Tomorrow’s car today… Ian Nicholls reminds us just how important the Rover SD1 was at launch, 40 years ago – not just for its maker, but for the economy as a whole.
Many British Leyland cars had the term ‘make or break’ applied to them, but perhaps it only really applied to two vehicles, the Austin Allegro and the Rover SD1. The Allegro was supposed to replace the best-selling 1100/1300 series and expand Austin Morris sales into the Common Market, which Britain joined in 1973. Its catastrophic failure – and it was catastrophic – reduced its maker to a bit-part player in the European car market, with only the ageing and fading Mini achieving any real sales success.
This was compounded by the relative failure of the stylish 18-22/Princess series, which should have reached parts of Europe the outgoing Landcrab could not reach. The consequence of all this was that Austin Morris was now a busted flush that had shot its bolt. Much taxpayer money would be expended in the decade ahead in trying to resurrect Austin Morris but, in truth, after 1975 it was a forlorn hope.
British Leyland’s hopes now lay with what had been those bastions of quality, the division formerly known as Rover Triumph. In 1974, the Rover Triumph division had hoped to produce 470,000 vehicles per annum by 1978. These would comprise of the Rover SD1, Triumph SD2, Triumph TR7/8 and Triumph Lynx. In the early 1960s, Triumph had publicly boasted of introducing quality controls in its Canley plant, but it appears the quality of TR7s emerging from its Speke plant from 1975 were atrocious.
It was not a good start for the new generation of Rover Triumph models. To compound this, during 1975, British Leyland was bailed out by the Government, Rover Triumph was abolished and came under the jurisdiction of Leyland Cars. The Labour Government had awarded big pay rises to public sector workers, which sent inflation spiralling. British Leyland workers increasingly felt the pinch and therefore strike action in pursuit of pay parity with other public sector workers increased to record levels.
By the end of 1975, Leyland Cars had run out of money and had to dip into funds intended for capital investment. Economies had to be made, and the Triumph SD2 (below) was canned. Instead, Leyland Cars merged the Dolomite replacement programme with the planned Morris Marina successor, the ADO77, resulting in a new project, TM1.
By the summer of 1976, this too had bitten the dust to be replaced by the LC10/LM11, which finally emerged as the Austin Montego in 1984, but it never bore the Triumph badge. The Rover Triumph expansion plan was already falling apart. At the same time, the individual boards of the British Leyland constituent companies had been swept away to be replaced by the Leyland Cars organisation fronted by Derek Whittaker and his deputy, Richard Perry.
The Rover SD1 was the last car designed by the original Rover company design team, minus Peter Wilks, who had died in 1972. However, unlike the outgoing Rover P6, it was designed with input from British Leyland’s team of ex-Ford cost controllers and its production would be overseen by ex-BMC men, of which Richard Perry was the most senior. This was a recipe for disaster.
The Rover SD1 was designed with the emphasis on cost rather than quality, and produced with the focus on quantity over quality. When seen in this light, the SD1 could be looked on as a premium-priced car designed using methods more suitable for the Ford Cortina, a stylish body masking its less advanced mechanical features. It makes an interesting comparison with the later Rover 75 where BMW had to encourage the design team to use the best solutions, not the cheapest. This, in turn, reveals the contrasting design philosophy of both Ford and BMW.
The world the Rover SD1 was launched into was very different from today.
The new Prime Minister was James Callaghan, who found himself trying to get to grips with double digit inflation, strikes and an imminent financial crisis which would see Britain having to obtain an International Monetary Fund loan before the year was out. The Trade and Industry Secretary was Eric Varley, the man to whom British Leyland was ultimately answerable. Unlike his predecessor in the post, Tony Benn, Eric Varley did not believe the British Leyland shop stewards knew better than the management on how to run the company and had no intention of replacing funds squandered through strike action with an extra tranche of taxpayer cash.
British Leyland would have to survive on the funds allocated to it by the 1975 Ryder Report (below) – not a penny more, not a penny less. If the company ran out of money, then it would have to sort out its own mess, which is why the Triumph SD2 met its demise. Eric Varley also had the unenviable task of trying to ramp up British car production, a task not made any easier by the actions of Ford and Vauxhall/GM, which were now importing vehicles from their continental plants to feed the British market instead of increasing their UK production – all this was courtesy of the Common Market.
Many of us like to remember summers past through rose-tinted spectacles – in our flawed memory banks the summers were always better. Well, in the case of 1976, it really was true! The sun shone so much that the Government declared a drought and appointed the Minister of Sport, Dennis Howell, as a temporary Drought Minister to monitor water consumption.
And the mention of sport leads me to the cricket test series between England and the visiting West Indies team. At a time of simmering racial tension, the likes of Clive Lloyd, Gordon Greenidge, Viv Richards, Michael Holding and Andy Roberts delivered a stunning riposte to any notion of white supremacy as they defeated the home side with some brilliant cricket.
In this look back at an era of cheese cloth shirts, it would be great to recall a marvellous musical soundtrack, except there wasn’t a marvellous musical soundtrack. Okay, that is an exaggeration, there were a few good tunes released in 1976, The Boys Are Back In Town, by Thin Lizzy was one of them, but there was not a lot one hears on modern day BBC Radio 2.
1976 was in musical terms the fag end of the 1960s. The creative process that had begun in 1963 with The Beatles had run its course. The UK singles chart was bereft of inspiration and excitement, whilst the major acts focussed on the album charts. The album market had expanded greatly in the early 1970s as artists used it as the format for their musical statement. However, by 1976 many of the major recording acts were drug addled, complacent and had lost their creative spark, which did not stop their devoted fans from lapping up their latest releases.
A case in point is the 1976 album Black And Blue by The Rolling Stones. Although it sold well, it was simply not a patch on previous offerings such as Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street. What is more the music scene was dominated by 1960s veterans.
Even relative newcomers like Rod Stewart, Elton John and David Bowie had started their careers in the 1960s, there were no artists teenagers in Britain could relate to. In a sense this musical malaise could be attributed to The Beatles. Their pioneering of multi-track recording had encouraged other lesser artists to think in terms of grandiose artistic statements on vinyl. The Beatles had the talent to get away with it, with other artists it came across as over produced and overblown.
While recording artists strove toward making the greatest album of all time and the music industry looked for the next Beatles, something was stirring in the pub and club scene, a back to basics approach that would be branded Punk and New Wave by the media. Contrary to popular myth, the Punk and New Wave scene did not impact on British culture until 1977. Yes, The Damned cut their first single in 1976 and the Sex Pistols swore on live TV, but they arguably had less cultural impact than The Wurzels, who topped the British singles chart for two weeks in June 1976, shortly before the launch of the Rover SD1.
And that is not forgetting other chart toppers that year such as Brotherhood Of Man (below) and Demis Roussos. So that is my review of 1976, a year of sun, economic crisis and naff music played by Radio 1 DJs. All my degenerate ramblings are in reality an excuse to upload articles from the British Leyland Mirror staff newspaper marking the launch of the Rover SD1 on 30 June 1976.
Was it really 40 years ago?