History : The Edwardes Era – Part Four

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 fourth part, we look back at 1978 and into 1979 – a quiet time in product terms – and the mounting pile of trouble in the Chief Executive’s in tray…


Sir Michael Edwardes

As we alluded to at the end of The Edward Era – Part Three, Ford was struggling just as much as British Leyland. A pay deal had been initially agreed, but it would lead to trouble. Although not an official guideline, the pay rise set by Ford of Britain was accepted throughout private industry as a benchmark for negotiations.

Ford had enjoyed a good year in 1978 and could afford a large rise, but was a major Government contractor so the management at Ford made a pay offer within the five per cent guidelines demanded by Chancellor Denis Healey. Some 15,000 Ford workers, mostly from the Transport and General Workers Union, began an unofficial strike on the same day as the Bathgate strike collapsed.

Innocenti Mini 90/120

Minis continue in Italy

On 28 September it was announced that Austin Morris and the Italian car producer, Nuova Innocenti, had extended the arrangement under which Nuova made the Innocenti 90/120 hatchback Mini (above). Under the old agreement, which had been due to expire at the end of 1979, the Italian company had been making around 40,000 90/120 Minis a year.

Innocenti had built BMC Minis under licence and had been purchased outright by British Leyland in 1972, but was then sold to De Tomaso Modena SpA in 1976. In the early 1970s in conjunction with Italian styling house Bertone, Innocenti developed the 90/120 hatchback using the Mini floorpan and mechanicals.

British Leyland dismissed the 90/120 as space inefficient and expensive to build and claimed it could build a better new Mini in the form of the ADO88, so the design was neither adopted by Longbridge nor sold in the UK. When Innocenti was sold on to De Tomaso the rights to the 90/120 went with it, but British Leyland had agreed to continue to supply the Milan firm with components – in the event, Innocenti built 232,837 90/120 Minis with BL supplied A-Series engines.

Government steps in

Also in September 1978 the Secretary of State for Industry, Eric Varley, had approached Michael Edwardes and his opposite number at Ford, Sam Toy, asking why the British car industry was in such a state, and what could be done to turn things round. They responded that, in light of the sheer number of vehicles lost due to industrial action, the end of the ‘unofficial strike’ would be the first change they would recommend.

This was not revealed until 30 years later. The problem with this was that the right to strike, whether official or unofficial, was part of Labour Party policy.

The party had had its own internal but very public debate about legislating against unofficial strikes and strike ballots back in 1969, with the white paper In Place of Strife, authored by then premier Harold Wilson and Productivity Minister Barbara Castle. Its most prominent opponent within the Government had been Home Secretary James Callaghan, as well as opposition from the trade unions. The proposals were then dropped when the Trade Unions claimed they could control their own members. The change of government in 1970 resulted in the Conservative administration of Edward Heath putting on the statute books the Industrial Relations Act 1971, which was broadly similar to In Place of Strife.

Avoiding a class war

However, the Industrial Relations Act 1971 was contentious – portrayed as an attack on the working class, the labour movement united in opposition against it. The Act was widely ignored and those who flouted it were seen as martyrs for the labour movement. In the February 1974 General Election, Edward Heath and his reviled Conservative Government were dispatched back to the opposition benches.

Harold Wilson was returned to Downing Street, and repealed the Industrial Relations Act 1971, in return for promises from the TUC that they could police their own house.

When James Callaghan became Prime Minister in 1976 he soon fired Barbara Castle. But it remained Conservative Party policy to legislate against Trade Union power and 1979 was an election year. By asking for unofficial strikes to be outlawed, Michael Edwardes and Sam Toy were asking for the impossible under the circumstances of the time.

Every cloud…

On 1 October 1978 BL and Honda executives met for the first time in San Francisco.

The next day, the first Triumph TR7 sports car since BL had closed its Speke, Liverpool, assembly plant five months earlier, was produced at Canley, Coventry. But it would not be on sale before the next spring, so stocks could be built up for a major re-launching.

The same day truck production resumed at the Bathgate plant after the two-month strike. Then, on 5 October, the TGWU made the Ford strike against the five per cent wage offer official. Britain’s biggest Trade Union had now put a spanner in the works of Government economic policy.

Sad news from down under

It was in October 1978 that Mini production ceased in Australia. The problem with assessing Australian Mini production is that, when the plug was pulled at Zetland and later Enfield, orders were given to destroy all the production records.

British Leyland’s PR men produced a total figure of 176,284 Minis produced in October 1978. Only 6100 Minis were sold down under in 1978 as the ageing car came under pressure from more modern Japanese brands. Again the failure to replace the Mini on cost grounds, was costing British Leyland dear in lost overseas markets. There was no way back.

The poor performance of BL Cars at the volume end of the company fleet market was revealed in a survey published on 16 October by the magazine, Company Secretary’s Review. It showed that the company came only third among manufacturers supplying cars for company representatives. Among the 858 companies covered, Ford had a 63 per cent share of salesmen’s cars, with the Cortina the most popular model. Chrysler came second with 15 per cent. BL took only 12 per cent, three quarters of which were Morris Marinas. Despite its re-launch with the new O-series engine, the Morris Marina was now well past its sell by date, and its LM11 replacement would not reach the market place until 1984.

Ray Horrocks

Workforce issues

Michael Edwardes was reported to be stepping up pressure on Austin Morris and Jaguar Rover Triumph, to reduce their workforce by 7000 to meet his 31 December deadline for 12,500 fewer jobs in 1978. At this stage, Ray Horrocks (above), Managing Director of Austin Morris and William Pratt Thompson, his opposite number at JRT, were trying to achieve the cuts by voluntary redundancy schemes.

However, the need to reduce payroll costs was becoming increasingly urgent. Michael Edwardes had hoped to meet his target of 12,500 job losses through natural wastage. Some 3000 jobs went when he closed Speke, Liverpool. Since then, only a further 2000 workers had left of their own accord. In normal circumstances 12,500 would have been more than accounted for by natural wastage, but it had become apparent in recent months that many employees who were contemplating leaving had been hanging on to qualify for substantial redundancy payments.

A second reason for urgency was the need to reduce manning to finance the introduction of costly parity and incentive payments. These were the subject of prolonged negotiations with union representatives on the BL Cars Joint Negotiating Committee.

Longbridge and Cowley bear the brunt

The biggest cuts were being sought at the two main Austin Morris plants at Cowley and Longbridge. Longbridge was described as being particularly overmanned. Overmanning was not so acute at JRT. Even so, it was understood that cuts were being sought at Jaguar, Coventry and Triumph, Canley.

The original 12,500 was based on BL achieving a market share in 1978 of around 28 per cent. This was now out of the question, and it turned out to be 23.5 per cent. In setting this target, Michael Edwardes was working on the basis of a British market totalling 1.45 million – in the event, it was 1.59 million.

In theory, BL should have reduced the need for such big redundancies by selling more cars in a bigger market. However, although demand was up by nearly a quarter in the first nine months of 1978, it had sold only 33,000 more cars, 298,000 compared with 265,000.

Edwardes sets out his stall

On 20 October the BL Chairman Michael Edwardes announced a management-union conference to tackle its industrial relations problems. ‘BL’ s production performance is well below current world standards. This is something which must be tackled, and not even a merger will solve our production problems,’ he said.

He then scotched rumours that BL and Renault, were discussing a merger. ‘The plain fact is that Renault and BL are exploring the possibility of a gearbox development. Renault is philosophically against companies of its size being involved in mergers, while BL has no intention of taking over another manufacturer, nor of being taken over by anyone else.’

The Renault 5 (below), launched in 1972, had replaced the Mini as the world’s favourite small car.

M0del changes

On 24 October Jaguar Rover Triumph announced plans to phase out the MG Midget which had first appeared in 1961, but could trace its ancestry further back to the first generation Austin Healey Sprite of 1958.

It was also revealed that BL had frozen a £280 million project, which would double Range Rover and Land Rover production, a company spokesman said. He said it would not be resumed until workers at the Rover assembly plant at Solihull, West Midlands, had dropped their opposition to shift working.

The spokesman added that contractors employed on the first £30 million phase of the expansion scheme had already been withdrawn.

Edwardes gains support

On 30 October the National Enterprise Board (NEB) threw its weight behind Michael Edwardes, the BL Chairman, and supported the tough attitude he had adopted to force employees at Rover Solihull to drop their opposition to the introduction of double shift working.

Sir Leslie Murphy, the NEB Chairman, announced that while the Board supported BL’s proposals to spend another £250 million to double production of the Land Rover and Range Rover, it would not recommend Government approval until it had evidence that the workforce would fulfil their commitment to change shift working practices.

Sir Leslie also emphasised that the NEB was still waiting for BL to indicate how far the Land Rover expansion could be financed by the company from its own resources, ‘bearing in mind that the extent of any further commitment of funds to BL from the NEB is uncertain.’

Austin Morris Princess

Princess strikes

The next day output of the Princess range at the Austin Morris car assembly plant at Cowley was halted by a dispute at one of BL’s components plants. Six hundred workers had been laid off indefinitely because of a shortage of suspension units caused by a work to rule by 150 workers at the transmission plant at Drews Lane, Birmingham.

They had begun a policy of non-cooperation following the management’s moves to stop workers leaving before the shift was complete. The men said that when they had done their work they should be allowed to go home. The men at Drews Lane had been working to rule for several weeks in protest at management attempts to stop them leaving early.

The men said that, under BL’s Measured Day Work system of payment, they were entitled to leave as soon as they had completed their output target for the day. The practice continued for many months and clearly embarrassed managers. Belated attempts to establish acceptable new output targets had been resisted by the Shop Stewards. The long-standing custom and practice of allowing men to go home early once they had completed their quota of work was another thorny industrial relations issue.

Musgrove’s take on things

Harold Musgrove (above), the then Austin Morris Manufacturing Director, recalled: ‘I’d been back in the volume side for a couple of weeks and was going past one of our plants on the outskirts of Birmingham and decided to call in. I hadn’t been there for many years. It was approximately two o’clock in the afternoon.

‘I called into the Plant Director’s office and said that I’d like to look around to see what was happening. When we walked the shop floor, I think 90 per cent of the employees had actually gone home. When I asked, ‘What happened?’ I was told ‘Well, they’ve finished their stint.’

In fact, some had finished by one o’clock. I pointed out that we paid them until 4.30. ‘How do you explain it?’ The response was, ‘They’ve been doing it for years.’

Missing those targets

‘We’d been establishing targets,’ he added. ‘Establishing line rates and achieving 60 per cent of the target, which meant that the track stopped for 40 per cent of the day. That was not the responsibility of the employees, that was not the responsibility of the workforce. That had to be the responsibility of management.’

Could Harold Musgrove have been referring to Drews Lane?

It appears these practices had been going on since the abolition of piece work. This information reached the ears of Ray Horrocks, who told Michael Edwardes: ‘We talk of regaining management control and applying proper discipline. But at Drews Lane we still have an extraordinary situation.

‘There is a long-standing tradition known as stint and finish. This means employees can complete their daily stint, or work quota, and then go home at any time from 3pm onwards, but still be paid to the end of the shift.

‘Over the years they have applied pressure to weaken work standards so that, against the already slack standards then applying, they are able to claim they have done their days work and management is powerless to give them more work to complete the shift.’ The Drews Lane dispute was to impact on BL’s productivity bonus scheme.

Crisis deepens at Drews Lane

The dispute at BL’s Drews Lane transmissions plant escalated on 3 November when about 3,500 employees walked out 24 hours after the management had replied to the Trade Unions’ claim for a 30 per cent pay increase. They said the company’s offer of a five per cent increase on the basic rate, plus parity payments increasing that to an estimated 16 per cent, was ridiculous. As a state owned enterprise, BL could only offer its workforce a five per cent pay rise which was within the Government’s guidelines.

In making its offer to the Trade Unions the company said: ‘A major strike now would cause a permanent loss of market share, particularly in mid-range cars. The company has no hope of withstanding such a strike.’

It said BL could lose 50,000 car sales permanently, and that in turn would lead to a further 7000 to 10,000 jobs being lost. The management was already pressing for 7000 voluntary redundancies before the end of 1978.

The strike gains momentum

By 6 November production of all Austin Morris cars was on the verge of stopping because of the strike by employees at the Drews Lane transmissions plant. The strike at the key transmissions plant at Drews Lane, Birmingham, was particularly galling for the management and unions alike.

They had avoided a confrontation at their two biggest car assembly plants, Cowley and Longbridge, only to see a strike at a much smaller factory having an equally disastrous effect. Only the previous week a mass meeting of Longbridge workers rejected a strike call and decided to give the company a further month to produce a satisfactory offer.

The Drews Lane men were receiving little sympathy from other BL workers because Arthur Harper, their leader, had disclosed that the real issue was not the five per cent offer but a plan to introduce company-wide wage bargaining. The change was accepted by a ballot of the whole BL Cars workforce in 1977, but Drews Lane, traditionally one of the most militant plants in the group, was determined to stop its implementation.

Austin Allegro

Car production stoppages increase

The Drews Lane strike continued to cause havoc. The next day production of the Austin Allegro (above) stopped at Longbridge, as did all work on the A-Series engine, and lay-offs rose by 7500 to 11,100. At Pressed Steel Fisher’s body plant at Cowley a further 1750 were laid off, making 2500 in all. Nearly 3000 men had been laid off in the adjoining assembly plant and at MG at Abingdon.

The Birmingham East District Committee of the AUEW met and decided that the Drews Lane strike should end and the men should go back to work immediately, in order that talks should continue on the company’s five per cent pay offer. The President of the Committee was Arthur Harper, who was one of the strike leaders.

On 8 November Bill McLean, BL Cars’ Employee Relations Director, warned that the Drews Lane strike could cost the firm two per cent of its market share. He said: ‘It is very difficult to recover a two per cent market share once you have lost it, and it will particularly affect the medium range of vehicles. A prolonged dispute would certainly put many, many jobs at risk.’

The winter of discontent hoves into view

Britain was heading into the infamous Winter of Discontent as the TUC squared up to the Labour Government’s five per cent pay policy. BL as a state-owned organisation could not offer its own workforce more than five per cent.

BL Chairman Michael Edwardes said on 9 November: ‘We have offered £86 million in increases for next year. That is all we can afford. Not one penny more.’

Edwardes warned component workers at Drews Lane, Birmingham, whose action has already halted production of all Austin Morris family cars, that a prolonged stoppage would put a large part of the firm’s operations beyond recovery.

Strike action increases

By the following day nearly 26,000 BL car workers were idle as lay-offs spread from the main car factories to the company’s feeder plants, including SU Fuel Systems. Nine of the group’s 34 factories were seriously affected by the week-old strike at the transmission plant at Drews Lane, Birmingham.

Production of all Austin, Morris and MG cars had stopped. Jaguar Rover Triumph had escaped lightly; only 800 men were laid off at its Abingdon works. The Drews Lane strikers had been ordered to return to work by the AUEW. Two thousand more men were laid off at the plant that day.

On 13 November the AUEW, acting as peacemaker, persuaded Shop Stewards representing the Trade Unions involved in the Drews Lane dispute to meet management at their headquarters in Birmingham. By now some 26,000 workers had been laid off by Austin Morris.

Leyland Southall closes

That same day Leyland Vehicles announced it was to close its former AEC plant at Southall, London, leaving 2150 men out work. The decision was taken because the plant could not be made commercially viable. Engine production would be moved to Leyland, Lancashire, and assembly of the Marathon truck range would be taken over by the Scammell factory at Watford.

Roger Butler, District Secretary of the AUEW, said: ‘We are calling for Government intervention. It is not just jobs at the plant that are at stake.’

AEC had moved to Southall from Walthamstow in 1926.

Grant Lockhart leaves

On 14 November there was another departure from BL’s ranks when Grant Lockhart, one of the top men at the Austin Morris Cowley assembly plant, left the company, just six months after taking over as plant director from Desmond North, who, after being appointed, resigned to join GKN, the Midlands-based engineering group.

Grant Lockhart joined British Leyland in 1972 at Longbridge as an industrial relations expert and, following a spell with Rover Triumph, took over as Director in charge of personnel for the body and assembly division at Cowley in 1975. In a short statement, a BL spokesman said: ‘I can confirm that Mr Lockhart has relinquished his position as Plant Director at Cowley by mutual agreement.’

Grant Lockhart was one of the architects of the industrial relations policy BL was trying to implement. He was one of the group known by the Shop Stewards as the ‘Scottish Mafia,’ a title given to BL’s senior industrial relations team, because most of them were Scots. Grant Lockhart soon resurfaced as Managing Director of Carbodies.

Drews Lane strike rumbles on

The attempts to end the eight-day strike at the Drews Lane transmission plant in Birmingham appeared no nearer after talks involving strike leaders, management, and full time union officials failed to reach agreement. Afterwards, angry Shop Stewards refused to say what recommendations they would make to a meeting of all the strikers.

The strike leader, Arthur Harper, said: ‘We are still insisting that the management should honour the terms of the national agreement and, while I am not saying they are dishonest men, they are strangers to the truth.’

On 15 November the Austin Morris management had told Shop Stewards that production of the Austin Allegro would be cut by 25 per cent from 27 November. It was already seeking 1300 voluntary redundancies at Longbridge, Birmingham where the Allegro was produced as part of the 7000 required from the whole of BL Cars by the end of the year. At the same time the assembly plant at Seneffe, Belgium (below), was reducing Allegro output by 25 per cent, Minis by 30 per cent and Austin Maxis by 1.7 per cent. This would mean one in four workers being laid off among the 3000 strong Belgian labour force.


Allegro production nosedives

A bulletin issued to the 20,000 manual workers at Longbridge by Derek Robinson, the Chairman of the British Leyland (Motor Corporation Combined) Trade Union Committee (BLTUC), said two reasons had been given for the cutbacks: a decision to withdraw from unprofitable markets and the need to reduce stock levels to more manageable proportions.

Reliable sources in Austin Morris reported that falling demand for the Allegro had resulted in a sharp build up of stocks. They now provided cover for four months’ sales compared with the two months management had set as its limit during the then pressure on its cash flow. The same sources suggested that the  Shop Stewards had misunderstood management’s plans in unprofitable markets.

It was not proposing to pull out of these mainly European markets, but only to reduce its model mix. This was said to stem from an order by Ray Horrocks, the Austin Morris Managing Director, that forecasting production requirements had to be more realistic in the future to avoid unnecessary and costly stock holding.

The failure is confounded

Before the November 1977 reorganisation, which saw Michael Edwardes installed as group Chairman, it was planned to transfer progressively all Allegro production from Longbridge to Seneffe. This was said to be necessary to clear facilities for the introduction of the new ADO88 supermini (above) in 1980.

The Austin Allegro had never fulfilled its promise with the result that, for several years, production had been running at a fraction of its capacity. It was estimated that, prior to the shutdown caused by the Drews Lane, Birmingham strike, Allegro production had been less than 1000 a week, a far cry from the 4000 predicted at its launch in May 1973.

In 1978, Austin Morris sold 61,535 Allegros in Britain. A decade earlier BLMC had sold a thumping 151,946 examples in the UK alone of its 1100/1300 predecessor, and shifted a further 77,857 in export markets.

Longbridge shop stewards fight back

The Longbridge Shop Stewards, backed by the unofficial, but influential British Leyland (Motor Corporation Combined) Trade Union Committee (BLTUC), were fighting the cutback. The BLTUC was demanding that Michael Edwardes should exert pressure on the Government to introduce selective import controls to protect Britain’s only surviving motor company until it could introduce new and competitive models.

‘This would be a temporary measure to hold the situation and allow the aggressive sales campaigns we propose to reverse the position,’ the Shop Stewards’ bulletin said.

A shopfloor revolt against their Shop Stewards on 17 November ended the fortnight-old unofficial strike at the transmission plant at Drews Lane, which had stopped production of Austin Morris cars and made 28,000 workers idle.

Workers finally return

A vote for a return to work was carried by a two to one majority at a meeting attended by about 2000 of the 3500 strikers. It came less than 24 hours after Ray Horrocks had said that a prolonged strike could cost many jobs.

Prominent among speakers who opposed the Shop Stewards’ recommendation that the strike should continue was Malcolm Jacks, a former Toolroom Steward. He refused to be shouted down and insisted that there were no grounds for striking so early in the negotiations. There were cheers and a chorus of ‘no’s’ when he demanded: ‘Are you prepared to gamble your future, and your families’ future, by continuing this strike?’

Drews Lane would resume production on Monday, 20 November, but it would be Wednesday, 22 November before the Cowley and Longbridge assembly plants had sufficient parts to recall workers.

Comings and goings

On 20 November, it was announced that the former Managing Director of Leyland Cars, Derek Whittaker, was on the move again from GKN. He was to become Managing Director of Rockware Glass on 1 January 1979. He was involved in a big re-organisation of GKN’s design facilities.

On 22 November, the Ford pay strike ended after two months when workers accepted a 17 per cent pay rise. This settlement blew a big hole below the waterline in the Government’s pay policy.

The Government reaction came on 28 November when it announced that sanctions would be imposed on Ford UK, along with 220 other companies, for breach of its pay policy. The announcement of actual sanctions produced an immediate protest from the Confederation of British Industry which announced that it would challenge their legality.

The winter of discontent kicks off

What became known to history as The Winter of Discontent began on 18 December 1978. The first to take extreme action were lorry drivers, members of the TGWU. Large numbers of the lorry drivers worked on oil tankers, and drivers working for BP and Esso began an overtime ban in support of rises of up to 40 per cent on this day.

With supplies of oil being disrupted, the Cabinet Office prepared ‘Operation Drumstick’, by which the Army were put on standby to take over from the tanker drivers. However, the Operation would need a declaration of a state of emergency in order to allow conscription of the assets of the oil companies, and the Government drew back from such a step. Before the situation developed into a crisis the oil companies settled on wage rises of around 15 per cent.

Fortunately for BL Cars, it was about to agree a pay deal with its workforce. In a secret ballot BL’s 96,000 hourly-paid workers voted nearly 2:1 to accept a new pay and productivity deal. BL Cars personnel chief Bill McLean said on 20 December: ‘It should end all the strife over pay’ – of the 84,105 workers who took part in the ballot, carried out by the Electoral Reform Society, 48,702 favoured the deal and 25,403 opposed it.

The year draws to a close

So, how did BL perform in Michael Edwardes first full year in charge? Overall, BL Cars built 611,625 units in the 1977/78 financial year, which ran from September. This was actually 7.58 per cent less than the previous year, indicating that, after the strife of 1977, the company was permanently damaged. Production at Longbridge, BL Cars’ biggest plant and where the Allegro and Mini was made, declined 7.8 per cent.

Although Michael Edwardes and his team were now taking a hard line with unofficial strikes, the media publicity they generated inevitably had a negative effect in a year when the BL Chairman became as well known a celebrity as John Travolta, the star of Saturday Night Fever and Grease. It also did not help that the blunders of the Stokes-era management were now coming back to haunt BL.

The made-to-a-price mentality had resulted in bland cars that were badly built and unreliable, whilst lacking the customer appeal of a decade before. The private buyer could do better by shopping elsewhere and they did. The UK car market amounted to 1,591941 units, 20.2 per cent more than in 1977.

Lack of new product is an issue

At a time when all the major manufacturers were announcing new front-wheel-drive hatchbacks on an almost daily basis, BL’s hard-pressed dealers were quite entitled to ask when they would get something similar to sell. After all, BMC had established transverse-engined, front-wheel drive as a marketable commodity with the Mini and 1100/1300 series, while the hatchback Maxi, although far from perfect, had appeared as far back as 1969.

The logic was that hatchback Mini and ADO16 replacements would follow in due course. If other manufacturers had drawn the same conclusion, why hadn’t British Leyland with its infusion of Product Planning and Marketing people in its formative years? British Leyland was now caught between a rock and a hard place. Fleet buyers preferred Ford by default and private buyers now preferred the cutting-edge offerings offered by continental manufacturers.

When an economy is booming, the initial beneficiary is the company car market as firms take on more staff to meet growing demand. BL managed to sell 82,638 Morris Marinas in 1978 to take 5.19 per cent of the market, an excellent 25 per cent increase over the previous year, and no doubt some of these were at strikebound Ford’s expense. But actual production was 5.3 per cent lower.

State of the market

Ford managed to sell 139,204 Cortinas (above) in 1978 to take 8.74 per cent of the market. Cortina sales were only 15.4 per cent greater than 1977, indicating that the two-month pay strike had hit home. But how did the fleet buyers’ other favourite the Ford Escort fare?

In 1978, Ford sold 114,115 Escorts in Britain, an increase of 10.66 per cent. However, the reason for the impressive Ford sales performance was that, unlike the equally long pay strike of 1971, Ford was able to import cars from its continental factories to meet demand and maintain market share, courtesy of Britain now being a member of the European Economic Community as it was then called.

The Granada Mk2 was built in Cologne, West Germany. Ford sold 38,099 Granadas in Britain in 1978, comfortably more than the award-winning and badly built Rover SD1. This was an 18.1 per cent increase over 1977, and much nearer the 20 per cent expansion of the overall car market.

The Escort was also built at Saarlouis in West Germany, while the otherwise identical Cortina clone, the Taunus, was built at Genk in Belgium. UK-manufactured cars made up 64.7 per cent of Ford’s market share. Overall, Ford maintained its UK market leadership with a 24.7 per cent share, narrowly beating BL which managed 23.5 per cent, which was still some way from the 27 per cent Michael Edwardes maintained was essential for the firm’s survival.

The report card: Could do better

As for BL’s other models, UK Mini sales increased by 20.3 per cent to match the expansion in the car market, but actual production declined by 7.8 per cent. Almost certainly some of the 50,156 Minis assembled at Seneffe in Belgium ended up in British dealerships, while Ray Horrocks tried to get Longbridge to manufacture more efficiently. The Mini was comfortably still British Leyland’s most popular car on a global basis, even if the Marina sold more in the UK.

A decade earlier the Mini had been narrowly outproduced by the 1100/1300 series which was also a UK chart topper. Production of its successor, the Austin Allegro, slumped 10.8 per cent, even though UK sales increased by 9.54 per cent, indicating that BL was focussing on domestic sales where the profit margin was greater.

However, overall Ford was beginning to tighten its grip on the UK market despite the setback of the two-month pay dispute. Since the 1971 pay strike, the company had resolved supply issues through continental imports and become the default choice for fleet buyers, whatever rivals came up with. Moreover, through clever product placement, Ford cars were seen in top-rated television shows being driven by macho characters.

The Thames Television/Euston Films series The Sweeney, made a star of the Ford Granada, the last episode airing in December 1978, while the second series of London Weekend Television’s The Professionals, which aired in the autumn of 1978, forsook the BL cars featured in its first run for the Ford Capri and Ford Escort RS2000 (below). Both were built in West Germany – in comparison, British Leyland’s products were now distinctly uncool…

Back to History : The Edwardes Era – Part Three : Containment

Ian Nicholls
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  1. Ford workers was an Unofficial strike? Not sure about Halewood, but at Dagenham they held a vote shortly after the announcement by Ford that it would be 5% pay increase. It was one of the few times my old man voted to walk, as since joining the previous year they had gone out for silly things (including pink toilet paper!).

    • Holding a vote does not necessarily make it an “Official Strike”

      “An official strike is when a trade union has followed all the legal rules. This includes holding a ballot for members to vote. A strike is unofficial if a trade union does not follow the rules, or employees take action that’s not authorised by a union.”

      ACAS – Strikes and Industrial Action

      • That’s the current rules. I didn’t think ballot voting came in until Margaret became PM. The Union History site called it an official strike starting 28 September 1978.

  2. There was a raft of legislation in the early eighties that, while hated by many union leaders and activists, did help to dramatically reduce the number of strikes. Also there was a sense of realism in the car industry after the seventies where the unions realised companies like Ford could quite easily shift production abroad, and in Austin Rover, that endless strikes could kill off the company.

  3. I recall Sir Terence Beckett as the UK MD of the Ford Motor Company in the lates seventies. Sam Toy took over in the early eighties. I think he was the first MD not to be knighted. Word on the street at Warley, Ford Central Office was that his language was seen as rather colourful!

  4. Sam Toy was the MD of Ford of Britain in the early and mid eighties. Ford was taking 28% of the new car market in 1981 and was the dominant player in the LCV market, so looked on paper to be a big success, but over a third of Ford cars were being imported at the time and the British factories had issues with low productivity and had been through a huge strike in 1978. It’s possible Ford could have wound down its British factories altogether, but under Toy, productivity and industrial relations improved significantly and there was a commitment to build 90% of rhd Sierras in the UK, so he did stave off what could have been massive job losses over here and after a slow start, the Sierra became a big success for Ford.

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