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 second part, we track the progress of the companies and their manufacturing and model-range expansions.
The story of Rover and Triumph: a year of growth and ambition
In January 1960, Rover appointed William Martin-Hurst as its new Executive Director (Production). Born in 1903, William Martin-Hurst had attended Rugby School and City and Guilds Engineering College. He started work with the Lightfoot Refrigeration Company in 1925, joining the British Thermostat Company in 1931. He became Joint Managing Director in 1937.
The British Thermostat Company diversified into producing aircraft components, an activity that expanded greatly in the Second World War. In 1946, Martin-Hurst became Managing Director of the aviation division based at Merthyr Tydfil, now known as Teddington Aircraft Controls Limited. This was a post he occupied until January 1960 when he was persuaded by his two brothers-in-law, Maurice Wilks and Spencer Wilks, to join them at Rover as Executive Director (Production).
With several patents to his credit, Martin-Hurst was not a typical executive obsessed with costings and the bottom line. He was to play a vital part in the development of Rover in the years to come.
Speke plans take shape for Standard-Triumph
A few weeks later, on 9 February 1960, Standard-Triumph International announced that the company was to spend £11 million building a new plant on Merseyside. The scheme, part of an £18 million expansion funded by the windfall from the sale of the company’s tractor assets, embraced a three-year plan under which 4500 would be employed at Speke.
Government policy was normally strongly opposed to further industrial development in the industrial Midlands, where the lowest level of unemployment in Britain was combined with a high degree of industrial congestion. The Board of Trade granted industrial development certificates to firms there only when the applicants could prove that an extension was wanted for an integrated industrial process that could not be located away from existing plant.
Therefore firms like Standard-Triumph were directed to areas like Wales, Scotland and Merseyside, where unemployment was seen as high in this era of post war optimism. There were estimated to be 25,000 unemployed on Merseyside at the time.
New factory growth through mergers
This was followed on 22 February by the news that Standard-Triumph offer, worth over £500,000 for the Ordinary share capital of Alforder Newton, had been accepted by all the Ordinary shareholders.
Then, on 2 March, the Rover Company confirmed that they were negotiating for a site in South Wales for the building of a new factory.
A spokesman for the firm said: ‘We now confirm that we are negotiating for a site in Cardiff, and until these negotiations are concluded we regret we have nothing to say.’ All was not revealed until 12 May.
Amid a climate of niggling industrial disputes, Mulliners Limited, the Standard-Triumph subsidiary, dismissed the entire production force of 120 workers at its Coventry plant on 14 March. The men said they received an hour’s notice and a week’s pay. Mulliners Limited had no statement on the dismissals, but a spokesman for the parent company, Standard-Triumph International, said: ‘A contract between Mulliners and us for the supply of Vanguard car bodies has been ended. The future of the Mulliners’ plant has yet to be considered.’
Niggling industrial disputes rumble on
The media was told that the termination would not affect the current or future production of Vanguard cars. In the afternoon, Trade Union officials met representatives of Mulliners at the offices of Coventry Engineering Employers’ Association and were told that the firm’s decision was irrevocable. A request that the dismissed men be reinstated was refused.
Maintenance and stores men continued working. Charles Gallagher, Coventry Area Organiser of the National Union of Vehicle Builders, which had 74 men among those dismissed, said: ‘The dismissals came like a bolt out of the blue. This is a wildcat lockout. There had been no hint of sackings at all.’
The plant, it was reported, had not been operating economically since it was taken over in July 1958. At that time it was intended to build up a labour force of 1000, but since then there had been long and uneasy negotiations over pay rates, which, it was thought, had delayed efforts to get the factory fully operational. Union leaders were outraged at the sackings and resolved to reverse the decision.
Unions, 1 Management, 0
The following day the management made a partial climbdown. An offer of re-employment for 80 of the 120 men summarily dismissed by Mulliners was accepted by the unions concerned. Standard-Triumph offered to absorb the men on the production of Triumph Heralds at its Canley factory.
The offer came at a time when the 11,000 men at Canley had refused to handle Vanguard car bodies on which the dismissed men had been employed and were threatening a complete ban on overtime on all models.
On 23 March, Standard-Triumph reached an agreement with the unions on a shorter working week. In return for an increased track speed to maintain existing production rates, the working week was reduced from 42.5 hours to 40.75 hours.
On the last day of March 1960 Standard-Triumph International’s scheme for a new 104 acre car plant at Speke was inaugurated. Having acquired control of an existing engineering plant there – Hall Engineering, where body parts for the Triumph Herald were being made – the company already had one foot in the door.
Managing Director Alick Dick, who had flown in from Canley by helicopter, climbed into the driving seat of a caterpillar tractor which was coupled to an earth-scraping machine. He drove the whole device round the field where the new plant was to be built with considerable dexterity and cut the first sod.
With him on the machine was Alderman John Braddock, leader of Liverpool City Council, who had campaigned to attract industry to Merseyside. Alderman Braddock aptly remarked later that this was ‘a day of triumph for Merseyside.’ ‘Liverpool looked like becoming a boom town,’ he said happily. It would be some time before Speke No.2 came on stream.
New names join Standard-Triumph
Then, on 4 April, Standard-Triumph announced some appointments. Frank Dixon joined the main board. Following the reorganization of the group in 1959 and its continuing development, two new, wholly-owned subsidiary companies had been formed:-
- Standard-Triumph (Liverpool) Limited, which would be the manufacturing subsidiary at Speke, Liverpool, with the following Directors: Alick Dick, Executive Chairman; Frank Dixon, Managing Director; Martin Tustin; and Les Woodall.
- Standard-Triumph Engineering Limited, which would be responsible for group engineering, design, and research, with the following: Martin Tustin, Executive Chairman; Harry Webster, Director and General Manager; Frank Dixon, Director; John Lind, Director; and Mike Whitfield, Director.
The following changes were also made to the Boards of certain subsidiary companies in the Standard-Triumph group:- Standard-Triumph Sales Limited and Triumph Motor Co. (1945) Limited – Alick Dick relinquished his seat on these Boards and was succeeded as Executive Chairman of each company by Mike Whitfield.
Standard Motor Company Limited – Martin Tustin relinquished his seat on the Board; Cliff Swindle was appointed Works Director. Standard-Triumph Group Services Limited – Ken Aspland, Harold Weale, Harry Webster, and Mike Whitfield relinquished their seats on the Board and the following new appointments were made: John Carpenter, Executive Director; Walter Boardman, Director and Group Financial Accountant; F.J. Leaver, Director and Group Cost Accountant. Alforder Newton Limited – Ken Aspland and S.G. Seymour joined the Board.
Mulliners Limited – E. B. Montesole retired and was succeeded as Chairman by Colonel C. White, who continued as Managing Director. Harold Weale joined the Board. Forward Radiator Company Limited – Leonard Woodall was appointed Executive Chairman. Frank Dixon was the Managing Director of Hall Engineering Limited. Then, on 5 May, Trevor Knox joined the Board of Standard-Triumph Sales Limited.
With manufacturing assets at Hemel Hempstead, Coventry and Merseyside, Standard-Triumph decided to splash the cash and spent £32,000 buying a Cessna light aircraft for travel between its factories.
Rover announces factory in Wales
On 12 May, the Rover Car Company announced its plans for a new works to be sited at Cardiff’s old airport, Pengam Moor. Three months of speculation were ended by George Farmer, Joint Managing Director of the company when, at a lunch at Cardiff, he said that negotiations had been concluded with the city authorities for the purchase of the airport site.
He said that the first stage of development there would be to provide as quickly as possible production facilities to supplement existing Rover capacity at Birmingham, which was inadequate.
George Farmer said that the Board of Trade had shown their full approval by granting adequate industrial development certificates. He thanked the Lord Mayor, Alderman Mrs Helena Evans, and the City Council for their ‘confidence in the company, shown particularly by their undertaking very substantial obligations in connection with preparing the site.’
His comments referred to the financial help given by Cardiff of an estimated £1,500,000 to cover the cost of extra piling in preparing the site. Congestion at the Rover plant at Solihull had resulted in a delay of nine months in the P6 project while the company looked at expanding its production capacity.
Government intervention shapes expansion
The Conservative Government of Harold Macmillan was engaged in a policy of trying to push industry into expanding in areas of high unemployment and social deprivation.
Rover refused point blank to move its car production out of Solihull, but it did concede on moving component production elsewhere as part of a deal that enabled them to build what became known as North Block at Solihull to build the P6.
On 12 July Rover registered its sixth P6 prototype as 193 AYK, the first to have a revised four headlamp nose that became familiar to all road users.
Triumph model plans take shape
On 18 July Standard-Triumph held a Board meeting. Projects ‘Zest’ (above) and ‘Zoom’ were discussed. The minutes stated: ‘It was resolved that Zest be called the Triumph Dolomite and that Zoom be called the Triumph Vitesse.
‘The Secretary reported that the trademark ‘Dolomite’ was registered in the name of the Standard Motor Company Limited but that it would not be possible to register the word ‘Vitesse’ as a Trade Mark.’
‘Zest’ was the codename for the forthcoming Triumph TR4, while the ‘Zoom’ was meant to be a up-scale sports car with a bespoke engine.
Tough times were returning
By September 1960, there were fears among thousands of car workers and union officials that harder times were returning. The slowing pace of car exports to the United States in recent months, coupled with a toughening in home market sales, had brought uneasiness to the industry. It was not helped by one of the British Government’s periodic credit squeezes, announced in its Spring 1960 budget.
On 19 September Standard-Triumph International officially announced that short-time working was to be introduced in the near future at its Coventry factories because of the credit squeeze. At the same time, Mulliners Limited said that a cut in its labour force was being considered. Both companies gave as their reasons the seasonal decline in orders ’aggravated by the Government’s financial policy.’
A Standard-Triumph official said that the introduction of short time at Coventry would enable the company to retain their labour force. Mulliners was chiefly concerned with the production of TR3 sports car bodies. George Turnbull, then Standard-Triumph’s Divisional Manager, Car Production was of the opinion that the regular credit squeezes by central Government were hugely damaging to the British motor industry.
The Government wasn’t helping
Interviewed in the 1980s, George Turnbull recalled: ‘In those days it was just a little fiscal regulator. If the economy was overheated, put some more purchase tax on motor cars.
‘The British motor industry was the main employer of labour; it was the biggest manufacturing industry by a mile and the Government treated it with derision. There’s no other word for it.’ – George Turnbull
‘The Government was totally oblivious and, if I was ever going to apportion blame for the parlous state that the British motor industry got into, you have got to put it at the door of the Government. I don’t care which complexion or which colour.
‘The reality is that they didn’t handle the industry in a sensitive way. It was the main primer for so many service industries; it was the main employer of labour; it was the biggest manufacturing industry by a mile and they treated it with derision. There’s no other word for it.
‘From one day from virtually full employment, I had got to sack 3000 men, which I did with great reluctance. It drove more and more men into militant unions for protection.’
Triumph model plans adjusted
Standard-Triumph held another Board meeting on 19 September. The Board decided that Triumph Zebu project be discontinued forthwith and that, consequent upon this resolution, a ‘live axle’ be maintained for ‘Zest’ (TR4).
‘Zebu’ (below) had started life with a backward slanting rear window, but that was swiftly abandoned when Standard learned that Ford were working on such a feature for its 105E Anglia saloon. Next came the idea of upscaling the Herald design, before Giovanni Michelotti was brought in to do a complete restyle.
This was still not enough, and with tooling estimates of £800,000 from Pressed Steel, lower sales forecasts and Standard-Triumph in serious financial trouble due to the credit squeeze, the Board pulled the plug on ‘Zebu.’ The problem for Standard-Triumph was that the ageing Standard Vanguard still needed replacing and there was nothing in the pipeline.
The Board approved the four-door, six-cylinder version of the Triumph Herald, which became the Vitesse, and the finance for a running prototype of ‘Bomb’, which became the Triumph Spitfire. The Board was told that the ‘Zest’ (TR4) and ‘Zoom’ programmes would cost £676,000.
As a stopgap the Vanguard Six had been introduced in the autumn of 1960 featuring a new overhead valve 1998 cc straight-six engine known as the 20S.
Redundancies in the pipeline
Two days later, it was revealed that extensive short-time working was to be operated and some redundancy was likely at the Coventry factories of Standard-Triumph as a result of the credit squeeze. Production workers, already on a four-day week, faced a further reduction and talks were being sought with the management by unions. The nightshift had been ended and workers had been switched to day shifts.
The National Association of Clerical and Supervisory Staffs, fearing redundancy, sent a telegram to the Chancellor of the Exchequer stating: ‘We believe that the present difficulties of the motor industry are the direct result of the credit squeeze and we therefore urge immediate easing of the financial restrictions on the motor industry.’
At Mulliners, Ministry of Labour officials set up an advisory office. Mulliners had said that, because of the credit squeeze on hire purchase, at least 700 vehicle builders would be declared redundant later in the month.The Ministry men were advising workers of all the other jobs available in the Midlands. Standard-Triumph also announced that Frank Dixon had been appointed Deputy Managing Director of Standard-Triumph International.
Short-time working introduced at Triumph
On 22 September Standard-Triumph stated that some workers at its Coventry factories were to begin a 19-hour week. A spokesman for the firm said that less than 25 per cent of the 8000 workers at the factories were ‘in the early stage’ to work a two and a half-day week. The remainder, he said, would work longer hours than this.
The company spokesman added: ’To avoid redundancy the company has decided upon short-time working. The work available varies from department to department as do also the hours of work. Details of the work available are under discussion between the company and the workers’ representatives. It will be some days before a complete picture will be available.’
Standard-Triumph, which produced about 5000 cars a week, was understood to have cut production of the Vanguard range by half because of the credit squeeze and falling American sales. A 30 per cent cut had been made in the Triumph Herald and Triumph sports car output. The average wage of manual workers at the firm was £23 a week. The cut in hours was expected to reduce the weekly pay packets to about £11 to £12.
A deal struck in the USA, new factory in Belgium
While all this was going on, sometime during September 1960 American Motors of Detroit offered to sell Standard-Triumph CKD kits of body components for its forthcoming Rambler American model. The idea was that Standard-Triumph would transplant its own power train into the Rambler American body to create a cheap and quick replacement for the Vanguard.
While Standard-Triumph was putting workers on short time in the UK, in Belgium it was opening a new factory at Malines. On 4 October Standard-Triumph International marked the opening by the British Ambassador, Sir John Nicholls, with an immediate reduction in the Belgian price of the Triumph Herald.
Alick Dick, the Managing Director, announced that the benefits of manufacturing inside the Common Market, later known as the European Union, had made possible an important cut of £49 (7000 Belgian francs) to £496 10s. ’We are determined to keep pace with the demands of the continental markets. My company in common, I believe, with the rest of the United Kingdom motor industry, looks upon the division of Europe economically as little short of a catastrophe, but we cannot afford to wait for those whose responsibility it is to resolve the undoubted problems which still exist in bringing them together, and we have therefore launched this project,’ he said.
Benefits of European production
It was reported that Standard-Triumph saved 14 per cent on tariff costs by assembly in Belgium rather than importing cars completed in the United Kingdom. The new factory, built in little more than four-and-a-half months, was planned to initially turn out cars at the rate of 2500 a year, and it was hoped to raise this progressively up to 10,000 a year.
‘We are determined to keep pace with the demands of the continental markets. My company in common, I believe, with the rest of the UK motor industry, looks upon the division of Europe economically as little short of a catastrophe.’ – Alick Dick
Production would concentrate on the three-model Triumph Herald range and the Triumph TR3, and at first be devoted to the Belgian market, but, with the prospect of continuing reductions in internal tariffs among the Common Market countries, exports to the other countries of the six members would plainly follow.
The problem with describing the British motor industry in the period before the UK joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, is that attitudes were very much UK-centric. It was all well and good for politicians and analysts to exhort the British motor industry to export, but they did not have to deal with trade tariffs that made British made vehicles price uncompetitive in EEC countries. Trade tariffs effectively kept Britain out of the larger EEC car market, but also kept cars from France, West Germany and Italy out of Britain in large volume.
Short-time working and redundancies
A week later Rover revealed that, in the wake of the credit squeeze, they were operating a four-day week. Then, on 18 October, it was reported that nearly 60 men employed at the Speke No.1 factory, Liverpool, of Standard-Triumph International had been declared redundant. It was hoped the men would be re-employed later.
During October Alick Dick and Martin Tustin flew to Detroit to discuss a deal between Standard-Triumph and American Motors over body supplies.
Rover held a Board meeting on 24 October where it was agreed to put the P6 project into production. The next day, Rover revealed its financial results. Group profit rose to £2,764,973, from £1,902,046, after depreciation of £1,150,864 (£636,011). Tax required £1,589,404 (£905,209).
Rover’s movers and shakers
In November, Rover announced some appointments. Mr E.G. Commander retired from the Board of Rover due to ill-health. It was proposed that George Farmer be appointed Executive Vice-Chairman after the Annual General Meeting in December 1960.
Maurice Wilks was to be sole Managing Director, and William Martin-Hurst, then Executive Director (Production) was appointed as Deputy Managing Director. A.B. Smith was appointed to the Board as Supplies Director. It was intended to appoint Geoffrey Lloyd Dixon as a Director after the Annual General Meeting.
Christopher J. Peyton, who would be joining the company in the near future, was to be appointed Executive Director (Finance). Mr W.J. Robinson was appointed Executive Director (Production-Solihull). Arthur Herbert, then in charge of export, had been appointed an Executive Director. Mr M.W.B. Knight had been appointed Executive Director (Industrial Relations and Welfare).
Bad news at Standard-Triumph
Meanwhile, over at Standard-Triumph, things went from bad to worse. On 8 November, the company announced that 1700 hourly-paid employees at its Coventry factories were to be declared redundant. The company intended to begin a three-day week for its remaining 6300 manual workers. Dismissals were also to take place among the company’s 1400 staff employees.
News of the redundancies was broken to union officials at a meeting at the Coventry and District Engineering Employers’ Association. A statement by the company said the moves were being made ’in view of the general situation in the motor industry.’
The number of men affected was about equal, the firm said, to the increase in its labour force during the past 12 months. ’Discussions will be taking place during the next two weeks with the trade union representatives in accordance with an agreed procedure for dealing with such questions,’ the statement concluded.
The workforce is slashed
In some sections at Standard-Triumph the labour force was to be cut by as much as half. The largest number of men to be dismissed – 916 – was on the assembly lines at the company’s main factory at Canley. In the machine shop at the same works there would be 260 dismissals. The 1700 men affected were to be given a week’s notice or a week’s pay in lieu on 22 November.
This, in turn, was followed two days later by the news that a further 200 staff, clerks, draughtsmen, and scientific workers were to be dismissed by Standard-Triumph in the forthcoming week, and more in the near future.
Things were looking bleak for Standard-Triumph. It was haemorrhaging cash at an alarming rate on its expansion plans whilst it could not sell its existing output due to a collapse in the UK car market. Then salvation arrived in the form of a Lancashire-based commercial vehicle manufacturer.
Leyland moves to swoop in on Triumph
On 14 November 1960 Sir Henry Spurrier, the Chairman of Leyland Motors, telephoned Alick Dick to discuss a possible takeover of the Coventry company. Leyland, with assets of over £52 million, made heavy commercial and passenger motor vehicles, trolley buses, fire engines and heavy oil engines. Leyland was the largest heavy commercial vehicle manufacturer in the UK at the time.
Since 1945 Leyland had targeted export markets, many in the Third World, as a way of bolstering sales and production. Not only had this been profitable, it had enabled Leyland to avoid the worst ravages of a domestic credit squeeze. Alick Dick had craved a partner in order to expand Standard-Triumph, now, as if by magic, it had appeared just in the nick of time.
On 16 November 1960 Sir Henry Spurrier travelled to Coventry to put his offer on the table. Then, on 28 November, Lord Tedder, having reached the age of 70, decided not to seek re-election to the Board at the Annual General Meeting at Coventry, to be held on 21 December. Lord Tedder had, however, accepted an invitation to become President of the company. Alick Dick, Managing Director, would be elected Chairman of the Board. Quite clearly Lord Tedder knew that changes were afoot.
The story of Rover and Triumph: a warning shot fired…
The Annual Report was Lord Tedder’s last job as Chairman. In it he warned the Government that the car industry might not be able to keep up exports unless restrictions on hire purchase were eased at home. Lord Tedder said competition in all export markets was becoming more intense, and added: ’Unless we can work from a stable and profitable home base, it will become increasingly difficult to maintain or expand our foothold in overseas markets.’
In the year which ended August 1960, Standard-Triumph International produced 139,032 cars, and made a profit of £2,104,000. The period in the report did not cover Standard-Triumph’s more recent woes. News of the proposed merger between the ailing Standard-Triumph International and the successful commercial vehicle maker Leyland Motors seeped out on 5 December.
Leyland’s proposal was for it to acquire the whole of the ordinary capital of Standard-Triumph International on the basis of two ordinary stock units of £1 each in Leyland for 15 ordinary stock units of 5s. each in Standard-Triumph International. Lord Tedder, Chairman of Standard-Triumph International, said that the Standard-Triumph Directors considered that the proposed terms of the amalgamation with Leyland – ‘an entirely British concern’ – were fair.
Leyland becomes a player, while the lights go out…
Trade Union officials were told of the decision to stop production at the factory at a conference. A Mulliners official said: ’We have been informed by Standard-Triumph International that it is necessary to streamline the company’s factories in order to make the most economical use of the production facilities available. It has therefore been decided to move the existing Mulliners products to other Midlands factories within the group.’
While this had all been going on, Leyland had sent Sidney Baybutt, the company’s Chief Accountant, to examine Standard-Triumph’s books. So ended 1960 and Standard-Triumph’s independence.