Ian Nicholls, AROnline‘s historian-in-residence, tells the Rover-Triumph story, and their part in the downfall of the British motor industry.
Here, in the ninth part, Rover and Triumph become bedfellows within the Leyland Motor Corporation – a big year in the development of the motor industry.
The story of Rover and Triumph: two become one
In early January 1967 Rover announced that 2000 workers would go back on full-time working, ‘almost immediately’. The men, all on Land Rover assembly work at Solihull, had been on short time since August 1966.
The success in sales of the Rover 2000 was given as the reason. In November 1966, when British car output overall fell by 31 per cent, the 2000, increased its share of the home market. Some Land Rover workers were transferred to the 2000 production lines to cope with the huge orders, leaving full-time work for the rest.
On 5 January, Standard-Triumph held a Board Meeting. Chief Engineer Harry Webster reported that, ‘the TR5 would be delayed by changes arising from the USA Safety Regulations, although he accepted that this delay must be as short as possible in view of the necessity to introduce this model into the USA with all possible speed.’
The TR5 was now Project Wasp, a TR4A fitted with the 20S in-line six-cylinder engine as a way of boosting the model’s appeal.
Standard Triumph ups production
At the end of the month, Standard-Triumph announced that it planned a return to full-time working during the next three weeks at its Coventry, Birmingham, and Liverpool factories.
On 21 February the Leyland Motor Corporation held its Annual General Meeting. Although much time was devoted to the group’s commercial vehicle operations, some discussion of its car side did take place.
Submitting his report to shareholders, which showed that, for the year which ended on 30 September 1966, Leyland made a profit, after tax, of almost £9.5 million, Chairman Sir William Black said that the year had been an exceptionally difficult one in overseas markets, and that most of these difficulties persisted.
Triumph’s sports car successes
Harry Webster said: ‘In the USA, where Triumph cars are our main product, new safety regulations are being imposed , together with severe air pollution restrictions. The market for sports cars is being affected by so many of our potential customers being called up for the fighting services.’
Explaining this afterwards. Sir William said sales of sports cars in America had fallen by about 20 per cent. He added: ‘A lot of young people are being called up for military service in Vietnam. The credit arrangements in America are such that, if someone is called up, their liability to repay the debt is deferred until a year after they are released from the forces, understandably, there is a reluctance to extend HP faculties in these circumstances.’
He also said: ‘International competition in the automobile field has always been very keen, and today, is no exception. On the car side, in particular, it would seem that the production capacity of the world has, temporarily at least, outstripped, the demand. Fortunately, this is not yet clear to the same degree in the heavy commercial vehicle field, which is of course, our main operation.’
Production costs needed reducing
Sir Donald Stokes, the Deputy Chairman and Managing Director, emphasised the need to cut production costs. He said the industry was now meeting severe competition from the Japanese in all foreign markets for small cars.
He said: ‘They are not making better cars than we are, but they are making them more cheaply. We are, therefore, having to cut our margins to meet this competition and, if this goes on, we will not have enough money available to finance new business. It is, therefore, vital to cut production costs in every possible way.’
Of the proposed merger with Rover, Sir William Black announced that proxy votes totalling eight million for and only 5000 against the merger had been received from Leyland shareholders, and he expected 99 per cent of Rover shareholders to vote for it. If this was so, legal formalities would be completed within a month.
Sir William said: ‘It is a very logical development, and one that will be of dear advantage to both organizations.’
New models in, old models out…
On 10 March, the latest version of the Triumph Spitfire was announced. The new Mk3 Spitfire now had a 75bhp 1296cc SC engine that propelled the car to a top speed of 95mph.
The same month Rover opened a new education and training centre at Erdington in Birmingham. At the end of the month A.B. Smith, General Manager of Rover, and a Director of Alvis, denied reports that the production of cars under the Alvis name would stop in a few weeks.
He said: ‘At this time there is no question of giving up the great Alvis name in the range of quality cars. While the present series in batch production is running down consideration is being given to a replacement car worthy of the fine Alvis tradition.’
Alvis GTS nears production
By now David Bache’s Alvis GTS (above) design had been translated into reality by the London-based Radford concern. Registered as PXC 200E in early 1967, the project petered out soon after. Rover was already working on another potential new Alvis, the P6BS (below).
Some time in 1966, Technical Director Peter Wilks asked Spen King and his New Vehicle Projects team to come up with a more sporting Rover. The result was the mid-engine, V8-powered P6BS.
The sole prototype was constructed in 1967 at the Alvis factory. As conceived it would be manufactured alongside the Alvis GTS and sold at roughly the same price as the P6 2000 TC.
Meanwhile, in the production car line-up…
In April, the six-cylinder Land Rover was announced. With P4 production having ended in May 1964 and the P5 about to mutate into the V8-powered P5B, Rover now had spare capacity to install the IoE 2625cc six cylinder engine into the Land Rover range.
On 5 April Standard-Triumph held another Board Meeting. The Minutes stated that, ‘in reply to the Chairman, the General Manager stated that production on the TR250 (formerly the TR4B) was scheduled for July 1967.’
The TR250 was a derivative of the forthcoming TR5 intended for the North American market. Also: ‘No date had, however, been scheduled for the production of the 2.5-litre Triumph 2000 due to the fact that we had yet to get the European Distributors’ reaction to the proposed introduction of petrol injection. The European Distributors were due for a meeting in Coventry the week following after which a firm policy would be put forwards.’
Rover confirms continued large-car production
Four days later, with its purchase by Leyland now cut and dried, Rover announced that it had no intention of ceasing production of its larger cars, presumably the P5 3-litre.
‘The demand for the larger type of car is still considerable, and the Rover Company’s share of this market continues to increase.’
George Farmer, Chairman of Rover joined the Board of the Leyland Motor Corporation after the acquisition of Rover by Leyland. Sir Donald Stokes, Deputy Chairman and Managing Director of Leyland, and George Turnbull, Director and General Manager of Standard-Triumph International, both joined the Rover Board.
The rumours begin – will Leyland join BMH?
Not long after this, British Motor Holdings, the parent company of BMC and Jaguar announced a £7.5 million half-year loss, which it blamed on the credit squeeze and the strikes which had arisen from the harsh measures it tried to impose on its employees in response. This sparked off rumours of a merger with Leyland, which were hotly denied by BMH.
Leyland’s PR men, no doubt egged on by Keith Hopkins, went onto the offensive. In late April 1967, as well as boasting of impressive commercial vehicle sales, Leyland was able to revel in impressive car sales. In March 1967 Standard-Triumph’s share of the home market jumped to eight per cent, the highest for six years. This meant that, together with Rover (2.6 per cent), the Leyland Motor Corporation held 10.6 per cent of the UK car market.
Sir Donald Stokes said: ‘We are particularly gratified by the progress we have made on the home market, because this has been achieved since the Government brought in their restrictions against the purchase of motor vehicles. We have concentrated on selling our cars to the more discriminating buyers and this seems to have paid dividends.’
Leyland’s winning streak continues
Alick Dick’s master plan for Standard-Triumph was working out. The success of Leyland’s car divisions was aided by the weakness of the competition, while the media was denigrating BMC and lauding the brilliance of Ford of Britain’s marketing and product planning techniques.
The new Ford Cortina Mk2 toppled the BMC 1100 as Britain’s best-selling car, the top of the range Ford Zephyr/Zodiac Mk4 (below) stumbled in the executive sector. Launched in the Spring of 1966 with engines of 2.0-, 2.5- and 3.0-litres, it seemed to have all the marketing avenues covered.
However, poor reviews, which highlighted its poor handling, did the car no favours at all. In addition to this, the Ford philosophy that big meant value for money resulted in a large, ungainly car which lacked the sporting credentials of the Rover and Triumph 2000s.
Why the 2000s were beating the three litres
With a top speed of 105mph for the top of the range 3.0-litre Zodiac, it could be matched for pace by the Rover 2000 TC. And both Rover and Triumph had up-gunned versions of their compact executive saloons in the pipeline.
In 1967, Ford built 15,346 Zephyr/Zodiacs while Rover built 34,899 P6 models and Standard-Triumph built 19,820 Barb 2000s. The Zephyr/Zodiac Mk4 may have been what the market wanted when it was conceived back in 1961, but both Rover and Triumph had created an alternative solution for executive market and it had caught on.
Then, on 27 April, the Leyland Motor Corporation announced a new top management structure after the retirement of Chairman Sir William Black. He was succeeded by Sir Donald Stokes, who remained Group Managing Director.
Management reshuffles at Leyland
Two new Deputy Managing Directors were appointed to aid Sir Donald. They were Dr Albert Fogg, formerly Group Director of Engineering, who would also be Chairman of West Yorkshire Foundries, and Jack Plane, who would have special responsibilities for Leyland’s overseas operations.
George Turnbull was appointed to the group’s Board. Over 50 per cent of Leyland’s sales were made abroad. Sir William Black, who was 74 at the time, would leave the main Board but would continue as Chairman of Associated Commercial Vehicles and Park Royal Vehicles.
In hindsight, 1967 was the pinnacle of Sir Donald Stokes’ career in the motor industry. Although he would rise higher, it would be outside his comfort zone, and success would prove elusive.
BMC-Leyland merger: opening moves
It was on 12 May that the opening moves took place in the formation of British Leyland when the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation (IRC) had asked both Leyland and BMC to supply them with detailed information about their operations. On this day Sir Donald Stokes talked to Sir George Harriman (above) on the telephone.
Both men agreed to consent to give the IRC information on the condition that was of the kind available to any shareholder. The IRC was a Government body established in 1966 to encourage mergers and reorganisation to create more efficient British industrial base.
Range Rover takes shape
In June 1967, former Chairman Spencer Wilks was appointed as President of Rover. The next month, July 1967, Rover completed 100/1, the prototype of its 100-inch Station Wagon, Later registered as SYE 157F, it was the first Range Rover. Head of Rover New Vehicle Projects Spen King wrote a formal Product Proposal for the 100 inch Station Wagon.
As well as the V8 version, Spen King envisaged a four-cylinder variant using the overhead cam P6 engine, an automatic transmission model using the Chrysler A727 three-speed box, optional two-wheel drive. The model was planned as a six seater in both economy and de luxe trim levels.
On 19 July, and the following day at Standard-Triumph Motor Company Inc’s offices at Teaneck, New Jersey, USA, Rover and STI luminaries met to discuss Leyland’s sales programme in North America. As well as the two Vice Presidents of Leyland, Bruce McWilliams and Chris Andrews George Turnbull and William Martin-Hurst were also present.
Working on the sports cars
At that stage the Stag was slated for a 2.5-litre V8, prompting Bruce McWilliams to ask for a fuel-injected version. George Turnbull said: ‘Karmann Ghia have been given the opportunity to do a re-styling of the TR250… They have been requested to change the front and rear ends.’
After the meeting was shown some design sketches, George Turnbull commented: ‘No actual commitment with Ghia has been made other than authorisation to produce one car… Ghia would not only design the unit but would produce the necessary tooling, saving a considerable amount of time for the Triumph works. The Ghia facelift would add only a nominal amount to the 250 cost.’
With the TR5 about to be announced, Standard-Triumph was looking at updating the styling to create a TR6. Michelotti was not available for the task, so STI was looking at engaging another styling firm for the job.
Differences of opinion over the next sports cars
The meeting also discussed the possibility of an all-new TR sports car. George Turnbull said that it would be, ‘completely re-styled and equipped with a four-cylinder overhead cam engine. The general intention in the design of the unit was to get the TR back to about a $3000 price range, where the company had so much earlier success.’
Bruce McWilliams did not agree saying that, ‘the use of a four-cylinder engine would be a backward step in the progression of the Triumph models, since such engines were definitely dated and becoming obsolete in the market, at least in the price range involved. While it would remain acceptable in the Spitfire range, a four would not sell at $3000.’
Bruce McWilliams was assuming a new TR would use the ex-tractor engine used in the TR4a. George Turnbull countered this by claiming the four-cylinder engine in question, ‘would be a very modern one, and the car would have adequate power to fit the Triumph image of a high performance two-seater in the $3000 price range.’ This was possibly a reference to the Saab/Triumph slant-four engine.
Giving the US market what it needs
Bruce McWilliams argued that American customers demanded power sapping accessories such as air conditioning, then uncommon in Europe, but rapidly increasing in popularity in the USA.
George Turnbull then suggested, ‘it would be possible to use the V8 engine, since the engine is available and could be designed in. The effect on price and sales volume would have to be seriously considered, however, before such a scene could be contemplated.’
Which V8 engine they were discussing is not known. The only Leyland V8 that was close to being available was the ex-Buick design that was about to appear in the new Rover P5B. With Donald Stokes and George Turnbull of Standard-Triumph now both on the Rover Board, they knew both companies had V8 engines in development.
Triumph Stag prototype hits the road
The first proper Triumph Stag prototype, X763, was built in 1967 with a 2.5-litre inline six-cylinder engine. Sir Donald Stokes, on discovering that both the Leyland car divisions had V8 engines in the pipeline requested that Standard-Triumph should attempt to install a Rover unit in a Stag.
At an STI Board Meeting held on an unknown date, Harry Webster, the firm’s Technical Director stated that the Rover V8 would not fit because of the height of the engine.
Perhaps Sir Donald Stokes should have ordered Standard-Triumph to make the Rover V8 fit the Stag – it would surely have been cheaper to modify the Stag body than to invest in production tooling for the Standard-Triumph V8…
Rover’s continuing sales boom
On 23 August, Rover boasted of impressive sales. Rover Sales Director, John Carpenter, commented: ‘Our 2000 production line is now working at capacity day and night to keep up with demand.’
Sales of the P6 Rover 2000 during the three months of May, June and July 1967 rose by 31 per cent over the corresponding period of 1966. Total registration figures for the period showed that United Kingdom sales were 6423, as against a corresponding figure for 1966 of 4908. Sales of the P6 since it was introduced in 1963 were now over 80,000.
The irony was that, by August 1967, both Rover and Triumph were on short-time working. Some 9000 STI workers had been on short time since early August because the company was concerned that car stocks should not build up during a winter which it forecast would show a drop in demand.
Industrial unrest bubbles under
In addition, a strike at Standard-Triumph by engine fitters had affected plans to launch the Federal version of the new TR5 (TR250) in the USA as the Minutes of the STI Board Meeting of 8 September 1967 recorded.
The Minutes reported that, ‘the strike on the 2.5-litre assembly line had affected production of the TR250 and its announcement in the United States would not now be made nationally… The announcement would be made area by area, commencing with Los Angeles and would be completed in all areas in about a month from the initial announcement.’
The Board also discussed the Stag project, admitting that it would not go on sale before 1969. ‘Its introduction depending on the success of the V8 engine with petrol injection,’ it said in the Minutes. It appears that STI had ditched the idea of introducing the Stag with the 2.5-litre in-line six-cylinder engine.
New car launches and movement
A contract worth £350,000 had been agreed with the German firm of Karmann for the TR6 body style and associated tooling. Later that month Jaguar Cars announced the 240 and 340 saloons, basically a cheaper version of the ageing Mk2 saloon (above).
Only 4430 240s were made before production ceased in April 1969. As recently as 1961, Jaguar had made 6459 2.4-litre Mk2 saloons, but demand had collapsed for the smallest-engined Jaguar once the Triumph and Rover 2000s had gone on sale.
Jaguar had been working hard on its new XJ4 saloon as a matter of urgency. In addition to this the company was working on a Mk2 replacement in co-operation with BMC in order to combat the Rover and Triumph 2000s. The BMC-owned Castle Bromwich plant was cited as the possible site of manufacture.
Rover P5B makes an impact
The threat to Jaguar posed by the Leyland-owned car manufacturers was revealed on 28 September when the Rover P5B was announced. This was the first Rover to use the ex-GM 3528cc V8. This was a case of saving the best ’til last, the all aluminium V8 revitalising the venerable P5 design.
Although Jaguar Engineers would look down on the overhead-valve Rover V8 – with its single camshaft located in the vee of the block – as crude, its claimed power output of 160bhp was the same as Jaguar claimed for its 3.4-litre XK engine, and that had twin-overhead camshafts.
This was followed on 3 October with the announcement of the Triumph TR5. The car featured a 2.5-litre six-cylinder engine fitted with Lucas fuel injection. Peak power was quoted as 150bhp at 5500 rpm, though that figure might have been on the optimistic side. American customers had to put up with the TR250, which had Stromberg carburettors and 104bhp at 4500 rpm.
Triumph advancement – mechanical regression
If one is to pinpoint the moment when the Triumph brand began its inexorable decline, the introduction of the petrol injection TR5 would be a good choice. Standard-Triumph had built its hard-won reputation by employing simple and reliable engineering clothed by Michelotti’s attractive styling.
STI had left innovation to Alec Issigonis at BMC and Peter Wilks’ team at Rover. With the TR5, Standard-Triumph broke new ground in fitting fuel injection to a production car.
Not even Jaguar employed such a system, and would not do so until 1975. The Lucas-developed Petrol Injection system proved troublesome and was the first step in creating a reputation for fragility for the Triumph marque.
Rover V8 plans spelled-out
The same month, The Times visited Rover at Solihull to see the V8 production facilities. Rover told the newspaper: ‘We are working on the assumption that this design will form the basis of our engine family for the next ten years at least.’
It was clear that both Rover and their major component suppliers were gearing themselves for a level of production far more than that required for the P5B 3.5-litre version alone. Many millions of pounds had been invested in new machinery for the engine section of the Acocks Green plant which would be sharing production of the new engine with Alvis.
However, the most significant development was the new foundry built by Birmingham Aluminium Casting Company to produce the all-alloy cylinder blocks, cylinder heads and timing covers. It had a capacity of 700 cylinder blocks a week and this could be rapidly stepped up to over 1000. P5B production was now reported to be running below 100 a week.
The P6 2000 line was working flat-out to produce around 800 cars a week.
Stokes amplifies Triumph’s successes
On 9 October, Sir Donald Stokes announced that, from Monday 16 October, all workers at the Standard-Triumph factories in Coventry and Liverpool would return to full-time working.
Sir Donald said this was due to the reception given by home and overseas distributors to the company’s range of 1968 models, some of which had yet to be publicly shown.
Since August, the Government had announced measures to re-inflate the car market. Sir Donald, who was addressing a conference of Triumph distributors in Coventry, said: ‘We are now a lean, fit and healthy organisation. Stocks are at the lowest levels ever for this time of year.’
Looking to the future
Three days later the company announced the new Triumph Herald 13/60. On 10 November the Rover company held a Board Meeting.
The Minutes recorded: ‘It was reported that the management had formulated its proposed product policy for the years 1968 to 1970 inclusive… The plan included the introduction of the 100 inch Station Wagon in 1970, and a P8 car early in 1971.’
The Station Wagon referred to was the Range Rover. After being a paper project since 1964, the decision to go ahead with the P8 seems to have been taken. But what kind of car would it be?