Ian Nicholls, AROnline‘s historian-in-residence, tells the story of Rover and Triumph, and their part in the downfall of the British motor industry.
Here, in the first part, we recount the launch of the Herald and the lead-up to a very interesting merger.
‘By 1978 we are due to be producing about 470,000 vehicles a year, compared with around 230,000 we built in 1973.’ – Bernard Jackman, Managing Director of Rover-Triumph, February 1974
July 1986, when the last Rover SD1, a top of the range Vitesse, trundled down the Cowley assembly line, marked the end of an era. It was not just the end of the SD1, but the final demise of a plan that envisaged British Leyland producing 470,000 Rover and Triumph-badged premium priced cars by 1978.
This ambitious plan was built on the achievements of Rover and Triumph when they were still independent of each other, but catastrophically backfired, dragging both brands through the mire at a time when competition in the premium sector was hotting up. Rover-Triumph engineering was completely independent of BMC/Austin-Morris and represented an attempt to create a separate premium brand.
The traditional story of the British motor industry has tended to focus on BMC/Austin-Morris, with Rover and Triumph as minor players. Eventually, Triumph was killed off and the entire Austin-Morris range was badge-engineered as Rover cars. However, at one stage, a separate Rover-Triumph range was seen as a key to prosperity. This is how that idea gained traction and how, in the end, it all fell apart.
The story has been told before in separate model and marque strands, but this is how it all integrated. Along the way, we will come across ill-fated projects such as Rover P7, Rover P8, Triumph Puma, Triumph SD2 and Triumph Lynx.
Heralding a brave new world
In 1959, the Rover Company was best known for producing staid cars for the professional classes and the best-selling Land Rover utility vehicles, then in its Series 2 incarnation. Its assembly plant was a former wartime shadow factory at Solihull that the company had taken over after its existing Coventry site had succumbed to wartime bombing.
Since 1933 the firm’s management had been dominated by the Wilks family, who had rescued the company from financial ruin. Spencer Wilks was Chairman while his brother Maurice Wilks was Joint Managing Director alongside George Farmer. Maurice Wilks was the technical expert while George Farmer was the financial brains.
As is well known, the Land Rover came about because the Wilks brothers aspired to produce a four-wheel-drive utility vehicle for farmers. What is not generally commented on is that the decision to proceed with the Land Rover project, like the Issigonis Mini, was a seat of the pants decision that would probably have been frowned upon by the likes of Ford with its sophisticated product planning techniques.
The Land Rover took off, particularly in the important export markets, buying time for Rover to develop a post-war range of saloon cars.
Rover’s 1959 market position
By 1959, this consisted of the archetypal ‘auntie’ Rover, the P4 and the Rover P5, which was marketed as a luxury car. Despite its reputation for producing quality cars for discerning customers, Rover was a low-volume car manufacturer with its saloons only taking up 29 per cent of its overall production.
Since 1956 Rover had been working on the Rover P6 project. The intention was to develop a cheaper car than the P4 which would sell in higher volume. Right from the start, it was intended to use a base unit body shell and separate bolt on body panels. Where the P6 slotted into the Rover range seemed to be the only thing the company’s management agreed on. The Sales Department wanted a six-cylinder engine as befitting the status of a Rover.
However, the Designers, led by Technical Director Robert Boyle, felt the existing Rover six cylinder, an inlet over exhaust unit, was well past its prime and wanted an all-new overhead camshaft engine with a mere four cylinders.
Opposition to the Rover P6 plan
The salesmen scoffed at plans to produce a four-cylinder P6 at 550 cars a week, predicting that 250 cars a week was a more realistic projection. In addition to this Maurice Wilks was sceptical about an overhead camshaft engine, thinking it would be noisy, and also had doubts about the de Dion rear suspension, feeling it added unnecessary cost to the car.
Robert Boyle, aided and abetted by a new generation of Engineers that included his assistant Peter Wilks, Spen King and Gordon Bashford, pushed for the P6 to have advanced features as a selling point. In the end, their design philosophy won through and Jack Swaine of Rover set about designing a new four-cylinder 2.0-litre overhead cam engine
On 24 February 1959 Rover registered the first P6 prototype in London as WUL 432. This prototype (above) looked very different from the car revealed to the media in October 1963, having a much more aerodynamic nose that actually improved top speed.
Rover and Standard merger talks go public
Then, on 6 March, it was revealed in the press that Rover and the Standard Motor Company were engaged in merger negotiations. Standard had been founded in 1903, moving into its Canley factory in 1916, and in 1945 it had bought out the bankrupt Triumph concern.
This was not the first time the two firms had discussed a merger, previous talks had been broken off in July 1954. The management of both firms knew that, in the long-term, neither was big enough to compete with the big boys.
In 1959 Standard was run by Alick Dick, who had taken over from Sir John Black in 1954 after the latter’s 20-year reign in charge of the Canley-based manufacturer. Dick took care of the overall strategy, leaving the day-to-day running of the firm in the hands of General Manager Martin Tustin, who had joined from Ford in 1955, and Production Manager George Turnbull.
Martin Tustin had been the Senior Product Planner at Ford. He was replaced by a man called Terry Beckett. Alick Dick (right) was born in June 1916 in Norfolk, this son of a doctor joined Standard in 1934 as an apprentice, becoming Personal Assistant to the firm’s boss, Sir John Black, in 1947.
Like Rover, the Standard range of saloon cars was nothing out of the ordinary, but it did manufacture the Triumph TR3A sports car which had been successful in export markets. The TR3A used a 1991cc four-cylinder engine originally developed for the Ferguson TE20 tractor. With a top speed of 105mph and a 0-60 mph time of 10.8 seconds, the TR3A was a benchmark performance car of the 1950s and proved popular in the important North American market.
Talks continue, intelligence is gathered
It was during the merger negotiations that Rover discovered that Standard was also developing a compact 2.0-litre executive saloon to replace its existing Vanguard model which had been in production since 1947. At the time of the talks it was codenamed ‘Zebu’ (above) but was later cancelled and replaced by another project codenamed ‘Barb.’
Like Rover with the Land Rover, much of Standard’s overall production was not of saloon cars but the Ferguson tractor range. Since 1946, Standard had manufactured Ferguson tractors at its Banner Lane plant in Coventry.
In 1953, Ferguson merged its operations with Massey-Harris of Canada, which made Standard determined to extricate itself from the agreement. Therefore it came as a surprise when dictatorial Chairman Sir John Black announced that Standard was to continue to make tractors for Massey-Harris-Ferguson until 1965. Shortly after this Black was seriously injured in a car accident and he was deposed in the new year to be replaced by Alick Dick.
A surprise industrial attack
However, Massey-Harris-Ferguson was not impressed with Standard’s production of their tractor range and in secrecy built up a 20 per cent stake in Standard shares. Sensing that this was a hostile bid, Alick Dick resolved to build up Standard’s industrial base and get out of its arrangement with Massey-Harris-Ferguson.
Part of this involved finding a new partner, hence the talks with Rover in 1954 and 1959, and purchasing supplier firms. The first of these was Beans Industries of Tipton in 1956, followed by a Daimler factory in Radford, Coventry in 1957. Standard paid for these purchases by issuing new shares. In May 1958 Standard made a move to purchase Mulliners Limited of Bordesley Green, Birmingham, a supplier of bodies among other things. Standard again decided to pay for the purchase by issuing new shares, which would further dilute the overall Massey-Harris-Ferguson stake in Standard.
This was the final straw for the tractor men and they made their own outright bid for the Mulliner shares, bypassing the Standard board in the process. Standard prevailed and took over Mulliners, which also incorporated the Forward Radiator Company, in July 1958. It was only a matter of time before there was a parting of the waves.
Some impressive production targets
It was during 1958 that Alick Dick told the Standard Board that, in order for the company to remain viable, it had to manufacture 261,000 vehicles a year, and that figure included 100,000 tractors. Everything Standard did in the next few years was dictated by a policy of expansion in order to meet this criteria.
Then, on 22 April 1959, Standard announced its new Triumph Herald car, available in both Coupe and Saloon versions. Including the larger-engined Vitesse variants, 599,521 were produced up to 1971. The Herald started life as project ‘Zobo’ and was intended to replace the Standard 8/10/Pennant series which had been launched in October 1953.
The 1953 Standard 8 had adopted unitary construction, with its bodies built by Fisher and Ludlow at its plant at Tile Hill, Coventry. When the time came to replace the 8/10/Pennant series, Standard naturally assumed that Fisher and Ludlow would build the bodies for them as they had since 1930.
However, since August 1953, Fisher and Ludlow had been part of the British Motor Corporation and, in 1957, Alick Dick was firmly rebuffed by the BMC Chairman, Sir Leonard Lord, who had no intention of helping a rival manufacturer. Pressed Steel, run by recent BMC refugee Joe Edwards, then offered to find capacity for Standard’s needs but the Canley firm decided that they could not rely on outside suppliers.
Car body-building stand off
Because of BMC’s refusal to build bodies for Standard at its Fisher and Ludlow subsidiary, Standard resourcefully decided to turn a disadvantage into an advantage. By returning to the separate chassis concept for both projects ‘Zobo’ and ‘Zebu’, Standard could design cars that were easier to assemble in its overseas facilities by inexperienced workers.
Using many components carried over from the Standard 8/10/Pennant series combined with cutting-edge styling by Giovanni Michelotti, the basic design also lent itself to upgrading with larger engines, as will be seen.
Priced at £702 for the saloon and £731 for the Coupe, Standard’s marketing men forecast sales of 136,100 for 1960/61 and 158,480 for 1961/62. These were ambitious targets which were ultimately never realised despite the acclaim foisted on the car. It appears that Standard saw the new Herald as a catalyst for expansion. The Herald was more modern than either BMC’s Austin A35 and Morris Minor or the Ford Anglia 100E.
Merger talks break off, industrial unrest begins
Then, on 20 May, it was officially announced that the Rover-Standard merger talks had been broken off. It appears one of the main reasons for the breakdown in negotiations was that Rover were less than impressed with Standard’s finances, believing them to be too dependent on the tractor side of the business.
However, there were problems ahead, not least in producing the Herald. By 15 June, customer inquiries for the new car were estimated at 17,000 when the Standard Motor Company announced that it was to dismiss the entire body shop force working on their new Triumph Herald models, rather than pay the wages the men were demanding.
About 117 men were involved and the firm said they would engage new employees, including any of the dismissed men ’who are prepared to work for reasonable terms.’ For the previous eight weeks the men had been disputing the piecework rates offered and the previous week they had banned overtime. Matters came to a head when the firm attempted to increase production to meet the demand for the new models.
Guaranteed wages rejected
The firm, in a statement, said that to save valuable time it offered guaranteed wage rates to operate temporarily until agreement was reached on piecework prices. ’The offer was intended to dispel any doubt which body shop personnel might entertain about the level of future earnings that would result from the successful conclusion of negotiations and was made in the full knowledge that earnings would be considerably higher when piecework prices had been agreed.’ However, this practical demonstration of good faith by the management was flatly rejected.
The company claimed that the rejection made it clear that the body shop personnel were seeking high wages in return for below average efforts. It was also clear that they intended to press their demand regardless of the consequences to the company and to their fellow employees.
Production time amounting to several thousand Heralds had been lost, as well as much goodwill and future trade of the company, and the well-being of its employees was threatened. The Directors, said the statement, would not be ’forced into paying piecework prices and therefore wages which would adversely affect the selling price of the company’s products.’
Simple solution – not good enough
A spokesman for the three trade unions with membership involved said: ‘The firm’s action is a complete breach of the agreements with the unions and is irresponsible. One wonders what they hope to achieve by such irresponsibility other than a complete cessation of production. The firm tried to impose piecework rates. Their offer was the subject of conditions which would have had the effect of establishing the company’s own piecework prices.’
‘The patience of the company has been exhausted. We have leaned over backwards to reach an agreement with these men. The offer of a day rate would have meant earnings with overtime of over £25 a week.’ – Standard Motor Company spokesman
The unions involved were the Transport and General Workers’ Union, the Amalgamated Engineering Union and the National Union of Vehicle Builders. At a press conference in Birmingham, a Standard Company spokesman said: ’The patience of the company has been exhausted. We have leaned over backwards to reach an agreement with these men.
‘The offer of a day rate would have meant earnings with overtime of over £25 a week. The men at first asked for a piecework rate which would have meant earnings of something like £40 to £50 a week and, although they have reduced their demands, there is still a big gap between us.’
New facilities, inward investment, poor industrial relations
Standard stated that it had spent £800,000 on the body shop, and it was designed to produce 25 bodies an hour. At the time it was producing only 2.5 an hour. On the following day 24 maintenance men at Mulliners Limited, the car body firm which was a subsidiary of the Standard Motor Company, staged a 24-hour token strike as a protest against the breakdown in negotiations for a wage increase.
This resulted in 300 other men being laid off and a complete closure of the Herald bodyline. There was also a hold up of bodies for the dollar-earning TR3. On 18 June, the 117 body shop workers who were dismissed by Standard accepted by a majority vote the conditions which had been negotiated for their reinstatement.
Output was to be doubled to five cars an hour immediately. The men were to receive about 4s. 6d. a week more than the £20 previously offered and negotiations for permanent pay rates were to take place as soon as possible.
Long and damaging dispute settled
After a meeting in Coventry, Douglas Fairbairn, District Organiser of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, said that the men would receive the basic pay for the three days they had been out. He added: ’The dispute from our point of view has been caused by the company insisting that they were right on each point they were putting forward – the number of cars which could be produced, what payment should be made, how many men should be on the job and how fast they should work. We were not prepared to accept that – and we have established that there should be proper negotiations to determine these points.’
In a nutshell, Standard had managed to double the production rate of the Herald, to five cars an hour, and certainly nowhere near the 25 cars an hour they had capacity for. The root of this problem was the ‘Yellow Peril’, a yellow-covered set of agreements with the unions at Standard which, in the view of some managers, told Supervisors to appease the Shop Stewards.
This was a legacy of the now-departed Sir John Black, who saw stoppages as lost sales and marketing opportunities for his competitors. In the post-war world employers had tried to reduce piece work rates, while Standard continued to pay at wartime levels.
Labour issues, tractor settlement
Sir John Black was accused of causing wage inflation in Coventry at a time of labour shortages with his attitude of production at all cost. With the Canley Shop Stewards used to having a major say in the day to day running of Standard, the new generation of managers tasked with the job of bringing the company into the harsh new world of the 1960s would have their work cut out.
Then on 23 July, the Standard Motor Company announced that it had reached agreement with Massey-Ferguson, the Canadian tractor group, for the sale of the Standard tractor manufacturing assets for the sum of £14,900,000. This included Standard’s holding in Societe Standard-Hotchkiss, the French tractor firm.
Lieutenant Colonel William Eric Phillips, Chairman of Massey-Ferguson, said in London that the purchase of Standard’s tractor assets, which had an annual capacity of 125,000 machines in England and France, would make Massey-Ferguson the largest manufacturer of farm tractors in the world. The deal included four major sections.
Massey-Ferguson free to expand
- The first involved the sale of the tractor assets for £14,900,000. When other items had been taken into account, the Standard company’s cash resources would be increased by £12,500,000. The existing arrangements between Standard and Massey-Ferguson for the manufacture of tractors would be gradually terminated, but complete disengagement would not be effected until 1 May 1961. Until that date the Standard group could not sell tractors.
- Secondly, the Standard Motor Company proposed to distribute nearly £4 million of the £12,500,000 to stockholders. This would take the form of a payment of 2s. 6d. for every 5s. ordinary stock unit held free of income tax or surtax to individual stockholders.
- Thirdly, Standard also proposed to offer the 7,757,938 ordinary stock units in Standard’s then held by Massey-Ferguson to Standard stockholders. The company had made arrangements with two City merchant banks (J. Henry Schroder and Co. and Helbert, Wagg and Co.) under which Massey’s holding would be offered on 1 September to Standard stockholders at a price of 5s. 9d. a unit in the proportion of three units for every 10 units held.
- Fourthly, the Directors of Standard had decided that all the group manufacturing and trading activities would be carried out through subsidiary companies, leaving Standard as a holding company. It was intended, therefore, to change the name of the group to Standard-Triumph International Limited, while the newly-formed car subsidiary would retain the name of the Standard Motor Company. Proposals to give effect to the arrangements would be put to the stockholders on 28 August.
Small-car revolution from Birmingham
On 26 August 1959 British Motor Corporation announced its new small car to replace the Austin A35. Far from being a revamp of the outgoing car, the new Austin Mini Seven and Morris Mini Minor was an automotive sensation, combining a transverse engine, front-wheel drive, space efficiency and superb handling.
The BMC Mini redrew the parameters of small car design and, while its rivals could and did profit from its many teething troubles, the sheer brilliance of the Mini conquered all before it and stunted the sales of cars like the Herald and Ford Anglia in its wake. It was not just the advanced technology of the Mini, it was its price. The De Luxe version of the Mini retailed for £537, while the Ford Anglia 105E De Luxe sold for £610 and the Triumph Herald sold for £702.
The Herald was 30 per cent more expensive than the Mini and 15 per cent pricier than the Anglia. Maybe the Mini was too complex and unreliable for some, but the Anglia was a more than competent alternative to the Herald. The Herald could not compete with the Mini for innovation or the Anglia for cost control.
Standard-Triumph International is formed
An Extraordinary General Meeting of Standard Motors on 28 August approved the sale of the company’s tractor plant to Massey-Ferguson for £14,900,000, plus about £2,750,000 for stock, work in progress and spare parts. A resolution authorizing the change in the company’s name to Standard-Triumph International Limited was also approved. This came into force on 28 September.
Marshal of the RAF Lord Tedder, the Chairman of the company and General Eisenhower’s wartime deputy, said it was felt that the sale was both rational and equitable to everyone concerned. He added that, during the past 50 years, the meaning of the word Standard had changed until, in America, it just meant ‘ordinary’. People there asked where was the de luxe… ‘We are up against the problem of international publicity whereby we are having to use the name Standard in Britain and Standard-Triumph in other parts of the world,’ he said.
Now the newly re-branded Standard-Triumph International Limited had the authority to go ahead with a major expansion programme, using the proceeds from the sale of its tractor plant. The aim was to produce 260,000 vehicles by 1961.
Improved Rover P4 launched
Meanwhile, apart from industrial disputes, which were all to common at the time, Rover had been absent from the headlines. On 1 September the company announced the Rover 80, 100 and 105 derivatives of the P4 design at a media event in London presided over by George Farmer, Joint Managing Director of the Rover Company. Born in 1908 in Bridgnorth, Lovedin George Thomas Farmer had joined Rover in 1940 and will play a prominent role in this story.
While the other P4 variants used the inlet-over-exhaust straight-six engine, the new Rover 80 used the four-cylinder 2286cc overhead valve engine used in the Land Rover. However, the Rover 80 was not a great success and it was discontinued in 1962 after around 5900 were produced.
At the launch, George Farmer took the opportunity to criticise a strike that had just halted production of the new BMC ‘baby’ cars. He would live long enough to see the Rover Mini reach the showrooms…
On 6 October, Standard-Triumph International announced the introduction of a new organizational structure for the Standard-Triumph group, of Coventry, ’so that the financial and managerial resources of the organization can be more effectively employed in the production and sale of cars.’ Another object of the move was ’to ensure that the cash obtained from the sale of the tractor assets is re-employed in this direction as early as possible.’
The major changes were: the change of name of the Standard Motor Company to Standard-Triumph International Limited (STI) with a Board of Directors comprising Lord Tedder, Chairman, Mr Alick S. Dick, Managing Director, Mr Ken Aspland, Mr E. Brimelow, Mr Martin J. Tustin, Mr H.S. Weale, Mr Mike Whitfield, and Mr Leonard A. Woodall, Directors.
Because of pressure of other business interests Mr C.C. Crosby relinquished his directorship of the company, the announcement added. The Standard Motor Co. (1959) had changed its name to The Standard Motor Company Limited, which became the major manufacturing subsidiary in the United Kingdom, and two subsidiary companies had been put into operation.
Launch date set for Rover P6
Back over at Rover, and undaunted by the news that Standard-Triumph was working on its own 2.0-litre saloon, Maurice Wilks formally proposed on 24 October to the Rover board that the P6 project should be adopted for production with a launch target of October 1963.
Rover had cause for celebration on 2 December when it was revealed that the 250,000th Land Rover had been produced at its Solihull factory. Geoffrey Lloyd Dixon, Executive Director (Sales) said that 183,266 (or 74 per cent) of the 250,000 models produced went to export markets.
These Land Rover exports had earned more than £87 million. They went to 157 markets, of which the principal was Australia, with nearly 28,000, followed by Belgium with more than 10,000, and British East Africa with nearly 10,000.
Standard-Triumph gets acquisitive
On 16 December 1959 Standard-Triumph held its Annual General Meeting in Coventry. Chairman, Marshal of the RAF Lord Tedder, revealed that talks were in progress between the Directors of Standard-Triumph International and Alforder Newton Limited of Hemel Hempstead, with a view to Standard-Triumph acquiring the share capital of Alforder Newton for cash. No cash price was revealed.
Alforder Newton was a privately-owned firm which manufactured all of the front suspensions for the Standard-Triumph range, and also supplied Jaguar Cars and other motor car manufacturers. This was followed on 22 December by the news that the Directors of Standard-Triumph International had announced that agreement in principle had been reached with Hall Engineering (Holdings) with a view to acquiring the motor car body building and die-making sides of their business.
This would involve a cost of some £2 million. A statement issued by the company said factories at Speke (Liverpool), Dunstable and Basildon, in Essex were involved. The Speke factory was at the time engaged on the production of body panels for the Triumph Herald. This proposed purchase was in line with the policy of the Directors of Standard-Triumph to expand the body pressing side of the business, the statement said.
Speke joins the fray
The Directors emphasised that, if the conversations reached a satisfactory conclusion, it would be their intention to continue to reserve capacity for existing customers of Hall Engineering and indeed to expand the body pressing and die-making businesses outside the Standard-Triumph group.
Having got its fingers burnt over the Herald, Standard-Triumph had decided to act and secure its own body supply. The Hall Engineering plant would eventually become known as Speke No.1.
So ended 1959, a year when Standard-Triumph, having liquidated its tractor assets, had decided to go for a programme of expansion.