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 seventeenth part, he tells the story of the lead up to the introduction of the Triumph TR7 and Rover SD1 – exciting times tinged with worries about the Government bailout and the Ryder Report.
The Rover-Triumph story: the shape of things to come
On New Year’s Day 1975, the MGB GT was withdrawn from the American market. This was to make way for Project Bullet, soon to be launched as the Triumph TR7 sports car. The next day Leyland Industries Belgium confirmed that it had closed its South Malines car assembly plant, which had been opened in 1960. Maximum capacity was 100 vehicles per day, but production had fallen to 25 per day.
While the labour movement navel-gazed and discussed how much workers control should be imposed on British Leyland, the company got on with the task of launching the TR7 in the important North American market. On 8 January, British Leyland announced that 500 new jobs were being created at its plant at Speke on Merseyside to launch the TR7.
Lord Stokes said that he expected at least 12,000 of the cars would be sold in 1975. However, the new model would not be available in Britain and Europe until 1976.
Launching the Triumph TR7 in the USA
The North American Triumph TR7 launch was to take place in Boca Raton, Florida on 18 January 1975. British Leyland had managed to scrape together 35 press cars for its Leonia-based subsidiary to use as demonstrators. The quality of these cars was appalling and lacking the manpower for rectification, the men from Leonia called on the Group 44 race team for help.
Group 44 cannibalised the 35 cars to create 17 drivable TR7s for the press. Triumph Technical Director John Lloyd arrived to be confronted by a further 15 technical faults for which he had no answers. The staff at Leonia were not impressed with the TR7 which they viewed as tame and gutless in comparison with the TR6 and poorly assembled with poor quality materials.
The Triumph TR7 was publicly announced on 20 January as British Leyland’s corporate sports car.
Rover-Triumph’s huge investment in Merseyside
The TR7 represented an investment of £11 million and was built at the Triumph factory at Speke, near Liverpool. The eventual production target was between 60,000 and 70,000 cars a year. This target was clearly arrived at by adding annual TR6 production to that of the MGB.
The problem with that was the MGB continued beyond 1976 when the TR6 ceased production, in part because the expected ban on convertible cars in the USA failed to materialise. British Leyland also needed to sell the MGB roadster in the North American market, as it had no TR7 convertible.
In effect, the TR7 was only the British Leyland corporate sports car for one year and that year was 1981. The cumulative effect of retaining the older sports cars in production resulted in reduced sales for the TR7 and impacted on its entire financial viability.
Pinning British Leyland’s hopes on the USA
Lord Stokes said at the launch: ‘We want to see the TR7 earn a lot of money in America. It has an excellent pedigree and comes from a line of TR sports cars which have won a lot of friends in the US and all over the world.’
Harris Mann added: ‘There was this tremendous amount of paperwork flowing across from the States giving notice of new regulations which meant changes and styling detours.’
On 7 February, Canley produced the last fuel-injected Triumph TR6, having decided to abandon the troublesome Lucas Petrol Injection system.
Meanwhile, in the background…
On 26 March, the Ryder Report (above) was handed to the Government for its perusal. On the same day, the Rover-Triumph Advisory Board met, and minutes from the Jaguar and Rover-Triumph Advisory Board were taken.
In them, the Rover-Triumph Managing Director Bernard Jackman stated: ‘Neither the Bullet nor SD1 should be sacrificed for Triumph SD2… we should try to clear all matters affecting Bullet before we become to much involved in SD1.’
It was clear that the production problems of the Triumph TR7 were inhibiting Rover-Triumph’s forward programme and that the SD2 would have to be put on the back burner until these were resolved. On 2 April, the first American customers received their new shiny TR7 sports cars. The same month A.B. Smith retired as Rover Chairman after 50 years with the company. April also saw Rover build the first pre-production SD1 for further assembly methods development.
Jobs threat leads to industrial action
On 22 April, the same day as the Cabinet discussed the Ryder Report, Shop Stewards at Solihull were told that they must accept another 500 redundancies or start three-day working. The company had already called for 250 voluntary redundancies at Solihull – so far, only 150 applications had been received.
Two months earlier, production of Rover cars, presumably the P6 2200/3500, was reduced from 950 a week to 630 and some workers were transferred to Land Rover or Range Rover production. Demand for these models was still buoyant and was not being met despite overtime. On the other hand, sales of Rover saloons had continued to fall despite a big advertising campaign emphasising the low depreciation of P6 Rover 2200/3500 saloons.
Shop Stewards said that the company planned to cut output still further to around 450 a week. The unions were understood to favour short-time working and were pressing management to call in outside contract work.
Ryder Report brings swift changes at Rover-Triumph
Two days later, the Ryder Report was published. Lord Stokes was promoted to the role of President of British Leyland to be replaced by Finance Director Alex Park. John Barber, the one man who had consistently warned that British Leyland’s financial performance was not good enough, was fired altogether.
On the subject of engineering, the Ryder Report stated: ‘We next examined BL’s engineering resources and facilities to see whether they would be capable of carrying out this extensive programme of product development and rationalisation. We consider that the dispersed and fragmented organisation of BL product development engineering is a serious weakness.
‘We propose that the skills concerned with various aspects of product development, product planning, styling engineering and vehicle engineering should be: brought within a single product development organisation for cars and that there should be a similar organisation for trucks and buses.’
British Leyland reorganised
The report recommended that British Leyland was divided up into four separate businesses:
- British Leyland Cars
- British Leyland Trucks and Buses
- British Leyland Special Products
- British Leyland
The Ryder Report was overly optimistic in its assertions of market share. The plan was that for every £1 million British Leyland made in profit, a further £1.5 million would be invested by the state. This turned out to be wishful thinking.
Eddie McGarry, the Joint Chairman of the British Leyland (Motor Corporation Combined) Trade Union Committee (BLTUC) and the Convener at Triumph Coventry, said: ‘We would have preferred outright nationalisation, but we are delighted that the only reference to cuts in the labour force talks of more realistic manning levels. We cannot see any redundancies arising as a result of this because, given an injection of capital of this size to invest in new equipment, we shall be able to gear ourselves to higher output ready for the expected improvement in world markets. I think you will find now that all the indecision about our future has been swept away, the trade unions will match up to whatever responsibility is laid at their door.’
The unions flex their muscles
The assertion by the leading Shop Stewards and others on the left that employees would stay at their workstations because British Leyland was owned by the benevolent state and not by greedy private shareholders was woefully misplaced.
Eddie McGarry also made it clear that the unions wanted a big say in top-level decisions. ‘We want to know what the role of the trade unions is going to be at the top, the people who will produce the blueprint for the operation of the restructured company. It is no good expecting Conveners and Stewards and lower levels to be hallmarking a fait accompli. We see no reasons why we shouldn’t have a 50 per cent share in the decision-making,’ he said.
The unions, he said, would consider at a special meeting who would represent them on the Board. The possibilities for worker participation in decision-making would help to cut man-hours lost through disputes. ‘Obviously our people don’t want strikes for the hell of it and we shall be matching up to the responsibilities that are required from us,’ said Mr McGarry.
Don’t blame the workers, says Tony Benn
Trade and Industry Minister Tony Benn (above) gave a speech to the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers annual policy-making conference at Blackpool in which he said: ‘Attempts to blame workers for the state of the company are superficial, offensive and do not merit serious consideration. The real fault is a chronic lack of investment over many years. The Ryder Report has identified this lack in the manufacturing industry as having brought one of Britain’s greatest firms almost to its knees.
‘The choice now is to pull out of the British motor industry involving directly 160,000 jobs and affecting nearly a million jobs altogether – or to undertake a major re-equipment programme involving public ownership and a major advance in industrial democracy.’
Tony Benn was now of the opinion that ordinary workers knew how to run a business better than its managers, many of whom were ex-apprentices who had dedicated their lives to the British motor industry.
The end of the line for Rover-Triumph
On 30 April, the Rover-Triumph Advisory Board met for the last time. The new heads of British Leyland’s new operating structure were announced on 6 May. Rover-Triumph found itself lumped into Leyland Cars along with all the other constituent car manufacturers.
Derek Whittaker (right) became Managing Director of Leyland Cars as the new division was called, with Rover’s David Bache as Director of Styling. Whittaker had joined British Leyland from Ford as Finance Controller before becoming Managing Director of body and assembly operations. Every day Derek Whittaker was driven 200 miles to work and back from his Henley home.
On 12 May, Derek Whittaker announced a top team of 15 to help him in the running of the combined Austin-Morris, Jaguar, Rover, Triumph operation with its 120,000-strong labour force. Immediate reaction included the resignation of Geoffrey Robinson, Managing Director of Jaguar.
New management sweeps into Leyland cars
The key appointments were those of Bill Davis, manufacturing; Spen King, engineering and development; Keith Hopkins, sales and marketing; Geoffrey Whalen, personnel, Alan Sheppard, service and parts; Richard Perry, power train and foundries, and Ian Showan, body and assembly.
A surprise appointment was that of Brigadier Charles Maple as Quality Director. He joined British Leyland only a few months earlier as Corporate Standards Manager, coming straight from 35 years’ army service and the top job in the quality assurance directorate for fighting vehicles. Tony Thompson, Director and General Manager of Cowley operations, was appointed Operations Director for large cars and would act as Chairman of the Jaguar Operating Committee.
However, Jaguar Technical Director Bob Knight soon persuaded Derek Whittaker to keep Jaguar engineering as a separate entity. The notion that Jaguar was superior to every other manufacturer on the planet would not be eradicated until the Ford takeover in 1990.
Unions, Ryder and British Leyland in talks
Demands for effective worker participation and consultation as the price of the workers’ full cooperation in the Government’s plans for British Leyland were again pressed strongly on 14 May at a meeting between national trade union officials and company Shop Stewards with Tony Benn, the Secretary of State for Industry, and Sir Don Ryder, the Government’s industrial adviser.
The next day John Carpenter, the Sales and Marketing Director of Rover-Triumph, resigned. He soon found a similar place at Rolls-Royce. Carpenter’s resignation was seen as further evidence of the resentment felt within the specialist car companies because the top sales jobs had all gone to Austin-Morris men despite the specialist sales teams had a much more successful record.
In a formal statement from British Leyland, John Carpenter said: ‘I do not want to say anything which will make the task of the new team more difficult than it is. There were only a certain number of jobs to fill and specialist cars do not seem to have come off very well in the event. I believe that Rover-Triumph had a contribution to make to the new set-up as our record shows. But the decision has been made otherwise and we must now hope that it works for the taxpayers’ sake. It is essential that management morale is restored and leadership given as soon as possible.’
Triumph 2500: last gasp for Innsbruck
On 20 May, the Triumph 2500 was announced. In a nutshell it was an ‘Innsbruck’ saloon fitted with a 2498cc carburettor engine in place of the troublesome Lucas Petrol Injection system.
On 4 June there was a meeting of 500 British Leyland Shop Stewards. They were addressed by Moss Evans and Grenville Hawley, the Transport & General Workers’ Union top motor industry negotiators and Bob Wright, Midland member of the national executive of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers.
At a press conference later Bob Wright said: ‘We are critical of the Ryder proposals on worker participation because they could be interpreted as stopping short of actual participation in decision-making at the highest level. There are provisions for joint committees in the car and truck companies but nothing at corporate level.’
He said the union wanted ‘a full say’ in how the proposed £2000 million Government investment should he used. He added that he was not referring to worker representation on British Leyland’s main Board. That was a separate issue to the setting up of joint committees. But he hinted that the unions were pressing the Government in consultation with the TUC to nominate one or more British Leyland Directors representing organised labour.
Tony Benn out – Eric Varley in
On 10 June, the Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced a cabinet re-shuffle The Industry Minister, Tony Benn, switched places with Energy Minister, Eric Varley. At a stroke Harold Wilson had terminated any plans Tony Benn had for worker control of British Leyland at a high level. The belief that state ownership would solve industrial relations problems was soon dispelled. With an average inflation rate of 24.2 per cent for the year, trouble was just around the corner.
On 13 June, a strike began at the British Leyland subsidiary Alford and Alder at Hemel Hempstead over pay. The 800 strikers were demanding an interim pay increase of £10 a week. This was followed three days later when 10,000 workers in nine of British Leyland’s Rover car plants, seven in the Midlands and two in Cardiff, began a three-day strike over a pay demand.
The Alford and Alder dispute soon began to cause havoc at both Rover and Triumph as well as other parts of Leyland Cars. It was to last eight weeks and result in 18,000 workers being laid off. Gradually these disputes would snowball.
Bernard Jackman resigns
On 5 August, Bernard Jackman, the Managing Director of the former Rover-Triumph group, resigned. He said in a statement that his decision to leave after some 70 years of family association with the Rover Company should cause no surprise.
He said: ‘My decision to leave the corporation is one which should cause no surprise. After some 70 years of family association with the Rover Company, I would find it difficult to continue. I am naturally disappointed to see Rover-Triumph absorbed within the new car group.
‘British Leyland have an enormous challenge ahead of them and I would not wish to say anything that might make that task harder.’ British Leyland confirmed that Bernard Jackman had resigned and left the company.
It was understood that Bernard Jackman had already been offered seats on the Boards of three companies, including a motor components group.
The winds of change blow in for Rover
The departure of Bernard Jackman was in hindsight a hammer blow to the Rover brand. The Wilks brothers, William Martin-Hurst, Peter Wilks, George Farmer, A.B. Smith and now Bernard Jackman had all departed Solihull in various ways, the very men who had established Rover as a quality brand. It really was the end of an era. Three decades of mismanagement later the Rover marque would disappear forever.
On 11 August, the British Leyland Motor Corporation became British Leyland Limited with the British Government the majority shareholder. Alex Park officially became Managing Director and the new operating divisions came into being.
The next day the UK inflation rate peaked at 26.9 per cent. To firms like British Leyland it meant having to find the money to fund large wage rises and finding their price competitiveness being eroded in export markets. Britain had joined the European Economic Community (EEC) to eliminate a 30 per cent trade tariff on its exports in 1973 – now it seemed as if the status quo had been resumed.
Rover 3500 wins a wooden spoon
That summer of 1975 the Automobile Association awarded its Square Wheel Award to the ‘worst, most troublesome, new car of the year.’ Sadly, the AA’s judging panel gave it to VYU 472M, a P6 Rover 3500 purchased new in June 1974. The P6 needed three new engines, two new gearboxes, two new bellhousings and a new wiring loom before it had racked up 6000 miles. In its first 165 days it was off the road for 114 of them as well as having many other faults.
Triumph SD2 dies – briefly replaced by TM1
In September 1975, under the auspices of the new Leyland Cars regime and in the spirit of increased inter-divisional partnership, the Triumph SD2 was replaced by the TM1 project (for Triumph-Morris, above). TM1 was formalised as a proposal to the Product Planning Department in September 1975.
The reasoning behind its creation was described in a British Leyland document: ‘the case for commonality has remained a strong one, even though in the UK the current models compete in largely different market sectors. Moreover, recent events have made it clear that resources do not exist to develop two separate models in reasonable time.’
Leyland Cars had realised, like John Barber had back in September 1973, that the Triumph SD2 could be merged with the ADO77 Marina replacement to save capital. With UK Dolomite sales of around 30,000 per annum in a good year, the critical financial situation being faced by British Leyland could not justify a separate replacement in the form of the SD2.
Rover-Triumph’s plans start to unstitch
The Rover-Triumph expansion plan could be likened to a four-legged stool with the SD1, SD2, TR7 and Lynx as the legs. As each of these legs was amputated, the programme became less and less viable. The SD2 was earmarked for Speke No.2, TM1 would probably go to Longbridge or Cowley, leaving the TR7 operation up on Merseyside financially exposed.
By now the first Rover SD1s had gone through the new Solihull paint plant along with examples of the existing P6 2200/3500. On 3 September, Leyland Cars announced that Charles Skinner was appointed as Plant Director at the Triumph complex at Speke, replacing Tony Potter who had held the job since 1971. Charles Skinner joined Leyland Cars from Ford.
Michael Kemp took over as Manufacturing Manager of the operation at Speke.
Poor Triumph TR7 quality starts to bite
Tony Potter had successfully introduced Measured Day Work at the Speke plants back in November 1973, but the poor quality of TR7s emerging from the plant probably resulted in his dismissal by the centralised Leyland Cars. The traditional answer has always been to blame the Speke workforce as a bunch of work-shy militants. However, closer examination reveals a different story. Quite clearly the TR7 was not ready to go on sale to the American public in April 1975. It was underdeveloped and there were constant engineering changes to the car even as Speke No.2 was trying to produce them.
There were few Production Engineers on site and Foremen, in fear of their jobs if they did not produce the required quantities, allowed defective cars to pass quality checks. Communication with Engineers at Canley was done via the telephone or by post. In the 1960s Sir Donald Stokes had subtly boasted that Standard-Triumph thoroughly tested its cars before releasing them to the public, unlike BMC.
Now in early 1975 British Leyland had rushed a Triumph into the showrooms before it was ready with disastrous consequences, and while Lord Stokes was still at the helm. One can surmise that both the TR7 and later ADO71 18-22 series were both rushed into production prematurely in a desperate effort to stave off British Leyland’s pending bankruptcy.
…as does Measured Day Work
Another problem was the implementation of Measured Day Work had resulted in an agreed quota system or Mutuality Agreement, whereby employees completed their required task often well within the stipulated time. At many British Leyland plants the workers went home early, at Speke No.2 they loitered around the plant until the end of their shift. Visitors to the home of the TR7 often remembered men hanging around doing nothing, giving the impression of an unproductive workforce. These were probably workers who had completed their shifts and were waiting to go home.
New Plant Director Charles Skinner soon made himself unpopular with the Speke workforce when he confronted a group of men who had completed their tasks and were playing cards. In late November plans to introduce worker participation at plant level were already under way, but not at Triumph Canley.
Workers at the factory held a secret ballot on the scheme and voted to reject it. British Leyland pointed out that there was no provision in the agreement with the unions for a ballot, and it considered that it had a duty to provide ‘the facility for all employees to be represented.’
A defeat for the unions
Leyland Cars intended to go ahead with the scheme, even if the Canley workers chose to be outside it. Two-thirds of the 7000 manual workers voted and the result was a majority of 434 against acceptance. The result was a particularly embarrassing one for Eddie McGarry, Convener of the Transport and General Workers’ Union at the plant. He led the trades union side in the talks with Leyland Cars about participation machinery.
He said: ‘I am very disappointed, but I am a democrat and I accept the decision, although I think if is extremely short-sighted. In effect, it means that everyone will be discussing our business and we will not be there to take part.’
During December 1975 Leyland Cars attempted to integrate the independent Engineering and Development Departments, which operated at Longbridge, Coventry and Solihull before the Ryder reorganisation. The three departments were merged into one engineering and product planning division under Spen King, the former Rover-Triumph Technical Director. However, in practice, only nominal rationalisation was possible because of the attitudes of the three groups.
Troubles merging Austin-Morris and Rover-Triumph
Engineers at each of these centres, formerly Austin-Morris, Triumph and Rover, refused to work on components interchanged between their departments. They objected to the different pay structures which applied to them. It meant, for example, that gearboxes produced at Triumph could not be mated with engines from Austin-Morris. Several weeks of restrictive working and resulted from this.
On 9 December, Derek Whittaker shocked 650 management and union representatives at a meeting held in private in Digbeth Civic Hall, Birmingham, by announcing that the company’s financial position was so serious that he had practically stopped all capital expenditure. This meant that, within six months of its formation, the largest company in the state-controlled British Leyland concern was being forced to break its commitment to the Government not to use money earmarked for capital investment to meet day-to-day running costs.
In its first six months, losses through unofficial strikes were as bad as in any six-month period since the old British Leyland Motor Corporation was formed in 1968.
The famous ‘Cat Pee Strike’ at Speke
The decline in industrial relations at Speke No.2 became clear on 15 December with the ‘Cat Pee Strike.’ Twenty-one men in the trim shop walked out on strike, complaining about dirt and smell caused by stray cats. Work stopped while cleaners spent 45 minutes scrubbing the floor.
Then the men protested that the floor was still wet and dangerous to work on. They decided to hold a meeting, having been warned by the management that if they did so they would not be paid for the time lost.
Earlier the management had agreed with shop stewards that payment should be made for the time when the workshop was being cleaned. At the meeting the 21 workers decided to strike as a protest against the management’s refusal to pay them. The dispute caused 600 lay offs and lasted three days.
Ending 1975 on a whimper, not a bang…
On 22 December, Bill Davis resigned as Manufacturing Director at Leyland Cars after alleged disagreements with his boss, Derek Whittaker, who had once been his junior. Bill Davis became Director of Military Contracts and Government Affairs. His successor as Director of Manufacturing was Richard Perry.
The new seven-strong top management team was now: Colin Daniel, Director of Finance and Systems; Bill Davis, Director of Military Contracts and Government Affairs; John Egan, Director of Service and Parts; Keith Hopkins, Director of Sales and Marketing; Spen King, Director of Engineering and Product Planning; Richard Perry, Director of Manufacturing; and Geoffrey Whalen, Director of Personnel.
In 1975 British Leyland had lost 12 per cent of production because of strikes and, in the closing months, this rose to 15 per cent – not a great way to end the first year under the control of the UK Government.
- History : The Austin-Morris story – Part Nine : 1972 - 6 February 2021
- History : The Austin-Morris story – Part Eight : 1971 - 14 December 2020
- The cars : Jaguar XJ (X350) development story - 29 November 2020