Ian Nicholls, AROnline‘s historian-in-residence, tells the Rover-Triumph story, and their part in the downfall of the British motor industry.
The Rover-Triumph story: tomorrow’s car today
In February 1976, it was revealed that secret proposals in the Ryder Report calling for the closure of four factories in the Birmingham area were being discussed in public by Shop Stewards and employees.
At a participation meeting, Shop Stewards were shown confidential parts of the Ryder Committee’s recommendations for the reorganisation of British Leyland. They noticed red crosses marked against four Birmingham factories manufacturing component parts for vehicles assembled at Rover, Solihull. When they questioned management about this, they were told that these were recommended for closure as part of a general rationalisation of Rover’s fragmented set-up in the Midlands.
Plants earmarked in this way were Perry Barr (axles and transmissions), Percy Road (gearboxes), Tyseley (engine machining and building) and Tyburn Road (general components). Together they employed around 2000 work people. The Ryder Report proposed the factories should be closed and the work transferred to Triumph at Canley, Coventry, which would become the chief engine and transmissions source for the whole of Rover-Triumph. There was nothing new in this proposal. It had been mooted before Lord Ryder was called in. But the unions believed that under pressure from them it had been dropped.
Factories to close, plants to be rationalised
However, there had already been some movement of car assembly from Canley to Triumph, Liverpool to facilitate rationalised car production at these two factories. But the possibility of closures had assumed new importance because of advanced plans to reorganize Rover, Solihull to increase Land Rover and Range Rover production beginning in the summer of 1976.
The fact that confidential information was now being discussed openly by employees in the threatened factories had alarmed Derek Whittaker, the Leyland Cars Managing Director.
The British Leyland (Motor Corporation Combined) Trade Union Committee (BLTUC) had continually opposed compulsory redundancies ever since its formation in 1968 and had been successful in persuading management to fudge the whole issue again and again.
Engineers’ dispute escalates
The long-running dispute by Engineers that had begun in December 1975 when Leyland Cars attempted to integrate the Austin-Morris, Rover and Triumph Engineering and Development Departments, escalated on 12 March. Following several weeks of restrictive working, three Engineers at Triumph refused to handle transferred components and were sent home. About 700 more Engineers then walked out in protest. The strike lasted a week.
Then, on 18 March, British Leyland announced it was to invest an estimated £10 million in South Africa to produce a local version of the new Rover SD1 saloon at its plant there. British Leyland International (BLI), the British Leyland Limited operating company responsible for all overseas involvement, expected the SD1 to replace the ageing Triumph family saloon in the lucrative South African market where BLI sold some 15,000 cars a year.
The South African SD1 would use the R6, a 2623cc version of the Austin-Morris E6 engine first seen in the BMC 2200 and the Australian-only Austin Tasman and Kimberley models. The R6 had been created in Australia for the ill-fated Leyland P76. After Leyland Australia went belly up the tooling was transferred to South Africa.
A change at the top
On 5 April 1976 James Callaghan succeeded Harold Wilson as Prime Minister. A leading opponent of Barbara Castle’s ‘In Place of Strife,’ in 1969, James Callaghan believed in strong links between the Labour Party and the Trade Unions. He believed he could control inflation through pay restraint agreements with the TUC. He was also MP for the constituency that included Rover’s Pengam plant.
In a letter to all employees on 29 April, British Leyland revealed that all car production was to be phased out at the Triumph plant at Canley, Coventry, which employed some 8000 workers and had been making cars for 50 years, most of them under the Standard Motor Company banner.
As part of Leyland Cars big re-organization programme, assembly of Triumph cars would be transferred to other centres, and the Canley plant would become a giant central workshop turning out engines and gear boxes for future model ranges.
No real support from the unions
However, Leyland Cars still had to win the support of the unions for the reorganisation and convince the National Enterprise Board (NEB) that its operations were going to be economic since they would involve millions of pounds worth of investment in new equipment. The Leyland Cars proposals, which had been put to union and shop floor representatives through the company’s new worker participation machinery, envisaged the phasing out of car production at Canley beginning in 1977, to be completed by 1980.
At a news conference in Coventry, Geoffrey Whalen, Leyland Cars’ Personnel Director, was at some pains to stress that no large-scale redundancies were expected to result from the scheme, although he did concede that there would have to be an ‘interim period’ during which the workforce at Canley would be reduced.
He said many assembly workers would be offered the chance to transfer to other plants, like the new one at Solihull, which would be taking over production of Triumph models, including the Dolomite range and others yet to be announced. This was confirmation that the SD1 plant had excess capacity.
Canley workers retrained
There would also be a major re-training programme to equip workers for new jobs in the proposed workshop complex at Canley. Geoffrey Whalen said the company plans had so far met with an ‘encouraging response’ from Shop Stewards at the Canley plant. But it would be ‘kidding ourselves’ to suggest that there might not be ‘an emotive response from some people to the ending of car making at Canley.’
Geoffrey Whalen said the move did not in any way mean that the Triumph ‘grand image’ was on its way out. Production of sports cars and light saloon cars under the Triumph label would continue. In its letter to the Canley workers, signed by the two Plant Directors, Fred Young and Maurice Andrews, Leyland Cars said:
‘In the long term this will mean as many, or more, jobs at Canley, with more stable prospects. We are confident that we will be able to employ everyone who wishes to remain with Leyland Cars. We do not see ourselves facing compulsory redundancy. During the period of change we will be offering opportunities to continue in vehicle assembly when models transfer and when other recruitment needs develop.’
The Canley Shop Stewards then embarked on a campaign to keep car production in Coventry.
New model plans take shape
In May 1976, Leyland Cars Product Planning submitted to the British Leyland Board its recommendations for a new medium range car, codenamed LC10, incorporating the following features:
- Front-wheel drive.
- The first of the LC10 family was to be a hatchback, followed by a notchback.
- A good performance fully competitive with the opposition cars.
- An excellent package to maintain Leyland Cars lead in this area.
- A very airy package with a lot of glass area.
The new model would be conceived as a family of cars to obtain the maximum commonality in both body structure and manufacturing facilities, leading to a series of derivatives covering the whole medium sector. Outstanding economy was to be matched with low weight, while good aerodynamics had to be combined with good stability on the road, especially in high cross winds. A high specification level would be offered, with many features as standard. The new range would also be engineered from the start to meet world market requirements.
This was the start of the car that evolved into both the Austin Maestro of 1983 and the Austin Montego of 1984. It was also the end of the short-lived TM1 programme and any hope that the Triumph Dolomite would be replaced.
Investment in Wales
On 18 May, British Leyland announced £11 million development plans for a plant which, only a year earlier, had been facing a big reduction in its capacity. The money would go on two new projects at the Pengam works at Cardiff.
Lance Humphries, the Manufacturing Manager, said: ‘We are exploring limited recruitment. Our future is a lot brighter than it has been for some time.’
The works would build LT77 gearboxes for the company’s TR7 sports car and the Rover SD1, and would also produce engine components for the Rover when the new projects were in full operation. In just 12 months, Pengam had recovered from a two- or three-day working week and minor voluntary redundancies among its 1050 workers, to a regular five-day week.
Triumph TR7 and Rover SD1 go on sale
The following day the Triumph TR7 went on sale in the UK. The next month the MGB was withdrawn from the European market pending the introduction of the Triumph TR7 in Europe. On 17 June the millionth Land Rover was produced. Leyland Cars had now taken on an extra 2500 to 3000 men at the new Solihull factory, and introduced an extra shift at Triumph, Liverpool.
Then, on 30 June 1976, the Rover SD1 was at last launched to great acclaim. Derek Whittaker, the Managing Director of Leyland Cars, said at the time: ‘This new Rover embodies so much of our strategy for the future. It has beautiful styling and excellence of engineering, superb road holding and exceptional fuel economy. It is a car very much in time with the requirements of the market now and in the future.
‘It is also worthy of note that in putting together this £95 million investment in this new model and new production facilities we have for the first time in the history of our specialist car marques planned the project from the start in an aggressive manner. We were and are convinced that this product can sell worldwide in exceptionally high volumes so all of our planning capacity, product derivatives, marketing and home and overseas selling was, and is, designed to ensure that this is a reality.’
The Rover SD1’s troubled birth
So much for the official line… Now for the reality: Leyland Cars new £31 million Rover car plant at Solihull had managed to produce barely half the planned number of units for the official launch of the Rover 3500. The company had intended to have 2700 units available in the showrooms on launch day, but nearly 1000 cars were still at the factory awaiting final completion.
The plant, one of the most advanced in Europe, was producing just 100 cars a day, using just one of the three production lines. The target for the SD1 3500 model was 2000 units a week, but this was thought unlikely to be reached before the spring of 1977. The management blamed teething troubles associated with any major new development of this sort for the shortfall in launch date stocks, and emphasised that labour relations had not been a problem since a three-week strike was settled at the end of 1975.
The Solihull complex, which included the existing Rover and Land Rover plants, remained one of the three production complexes within British Leyland which had not yet completed its worker participation structure.
An end of eras
Another problem was that, because the Rover P6 (above) remained in production at the North Block at Solihull until the six-cylinder SD1 came on stream in 1977, the new SD1 was being built by an inexperienced labour force.
On 14 July, the last ever Triumph TR6 left the production line. That same month the last MGB GT V8 was also produced. In mid-October, 330 new workers were being taken on to ‘activate’ a second Rover SD1 3500 assembly line in the new plant built specially for the new car.
A further 500 workers would be progressively transferred from the P6 Rover 2200/3500 assembly line in the North Works adjoining. With the two lines operating, production would in theory increase from 400 cars a week to around 1200. Talks were under way with the unions for the introduction of a night shift on the No 1 assembly line early in 1977 and on the No 2 line later.
Rover slammed for not making enough SD1s
Leyland Cars management had been much criticized by its dealers for not taking earlier steps to increase output of what most regarded as the most promising executive car since the Jaguar XJ6. So great was demand that dealers were quoting six months’ delay in delivery. The shortage had created a black market, with the Rover SD1s changing hands at up to £1250 above the recommended retail price of £4750.
In 1976 Leyland Cars built 8738 Rover SD1s, compared with 7235 for the first full year of P6 production in 1964. Back in 1964 Rover had not felt comfortable with the quality of the P6s leaving Solihull and had restricted production while it resolved the quality issues, bringing in Bernard Jackman to help on production matters.
At the end of 1976, the issue confronting Leyland Cars was the quantity not quality of the SD1, for the new car seemed to have the beating of Europe’s finest.