Archive : 37 years ago – BL workers sleeping on the job

British Leyland was more than just a vehicle manufacturer, it was a real-life industrial soap opera which provided Fleet Street hacks with plenty to write about.

In this occasional series Ian Nicholls revisits some of these stories, using the newspaper articles of the time as the main source of information. Did the media have it in for British Leyland? Judge for yourself…

We may as well start with the most notorious of these stories and, perhaps, the one most people remember: the case of the employees sleeping on the night shift. What exactly happened and when are not easy to decipher.

The story first hit the headlines on 12 November 1979 when it was revealed that 14 night shift workers had been caught sleeping at a British Leyland plant. The men were found tucked up in sleeping bags when management swooped on the priming shop at the Range Rover plant in Solihull, near Birmingham.

After two days of disciplinary hearings and appeals, BL dismissed 13 Land Rover car workers, who had been caught sleeping on the night shift. A Supervisor who was sleeping was also dismissed, along with a Foreman. The company refused to comment while a hearing was still continuing into charges against a Superintendent.

Fleet Street inside information

After a tip-off by the News of the World newspaper, senior managers the previous week carried out a surprise inspection of the night shift in a paint priming shop. They discovered all the 14 men employed there, including a supervisor, asleep or dozing in sleeping bags, blankets and makeshift bunks.

When questioned the men said they had completed their work quota. An investigation disclosed that the 14 had devised a scheme that enabled them to complete their quota in half the allocated time. They had found that double the recommended number of body panels could be hung on the paint conveyor.

BL described this as potentially dangerous. However, the wife of one of the dismissed workers, Mrs Ray Pennell, of Chelmsley Wood, Birmingham, said the management knew of the practice and had asked men to double-load the conveyors if production fell behind.

Harsh treatment from management

Joseph Harris, Convenor of the Transport and General Workers Union, at Rover, Solihull, said: ‘These workers have been treated harshly because of all the publicity.’ The disciplinary hearings ended on 14 November 14 1979 when BL dismissed the Superintendent in charge of the day and night shifts in that area of the Land Rover plant at Solihull.

Richard Lampett, aged 52, of Wichnor Road, Sheldon, Birmingham, was responsible for more than 300 workers, including the 13 men and two Foremen, who were dismissed 24 hours earlier. Mr Lampett, who joined Rover 22 years earlier as a Tool Setter, said: ‘I believe I have been treated very harshly. The case against me was brought following publicity and not on the facts.’

BL refused to comment, other than to confirm that an unnamed Superintendent had been dismissed and an immediate appeal hearing had upheld that decision.

Another plant goes down

Then, on 16 November 1979, another BL plant was in the news for similar reasons. A survey by a Superintendent at Oxford Exhausts, a factory making most of BL’s exhaust systems and petrol tanks, found employees, ‘dozing in various parts of the factory.’

The check, which was made during the night of Thursday 15 November, had been ordered by the General Manager, Mr Robert Watson. A company statement on the Superintendent’s discovery, said they had all completed their work quota. The incident would be reported to the management and judged on the circumstances.

The statement added that the company regarded the investigation as private. Similar incidents had occurred before and appropriate action had been taken. No mention was made of any disciplinary action against the workers. All this was occurring at the same time as the crisis confronting BL over its decision to fire Longbridge Convener Derek Robinson.

The sleeping on the night shift story went quiet until the New Year of 1980.

More sackings in order

Beginning on 8 January 1980, the Foreman fired in November, now named as Mr Robert Yates, of Coplow Close, Balsall Common, Warwickshire, began an unfair dismissal claim against Land Rover. The tribunal at Birmingham heard that the events took place in June 1979, not November as previously assumed, after a six-month investigation into alleged clock-card malpractices at the Solihull plant. Security officers kept watch from behind an extractor fan in a paint shop, from where they could see a clocking point.

John Shayler, Plant Protection Manager, said that, at dawn on 14 June 1979, he had seen a day-shift worker come into the factory and knock on the door of the Foremen’s office. A little later, through a window, he saw two men, naked from the waist up. Five minutes afterwards Mr Yates came out. He was dressed.

Mr Alan Walters, a Supervisor, said he had seen another man come from the office carrying a Land Rover seat capable of being used as a bed. Only three men, none of them Mr Yates, had gone to the clocking point before 6.45 am, the end of the shift. Two of them had clocked 24 or 25 cards.

Mr John Share, Personnel Manager, said the company was satisfied that Mr Yates had allowed men to sleep on a night shift and had allowed clocking offences in which he had taken part. Mr Share also said there was nothing wrong with workers having a ‘snooze’ provided it was in a chair. But taking a bed to work was a ‘deliberate act of anticipation.’

Men never had enough work to do…

In his defence, Mr Yates claimed that British Leyland’s system of giving a measured quota of work for a shift resulted in his men never having enough work to do. The following day Robert Yates lost his appeal for unfair dismissal.

Mr Richard Smith, Chairman of the Industrial Tribunal, said he had told, ‘one cock and bull story after another’, to explain away events taking place at dawn on 14 June 1979 at the Rover works, Solihull. Giving the Tribunal’s decision, Mr Smith said it should be made clear that Mr Yates dismissal predated others, which came after publicity given to workers found sleeping on a night shift.

On 10 January 1980 night-shift workers were given a wake-up warning by British Leyland management. A spokesman said that they would consider taking action against anyone found dozing at work. The spokesman at the Land Rover plant in Solihull: ‘We do not condone sleeping or dozing in working hours.’

BL’s market share declines to 15 per cent

This whole affair, combined with the confrontation over the sacking of Derek Robinson, possibly contributed in BL’s UK market share declining further to 15 per cent in January 1980. A further confrontation with the Transport and General Workers Union over BL’s imposition of new working practices in April saw market share slump further to 13 per cent in June 1980.

These were dark times indeed.

Harold Musgrove

The quota system mentioned seems to have been a relic of the deal to end piecework in the early 1970s. A quote from Austin Rover Managing Director Harold Musgrove (right) from 1984 underlines that. “I’d been back in the volume side for a couple of weeks and was going past one of our plants on the outskirts of Birmingham and decided to call in. I hadn’t been there for many years. It was about two o’clock in the afternoon.

90 per cent of workers had gone home

“I called into the Plant Director’s office and said that I’d like to look around to see what was happening. When we walked the shop floor, I think 90 per cent of the employees had actually gone home. When I asked, ‘What happened?’ I was told ‘Well, they’ve finished their stint.’ In fact, some had finished by one o’clock. I pointed out that we paid them until 4.30pm.

‘How do you explain it?’

The response was: ‘They’ve been doing it for years.’

“We’d been establishing targets, establishing line rates and achieving 60 per cent of the target, which meant that the track stopped for 40 per cent of the day. That was not the responsibility of the employees, that was not the responsibility of the workforce. That had to be the responsibility of management.”

Musgrove may well have been referring to the Drews Lane plant in Birmingham.

Princess production halted

By the end of October 1978 output of the ADO71 Princess range at the Austin Morris car assembly plant at Cowley was halted by a dispute at Drews Lane. Six hundred workers had been laid off indefinitely because of a shortage of suspension units caused by a work to rule by 150 workers at the transmission plant at Drews Lane.

They had begun a policy of non-cooperation following the management’s moves to stop workers leaving before the shift was completed. The men said that, when they had done their work, they should be allowed to go home.

The men at Drews Lane had worked to rule for several weeks in protest at management attempts to stop them leaving early. The men said that, under BL’s Measured Day Work system of payment, they were entitled to leave as soon as they had completed their output target for the day. Belated attempts to set up acceptable new output targets had been resisted by the Shop Stewards.

Some thorny industrial issues

The long-standing custom and practice of allowing men to go home early once they had completed their quota of work was a thorny industrial relations issue. From the Shop Stewards’ point of view BL management had entered into an agreement with them to end piecework and, a few years later, they were trying to renege on the deal.

Ray HorrocksRay Horrocks (right), the head of BL Cars, told Chairman Michael Edwardes: ‘We talk of regaining management control and applying proper discipline. But at Drews Lane we still have an extraordinary situation.

‘There is a long-standing tradition known as stint and finish. This means employees can complete their daily stint, or work quota, and then go home at any time from 3.00pm onwards, but still be paid to the end of the shift.

‘Over the years they have applied pressure to weaken work standards so that, against the already slack standards then applying, they are able to claim they have done their days work and management is powerless to give them more work to complete the shift.’

Mass lay-offs ensued

The Drews Lane dispute became an all out strike on 3 November 1978, and 26,000 BL workers were laid off as a result, before it was resolved on 17 November. The Stokes-era management had paid a high price to rid themselves of piecework but, in the climate of early 1970s Britain, the Shop Stewards had the upper hand, and British Leyland’s finances were too weak to withstand a major dispute, so to berate management is perhaps a bit unfair.

So that was the sleeping on the night-shift affair.

But what became of those involved?

Ian Nicholls
Latest posts by Ian Nicholls (see all)


  1. Yes we read all these stories from the News Of The World (the original fake news site) some were true,some were not. it was just part of a long running campaign by the mainly right wing press that had gone on since the end of WW2 against organized labour. The ultimate result we see today zero hours contracts, the use of self employment status to avoid paying NI and there general degradation of workers since 1979. Whether or not unions in the UK took industrial action more than unions in Europe and North America is a moot point, much of the rubbish produced by the NoW, Daily Mail etc is treated as if it was historical fact nowdays where it should be regarded as propaganda

  2. That kind of thing went on a lot in the 70s. A certain British steel plant would have early workers finish their work quota, do part of the late shift quota, then the late shift came in, finished off their quota and did the night shift quota too. The night shift came in and went to sleep. Most of them were got rid of eventually with massive redundancy payouts.

    “Doubling up” as it was known-working extra fast so you could bunk off-wasn’t confined to BL either. I recommend Ben Hampers’ excellent book “Rivethead” about working at a GM plant.

    • See that’s the part that confuses me. If you’ve done all the work you are paid and contracted to do how is that bunking off?

  3. Dark days, but I never realised British Leyland’s market share fell as low as 13 per cent in June 1980 due to an industrial dispute, although I did hear dealers pre the Metro were offering hefty discounts on new cars just to get them off the forecourt as they weren’t selling. A shame really as improvements to the Maxi, Princess and Allegro had made these cars as good as many of their European rivals and certainly British Leyland never had to endure the sort of scandal that was engulfing Lancia at the time, where poor rustproofing was causing the engines to fall out of relatively new cars.

    • A combination of poor steel and corrosion, so Lancia weren’t entirely to blame. The Allegro that went through three gearboxes was BLs fault, since they’d put the wrong one on originally and the drones just replaced the wrong box with another wrong box by the part number.. And reduced my dad’s colleague to tears.. Odd we never ever had a BL product..
      Incidentally I’ve never ever seen a red SD1 before.. Did they suffer from the Renault red effect? (10 seconds outside of a garage in hot sun and the paint would fade and turn into something resembling 1000 grit sandpaper..?)

      • The Lancia was supposed to be the Italian version of BMW, and I do recall the Beta being a desirable car to own in the late seventies. Yet surely using cheap steel on what was classed as an upmarket product was a big mistake and the Lancia joined the lesser Fiat Strada on the list of cars to avoid due to premature rust. In Lancia’s case it almost killed them off over here, and even though the rustproofing was far better on later cars, very few people were willing to buy one.

        • It wasn’t cheap steel…….it was steel that was galvanised on one side only…..the idea being that the galvanised side went towards the wet…..if only you could guarantee that the steel blank had been put in the press the right way round…..

      • My father and his work colleague both had red S reg 2600 Rovers from new. The paint turned dull and flat quite quickly. The biggest problem was scabs of rust breaking through the paint all over the car within a couple of years. It was cosmetic rather than structural rust but terrible for the car’s reputation

        • Had similar on a 2002 406, at the door bottoms, possibly because of a bad seal. Had a nice blue pearlescent paint that never matched properly, sold it with the bodged paintwork at a loss.

      • 1990s Vauxhalls seemed to have red paint that faded quickly, so most surviving ones look more pink than red these days.

        • Indeed it almost looks like Corsas, Combos and Vectras had a salmon pink colour option!

          Do they take well to polishing, T-Cut, or is a respray the remediation?

          • Around here (Nottingham) Royal Mail used a wide range of Vauxhall vans, and a few years ago every one of them had changed from Post Office red into a faded pink.

  4. Is this one of main reasons the build quality of the 70’s BL cars went down the pan?? The measured day rate replaced piece work at around 1970-1974 IIRC.

    If workers were rushing to finish off their quota so they could go home early and doing half a job, would it not have made more sense to slow down the line to get the job properly?

    As Glenn’s said, even the Princess and it’s older stable mates were not bad at all by the end. It’s just a shame that for a lot of the 70’s they were rightly derided for their quality.

    Sadly, the sour taste lingered.

    • Not really, it’s just moved from BL to the NHS. The odd £1m going missing (I would have paid money to see the auditors face when they found that little gem), contractors doing nothing for weeks at £100 a day because the bloke who set the administration lock password buggered off for sunnier climes without telling anyone what it was. Bits of hardware still running off BBC B computers..! Not to mention any management off home by 3pm.
      Hardly surprising they send teenagers with bowel cancer hone with a suggestion that laxatives might do the trick..

      • There are inept managers everywhere.
        Tesco were once omnipotent. The public believed the brand was the cheapest and Tesco seemed poised to conquer every field of commerce. At one stage one in eight pounds spent in Britain were with Tesco. Then Aldi and Lidl arrived and the facade melted away. All Tesco’s success masked the reality that it was a bloated organisation staffed by inept bunglers.
        The brand value of Tesco was all conquering.
        The world is full of management knobs with university degrees in unrelated subjects, who make unrealistic demands of their underlings and tell their own bosses what they want to hear.

        • Sounds very like British Leyland at the start of the seventies, four out of ten new cars were British Leyland and imports were still rare, if slowly gaining ground, and a few customers weren’t happy about the quality of the new Maxi. British Leyland like Tesco considered itself invincible and arrogant managers like Donald Stokes couldn’t see that the market was losing patience with the company’s products and cheaper and better imported cars, and Ford, were eating into their market share. Tesco is the same, they thought they could dominate the market forever as they pioneered the pile em high, sell em cheap style of supermarket, but were caught out by smaller continental rivals who beat them on price and quality.

      • Not just the NHS – government in general!

        Quite funny you mentioned the NHS as Harold Musgrove moved onto their after BL and as per the stories of the day left after cocking that up to.

  5. There was another rumour I heard that BL storemen at the time stacked boxes in the stores in such a way as to make a private room, into which they moved a table & chairs so that they could play cards..

    • This kind of thing was riff everywhere. It wasn’t just at BL. If you want to see the true horrors of 1970’s workplaces, have a look at the ship building industry. They made BL look like rank amateurs.

      • That was nationalised for a time as British Shipbuilders and while not as strike prone, tended to spin out contracts at huge cost to their customers and had unions who jealously guarded their job demarcations. Ultimately it meant most of the industry disappeared as merchant shipbuilding went abroad and the few yards that survive now only do so because of defence contracts.

  6. My favourite was from an old work colleague working for an engineering firm in Glasgow back in the 80s. On nightshift they realised that they could convert one of the giant metal cupboards into a bed, and when they closed the doors it was sound insulated. One night him and his mate who were on the maintenance nightshift went to sleep in the cupboards. In the morning when they woke up they had large banging on the door – it was the police. “Hello there we are looking for witnesses to the fire next door can you help”. What fire was my friends answer to which the policeman pointed to the mess of the building next door and the thirty fire engines surrounding it! “How did you not hear that” he said to which my friend blatantly lied – I had ear muffs on we were grinding most of the night!

  7. Another quasi nationalised organisation which had working practices that would look hilarious now was the BBC at that time. The Musicians Union, which was the union for musicians employed directly by the BBC, dictated that Top of the Pops had to employ a staff orchestra and singers, even if their services weren’t needed, which in most cases they were not. ( Somehow an orchestra trying to perform a punk record would be comical). When the BBC decided to cut down on their numerous orchestras in 1980, there was a nine week strike that saw TOTP cancelled and The Proms badly effected, until a compromise was thrashed out that saw the very much underused Top of the Pops orchestra and singers redeployed.
    Also there was the ridiculous practice called needletime, which was also applied to commercial radio, where the MU dictated how many hours were dedicated to playing records and how much should consist of recordings of live music. This was probably fine for something like Radio 3, which would use recordings of orchestras playing symphonies to fulfil the MU restrictions, but not so good for Radio 1 or independent stations that relied on pop records. Often this meant DJs talked too much to keep within the restrictions, which annoyed listeners, until finally in 1987 needletime was axed.

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  1. Preventing home working in Pandemic days by nuisance noise is dire… – dilydaydreamnewneighbours

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