History : The Edwardes Era – Part Three

Ian Nicholls, AROnline’s historian-in-residence, recounts the history of BL under the leadership of Michael Edwardes. He follows up his excellent rundown of the British Motor Holdings and British Leyland stories with a seventeen-part study of the firm from 1977 to 1982. 

Here, in the third part, we look back at the difficult middle months of 1978, and how the company’s new chief rolled his sleeves up to start dealing with the issues one by one…


Morris Marina

On 3 June 1978, the veteran Rover Engineer Charles Spencer (Spen) King (below) was awarded the CBE. This was the only official honour granted to one of Britain’s greatest ever Motor Engineers.

Then, on 8 June, another senior executive announced he was leaving British Leyland. This was Cedric Scroggs, who had joined in 1976 as something of an adventurous appointment. Most of his previous experience was with packaged foods at General Foods and Cadbury’s.

A statement from British Leyland said that Scroggs had decided to further his career outside the company, but would be staying on until the end of summer to help in the establishment of the marketing function at Jaguar Rover Triumph.

Spen King

A stalled redevelopment programme?

Under Michael Edwardes‘ plan to reorganise Leyland Cars, Scroggs was to have become Staff Director, Marketing at Jaguar Rover Triumph. Cedric Scroggs said at the time that he had no immediate plans for his career.

He subsequently went on to have a varied business career including a two-year tenure as head of Fisons PLC, from where he was fired in December 1993. In October 2006, he became a Non-Executive Director of Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust. Cedric Scroggs died in 2015.

Trevor Taylor, who had joined BLMC in 1969, was appointed Director, United Kingdom Sales and Marketing Operations, at Austin Morris.

Tough market conditions

British Leyland took 22 per cent of new car sales in Britain in May 1978 against 16.7 per cent in April. On 12 June, British Leyland held its annual group meeting in London where Chairman Michael Edwardes gave it a ‘last chance’ warning.

He warned that further confrontation ‘could break the back of Leyland.’ However, Michael Edwardes did single out Leyland Vehicles for special criticism.

Why he did so when it was apparently profitable, was a sign that all was not well between the Chairman and the head of Leyland Vehicles. Matters would soon come to a head.

Industrial unrest unsettles Edwardes

Indeed, only hours after the Chairman had delivered his message, 3600 workers were laid off in separate disputes at Rover and Jaguar. Then, worst of all, came threats of further disruption by the toolmakers.

Engineering Union leader Hugh Scanlon urged the toolmakers to get back in line. Defiant toolmakers leader Roy Fraser said: ‘If Leyland’s back is broken this year, it will be a self-inflicted wound.’

A week later the Rover dispute was still rumbling on and it was reported that the newly-formed Austin Morris volume car company, the persistent loss-maker in the group, was threatening unprecedented action to curb unofficial strikes at Longbridge, soon to be the home of the forthcoming LC8 supermini (below). It was said that it would withdraw official recognition from Shop Stewards who persistently took part in wildcat strikes.

LC8 customer clinic

‘Appalling productivity’

This was not the first time British Leyland had taken direct action against Shop Stewards it regarded as militant – though, in the past, it had been directed against individuals and then only after delicate negotiations to prepare the way with union leaders.

Faced with what one unnamed executive described as ‘appalling productivity over many years made worse by a flood of disruptive stoppages in the past two months,’ Ray Horrocks, the Managing Director of Austin Morris, was apparently prepared to accept the consequences of a confrontation with the most highly organised body of Shop Stewards in the motor industry.

Derek Robinson, the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers Convener at Longbridge and Chairman of the unofficial British Leyland (Motor Corporation Combined) Trade Union Committee (BLTUC), said that any move to withdraw the qualifications of Shop Stewards could lead to conflict.

Ray Horrocks expresses his concerns

Ray Horrocks was known to be particularly concerned that Longbridge Shop Stewards who, in discussions with management, acknowledged the need for drastic action to improve productivity, were taking unofficial steps to block management remedies.

A sub-committee of the union-management participation machinery had only recently produced a report, which highlighted the alarmingly low levels of productivity. It found that Longbridge’s output per man was half that of continental competitors and a quarter that of the Japanese.

Ray Horrocks told the Trade Unions that Austin Morris’s predicament was so serious that he could not duck the productivity issue even if it lead to a costly confrontation. To attempt to produce the LC8 with existing productivity levels would court disaster. The new car was still some 18 months away and it would take at least that long to make such far reaching changes in manning, assembly line speeds, flexibility and freedom from incessant stoppages.

An unnamed member of Ray Horrocks’s new management team said: ‘It is important to get this into the right perspective. We are not in the business of wielding a big club. We are at last facing up to the responsibilities of proper management whatever the consequences.’

Necessary action

On 21 June, Austin Morris decided to act. It had formally requested the Transport and General Workers Union to withdraw the qualifications of two Shop Stewards who had led a wildcat strike there a fortnight earlier. This strike appears to have gone unreported in the media, as did many at the time.

Austin Morris executives tried to play down the move by pointing out that it conformed with long established procedural agreements with all the Trade Unions. They also suggested that it had the backing of senior Shop Stewards who formed the Longbridge works committee.

But attempts to withdraw Shop Steward qualifications were at best controversial and at worst among the most explosive in British industry.

Workers’ union negotiations go slowly

John Barker, a full-time local official of the TGWU, went to Longbridge for discussions with management. Afterwards he said: ‘The company has assured me that it will not take independent action against the Shop Stewards until I have had time to investigate the complaints. There is no way I am going to be a party to withdrawing recognition of a Shop Steward on the company’s say so alone.’

The next day Austin Morris discovered it would have to wait several weeks before it learnt the outcome of its request to the Transport and General Workers Union for the withdrawal of credentials from two Shop Stewards who had led a recent unofficial strike at its Longbridge car plant.

John Barker said: ‘I am treating this as just another routine industrial relations problem which I am investigating. It could take weeks before I have completed my inquiries. In any event, I go on holiday next week so it will have to wait until I get back.’

British Leyland

Tony Ball goes international

That same day, 22 June, it was announced that Tony Ball was joining BL International in September 1978 as Managing Director of Overseas Trading Operations. He was then a member of the main Board of Thomas Barlow Holdings and Managing Director of the Barlow Handling Group.

Tony Ball was in fact an old BMC hand. In 1955, he joined Austin at Longbridge as an Engineering Apprentice. He held a series of posts in car and commercial vehicle sales and became A sales and marketing executive for BMC in 1966. Tony Ball played an important part in the launch of the Mini in 1959.

In 1967 he went to Thomas Barlow. He played a leading role for Barlow in setting up Ford dealerships in Africa and took an active part in the negotiation in 1974 of the sale of the United Kingdom-based Barlow Motor Group to Wadham Stringer. According to a former BMC colleague, Ball had another attribute. He was apparently ‘the best after dinner speaker in the world.’

On 1 July, British Leyland Limited officially became BL Limited. This was part of Michael Edwardes attempt to re-brand the company and banish the Leyland name to the former Truck and Bus division whence it came. However, the media continued to refer to the company as British Leyland for years to come.

O-Series engine

A new engine is launched

On 5 July came the only major BL product announcement of the year, the new O-Series engine. The Austin Morris Princess (ADO71) was re-launched today with a new overhead camshaft engine and better equipment after a concerted effort to improve quality and reliability.

The new engine had an aluminium head on an iron block and was available in two sizes, 1.7- and 2.0-litres. Developed over seven years at a cost of £38 million, it was intended to replace the 1.8-litre B-Series engine which dated back to 1948.

Austin Morris stated that the O-Series would be introduced in other BL models, such as the Morris Marina and MGB, over the next three years. In the event, the MGB was destined never to be produced with the new engine, although it was installed in a number of running prototypes, which were first shown to senior management in the same month, July 1978.

Princess 2
Princess 2 was launched in 1978 to showcase a package of improvements, including the O-Series engine

O-Series development

The Princess had been subjected to a thorough overhaul in an attempt to cure the quality and reliability troubles, which had lost important fleet sales and depressed second-hand prices. BL said that one of the worst faults, drive shaft wear, had been cured. The 2200 E-Series six-cylinder engine continued, giving a revised range of five models.

Who designed the O-Series engine? It was probably Geoffrey Johnson, who had succeeded Eric Bareham as the top Austin Morris engine man. Geoffrey Johnson had come to Austin Morris from the BRM racing team via a brief stint at Perkins in Peterborough. His predecessor, Eric Bareham, along with Stan Johnson (no relation), had developed a 2.0-litre version of the B-Series and in 1972 Geoffrey Johnson developed an overhead camshaft variant of this unit which began testing in June 1972.

However, the cylinder block manufacturing facilities for the B-Series engine were worn out, so it was proposed to develop an all-new engine based on the work that had preceded it.

Not without issues

There were two problems. The new engine had to be compatible with existing B-Series installations and, because the cast-crankshaft facility for the B-Series was new, for financial reasons the old B-Series crankshaft had to be used in the new O-Series engine.

By September 1972 internal BLMC papers described the O-Series design as being frozen, though this was far from the case. This didn’t stop the British Leyland Product Planners putting the O-Series forward for various projects including the Triumph SD2, meant as a Dolomite replacement, with a target launch date of October 1977.

This was because the theoretical costs of manufacturing the engine were lower than the actual costs of the existing Triumph/Saab slant four, which went into the TR7. And like the saga of the SD2 engine, the options for the first use of the O-Series also took on farcical proportions.

Triumph SD2 and Rover SD1
The O-Series engine was initially intended to be used in the Triumph SD2

An issue of deployment

In September 1972, the priority for the O-Series was the MGB in order to continue to sell it to the more emissions conscious American market. In October the MGB was deleted and then re-instated in December.

In 1974, the priority was the Morris Marina, but plans to continue to sell the Marina in the USA were cancelled in December 1977. The MGB was then slated to receive the O-Series in 1980, but the prototype was not completed until 1978. As we now know, this was not to be.

British Leyland had declined to federalise the older OHC E-Series on cost grounds, an engine once slated for the aborted mid-engined MGD (ADO21), but that had not stopped the company’s Australian subsidiary doing so for locally-assembled Marinas, as the restrictions operating down under were broadly similar to those applying in America.

Australia does its own thing

Like the parent company in the UK, the A- and B-Series tooling was worn out and the Australians simply used what they had. It would have been entirely possible for the MGB to have received the E-Series in both four- and six-cylinder form.

That was on the proviso that there were no handling and installation issues, but logic where cost control was king did not operate.

As for Geoffrey Johnson, he moved on to Hesketh, Cosworth and Lotus before setting up his own engine consultancy business in 1994.

Meanwhile, back at home…

On 7 July, 5000 workers at the truck plant at Bathgate, West Lothian accepted a new productivity deal. Opened in 1961 by a reluctant BMC, which had been subjected to pressure from the Cabinet Office, the plant had a history of poor industrial relations.

In 1972, it experienced a nine-week pay strike, amid threats of closure that did not come to pass. Prior to the new productivity deal, the plant had been reaching only 60 per cent of production targets, and absenteeism of 25 per cent was recorded in some areas.

In June 1978, the plant had about 12 disputes, which caused the loss of 20,000 working hours plus 120,000 hours lost because of lay-offs. Absenteeism was about 12 per cent, compared with about nine per cent throughout the rest of Leyland Vehicles.

Declining market share

The previous month’s sales figures were now in. In June 1978 British Leyland’s UK market share declined to 17.62 per cent compared with the 27 per cent Michael Edwardes said was necessary for the company’s survival. The same month 833 Seneffe-built Austin Allegros were sold in the UK.

It was reported that Michael Edwardes was switching the emphasis in group strategy towards higher output in the profitable bus and truck factories to try to offset mounting losses in BL Cars.

Company sources said on 10 July that only a remarkable improvement in car sales during the remaining half of the year could prevent a repetition of the previous year’s setback, when cars lost £32 million.

Lothian troubles mount

On 12 July, an action-packed news day, the BL Advisory Board convened at the truck plant at Bathgate, West Lothian. They saw at first hand the effect of a new productivity deal accepted by Bathgate’s 5000 workers on 7 July and put into operation on 10 July.

Michael Edwardes assured management and union officials that there was an enormous future for the plant, provided the disruption caused by wildcat strikes and restrictive practices ended. Edwardes said the company would continue to build on its investment in Bathgate which, he stated, had amounted to £20 million in the previous 18 months.

‘The important point is that if the British motor industry is to have a future, we have got to eliminate disruption of production,’ he added.

Bathgate – Leyland’s Scottish assembly plant for tractors, trucks and diesel engines

Closure: the ultimate weapon

Using the technique of encouragement followed by apocalyptic threat, which had become a mark of his management style, Michael Edwardes accepted that, although the strike weapon was quite legitimate, if the motor industry continued to suffer from wildcat strikes, ‘we are not going to have a future at all’.

The industry now lay in the balance, but if customers could rely on deliveries from the plant, then Bathgate had an enormous future.

However, Des Pitcher, the Managing Director of Leyland Vehicles, did not accompany Michael Edwardes and the BL Advisory Board to Bathgate and was not present when he addressed a meeting of Shop Stewards about the plant’s abysmal production record.

Princess line stops

The same day another strike added to the motor industry’s troubles when production of the revised Princess was halted at Cowley. Some 800 Princess assembly workers were sent home after a small group downed tools in protest at delays in holiday payments. BL car factories were due to close at the coming weekend for the two weeks’ summer break.

The Cowley workers were due to receive their holiday entitlements on this day, but were told that they would have to wait until 14 July because of a pay clerks’ dispute.

A two-week old strike by press operators at BL’s Swindon body plant was resolved. A meeting of the 640 press operators voted by a slender majority to accept a peace formula produced with the help of ACAS officials. They returned to work immediately on the understanding that a new system of stacking pressed panels would be given a three-month trial period.

Austin Allegro
Austin Allegro’s image dealt a further blow by series accident and subsequent court case

High Court action spells more trouble

Unfortunately, BL’s already tarnished image took a further knock. The safety of its cars was called into question by a High Court judge presiding over a legal case in Middlesborough.

In 1976, an Austin Allegro driven by pensioner Albert Walton, with his brother Vic and sister-in-law, Margaret Walton as passengers, was involved in an accident on the M1 near Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire. One of the rear wheels suddenly spun off the Allegro, which then careered off the road. Vic Walton was injured, but his wife Margaret was paralysed.

The judge, Mr Justice Willis, found against BL Limited. He said that it was only after 100 accidents – ‘any of which could have been fatal’ – that BL finally recalled the Austin Allegro.

Leyland forced into Allegro safety recall

‘Leyland knew the full facts. They saw to it that no one else did. British Leyland were faced with mounting and horrifying evidence of wheels coming adrift. Any of the cases could have had fatal results. In my view, the duty of care owed by Leyland to the public was to make a clean breast of the problem and recall all cars for safety washers to be fitted.’

BL claimed that the rear hub design was sound and the problem was caused by inefficient service mechanics. The Judge cleared the two garages, which had been involved with the crash car of any negligence.

A BL spokesman said later: ‘It appears the judgement was quite a lengthy one which will take some time to examine. There are a number of issues involved and after the judgement has been examined we will be making an official statement. We cannot comment any further at present.’

Mr and Mrs Walton were awarded ‘substantial damages.’

Meanwhile, sales continue to fall

With lurid headlines about faulty Austin Allegros on the newsstands, the misery for BL piled up. The full extent of Leyland Vehicles’ declining performance was revealed the next day.

New commercial vehicle registrations for the first hall of the year showed that it was the only manufacturer selling in Britain which failed to take advantage of a substantial increase in demand. In a truck market (over 3.5 tons) which was 12.5 per cent up on the same period the previous year, the former Truck and Bus division sold fewer vehicles (7105 compared with 7223).

Ford was the market leader with an increase of 21 per cent, but the importers took the biggest advantage of the markets recovery from the recession of recent years. BL blamed poor productivity for its poor performance. An unnamed senior executive said: ‘Almost without exception, our trucks are it short supply. You can’t imagine how frustrating it is. We have been waiting for the market to recover and when it comes we have to sit by while the opposition takes the cream.’

Ironically, BL Cars had done much better in the commercial vehicle sector. In the car-derived vans and medium van sector, its Morris Marinas and Sherpas showed substantial increases and were the leaders in their fields.

Jaguar Rover Triumph appointments

On 16 July, two new appointments to the Board of Jaguar Rover Triumph (JRT) were announced. Peter Murrough, the former Managing Director Leyland South Africa, became Sales and Marketing Director from 1 September. Robert Smith, formerly a senior executive with the George Cole 600 group of companies, joined the JRT Board to undertake special assignments for the Managing Director, William Pratt-Thompson.

The absence of Des Pitcher, the Managing Director of Leyland Vehicles Limited, from the BL Advisory Board’s visit to Bathgate had been noted by the media. The reason for this became apparent on 17 July. It was revealed he was leaving the company at the end of July 1978.

He would be replaced for the time being by Jack Smart, then the Deputy Managing Director of Leyland Vehicles. Des Pitcher, the company said, had intimated when he joined British Leyland in 1976 that he would eventually want to return to the electronics industry.

‘The reorganisation of Leyland is now complete’

A BL statement said: ‘While he has been with Leyland Vehicles he has been responsible for a fundamental reorganisation of the company’s truck and bus activities and for developing a strategic plan including new products and facilities. The reorganisation of Leyland Vehicles Limited is now complete and it is established as a limited company with its own Board and with its plans endorsed by the BL Board. Mr Pitcher has now expressed a wish to return to the electronic industry.’

Des Pitcher would become a consultant to BL. Jack Smart, who took up his new duties immediately would report directly to Michael Edwardes, the BL Chairman and Chief Executive.

Des Pitcher’s resignation as Managing Director of Leyland Vehicles came as no surprise to his colleagues. They had been expecting it for months. As one of them said: ‘Des never hit it off with Michael Edwardes. Relations became particularly strained about five months ago, when The Times reported that Des had threatened to resign unless Edwardes changed his reorganisation plans to take truck exports from Leyland International and return them to Truck and Bus. I don’t think there was any question of a stand-up row leading to the break, but since The Times affair, the two have had a working relationship which can only be described as edgy.’

Life after Leyland

Desmond Pitcher was another British Leyland executive who went onto great things with Plessey, Littlewoods, the water industry and Merseyside Development Corporation. He was knighted in 1992 for services to his native Liverpool. Sir Desmond said of his tenure with British Leyland in 1994:

‘It was a time of great activity: my division made its highest-ever profit in 1976.’ He saw Michael Edwardes managerial approach as confrontational.

‘I would be cynical and say that the Government was happy to see one company take on the unions. There had to be changes, but they should not have destroyed the whole thing in the process.’

Were these executives who were leaving British Leyland failing the psychological tests, fired or did they jump ship on their own accord?

Edwardes: ‘most people were dismissed’

Michael Edwardes

Sir Michael Edwardes wrote in his memoirs: ‘Over the first few months a few managers left the company of their own accord, but many more were asked to leave. In most cases we allowed the manager to ‘resign’ but in truth most of these people were dismissed, and were paid termination payments.

‘We helped them to keep their reputations by inviting them to resign. Many were good men, but changes were needed; some had lost credibility, often through no fault of their own, others had been over promoted and needed to start again elsewhere.

‘Replacing senior executives during those months was done by promoting those whose track record was good, whose psychological assessment confirmed their potential, and who had years of energy and drive ahead of them. In short, we pushed good young men into top jobs.’

Often Edwardes was replacing the inadequate management recruited by the Stokes-era management to replace the BMC executives that Lord Stokes had regarded as inadequate. Whatever the truth behind so many departures, the reasons why are likely to remain buried.

Cutting South African losses

On 19 July, British Leyland decided to cut its losses from South African operations and merge with the Sigma Motor Corporation, which was 75 per cent owned by the mining and financial conglomerate Anglo American, headed by Harry Oppenheimer.

The announcement had been foreshadowed in BL’s Annual Report earlier in 1978. The company included a £17,100,000 extraordinary item in the accounts to cover any losses incurred in cutting back the South African operation. Basically, it meant that BL was reducing its stake in South Africa, although it would retain a 49 per cent share of a new company to be known as Sigma-Leyland.

Sigma then assembled Chrysler vehicles, including the British-based Hillman range, as well as Japanese Mazdas and American Dodges. Two weeks earlier it announced it was taking over the top-selling French Peugeot operation in South Africa and was negotiating to bring Citroën cars into its assembly stable. A Sigma statement said certain final negotiations still had to be concluded with the South African Government.

A BL spokesman in London said that the new company would have an asset value of £50 million and an estimated annual turnover of £112 million. The aim was to reach production of 185 commercial vehicles a day, but there would be some cutback on the cars side. However, wider political events were soon to come into play.

Jim Callaghan

The UK starts to climb out of crisis

Back in 1976, the UK Government had requested a record £3.9bn loan from the International Monetary Fund following a balance of payments crisis and record inflation levels, which in turn pushed up borrowing costs. The price the IMF extracted was that the Government had to get its house in order, control public expenditure and inflation. This resulted in the social contract, with the Trades Union Congress agreeing to a policy of wage restraint in order to reduce inflation, after a two-year inflationary free for all.

By the summer of 1978 that appeared to be working. The economy was booming, inflation was falling and new car sales were the best since the ‘Barber Boom’ years. With a General Election due some time in 1979, it was entirely conceivable that Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan (above) would see off Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative Party, with its new free market ideas, and become Premier in his own right.

Then, on 21 July, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey introduced a new White Paper, which set a guideline for pay rises of 5.0 per cent in the year from 1 August 1978.

…not helped by the Trade Unions

Average inflation for 1978 was 8.3 per cent, a dramatic decrease over the 24.24 per cent for the whole of 1975. Five days later, the TUC voted overwhelmingly to reject the 5.0 per cent pay rise limit and insisted on a return to free collective bargaining which they believed they had been promised. This set the TUC on a collision course with the Labour Government – although, for the time being, all this seemed not to affect life at British Leyland.

On 8 August, a month after the BL Advisory Board had visited the truck and tractor factory at Bathgate, there was a strike by 1800 machinists. The stoppage was over a pay dispute involving the operation of new machines.

Sir Michael Edwardes said in his memoirs: ‘What made the Scottish dispute particularly galling was that it was sparked off because the company had invested heavily in new equipment as part of a £22 million modernisation programme.

‘Instead of welcoming the opportunity, the men wanted to be paid a premium for working the new machinery. While we saw this investment as providing tangible evidence that we were prepared to give Bathgate a future, a section of the workforce saw it simply as a bargaining counter for more money… Positive action to save the company was apparently creating even more attitude problems than those with which we started. The workforce still seemed to be suffering from a post-Ryder sense of security.’

Toolmakers press for more money

That same day 60 rebel toolmakers, led by Roy Fraser, lobbied the London headquarters of their union, the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, to press their long-standing demands for higher wages and parity throughout BL Cars. Terry Duffy, President-elect, warned them that another unofficial strike like the one they staged in 1977 would be very damaging. He assured them that their claims were being dealt with in current talks with the company on higher differentials and parity.

He advised 32 toolmakers on strike at SU Carburettors for a week to return to work. Roy Fraser and his unofficial committee were planning to organise weekly collections for each of the 32 strikers.

George Regan, spokesman for the SU toolmakers, said they would not return until they received a £7 increase on their basic weekly rate of £76. He claimed that management were refusing to honour an agreement reached four years earlier promising them parity with toolmakers at Rover, Solihull.

Morris Marina

Marina production cut

The next day Austin Morris announced that production of the Morris Marina at Cowley was to be cut back. One of the two night shifts at the Austin Morris assembly plant would end in a few weeks’ time.

This was a boom year for the UK car market, with 1.59 million being sold. Austin Morris managed to sell 82,638 Marinas in the UK that year, the best figures since 1974 when the world had been digesting the Energy Crisis. Possibly one of the reasons for the cutback was to squeeze more cars out of the remaining shifts at Cowley?

Bathgate troubles deepen

Meanwhile, the strike at Bathgate continued. On Sunday 13 August, at a mass meeting the 1800 machinists on strike voted to stay out. The strikers decided to defy an instruction from their union officials to return to work.

Another 2000 workers had been laid off, leaving only about 1000 hourly paid men at Bathgate still at work. Leyland Vehicles claimed that a dispute over the operation of a new machine tool, which led to the unofficial walkout by the machinists, was already covered by negotiations with the unions and that appropriate payment to the machinists would result from a new plant agreement on productivity and a programme of grade restructuring.

The next day Standard Telephones and Cables, announced their new Director, Financial Controls. He was none other than Alex Park, late of British Leyland. What was noticeable was that he returned to the kind of finance job he had when he was plucked from obscurity to front British Leyland.

The next day, at a meeting in London, the National Executive of the Engineering Section of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers issued a firm instruction to the 1800 Bathgate strikers to return to work. The day after that the Shop Stewards at Bathgate decided to defy an instruction from national leaders of their AUEW union to call off the ten-day-old strike.

A do or die moment…

The Shop Stewards met and decided not to call a meeting of the strikers to put the Executive’s order to them. Leyland Vehicles gave a warning that this would inevitably lead to the total shutdown of the plant and the lay-off of many more workers.

A company spokesman said: ‘The dispute is over an issue which is already the subject of agreements with the union and the strike is therefore over the failure of the men concerned to honour an existing agreement’

Then, on 18 August, the management at the commercial vehicle plant in Bathgate carried out its threat of closing down all production because of the unofficial strike by 1800 engineering workers which showed no signs of settlement after ten days of disruption.

More lay-offs follow

In addition to this, another 250 workers were laid off at BL’s Llanelli radiator factory following a strike by production workers in a dispute over pay parity with craftsmen. Meanwhile, the AUEW was also trying to contain the dispute at BL SU Fuel Systems plant at Erdington, Birmingham. Some 600 of its members backed official union moves to discipline the 32 striking toolmakers who had been on strike for a fortnight and voted to keep the plant working.

Ken Cure, the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers’ Birmingham East District Secretary, and Arthur Harper, the District President, told the production workers, who accounted for about half the workforce, that the 32 toolmakers were defying union instructions to return to work. As a result, they had been fined the maximum of £9 by the District Committee.

Ken Cure said the strikers had refused to appear before the District Committee at the weekend. He urged the workers to continue to produce carburettors and said that otherwise there would be mass lay-offs throughout BL Cars.

The strikers’ leader, George Regan, said that he had gone to Wales on a fishing trip instead of attending the union meeting. ‘I had no intention of attending the meeting unless there was money on the table. The union is refusing to back us, even though we have a valid claim. It will not make any difference even if they do expel us,’ he said.

First Bathgate, now Llanelli

The strikers had previously boycotted a meeting with Ken Cure on 9 August. The summer continued to go downhill. The 100 production workers, whose strike had crippled BL’s main radiator factory at Llanelli, South Wales, had voted to continue their stoppage.

Half the workforce of 2300 was already laid off and production had been virtually halted. Now SP Industries, the special products division of BL, was in trouble. Urgent economies were being introduced because of sharply falling profits and poor results in the first half of the year.

David Abell, the company’s Managing Director, had apparently held what was described as a ‘summit meeting’ of top Directors to avert an even more serious deviation from confidential budgeted plans for 1978.

The rot spreads

The extent of the slippage in SP Industries’ business, which had been badly affected by strikes and export pricing difficulties arising from the rising pound, would not be revealed until Michael Edwardes issued all the state-owned enterprise’s results for the first six months of the year.

SP Industries, which employed around 11,000 people in a dozen factories, ran the Prestcold refrigeration business, the Aveling-Barford construction equipment concern, the Alvis military vehicles company and Coventry-Climax Engines.

As a result of the recent directorial summit, called by David Abell when it was realised results would be off targets, plans were being drawn up to cut overheads, prune capital spending and hold on to profits. Staff had been told the salvage operation was on the way, but a fuller report was expected.

Ramping up the threats

Brian Hoare, Finance Director of SP Industries, stated: ‘Even with this strategy it looks as though our results for the full year will be significantly less than budget.’

There was some relief on 24 August when the 100 strikers at Llanelli voted to return to work. Meanwhile, the Bathgate strike was still ongoing. The next day Pat Lowry, the BL Director of Personnel, gave a warning about the future of the strike hit Bathgate plant.

He said that, unless understandings on the observation of procedure agreements and the maintenance of essential disciplines were reached, the factory ‘can only continue to slide on its downward path and the future is black indeed.’

Were plant closures coming?

The company had no intention of closing the Bathgate plant permanently or of imposing a lock-out ‘but it seems that strikes, sanctions and refusal to carry out work has become a way of life at Bathgate and the Board of Leyland Vehicles has decided that this cannot be allowed to continue.’

The Leyland Vehicles Board had stated that it did not intend to make an offer to workers involved in the latest dispute and it would not take part in discussions with the strikers. The strike was the latest of a series of unofficial stoppages and action by employees which the management claimed had reduced production performance to 60 per cent of target and caused the loss of 5000 vehicles in the first seven months of the year.

The Leyland Vehicles Board said that disputes and consequential layoffs had caused the loss of £10 million of profit in the year and vital overseas orders being negotiated might be lost because firm delivery dates could not be guaranteed.

‘We are determined to make Bathgate a success’, Pat Lowry said. New machinery at Bathgate was part of a £45 million capital investment by BL in the commercial vehicle operation in Scotland. The bulk was at Bathgate, which employed 4850 hourly paid and 1400 staff workers, had a turnover of £260 million and exported 46 per cent of its output. Pat Lowry added: ‘We hope it can be brought home to every Bathgate employee that we cannot afford to operate the plant on the basis of the last few months.’

The Longbridge production line (Image: Caters Media Group)
The Longbridge production line (Picture: Caters Media Group)

Short time for engine workers

On what was a packed BL news day, it was announced that 5000 Austin Morris engine workers were going on to short time from Monday 28 August because final assembly lines at Longbridge and Cowley were failing to keep up with their output of engines. The move was a blow to BL Cars’ hope of lifting its depressed market share and taking advantage of the continuing boom in car sales.

It also pinpointed BL’s problems in trying to raise production. Unless all sections of the workforce in a complicated production chain met output schedules, losses were inevitable. The 5000 workers manufactured the A- and E-Series engines fitted to some versions of the Austin Maxi and Morris Marina assembled at Cowley and the Mini and Austin Allegro assembled at Longbridge (above).

The engine workers’ output had been close to target while the assemblymen had been down by nearly 20 per cent. The result was that engine stocks had reached unacceptable levels and had to be brought under control by short-time working. An Austin Morris spokesman said: ‘It is unfortunate that the enginemen’s excellent response to the call for better production has led to their being laid off because assembly plants have not kept pace with them. The short-time decision will be reviewed in three or four weeks’ time.’

More bad news for Edwardes

Under the company’s lay-off agreement, the enginemen, who would lose one shift a week, would not lose any wages. BL also announced it was to close its truck assembly plant in Melbourne, and stop its Mini production in Australia. The closure of the plant, in October 1978, would make 120 workers idle. All BL truck assembly would then be done in Sydney.

The nineteenth anniversary of the launch of the Mini back in 1959 passed on 26 August. This was the car that had raised expectations that Britain could be a global player in the auto industry.

But the situation in 1978 was truly grim. On this day, the leaders of the rebel toolroom men decided at a three-hour meeting in Birmingham to call out all BL’s 3000 toolmakers at the 30 car factories if the AUEW union carried out its threat to expel the 32 men on strike at BL Components’ carburettor factory at Erdington, Birmingham.

Striking toolmakers speak out

Roy Fraser, leader of the toolroom strikers, said: ‘If the union Executive go ahead with expelling our colleagues we will have everyone out the following day.’

A Birmingham official of the engineering union hit back at Roy Fraser by warning him of possible personal disciplinary action. This warning came from Ken Cure, Birmingham East District Secretary of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, and close ally of President-elect Terry Duffy, who was adamant that the 32 toolroom strikers should end their three-week strike or face the consequences.

Ken Cure said: ‘Brother Fraser is interfering in a district other than his own. I am quite prepared to charge him with this offence under the union’s rules. The case being put by the strikers at the SU Carburettor factory is a dishonest one. The management is keeping to its promises of parity pay increases, and the strikers full well know that. The SU carburettor men say they want pay parity with the toolroom men at Rover, Solihull.

‘The case being put by the strikers at the SU Carburettor factory is a dishonest one…’

‘Well, we have a promise from the Leyland management that from this November their rate will go up by £7 to the £88 paid at Rover, Solihull. The strikers are being disciplined for repeatedly disobeying union district instructions to return to work and for repeated contempt of properly elected union bodies and therefore contempt of their fellow workers. I urge the men at SU carburettors to return to work on Monday. Mr Fraser talks about bringing out Leyland’s toolroom men. Our message to them is quite simply, keep working.

‘Brother Fraser needs to remember that the 23 committee members who decided on expulsion if the strikers will not return included 11 toolroom men. If he continues his action he may well face a backlash from toolroom men in particular and Leyland workers in general. He is certainly now at risk of union disciplinary action.’

Bathgate drags on

And at Bathgate, the 1800 machinists decided to continue their three-week-old strike, and the management announced that all production there would be stopped until further notice.

On the last day of August 1978 Michael Edwardes was in London giving a speech to the Guild of Motoring Writers. He told his audience: ‘Yesterday, Wednesday was a good day: we had only 13 major stoppages and 12 of these which caused great disruption, involved only 160 people.

The thirteenth, where 1800 people have been on strike at Bathgate, the entire future of this truck plant, one central to our overall strategy, has been put in jeopardy, and in the meantime a further 2000 of our workpeople, people who want to work, have had to be laid off.’

Michael Edwardes
Edwardes: ‘I have to tell you that in the first six months of this year BL factories in Britain have been disrupted not 10, 20 or 100 times, but 346 times.’

Stoppages: 346 in six months

Recalling the meeting he had in February at Kenilworth with about 700 BL Shop Stewards and national union officials, to whom he presented the strategy for BL’s future, and the 99 per cent acceptance he received when it was put to the vote, Michael Edwardes said he had no reason to suppose that those people had reneged on him.

‘The vast majority of them and of the 170,000 workforce they represent are, I believe, still right behind us. Yet I have to tell you that in the first six months of this year BL factories in Britain have been disrupted not 10, 20 or 100 times, but 346 times.’

Michael Edwardes said he did not appeal to the one per cent who were causing the industry’s disruptions, for he doubted their motives. ‘My appeal is to the remainder not to let this tiny majority get away with it.’

BL output suffering hard

The future of BL and of industry in Britain as a whole lay in productivity and the proper use of resources, and that meant people. Despite the efforts of most of its workers this year, BL was producing about 76 per cent of target capacity. On an exceptional day it might produce 90 per cent.

‘Yet our plant in Belgium averages 96 per cent of target and often achieves 103 per cent. No wonder the industry is fighting for survival at a time when our Continental competitors are talking about expansion.’

Michael Edwardes, who set aside his prepared statement to deliver what he suggested might be his most important speech as a leader of the British motor industry, said: ‘Only two things are required to ensure the future for the British motor industry, and without them there is no future. The first is that we must have the vocal and overt support of the majority of the workforce, and second is that support must be demonstrated in terms of continuous production. From that base it will still be possible to stage a recovery, although each day of lost production, profit and sales makes the job more difficult and the long-term prospects less hopeful.’

Workers ‘sick to death’ of interruptions

He said he knew from personal experience that most BL workers were sick to death of production being interrupted again and again for the most insignificant of reasons. ‘If we give in to it we shall continue down the slippery slope that seems to have been designed for us by this tiny minority of people.’

On a brighter note, Michael Edwardes confirmed that BL’s reconstruction had been completed well ahead of schedule. The transfer of Triumph TR7 assembly to Canley, Coventry, had gone well; with excellent cooperation from the local workforce, and the first of an expanded range of those sports cars was expected to be produced in the autumn of 1978.

Future production plans confirmed

Austin Morris’s next new small car, the LC8, would be in production by the spring or summer of 1980. Now that the 3.5-litre V8 engine had met American law on exhaust gases, Rovers were to be reintroduced into the United States.

Michael Edwardes said negotiations to introduce a night shift at the Rover plant at Solihull were continuing. Although car production there was double the 1977 figure, it was still not enough to meet market demands. A £13 million investment would increase Land Rover and Range Rover production by half in the short term.

Although Austin Morris and Jaguar Rover Triumph were now autonomous companies, there was to be more matching of components than had ever been achieved before between individual BL makes. Michael Edwardes predicted that BL’s six-month figures, to be announced soon, would to some extent be encouraging, ‘though well below what they might have been had we been saved so much industrial disruption.’

Rover SD1
US launch of the Rover 3500 was confirmed in August 1978

A glimmer of hope in August

August would show record figures for the group, with domestic sales well in excess of 60,000 units. ‘This is to a large extent down to the private buyer, who has remained extremely loyal to us; also to our network, who have had to take so much stick over the past few years but who have proved to us once again that so long as we can give them the product they can find the buyers.’

What was not revealed at the time was that in August 1978 BL had opened talks with Honda.

But the Bathgate saga rumbled on. On 7 September, the 51 Shop Stewards representing 1800 striking machinists at Bathgate were removed from office by their union’s District Committee for refusing to order a return to work. The decision, taken after the Shop Stewards had again refused to obey union instructions, had to be ratified by the National Executive of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers. Thomas Adam, Secretary of the Committee of the Falkirk district, said that the men’s credentials as Shop Stewards would be withdrawn, but they would not be expelled from the union.

Bathgate’s intolerable strike continues

The leaders of the month-long dispute at the Bathgate truck and tractor plant, which had caused nearly 4000 men to be laid off, were called before the Committee to explain their refusal and were asked again to order their men to return to work.

After a fourth refusal, Peter Easton, the District Committee’s Chairman, said: ‘It was decided that the credentials of the Shop Stewards, who will not accept the instructions of the District Committee, be withdrawn subject to ratification by the Executive Council.’

There was another blow to Bathgate’s future when Frank Andrew, the newly-appointed manager of Leyland Vehicles medium-light vehicle division, announced that plans to transfer truck production from the Albion plant in Glasgow had been postponed.

General Election fever builds

It was Labour Party conference time, and it was expected that Prime Minister James Callaghan would take advantage of the booming economy and call a General Election.

However, in his speech to the annual Labour Party conference the Prime Minister announced that he would not be calling a General Election that autumn but would instead seek to go through the winter with continued pay restraint so that the economy would be in a better state in preparation for a spring election.

The pay limit was officially termed ‘Phase IV’ but most referred to it as ‘the five per cent limit.’ Although the Government did not make the five per cent limit a legal requirement, it decided to impose sanctions on private and public government contractors who broke the limit.

Bathgate future in the balance

The BL Board met on 11 September in London. The BL Board announced that the £50 million investment plan at Bathgate was in danger. They gave two reasons: the five-week strike by 1800 machinists had led to 3000 lay offs and strikes at the plant had slashed production by 35 per cent.

BL also sent a letter to all its 120,000 employees from Chairman Michael Edwardes. He said bluntly that another strike by all the company’s 3000 toolmakers would wreck BL’s survival drive and wipe out more than 30,000 jobs.

He warned: ‘A prolonged strike could mean the loss of as many as 70,000 vehicles. We estimate that over 70,000 employees would have to be laid off. Tens of millions of pounds of profit and cash flow would be lost and that means investment programmes being trimmed and cancelled.’

BL in profit… just

Three days later the Chairman was announcing the BL half-year results. He said that a succession of labour disputes had ‘clearly and demonstrably prejudiced future employment possibilities.’

The company made a £17 million profit. Without 346 industrial disruptions during that period, its profit would have been £47 million. The Land and Range Rover plant achieved a considerable part of that £17 million profit, and these vehicles had become notoriously difficult to acquire because demand remained high.

Michael Edwardes told ITN in a television interview: ‘We will not hesitate, we will not shirk to cut back investment, to cut back jobs very, very rapidly indeed if we do not get performance. Bathgate is a case in point. There is no question of doubt – it is in an irretrievable situation. We are not negotiating. We are not crying wolf. Investment at Bathgate when the plans are tabled with the unions and the employee representatives on Monday will show we are cutting investment there drastically.’

Michael Edwardes felt there was an enormous gap between the potential of his recent reorganisation and the reality. He said: ‘It is not right to say that we don’t have a hope of achieving our plan. What is right is that unless we can cure this incredible situation where agreements are not being delivered then I would agree that the long-term plan is in jeopardy. I am not at all demoralised, all I am is determined. That is different. I am absolutely determined that we have nothing to lose to face up to this question of delivery by unions head on.’

Edwardes on Bathgate’s future

On the subject of the Bathgate dispute, he told the BBC: ‘If we say we will not meet the demands of the strikers because we cannot, and should not, we mean it. Furthermore, I tell you now that investment at Bathgate will be reduced by the amount of cash flow we have lost due to the strike. We simply can’t pay twice. I mean what I say. We will not cry wolf.’

The brightest spot was a 103 per cent rise in production of the Rover SD1 at Solihull with encouraging prospects for major investment in Range Rover and Land Rover output. The Board said that great efforts were being made to accelerate the production programme to launch what it now called ‘the new Mighty Mini’, codenamed LC8.

After his television interviews Michael Edwardes received private messages of support from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Eric Varley, and the Prime Minister, James Callaghan.

Alex Park

Alex Park on the state of BL

On 15 September, the Daily Express printed an interview with Alex Park, former British Leyland Managing Director, and now Finance Director of Standard Telephones and Cables.

He said ‘I really do believe that Leyland will survive. They are going through a rough patch. There is nothing new about that. Every year you get problems with the SU carburettor men. One has to have some sympathy for them. After all, they have been subject to some form of wage constraint for six years now and they naturally become frustrated.

‘Unfortunately, problems like this cause a serious chain reaction. I think Leyland will live through it. The company is in a far better position financially than at almost any time in the last ten years. It has this interest-free Government money. They will make profits, perhaps not as much as they would like but they will make them nonetheless. And production is running at a reasonable level.’

Park: Edwardes isn’t threatening people

He added: ‘I don’t accept that Michael Edwardes is threatening people. He has to advise them of the seriousness of the situation and that is what he is doing very forcibly. Some listen, but some don’t. He must be as frustrated and exasperated as anyone. They all have my sympathy, from the shop floor up. But I really do believe that Leyland will pull through. Whether it will survive in its present form is another matter.

‘But that has been on the cards for some time. Certainly, while I was there, we realised that changes were inevitable. It has been obvious for a long time that some parts of the company, and I am thinking particularly of the volume car plants at Cowley and Longbridge, are a heavier drain than others. I think they will be looking to see which limb they can cut off. The fundamental problem is the age of the models in the middle and lower range and the time it takes to get a success with a new one.

‘I know the new Marina is due and if it is as it was when I was there then I believe it will capture a bigger share of the market than it has so far. As to this talk of merger, well I’m certain that Renault or any other company for that matter would be very interested in Jaguar, Rover and Range Rover. The rest of the range they would probably say: “Go and dump them in the middle of the Atlantic”.’

‘BL will blossom again’

‘Amid all this fuss in the media over the toolmakers and their claim for parity, the big issue has been totally ignored. And that is that these men want separate negotiating rights. That is their real aim though it has been sidetracked to some extent by the pay issue.

‘But it is going to blossom soon enough and I’m very much afraid we are going to hear a lot more on this issue yet. Nonetheless, I still feel very optimistic about Leyland’s future. It will survive. I know it sounds very smug for me to sit here in the safety of Standard Telephones and say this but if I were asked what advice I would give to Michael Edwardes – it would be simply “Hang on”.’

Alex Park subsequently became Vice-President of ITT (UK) based in its STC office in London. He retired in 1987 and died on 25 April 2009 at the age of 82.

Alex Park reckoned the Marina replacement (ADO77) had the potential to increase market share. However, what he didn’t know at the time was that it was already long dead

Bathgate investment frozen

On 18 September The Times reported that Eric Varley, the Secretary of State for Industry, had already agreed that plans for a freeze on Bathgate’s share of a £50 million investment programme should stand. This was about £32 million.

The Board of the subsidiary Leyland Vehicles, led by Jack Smart, met a team of Trade Union representatives that day at the Charing Cross Hotel in London for a fundamental review of Bathgate’s future. The meeting with the unions had been planned for several weeks but took on the aura of a crisis meeting because of the strike by 1800 machinists, which had closed Bathgate.

Leyland Vehicles spelt out for union leaders cuts of £58 million in the company’s five-year investment programme. They also announced that work which should have been done at the troubled Bathgate factory near Edinburgh would now be sub-contracted to an outside manufacturer. The management said the new strategy, which was rejected by the unions, had been necessary because of labour problems in the division, formerly known as Truck and Bus.

The cut in the investment programme to £370 million would mean the loss of 3000 potential new jobs. The executives reiterated that, while a £32 million cut in investment plans for Bathgate was irreversible, the future of the plant rested on whether there was an early return to work by the 1800 machinists who had been on strike for seven weeks.

Job losses inevitable

Jack Smart, the Deputy Managing Director of Leyland Vehicles, said after the London meeting with national union officials and senior Shop Stewards:
‘There is the possibility that there will be a loss of jobs at Bathgate, but we are not prepared to discuss the situation with unofficial strikers.’

He said the cut in the investment programme had been forced on the company. Among the new programmes planned for Bathgate, which had been axed were the transfer of work from Leyland’s Albion plant at Glasgow and the building of a new CKD (complete knock down) plant, which would have assembled truck kits for export. Work on lightweight cabs, which had also been planned for Bathgate, would now be ‘dual-sourced’ with some work being done at other Leyland plants, mainly Leyland in Lancashire, and the remainder going to an outside company, which he refused to name.

‘I think it is perfectly obvious from what has been said by the Chairman, and the various figures we have been presenting over the last few weeks that if we don’t get co-operation from the workforce the company will gradually work itself to a standstill’, Jack Smart said.

Jack Smart said that the remainder of the investment cuts, which did not affect Bathgate, were not absolutely firm and could be discussed with the unions. This sum of £26 million would be cut from programmes affecting several of the group’s plants, but no specific details on where the axe would fall were given.

Satisfaction with Leyland future strategy

Gerry Russell, a member of the AUEW’s Executive Committee, said after the meeting: ‘They have presented their strategy for Leyland Vehicles and we have expressed our dissatisfaction with it and have told them that we will present to them an alternative strategy within six weeks.’

He said Leyland Vehicles might need further funds from the National Enterprise Board if the union’s strategy was adopted. The union believed that the company’s own plans were not ambitious enough. Gerry Russell said the unions were not ‘desperately unhappy’ with the investment programme; but this view was not shared by Jim Swann, the machinists’ Convener at Bathgate, who said they would be fighting to get the company’s decision rescinded.

That very same day the 32 toolmakers on unofficial strike at SU Fuel Systems for six weeks met and rejected a return-to-work formula accepted by their own leaders only a few hours earlier.

In August 1978 MGB was put under the same managerial roof as the Jaguar Rover Triumph

MG merges with Jaguar Rover Triumph

On 19 September, the MG operation became part of the Jaguar Rover Triumph organisation. The alignment of MG sports cars with JRT, BL’s specialist car subsidiary, meant that it would no longer be the odd man out in the hard pressed Austin Morris volume car operation.

On the other hand, Ray Horrocks, the Austin Morris Managing Director, was reluctant to lose control of the 1200-strong labour force at MG’s Abingdon, Oxford plant.

Not only was it the most reliable and strike-free in the whole of BL Cars, but it was also profitable. One of the most pressing reasons for the switch was MG’s exports to North America.

Triumph TR7
Profits and sales had tumbled in North America since the TR7 had gone off sale, following the closure of Speke

Woes in North America

Some 75 per cent of its annual 45,000 output went to the United States, but under the reorganisation of seven months earlier Austin Morris assumed overall responsibility for European Car exports, while JRT concentrated on North America. Now JRT had full control of exports and BL’s overall sports car policy.

North American sales had been hit by the absence of Triumph TR7s since the Speke Liverpool plant was closed earlier in 1978 with the loss of 3000 jobs. Production of the TR7 had just resumed at Canley, Coventry, and the car was to be relaunched with a major sales campaign.

It was originally planned to phase out the Canley-made Triumph Spitfire early in 1979 to make room for an expanded TR7 assembly line. But on this day, Canley employees were told that the Triumph Spitfire would continue into the 1980s.

Morris Marina 2 goes on sale

On 20 September, the Morris Marina 2 was launched with O-Series engine. The Marina used the smaller 1.7-litre variant which put it at odds with the class standard of 1.6-litres.

This apparently was another economy measure instigated by Harry Webster when he was Technical Director of Austin Morris. It enabled both the 1.7- and 2.0-litre engines to use the same cylinder head.

If the BL dealers were expecting a radical makeover of the Marina to enable them to compete with the Ford Cortina Mk4 and the first-generation Vauxhall Cavalier, then they were sorely disappointed.

Edwardes speaks to the Daily Mirror

The same day as the reveal of the O-Series Marina, the Daily Mirror published an interview with the head honcho himself, Michael Edwardes, at his Richmond home. Edwardes had lashed out at the disruptive elements within BL. ‘It is often just sheer bloody-mindedness with some of these people. They’re bloody-minded – just like children are.’

The Mirror was shown the latest list of stoppages, a sheet which was a sad recital of disruption, each incident marked with the letter ‘U’ – meaning ‘Unconstitutional.’

Michael Edwardes said: ‘These are all unconstitutional stoppages, meaning that they are not union sanctioned. One stoppage, for even an hour, can cause irreparable damage to an assembly line. If there is a constitutional strike, backed by the union, I say that’s OK. We can negotiate. But these unofficial hold-ups are the really damaging ones.’

There’s no Communist conspiracy

He was asked if there was a Communist conspiracy against BL. ‘No, no, I don’t subscribe to any conspiracy theory. Not at all. If anything, I would say that the Communist Shop Stewards in Leyland are among the most efficient, concerned and reliable.

‘My view is that there is a troublesome one per cent who are damned irresponsible. They represent an inherent defection in the British industrial character – they are an insidious, undermining factor. The unions and the management should be strong against this minority because what so often happens is that the silent majority – the 99 per cent who are so easily persuaded – well, they just go back into their shells.’

Edwardes described his attitude to work: ‘I love business – it makes me tick. It is exciting. And I’m a believer in firm action – if you don’t take it, you’ve had it.’

A day in the life of Edwardes

He had two Secretaries. Each morning he was picked up at 7.45am by a Rover SD1 which took him and one of his Secretaries to his office, presumably in Nuffield House.

In the 50 minutes it took to reach the office he dictated letters, memos and answered queries. After a day of meetings, engagements, more meetings, and decision making, he returned home late in the evening. Once home his other Secretary spent 50 minutes writing letters for him.

Michael Edwardes said: ‘It doesn’t end there. I tend to work up till one in the morning. Until recently, I was averaging around 80 hours a week. I’ve cut that down – it was becoming a little too much. When I took the Leyland job I gave up drinking spirits. My only form of relaxation is playing squash several times a week.’

Victory for Edwardes at Bathgate

The tough line taken by Michael Edwardes scored a clear victory on 22 September when the 1800 engineering machinists at Bathgate called off their seven-week unofficial strike.

They achieved nothing, having been forced to drop their claim for immediate pay increases for operating newly installed machinery and retreated before Edwardes’ statement that he would rather see Bathgate closed indefinitely than negotiate with unofficial strikers.

The end of the strike came at a well-attended meeting of the strikers when they accepted a recommendation from their Shop Stewards to call off the stoppage by an overwhelming majority. As it happened they would not return to work until 2 October because the Bathgate plant closed for a week’s autumn holiday on the same day.

Meanwhile, over at arch rival Ford, trouble was brewing…

Back to History : The Edwardes Era – Part Two : Calling the bluff

Ian Nicholls
Latest posts by Ian Nicholls (see all)


  1. Looking at the horrible number of strikes and general crap that Edwardes was faced with, he really was handed a poisoned chalice in BL.

    I had one such business appointment, after a few weeks of fact finding I decided the situation was insoluble and put the whole thing into administration, kinda like MG-Rover in the early 2000s.

  2. The militancy and stupidity of the unions at Leyland really proves why the company was heading for oblivion. A six week strike at Bathgate over payments to use new machinery ultimately sealed that factory’s demise and the devastating loss of jobs to the local community. Also the mindlessness of the other strikes in this article, often motivated by hard left union reps who wanted a class war and a communist type state, contributed to Leyland’s terrible image and falling sales. I don’t blame Edwardes at all for standing up to these far left militants and dismissing them, as if he stood back like Lord Stokes, the company would have collapsed a lot quicker.
    PS, I do agree with unions and the right to strike, but not the behaviour of people like Red Robbo and Alan Thornett.

    • I feel the same about trade unions, but there seemed to be an obsession with using industrial action forcing political change in the 1970s.

      50 years on & some people didn’t seem to learn from their mistakes either!

  3. Edwards imho was a fantastic Chairman for BL, I believe without him and the Union’s loss of power in the 80’s we probably wouldn’t have JLR and Mini employing thousands today. I feel very bitter that the absolute idiots such as Red Robbo in truth, took the future away from future generations in Lonbridge. Some will say it was the Manager’s fault as well but frankly, they must have been exhaused dealing with the Union muppets. Rip Sir M Edwards.

  4. What a story. What a mess. And a tale of two sides.

    Michael Edwardes had a hard job putting his side of the business in order. Some of the executives were clearly time-servers who scarpered as soon as they were given a real job and expected to deliver results. Then there were those who were apparently competent managers, but who were more interested in empire building than the company as a whole.

    Fortunately, he had the power to “resign” the troublemakers on his side.

    On the other side was the unions. They had lost control of their members. What’s more, there was no way they could reestablish control.

    It’s interesting to see the dynamic at play here for the shop stewards: 1) they were unsackable. 2) they were delegated considerable power and room for negotiation. 3) they were subject to union (“constitutional”) limitations which were enforced by internal disciplinary procedures.

    The problem was that 3) was completely ineffectual. It could be dragged out for ever and nothing would ever come of it. Certain shop stewards discovered that they could do anything they wanted and there would never be any negative consequences to them. And so they did.

    How could this happen? Human nature. Humans live in highly structured environments, governed by laws, rules, regulations, social norms, etc. Some (many?) like to push those boundaries, to find out what they can get away with to their own advantage, so there needs to be some effective restriction.

    The people who wrote the union constitution obviously thought they were creating a fair and egalitarian organisation. They thought everybody was fighting for the same common cause – they couldn’t imagine any bad actor would abuse the system, and so never built in effective safeguards.

    It only takes one person to work out this loophole. Others catch on quickly and use it for their own ends. What’s worse, nobody could stop them. Management, union leaders, government, all helpless, while these intractable lunatics destroyed the union and everything around it.


  5. Regarding the end of this piece, I recall one of the plot points of “Carry On At Your Convenience” was that the strikers decided to return to work – on the day of the company’s annual day out. Never thought of it as a documentary before.

  6. Speaking of union militants, Look North Newcastle has a series of reports on the 40th anniversary of the miners strike. While many of the miners interviewed said they were trying to preserve their industry and the brave ones who dared to cross the picket lines said they were being conned by Scargill and had to feed their families, there were the others who seemed to relish the violence and class hatred. One character who still looked like a thug even though looked to be of pension age now, boasted about how he smashed up cars belonging to ” scabs” and how he’d do it again tomorrow( wonder if he was a football hooligan as well in his younger days). Another man from Sunderland gave some bitter rant about scabs, the Tories, the Coal Board and the police and clearly couldn’t move on.
    While this isn’t related to the strikes at British Leyland and the car industry’s union problems had mostly gone by 1984, it does show that union militancy ultimately destroyed many industries and the miners strike achieved absolutely nothing The fairly modest pit closure plan that caused the strike was sped up as demand for coal plunged due to the strike and the coal industry was almost dead ten years later. Interestingly, Sunderland, where our bitter ex union man was interviewed, has become much better known for Nissan, which employs far more workers than the coal industry in the city 40 years ago, sells billions of pounds worth of cars every year and hasn’t suffered one day of industrial action.

    • As much as my Dad hated Thatcher, he said that Scargill & many in the NUM did the worst possible things during the strike, which almost ensured the miners would lose.

      A lot seemed to expect the other unions to join in to force the government to back down, & seemed angry when this didn’t happen.

      • @ Richardpd, the NUM was hoping there would be a massive wave of sympathy strikes, which had become illegal by 1984 anyway, but outside of mining communities that supported the strike, there wasn’t much support for the miners. Most people, even Labour voters, either saw Scargill as a militant who was hell bent on confrontation and many of his members as out of control, or a strike that couldn’t be won as there was a stockpile of coal at the power stations and the coal industry was in termainal decline. At a political level, the miners strike mostly finished off the militant style of union leader- Scargill would fade into irrelevance and many other leaders became more pragmatic- and the unions ceased to be an issue until the wave of strikes in 2022/23.
        It was interesting that while the coal industy was being torn apart by the strike, the car industry, which a few years earlier was notorious for union militancy and low productivity, seemed to have turned a corner. Jaguar was successfully sold off in 1984, Ford and Vauxhall were increasing production in the UK, Nissan announced its new plant would be based near Sunderland( ironically not far from the strike bound Durham coalfield), and Austin Rover’s last bout of industrial action would occur in 1984.

    • One of the stipulations of the Nissan deal was that Nissan only wanted to deal with one union. The unions actually wanted the deal to go through, so the AUEW and the TGWU agreed that they would back whatever one Nissan chose. The Political Economy of Japanese Foreign Direct Investment in the US and the UK
      Multinationals, Subnational Regions and the Investment Location Decision
      By C. Aaron · 1998

  7. The single union deals of the 80s in the plants of Nissan, Toyota and later Honda were also paralleled by similar deals in the Japanese TV factories that became established in the same period – JVC, Toshiba and the like.

    And the print industry as it moved out of its legacy Fleet Street hot-metal stuff and into electronic composition.

    The EETPU union, led by Frank Chapple, was a big driver of this, he rightfully saw that the future lay with skills and technology rather than lumpen labour, and that working together with industry and management rather than being continually at war, actually gave the union members a better result in terms of pay, greater credibility, and improved working conditions.

    The legacy unions didn’t understand this, and often tried to sabotage the idea of single union deals. Though not a personal fan of unions, having always been self employed, I can see how sensible trade unions working with business rather than going all class-war, can be a benefit.

    • The printworkers union objected to computerised composition, which was one of the main reasons for the Wapping Strike in the 1980s. They were a union who had abused their strength for many years, allowing a lot of inefficiencies in the production of newspapers to benefit their members, but the introduction of computers would bypass most of these issues.

      The usually left wing author Bill Bryson mentions it in one of his books, especially as it was one of the reasons he stopped being a journalist & moved towards writing books instead.

      • @ Richardpd, the newspaper unions were crippling the industry: don’t forget The Times couldn’t be published for a year as the unions refused to use new technology and other newspapers were scared to take on the unions. This meant as other countries moved towards colour newspapers and extra supplements, British papers were still in black and white well into the eighties.
        Wapping might have been quite draconian at the time, as hundreds of News International printers were suddenly made redundant, but it ensured newspapers could use new technology without fear of industrial action, papers could be printed in colour and contain more content. Its aftermath was the launch of the country’s first all colour paper, Today, and a new broadsheet, The Independent, as well as the infamous Sunday Sport.

        • The European was another new paper launched in the 1980s, but short lived.

          I can remember The Guardian started to be designed on computer in the late 1980s, & gradually added colour pictures, which was a massive contrast to how it looked before then. I used to have some pages from an issue printed just before the change.

  8. @ MOWOG, the problem with the NUM and the unions at British Leyland until they were tamed in the early eighties was they were employed by a nationalised industry and thought they were entitled to large pay rises every year, a job for life regardless of economic conditions and could dictate terms to management. Even the slightest change in working conditions or the dismissal of an employee for misconduct could result in a strike. Certainly Arthur Scargill believed the Coal Board should never close any pit, regardless of how uneconomic or worn out it was, and that his union was all powerful and a tool to control management. Problem was by 1984, the demand for coal was shrinking as most homes were moving away from coal fires, power stations were looking to cleaner fuels, and the industry was heading into termainal decline( it had been in a slow decline since the 1940s as the end of steam trains, coal gas and the switch away from coal by industrial and domestic users had seen a steady reduction in collieries over the decades).
    Scargill, rather like the union representatives at British Leyland, also had another agenda than trying to save his members jobs. A hard left figure who would probably have taken on a Labour government if it allowed the Coal Board to cut jobs, he saw himself as the leader of a movement that could smash the Tories and capitalism and install a comminist type state. Sadly he dragged out a strike that became increasingly hopeless for a year, caused bitter divisions in mining communities that still exist today between strikers and strike breakers, and achieved nothing as tens of thousands of his members lost their jobs in the aftermath of the strike and his nemesis, Thatcher, won a second landslide in 1987. However, Scargill’s egomania and arrogance would never allow him to admit defeat and into old age he would still rant and rave about how the strike was a great victory.

  9. While BL had its issues with appalling industrial-relations, it wasn’t always their fault. I grew up in the 1970s in the West Midlands, and the early evening “Midlands Today” news, as well as almost weekly reporting that at one or more BL plants the trim-fitters/delivery-drivers/toolsetters/engine-tuners/wheel-balancers were on strike **again** regularly reported that BL production had been halted as a result of ‘industrial action’ at one or more of their suppliers.

    It’s hard for Longbridge, Lode Lane, Solihull, Canley or Cowley to produce cars when Dunlop has gone on strike so you’ve got no tyres, Rubery-Owen are ‘out’ and you have no wheels, Birfield are doing a go-slow so your supply of CV joints and propshafts has dried up, Willmott-Breeden have been hit by a wildcat strike of delivery-drivers so you have no hinges/door-striker-plates or Lucas are out so you are faced with running a production-line for Allegros and Marinas that can’t be fitted with headlamps fuseboxes or wipers and so have to be parked in their thousands all around the factory [and then expensively put through ‘rectification’ to fit the missing parts once they become available from a troubled supplier].

    Ford seemed to get a better hold on this; they would ‘second source’ parts to keep production-lines running. I came across a Halewood-built Mk1 Escort that had French ‘Ducellier’ distributor and alternator and a Solex carburettor instead of their usual Motorcraft parts. Ford went as far as issuing ‘cheat-sheets’ on microfiche to their dealers that listed the build-codes of vehicles that had such parts-substitions so they could order up parts as appropriate.

    Yes, so it wasn’t always BL’s fault when they couldn’t deliver cars !

  10. I heard Vauxhall had to get parts supplied from different makers, the brakes pipes on Vivas often had to have imperial – metric thread adaptors fitted to use some alternative sourced components. The oddest was a run of engines with Opel heads!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.