Ian Nicholls, AROnline‘s historian-in-residence, tells the story of Austin-Morris, and its part in the downfall of the British motor industry.
Here, in the twelfth part, BLMC continues to endure its annus horribilis in the wake of the Energy Crisis and the launch of the Austin Allegro.
The Austin-Morris story: the housewives march
The early 1970s was the era of the Women’s Liberation Movement, when the male domination of all walks of life found itself challenged by those who wanted an equal and fairer society that transgressed the gender divide as well as the class divide. To the male dominated media, those women who challenged the status quo made good copy.
Angry wives Carol Miller and Margaret Whiffen declared war on the Cowley strike leaders whom they blamed for keeping their men from working. Carrying a banner they marched up and down outside the Austin-Morris plant at Cowley. The Cowley workers had not collected a full week’s pay so far in 1974 because of disputes. With their mortgage in arrears, Mrs Miller decided to act.
‘The men seem content just to sit at home and wait for the whole lousy mess to sort itself out. We want the militants to be sacked so that all the men who want to do an honest day’s work can go back.’ Production losses at Cowley were mounting at the rate of 1200 cars a day and workers made idle were losing an average £45 a week in wages.
Wives want trade unionists dismissed
A delegation of eight women, representing about 250 wives of workers at Cowley, were granted an interview with the plant’s Director, John Symonds, on 22 April 1974. He told them that he could not accept their demand to dismiss militant trade unionists who, they said, were depriving their husbands of their livelihood.
The car workers’ wives, who took part in another demonstration and marched to the Cowley factory gates, saw Alan Thornett as their main enemy. They wanted him and the other militants removed. Their husbands did not want to strike, they maintained. With no money coming in, the wives said they were finding it increasingly difficult to meet household bills.
John Symonds told the women’s delegates, led by Carol Miller and Margaret Whiffen, that although the company was as anxious as they were to assure an early settlement, he could not jeopardise the management’s long-term relationship with the unions. ‘This is not the time to go round sacking everyone who is a militant,’ he said.
After half-an-hour’s discussion, one of the delegates, Carol Miller, told the wives waiting outside: ‘I honestly don’t think we’ve got very far – in fact, we didn’t get anywhere. But at least we got in to see the boss and that’s a great way to start. The only way to get our men back is to keep on demonstrating like this.’
A march of demonstration
Carol Miller announced a march for the next day on the local office of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. Later she said: ‘Today the power and strength of women has really been shown. Our voice must surely now stand for something. We just hope the men will be inspired by what we are doing for them and show the union leaders who keep them out of work that they are not going to stand for it any longer.’
Most of the husbands stayed well in the background. But a handful marched with their wives. One, 54-year-old Mr Val Dorgan, said: ‘We all have very good jobs, but the union is ruining everything. I don’t mind coming out and saying how heartily sick I am of the whole lot. The lead these women have shown us is quite fantastic – it’s a pity we men didn’t have the guts to do the same. Let’s pray it’s not to late to save the day at British Leyland’
There was support from a British Leyland Shop Steward, Reg Parsons. He said: ‘I take my hat off to these women. There is a lot of support from them among the men. And I’m quite sure it’s going to increase. It’s taken them to show us what can be done – now it’s up to the men to carry on the good work.’
A positive outcome – of sorts
This whole episode became headline news, but did nothing for British Leyland’s increasingly battered image. The action of the Cowley wives seemed to have some effect. British Leyland decided to attempt to isolate the militants at its strike-bound Cowley car plant. It announced it would re-open the assembly lines on 24 April and recalled all the 12,500 workers who had been idle for the previous fortnight.
The management hoped that enough of the 150 internal transport drivers, whose two-week-old strike was at the centre of the latest Cowley troubles, would return to keep the plant going. British Leyland issued a statement on 23 April: ‘The company re-emphasises that there is absolutely no change in their decision to refuse facilities for Mr Alan Thornett as a union representative.
‘The decision to recall employees follows massive representations by employees, their families, and local opinion that the workforce should be given the earliest opportunity to resume work. In the interest of the whole workforce of Cowley the company sincerely hope that transport drivers will respond to the company’s initiative so that normal work can take place and their own outstanding lay-off problem can be discussed.’
A victory for the women is declared
The angry women of Oxford claimed a victory. As the women celebrated, two Shop Stewards called for an inquiry into union practices at the plant. The two men, who watched the women march, said: ‘We are right behind them. The shame is that they are doing what we should have done a long time ago.’
Both men refused to be identified because, they said, they feared reprisals from their workmates. One, who worked in the Paint Shop, said: ‘The senior Shop Stewards who deal with management are elected by the other Shop Stewards, so the men have no say in the process at all and their views are not made clear. The situation has reached the point where the union, led by a small number, is telling all the men what to do, instead of the other way round. Too often what the Shop Stewards decide has nothing to do with the men on the shop-floor at all. Some kind of inquiry is long overdue.’
Carol Miller, who organised the Cowley wives demonstration, went to discuss the situation with management officials. She said: ‘If the men go in, then we will make sure they don’t come out until they have done some work.’ Then she made this appeal to the transport men. ‘Please, for the sake of your wives, your children and the future of Oxford, go to work tomorrow and stay there. We’ve done our bit – now it’s up to you. For God’s sake don’t let us or the town down.’
And she told the transport drivers wives: ‘Do everything in your power to get your husbands to stop the strike.’ The wife of one of the strikers said: ‘I wish I’d had the guts to do what these women have done. But I was frightened what the union would do to my husband if they found out. But after what has happened in this town in the last couple of days, the fear has got to stop. And I realise the very important job I and other transport drivers wives can do. We can’t wait to see what happens, to see what our men do when the gates open.’
Cowley starts partial work again
Cowley began producing cars again on 24 April, but only because 12 of the 150 transport drivers in unofficial dispute responded to the company call and clocked in. Just over 200 cars were turned out at the factory – a quarter of normal production.
However, after angry wives, who were demanding the dismissal of militants from the plant, had marched to the local headquarters of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, William Thompson, the District Organiser, said: ‘The action of the 12 men certainly will not help to cool the situation.’
It was understood that, in addition to the 12 drivers, 30 men from other departments agreed to transport materials through the factory complex after they had been given assurances of protection by the management. William Thompson indicated that, although it was an unofficial strike, disciplinary action might be taken against the 12 transport men who worked. The wives who saw William Thompson said that workers at the plant were frightened of defying the Shop Stewards and making their true feelings known.
A secret ballot – the answer?
Carol Miller, one of the organisers, said: ‘We asked them to hold a secret ballot of every worker in the factory on this issue, but that was refused. It seems now that all our livelihoods depend on 150 men.’
The wives formed themselves into a women’s association in an attempt to influence trade union practices at the Austin-Morris plant. The company indicated that it was willing to discuss the original grievance with the transport men, but added in a notice to all employees: ‘Any resolution which requires the company to agree to Mr Thornett retaining his facilities will not be acceptable and will result in the dispute continuing. It was not his action as a transport Shop Steward alone, but rather his activities as a whole, which led to the company’s decision.’
In another message, signed by John Symonds, the Plant Director, British Leyland said: ‘The company is not anti-trade-union, nor is it embarking on a policy of individual victimisation.’
According to British Leyland, the transport drivers were advised to go home by Shop Stewards, who refused a request for a secret ballot into the dispute. The drivers said the company rejected a suggestion that both sides should accept the decision of an independent inquiry into the allegations against Alan Thornett.
The next day. workers leaving Cowley after their second day’s work since the lay off ended, were handed duplicated leaflets by young women. The leaflets condemned the demonstrations organised by Carol Miller which resulted in the factory gates being unlocked .
‘This so-called victory is at the expense of the union organisation which has been painfully built up over the years. Without the trade unions and the militants who helped build it up over the years, the wages and conditions which Cowley workers now expect would still be a long way off,’ said the leaflets.
The leaflets were distributed by a group calling itself Women In Support Of The Union. The group claimed that many of its supporters were wives of British Leyland workers. One of the organisers, Linda Headland, wife of a building worker, said: ‘We are fed up with these wives bashing the unions.’
She said that already 24 women had agreed to support them – six of them British Leyland wives. But Carol Miller said: ‘This makes no difference to our victory.’ That then was Carol Miller’s 15 minutes of fame. What became of her?
The disruption is ended
At the Cowley plant, production was back to 50 per cent of normal as 12,000 workers reported for duty. A spokesman for the British Leyland said: ‘We are planning to continue operating in the hope of a quick end to the trouble.’
That same day Lord Stokes (above) called for a new plan to replace ‘the same worn-out solutions’ to Britain’s money troubles. Attacking the new Labour Government’s efforts, he said: ‘At the very time when we need to expand our industrial activities, we get further additional burdens such as increased National Insurance contributions and increases in Corporation Tax.’
Lord Stokes, speaking at a dinner in London, also slammed Labour for failing to act against shop-floor troublemakers. The Labour Government planned to repeal the Industrial Relations Act 1971 and strengthen employee rights at the behest of the TUC. Another problem was that the new Government, for all its admirable ideology about creating a fairer society, had increased the price of electricity by 30 per cent in the recent budget. Once these increases had filtered into the economic food chain, inflation would rise, followed by wage demands to keep pace with the cost of living. Wage demands that the struggling British Leyland could not afford.
Austin Allegro starts to falter
On 28 April, it appears that the penny officially dropped with British Leyland over the market penetration of the Austin Allegro, nearly a year after its launch accompanied by a publicity blitz. It was announced that British Leyland was dropping three models in its Austin Allegro small saloon range because of poor demand.
They were the two-door versions of the 1300 de luxe, the 1500 super de luxe and the 1750 Sport (above). The Allegro was launched in 12 versions, based on four engine sizes, and British Leyland now conceded that this was too many. By pruning the range it hoped to concentrate its production and sales efforts on the more popular Allegros, for which there were waiting lists in many areas, or so it was claimed.
British Leyland expected the greatest demand for the bigger-engined Allegros, but this had not been the case. The soaring prices of petrol and other increases in motoring costs had persuaded buyers to choose the smaller, more economical cars. However, the four-door versions, with a price difference of only £40, had proved much more popular than the two-door. The only two-door Allegro still available was the basic 1100 model.
Declining market share
A succession of industrial disputes, the Three-Day Week and falling demand for cars because of the Energy Crisis was blamed for the Allegro failing to have the impact British Leyland expected. In the first three months of 1974 it came seventh in the list of best-selling cars in Britain, a modest performance compared with its predecessor, the 1100/1300 (ADO16). Production was still running at only just over half the weekly capacity of 4500 to 5000 units.
It seems that nobody at the time dared to suggest that the Allegro was an unattractive looking vehicle and that might have been a deterrent to sales. Writing in The Times in August 1975, Industrial Editor Clifford Webb wrote: ‘The Allegro had an unhappy launch. Once again there were the old Austin-Morris nightmares, lack of adequate waterproofing, a crunchy gearbox and poor reliability. As a replacement for the successful 1100/1300 series it was short of the mark, and there were too many versions.’
Lord Stokes would later claim that British Leyland could sell everything it could make until the Energy Crisis, but in the case of the Austin Allegro, this was simply not true. Although British Leyland executives were often more than willing to put the boot into BMC in later interviews, comments as to why the Allegro bombed appear to be non-existent or so far untraced. During 1974 the combined Allegro/1100/1300 share of the now smaller UK market stabilised at 5.4 per cent. The Ford Cortina was now the market leader with a 10.4 per cent share.
More industrial unrest
The next day the 150 striking transport drivers returned to work at Cowley while they waited for the Transport and General Workers’ Union to declare their strike official.
The Transport and General Workers’ Union had called a meeting for the evening of 30 April at Oxford Town Hall to enable members to vote on whether the union should become involved in the unofficial strike over the Cowley Shop Steward, Alan Thornett. On 1 May, Alan Thornett decided to stand down as Deputy Convener for the Transport and General Workers’ Union and as Chairman of the Joint Shop Stewards’ Committee at the Austin-Morris car assembly plant at Cowley, but the union wanted him to continue as a Shop Steward for the drivers.
Moss Evans, the union’s senior official in the motor industry, who had taken charge of the Thornett affair, made a statement to try to clear up confusion which had arisen after two attempts to call members to a mass meeting. Workers complained that they were still being denied a vote, but Moss Evans said there had been a total change in the position. There was now only one issue: whether Alan Thornett should be a Shop Steward in the Transport Department. British Leyland said its attitude was unchanged.
Losses for British Leyland
That same day, BLMC revealed the financial consequences of a traumatic period in post-War British history. British Leyland’s first half loss turned out so be £16.6 million, against a £22.8 million profit for the same period in 1973. Disclosing this, the company said that, ‘in view of the non-recurrent circumstances,’ which caused the loss, BLMC was holding its interim dividend at 0.7p gross a share. However, this dividend, ‘does not imply that any particular level of final dividend will be recommended,’ Lord Stokes said.
The whole of the interim loss was due to the Three-Day Week, with BLMC losing sales worth about £100 million or 100,000 units. Unit sales fell from 561,000 to 496,000 in the six months to March. Without this loss of production due to the Three-Day Week, BLMC had expected pre-tax profits in the opening six months to improve on the same period of the previous year, Lord Stokes said. Despite production problems, BLMC’s share of the home car market increased from 31 per cent to 35 per cent, with the value of exports from the United Kingdom higher than in any previous half year in the corporation’s history.
However, the total car market declined and BLMC’s sales for the six months slipped from £759 million to £741 million, the United Kingdom falling from £411 million to £405 million and overseas from £348 million to £336 million. Of the total sales figure, direct exports increased from £213 million to £218 million. Lord Stokes did offer comfort to shareholders, apart from the maintained interim payment, when he forecast that despite the after-effects of the national emergency and the severe rate of cost inflation, ‘a profit should be made in the second half of the year as long as reasonable continuity of production is possible.’
Lord Stokes spoke of the, ‘catastrophic effect of the oil crisis when for two or three months people almost stopped buying cars.’
Lowering sales forecasts
This had led BLMC to revise downwards from 10 million to eight million cars its expectations of the total European car market in 1974 and hence its own sales projections for Europe. BLMC had around 9 per cent of this market. As for BLMC’s financial position, there had obviously been an outflow of cash during the Three-Day Week, but the group was well within its borrowing limits, Lord Stokes said. He repeated that BLMC would not be asking for any money from the Government.
On 3 May, British Leyland launched a big communications exercise to tell its 171,000 employees in Britain ‘the facts’ about the group’s problems and its hopes. The first step was a unique all-day meeting in a hotel at Solihull, Warwickshire, between Lord Stokes and the whole of the company’s Board on the one hand and 375 Managers, staff representatives and Shop Stewards from all 59 United’ Kingdom factories on the other.
Lord Stokes told the gathering: ‘This conference is the direct result of management’s review of, firstly, what information should be available to employees in respect of the corporation’s plans and trading position – particularly at a time when our industry is facing a period of considerable uncertainty – and, secondly, how to communicate such information to employees in an organisation of this size.’
The meeting was held in private, but a company spokesman gave a short outline of the proceedings. He said that John Barber had briefed employees on the depressed state of the car market and outlined the range of new models in the pipeline with a special emphasis on economy motoring. Alex Park, the Fnance Director, had spelt out the implications of the group’s £16.6 million loss in the first half of the financial year.
The quality connection
Meanwhile, Arthur Davies, a Coventry magistrate, was to lead the seven man inquiry into the activities of the Transport and General Workers’ Union at Cowley. The inner cabinet of the union’s Midland Region Committee was to look into British Leyland’s reasons for refusing to recognise Alan Thornett as a Shop Steward.
Leyland bashing was to the fore when the Daily Mirror newspaper reported on a Mini 1000 purchased by Mr Dennis Lines, a Vehicle Inspector who worked at Triumph in Coventry. Mr Lines bought the car for £855 through British Leyland’s discount scheme for staff. He claimed he had spent seven days having faults rectified in the five weeks he had owned the car. He ended up with a list of 28 faults.
Most of his 28 complaints were about the paintwork, but he also had the rack-and-pinion steering replaced. In addition to this the handbrake did not work, the exhaust rattled, the heater was too noisy and the steering column made a grating noise. There were other complaints about the car’s electrical system and bodywork.
‘We can all make mistakes. But my car should not have been allowed to leave the factory with this number of faults. I shall probably be unpopular for speaking out about a car made by my own company. But I believe you cannot stay silent if something is wrong.’ Dennis Lines had worked at Triumph’s Coventry plant since 1946.
‘My complaints are not an attack on my workmates. I am criticising the system, which allows quality to be sacrificed for quantity. There is a lot of bad workmanship at British Leyland because some Inspectors don’t bother any more. They seem to have been brainwashed,’ said Mr Lines.
British Leyland was shocked by this attack from one of its employees. ‘These complaints appear to be rather exaggerated. Quality is not being sacrificed for quantity, and it is certainly not true that our Inspectors are brainwashed into letting faulty cars through,’ said a spokesman.
Union reshuffles at Cowley
On 21 May the Transport and General Workers’ Union exonerated Alan Thornett, finding no justification for the company’s allegations against him. But it changed the system under which union officials like Alan Thornett were elected at the plant.
A report, by a team of six, was presented to the’ unions Midland Regional Committee. Brian Mathers, the Regional Secretary, said it had been accepted by 24 votes to one, with-one abstention. Although the report cleared Alan Thornett of the management’s accusations of being a trouble maker, it did criticise Bob Fryer, the senior Shop Steward.
Two significant changes in the union structure at Cowley were proposed by the team. The main one, that senior Shop Stewards and their Deputies should not be elected by the Shop Stewards’ body but by a ballot of all the membership, was designed to break the self-perpetuating authority of such officials. The other proposed change was that a new branch of the union should be set up for the Cowley Assembly Shops only, and would enable officials and members to keep more closely in touch with more parochial issues.
Brian Mathers said the report did not specifically call for Alan Thornett’s reinstatement as a Shop Steward because, ‘that matter is being dealt with by the union’s National Executive’. But it reinforced the union’s view that he should be reinstated.
British Leyland said that it had not been invited to present evidence to the inquiry and had not yet had the opportunity to see the report. ‘In the meantime, from what we have been told, we are surprised at the unilateral way in which the union has reached its conclusions,’ the company said.
Trouble in Spain
There was also trouble at the Authi plant in Pamplona, Spain (above). The company was in dispute with its 1700 workforce who had demanded a basic monthly wage increase of 6000 pesetas (about £48) and the reinstatement of sacked Shop Stewards.
On 27 May, 1300 of the 1700 workforce started a sit-in protest at midday. The following day the striking Authi workers made a deal with the Spanish police. They agreed to leave the premises where they had been staging the sit-in in exchange for a promise that no worker would be arrested.
After fears that the strike would spread and lead to violence, the police reportedly acting on instructions from the Civil Governor, agreed that the workers would be allowed to leave without threats of arrest or prosecution. However, according to Spanish press reports, Authi had not accepted the Government’s attempt to calm a potential critical situation. The company had imposed a two-day lock out as a penalty and had so far refused to agree to the reinstatement of sacked labour leaders.
British Leyland’s Redditch plans
On the last day of May 1974 it was revealed that British Leyland had submitted an application to the Department of Industry for permission to build a new car plant at Moon’s Moat, a 100-acre site at Redditch new town, Worcestershire. Unofficial reports said it would cost between £20 million and £30 million and provide work for 5000. The proposed site was only 10 miles from Longbridge.
A company spokesman said: ‘We are not in a position to give details because the project is only in the investigatory stage. We have applied for an Industrial Development Certificate, but no decisions have been made on whether or not the project should go ahead.’
Sources close to British Leyland insisted that the Redditch proposal was not the much publicised, fully integrated new car plant outlined by Lord Stokes in May 1973. That would need a much bigger site than the one at Moon’s Moat, which was itself the last big section of land available for industrial development in the new town. It was suggested that the application was for a large engine and transmission plant.
Lifting the veil of secrecy
Facilities at Longbridge for this type of production had become increasingly congested in recent years as Longbridge had been developed as the main engine and transmissions centre for Austin-Morris. About 600 sales staff at Longbridge had been told that they might be moved to new accommodation at Redditch or Yardley, Birmingham.
Hal Miller, Conservative MP for Bromsgrove and Redditch, and the party’s link man between the Shadow Cabinet and the motor industry, saw David Andrews, Managing Director of the Austin-Morris Power and Transmissions division at Longbridge.
Afterwards he said: ‘I wanted to lift the secrecy. British Leyland has just confirmed for the first time that it wants the site north of Redditch for both relocation and expansion.’
Volkswagen launches its gamechanger
Ominously for British Leyland, Volkswagen had announced their EA337 car as the Golf. For decades politicians and industry analysts had urged the British motor industry to produce its equivalent of the venerable Volkswagen Beetle, believing that somehow the UK could reproduce its success and it was only incompetent management preventing it from doing so – of course, it was not as simple as that.
The Beetle appealed to American servicemen based in Cold War West Germany and Volkswagen found a ready market in the USA from customers who understood from personal experience and by word of mouth exactly what that product offered them. However, by 1974, the Beetle was fading and even its maker knew that the air-cooled, rear-engined layout was past its sell by date. Now Volkswagen, manufacturer of the world’s best-selling car of all time, and held as an example of what the British motor industry should be doing, embraced the Issigonis formula.
With attractive styling by Giorgetto Giugiaro and his Ital Design studio, engineering by Friedrich Goes, Franz Hauk and Peter Hofbauer, a hatchback as standard and available with a wide variety of engines, the Golf was the kind of car the Austin Allegro should have been. Whereas the Allegro was a cynical attempt to create a cheaper-to-manufacture car with the expectation of maintaining and expanding its predecessor’s customer base, the Golf was Volkswagen’s genuine attempt to develop a car that would be a substantial improvement on both the ADO16 and Fiat 128. And in the larger European market, it was the Fiat that was the most serious opposition.
The technical lead created by Alec Issigonis and his BMC team had now been totally negated.
Could the British respond?
There was now nothing the British volume car industry could offer that could not be bettered by the continental manufacturers. Europeans had no compelling reason to buy British cars, but Britons underwhelmed by domestic offerings now had good reasons to buy European.
Most of the UK’s car production, with the exception of Austin-badged cars, was now targeted at fleet buyers, and the domestic private buyer had a plethora of cutting-edge European vehicles tailored for their needs. The simplistic notion that the original British motor industry collapsed because it made terrible cars does have some credence. A crude, made-to-a-price repmobile with terrible handling or a continental front-wheel-drive hatchback?
This was a Britain where the car that came bottom in a magazine group test was the model most likely to top the sales chart. For many private buyers the choice was easy. Instead of invading Europe, the British car market was there for the taking.
Only Ford, with its iron grip on the fleet market, would remain immune to the continental influx, which in turn made the company seem omnipotent to British observers.
New safety concepts unveiled
On 3 June, the SRV3, SRV4 (above) and SRV5 safety vehicles were revealed at a motor safety exhibition in Crowthorne, Berkshire.
The exhibition was being staged to show the results of a £1,200,000 research programme by the Government-backed Transport and Road Research Laboratory and British Leyland. One of the men behind the exhibition, Austin-Morris Engineer Charles Griffin, said: ‘Designers will have to build a new car around a number of new safety features, so they will have to produce an exciting new motor car.’
In these safety cars the engines had been pushed forward to absorb the impact of accidents, the bumpers were made of a type of rubber which could bounce safely off a 10mph collision, and the interior had been padded.
Charles Griffin added: ‘If we can get Governments to agree on safety regulations, we believe we can save eight out of ten of the lives that are lost on the road.’
Cowley votes in a secret ballot
Two days, later workers at the Austin-Morris car Assembly Plant at Cowley, voting in a secret ballot for the first time, rejected Alan Thornett as their senior Shop Steward. In the voting results Alan Thornett and Bob Fryer were beaten by Reg Parsons, a former left-winger, who described himself as a moderate.
About 5000 men were eligible to vote, but some could not do so because they could not produce their union cards. Before the poll, senior and deputy Shop Stewards were elected by vote of the Shop Stewards. The shop-floor workers took no direct part. British Leyland told the TGWU that it would accept Alan Thornett as Shop Steward of the Transport Department.
Meanwhile, British Leyland had obtained an Industrial Development Certificate to build a £10 million foundry on land adjoining its existing foundry complex at Wellingborough, Northamptonshire. Confirming this, a company spokesman said the project was still under investigation. ‘No decision has yet been made by the Board of the Special Products division which is responsible for all foundries within the group,’ he said.
Harry Webster leaves Austin-Morris
Then, on 12 June, came another bombshell. Harry Webster (above), the 57-year-old Technical Director of Austin-Morris, resigned and would leave British Leyland at the end of June 1974. Webster, an Engineer of immense standing in the motor industry, was the surviving member of the triumvirate chosen by Lord Stokes in 1968 to run the volume car operations of the newly-merged Leyland-BMC empire, the others being Filmer Paradise and George Turnbull. At the time of his resignation he was believed to be holidaying in Spain and was not available for comment.
There had been persistent rumours in Midland motor industry circles over the past nine months that he was far from happy with the reduced status of Austin-Morris and the departure of George Turnbull.
Webster joined Automotive Products, the Leamington Spa-based components group, as Director of Engineering. John Panks, AP’s Chief Executive, said: ‘We are absolutely delighted to have secured a man of Harry’s high standing throughout the European motor industry. His arrival will greatly strengthen our engineering team and help our push into European motor markets.’
Why did Webster quit? With the Allegro stumbling in the sales charts it could be argued that Harry Webster’s position had become untenable, and his moral authority over the former BMC Engineers had evaporated. The offer from Automotive Products was timely.
Harry Webster was succeeded as Austin-Morris Director of Engineering by Charles Griffin, the man who had been deputy to Alec Issigonis. With Richard Perry in charge of Austin-Morris, the BMC apprentices had regained control of Austin-Morris from the Standard-Triumph men who had been drafted in back in 1968.
The end of the line
On 19 June, the final British ADO16, a Vanden Plas Princess 1300, left the factory in Kingsbury.
It was the end of an era. In conjunction with its smaller brother, the Mini, the ADO16 had stormed car markets all over the world, enabling BMC to punch above its weight. Production would continue overseas for some time, but the ADO16 now belonged to British Leyland’s past, along with the man who had tried and failed to replace it, Harry Webster.
The storm clouds gather
On 21 June, at a meeting with union officials in London, senior British Leyland executives, including the Industrial Relations Director, Pat Lowry, gave a warning that there had to be redundancies among the 170,000 workforce if the company was to stay profitable – particularly in the Austin-Morris division – because of a sales slump.
‘They would not guarantee there would be no compulsory redundancies. But we would never agree to it if they suggested that. Already 1000 workers have been sacked in Australia. And they’re cutting down overseas operations generally.’ said Bob Wright, an engineering union executive member.
British Leyland officials revealed they had already stopped recruiting, apart from certain key workers, and they hoped to make the cuts voluntary redundancy,natural wastage and early retirements. Heads of all BLMC plants had been ordered to start drawing up plans for manpower cuts. Company executives spelled out the gloomy prospects ahead.
British Leyland said: ‘What we have tried to do is to review the present situation in British Leyland, and the automotive industry generally, to try to get a right perspective. We are not in a position to say that redundancies will not be called for, but , clearly, if there are other measures we can take we shall want to take them. We are looking for whatever is not absolutely essential.’
The cuts begin
On 5 July British Leyland took the first step in its plan to trim down its 175,000-strong labour force with the announcement that a 10 per cent reduction in salaried staff was needed at the Cowley and Abingdon plants. Letters had gone out to all 30,000 workers in the corporation’s Body and Assembly division, which included plants at Oxford and Llanelli.
They called for a seven per cent increase in efficiency from hourly paid workers. A three per cent increase was said to be needed at the MG plant at Abingdon. The staff reduction, which it was hoped would be achieved ‘as far as possible’ by voluntary redundancy, could mean a cutback of about 700 white collar workers throughout the division. The announcement marked the first practical move by the company to curb its manning requirements in the face of the worldwide slump in car sales.
Pat Lowry, the BLMC Industrial Relations Director, gave assurance that compulsory redundancies were not yet inevitable in the letters.
The future lies in the hands of the latest models
John Symonds, the Cowley Plant Director, said in the letter to his workers that a decision to retain surplus labour remained as long as demand did not fall for the Maxi and Marina models, now running at 1000 and 4250 a week respectively. The labour pool at Cowley was now about 1000 strong. John Symonds re-emphasised the seriousness of the financial position and underlined the need to produce every vehicle possible in order to finance future plans.
There was no doubt that they must improve their competitiveness. In every area of the corporation, at central, divisional and plant levels, similar critical reviews were taking place, he said.
A plea to the banks
It was in July 1974 that cash-strapped British Leyland met its bankers to discuss a £150 million loan. Lord Stokes was summoned to see Tony Benn, the Secretary of State for Industry. Tony Benn said that he would not interfere with British Leyland provided its financial position was viable. However, he had wanted to be told if its investment position was threatened.
The promotion of Charles Griffin to the position of Technical Director at Austin-Morris was the catalyst for a new supermini project, the ADO88, this time using the A-Series engine. By 16 July, work was well underway in the Longbridge Styling Studio on the ADO88. At least two full-size clay models were photographed on this day.
By 5 August, it was revealed that Ford was now outselling British Leyland in the United Kingdom for the first time since the British group was formed in 1968. Reliable sources in the car industry said that Ford took more than 30 per cent of the market in July 1974 compared with BLMC’s 28 per cent. In June, BLMC with 32 per cent were six points clear of Ford with 26 per cent. The four per cent drop in July had all gone to Ford.
Cuts to the workforce begin
British Leyland was now expected to offer early retirement or voluntary redundancy to workers throughout the group in an attempt to speed the reduction of its 175,000-strong labour force. Union reaction had already been sounded at national and local level. Time was running out. Most observers believed that the position would be critical by September or October 1974 at the latest.
Some categories of workers at Austin-Morris Longbridge were already being offered retirement at 63 instead of 65.
About 100 workers walked out at Longbridge on 7 August claiming that the management was attempting to force them to leave the company by moving them from highly-paid assembly line work to poorer paid jobs. They suggested this was being done to avoid making redundancy payments. Pickets were mounted at several gates to stop the movement of components into the plant and the delivery of finished cars.
A company spokesman said: ‘We are exploring every avenue to avoid compulsory redundancy and one of the ways is by redeploying labour wherever possible. We stopped recruitment several months ago and this has made some re-arrangement of production schedules necessary. The men who walked out at Longbridge have now returned to allow discussions to take place.’
The ‘skivers’ paradise’
The book ‘The Leyland Papers’ by the former BBC Economics Correspondent, journalist and economist Graham Turner is one of the bibles of all British car enthusiasts. Now the author himself hit the headlines with comments he made in a BBC radio interview on 28 August. Graham Turner was commenting on the latest industrial dispute within British Leyland at Washwood Heath, Birmingham which had made 6000 people idle at the Cowley complex .
Graham Turner described the Cowley factory complex as a ‘skivers paradise.’ He said he had formed his impressions after talking to workers at the complex. He went on: ‘The stories that the workers tell really make your hair stand on end, even if only half of them are true.’
One man had told him how he normally only worked half-an-hour a day, and how he had relaxed on shift one week by sun-bathing. ‘Another fellow told me about one particular night shift in a department where they are supposed to start about 10pm. He said normally they knock off at about 1 am and go to bed for the rest of the shift. Another fellow said ‘That’s not true. We normally go to bed about midnight.’
Workers play cards, not build cars
‘Then you hear all the stories about the card schools around the line and the rest rooms. People work an hour on and then an hour off, and then they go in to the card school. One foreman said to me they had ‘great difficulty getting people back on the line if they’ve been on the losing end of a card game.’
He said his knowledge was based on information from men ‘who might be rogues and liars, but I believe them to be honest.’
‘Men who would be happier to work much harder, but find themselves in a situation where it’s not possible—either because of weak management or because the unions have had such a grip on that plant that anybody who kicks up rough will get sat on.’
However, a British Leyland spokesman replied: ‘Mr Turner is guilty of gross distortion.’ The company was working towards a seven per cent improvement in efficiency in manual labour areas and ten per cent in staff areas. ‘But to say, as Mr Turner did, that only half the workers at Cowley are required to run the plant simply demonstrates his ignorance of the realities of manufacturing, and, worse still, demonstrates a cynical and totally unfair derision of the Cowley workers.’
‘His comments can only cause bitterness and resentment in a community which is doing a great deal to help support the economy of the country in very difficult times.’
Turner challenged to put his money where his mouth is
David Buckle, Oxford District Secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, challenged Graham Turner to take a job at the car works. ‘What he has said is utter nonsense. The only way he will be able to get his facts right is to take a job at the factory. In three months I am sure he would make a completely different statement.’
David Buckle said if Graham Turner resigned from the National Union of Journalists temporarily ‘we would certainly give him a TGWU card.’ But Geoffrey Whalen, Personnel Director of British Leyland’s Body and Assembly divisions, said there was a pool of extra men who were not fully employed. ‘We felt it right to retain them until we can find them new jobs,’ he said. There were other reasons for some of the men not having enough work, including a shortage of parts because of the Three-Day Week.
Jack Reid, who used to work in the plant’s Trim Shop, agreed with Graham Turner. ‘I used to go in at 8pm for the night shift and by 12.30 I could go to sleep until 6.30 in the morning. There were too many people in the shop and there was always someone to do my work while I slept. Those who did not want to sleep played cards, draughts or shove ha’penny,’ he said.
Strikes bring the company to its knees
Roy Gatehouse, who still worked at the plant, disagreed. He said: ‘The situation at the moment, where more men than usual have not got much work to do, is temporary. It has been created by changeovers to new models and obviously it won’t last forever. To say that it’s a skiver’s paradise is ludicrous.’
Whatever the truth of the matter, it was a news item that further damaged British Leyland’s credibility. By the end of August 1974 strikes within British Leyland were gradually bringing the firm to a halt. Production remained halted at the central transmissions plant at Washwood Heath, Birmingham, by a strike involving 2000 workers, with another 1700 laid-off.
Car assembly at Longbridge and Cowley had halted, with 11,000 workers laid-off from their normal jobs, but 5000 at Longbridge were called in on a temporary basis for stocktaking. Then another 1300 workers were laid off at Abingdon, Oxford, Castle Bromwich and Smethwick. The Washwood Heath strike was not resolved until 4 September.
New blood at the top
Perhaps sensing the image of Austin-Morris needed a lift, British Leyland announced on 29 August that it was appointing Keith Hopkins (above), the 44-year-old head of British Leyland’s Public Relations Department since 1968, as the new Managing Director of the group’s Austin-Morris division.
This announcement was greeted with considerable surprise in the industry for it was unusual for PR personnel, at any level, to move into general management. A company statement said that, after the recent death of Bill Sanders, Director of Manufacturing for Rover-Triumph, and to safeguard important expansion schemes now in progress there, Richard Perry, Managing Director of the Austin-Morris division was being appointed Deputy Managing Director of Rover-Triumph. His successor at Austin-Morris would be Keith Hopkins.
Keith Hopkins said: ‘PR is as wide and all embracing as top management allow it to be. I have been fortunate in that I have been close to Lord Stokes for the past 12 years, and have been involved in every aspect of the motor business. So, the sort of work I shall now be undertaking will not be such a big break as it would seem on the surface. I hope that some of the expertise of Lord Stokes and other senior members of British Leyland has rubbed off on me.’
Lord Stokes, the BLMC Chairman said: ‘We now have an excellent production, design and engineering team at Austin-Morris. What we need is flair from the top which I think Keith can give the company.’
The new Director of Public Relations was to be Tony Spalding, then Products Public Relations Manager, who had joined British Leyland from Ford in 1973. The new appointments took effect from 1 October 1974. With the departure of Harry Webster back in June, Keith Hopkins was now Lord Stokes only remaining close ally from the glory days of Standard-Triumph.
Press reports Government investment in British Leyland
In September 1974, a Sunday newspaper report suggested that Whitehall was drawing up plans to inject up to £100 million into British Leyland to finance future investment. Lord Stokes, the Chairman, responded to this on 23 September.
‘We have neither sought nor been offered any monies from the Government other than normal regional grants. Conjecture of this sort is entirely hypothetical and, frankly, is just foolish chatter which unfortunately tends to create unnecessary anxieties among our work force,’ he said.
Lord Stokes said there was no difference of opinion between himself, his Directors or the corporation’s top executives on the question of Government loans or on the broad question of nationalisation.
Australian operations keel over
It was revealed on 2 October that the loss-making Leyland Australia had asked the Australian Government for financial assistance to protect the jobs of its 5000-strong labour force. It was the largest private employer in the Sydney area. The approach followed a top management shake up. Less than three months earlier, David Abell, British Leyland’s Treasurer and a key figure in its finance staff, had been appointed Managing Director of the Leyland Motor Corporation of Australia.
He replaced Peter North, who had held the post for less than two years. It was understood that David Abell began talks with Australian Government Ministers about the need for urgent financial assistance more than a month earlier. Leyland Australia was reliably reported to have lost between $A11m (£6.18m) and $A13m in the previous four years.
Jim Cairns, the Australian Deputy Prime Minister, disclosed the request for assistance. He said: ‘Certain proposals have been put by Leyland to the Government and we are giving consideration to them.’
British Leyland issued a statement, which was interpreted in some quarters as hinting at a total pull out. It said: ‘While commercial vehicle and luxury car sales have been doing reasonably well in Australia, volume car sales have been experiencing difficulties due to a change in circumstances arising from the Australian Government’s review of its attitude to indigenous car manufacturing. As a result of this, we are reviewing our situation in this market.’
The changing circumstances were a sharp increase in the local content needed in cars manufactured in Australia. This meant that the Australian subsidiary was now almost cut off from the low-cost, high-volume production in its United Kingdom factories. The other factor was the continued assault on former empire markets by the Japanese. As these traditional markets were lost, British Leyland sought solace in Europe.
Then, a week later, fire swept through the Authi car factory in Pamplona, Spain, causing damage estimated at hundreds of thousands of pounds.
These two events, more than any others, proved to be a portent of what was coming for British Leyland in the following weeks…
- History : The Austin-Morris story – Part Twelve : April to October 1974 - 27 September 2021
- History : The Austin-Morris story – Part Eleven : January to April 1974 - 23 August 2021
- History : The Austin-Morris story – Part Ten : 1973 - 19 July 2021