company. Onwards and upwards we went on this bright new journey – everything seemed to be going well, and Rover was tantalisingly close to greatness.
Sadly, this ideal situation remained frustratingly out of reach, and it all seemed to come crash down around us. The curse of all curses hit us, you see – like the plague of the middle age, we were about to be dead in the water…
Rover becomes Specialist Division…
The Specialist car Division started life in the September of 1970, and by March 1971, Jaguar had dis-embroiled itself from the mess, leaving a Solihull-Canley alliance, which we knew as Rover-Triumph. Clearly our bosses felt that cats and dogs got on well together. Bringing these two giants together with a vast and overlapping model programme (with the financial base of the company now collapsing inwards) led us into the classic situation of spending cut after cut.
All model programmes, were placed under minute review, and those that were not absolutely essential were scrapped at a stroke. Millions and millions of pounds, which had been invested in the P8 were written off, even though it was virtually ready for launch. This model was fully tooled up and suppliers were manufacturing parts. Most of us were sickened by its death, but as they say, that’s life.
Out of this carbuncle came the SD1. David Bache led a revised model programme (from what was the P10), with engineering now – thank God – overseen by Spen King. Triumph lost its replacement for the 2000/2500 range. This was one of Triumph’s biggest successes and the loss of this car in favour of a Rover-badged joint project. To soften the blow to Triumph, Rover’s 4-cylinder engine programme was scrapped and a new Triumph 6-cylinder was developed.
Onwards we went, and this famous vehicle was started. David Bache had incorporated some of his P8 into this vehicle, but clearly the styling of the 5-door rear end was a problem. Extremely late in the project, it was felt by our bosses the back end resembled Chrysler’s Cricket/Avenger and something should be done about it. A late re-work of the back end was finally agreed.
To improve instrument visibility, a quartic steering wheel was added to the programme. We all worried about this, but Spen stuck by it, and was proven correct.
The Launch was successful and awards came in from all over the place. 1976 was a success. Thousands of these vehicles poured out of the new SD1 factory, and they looked magnificent. Tours of the world’s most advanced paint shop had people gasping for breath, but it seemed that our victory was going to be a shortlived one – our old enemy re-organisation was about to strike again.
Out of a bang comes a whimper…
By 1975 the group was virtually bankrupt – the Financial Institutions did not support the group’s new five-year plan. The fallout was that Triumph was eventually closed, and all models were scrapped, with the exception of the TR7. And that car found its way to Solihull for a couple of years.
Strangely, for a short time things seemed to calm down, and we got on with the job of designing the huge facelift on the SD1. Some say this version was its finest hour. Rear end vision was improved, and a new Facia seemed to transform it enough for some of us to consider it a whole new car.
By this time, we were now firmly under Harold Musgrove’s rule. I must mention this bit: with the new Tailgate glazing, Styling wanted to protect the bottom edge, so a complex Rear Wiper System was engineered with a vertically parking wiper arm. It cost an absolute fortune. When Musgrove saw it, he went mad and literally tore off a front wiper blade, and stuck it to the bottom edge of the Tailgate glass.
“That’s where it will go”, he boomed, and all that work was lost at a stroke – or should I say, a wipe, for the sake of two-inches of glass…
Onwards and upwards again, and the SD1 facelift was completed. Re-organisation fever had reached its pinnacle during this period. Initially Michael Edwardes had split the Company back into its product groups (after Ryder had it all lumped in under the Leyland banner).
However, after a short period of the rumour mill working overtime (the best one was the closure of Jaguar Browns Lane, with production transferred to Solihull) our day of reckoning came: Quite out of the blue, all car production at Solihull was to cease, and the facelift SD1 was to be built at Cowley.
Solihull was to become purely a 4×4 site – we now had the same medicine as our colleagues at Triumph. Thousands lost their jobs and the huge empty SD1 factory was mothballed, and ended up standing idle for years…
It was a sad end to a roller-coaster adventure…