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 twenty-first part, he recounts how, amid the doom and gloom of factory closures and industrial action, there were some green shoots of discovery if you looked closely enough.
The Rover-Triumph story: eclipse
On 29 March 1979 the Jaguar XJ6/12 Series III was announced. The 3.4- and 4.2-litre XK-engined versions could now be ordered with the Triumph-designed LT77 five-speed gearbox first seen in the Rover SD1. However, Jaguar felt that the quality of the LT77 was not up to its high standards and went with Getrag for future models.
The same month saw Land Rover at last introduce a V8 version of its main breadwinner for overseas sales, which was initially to be sold only in export markets. The new model did not go on sale in the UK until August 1980. On 17 May, a fortnight into the Thatcher era, it was officially announced that BL and Honda were to join forces to produce a new Triumph car.
Japanese-designed, it would have a Honda engine and transmission and be built on licence at Canley, Coventry. But pressings for the body would be made at the Speke No.1 factory and the new car would probably go on sale in mid 1981, with the Triumph name in Europe and Honda’s name elsewhere. Both plants were to be modernised. A new Paint Shop was planned at Canley, and a new press line at Liverpool which would also make pressings for Austin-Morris’s planned LC10 mid-range car.
Canley gears up for Honda
Eddie McGarry, Convenor at the Triumph plant at Canley, said: ‘Initially, we don’t see very much wrong with this project. But as yet, we don’t know what will be required from our workforce.’ The Honda model would be produced as the Triumph Acclaim and, at this stage, both Speke and Canley seemed to have a future.
On 25 May it was announced that Andrew Barr, who ran the Austin-Morris Cowley assembly plant had landed another important job. He was to be Manufacturing Director for Rover-Triumph. His responsibilities would include the British version of the new Japanese Honda car, to be made at Canley. He would also be responsible for the Rover plant at Solihull.
This was followed on 16 June by the launch of the long-awaited new convertible version of the Triumph TR7 (below), which was initially to be sold only in export markets.
The Second Energy Crisis hits
The Iranian Revolution of 1979 had caused another oil crisis. With escalating oil prices came a collapse in demand for larger-engined cars. Jaguar Rover Triumph (JRT) decided to rationalise production of the Rover SD1 at Solihull and announced redundancies on 2 August, amid protests from Grenville Hawley, the National Automotive Officer for the Transport and General Workers’ Union.
The shopfloor workforce and the production capacity there were to be cut by one-third. JRT said that the plant was not operating at anything like the efficiency it should and that management was no longer prepared to turn a blind eye to unacceptable manning levels. The factory had been producing 1150 cars a week on three assembly lines, which had a theoretical capacity of about 1800. One track would now be mothballed (again!) and production concentrated on the remaining two with the company hoping to lift output to the new capacity level of 1250 cars a week. The unions were told that 1445 hourly-paid jobs would go out of 4500, if possible by natural wastage. It appealed for volunteers.
JRT claimed that the third assembly track was never intended for the Rover but for the Triumph Dolomite, which was to have been transferred from Coventry. This scheme was dropped in November 1977 and Rover production had ‘spilled over’ onto the third line because the required output was not forthcoming from the other two.
Confusion over Solihull reigns
The disinformation as to what the new £31m assembly plant at Solihull was built for only added to the confusion. JRT was now running a plant introduced by Leyland Cars and authorised by BLMC’s Rover -riumph division. The managerial merry-go-round meant that nobody had the full picture.
It is probably safe to say that the Solihull plant was built to produce up to 3000 Rover SD1s a week on three tracks. The Triumph Dolomite was never meant to be produced at Solihull as it was due to be replaced at Canley by the Triumph SD2, and that model was never earmarked for production at Solihull.
The cancellation of the SD2 threw the cat among the pigeons, leading to the short-lived policy of ending car production at Canley by transferring the Dolomite to Solihull to be assembled on the redundant third track and that track was redundant because Leyland Cars initially refused to recruit more labour to increase SD1 production to meet demand because it was inefficient. Then, in November 1977, Leyland Cars cancelled the plan to build the Dolomite on the third track at Solihull, instead opting to activate the third track to produce the in-demand SD1 regardless of cost. What JRT referred to as ‘spilling over.’
Now JRT was reversing this decision. In the meantime, Speke No. 2 had been closed and Canley continued to produce the Dolomite with the TR7 now joining it on the tracks.
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Rover SD1 quality questions unanswered
The next day Percy Plant was appointed as Chairman of the Jaguar Rover Triumph division. In its 3 August 1979 issue, Motor magazine published an interview with Rover-Triumph’s Managing Director, Jeff Herbert. Production of the SD1 in its various forms was then running at the rate of about 1170 units a week. Jeff Herbert was asked if he found that performance disappointing.
‘No, not at all,’ he said. ‘The plant was originally laid down for two models, and then there was a plan to build the Dolomite there as well as the SD1. Now, for various reasons, we have just the one model in there. We do not intend to expand too rapidly in the immediate future; instead we want to consolidate our present position for a while. We expect to sell about 35,000 SD1s in the UK this year. We are in the luxury sector of the market and, with our cars selling in the £6000-£9000 price band, we hold just under 40 per cent of that market. It’s a very important sector, including everything from Granadas to BMWs; to capture much more than our share, you’d have to work very hard indeed.’
The claim that the Dolomite was to have been built in Solihull was being perpetuated. Jeff Herbert firmly rejected the suggestion that there were major problems in design, production and quality control of the SD1. He added: ‘For a start, I don’t like to label problems in that way. If you have a problem, it doesn’t make any difference what its origin is: it’s a management problem, and it’s down to management to put things right. Our reliability record is very good.’
‘You’re bound to encounter some difficulties’
Jeff Herbert (left) said: ‘When you consider that we had a brand-new car being built in a brand-new factory by a largely new workforce (almost the only carry over from the previous models was the V8 engine), you’re bound to experience some difficulties. It’s only when you have hundreds of thousands of customer miles under your belt that you can find out what’s required and it’s the rate at which things are put right that distinguishes a good manufacturer from a bad one.
‘We had no more problems than any other manufacturer introducing a totally new model. Perhaps at Leyland Cars we didn’t do things quickly enough in the past, but the great emphasis when the management changed was on the recognition that we had to react quickly. None of the problems we suffered were major reliability defects; they were just silly, niggling , customer-irritating ones. An example of that was the rear carpets. Not every manufacturer bothers to carpet the boot area and, in the SD1, it’s not just any old carpet, but high quality Axminster. The mistake that was made was that it was just glued in place and, after a few thousand miles, it would pull free. So now we pin it down and the problem is solved.
‘There’s a sort of domino effect with reliability problems. Once one or two faults have appeared, the customer grows suspicious and looks for more. On virtually any car, if you look hard enough, you can find something wrong. We are producing better, more reliable Rovers than ever before. I know this from audit information which is measured on a weekly basis. We are auditing five times as many cars this year as we did last year. We are putting more time and energy into improving quality and reliability than ever before.’
‘It’s an unforgiving, competitive industry’
Herbert added: ‘It’s an unforgiving, tremendously competitive industry. You cannot hope to succeed merely by being as good as everyone else. The auto industry is a complex business, and car purchase is a highly emotional event. When you have a large percentage of the market, other companies don’t just sit back and let you get on with it. So we have to be better than everyone else: that’s what the Rover and Triumph names have meant historically, and we intend to keep it that way.
‘The amount of time my senior executives and I spend following up reliability features to improve the vehicles would surprise a lot of people. My philosophy is to have a ‘better than’ organisation, and this must run right through the company from the management down to the shop floor.’
He added: ‘We shall continue producing the SD1 until the market is ready for a change. It is an integral part of the JRT programme, but we are sure we are sufficiently alert to spot any great changes in the needs of the market. The initial investment on the SD1 was about £95m, which seemed a large amount of money at the time; already it looks like a bargain and don’t forget that that figure includes building an enormous new factory, possibly the last great car plant to be built in Britain. It would cost an awful lot more to do the same again.’
Increasing SD1 production couldn’t be justified
The Rover-Triumph Managing Director was asked why there was no night shift at Solihull. ‘At present, there is not the capacity for it. Everyone seems to ask that question, but the answer is simply that at present it wouldn’t be justified. It’s not true to say that the workforce is opposed to it. A couple of years ago there was a sensationalised story about the ‘sex problem’; it was suggested that the workers were opposed to operating a night shift because it would interfere with their sex lives. However, I am sure that, if and when we explain that a night shift is necessary, the workers will co-operate. Anyway, the Land Rover plant has a nightshift and so does the V8 engine plant, and even certain parts of Solihull which have to be kept going round the clock.’
In the same issue of Motor was an interview with William Pratt Thompson, the 45-year old American Managing Director of Jaguar Rover Triumph. In response to questions about a lack of a Triumph Dolomite replacement, the JRT head said: ‘This, of course, is one of the reasons why we opened discussions with Honda, for we also see the need for a new car in the Dolomite market sector. Discussions with Honda are focused very much on this sector of the market in which Honda does a very good job.’
On the subject of the Triumph TR7 after its move from Speke to Canley, Pratt Thompson said: ‘We put a tremendous amount of effort into the move from Speke to Canley, and the analysis of the cars built at Canley has been quite rewarding. We have been very conscious of what was frankly the very poor reputation of the Speke-built cars both in quality and in engineering. We carried out many engineering changes and the whole attitude to putting quality into the cars has been revolutionised.’
Was the Triumph Lynx really dead?
Pratt Thompson was also asked if the long-wheelbase version of the TR7, the Lynx was completely dead. He replied. ‘That’s something that’s being considered. We are in fact considering all aspects of our sports car business. We don’t at present have any new sports car to announce for the emphasis is on making the TR7s and the TR8s as good as we possibly can and on increasing the rate of production. We’re building about 600 TRs a week at present and we want to take that up to 1000 a week by September or October.’
It was on 10 September 1979 that British Leyland faced up to the need for rationalisation, albeit a decade too late. Chairman Sir Michael Edwardes laid it hard on the line. On top of the 18,000 jobs already lost he forecast 25,000 to be axed in the next two years and 13 plants facing total or partial shutdown.
Sir Michael, speaking in a London showroom surrounded by the cars that too many people made and too few bought, said: ‘We must streamline parts and slim down the number of people we employ, including staff levels which have grown over the past ten years out of proportion to the volume actually achieved. If ever there has been a company that has projected “jam tomorrow” it has been this one. This time round we cannot afford to back losers in the hope that they will turn out to be winners.’
Goodbye to Abingdon, Canley and Speke No.1
For JRT it meant that car production would stop at the MG works in Abingdon, Oxford, and be switched to Cowley. The Triumph plant at Canley, Coventry, would also end car production, with the Japanese Honda line being switched to Cowley. Speke No.1 would lose car bodies but keep its Press Shop.
Around Birmingham parts of plants at Castle Bromwich and Tile Hill would be closed as would a foundry at Tipton and the Coseley engineering operation. A foundry in Leeds would be hit and a plan for a new aluminium foundry cancelled. But Jaguar production would continue in Coventry and Rover production at Solihull.
Dennis Adler, a Transport and General Workers’ Union official in Coventry, said the loss of jobs at Canley would worsen the city’s already grim unemployment position. Coventry’s Lord Mayor, Councillor Harry Richards, commented: ‘It is catastrophic.’
Eddie McGarry, the Triumph Convener, accused the company of doing a ‘double dive.’ At the company’s instigation he had visited Japan as part of the original plan to build the new Triumph-Honda car at Canley, West Midlands. Now the factory was to be closed, a decision which had come as ‘a complete surprise.’
Rationalisation was the name of the game
Michael Edwardes‘ rationalisation plan for BL dominated the headlines for the remainder of the year as the labour movement pondered how to respond to the huge job losses the plan entailed. The Trade Unions opposed the plan, but Edwardes bypassed them by balloting the workforce, a tactic that paid off. When Longbridge Convener and Chairman of the Combined British Leyland Shop Stewards’ Committee, Derek Robinson, continued to resist the plan after the ballot, he was fired. Attempts to persuade the labour movement to overwhelmingly force his reinstatement failed and Robinson was out of BL and a job by early 1980.
Since 1978, Rover-Triumph had been working on project ‘Broadside’, a facelifted Triumph TR7. In November 1979, it was decided to press ahead with more detailed styling exercises. That December BL instigated the ‘Boxer’ project, a badge-engineered Triumph TR7 to urgently placate its American MG dealers, who would soon have nothing to sell.
On 4 December, it was announced that the first substantial cutback in production by British Leyland for more than two years would begin at Rover Solihull within the week, when 4000 men would be laid off for three weeks because of unsold stocks of Rover SD1s. They would return on 7 January 1980 when they would work short time for the next two months until production was boosted by the phased transfer of the TR7 sports car from Triumph Canley to Rover Solihull.
The Second Energy Crisis starts to bite
A Rover spokesman said: ‘The cutback in production is being forced on us by the effects of rising fuel prices and uncertainty about future market requirements. Every other manufacturer of larger cars is affected in the same way. For instance, Ford Cologne stopped Granada production for six weeks out of the last 13.’
Asked to comment on reports that BL had at least 10,000 Rovers stockpiled and more being added every day he said: ‘Ten thousand is not a panic figure. We sold more than 3000 in October alone. There has not been a collapse in demand for Rovers. We are just being careful taking steps in time to reduce our inventory and protect our cashflow. You only have to look at the sky-high interest rates to see the logic in that. We are saving several million pounds.’
BL management had made strenuous efforts over the previous four months to reduce Rover stocks. The company attracted adverse comments by offering a side of smoked salmon to motorists who test drove a Rover, but claimed that the result – one in five bought a car – more than justified the expense. However, attempts to prevent the car being discounted by dealers worried about their stocks had not been very successful. New Rovers were still being offered for sale at substantial discounts. The myth that people were queueing up to buy SD1s had been exploded.
Honda hoves into view
At the end of the year BL and Honda ratified an agreement under which a Japanese car would be produced in the United Kingdom for the first time. The Triumph Acclaim was on its way, but it would be built in a Morris factory.
While BL was now building a better Triumph TR7, the UK car market finally gave up on the Rover SD1, which wilted under the onslaught of the Ford Granada. While the Second Energy Crisis certainly resulted in a cutback of SD1 production from August, 1979 was a record year for new UK car sales with imports now at 56.3 per cent, many from Ford and General Motors. Sales increased 7.81 per cent over the previous year. The Ford Granada increased its sales by 36 per cent while those of the Rover SD1 decreased by 6.6 per cent.
Admittedly, some of the Granada’s sales may have been down to its availability in a smaller, more economical 2.0-litre variety, but the UK fleet buyers were now clearly tiring of the big Rover’s quality issues. The paint work was still flaky, the electrics still played up, the interior was still fragile, the boots still leaked, the six-cylinder engines still self-destructed and the boast about it winning the Car of the Year Award was now old hat. It was as relevant as the musical output of the Bay City Rollers at a time of New Wave and Ska. The world had moved on. All this resulted in low resale values.
Rover-Triumph sales collapse
In 1969 Rover and Triumph had between them achieved a 3.33 per cent share of the UK market with their compact executive saloons. In 1979’s market this would have correlated into 57,151 SD1 sales, which was nowhere near the actual figure of 29,576. The Solihull plant had been built to supply this kind of demand, but the customers were going to the Ford showroom instead.
The Ford Granada was cheaper, better built and more reliable, so why would you want to buy a Rover? The Rover was a dog. Almost everybody knew it. The motor trade, the motoring media, owners and company car drivers. The only exception was BL management itself who were in denial of the car’s flaws and continually declined to rectify them. Instead, their focus was to try and make the SD1 plant produce more poor quality cars from two assembly tracks instead of three rather than improve the product itself, which in turn might boost demand in the first place.
In 1979, Ford sold 52,091 Granadas in the UK. The Granada had become the executive car of choice. The vision of a viable separate Rover-Triumph brand selling premium-priced quality cars was in now in tatters. The British Leyland Cost Controllers had cut out the quality to save money, reducing the Rover from champion to mangy dog. The inability of BL to rectify the production problems of the SD1 was exasperating. Back in 1970, when confronted with quality issues on British Leyland’s first hatchback, the much-maligned Austin Maxi, Harry Webster and his Austin-Morris Engineers had knuckled down to improve the car, resulting in the relaunched Maxi having the lowest warranty claims in the volume car division. Yet solving the problems of the Rover SD1 remained elusive.
With the world entering a deep recession, caused by the Second Energy Crisis, time had run out for the Rover SD1. In the space of five years British Leyland had managed to destroy the reputation of its premium brands to match the low public esteem of its volume cars.
It was an astonishingly negative achievement…