Ian Nicholls, AROnline‘s historian-in-residence, tells the Rover-Triumph story, and their part in the downfall of the British motor industry.
Here, in the eighth part, Rover and Triumph start considering tying the knot to join forces and become Britain’s executive car powerhouse. In the meantime, a swathe of new model launches peppered 1966.
The story of Rover and Triumph: new model army
Although Rover had purchased Alvis, the motive for the acquisition has never been clarified. Did Rover buy Alvis because it wanted to diversify into military vehicle production, or did it want the extra capacity offered by the Alvis factory at Holyhead Road in Coventry for its expansion plans?
Alvis was a profitable concern, albeit one dependent on Government defence contracts. However, it was an unprofitable low-volume car manufacturer, dependent on the ageing 3-Litre TF model of 1950 vintage.
The sun was setting on small luxury car manufacturers whose customers now expected a technological sophistication only attainable by being part of a larger group, or by being able to command high prices as in the case of Ferrari – and even Ferrari would eventually find itself in the arms of Fiat.
David Bache pens a new Alvis
In January 1966 Rover, in the form of stylist David Bache, began to investigate creating a new Alvis (above) based on the P6 saloon. By the latter part of 1966, Bache had created the Alvis GTS, a two-door fastback coupe intended to utilise Rover’s new V8 engine.
The ex-Buick V8 was also the key to unlocking Rover’s long-term plan for a bigger, faster and more refined Land Rover, known internally as the 100-inch Station Wagon. With its light weight, the V8 enabled the Rover Engineers to meet the required design parameters that could not be reached by using the IoE P5 engine or the heavy P7 six cylinder.
Standard-Triumph Chief Engineer Harry Webster had been to see Michelotti at Orbassano in Italy and reported to the STI Board meeting held on 10 February 1966. He had been shown 6105 KV, the hack 2000 saloon that had been delivered to Michelotti back in June 1965. He was impressed with its new clothes.
The beginnings of the Triumph Stag
The Board’s Minutes record that: ‘The Chief Engineer stated that, so far as the TR5, was concerned he was not too happy with the prototype body-in-white. On his recent visit to Michelotti’s studio, he had compared this prototype with a new Michelotti-style body on a Triumph 2000 chassis and his immediate reaction was that this latter model matched the Company’s requirements exactly and was infinitely preferable to the former. He suggested that the Board should reconsider the position of this model.’
We can only surmise that TR5 was Project Fury and that it was cancelled in favour of the design, 6105 KV, that became the Triumph Stag of 1970.
Harry Webster also warned the Board of forthcoming US emissions regulations due for 1967. He claimed that, ‘the Company was well ahead of its competitors in these developments.’
He also told the Board that, ‘the 2.5-litre engine, which was scheduled for production next spring, should give the Triumph 2000 a top speed of 110 miles per hour which would match the top speed which it was anticipated could be attainable by the twin carburettor version of the Rover 2000, which it was understood was in course of development.’
Getting ready for the clean air acts
By 1968, all cars exported to the USA would have to comply with regulations severely restricting the amount of a car’s exhaust fumes. Harry Webster said in May 1966: ‘We have got make up our minds how to beat the problem within the next three months. A sample of each model we export has to be tested over 50,000 miles before it will be accepted.’
On 7 April, Rover built the 500,000th Land Rover.
It was in May 1966 that Leyland first approached Rover about a possible takeover. BMC had now absorbed the Pressed Steel Company, one of Rover’s suppliers, leaving the Solihull firm feeling exposed. Sir George Farmer, the Rover Chairman, was receptive to Leyland’s overtures, although it would not be until December before a deal was finalised.
Stag is signed off by the board
On 3 June, a day when the company announced the shutdown of all its factories due to strike action, Standard-Triumph held a Board Meeting.
The sports car derivative of the 2000 saloon was now gaining traction and had now been given the codename of ‘Stag’, a moniker it was to keep all the way to production although, confusingly, it was also called the TR6!
The Minutes of the meeting stated: ‘The Board discussed the introduction of the TR6 (Stag). The Chief Accountant expressed anxiety lest changes in course of development would carry the model away from its original concept and make it almost a new car.
The Chief Engineer stated that all changes were being carefully watched and that interchangeability of parts with the Triumph 2000 would cause no difficulties. The General Manager (George Turnbull) confirmed that no commitment of capital in respect of this model would be made until estimates were available and approved. The Board agreed a full project proposal be ready and presented for consideration at the next meeting.’
Industrial unrest slows down progress
Then, four days later, Project ‘Fury’, the 2.0-litre sports car, at one time labelled ‘TR5’ was given the project code of X749.
On 6 July 1966, the same day as BMC announced it was merging with Jaguar, ten weeks of strikes and go-slows which had disrupted car production at the Coventry, Birmingham and Liverpool factories of Standard-Triumph ended after an inquiry by the motor industry’s trouble-shooter, Jack Scamp.
At his request the 62 machinists who had disputed bonus payments accepted terms for a temporary settlement and reverted to normal working while the Scamp inquiry report was being readied.
Stag engine moves from six- to eight-cylinders
The next day Standard-Triumph held another Board Meeting. The Minutes stated: ‘The project proposal for Stag was considered by the Board. The proposal envisaged a luxury-type sports car built on a shortened Triumph 2000 chassis.
‘It would use Triumph 2000 chassis assemblies and was powered by a 2.5-litre six-cylinder engine with provision for a V8 engine in due course. It was to be an ‘occasional four seater’ and the project was based on a total sales estimate of 12,000 units per annum, the anticipated production date being mid 1968.
‘As existing facilities for body production were insufficient it would be necessary, if the project was approved, to expand the currently approved development at the Liverpool No.2 Site to a further 100,000 square feet. An amount of £500,000 had been included in the 1966/67 capital budget to cover the extension.’
Anticipated Stag pricing: a bargain
The Stag was no longer the TR6, but a new model in its own right. The plan now was to initially build the car with the inline six cylinder enlarged to 2498 cc, before introducing a 2.5-litre V8 derived from the slant four engine that Standard-Triumph were building for Saab.
The Board was given various retail price estimates including $3875 for New York, ‘which was below all competitive models other than the Austin Healey 3000 MkIII and the Sunbeam Tiger. The estimated net investment for the production of this new model was £1,950,000 and the estimated annual value of sales of basic models was £656,050 giving a return of 33.6 per cent.’
George Turnbull, in his capacity as STI General Manager, went on to explain that the Stag was not a TR4 replacement, but a new model in its own right.
Turnbull explains the Stag plan
The Minutes went on: ‘The General Manager (George Turnbull) stated that so far as could be seen at present production would be straight forward and the model would be a valuable addition to our sports car range. Mr Andrews’ initial reaction was that it would sell well to the United States.
‘The popularity of the small sports car appeared to be declining although the appeal of the sports car, especially the luxury sports car, seemed to be increasing. In view of this trend and as sales of the TR4 range were remaining steady it was planned, subject to Board approval, for the Stag to be an additional model… The alternative, however, was a complete facelift for the TR4 entailing the provision of new tooling etcetera, costing nearly as much as the proposed expenditure on the Stag.
‘The Chairman (Sir Donald Stokes) stated that if the Company was to survive it was necessary to be a trend setter and not a trend follower. For this reason conventional market surveys based on experience were not entirely satisfactory. The Stag would strengthen the sports car franchise which was the basis of the Company’s business and should put it in a much stronger competitive position.’
The Triumph GT6 is launched
In July 1966 Standard-Triumph began building the GT6, a coupe derivative of the Spitfire fitted with the 20S 2.0-litre six-cylinder engine. A rival for the new MGB GT, it would last in production until 1973.
This was a much more cost effective way of selling a 2.0-litre six-cylinder sports car than Project ‘Fury’. It was not that there was anything wrong with the ‘Fury’, it was merely that there were cheaper ways of achieving the same result.
On 20 July, the newly re-elected Labour Government announced hire-purchase restrictions and an increase in purchase tax also generally termed as a credit squeeze. Typically, the anti-inflationary measures bore down hard on car buying. The 25 per cent auto-purchase tax was increased to 27 per cent, minimum down payments were hiked from 25 per cent to 40 per cent, and the time allowed for payments was cut from 27 to 24 months.
Credit controls introduced
This was in part a reaction to the damaging National Seamen’s Strike, which had lasted from 16 May to 1 July and had played havoc with the nation’s exports. Jack Scamp and members of the Motor Industry Joint Labour Council reported on 2 August.
Management and unions at Standard-Triumph were criticised for failing to refer a complicated difference over piece-rates to the disputes machinery of the engineering industry.
Two gangs of men, numbering 62, took part in intermittent strikes over a period of 12 weeks because of the dispute, disrupting the company’s production programme and seriously affecting the earnings and employment of 15,000 men earlier in the year.
Strikes hamper new-car production
The Scamp Committee blamed much of the trouble on the company’s piecework system, particularly features of it which made it difficult for management to contemplate re-timings because of the fear of unjustifiable increases in costs. They suggested the introduction of a system based on work-study.
Another strike, this time at Rover, exhausted the patience of A.B. Smith on 8 August. Eight assembly workers, whose unofficial strike had halted Rover 2000 production at Solihull, for four days were urged by Smith to, ‘get on with the job.’
He called the strike a, ‘catastrophe for the company, the workers and the country.’ Overseas goodwill was, ‘a gossamer thread already at breaking strain… In heaven’s name let us get on with the job. We need production now every hour of every week.’
Strong demand: no way of meeting it
A.B. Smith went on: ‘With all the insecurity of the present economic crisis, it is a tragedy that we should be prevented from making the most of the sales and export opportunities which will not last for ever.
‘The Rover 2000 has been acclaimed throughout the world. We are under extreme pressure, from our home and export markets, particularly America. to meet delivery programmes, and overseas customers will not wait. Many sales are on home-delivery basis. Imagine the frustration of an American arriving with his family – to pick up his car at airport or docks to use on holiday to find it is not available because the factory is on strike.
‘Such a mess ensures that he will never buy another Rover, maybe never a British car again.’ His plea worked, the strike ended the next day.
Rover should learn lessons from Triumph
The day after The Guardian newspaper reported that eight months after Jack Scamp and his motor industry conciliation committee suggested the setting up of a works committee at the Rover car factory at Solihull, there was still no such committee in existence.
‘Of course it is quite stupid, but for heaven’s sake don’t say I said so,’ a spokesman of one of the eight unions involved at Rover, said.
An officer of another union involved said: ‘Relations between the district officers of the unions involved are amicable, so there must be clashes of personality among Shop Stewards at the factory itself. It is ridiculous.’
Biding time for the unions
A spokesman for Rover: ‘We accepted the idea of the works committee a long time ago. We can only wait for the unions to reach agreement among themselves.’
With the credit squeeze biting Standard-Triumph announced in mid-September that the company’s factories were going on to a four-day week. Output of most cars produced for the home market was being reduced until the firm had had time to assess the full impact of the Government’s deflationary measures. However, production of the Triumph 1300 was being increased to meet outstanding orders.
Sir Donald Stokes said: ‘In common with everyone else we’re easing off, but sales are still very healthy.’
Rover P6 production expands
The only bright variant of the generally down beat note in the Midlands came on 22 September. This was the announcement that Rover was to start for the first time a night shift to produce extra numbers of the P6 Rover 2000 model.
Output had been cut on the company’s Land-Rover and Rover P5 3.0-litre assembly tracks, and there had been some short-time working on the Land Rover. Men would be diverted to the Rover 2000, for which there was a growing home and export demand.
That September the Land Rover Series 2b Forward Control was announced, a revised version of the vehicle that had first appeared in 1962, now with the option of a diesel engine.
A new model rush
On 28 September the Rover P6 2000 Automatic and 2000 TC were announced. Eight days later, Standard-Triumph announced the 2.0-litre Triumph Vitesse. It was an upgrade to the 1.6-litre Vitesse, production ceased in 1971 after 6974 examples.
William Martin-Hurst said in a statement issued on 3 October, that economic depression in Britain coincided with a slowing up of Land Rover sales in some overseas markets, and sales of the P5 3-litre Rover, essentially a home market car, were seriously affected.
He added that surplus labour from the Land Rover production line was to be absorbed in a night shift producing the P6 Rover 2000. This would enable the company to meet the demand for the 2000.
Delivery delays stretch into months
Customers were having to wait months for delivery. But William Martin-Hurst said the shortage of Land Rover orders would result in some short-time working and may lead to redundancies.
As part of an economy drive, the Government had spread over three years orders originally intended to be delivered in one. Strict economy had been exercised in ordering new vehicles. Because of the restriction on credit, farmers and private buyers had deferred buying new Land Rovers.
‘It was perhaps unfortunate that the Land Rover practically never wears out,’ said William Martin-Hurst.
Rover’s export drive
With the P6, the position was more encouraging. In 1966 more than half its production was exported and it was hoped this would be increased. Rover could continue to build at the present rate, but there was evidence that customers were no longer ready to wait months for delivery as other cars were available at cut prices.
‘But this year, for a number of reasons, some due to technical difficulties, others due to labour disputes including the shipping strike, we have delivered to North America only a small part of the vehicles we promised them,’ said Martin-Hurst.
Amid a dire credit squeeze that had BMC on the ropes, came the news on 12 December 1966 that the Leyland Motor Corporation wanted to acquire the Rover company.
Leyland signals Rover takeover
The Directors of both companies announced that the result of talks initiated by Leyland in May 1966 would be a £25 million bid for Rover’s capital, to create a motor group with a stock market valuation of about £150 million.
The Rover Board recommended its shareholders to accept the offer. In terms of the value of their annual sales Leyland/Rover would be the third largest group in Britain, its £300 million annual turnover would rank it behind BMC and Ford, but ahead of Vauxhall and Rootes.
‘Together we’ll be in a much stronger position to get and expand markets than we are as separate companies.’ – Sir Donald Stokes
The P6 Rover 2000 had proved highly successful and, only a few weeks before, accountant George Farmer, the Chairman, was able to report a highest ever group sales figure of £78 million for the financial year to 30 July 1966 (it was only £50 million in 1963-4). But profits were another story.
The pre-tax surplus was some £600,000 down at £3 million, and George Farmer predicted an “appreciable reduction” for the then current financial period. Sales of the Land Rover, the group’s main profit earner, had been affected by the credit squeeze. And overseas business, which was facing increasing competition, had been hit in some markets, particularly Australia.
At a joint press conference, Sir William Black, the Leyland Chairman, made it clear that the initiative had come from his side. There had been a, ‘glint in our eye for a long while.’
“All my Board, believe that this is right for the Rover Company, that it is right for the shareholders, and right for the staff,” said George Farmer.
Sir Donald Stokes added: ‘Together we’ll be in a much stronger position to get and expand markets than we are as separate companies.’
Leyland itself was, according to Sir William Black, ‘not for sale’. The group was, ‘big enough to face the world.’