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 eleventh part, he relates how the Specialist Car Division started to work together following the previous year’s massive merger between Leyland Motors and BMC, which created the British Leyland Motor Corporation.
The story of Rover and Triumph: growing pains
The new year of 1969 began with Sir Donald Stokes, the Chairman of British Leyland, being given a peerage. However, this good news was somewhat scuppered by a strike by 75,000 longshoremen in all the US East Coast shipping ports which was causing problems for BLMC exports.
On 10 January, the media was shown the new Triumph TR6 sports car at Canley. The event was hosted by George Turnbull, Cliff Swindle and Spen King. They apologised for the absence of Lord Stokes, who was suffering from influenza. The full detail of what was said can be read here.
Cliff Swindle said at the event: ‘We are currently producing for the Saab company in Sweden, 400 per week of the new Triumph 1700cc overhead camshaft engine. What I am not prepared to tell you is when you will see this in a Triumph car.’ The TR6 was officially announced on 14 January 1969.
In place of strife – how to tackle strikes
The next day a Government White Paper – ‘In Place Of Strife’- largely drafted by Prime Minister Harold Wilson and Employment and Productivity Minister Barbara Castle, was published. This was the Prime Minister’s response to the strikes which were hampering his Government’s planned economy.
Among its numerous proposals were plans to force unions to call a ballot before a strike was held and the establishment of an Industrial Board to enforce settlements in industrial disputes. However, opposition from the trade unions, cabinet ministers led by Home Secretary James Callaghan and within the governing Labour Party resulted in the proposals being watered down and then a settlement was eventually reached with the Trades Union Congress whereby the proposals were dropped.
Rover’s Pengam plant was in James Callaghan’s Cardiff South East constituency. Strikes there regularly disrupted Rover production.
Stokes on BLMC rationalisation
On 30 January, Lord Stokes, at a lunch in London, again outlined that he was opposed to a brutal rationalisation programme at British Leyland. He said: ‘We didn’t join BMC and Leyland together to destroy it. We formed it to give our people a sense of permanent employment.’
This would have been about the same time as The Beatles performed live on the roof top of their Apple building.
On 12 February, Standard-Triumph announced further expansion plans for their new Liverpool body-finishing plant. The new extensions, covering a further 500,000sq ft, would cost £10.5m and were part of a plan to double the company’s labour force in Liverpool to more than 3000.
Expansion in Liverpool
Expansion at the Speke Hall Road site had been brought in, in two phases. The total cost of the extensions was £200 million and would raise car production to between 175,000-200,000 units a year. Phase One, which was already partially operative, covered another 500,000sq ft, and provided body phosphating and priming facilities for up to 100,000 bodies and finish painting and trimming facilities for up to 50,000 bodies annually.
Cliff Swindle, Director and General Manager of Standard-Triumph International, said: ‘During the past two years the demand for Triumph cars has steadily increased and we look forward to the time when both phases of this new Liverpool plant are fully operative so that our supply can keep pace with demand.’
This new plant would become known as Speke No.2.
Jaguar XJ6 starts to take off and Rover P10 takes shape
The same month Jaguar started night shifts to ramp up XJ6 production, a clear indicator that the model was taking off in a big way. In March, the Rover Company announced that it had appointed Jack Rosbrook as Executive Director of Industrial Relations and Ronald Phillips as Executive Director of Production at Solihull. That same month an initial briefing took place for the P10 project, which was intended to replace the Rover P6 – with the Rover P8 now evolving into an altogether larger car, a direct Rover P6 replacement was needed.
On 16 April, it was announced that former Leyland Director Jim Slater, now a multi-millionaire from the success of his Slater Walker business, which was making profits of £9 million a year, was to become a Director of the British Leyland Motor Corporation.
‘I’ve a strong sentimental attachment to the company. And it will be great to work again with my old boss Lord Stokes, even though I will be putting in only about one day a month. I hope to be able to contribute a good deal of help in my particular subjects of finance,’ said Slater.
Triumph sets out its Lynx project
The same month Lord Stokes told the British Leyland Board that there were 100 outstanding labour disputes and that union officials and stewards were losing their power over the shop floor. On the industrial relations front, things seemed to be going from bad to worse, with strikes now all too regular.
On 9 May, Standard-Triumph held a Board meeting. With the TR6 on the market, attention now switched to its successor, at this stage codenamed ‘Lynx’. ‘Lynx’ was a codename applied to more than one vehicle but, at this stage, it was a 2+2 coupe.
The new slant-four engine developed for Saab was a likely contender for ‘Lynx’. The General Manager, Cliff Swindle, stated that, ‘ten prototypes were being constructed to enable a full test programme to be carried out with the minimum of delay. The vehicle was to be introduced in March 1972.’
Potential MG and Triumph clashes identified
Michelotti in Turin was commissioned to build these prototypes over seen by Standard-Triumph International’s own Les Moore. Despite his responsibilities for Austin-Morris, George Turnbull was still that company’s Deputy Chairman and was recorded as suggesting that, ‘it seemed likely that the market would be big enough for competition between MG and Triumph, although a final decision had not yet been taken on this point.’
This was an interesting statement, suggesting that Standard-Triumph and MG could continue to operate independently of each other.
One of the first non-Leyland appointments to a key position since BMH and Leyland merged a year before was announced on 15 May. A.B. Smith, 58, was named as the next Managing Director of Rover, the company he had joined 44 years earlier. He succeeded William Martin-Hurst, 65, who was due to retire on 1 October 1969.
William Martin-Hurst died in a car crash in February 1989 at the age of 85 years. Later that year Land Rover introduced the Discovery model, yet another vehicle using the iconic V8 discovered by Martin-Hurst.
Some time in 1969 the Rover P6BS was resurrected. The Rover Styling Department was asked to design a production style and a full-size clay model of the design, now codenamed P9 was made, but the impetus again evaporated.
Leyland on strike
On 19 May, 8500 workers at Leyland’s five truck plants in Lancashire began a pay strike which lasted until 4 July. The vehicle factories on which the whole town of Leyland depended had a remarkable record of trouble-free labour relations and this was the first strike of any size for nearly 40 years. How had it come about?
The origins lay in the BMH/Leyland merger and the subsequent claim by workers in Lancashire plants for parity with the group’s Midland car workers. Jaguar historians would claim that the merger with BMC infected the Coventry concern with militancy.
In reality industrial relations at Jaguar were dire before 1966, but the claim of infection did have some validity with regards to the former Leyland companies. The British Leyland (Motor Corporation Combined) Trade Union Committee (BLTUC) was now sharing wage rates with Shop Stewards throughout the company, and the demand for parity and then maintaining differentials was causing trouble throughout British Leyland, not just in Austin-Morris.
Industrial action begins to bite hard
From the point of view of the working man, they were toiling away in often unpleasant and dirty conditions for a company that continually boasted of record sales and investment and was protected in the home market from imports by a 30 per cent trade barrier.
The notion that striking for better pay and conditions would forfeit Britain’s industrial heritage within a decade and a half probably seemed laughable. The Leyland strike in the summer of 1969 was the most obvious manifestation of the general decline in BLMC’s industrial relations, but was a direct consequence of merging companies with different wage structures.
‘Lord Stokes hosted a visit by Volkswagen executives, including Dr Kurt Lotz the CEO, to the Rover Solihull plant. Except the plant was at a standstill because of a strike by 3000 workers.’
Although many wanted to believe in Communist conspiracies, there was a more rational explanation to be found in aspirations for a more level playing field in British Leyland’s wage structure, combined with an inflation rate that was now heading inexorably upwards. The worsening industrial relations embarrassed the British Leyland Chairman.
On 22 May Lord Stokes hosted a visit by Volkswagen executives, including Dr Kurt Lotz the CEO, to the Rover Solihull plant. Except the plant was at a standstill because of a strike by 3000 workers. Up to the end of June 1969, the vehicle and cycle industries had lost 1,133,000 working days through strikes, compared with 602,000 in the first half of 1968.
Triumph 2000 updated to Innsbruck-spec
Then there was more headline grabbing news in August 1969. Since 1967 Standard-Triumph and Michelotti had been working on a facelifted 2000/2.5PI saloon, with the codename ‘Innsbruck.’
Although Technical Director Spen King preferred the Mk1 look, the new Mk2 ‘Innsbruck’ took its styling cues from the forthcoming Stag model. The plan was to start building the ‘Innsbruck’ in September to build up stocks for its announcement at Motor Show time in October.
Probably some models were assembled in August, because on the sixth day of the month some 200 members of the National Union of Vehicle Builders walked out after a ruling by the factory demarcation committee that the two other unions at Canley, the Transport and General Workers’ Union and the Amalgamated Union of Engineering and Foundry workers, should tighten two screws on the revised Mk2 2000/2.5 PI car dashboards.
…but introduction hampered by strikes
After a meeting the next day, the three unions involved in the inter-union dispute at Canley named three senior union officials who would visit the factory in the next 10 days to adjudicate, provided the strikers agreed to resume working. They were Charles Gallagher, NUVB General Secretary, Bob Wright of the AEF and Moss Evans, of the TGWU.
The inter-union dispute was resolved on 11 August when the 200 NUVB men on strike agreed to an inquiry by the three unions involved. However, Canley production was hampered at the time by a two-week strike of delivery drivers. Then, on 27 August, nearly 1150 workers walked out at the Standard-Triumph Wood End, Speke No.1 factory in support of a pay claim.
Moreover, to compound this, a six-week strike began at the Rover plant at Pengam, Cardiff, stopping the supplies of transmissions to Solihull.
Project Lynx: development continues
The Standard-Triumph Board met on 10 October to discuss future plans, though at the time all production was halted because of the strike at Speke No.1. On the agenda was the proposed ‘Lynx’ sports car project.
General Manager Cliff Swindle said that he had, ‘discussed with the Chief Engineer (Spen King) the possibility of producing an open top sports car which could be known as the Lynxette during the period while the new BMC/Triumph ‘commonised” Sports car was being developed. It was agreed that a proposition this kind would be worth further consideration.’
In October, Standard-Triumph announced the new revised Mk2 ‘Innsbruck’ 2000/2.5 PI saloons, a launch that was overshadowed by the Speke strike.
Industrial unrest deepens
On 22 October the 1150 Speke No.1 engineering workers, who were now in the ninth week of their unofficial strike, had been promised full support from the other workers in the British Leyland group. A meeting at Birmingham of the British Leyland (Motor Corporation Combined) Trade Union Committee (BLTUC) – the unofficial organisation of Shop Stewards which claimed to represent the 185,000 workers in the group – decided to call a one-day strike of all workers on 10 November unless there was a satisfactory settlement of the Liverpool dispute by then.
Dick Etheridge, Joint Chairman of the BLTUC, said: ‘We will continue to support anyone who tries to get parity of wages in this organisation. The workers in Liverpool are getting about £9 a week less than men doing similar work in Coventry.’
A week later Employment and Productivity Minister Barbara Castle ordered a court of inquiry into the 10-week-old Standard-Triumph strike, which had cost £8m in lost production. Her action followed a breakdown in talks between Department of Employment and Productivity officials, unions and the firm. Both sides in the dispute were so far apart that Ministry officials could not bring them together in the same room.
Strikes, fire and dreadful luck
By now, 9000 Standard-Triumph employees had been laid off because of the dispute. Worse was to come… During this period Rover experienced a strike because of a strange smell traced to an undersealing bay, but then on 6 November came disruption of a different kind.
A fierce fire at the Rover car factory in Solihull, was tackled by more than 50 firemen in the Trim Shop area, where new vehicles were assembled. After early reports put the damage as up to £200,000, Lord Stokes said: ‘We hope it is not as serious as we first thought, but obviously we will have to wait and see. I am going there first thing in the morning.’
When the fire started workers rushed in and rescued 40 new models of the P6 Rover 2000/3500, valued at about £50,000. Lord Stokes (above) praised their action saying: ‘I understand people going in on the night shift got the cars clear. They did a very good job indeed.’
Police sealed off the 300 foot by 600-foot Trim Shop and, after an hour and a half, it was contained by the fire brigade. But conditions made it impossible for any work to be carried out, and the 700 workers were sent home. An official of Rover said that the assembly line had not been damaged and production would be on the move again the next morning. It was hoped to resume full production by Monday, 10 November.
Triumph men go back to work
On that day the Standard-Triumph strikers at Speke No.1 at last voted to return to work after being out for eleven long weeks. It was clear from statements made afterwards that the decisive factor in ending the dispute was a personal undertaking given to the strike leaders by Lord Stokes, the British Leyland Chairman.
The strike had made 11,000 car workers idle and cost £11 million in production. The fact that employees had both the will and the stamina to stay out on strike for 11 weeks did not augur well for the future of Standard-Triumph.
And this was only the beginning. Gradually the public would come to associate Standard-Triumph with labour disputes and, with an unhappy workforce, the brand’s image for quality would slip. All this meant that Standard-Triumph’s financial contribution to British Leyland’s coffers would gradually fade away.
American frustration at Triumph
Bruce McWilliams of British Leyland Motors Inc. had visited Britain just as the return to work was occurring. Back in the USA, he wrote a memo expressing his frustration at the level of supply to its most important market, which after the damaging dispute was not surprising. While in the UK Bruce McWilliams had seen a model of the proposed ‘Lynx’ sports car.
He wrote: ‘A number of recommendations have been made on Lynx. The more substantive one involves adoption of disappearing windshield wipers which involves some larger reworking but this has been agreed on. Lynx will come out in the fall of 1972 as a 1973 model. Spen King has promised to provide us with tentative performance figures for each of the engine possibilities together with probable pricing as a basis for determining USA specification, engine wise.’
By mid November, Standard-Triumph had a running ‘Lynx’ prototype. In late November, British Leyland announced that Pat Lowry, Director of the Engineering Employers’ Federation, was joining the group to head the effort to tackle its huge strike problem. Pat Lowry would become British Leyland’s Director of Industrial Relations starting on 1 April 1970.
At the same time BLMC said Barry Mackie, Director of Personnel and Industrial Relations in the Austin-Morris division, and until now the man handling the group’s industrial relations, would join the Board. Both men, said BLMC, would have ‘clear cut briefs’ relating to the group’s industrial relations.
Although BMC/Austin-Morris had been looked on as a basket case, at least Barry Mackie and his team had managed to contain the disputes occurring there during a year that had seen new UK car sales alarmingly dip below the one million mark. British Leyland’s most damaging strikes had been at Leyland, Speke and Pengam, all formerly part of the Leyland Motor Corporation.
Austin-Morris managed to produce more Minis and ADO16 1100/1300s than the year previously, while Rover and Triumph produced marginally less. So ended 1969 and the decade dubbed for posterity as the ‘Swinging Sixties.’
Looking forwards with some hope for the 1970s
For Rover the future still looked bright with the game-changing Range Rover on the horizon. However, for Standard-Triumph, now infected by militancy on the shop floor, the future was altogether different.
BLMC Finance Director John Barber recalled in the 1980s: ‘When we came in 1968, the Shop Stewards practically ran Standard-Triumph. This all went back to Sir John Black’s day. He destroyed labour relations, because to stop the workforce going to someone big, like Austin, he paid them more, relaxed discipline and made the factory a nice place to work in.
‘The unions certainly had more control there than at Longbridge. The Triumph assembly plant was certainly the worst in that respect that I’ve ever seen in the world by a long way, far worse than anything at BMC. It was dreadful.’
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- History : The Austin-Morris story – Part Ten : 1973 - 19 July 2021