History : The Rover-Triumph story – Part Nineteen : 1977

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 nineteenth part, he gets under  of the Rover SD1‘s greatest failing – its sub-par build quality. All this, in the year that Sir Michael Edwardes takes the helm at the rapidly-sinking ship that is British Leyland.


The Rover-Triumph story: never mind the quality

On 18 January 1977 Leyland Cars warned Shop Stewards at its Castle Bromwich body plant that repeated failure to meet output targets was preventing the company from benefiting from the Car of the Year award for the new Rover 3500.

Production of bodies for the Rover SD1 was as much as 50 per cent below target, although this was set by an agreement with the Shop Stewards. Nearly eight months after the car was launched at a cost of £195 million, Solihull was turning out fewer than 400 cars a week, mainly because of Castle Bromwich’s failure to supply enough bodies. As a result, launch dates had to be postponed in several overseas markets where motorists were queuing to buy the car, described as, ‘the most exciting new model produced in Britain for over 20 years.’

Derek Whittaker, the Managing Director of Leyland Cars, had ordered a strong line in the talks with the Shop Stewards at Castle Bromwich. With overseas sales going begging, and a six-month waiting list on the home market, Whittaker was coming under increasing pressure to get the car out at any cost. The new Solihull assembly plant was limping along with two assembly lines manned to produce close to 900 cars a week. Like Castle Bromwich, it had plans for a night shift which would lift production to around 1400 a week, and ultimately to the now planned capacity of 2000.

Missed opportunities for Rover-Triumph

 pilot build TR7 Sprint's power unit as seen at Gaydon in 2018
Pilot-build TR7 Sprint’s power unit as seen at Gaydon in 2018

The next month Pilot Build of the 16-valve Triumph TR7 Sprint (above) began at both Canley and Speke. The TR7 Sprint used the LT77 gearbox now in production at Pengam for the Rover SD1. It is said that between 50 and 60 of these cars were built. Some had a Sprint EFi engine originally developed for the now cancelled Triumph SD2. At the same time Speke built some early TR8s, a TR7 body fitted with the Rover V8 engine.

The year of 1977 was British Leyland’s annus horriblus, when strikes crippled production. A year when the company competed with the Sex Pistols for the headlines. The first serious dispute was a strike by 1300 workers at the Castle Bromwich body-making plant, where another 2000 men were laid off.

They walked out when the 32 workers, all in the Paint Shop, received dismissal notices because they would not move to new jobs within the same plant. Much to Leyland Cars annoyance the strikers were backed by Jack Jones, the General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union. The strike halted Rover SD1 production. Then, when Castle Bromwich returned to work, the British Leyland tool makers struck. At the same time a dispute involving 350 Paint Shop workers had halted production at the Triumph Canley plant for a month.

The toolmakers did not vote to return to work until 17 March after a month of chaos. The various disputes effectively finished British Leyland as a volume car manufacturer as Ford tightened its grip on the UK market. Ford was now able to supply Britain with cars made in its continental factories because the trade tariffs which existed before Britain joined the EEC had been removed.

Many eras ended…

The Ford Granada was now made entirely in Germany. On 19 March 1977 the last Rover P6 of all was produced after a long and distinguished run. Two months later the last Triumph 2500S was built at Canley, the final car of the Barb/Innsbruck 2000/2500 series, in production since 1963. On 24 June it was the turn of the Triumph Stag to end production after a disappointing 25,939 cars. There was a replacement on the horizon in the form of the Triumph Lynx Mk2 complete with Rover V8 power, due to be launched in 1978.

On 8 August Leyland Cars disclosed plans for a £249 million investment over the next six years to double output of the Land Rover and Range Rover to 154,000 units a year. This was the plan, first mooted by Bernard Jackman in February 1974, to modernise the North Block at Solihull, now vacant after the end of P6 production in order to expand Land Rover and Range Rover production. Continuing demand for the multi-purpose Land Rovers was so great that Leyland Cars was now proposing more expansion than had been advocated in the Ryder Report on British Leyland only two years earlier.

In a statement, Leyland Cars said the expansion would have to be achieved without loss of existing output if it was to protect its 15 per cent share of the world’s four-wheel-drive market. Estimated at 500,000 units a year, it was growing at the rate of 5 per cent annually. The existing production plants at Solihull were stretched to the limit with long waiting lists.

Derek Whittaker, Managing Director of Leyland Cars said: ‘This market sector was originally developed by us and we are determined that we shall continue to dominate it. The unique capabilities of the Land Rover and Range Rover are universally renowned. They are in service in every country of the world and demand continues to outgrow our ability to supply. We must expand now to meet demand and win valuable export business for Britain.’

A further 3500 jobs would be added to Rover’s labour force, but the statement emphasised that wherever possible they would be transferred from other work within British Leyland. A 20-strong project team was created, headed by Michael Sheehan, an ex-Austin apprentice. He had been promoted from Operations Director, Birmingham Powertrain Operations, to Project Director of Four-Wheel-Drive Vehicles, and would report to Derek Whittaker.

Toolmakers’ strike causes havoc

Rovers 2300 and 2600
Rovers 2300 and 2600 were announced amid industrial chaos

Later that month a strike by Lucas toolmakers began to hurt Leyland Cars hard. Triumph was affected, but Rover managed to escape a production shutdown. At the same time 4000 men employed at the Rover plant at Solihull had rejected company plans to introduce a night shift because they claimed night working disrupted family life and caused health problems. They rejected management’s argument that night-shift working was essential if Leyland Cars was to exploit the tremendous demand for the Rover SD1.

Dealers were quoting delivery delays of between six months and a year for the model, which Leyland Cars executives predicted would become British Leyland’s biggest export winner of all time. Rover Shop Stewards called a press conference to announce that there would be an immediate strike if the company went ahead with plans to begin night working on 17 October. The unions wanted a 12-hour day shift.

Leyland Cars caved in to the union demands. On 18 October the Rover SD1 2300 and 2600 variants were announced. These smaller-engined SD1 models fitted with the Triumph-developed PE146 and PE166 engines replaced the P6 Rover 2200 and Triumph 2000/2500.

Personnel comings and goings

Sir Richard Dobson
Sir Richard Dobson

About this time Richard Perry, the Manufacturing Director of Leyland Cars, submitted his resignation from the company, giving as the reason ‘personal considerations’. He soon resurfaced at Rolls Royce Motors Limited as Managing Director and later Chairman. He was not the only executive from quality-challenged British Leyland to be recruited by luxury car manufacturers. He died in April 2005 just as MG Rover and Longbridge, the place where he was an apprentice, was entering its death throes.

Meanwhile, British Leyland’s part time Chairman Sir Richard Dobson (above) had made some indiscreet remarks at a private function which were recorded and released to the media. He promptly resigned and, while left-wing politicians demanded that his replacement was vetted by workers, the head of the National Enterprise Board, Sir Leslie Murphy, discreetly secured the services of a new full-time Chairman.

Also occurring at the time was a six-week-old strike by axle assemblers at Triumph Coventry. The stoppage had halted production of the Rover SD1 and the Triumph TR7 sports car for two weeks and 5000 Rover and Triumph workers had been laid off.

Speke sows the seeds of its own destruction

On 1 November at the Speke No.2 plant some 1500 workers walked out only a few hours after they had resumed work. They had been laid off for over three weeks by the axle assemblers strike since settled at Triumph, Coventry.

The trouble centred on management plans based on studies by Industrial Engineers to introduce new manning scales and work levels to improve productivity. Shop Stewards claimed that the company had broken a local agreement by taking a unilateral decision to implement these new arrangements. However, the company maintained that the decision to go ahead with the plans was taken only after national negotiating procedures had been followed when it became clear that no progress towards agreement could be made at plant level.

The Speke No.2 plant had an enviable labour relations record in the motor industry – prior to this strike, there had not had one for five years. That said, there had not been a full week of unbroken production since the last week of August 1977.

Sir Michael Edwardes arrives

Sir Michael Edwardes pictured in 1977
Sir Michael Edwardes pictured in 1977

On the same day the new British Leyland Chairman officially started work. He was Michael Edwardes. Before the year was out Alex Park would quit and in would come Ray Horrocks. On 21 November it was reported that Derek Whittaker, the Managing Director of Leyland Cars, had lost patience with the Shop Stewards at Rover and Triumph who were refusing to cooperate in the £249 million project to double output of the Land Rover and Range Rover.

With European and Japanese competitors threatening British Leyland’s world leadership in four-wheel-drive vehicles, he was considering replacing the existing proposals for expansion at existing plants in Solihull and Coventry with a new factory on a greenfield site. The possible choice of site was not disclosed.

Derek Whittaker’s tough line was intended to bring the Rover-Triumph Shop Stewards into line and also to ward off mounting opposition to British Leyland’s participation machinery. Shop Stewards at Solihull and Canley refused to join participation in the first place. Until they did, Derek Whittaker had said that he would not seek the approval of the National Enterprise Board or the Department of Industry for a huge capital investment project. One of the important benefits brought by participation had been step-by-step bargaining and agreement on manning and productivity levels for capital projects. Without shop floor commitments in those two key areas he believed he would be wasting taxpayers’ money.

Expansion in the SD1 department

Four days later, Leyland Cars announced that it was spending £16 million to expand production of the new six-cylinder PE146/166 engine which powered the Rover SD1 2300 and 2600. The announcement followed agreement with the Shop Stewards at Rover Solihull to raise weekly output of the range from 1100 to 1800.

The Shop Stewards’ refusal to introduce a night shift had been restricting production of the SD1. Now, under a compromise deal just concluded, they would operate a two-shift system (6am to 2pm and 2pm to 10pm) in areas where there were bottlenecks. At the same time, a third assembly line, originally intended for the Triumph Dolomite when it was moved from Coventry to Solihull, had been switched to Rover SD1 production.

Manufacture of the new engines was centred on plants at Pengam, Cardiff, and Canley, Coventry. At Canley a new £2 million transfer line was on order from KTM, which would raise capacity for the new engines to 1600 a week. Together with existing production of the V8 engine which powered the Rover 3500, this would give Leyland Cars sufficient engines for up to 3000 Rover SD1s a week.

Stay of execution for Canley – for now

On 1 December, Leyland Cars announced it would not be moving production of Triumph Dolomite saloons from Canley, Coventry, to the new SD1 plant at Rover, Solihull. But the company insisted that the move was a commercial decision, and not because of a year long campaign waged by Triumph Shop Stewards to keep car production in Coventry.

They mounted this campaign after the company announced plans in May 1976 to convert Canley into an important engine production centre by concentrating assembly of both Triumph and Rover saloons at Solihull. In a statement, Leyland Cars said it had changed its mind because of its continuing inability to meet demand for the Rover SD1.

Two of the three assembly lines installed at Solihull were originally earmarked for Rover production with the third being mothballed to await the transfer of the Dolomite. This line was now being activated for Rover production. The Solihull plant had originally been authorised in November 1972 to build 3000 Rover SD1s a week, although by the summer of 1976 the official line was that production of the Triumph Dolomite would move in there. However, the basic Dolomite design dated back to the Triumph 1300 of 1965 and could not go on forever, while its intended replacement, the Triumph SD2, had long since been cancelled.

The wheels come off the Rover SD1

By now production of the Dolomite at Canley had been halted due to the fact that the bodies were manufactured at strikebound Speke, where 2000 workers were still on strike with another 2000 laid off. It was in 1977 that the shine began to come off the Rover SD1 as owners and the motoring press began to discover that car was more mongrel than pedigree.

That year, Solihull managed to produce 26,537 SD1s despite the well-documented disruption to output. But all was not sweetness and light. While the national media continually hammered on about the low output of Britain’s newest car plant, the quality of the cars emerging from Solihull was diabolical. There were electrical problems which some attributed to Leyland Cars trying to knock Lucas down on price. There was water ingress in the boot area, the ends of the instrument binnacle tended to fall off and the new six-cylinder engines were unreliable.

Autocar reported on its Rover 3500 automatic, which it ran for a year and 11,900 miles: ‘The most disappointing feature about the Car Of The Year was the sad lack of quality control during building and the minimal pre-delivery inspection. Most major fault was a gap between windscreen and pillars, which allowed in rain and draughts. Hatchback door was badly fitted, and the front doors were re-hung and adjusted to get them to close properly and to cut down wind noise. The general fit and finish was also poor.’

The weekly also disliked ‘the sadly cheap sounding clang with which the doors shut – most inappropriate for a car of this class.’

Long-term test problems for the SD1

CAR magazine ran a similar specification SD1 for 20,000 miles. The vehicle suffered from numerous defects. The magazine added: ‘The finish in the boot annoys us to; it is carpeted, but looks more like a DIY job than something stemming from Britain’s most modern car factory…The latest bit to go on our car is the plastic cowling under the driver’s seat which just fell to bits… It needs and deserves to have silly things like the wind noise eliminated, it should have a more appealing dashboard and better instrumentation, the feeble plastic bits should be replaced by good quality fittings and the cabin would benefit from more attractive upholstery.’

Autocar also ran a 2600 automatic. One of its journalists wrote: ‘Little things saddened me; the way the fascia and instrument binnacle covering PVC material is crudely creased and stuck down at corners, the doors shut at a certain tinniness not found on cars that cost half as much… Without a partial respray the bodywork would now be very tatty. Rattling noises from the hatchback area indicate a degree of poor breeding in a car of such good looks and distinguished pedigree.’

The Managing Director of the company which owned Autocar magazine was George Fowkes. He reported on his SD1 in the magazine in August 1977 after only 750 miles, in a most forthright way. ‘The finish of the car on delivery was poor by any standards but by those of a near £5000 motor car it was downright disgusting… Significant disappointments included out of balance wheels, ill-fitting items of trim, numerous creaks and rattles, clonks from suspension, steering and transmission, a misaligned selector gate, a sticky throttle linkage, jerky electric window action and very poor cold starting accompanied by serious loss of power during the first mile or so of running after a cold start.’

Quality control was the killer

Quite clearly there was next-to-no quality control at Solihull, with local managers under pressure from Derek Whittaker and his Leyland Cars team to get the SD1 out of the plant and into showrooms as quickly as possible, regardless of any defects. Peter Grant, one time Production Manager at Solihull recalled: ‘I was at a dance at the Civic Centre in Solihull and a senior director of British Leyland came up to me and said, “You Rover people are all the same. You worry about quality. We want quantity. We’ve got to get this SD1 turned out in quantity”. Morale was very, very bad. We had sensible middle-aged people. They didn’t want to be sworn at or screamed at and threatened with the sack if they didn’t decide this that or the other. The Plant Director was despairing of the quality of the cars that were going into sales. It had to be seen to be believed.’

Perhaps the quality escaped through the panel gaps? One is left to conclude that the Rover SD1 was made to a price, with interior fittings and trim that had all the structural integrity of a paper bag, to compete with the still cheaper Ford Granada, when the Rover could have sold just as well with better quality fittings and a resulting higher price.

The cost controllers and marketing men had exploited the high quality image generated by the P6 to replace it with a cheaper to manufacture car which would be made in even greater volume. This thought process took no account of build quality and the expectations of prospective Rover buyers.

Launched at a price, built to a cost

The Ford Granada Mk2 arrived in 1977 and placed the Rover SD1's poor quality into sharp relief
The Ford Granada Mk2 arrived in 1977 and placed the Rover SD1’s poor quality into sharp relief

When launched in 1976 the Rover SD1 cost £4750 while its stablemate, the Jaguar XJ6 3.4 cost £5839. The SD1 was 22 per cent cheaper than the Jaguar, suggesting that there was plenty of room to manoeuvre for the Rover to use higher quality components – in fact, the SD1 was cheaper than rivals like the Audi 100 SE, Opel Commodore GSE, Peugeot 604 and Volvo 264 GL.

The BMW 528 sold for £6471 and the Mercedes 280 SE cost £8935. The best-selling Ford Granada Ghia Auto sold for £4329, 9.72 per cent cheaper than the SD1, and clearly many within British Leyland saw that car as the main opposition. Hindsight would suggest that, of all these cars, it was BMW who got the balance between price and quality right. It was the Rover brand and upmarket Fords that ended up in the dustbin of history despite undercutting the opposition.

As stated earlier, Rover could have been a British BMW, but British Leyland wanted it to be a British Ford. Another SD1 problem which only came to light after a few months was the poor quality of the much-vaunted thermoplastic paint finish from the new Solihull paint plant. The paint began to flake off causing corrosion around the wheel arches, bonnet and lower hatchback.

Solihull’s problems were killing the SD1’s quality

At the time management and Shop Stewards at Solihull admitted that problems associated with the £6.2m Paint Shop (with a total conveyor length of 4.1 miles) had been a major constraint on output. It was built to treat ‘perfect’ bodies from the Castle Bromwich body plant which never came up to standard and the resultant imperfections were aggravated by the special thermoplastic paint used, which showed up minute flaws in the body. These imperfections had to be rectified off the assembly line, thereby slowing down the production rate.

The problem with the paint plant was superimposed on the first major constraint on Rover SD1 output, the inability of the Castle Bromwich works to supply enough bodies. This had now been largely overcome by late 1977 because the body plant was on a two-shift system. The strikes of earlier in the year had resulted in a stockpile of unfinished cars outside the plant – at one stage, there had been 2700 awaiting completion.

There were constant complaints of ‘green’ labour. As one Shop Steward said: ‘They will have a one-day induction course, and then in two to three days become experienced operators. It’s one thing to learn the job in five minutes, but another to hold it at a rate of 15 to 16 vehicles an hour. You can’t expect quality immediately because there is a learning curve.’

Shop Stewards also complained of the lack of Industrial Engineers and a consequent lack of ‘standard times’ to assess work practices. Shop Stewards said that, even when the plant was producing cars, there was a surplus of labour, and pointed out that men doing little got accustomed to it and that would make it more difficult to persuade them to do the job they were employed to do when they had come to regard their present pace as the norm. There was also criticism of the frequency of management changes at the plant.

Shop Steward Jean Rivers said: ‘The first thing the shop floor always notices is the times they change management. They were changing them every three months. It just wasn’t running right.’

And to make things worse, in August 1977 the Ford Granada Mk2 was announced. The new Granada built on the strengths of the Mk1 with a more angular body shape. The Mk2 may have lacked the style of the Rover SD1, but it was well engineered, well made in Cologne and reliable. Time to get the Rover SD1 right was running out…

Back to History : The Rover-Triumph story – Part Eighteen : 1976

Forward to History : The Rover-Triumph story – Part Twenty : 1978

Ian Nicholls

Born in Bedfordshire but now residing in Norfolk, Ian Nicholls is an ardent BL enthusiast. Currently he owns a Jaguar and two classic Minis. A stalwart of the Norfolk Mini Owners Club for nearly a decade he is an enthusiast for all things Issigonis. A stickler for historical accuracy he has recently performed the marathon task of mining the online newspaper articles for all BMC>MG related stories. Ian is unable to help with technical queries – he pays other people to fix his cars!

7 Comments

  1. So many wasted opportunities here at R-T sadly at that time… Strategic planning (oh and build quality) could and have produced a niche BL range making money for the group. Could the Stag have been re-engineered and had a new lease of life like the XJS did? How well would the TR7 Sprints have done? Of course moving it from Speke to Canley to Solihull didn’t help the “bullet.” And what if the SD2 had been graced with SD1 styling with the Acclaim (eventually slotting below it?) it could and should have taken R-T into the 80s in a much stronger position in the market place… Hindsight is a wonderful beast!

  2. My brother worked for much of his career as a trouble-shooting engineer with Suzuki, going round agents sorting out problem bike engines. Never for a British bike manufacturer; I wonder why. Can anyone imagine a Japanese company run by the shop stewards?

    • I worked in management at Speke and can testify that the unions almost had a permanent position in the management offices, they were there every minute the plant was open, always pushing stupid agendas and threatening industrial action, they were not interested in discussion as that took away their power. They were a blight on the company, arrogant to the extreme, their common response to a refusal to capitulate to their demand was I can get you dismissed. I left the company in 1974 and it was the best day of my working life.

  3. What a sad story, and what a strategic error to push the Rover SD1 downmarket instead of keeping the premium position of the P6.

    Interesting though that even back then they recognised the scope for strong growth with the Land Rover and Range Rover products.

    • Would have to agree on it being a mistake to push the Rover SD1 downmarket, had it been avoided than perhaps it would have allow for a longer production life in the form of a viable Project Bravo.

      • Anyone buying a Rover 2300 would have been shocked at the cheap cloth seats, ugly plastic dashboard and lack of equipment if they were trading in a Rover P6. I often wonder how many were tempted over to a car like a Granada 2.3 Ghia, or even a Cortina 2.3 Ghia, which had the upmarket wood and velour interior the Rover should have had. Also the Cologne V6 was a far more reliable engine than the Rover six and proved to be less stressed at speed.

        • While both the PE166 and E6 engines could have been better developed then they were (and with a wider displacement range from 2000-3000cc+), it seems the Rover SD1 was in a tough position regarding 6-cylinder alternatives.

          An 2500-3300cc+ inline 5/6-cylinder version of the 120-170 hp 2.2 P10 Slant-4 would be one option, along with a V8-based 90-degree Rover V6 (plus 2.8-litre Rover V8 aka Project Redcap) though short of the latter carrying over the 4-valve DOHC fuel-injected developments of the former (or even the former forming the basis of a more sophisticated 90-degree V6/V8 to replace the Rover V6/V8). It is difficult to see how an OHV Rover V6 or 2.8-litre Rover V8 would have been an improvement over the 2300-2600cc PE166 or 2200-2600cc E6 in terms of power, that is if one were to extrapolate the power of the Rover V6 / 2.8-litre Rover V8 engines using the power figures of the 3.5-litre Rover V8 as a rough guide.

          A 2250-3000cc V6 version of the Stag V8 (as the latter was infamously built rather than what it could have been e.g. see later Saab V8) is also out of the question, while a hypothetical 2500-3000cc+ 60-degree V6 derived from the Jaguar V12 would largely depend on the latter being much better than it was. Since experimental V12-based V6’s were considered to be under-powered, with others saying the Jaguar V12 itself could have been improved by adopting a Honda-like arrangement featuring SOHC with rockers (notwithstanding the DOHC V12 prototype).

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