Ian Nicholls recalls a hugely significant year for our motor industry – hard to believe it was 50 years ago now…
This was the year that TIME magazine described London as swinging, Harold Wilson and Ian Smith met on HMS Tiger, Michael Caine was Alfie and Ronald Reagan entered politics. The Beatles were reaching their creative peak. Their long playing opus, Revolver, introduced the world to artificial double tracking, and left other artists trailing in their wake.
England won the football World Cup, the last to be televised in black and white and the English haven’t shut up about it since…
At the end of March Harold Wilson’s Labour Party stormed to victory in the UK General Election, receiving a convincing mandate for his planned economy. Not long after this things then started not to go to plan. The National Seamen’s Strike caused economic chaos, which resulted in a drastic credit squeeze in July, which was to cause further distress in the British-owned motor industry.
For the British motorist things were not so swinging and groovy, 1966 dawned with a new 70mph motorway speed limit, overseen by the new Transport Minister, Barbara Castle, who, much to the chagrin of motorists, did not drive. Protests against the new speed restrictions ensued, but to no avail. And as related earlier, it did not hurt the Labour Government’s re-election bid!
Of all the British-owned manufacturers, it was probably Jaguar that had the best year. It seemed to have a relatively strike free run and, in July, was purchased by the British Motor Corporation. Could Jaguar have continued as an independent manufacturer as no doubt some enthusiasts of the marque would have wished in the light of future events? Sadly, in truth, no. Sir William Lyons had performed miracles in developing and selling his cars on a shoestring budget, but he needed the resources to develop the XJ4 (XJ6/12) saloon to fruition and a lot of Jaguar’s manufacturing equipment was outdated.
Possibly the genesis for this was the failure of the big MkX saloon to sell in appreciable numbers. Had it sold up to 30,000 units a year, like the later XJ6/12 saloon, from its launch in 1961 the prospects for Jaguar might have been altogether different. Perhaps a more suitable partner for Jaguar was the Rover Company in Solihull and, decades later, such a marriage did take place to great success. However, in December 1966, Rover was snaffled up by the Leyland Motor Corporation.
But the year 1966 was dominated by the British Motor Corporation. In January the works Minis were infamously disqualified from the Monte Carlo Rally due to lighting infringements and this seemed to set the pattern for the year. BMC seemed to be struggling uphill in a year that developed into a public relations disaster. Unfortunately, some of it was not of BMC’s making. In January BMC was hit by gas shortages and, in March, came the ‘noose’ affair which suggested that mob rule existed within BMC’s plants and put the Trade Union movement on the defensive. This was when seven men, who had not joined in a one day strike at BMC Service at Cowley, were allegedly shown a noose at a hostile mass meeting. Trade Union officials tried to dismiss the story as a fabrication of the pro-Tory press even though it was first exposed by the Daily Mirror, a Labour-supporting newspaper.
The Seamen’s Strike halted exports and then the newly re-elected Government inflicted a credit squeeze, which soon hit new car sales. BMC had a new Managing Director in the shape of Joe Edwards, who put BMC on short-time working and made 12,000 workers redundant. The Midlands were not swinging, but facing swingeing cutbacks in production.
A protest strike by delivery drivers halted production at Longbridge, then another three-week dispute at Morris Radiators shut down the firm’s other plants. Joe Edwards’ methods were perceived as harsh by many brought up in a post-war world of unending consumer demand and consensus politics and began to attract the attention of armchair analysts, employed by both the media, City firms and the Government, who thought they could do better.
If the ‘noose’ affair showed unionised car plants in a bad light, the mass BMC redundancies showed why so many ordinary workers felt compelled to join a Trade Union. The purpose of a union was to defend the interests of the worker against harsh management diktats, such as those instigated by BMC in the Autumn of 1966.
Did BMC’s tactics terminally damage industrial relations at its plants for years to come?
However, the need for such drastic cutbacks highlighted how dependent BMC was on its home market, and that scenario was the direct consequence of France’s rejection of Britain’s application to join the Common Market in January 1963. Between 1964 and July 1966 BMC had attained its zenith, further expansion could only be obtained by access to the larger EU car market, access that was denied for political not industrial reasons. BMC could sell in Common Market countries, but trade tariffs imposed on its products meant that they were hopelessly price un-competitive. The Issigonis-designed front-wheel drive range might have been the best family cars in the world, but to potential buyers in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium, they were way out of their price range to be viable.
BMC may well have been a flawed organisation in terms of cost control, product planning and production engineering, but they did have the right, high-technology range for European buyers. The fact they were not able to compete on price terms in the largest European car market was down to the politicians, not the BMC management, and all this came to a head in 1966.
That, then, was 1966, a year when things began to go wrong for BMC. A train of events began that would see the control of the British-owned motor industry pass to Sir Donald Stokes by May 1968, but that is another story.