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 fourteenth part, he recounts how Rover-Triumph raced towards a new generation of exciting products as parent company British Leyland readied itself for the UK’s entry into the EEC. Exciting times indeed, but scuppered by lost production – just when it was needed.
The Rover-Triumph story: together at last
In January 1972, it was announced that the United Kingdom was to join the European Economic Community (EEC) on 1 January 1973. For British Leyland, this meant that the prohibitive trade tariffs that had inhibited sales to the major European economies would gradually disappear – and a whole new era of success would surely follow.
In the 1960s, these trade barriers had prevented BMC from effectively exploiting the innovative qualities of the Mini and 1100/1300 series, leading to disappointing financial results and the merger with Leyland Motors. For the Specialist Car Division, joining the EEC was seen as an opportunity for its premium priced cars to sell like never before.
It also meant that imported cars from France, Germany and Italy would also be considerably cheaper…
The good – and bad side – of EEC membership
However, although EEC entry was seen as a golden opportunity for export sales, Parliament had sent a warning shot over the bows of the British motor industry. It had to either shape up or shut down. The same month UK unemployment hit the shocking total of one million, creating an almighty political furore. This was further confirmation that the British economy was heading for the rocks.
Crucial wage talks took place at the Triumph plant at Canley on 4 January 1972. Triumph management revealed its plans for replacing piecework with a flat-rate system like that introduced at Austin-Morris, Cowley. Bill Davis, Chairman of Triumph, blamed piecework for the company’s continuing losses.
Talks at the plant were adjourned without agreement and both unions and management made it clear afterwards that they expected a long period of bargaining.
The problems with piece-working
Attempts to abolish piece-working, which the management believed to be at the root of many of its labour problem in the Triumph plant, formed the latest stage of British Leyland’s plan to modernise pay structures throughout its car divisions. A flat-rate system of payment would, the management argued, offer a guaranteed wage for agreed production levels.
This view was not shared by the shop-floor workers at Triumph, who were presenting the most determined opposition to a flat-rate system of pay so far met by the British Leyland management.
Attempts to end piecework at Rover were also meeting obstacles. On 14 January, 1700 night-shift workers at four Rover plants in the Birmingham area voted at a mass meeting for an immediate overtime ban followed by a series of one-day strikes beginning on Monday 17 January over management proposals to end piecework. The main plant at Solihull was not involved. This lasted until 7 February. Other sources claimed it was five engine and transmission plants.
The day-shift workers would stage a one-day strike on Fridays.
Modest profit improvements in a booming market
Lord Stokes revealed on 14 January that British Leyland’s profits recovered to £32.4 million in 1970-71 from £0.9 million the previous year. Sales rose by 15 per cent to reach a record £1,177 million, of which £563 million (48 per cent) was registered overseas, he added.
Direct exports of £414 million were ‘higher than ever achieved by any British company of any kind.’ Vehicles sold totalled 1,057,000, compared with 984,000 the previous year, a rise of 7.5 per cent. However, BLMC was still some £8 million short of the £40 million profit reached in the first two years after the merger of British Motor Holdings with Leyland in 1968.
Lord Stokes said he hoped for a return to at least this level in 1970-71, but everything depended on their ability to supply increasing home and overseas demand. The chief problem in this was gaining acceptance for, ‘a new payments system for 180,000 people.’
The best was yet to come for British Leyland
Lord Stokes said rationalisation measures taken since the merger could not yet be fully realised. Profits for 1971/72 would be ‘substantially higher’ than the previous year. He added: ‘I should like to think it would be more than double that in the long term.’
He indicated that 1975 might be the year when return on capital employed reached satisfactory levels, but a ‘period of complete industrial peace’ would be required to do this. He was ‘fairly optimistic’ about the 1971/72 year. ’Production of vehicles is currently running at a higher rate than last year,’ Lord Stokes added.
In February 1972, the British Leyland Board viewed David Bache’s revised ‘B’ SD1 styling proposal. It was approved. The same month BLMC announced the retirement of its two Joint Deputy Chairmen, Sir William Lyons of Jaguar and Lewis Whyte, formerly of ACV.
…then the problems really begin
On 9 February, the National Union of Miners began a national strike, soon leading to the declaration of a state of emergency and power cuts. Soon industry was having to lay off workers, British Leyland included. The dispute lasted until 25 February.
While all this was going on the Specialist Car Division Advisory Board met on 11 February. The confusion over what badge British Leyland’s corporate sports cars would wear was revealed. The minutes stated: ‘Sports Cars should be the responsibility of the Specialist Car Division although this matter was still under discussion with Mr Turnbull with regard to the involvement of Austin-Morris.’
The next month British Leyland acted decisively and officially merged Rover and Triumph under the control of Sir George Farmer of Rover. The 12-man Board consisted of seven from Rover and five from Triumph.
Corporate manoeuvres at Rover-Triumph
Spen King was promoted to the role of Technical Director of Rover-Triumph, where he would be able to oversee all the projects in the pipeline. Also there was further progress with the Rover SD1 project. All Rover A-batch drawings were completed – work started on production body shell drawings.
At that month’s Specialist Car Division Advisory Board Meeting, Triumph Managing Director Bill Davis stressed ‘how important it was to Triumph’ that the Austin-Morris division was limited to saloon production. In other words, he was pushing for the corporate sports car (Triumph TR7) to be badged as a Triumph only.
Davis believed that, without a new sports car and small saloon, Triumph would lose money after 1973. On 21 March, Austin-Morris announced the Mk3 version of the Austin-Morris 1800/2200 saloon. The existing 1800 was joined by a new 2200 variant, featuring a 2227cc six-cylinder engine. The engine was a six-cylinder version of the 1485cc E-Series engine then available in the Austin Maxi. The new 110bhp six-cylinder E6 was a smooth engine and in the Wolseley Six was an excellent upmarket car.
The ‘Barber Boom’ gains momentum
The same day the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Anthony Barber, revealed his budget, which was designed to return the Conservatives to power in an election expected in 1974 or 1975. This budget led to a period known as ‘The Barber Boom’.
The purpose of the budget was to ‘reinflate’ the economy to reverse the rise in unemployment figures. The measures in the budget led to high inflation and wage demands from public sector workers which further fuelled the inflationary spiral.
At the end of March 1972 it was revealed that Rover was to begin immediate recruiting of more labour at its Solihull plant. It planned to increase production of the best-selling Rover P6 2000/3500 cars by at least 10 per cent. The move followed acceptance by the assembly line workers of one of the most far-reaching pay deals negotiated in the motor industry.
Getting the workforce on-board at British Leyland
Jack Rosbrook, Rover’s Personnel Director, said: ’The deal is dependent on five conditions being met by the men. These are concerned with the maintenance of standard performance rates, no increase in the amount of time lost last year through strikes; absenteeism not in excess of 5 per cent, the maintenance of quality standards, and cooperation on redeployment and mobility.’
The three-year deal was one of the longest dated agreements reached on pay. It held out prospects for a long period of stability, Rover assembly line workers were among the first in British Leyland to accept a changeover from piecework to measured day work. A.B. Smith, the Managing Director of Rover, said: ’We have a very buoyant demand for the two models and with our order book full for months ahead we are having to quote quite lengthy delivery times particularly for the new 3500s. However, with increased production we hope we shall be able to shorten the time.’
The next month BLMC decided that all future sports cars would be assembled at the Speke No.2 plant and sold with the Triumph badge. It was also confirmed that the SD1 would be built at Solihull as a Rover.
Rover-Triumph projects find homes in 1972
A letter was sent to George Turnbull, Managing Director of the Austin-Morris division, informing him of the decision. Bill Davis’ plea that Triumph should be the British Leyland sports car brand had paid off. The ‘Bullet’ project now had the green light to be developed into the Triumph TR7. About this time work had started on Triumph Lynx Mk2, a new project for a 2+2 coupe based on the Bullet/TR7.
Although various stylists created designs for Lynx Mk2, Rover-Triumph Technical Director Spen King settled on the creation of Canley stylist John Ashford. This, in turn, was modified by David Bache, the new head of Rover-Triumph styling, and this would be developed into running prototypes.
Lord Stokes and the other Specialist Car Division Advisory Board Directors agreed that future specialist car designs and model plans should not be shared with Austin-Morris.
Upheaval in the executive sector
April 1972 saw the launch of the first-generation Ford Granada (above), a new Anglo-German contender in the executive sector. The new model replaced both the British Ford Zephyr/Zodiac Mk4 and the German P7 series and was initially produced at both Dagenham and Cologne.
The new model, initially branded as the Consul in Britain until 1975, had a variety of engines that covered all the marketing avenues, combined with a stylish body and excellent engineering. It was more compact than its Mk4 predecessor and, because of Ford’s well-publicised motor sport success, had a much more sporting image.
Product placement in top-rated television shows also boosted the car’s image. Reviews of the new executive barge were very positive. It had taken the best part of a decade to get it right, but Ford now had a much more potent rival for the Rover and Triumph executive cars at last.
Strikes really start to hit Rover-Triumph hard
Strikes abounded at British Leyland in 1972. They were out for 10 weeks at Jaguar, nine weeks at Bathgate and three weeks at Triumph Radford.
On 28 April, it was revealed that in March 1972 imported cars took 24.6 per cent, their highest ever share, of the United Kingdom market, because British cars were in short supply. Rover Managing Director A.B. Smith said: ‘We are seeing a buoyancy in the economy reflected in the sales.’
The ‘Barber Boom’ was kicking in. The UK car market expanded by 27.38 per cent in 1972, but in this boom period for sales, BLMC could only expand its car production by 3.32 per cent. Overall British car production only expanded by 10.27 per cent, albeit to a record, creating a void for imported cars to exploit. How did the Specialist Car Division perform in this time?
Rover-Triumph fails to make hay
Because of the 10-week strike Jaguar sales dropped by 29.46 per cent. Although Rover P6 production figures are not complete, Rover saw its annual production drop by around 4 per cent while that of Triumph rose by 3.21 per cent. The new Ford Consul/Granada clearly was hitting the Rover-Triumph executive twins hard.
In 1971 Dagenham built 15,288 Zephyr/Zodiac Mk4s, in 1972 it built 36,867 Consul/Granadas, an increase of 141 per cent! Rover P6 production declined 5 per cent from the record set in 1971, while that of the Triumph 2000/2.5 PI dropped 11.43 per cent and all this in a greatly expanded market.
It seemed as if all the extra demand in the economy was being satisfied by the new Ford. Though it would be easy to blame labour force intransigence for the failure of Rover-Triumph to satisfy the extra demand, it may well have been down to an unwillingness by management to sacrifice quality for quantity. It appears that the North Block at Solihull was working flat-out to satisfy demand for the P6, but they were at their limit.
The V8 lifts Rover P6 sales
The only crumbs of comfort for British Leyland were the success of the P6B Rover 3500 and Range Rover in 1972. Some 13,901 P6Bs were built, it still had the measure of the Consul/Granada, which could only muster a mere 3.0-litres for its top of the range model. Meanwhile, the production volumes of the Range Rover were gradually increasing bit by bit as word gradually got around about this new concept in motoring.
In May 1972 Rover-Triumph officially authorised a replacement for a 1500/Toledo/Dolomite series, codenamed Triumph SD2. This replaced the previous ‘Bobcat’ project. Originally it was thought that the SD2 would have a 1500cc engine or a four-cylinder version of the under-development PE146/166 engines.
The whole project was beset by a constantly changing specification. David Bache of Rover and Pininfarina were both asked to submit designs for the project, although it seems that Michelotti was not consulted.
Management changes and cost savings
On 11 May, it was announced that Sir George Farmer and Jack Plane were the two new Deputy Chairmen of the British Leyland Motor Corporation. These appointments followed the retirement earlier in 1972 of Sir William Lyons and Lewis Whyte. Sir George Farmer had been Chairman of Rover since 1963 and a Director of British Leyland since April 1969.
In July 1972 it was decided that the Triumph developed PE146/166 six-cylinder versions of the Rover SD1 would not appear at the car’s initial launch. An extract from an August 1972 Rover Triumph Vehicle Cost Control Department document revealed how the development of the SD1 was going.
‘SD1 uses more expensive springs £(0.20) and dampers £(0.29) but saves £15.67 on the De-Dion tube and all the associated links. A further saving of £0.14 is made on spring insulation.’ BLMC had head hunted many Ford cost control experts to aid the development of its new models.
Rover SD1 follows a new engineering direction
The P6 had given Rover a high-technology image, and this had proved to be a long-term sales asset in sustaining the model in the market place. Now the SD1 would be designed without De Dion suspension and rear disc brakes. The Ford imports were not impressed with the costings of the P6, particularly the bolting on of separate panels to the base unit, but as the Zephyr/Zodiac Mk4 had been a turkey, what did did they know about building executive cars?
Rover-Triumph Technical Director Spen King may not have been a fan of advanced engineering, believing simple was best, but the P6, like the Mini and 1100/1300, had shown that you could sell high technology.
It appears that the real focus of British Leyland with the SD1 was the emerging threat from the Ford Granada for fleet sales and not to build on the P6’s high-technology image to compete against the more sporting marques that it would meet in Europe. In February 1973 the Ford Consul 2000 cost £1357 whilst the Rover 2000SC sold at £1868 and the Triumph retailed at £1775.
Rover SD1: a divergence of ideals
The base Ford Consul/Granada was 37 per cent cheaper than the Rover and 30 per cent cheaper than the Triumph. Contemporary BMWs also retailed at a more expensive price that the top of the range Ford and ultimately its focus on quality and not quantity paid off. Rover could have been a British BMW, but British Leyland wanted it to be a British Ford. The drive towards cheaper manufacturing costs of the Rover SD1 would have disastrous consequences.
In September 1972, Saab began producing the slant-four engine in-house as the Saab B engine. Various claims have been made as to why this happened. One is that Saab was dissatisfied with the quality of the engines supplied by Triumph. Another is that Saab wanted to adapt the engine to be more suitable for their needs.
In October drawing programmes for the SD1 interior trim were agreed, containing no slack and requiring early B-batch prototypes to be trimmed from schemes and not from detail drawings. After its abortive launch the previous year, the delayed Triumph Dolomite finally began to reach the showrooms in appreciable numbers during October 1972.
‘The perilous state of British Leyland’
That same month Jaguar, now more closely integrated with British Leyland after the departure of Sir William Lyons, considered the then-in-development LT77 transmission for its own models.
The perilous state of British Leyland even in an economic boom was highlighted by the fact that, at the time, it was estimated that BLMC only made £2 profit on every £100 worth of the company’s sales. By contrast, Marks and Spencer made £12 on every £100, Woolworths £11, and Butlins £18. Even Tesco in the cut-throat supermarket trade made £6.
Clearly investing in manufacturing industry in 1972 was a fool’s game. There was more money and less risk in selling things than in making them. On 27 October, the Specialist Car Division Advisory Board met. This committee, presided over by Lord Stokes, heard from Bill Davis, the Chairman and Chief Executive of Triumph.
So, why was Rover-Triumph hemorrhaging money?
The minutes recorded: ‘Shortages in the supply of new components have caused a shortfall in the production and an abnormal build-up of unfinished vehicles, but strenuous efforts were being made to get the supplies required.’
The notes added: ‘…as with Rover, production was being impeded by the non-delivery of components supplied by Lucas. Nevertheless, he said that his main task was that of getting the Triumph quality right and every attention was being given to achieving this aim. The Chairman complimented Mr Davis on the greatly improved result of Triumph in 1971/72.’
That October, X827, the first Triumph TR7/Bullet prototype with the Harris Mann-styled body, was completed. Right from the start there were prototypes with slant-four engines in both eight- and 16-valve configurations and with the Rover V8.
The next month new Deputy Chairman Jack Plane quit British Leyland, claiming that the strain on Lord Stokes was simply too great for one man, and ‘this is beginning to tell in some recent decisions’. He was also said to be critical of the composition of the Board, arguing that there should be more outside directors.
Rover SD1 needs a new home
As the development of the Rover SD1 proceeded, thoughts then turned to where the new car would be produced. Peak production of the Triumph 2000/2.5 PI had been 32,074 in 1969 while output of the Rover P6 had attained its zenith at 36,781 in 1971. As the Rover SD1 project was meant to replace both cars, British Leyland needed a factory that could produce at least 70,000 cars a year.
It is said that the former BMC men within British Leyland’s ranks, who allegedly put quantity before quality, then upped this figure. Further to this, it is then said that this was increased again by BLMC Finance Director John Barber to 3000 cars per week to be produced on three production lines.
This equated to 150,000 cars a year. This has often been seen as madness, but one can see that the planners were probably influenced by Britain’s pending membership of the EEC, and the larger car market into which British Leyland would be selling. These were volumes briefly attained by the BMW 5 Series, coincidentally launched in 1972, in the late-1990s, before the drift to SUV-type vehicles depressed sales.
Rover-Triumph: production juggles
Another factor in the size of the SD1 plant may have been British Leyland’s chronic inability to ramp up production of its executive cars during the ‘Barber Boom.’ They did not want to be caught out again.
One problem was that, because the six-cylinder models had been delayed by a year, the Rover P6 and Triumph 2000 would have to stay in production to stop the Ford Granada grabbing all the two-litre market. This meant that the SD1 could not be built at either Canley or the Solihull North Block where the P6 was produced. The solution appeared to be to build on vacant land owned by Rover.
Rover owned a considerable amount of land adjoining the Solihull plant, which was already zoned for industrial use. All that was required was the political will to grant British Leyland its wishes.
Stokes wins a battle with the Government
The Times newspaper reported in early November 1972 that Lord Stokes had won his long struggle with the Government to be allowed to expand his group’s car production in the Midlands rather, than in northern development areas.
An Industrial Development Certificate (IDC) had been issued permitting major expansion of Rover at Solihull. This was the second concession won by Lord Stokes. He already held an IDC for the construction of a new factory for Jaguar at Coventry.
In order to win the IDC, British Leyland had been forced to scale back their plans. In order to reduce the size of the plant intended for Solihull they had been forced to outsource assembly of SD1 bodyshells to the former BMC plant of Pressed Steel Fisher at Castle Bromwich which also supplied Jaguar.
Solihull expansion applied for
A Rover spokesman confirmed that the company had been granted an IDC, but declined to indicate the extent of the expansion covered. British Leyland had won over central government, now it had to win over local government.
An application had been submitted to Solihull Council to build a 230,000sq ft paint plant. This would be one of the largest in the motor industry, providing Rover with capacity to handle many times its existing production of 2000 cars and Land Rovers a week.
‘We have made planning application to Solihull Council for approval to build a new paint plant close to the existing North Block factory.’
A company statement said: ’We have made planning application to Solihull Council for approval to construct a new paint plant close to the existing North Block factory. This is a long-term project designed to cater for projected new models in the future and to take advantage of the latest technological developments in paint plant and paint processes and to develop further the Rover high-quality image.
‘It is hoped that if planning approval is given work on the project can begin some time next year. But it will not come into operation for at least two to three years. We have already received an IDC for the project.’
Did BLMC need a new factory?
It is interesting to see that at this stage that the proposed building was referred to as a paint plant. In fact, Rover-Triumph wanted to erect a two-storey assembly building with a paint plant on the top floor, something that alarmed the residents of Solihull who considered such a proposal as an eyesore.
Whatever the truth of the story behind the SD1 plant, the media would be fed various stories about its potential capacity in the years to come.
Open-topped sports cars under scrutiny
Meanwhile, with confusion about the future of Convertible cars in the important US market, and Project Bullet/TR7 being a coupe, British Leyland wanted the continuation of production of BLMC’s now ageing open-topped sports cars.
A request to continue production of the Triumph TR6 (above) resulted in a report on 8 November from the Product Policy Committee by its Secretary Alan Edis. The document was entitled Possible Continuation of TR6.
Extracts from the document: British Leyland International (BLI) and BL Leonia have requested that the TR6 model be continued for two years after the introduction of Bullet. A volume of 10,000 has been estimated.’
At that stage the TR6 was due to end production in December 1974. It was assumed the car’s life could be extended by using the new PE146/166 overhead-cam six-cylinder engine being developed for the Rover SD1.
Paper study for an overhead-cam Triumph TR6
The report continued: ‘Engineering confirms that a satisfactory installation can be achieved. Concern has been expressed about the extra workload and in particular the risk arising from supplying the new engine design immediately with full USA emission specification…
‘Possible problems in the rate of climb of the six-cylinder engine have been identified and difficulties also exist over the labour situation necessary to continue to produce the TR6 model.’ It was estimated that extending production might cost £359,000, but could bring in revenue of anything from £1.1m to £2.9m.
‘Current medium/large sports car volumes in total for 1972/73 are projected at; MGB/MGB GT – 851; TR6- 373; GT6 – 80; and Stag – 177, making a total of 1481 per week.’
MG sales in excess of 1950 per week
The report went on to comment on MG when it said that ‘to sell much more than 1950 per week, therefore appears unlikely, particularly as Austin-Morris may continue with MGB during the year 1974/75 or else introduce a sports car mid-way between Spitfire and MGB, which would have some substitutional effect on Bullet volumes (if only small).
Another complication was that Triumph had the SD2 in the pipeline – the Dolomite replacement then due for launch in 1976.
The report came up with two options for extending TR6 production:
- Only 11 months (until November 1975) – so that SD2 body build can be accommodated at Liverpool without additional buildings.
- For 18 months (until June 1976) – until the combined Bullet and Bullet 2+2 and TR6 volumes exceed 1950 per week – after this point, it is unlikely that many TR6 sales will represent incremental units – but purely substitutional sales for Bullet four-valve and V8-engined models. The alternative assumes SD2 body build would be undertaken at an AM&M plant and not Liverpool.
However, the Edis report ultimately came down against extending TR6 production.
‘Considerable importance is attached to the difficulties in engineering, manufacturing and labour requirements. In addition, the legislative concessions previously assumed are unlikely to be available. It is therefore recommended that, despite the attractive incremental profits forecast, no further work should be carried out on this proposal. Every effort should be directed to ensuring the success of the Bullet four-valve model.’
Insider takes the helm at industrial relations
On 30 November, British Leyland announced that it was appointing Cyril Morris, former Convener of Shop Stewards of the National Union of Vehicle Builders at the Triumph car plant at Coventry and former Secretary of the British Leyland (Motor Corporation Combined) Trade Union Committee, as an Industrial Relations Officer at Triumph.
Cyril Morris, who used to be a production worker at the Triumph plant, gave up his convener-ship some time before he was appointed to the company. When he was a member of the shop stewards’ committee he was generally regarded as a moderate. British Leyland said that, with his background, Mr Morris would be a useful addition to Triumph’s industrial relations team.
He had already taken up his post, but was not yet actively engaged in negotiations, with his former union colleagues.
Ending 1972 on a high… and low
On 12 December Abingdon produced the first MGB GT V8 (above), the first former-BMC car to use the Rover V8 engine. A sign of the ineptitude permeating British Leyland was the V8 was installed in de-tuned Range Rover form and not in its full-fat P6B tune.
The same month it was announced that the British Leyland Motor Corporation had sold its Rover gas turbine business to Lucas Aerospace, a subsidiary of Joseph Lucas (Industries). Most of the gas turbines were sold to the aircraft industry and many of its small gas turbines drove Lucas equipment.
Lucas would continue to provide service and customer support. British Leyland said the sale did not affect its gas turbine power unit for commercial vehicles.