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

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 twentieth part, he recounts the impact new Chairman and Chief Executive Sir Michael Edwardes made in the first full year after his arrival at British Leyland. It’s a tough year all round with no new product, factory closures and near-terminal levels of industrial action.


The Rover-Triumph story: the beginning of the end

Sir Michael Edwardes
Sir Michael Edwardes would make drastic changes in 1978

Rover-Triumph was supposed to produce 470,000 vehicles in 1978. Instead, it marked a public retreat from the concept of separate Rover  and Triumph premium brands as, under its new Chairman, British Leyland  began to focus on the volume cars produced at Longbridge and Cowley. On the second day of the year, British Leyland said that newspaper reports of plans to close the company’s plant at Speke, Liverpool, were premature. Two thousand workers were still on strike over manning at the Triumph No.2 plant, building Triumph TR7s, causing 1500 layoffs there and 2000 at Coventry, and affecting Dolomite production. The dispute was by then entering its third month.

In a telegram to Eric Varley, Secretary of State for Industry, Sir Kenneth Thompson, leader of Merseyside County Council, said any proposed closure would be intolerable in an area with the highest unemployment in the UK. Thus far, the only official statement on the matter had come from the personal press office of Michael Edwardes. This was that the company was reviewing ‘all unprofitable units of British Leyland.’

The statement says that this review would obviously include the Speke plant, ‘with its well-known poor record on productivity’. However, the statement made it clear that, ‘no decisions have yet been made to close any Leyland plants either at home or overseas.’

Management blamed for Speke closure rumours

Shop Stewards leading the two-month-old strike accused the company of deliberately spreading reports that the operations there could be closed permanently with the loss of 6000 jobs, in order to break the strike. The Shop Stewards made their allegations in a bulletin that was circulated to all of the 6000 workers. They claimed that reports that the Speke No.2 plant might be axed by Leyland Cars resulted from a ‘management-inspired leak’ to the press. They suggested that this move was designed not only to weaken the determination of the strikers, but to undermine the authority of Shop Stewards.

A British Leyland spokesman said: ‘We are not going to comment on the allegations being made by the Speke Stewards, other than to say again that a number of our car manufacturing operations both at home and abroad are currently under review and that this review does include the Triumph plant at Liverpool.’

On 5 January, it was revealed that Derek Whittaker was to leave the company at the end of the month. According to The Times, the resignation of Whittaker was because of Michael Edwardes‘ determination to reorganise the struggling cars company and break it into smaller, more manageable and more easily accountable units. Whittaker allegedly saw this as a demotion and decided to seek pastures new. He was replaced by Ray Horrocks. On 16 January, Michael Edwardes received a hostile reception from union officials when he outlined his plans for reorganizing Leyland Cars and cutting 12,000 jobs.

The Edwardes plan gets a cool reception

John Rowan, National Officer for the Technical and Supervisory Section of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, said of the Edwardes plan: ‘They are going to chop Leyland up so that its enemies can pull it to bits. Mr Edwardes’ recipe for success is to go back to where Stokes and Barber left off, back to Austin-Morris, back to Rover, Triumph and Jaguar, the very structure which failed so abysmally in 1974. Leyland is being chopped into smaller blocks so that its enemies can pull it to bits piece-meal.’

Mr Rowan said British Leyland was too small in international terms and to make it smaller would weaken the company. ‘And behind that assassination are tens of thousands of jobs in Lucas, GKN and Rubery Owen’, he said.

Ray Edwards, Assistant General Secretary of the Association of Professional, Executive Clerical and Computer Staff, which had 8000 members within Leyland Cars, said there would be strong union opposition to the creation of a new Land Rover/Range Rover company. He felt that, because this section was profitable and had large export markets, particularly in the Middle East, it would be a prime candidate for hiving off to private enterprise. The irony of this last statement was that it was the private enterprise and innovation of the Wilks family that had created the Land Rover brand in the first place.

More people leave British Leyland

The unions soon sought a meeting with Trade and Industry Minister Eric Varley, who politely rebuffed them. There were two more resignations from Leyland Cars on 26 January. Out went Geoffrey Whalen, who was the division’s Director of Personnel and the mastermind of new pay determination arrangements, and Keith Hopkins, Director of Sales and Marketing.

Keith Hopkins had been Lord Stokes’ ace PR man ever since they had first met in late summer 1961 at Standard-Triumph. However, with Michael Edwardes’ ex-Chloride man, John McKay, now in charge of PR, there was no room for a man of Keith Hopkins’ skills in British Leyland. In 1984, Keith Hopkins founded KBH Communications, which listed The All England Lawn Tennis Club and Classic FM amongst its clients. The Chairman of KBH Communications from 1987 to 1995 was none other than Lord Stokes. In 1995, Keith Hopkins sold KBH to Sir Tim Bell’s PR firm Chime Communications and merged it with Lowe Bell Good Relations. Hopkins became Deputy Chairman of LBGR. Keith Hopkins died in 2006.

Four days later, Leyland Cars admitted that 2500 Rover SD1s were stockpiled at the Solihull factory (below) because of a shortage of components and exhaust emission testing equipment. But a company spokesman denied reports that they had been standing there for months ‘rusting away’. He said: ‘This is a continually moving stockpile. Several hundred cars a week are being cleared as the missing parts become available. The problem is that we have doubled Rover production in the past year, and component suppliers cannot keep up with us. It is a choice between laying off workers at Rover, or turning out part-completed cars. Motorists are queueing up to get Rovers.’

The construction of an expanded Solihull was well underway by early 1974
Solihull would need to expand in order to become financially viable

Edwardes starts to flesh out his recovery plan

On 1 February, at the Chesford Grange Hotel in Leamington Spa, British Leyland held a joint employee-management conference. In a passionate 62-minute speech, Michael Edwardes outlined his plans for the car firm’s survival to an audience of 720 people. There were no major surprises in the plans he outlined.

A new company to be called British Leyland Cars Limited (BL Cars) would be formed as an umbrella organization to own the assets and be the employing company for all car operations. It would control three subsidiary companies: Austin Morris Limited, for volume cars, Jaguar Rover Triumph Limited for specialist cars, and BL Components Limited covering parts, foundry, SU/Butec and body operations. The car companies would resume responsibility for all their exports.

Jaguar Rover Triumph would include assembly facilities at Jaguar Coventry, Rover Solihull, Triumph at Canley and Liverpool and Vanden Plas in North London. A separate subsidiary company to be called Land Rover Limited would also be established to develop four-wheel-drive business.

SD1 encapsulates all of BL’s woes

Michael Edwardes concluded that, ‘the Rover SD1 range summed up what was best and worst in British Leyland.’ He said: ‘The cars themselves are runaway winners and the envy of many in the motor business. We spent £90m developing the car and building a brand new factory, the most modern in Europe, in which to produce it. And what happens? We have some of the worst production and quality problems in the whole company, customers are literally banging on showroom doors to get delivery. After six months they lost interest, and we alienate the customers.

‘This is what I mean by a death wish. If your objectives are the same as mine then how can it be that hundreds of vehicles can be lost in one week because managers and workforce find themselves unable to agree on overalls, while the business goes to ruin? This seems to me to be utter madness. We just can’t afford to go on tearing ourselves apart while the traditional BL customers drive cars from American, Continental and Japanese stables.’

The mention of overalls was a reference to a dispute on 24 January. Production of the Rover SD1 was stopped by a dispute over the condition and colour of a few pairs of workmen’s overalls. Six Vehicle Inspectors walked out at the Solihull plant saying that they had been issued with brown paper-based overalls instead of the white cloth ones that they insisted were the normal allocation for their job. Forty other Inspectors stopped work in sympathy. Leyland Cars had no alternative but to lay off all the 3600 assembly workers producing Rover SD1s.

New appointments announced at BL

On 3 February, Michael Edwardes announced more senior appointments to reinforce the management team at his cars subsidiary, depleted by recent resignations. The most significant was an American, William Pratt Thompson, who was named Managing Director designate of British Leyland’s newly-created Jaguar Rover Triumph specialist car company. Mr Thompson was Deputy Managing Director of Bowthorpe Holdings, the Crawley-based electrical component manufacturers. He joined Bowthorpe in 1975 from AMF Inc. to develop their overseas markets.

On 9 February, the Transport and General Workers Union made the strike at the Triumph TR7 factory at Speke on Merseyside official. This was seen as an effort to put the negotiations with Leyland Cars into a new context in which national union leaders could, if they believed they had secured a possible peace formula, order a mass meeting and vote by the Merseyside strikers, something that the Shop Stewards had so far been reluctant to do.

The Rover SD1 range summed up what was best and worst in British Leyland…‘ – Michael Edwardes

The next day a letter to union officials from Pat Lowry, British Leyland’s Director of Personnel and Administration, stressed the uncertainty and difficulties which the Speke No.2 plant faced. He said that the pay dispute had stopped production of the TR7 for so long that, ‘in competitive places such as the United States it means virtually starting again from the beginning, with the added disadvantage of the model’s past history.’

The letter invited union leaders to meet management at Leyland House, London, on Tuesday, 14 February. A spokesman for British Leyland said: ‘We can only reiterate what Mr Edwardes has already said. This is that Leyland will not let short-term effects like the strike at Speke get in the way of long-term objectives.’

Plans to close Speke are announced

Triumph Lynx
Triumph Lynx: Snuffed out by industrial action

However, further talks got nowhere and, on 15 February 1978, British Leyland announced plans to close its No.2 plant at Speke, Liverpool, and make some 3000 workers redundant. An official company statement said: ‘The company has come regrettably to the conclusion that there is no alternative to the proposal that the Number Two plant in Speke Hall Road must close in the interests of the company as a whole. It is intended that TR7 assembly should be transferred to the Midlands and that the Number One plant will continue to produce body pressings for the TR7 and bodies for the Dolomite range of cars. The proposal is made on the necessary commercial basis that BL Cars must become efficient and profitable if it is to survive.’

The statement said the National Enterprise Board and the Government had pledged their support to British Leyland, but to justify that support it was essential that the company should improve its efficiency, reduce fixed costs and concentrate cash resources on the vital area of its business. It listed several major factors which had contributed to the closure: the emergency of excessive assembly capacity, the urgent need to concentrate assembly facilities to reduce fixed costs and the cancellation of a new sports car planned for Speke. Also, sterling’s improved performance against the dollar had seriously affected profitability in the United States – the major market for sports cars.

It was also made clear that, even if there were a settlement of the 15-week strike, the closure would go ahead, while the Labour Government indicated that it would not step in to save the plant. The statement had referred to the cancellation of a new sports car planned for Speke. This was official confirmation that the Triumph Lynx 2+2 coupe, which was on the verge of production, had bitten the dust. X905 the sole remaining V8-engined prototype is now a museum piece.

Unions promise to fight to keep Speke open

However, one union leader gave a warning that no action would be ruled out in the fight to save the factory on Merseyside where unemployment was already running at 10.6 per cent, well above the national average. Derek Robinson, the senior Shop Stewards’ representative on the Leyland Cars Council, said that some form of industrial action was a ‘distinct possibility’ and he said it would, ‘affect the whole of the trade union movement in Leyland. Our national people will have to come to certain decisions.’

An unnamed former British Leyland executive added: ‘I think it is safe to say that we have seen the last of the TR7. It is a car which has been only marginally profitable, if not an actual loss maker. In those circumstances, there is no way Leyland can afford to duplicate the existing fittings and fixtures at Speke. Even if they did it is doubtful if the Speke body employees would be prepared to manufacture bodies for shipment to Coventry.’

Some British Leyland executives had suggested that the TR7 had sold only because it was being virtually ‘given away’ and they implied that, during the previous 15 weeks, while Speke had been closed because of strike action, British Leyland had actually been saving itself money by not making the TR7.

Speke’s problems mount up

The closure of Speke was big news in 1976.
The closure of Speke was inevitable given its poor industrial relations record

Speke had the worst production record in the whole of the British Leyland group; the absenteeism was about double the company’s average; the cost per vehicle on a man-for-man comparison was higher than in any other British Leyland plant. The company promised ‘substantial’ redundancy payments in exchange for an orderly transfer of production. Eddie McGarry, the Vice-Chairman of the Combined British Leyland Shop Stewards’ Committee, and union leader at the Canley plant, said any plan to move equipment or assembly would be resisted until the dispute was settled or there was some agreement.

He said of Michael Edwardes: ‘He should have been big enough and bold enough to state what he was going to do when he met us two weeks ago. We are totally opposed to redundancy unless it is carried out on mutually agreed terms.’

Speke No.1 factory, employing 1470, would continue to turn out body pressings for the TR7 and the Triumph Dolomite range. But TR7 assembly done at the No. 2 factory would be switched to Canley, Coventry. In Coventry, where 2000 had been laid off because of the Speke strike, a Shop Steward said: ‘It’s hard luck on the Liverpool lads, but they won’t get much sympathy here.’

Triumph TR7 production moves to Coventry

Canley had more than enough idle capacity to cope with the transfer of TR7 production. It was producing fewer than 1000 Dolomites and 250 Spitfires a week before the Speke strike stopped delivery of Dolomite bodies. The three assembly tracks were capable of handling four times this output, as they demonstrated when the Dolomite, Spitfire, Triumph 2000, Stag and TR6 were in full swing. TR7 production at Speke was down to some 800 a week.

Donald Mathieson, National Officer of the Association of Scientific Technical and Managerial Staffs, said: ‘There is great bitterness at the fact that this has been announced virtually without consultation. The announcement is a tragedy, particularly when Speke is a relatively modern plant, unlike so many of Leyland’s.’

Sir Kenneth Thompson, leader of Merseyside County Council, said: ‘It is a serious blow which does Merseyside’s reputation a great deal of harm at a time when we can least afford to have our reputation damaged. This plant presented Merseyside with an opportunity to show that it could deliver the goods, and in this case it has failed. It is very sad.’

Shop Stewards make appeal to the Prime Minister

After a meeting lasting nearly three hours at the headquarters of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) in Liverpool, the 62 Shop Stewards at the Speke plant issued a statement condemning the closure. The Shop Stewards also blamed the firm and called for protests to be sent to James Callaghan, the Prime Minister. Frank Banton, local Branch Chairman of the TGWU and a leading Shop Steward, immediately threatened ‘a strike throughout the British Leyland organisation, a ban by dockers on the company’s exports and occupation of the Speke plant.’ Frank Banton blamed the management for it all.

‘I am convinced that they made up their minds on the closure some time ago and deliberately engineered this strike so that, when the announcement came, people would say it serves them right,’ he said.

It’s hard luck on the Liverpool lads, but they won’t get much sympathy here.’ – a Canley Shop Steward

The furore over the closure continued for several days. Terry Duffy, the senior Motor Industry Negotiator for the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, said: ‘The TR7 will be built at Speke or not at all. We gave a warm welcome to Mr Edwardes when he came to the Midlands to explain his plans. But we warned him at that time that we would be collision bound if he attempted to force through compulsory redundancies or plant closures. He seems to have ignored that warning and is determined to go through with proposals which are not acceptable in any way.’

Mick Everett, a senior Convener at Speke, said he did not believe that workers at Triumph’s Canley, Coventry, plant, or elsewhere, would accept work being taken away from the Merseyside factory. ‘If we have to we will march on the plants in other parts of the country which are going to take our work to impress on them the reality of the situation.’

Whatever Canley can do, Speke can beat it, say Unions

Triumph TR7 Chicago motor show

Union leaders were still convinced that the TR7 (above) could be built at Speke in the volume necessary to make it a profitable proposition, and they were pressing for an urgent meeting with Eric Varley, the Secretary of State for Industry, to put the case for taking another look at the future of the plant. Robert Kilroy-Silk, Labour MP for Ormskirk, called on trade unionists in Coventry and the West Midlands to refuse to handle any work that might be transferred from Merseyside.

One problem remained the attitude of the Speke men to the transfer of TR7 jigs and fittings to Coventry. In an attempt to avoid a ‘sit-in’ or blockade by pickets, Charles Skinner, the Plant Director, had sent a letter to all employees spelling out generous redundancy payments. But the letter emphasised these depended on an orderly transfer of equipment.

If the Speke men were expecting support from their Coventry colleagues they faced disappointment. The Coventry men had already been angered by extensive lay-offs caused by the 15 week-old strike. In any event they resented the decision to produce the TR7 on Merseyside instead of Coventry, the traditional home of Triumph cars. With Canley output down to some 1250 cars a week, less than a quarter of its installed capacity, Coventry needed TR7 production to remain viable.

Government doesn’t stand in the way of the closure

The Parliamentary Labour Party met to hear from the Prime Minister James Callaghan. He denied that the decision to close Speke No.2 had come to the Cabinet for approval. But he conceded that Eric Varley, the Secretary of State for Industry, and Albert Booth, the Secretary of State for Employment, were informed by the British Leyland management ‘and they did not dissent.’

While deploring the loss of jobs, James Callaghan emphasised that a man had now been put in charge of British Leyland, ‘who deserves our backing’. If British Leyland did not become viable, then many more jobs would become vulnerable. It would be very difficult for the Government, having just appointed a new general manager, to come in straight away and tell him what he was to do. ‘It would not be wise, at the outset of a new era in the history of British Leyland, for the Government to step in and pull at Mr Edwardes’s coat tails,’ he said.

At Speke itself, pickets still manned the gates to the No. 2 factory, where the TR7 was assembled, and policemen directed traffic as the workers arrived to collect tax rebates owed to them because, while they were on strike, they were no longer earning a weekly wage. The one topic of conversation was the closure. Some strikers thought British Leyland was bluffing, that it was a ruse, a trick to end the strike and get the men back to work. Others, who seemed to be in the majority, were in no doubt that the decision was final and that they were heading for the dole queue in an area that had an unemployment rate of 12 per  cent, twice the national average.

Further reaction to the closure

Mr William Cross, then aged 48, a married man with two children who lived at Walton, Liverpool, said he had worked in the Paint Shop at the Triumph factory for seven years. ‘I reckon this is it, this time. People have been talking about it for 12 months and nobody is really surprised. I am quite prepared to accept the decision. I do not think the strike was the reason for the closure; the plant could not carry on losing money like that,’ he said.

The Combined British Leyland Shop Stewards’ Committee met and issued an unequivocal challenge to Michael Edwardes, British Leyland’s Chairman. They stated that, unless the proposal to switch Triumph TR7 car assembly from Speke No.2 to Coventry was abandoned, they would mobilise the entire British Leyland labour force behind their resistance campaign which would include a ‘blacking’ of the work from Merseyside by all other plants, and possibly a sit-in at the Liverpool plant.

Labour MP for Garston Eddie Loyden, said: ‘The burden of proof that this is a non-viable factory rests with the company – so far, I have not seen one shred of evidence that this is so.’

Edwardes says Speke canned due to commercial pressures

On 28 February, about 3000 workers at the Speke No.2 car plant voted to end their by then 17-week strike. On 15 March, Michael Edwardes told a group of Merseyside Labour MPs, who had been campaigning to have the closure decision reversed because of high unemployment on Merseyside, that the transfer of Triumph TR7 production from the troubled Speke No.2 plant was unavoidable. It was, ‘the only way it would be possible to keep the car in production.’

The MPs, led by Eddie Loyden, spent an hour with Michael Edwardes at his London headquarters. A British Leyland spokesman said later that Mr Edwardes told the MPs that trade union officials and Shop Stewards were informed of the underlying reasons for the closure the previous week. At the meeting Michael Edwardes emphasised that the intention to close the TR7 plant at Speke was based on “urgent commercial needs” to reduce the substantial losses in producing the car.

Whatever the truth behind the strike that began on 1 November 1977, the closure of Speke No.2 was a combination of the failure of British Leyland to implement the full Rover Triumph expansion plan and the will of Michael Edwardes to risk the wrath of the Combined British Leyland Shop Stewards’ Committee and rationalise car operations. Speke No.2 had an installed capacity of 100,000 cars a year, a figure it never came close to realising.

Triumph TR7 Production

  • 1975 15,401
  • 1976 32,743
  • 1977 22,936

In terms of production volumes the TR7 was a success. The peak year of TR6 production was 1974 when 14,690 were produced, so the idea that the TR7 was a failure is nonsense. However, it had been rushed into production too soon and had incurred horrific warranty costs, something that was not admitted to the media at the time.

Moreover, it also fell victim to British Leyland’s over optimistic sales projections of 60,000 to 70,000 a year and the failure to pull the plug on its internal MG competition. This diluted TR7 sales to the detriment of the model’s viability.

Rover-Triumph dream finally snuffed

The Rover Triumph expansion plan could be likened to a four-legged stool, with the Rover SD1, Triumph SD2, Triumph TR7 and Lynx as its legs. Now the SD2 and Lynx had both been amputated. In March 1978, that left just the SD1 and TR7. In reality the TR7 leg had been temporarily removed leaving just the big Rover in production.

On 20 March Michael Edwardes presented preliminary financial results for the previous year, which showed a loss of £51.9m, including £31.9m lost by BL Cars, the new umbrella operating division, which effectively cancelled a profit of £26.6m by Trucks and £8.4m by Special Products. British Leyland would have broken even but for a special provision of £43.9m to cover the cost of closing the TR7 plant at Speke, Liverpool, and further cuts planned in South Africa and Scandinavia.

At £24m, Speke No.2 accounted for more than half the special provisions for closures and cutbacks. Company sources said this included an amount to cover TR7 jigs and fittings which BL still hoped to transfer from Speke to Coventry, the planned new home of the TR7. Amid the many negatives there were good things to report. Since 1 November 1977, Rover SD1 production had doubled and management were now planning a further 35 per cent increase in the next few months. The availability of Rover SD1 cars would test the patriotism of all those company executives who claimed that they had had to buy foreign because they could not get delivery of a Rover.

Jaguar Rover Triumph takes shape

Four days later 20 new senior appointments, including four Managing Directors, were announced by British Leyland in the newly-formed Austin Morris and Jaguar Rover Triumph companies. In JRT, as it was soon abbreviated to, Bob Knight became Managing Director of Jaguar Cars, Michael Hodgkinson, Managing Director of Land Rover and Jeff Herbert, Managing Director of Rover Triumph Cars. Jeff Herbert had joined BL from Perkins, the diesel engine manufacturers, in 1977 as Director of Production and Plant Engineering for BL Cars.

In the newly-recreated Austin Morris division Tony Gilroy was appointed as Operations Director, Longbridge. He would later become Managing Director of Land Rover and was seen by many as the catalyst behind its later success. Elsewhere, ex-BMC apprentice, former Rover Triumph boss and BLMC Director Bill Davis was still clinging on. He retained his job as Director of Government and Military Affairs.

On 1 April the Triumph TR8 was granted FIA homologation so British Leyland could use it in motorsport. There was one problem: the car had not been officially announced, and nor would it be for two years!

Speke closure rumbles on

On 12 April Pat Lowry, British Leyland’s Director of Personnel and Administration, said that the Triumph TR7 assembly plant at Speke would close on 26 May 1978. After five hours of talks between management and union representatives, Pat Lowry commented: ‘We have considered a number of proposals put forward by the unions and I have to say that none of them appears to us to be viable. In the circumstances, we have had no alternative but to announce the date for the closure.’

However, the union officials and Shop Stewards at the talks remained adamant in their opposition to the Merseyside shutdown. Grenville Hawley, National automotive secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union and the senior negotiator on the union side said: ‘Our position is clear. We are telling the company that we are opposed to this move and our people in other plants are saying that they will not accept work that is at present being done at Speke.’

Among the alternatives pressed by the union spokesmen in the talks were the possibility of transferring Austin Allegro car production to Speke from British Leyland’s Belgian Seneffe factory or moving part of the Truck and Bus or Special Products operations to Merseyside. Grenville Hawley said: ‘We believe a number of alternatives exist for bringing work in.’

A management spokesman said: ‘These talks are one of a series of meetings that are taking place with the unions as part of the undertaking we have given to consult fully at all stages.’

Edwardes: Land Rover expansion plan rests with workers

The next day, in an interview, the British Leyland Chairman Michael Edwardes disclosed that, like his predecessor, Alex Park, he was not prepared to go ahead with the urgently-needed £250m Land Rover/Range Rover expansion programme until he got a commitment from Rover employees that they would make it work. The problem was that Shop Stewards at the main Rover plant at Solihull were still not prepared to join the group’s participation machinery.

‘We are working like hell on the Solihull men. It is absolutely vital to get them into participation. You can take a hell of a risk where there is no commitment. We are not prepared to go ahead any further without commitment. We are not going ahead blind,’ he said.

The same day British Leyland management announced the redundancy terms for employees at the Speke No.2 factory and said they were the best they had ever given. But angry workers – who had expected to receive big golden handshakes – claimed that most of them would only pick up a few hundred pounds. The workers rejected ‘Scrooge’ redundancy payments at a mass meeting and instead voted for an all-out fight to save their jobs.

Rover SD1 products halts… again

Rover SD1 production at Solihull
Solihull production of the Rover SD1 was an on-off affair

Unfortunately, plans to ramp up further production of the Rover SD1 were hitting the skids. On 17 April, 25 members of the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs (ASTMS) stopped work at Solihull. The next day about 350 foremen held a mass meeting at the factory and decided to support their 25 ASTMS colleagues. The foremen and supervisors walked out and said they would refuse to provide cover for a system under which production workers would take staggered breaks in order to provide continuity. The arrangements were aimed at raising output of Rover SD1 cars to 1800 a week. Production of Rover cars, Land Rovers and Range Rovers was virtually stopped.

British Leyland said that the new working arrangements had been fully negotiated with the unions. British Leyland were trying to increase SD1 production without resorting to night shift working, which the Rover plant workforce had resolutely refused to accept.

More members of the ASTMS joined the dispute at five Rover component factories in the Birmingham area. Although output of Rover cars, Land Rovers and Range Rovers was seriously disrupted, some production was continued and the management had asked the rest of the labour force to report for work as usual on the understanding that no one would be asked to do the jobs normally done by the strikers. The dispute lasted ten days.

Land Rover separation takes shape

On 25 April, Michael Edwardes announced the Board of the newly-formed Land Rover company. It was headed by Mike Hodgkinson, who, at 34, was one of the youngest executives in the group. This officially marked the point at which Rover and Land Rover were formally separated.

Both companies would continue to operate out of Solihull for the time being, but Land Rovers were manufactured in the old Rover Company’s former wartime shadow factory, while Rover was now part of JRT and confined to the adjoining SD1 plant. They were from an accounting and legal point of view now separate entities. This separation of the two brands enabled Land Rover to be sold to Ford by BMW in 2000, while Rover headed for oblivion.

In a television interview on 4 May, Michael Edwardes, the British Leyland Chairman, said that closing the Speke No.2 plant and consolidating Triumph TR7 production at Canley was the only way for the company to develop sports car production. It was also the only way to save jobs in the Midlands. He said: ‘If we do not transfer it there will be a disastrous effect on employment in the company as a whole.’

Edwardes underlines continued TR7 survival

Michael Edwardes said that people who claimed that the Speke closure was part of a plan to scrap the TR7 were wrong. However, the company was losing money on this model and the decision to transfer it to Coventry was ‘an act of faith’ that would give an opportunity to develop sports car production by sharing overheads and increasing output.

The unofficial Combined British Leyland Shop Stewards’ Committee again declared its total opposition to the Speke closure and laid plans to involve all of BL Cars 100,000 shopfloor workers in a militant campaign to force Michael Edwardes to reverse his decision. On 6 May, a Saturday, 3000 workers at the Speke No.2 plant met at a Liverpool boxing stadium to discuss whether to accept British Leyland’s decision to close the factory.

When the vote came admittedly after a fairly rowdy two-hour session, there was a decisive majority against the Shop Stewards’ recommendation that the company’s revised package of severance terms should be rejected out of hand, and militant opposition to the closure should be mounted. Although the Shop Stewards had no alternative but to admit at once that their recommendation had failed, for a time after the meeting broke up there was some confusion about what alternative mandate it had given them. British Leyland was already in negotiation with national union officials and had revised its original offer on severance pay.

The TR7 – a loss maker or not?

An unlikely source of information on the Speke No.2 plant was Hugh Scanlon, the President of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers. He told the union’s national conference at Worthing that each TR7 car made there cost the British taxpayer £850. On 12 May, the executive of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions decided in Worthing to ask its 19 affiliated unions not to stand in the way of British Leyland’s transfer of TR7 production to Canley.

The lay-offs at Speke No.2 began after the night shift on Monday, 15 May and were followed by workers on the day shift. All the 3,000 workers would qualify for full redundancy pay up to the time when their redundancy notices took effect on 26 May, the day on which the assembly operations at Speke were due to end officially. A management spokesman said: ‘There has been no trouble at the plant, and it seems that most of those concerned are content to come in and draw their pay when it becomes due.’

Three thousand workers at British Leyland’s Triumph TR7 plant at Speke, on Merseyside, became redundant on 26 May when the closure announced in February took place. Since the last TR7 came off the production line a fortnight earlier, most of the workers had been laid off and, with the exception of some Paint Shop men, they drew their last pay packets on closure day.

The men had to draw their pay at the Speke No.1 plant because their own No. 2 plant was already virtually deserted. One worker said: ‘People are saying we’re going to get thousands, but were not. We’ve been earning £75 a week and you tell me where I’ll get that much again as a machinist. We’ll have to go to work but it will be more like £30, and remember we got no money for 17 weeks last winter. Nobody wanted it to close, it was an arranged thing. What are people going to think when you go for another job and they ask where you worked before and you say Leyland?’

Worker reaction to their lay-offs

Unemployment on Merseyside stood at 10.7 per cent – 81,000 out of work and 37,000 of them in Liverpool itself. There was a rumour circulating that Ford would have no former Speke workers at the Halewood plant, and that other firms might blacklist them, too. Cynicism, fed on the unhappy history of industrial relations at the plant, welled up uncontrollably as the men asked themselves why it happened.

  • Best bloody part-time job I ever had.’
  • ‘I’m just glad to get out, nobody’s been interested in this plant since the Toledo was lost three years ago.’
  • ‘There were fellows in there taking four hours over half an hour’s work, yet the union wouldn’t accept the proposed higher work rate. This place has been closed because of the unions; if they had got people working properly. It would still be open.’
  • ‘You shouldn’t have been allowed to get away with half the things that went on in there, the management should have stamped it out.’

One after another workers brought up the same story.

So was Speke a plant where lax discipline operated?

This was a plant where a five feet wide fridge utilised for storing adhesive used for the TR7 windscreens disappeared overnight. Employees argued over red and blue handles for screwdrivers as they were the same colours used by the rival Liverpool and Everton football teams. Car radios were pilfered from factory stocks and workers were even measured for suits under the conveyor. The production line was filthy, women were greeted with sexist remarks and odd parts were scattered in all directions.

There was an effigy of the Plant Manager hanging from the roof with a noose around its neck and a group of men were witnessed standing on a TR7 bonnet with hobnail boots on. When one person was noticed by a Supervisor as clocking in with two cards, he was defended by a Shop Steward who threatened strike action if the second card was destroyed. On another occasion an operator was sacked for smoking in a spray booth next to flammable material. The Paint Shop staff walked out on strike, the sacking was reduced to a suspension and the Supervisor who caught the offender smoking in the first place was threatened.

According to some sources, hard left organisations like the Workers Revolutionary Party and the International Socialists regularly attended factory meetings.

And so the Speke No.2 plant closed. Michael Edwardes had called the bluff of the Combined British Leyland Shop Stewards’ Committee, which had successfully opposed compulsory redundancies for a decade and gained the acquiescence of the Labour Government – a Labour Government which had, of course, originally stepped in to save British Leyland in order to maintain employment. It was only the beginning…

Meanwhile, over in Solihull…

On 8 June at Solihull, 80 delivery drivers went on strike after a Shop Steward was sacked for allegedly stealing a tax disc from a company car. The strike lasted three weeks and cost British Leyland £45m worth of Rover SD1s, Land Rovers and Range Rovers. The TGWU had tried to resolve the dispute before ordering the delivery drivers back to work, an order that was defied by the strikers. The dispute carried on despite the fact that the Shop Steward concerned pleaded guilty to seven theft and motoring offences in a court of law. He was fined a total of £120, including £50 for stealing a tax disc belonging to British Leyland and £20 for fraudulently using it on his car.

The fact that a strike to protest against the dismissal of a man for theft, a criminal offence for which he was convicted, took place only served to further tarnish British Leyland’s already battered image. On 1 July, British Leyland Limited officially became BL Limited. This was part of Michael Edwardes attempt to re-brand the company and banish the Leyland name to the former Truck and Bus division whence it came. However, the media continued to refer to British Leyland for years to come.

Triumph sports car plans start to take shape

Broadside coupé in actuality: Like the Lynx before it, the Broadside was an excellent concept looking for a beautiful body, and in a market crowded with style icons such as the Alfa Romeo Alfasud Sprint and Opel Manta, the bulbous Broadside was always going to be at a disadvantage. (Picture supplied by Achim Küpper)
Triumph Broadside: Like the Lynx before it, the Broadside was an excellent concept looking for a beautiful body and, in a market crowded with style icons such as the Alfa Romeo Alfasud Sprint and Opel Manta, the bulbous Broadside was always going to be at a disadvantage (Picture supplied by Achim Küpper)

In August 1978, the Jaguar Rover Triumph Product Planners debated the way forward. They came up with the idea of a sports car codenamed SC1 (Sports Car 1) which would have a ‘high level of common mechanical components and possible adoption of floor pressings from one of the current sports cars to minimise investment.’ The SC1 would be made available in two basic versions, both utilising the new O-Series engine. The idea was that the ‘light sports version using the 1.7-litre litre O-Series would replace the Spitfire/Midget and larger MGB.

The ‘medium sports’ SC1 would use the larger 2-litre engine and supplant the TR7. By using bolt on plastic bodywork JRT could offer different styles to the customer, and presumably alternate marques. It was also deemed possible to develop a Dolomite replacement out of the SC1 base model.

These would become known as the Broadside Project.

Land Rover expansion plan unveiled

On 30 August, Jaguar Rover Triumph said that a £30m expansion programme designed to meet world demand for Range Rovers and Land Rovers would be completed by the spring of 1979. Production of Range Rovers would rise from 300 a week to 450 and of Land Rovers by 10 per cent from the existing 1350 a week. An even larger programme was being prepared with the aim of almost doubling production of the two vehicle types by 1982.

At the time Jaguar Rover Triumph could meet only 60 per cent of the demand for its four-wheel-drive vehicles, while holding 15 per cent of the world four-wheel-drive market. There was a two-year waiting list, and many other companies, notably the Japanese, had taken advantage of the vacuum left by BL’s inability to produce enough vehicles.

It had belatedly dawned on BL that the vehicle which started life as the old Rover company’s 100 Inch Station Wagon and was launched as the Range Rover had a lot of sales potential. In its first full year of production Rover had built 3590. In 1978, Land Rover produced 11,217. It had filled the void left by the demise of the Rover P5B in 1973.

Profit out of loss reported by Edwardes

The next day Michael Edwardes gave a speech to the Guild of Motoring Writers. He said that the transfer of Triumph TR7 assembly to Canley had gone well; with excellent cooperation from the local workforce, and the first of an expanded range of those sports cars was expected to be produced in the autumn of 1978. Now that the 3.5-litre V8 engine had met American law on exhaust gases, Rovers were to be reintroduced into the USA. Mr Edwardes said negotiations to introduce a night shift at the Rover plant at Solihull were continuing. Although car production there was double the 1977 figure, it was still not enough to meet market demands. A £13m investment would increase Land Rover and Range Rover production by half in the short term.

A fortnight later Michael Edwardes announced the BL half year results. The company made a £17m profit. Without 346 industrial disruptions during that period, its profit would have been £47m. The Land and Range Rover plant at Solihull achieved a considerable part of that £17m profit, and these vehicles had become notoriously difficult to acquire because demand remained high. The brightest spot was a 103 per cent rise in production of the Rover SD1 at Solihull with encouraging prospects for major investment in Range Rover and Land Rover output.

Still the closure of Speke No.2 would not go away. Shop Stewards called for a public inquiry into the closure of the Triumph factory. Frank Banton, Secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union branch, and one of the workers who lost his job, said: ‘British Leyland is publicly owned and the decision to close down a factory should be public examined.’

MG joins Jaguar Rover Triumph

MGB's 50th birthday will be celebrated by a trilogy of MGCC events

On 19 September, the MG operation became part of the Jaguar Rover Triumph organisation. The alignment of MG with Jaguar Rover Triumph, meant that it would no longer be the odd man out in the hard pressed Austin Morris volume car operation. North American sales had been hit by the absence of Triumph TR7s since the Speke No.2 plant was closed earlier in 1978 with the loss of 3000 jobs.

It was originally planned to phase out the Canley-made Triumph Spitfire early in 1979 to make room for an expanded TR7 assembly line. However, on this day Canley employees were told that the Spitfire would continue into the 1980s. The first TR7 since the closure of the Speke No.2 assembly plant five months earlier, was produced at Canley on 2 October. But it would not be on sale before the next spring so stocks could be built up for a major re-launching.

A sign that not all the problems of the TR7 could be blamed on the workforce at Speke was that at least 200 engineering changes were made to the car before Canley resumed production. Sadly, there was no room in the revised TR7 programme for the 16-valve Sprint. The marketing men deemed that the TR7 Sprint offered no discernible improvement in performance. The 0-60 mph time was identical, and top speed was only slightly superior. What the TR7 Sprint did demonstrate was superior mid-range acceleration. Performance enthusiasts would have to wait for the V8 version, the TR8.

On 24 October, JRT announced plans to phase out production of the MG Midget.

The on-off Land Rover expansion pauses again

It was also revealed that BL had frozen a £280m project, which would double Range Rover and Land Rover production, a company spokesman said. He said it would not be resumed until workers at the Rover assembly plant at Solihull, West Midlands, had dropped their opposition to shift working. A BL spokesman said that contractors employed on the first £30m phase of the expansion scheme had already been withdrawn.

The first phase of the expansion scheme, due to be completed in the spring of 1979, was planned to boost Range Rover production by 50 per cent and Land Rover production by 10 per cent, creating up to 200 new jobs. However, the JRT spokesman now said that William Pratt Thompson, the Managing Director of Jaguar Rover Triumph, would not go ahead with the expansion at Solihull until he had a commitment from the workforce to accept some form of double-shift working.

‘The project has been frozen temporarily while talks are held with the unions. There is no point in putting money into expansion if it is not being profitably used,’ said a company spokesperson.

Support for Edwardes from the National Enterprise Board

The National Enterprise Board (NEB) threw its weight behind Michael Edwardes, the BL Chairman, in the tough attitude he had adopted to force employees at Rover Solihull to drop their opposition to the introduction of double-shift working.

Sir Leslie Murphy, the NEB Chairman, announced that, while the Board supported BL’s proposals to spend another £250m to double production of the Land Rover and Range Rover, it would not recommend government approval until it had evidence that the workforce would fulfil their commitment to change shift working practices. Sir Leslie also emphasised that the NEB was still waiting for BL to indicate how far the Land Rover expansion could be financed by the company from its own resources, ‘bearing in mind that the extent of any further commitment of funds to BL from the NEB is uncertain.’

On 10 November, management notices calling for 500 voluntary redundancies by the end of the year were posted around the Triumph No. 1 plant at Speke as part of the company’s plan to reduce its workforce. The Speke plant, which produced the Triumph Dolomite, was already on short time and a cut of 500 would reduce its workforce by a third. Shop Stewards said they rejected the proposal. The Dolomite was in terminal decline as its age and the fact that it was a product of British Leyland affected sales. In two years UK sales had declined by 25 per cent.

Notice served on the Triumph Dolomite as the Speke factory where it was made looked set to wind down...
Notice was served on the Triumph Dolomite as the Speke factory where it was made looked set to wind down…

UK sales: imports take nearly 50 per cent of the market

Meanwhile, 1978 had, in fact, been a boom year for car sales: some 1.59 million were sold of which 49.3 per cent were imports. Many of these imports were courtesy of Ford and General Motors, which exploited the absence of trade tariffs that resulted from Britain now being a member of the EEC, to feed demand. This was highlighted by Ford comfortably maintaining market leadership despite its UK plants being strikebound for two months because of a pay strike which was the pre-amble to the infamous ‘Winter of Discontent.’

This demonstrated how the odds were stacked against BL. A damaging strike that before 1973 would have provided BL with a window of opportunity, failed to dent Ford sales.

The year of 1978 was also the peak year of Rover SD1 production, with 54,462 leaving the Solihull plant. 31,669 were sold in the UK, but so were 38,099 Ford Granadas. This trend would continue for years to come…

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

Forward to History : The Rover-Triumph story – Part Twenty One : 1979

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!

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3 Comments

  1. The workers and unions a Speke were their own worst enemies, some of the reasons for strikes defies description, one strike was caused because someone wanted a certain type of sandwich for morning tea break and they had sold out on the tea trolly, so tools down and go home, and this was only one example of dozens of similar strikes. It’s no wonder they closed it down.

  2. These articles by Ian Nicholls are always a good read. it always strikes me as ironic that the Triumph Lynx had the potential of being a very good and popular car to take on the Capri… had things been different.

    Also the UK sales figures of 31,669 for SD1 in 1978 against 38,099 Granada’s indicates what it was up against. Sad state of affairs.

  3. Once again, the militancy and laziness of the Liverpool workforce proved to be its undoing at Speke, in the same way the unions nearly destroyed the docks in the city in the seventies. Sadly, though, the closure of Speke number 2 had a big knock on effect in Liverpool, with Dunlop and Lucas having to close their factories as their main customer had gone, and the workers who just wanted to do their job being let down by their colleagues. Mind you, I had to laugh at one comment about Speke, where there was an effigy of the site manager hanging from the ceiling.

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