The current Rover range (code-named SD1) was introduced in June 1976 at a time when the old Leyland Cars company was reaching its lowest ebb. The 3500 went on to win the 1977 Car of the Year award, and has since been supplemented by the straight six models of 2300cc and 2600cc capacity, which appeared in October 1977.
Here Peter Dron interviews Rover-Triumph’s dynamic young managing director, Jeff Herbert, whose job it is to steer his prestige division into the uncertainties of the 1980’s, and particularly into the important North American market. Can the SD1 fulfil its undeniable promise?
Nobody rises rapidly in industry, and perhaps particularly in the motor industry, without combining definite ideas on management with the ability to carry those ideas through the chain of management to the shop floor, and both these qualities are evident in Jeff Herbert, who has now held the reins at Rover-Triumph for a little more than a year.
Production of the SD1 in its various forms is currently running at the rate of about 1,170 units a week. In view of the fact that the potential capacity is just under 3,000 units, I asked Mr Herbert if he found the current performance disappointing.
‘No not at all. The plant was originally laid down for two models, and then there was a plan to build the Dolomite there as well as the SD1. Now, for various reasons, we have just the one model in there. We do not intend to expand to rapidly in the immediate future ; instead we want to consolidate our present position for a while. We expect to sell about 35,000 SD1’s in the UK this year. We are in the luxury sector of the market, and with our cars selling in the £6,000-£9,000 price band, we hold just under 40 per cent of that market. It’s a very important sector, including everything from Granada’s to BMW’s; to capture much more than our share, you’d have to work very hard indeed.’
When I visited Jeff Herbert at his office at Canley, there was a mysterious prototype parked outside, which turned out to be SD2, a sort of mini-Rover ( though still with five doors). Though it had something of the SD1’s lines in it (including the indented side line), it lacked its graceful proportions. The SD2 project was killed off a long time ago, which is just as well: it would have done little to enhance the marque’s image.
The SD1 is selling quite well in Europe, especially in France, but it will not go on sale in North America until later this year, beginning with Canada ; sales in the USA will follow at the beginning of 1980. Why has it taken so long for BL Cars to attack such a lucrative market ?
‘The reason for our delay has mainly been obtaining emissions certification, which requires a lot of re-engineering, and takes up a lot of time. But the cars for North America are already beginning to go down the line.
We have already been reorganising our franchises out there, and we are now happy with our service back-up. We have our headquarters in Leonia, New Jersey, and we have about 400 dealers. It’s a 60,000 a year market for BL Cars as a whole, and last year we sold 40,000. This year we expect to sell 50,000.
The SD1 is certainly not going to flood the market. Rover is largely an unknown name in America, and our product is sophisticated and unique. This is the way we must sell it, as a sort of adult sports car. We should be able to sell between 3,500 and 5,000 units there.
It’s far better to build up sales gradually, and build the reputation of the car in that way. I could mention some companies that have rushed into export markets, particularly in the States, expecting to clean up. But all too often, they’ve burned their fingers.
So long as we make sensible business judgements, we must have a lot going for us in the USA. GM’s new X-cars are all the same, so that a modern Cadillac is no more than a Chevrolet with different badges. Our cars are distinctive and different from the common run, so we have a great opportunity which I am confident we will capitalise on.’
Earlier this year, BL Cars was the subject of a brief blaze of adverse publicity when Derby Police announced that they were rejecting their Rover’s because they have been unreliable, and replacing them with BMW’s. Mr Herbert clearly feels bitter about the incident.
‘I think it was grossly unfair. I won’t say its best forgotten, but the reporting of the case didn’t portray the facts as I saw them. Thirty out of fifty five police forces use Rover’s, and when you’re supplying cars to that many forces, you’re bound, from time to time, to get one or two dropping out, and a couple of new ones coming in. I don’t believe their decision was necessary. Really, it was a breakdown in communication.
‘They had problems with two of their three cars, which had faulty camshafts causing continual trouble. As soon as the camshafts were changed the problems disappeared. They also maintained that they were getting poor fuel consumption, and the figures they gave us were 3 or 4 mpg worse than those of any other police force, so I don’t know what was behind that. Remember that a patrol car will cover more than 100,000 miles in a year, and they tend to be driven hard. Anyway, other forces are presently sitting down with us to develop the next batch of patrol cars, and Derby themselves are taking another for evaluation.’
Mr Herbert firmly rejects the suggestion that this case was indicative of a major problem in design, production and quality control of the SD1.
â€œFor a start, I don’t like to label problems in that way. If you have a problem, it doesn’t make any difference what its origin is: it’s a management problem, and it’s down to management to put things right.
Our reliability record is very good. When you consider that we had a brand new car being built in a brand new factory by a largely new workforce (almost the only carry over from the previous models was the V8 engine), you’re bound to experience some difficulties. It’s only when you have hundreds of thousands of customer miles under your belt that you can find out what’s required and it’s the rate at which things are put right that distinguishes a good manufacturer from a bad one.
We had no more problems than any other manufacturer introducing a totally new model. Perhaps at Leyland Cars we didn’t do things quickly enough in the past, but the great emphasis when the management changed was on the recognition that we had to react quickly.
None of the problems we suffered were major reliability defects ; they were just silly, niggling, customer irritating ones. An example of that was the rear carpets. Not every manufacturer bothers to carpet the boot area, and in the SD1 it’s not just any old carpet, but high quality Axminster. The mistake that was made was that it was just glued in place, and after a few thousand miles it would pull free. So now we pin it down and the problem is solved.
There’s a sort of domino effect with reliability problems. Once one or two faults have appeared, the customer grows suspicious and looks for more. On virtually any car, if you look hard enough, you can find something wrong.
We are producing better, more reliable Rover’s than ever before. I know this from audit information which is measured on a weekly basis. We are auditing five times as many cars this year as we did last year. We are putting more time and energy into improving quality and reliability than ever before.
It’s an unforgiving, tremendously competitive industry. You cannot hope to succeed merely by being as good as everyone else. The auto industry is a complex business, and car purchase is a highly emotional event. When you have a large percentage of the market, other companies don’t just sit back and let you get on with it. So we have to be better than everyone else : that’s what the Rover and Triumph names have meant historically, and we intend to keep it that way.
The amount of time my senior executives and I spend following up reliability features to improve the vehicles would surprise a lot of people. My philosophy is to have a’˜better than’organisation, and this must run right through the company from the management down to the shop floor’.
Mr Herbert is also cautiously proud of the Solihull plant’s record of labour relations.
‘Maintaining good relations between the employer and the employee is a major role of the management. You must remember that our workforce was largely new to the company, and in many cases to the industry. We had about 1,500-2,000 working on the old Rover, and now we have over 4,000. That’s quite a lot of recruitment in a short space of time. A year ago, more than half the workforce had less than twelve months experience. In the early years of building a new product in a new factory with a new work force, there are bound to be difficulties. All your problems get picked up and publicised, and usually they are blown up out of all proportion.
In the course of the last year there have been major improvements in the way the plant makes cars, and manufacturing efficiency has seen phenomenal advances. At the same time, the work force has settled down and realised that the management is working hard and that it has a vital role to play in the prosperity of the company.
Altogether, since the introduction of SD1, more than 150 modifications have been made on line. Most of these are quite minor, aimed in many cases at noise reduction and greater ease of operation. I asked Mr Herbert if he foresaw any major changes in the models in the next few years.
‘We shall continue producing the SD1 until the market is ready for a change. It is an integral part of the JRT programme, but we are sure we are sufficiently alert to spot any great changes in the needs of the market. The initial investment on the SD1 was about £95 million, which seemed a large amount of money at the time; already it looks like a bargain and don’t forget that that figure includes building an enormous new factory, possibly the last great car plant to be built in Britain. It would cost an awful lot more to do the same again. We don’t need to change the product every year, we’re not in the ’boutique’ sector of the market. We have a different marketing concept.’
A lot of people have asked why there is no night shift at Solihull. I asked Mr Herbert.
‘At present, there is not the capacity for it. Everyone seems to ask that question, but the answer is simply that at present it wouldn’t be justified. It’s not true to say that the work force is opposed to it. A couple of years ago there was a sensationalised story about the ‘sex problem’ ; it was suggested that the workers were opposed to operating a night shift because it would interfere with their sex lives. However, I am sure that if and when we explain that a night shift is necessary, the workers will co-operate. Anyway, the Land Rover plant has a night shift and so does the V8 engine plant, and even certain parts of Solihull which have to be kept going round the clock.’
While many people view the fuel crisis with dismay, Mr Herbert sees it not merely as a challenge, but as an opportunity to beat the opposition.
‘It’s like a marathon, and everyone’s starting from the same starting post. There’ss no reason why JRT should not continue to provide private transportation. The V8 is one of the most economical engines in the luxury market, and its combination of economy and performance has the beating of many two litre rivals ; it is one of the greatest assets of BL cars.
I do not believe that private transportation will change drastically, certainly in the medium term, but because of the fuel crisis we are now seeing the start of a change in the way of our life.
We are investigating various alternative power units and fuels. Diesel is one possibility which interests me as a diesel man ; at present we do not have a diesel we could simply slot in, but we are well aware of market demands, and could produce one if necessary. LPG is another possibility, and it certainly looks as if there will be far more available by the mid-80’s.’
In the same issue of MOTOR was an interview with William Pratt Thompson, the 45 year old American managing directot of Jaguar Rover Triumph.
In response to questions about a lack of a Triumph Dolomite replacement, the JRT head said. ‘This, of course, is one of the reasons why we opened discussions with Honda, for we also see the need for a new car in the Dolomite market sector. Discussions with Honda are focused very much on this sector of the market in which Honda does a very good job.’
Pratt Thompson commented on Honda’s engine engineering. ‘Their speed at developing new engines is very impressive indeed, as is also their fundemental innovative ability in engine engineering. From that point of view the link between Honda and JRT is very logical, for JRT’s background in engine engineering is very good indeed and in vehicle engineering JRT has a very healthy record, as instanced by the Jaguar on one hand and Rover on the other, two totally different approaches but both highly successful, particularly in the vehicle engineering sense. I therefore see the engineering link as being potentially valuable to both companies. What we’re talking about now with Honda is one specific project. It has been agreed with Honda from the start that we should concentrate on this one project, make it work then see what may come along.’
On the subject of the Triumph TR7 after its move from Speke to Canley, Pratt Thompson said.
‘We put a tremendous amount of effort into the move from Speke to to Canley, and the analysis of the cars built at Canley has been quite rewarding. We have been very conscious of what was frankly the very poor reputation of the Speke built cars both in quality and in engineering. We carried out many engineering changes and the whole attitude to putting quality into the cars has been revolutionised.’
Pratt Thompson was also asked if the long wheelbase version of the TR7, the Lynx was completely dead. He replied.
‘That’s something that’s being considered. We are in fact considering all aspects of our sports car business. We don’t at present have any new sports car to announce for the emphasis is on making the TR7’s and the TR8’s as good as we possibly can and on increasing the rate of production. We’re building about 600 TRs a week at present and we want to take that up to a 1,000 a week by September or October.’