Ian Nicholls, AROnline‘s historian-in-residence, concludes the Rover-Triumph story, and what was their long and drawn-out part in the downfall of the British motor industry.
Here, in the twenty-second and final part, he recalls the death of Triumph, the triumphant final years of the Rover SD1 and reaching out to Honda.
The Rover-Triumph story: the setting sun
On 1 January 1980, Joe Farnham joined Rover-Triumph as Director, Product Engineering, from Chrysler USA. Presumably he had been hired on the pretext that Rover-Triumph actually had some products for him to engineer. It was an interesting time to join, because there did appear to be the bones of a Product Plan, going forwards.
Later that month, Rover-Triumph came up with a new Product Plan which looked seven years into the future. With the MGB under sentence of death, it was planned to introduce a Triumph TR7/TR8 with a removable hardtop in the Spring of 1981. Alongside this would be a new model codenamed Boxer, which was based on the TR7 Convertible and designed to replace the MGB. Having realised the value of the MG brand, BL was now backpedalling to get a cheap-to-develop MGB replacement on the market.
Cheap-to-develop meant a budget of a mere £1 million. The new MG was to utilise the TR7’s platform and make its debut in October 1980. The rest of the new Product Plan looked like this:
- In the Autumn of 1981, the TR7 and Boxer would appear with a twin-carburettor O-Series engine.
- In the Spring of 1983, both the TR7 and Boxer would be replaced by a more fully-developed car codenamed Broadside.
- In the Autumn of 1984, the Rover SD1 would be replaced by Project Bravo
On paper, the latter appears to have been a parts-bin special, with a Rover SD1 centre section, TR7 front suspension, SD1 back axle, 2.0-litre O-Series and 2.6-litre V6 engines. The V6 was intended as a cut-down Rover V8 engine. In the Autumn of 1985 this initial model would be joined by a V8 variant. Two years after this would see the demise of the Broadside sports car, and the Rover-Triumph Product Planners speculated that they could develop a new sports car in collaboration with Honda.
Joe Farnham (below) would have his hands full, or so it seemed at the time.
Exciting plans ahead?
The problem with the Boxer was that all the concepts submitted looked like a badge-engineered TR7, which was exactly what it was. The longer-term MGB and TR7 replacement would be Project Broadside, which would use an amalgam of TR7 and Triumph Lynx parts. Two Lynx prototypes were cannibalised to create two Broadside prototypes, a convertible and coupe. The convertible was fitted with an O-Series engine, whilst the coupe was fitted with the Rover V8.
Sadly, on 23 January, Giovanni Michelotti, stylist of many classic Triumph cars died from skin cancer. He was 59 years old. His son Edgardo, now in charge of the family firm, submitted a design for the competition to design the Boxer MG project along with Triumph Engineering, BL Styling Services, Panther Westwinds and Cars and Concepts.
The 93-day saga that was the sacking of Derek Robinson, the Longbridge Convener and Chairman of the British Leyland (Motor Corporation Combined) Trade Union Committee (BLTUC) was played out in the full glare of the media. The sight of BL employees threatening to strike did nothing for BL Cars’ market share, which dropped to a miserable 15 per cent in January 1980.
The effects of the recession begin to bite
In February the deepening recession resulted in a programme of lay-offs and redundancies throughout BL’s car and component factories. It would involve 21,000 workers, around 18 per cent of BL Cars workforce. The action had been forced upon BL by the sharp decline in its market share in January 1980 and a glut of unsold cars in dealers’ showrooms. It was estimated that stocks of BL cars around the country were sufficient to meet 16 weeks’ demand, against a normal stocking level of ten weeks.
BL said there were an estimated 80,000 vehicles lying unsold at its factories and showrooms. A ten-day strike by 70 gearbox assemblers at the Pengam, Cardiff, plant, which stopped production of Rover saloons at Solihull and TR7 sports cars at Coventry, was therefore completely pointless and counter productive.
Moving to Solihull and Cowley
BL Cars took advantage of the widespread lay-offs and shut-downs in its car assembly plants to speed up work to transfer the TR7 from Triumph Canley, to Rover Solihull, and to switch production of the Rover SD1 body from Castle Bromwich to Cowley. The TR7 was being transferred from Canley to Rover’s modern assembly plant at Solihull, where it would be produced alongside the SD1. The Triumph Spitfire was in the final stages of its run-out at Canley, but the Dolomite would continue in production.
Work had begun on the TR7 switch, but there would not be a clean break. Production would continue at both plants for several months to ensure that TR7 dealers, particularly those in the United States, did not have to suffer another period without cars. BL had bitter memories of the havoc created in the American market by the nine-month break in TR7 production which followed the closure of the Speke plant in 1978, and the model’s move to Canley.
In February Michelotti submitted its own proposal for the Broadside sports car (below) in the form of a full-size wooden model, but it went no further.
Things then went quiet on the planning for future sports cars as BL were hammered by the recession and Ford in the marketplace. In March 1980 the TR7 Convertible went on sale in the UK.
‘Buy British’ we’re urged as sales nosedive
On 31 March, 4000 employees Rover returned to work after an extensive lay-off to reduce unsold SD1 stocks. In January 1980, in reaction to its dive in car sales, BL Cars had launched its ‘Buy British’ marketing campaign which, after a poor January and February, produced record sales in March. However, the sales surge was achieved by heavy discounting. It was claimed that extensive discounting of the Rover SD1 increased sales to 3500 compared with 2000 in March 1979 – but, how long had these cars sat out in the open, exposed to the elements?
Discounting to this extent over the previous three months was a desperation measure to be resorted to only when a company faced a cash flow crisis. Sir Michael Edwardes had admitted that maintaining an adequate cash flow was taking precedence over profit. The sale of cars such as Rover SD1s at £2000 below list price depressed the new and secondhand markets for these models for at least six months.
As well as the resumption of Rover SD1 assembly, production of the TR7 began on the same day at Solihull. It was being switched gradually from Triumph’s Coventry plant about four miles away and which was earmarked for closure as part of the recovery programme involving 13 other plants and 30,000 redundancies.
John Egan joins Jaguar as JRT is dissolved
In April 1980, as BL management battled the TGWU over its imposition of new pay and working conditions, John Egan became the new Chairman of Jaguar. He was soon persuaded by his fellow executives that the number one priority was to tighten up the quality of bought-in components in order to ensure that Jaguar cars were more reliable. It was a process copied from Mercedes-Benz. Sadly, this was not something taken on board by Rover-Triumph.
On 13 April, the Triumph TR8 (below) was finally launched in the USA, just over two years after it had been homologated for motor sport use. It was a case of saving the best till last. The TR8 attracted rave reviews from the American media despite the fact that its Rover V8 was detuned for sale Stateside. Unfortunately, the recession and BL’s cash crisis refocused the company’s management on the volume cars division and only around 2634 were manufactured. The TR8 was the last real Triumph, and a fine swansong.
In July 1980 the Jaguar Rover Triumph division was dissolved, with Jaguar regaining its independence. Rover and Triumph were absorbed by the Austin Morris division. Former JRT boss, William Pratt Thompson became head of BL International.
In a move that surprised his colleagues, Jeff Herbert, Managing Director of BL’s Rover-Triumph subsidiary, resigned, confirmed officially on 30 July. His departure came only ten days after BL’s announcement that 3000 Rover Triumph workers were going on to immediate short-time working.
It also followed soon after the promotion of Harold Musgrove from Managing Director of Austin Morris to the Chairmanship of Austin Morris and Rover-Triumph. Percy Plant, who had been Chairman at Rover-Triumph, was moved to a newly-created position as Executive Director of BL Cars. Musgrove’s promotion over Jeff Herbert was also accompanied by an internal memorandum from Ray Horrocks, head of all BL’s car operations. It talked of the need to ‘increase the present degree of cooperation’ between the volume car side and the specialist car operations.
A BL spokesman said of Jeff Herbert: ‘He has made it known that he wishes to widen his already considerable experience in the engineering industry. We do not know if he has a particular job in mind.’
End of an era
In August 1980 production of the Triumph TR7 ceased at Canley. On the 26th of that month, the last Dolomite and Spitfire models were produced at Triumph Canley. The plant would be used by BL for other purposes, but car production now ceased. The factory was demolished in 1996. One time rivals MG of Abingdon also gave up the ghost two months later.
On 11 September, BL announced a further cut in Rover SD1 production, with the loss of hundreds more jobs in the West Midlands. BL confirmed that one of the three car assembly lines at Solihull would be closed before the end of the year and that 450 voluntary redundancies would be needed. About 100 would be sought over the next few weeks. British Leyland was entering into the real estate business with its now closed plants.
The former car plant at Speke, Liverpool, was being split into factory units and would be known as the Triumph Trading Park. The 1.2m sq ft factory standing on a 100-acre site had been for sale for £10 million for nearly 18 months without attracting an acceptable offer.
Another former Triumph car factory, the Tile Hill paint and body plant at Coventry, was being advertised for sale at £2.75 million. Coventry City Council wanted to acquire ten of the 40 acres for use as a trading estate, but would not be putting up any cash. Instead, it had offered BL a straight exchange for 13 acres of Council-owned land adjoining Jaguar in Coventry, which could be used to extend production facilities when conditions improved. A former Rover factory in Bordesley Green Road, Birmingham, used for the storage of pallets, had been sold for £400,000. By the end of 1980, Rover-Triumph was a shadow of its former self.
Rover now occupied the SD1 plant at Solihull, while most traces of Triumph had been shut down, with the sole remaining model, the TR7/8 now being built in the Rover plant. The TR7/8 was also the last volume British sports car being exported to the USA.
A light in the gloom
In October 1980 the Austin Metro had been launched, the engineering had been led by former Triumph man Ray Bates, and Britain soon succumbed to ‘Metro Mania’. BL management spent this period fighting a running battle with the the Combined British Leyland Shop Stewards’ Committee, which had submitted a demand for a 20 per cent pay rise from an insolvent company and had been bludgeoned by Michael Edwardes into accepting much less. When BL tried to ramp up Metro production matters came to a head and Longbridge was halted for a fortnight. BL was accused of confrontational management techniques, but the BLTUC had fought a long delaying action in retaining outdated working practices.
The whole focus was now on Longbridge and Cowley, the rump of the former British Motor Corporation, which now had spare capacity in its plants.
In early 1981, it seemed like British manufacturing industry was in meltdown. Announcements of factory closures and mass redundancies happened on a daily basis as the unemployment statistics ballooned. While the politicians argued over the underlying cause of all this economic misery, the British people, or those still with a job, reacted with typical stoicism and forsook British-manufactured goods and sucked in more imports, thus exacerbating the economic crisis. This was a period when British consumers, bombarded for years with negative media reports about British industry and their products, deserted domestic manufactured goods in droves. For some nations the recession of the early 1980s was a temporary economic blip which resulted in unemployment as industry reduced production through reduced shifts and short-time working. In Britain, it resulted in wholescale de-industrialisation. The recession would last until 1983, but the lack of confidence in British-manufactured goods would last into the 21st century.
Solihull continues to struggle
British Leyland was at the heart of this crisis of confidence. Short-time working affecting so much of the car industry at this time reached the Land Rover plant at Solihull in January 1981 where 1200 workers had been put on to a three-day week.
A Land Rover spokesman said: ‘While car factories everywhere have been on short time for months past, we have been able to maintain five-day working. But with 80 per cent of our production going overseas, it was inevitable that the recession would begin to bite sooner or later. Not all sections are affected. Production of Range Rovers and kits of parts for the 25 Land-Rover assembly plants overseas is continuing on a five-day basis. Kits account for 40 per cent of our production, so we are still doing a lot better than most car makers’.
Mike Hodgkinson, Managing Director of Land Rover, told Shop Stewards that, while redundancies were not necessary at the time, he could not give a guarantee for the future. Everything would depend on demand. Land Rover was in the middle of a £225 million investment programme designed to increase output by 75 per cent. Despite the slump, it was pressing ahead to be in a position to market aggressively when sales recovered. A new £20 million assembly works would begin producing Range Rovers within the next few weeks. It would double the existing capacity of 300 a week, and would be accompanied by a major advertising programme to inform motorists that, for the first time since the big cross-country vehicle was launched in 1970, it could now be bought ‘off the shelf’.
The death of the BL sports car confirmed
Then, on 12 May 1981, BL announced that it was to pull out of sports car production and curtail luxury car output in a fresh rationalisation programme which would shed 5000 more jobs, mainly in the unemployment black spots of Merseyside and the West Midlands. Union leaders were astounded to hear of the production cutbacks that would see the end of the Triumph TR7/TR8 and the shutdown of the custom-built £31 million assembly plant at Solihull, opened only five years earlier.
Workers were told by Plant Managers that they had to face up to the reality of the continuing depression and the high exchange rate of sterling that had badly affected sales in Europe. The latest Edwardes plan involved the ending of TR7 production, which would hit many jobs at the BL parts plant at Speke No.1 and the transfer of Rover car assembly by the spring of 1982 from Solihull to Cowley, Oxford. There would be closures at the foundry plants at Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, further cutbacks at Leeds and shutdown of the Pengam, Cardiff parts plant.
The news of the Solihull closure was greeted with a mixture of disbelief and bitterness by the workforce. The next day a noisy mass meeting of Rover car workers voted overwhelmingly for an all-out campaign to stop BL from closing its plant at Solihull, the home of the Rover marque for the previous 35 years, and moving production of the SD1 to Cowley.
Shop Stewards said they would try to save all 2000 jobs by enlisting the help of MPs, local councillors and trade unions. They said, however, that if an orderly campaign failed, they would blockade the plant to stop the movement of tools and machinery, without which Rovers could not be built at Cowley. But they would only resort to strike action ‘as a desperate, last-ditch measure.’
Refreshing the Rover SD1 amid chaos
BL was also planning to launch Series 2 version of the Rover SD1 (above) from Solihull before it closed in April 1982. Production was due to start in October 1981, with the intention of launching the new car in January 1982. Mick Clarke, the Shop Stewards’ Convener, said workers were angry and shocked at the decision to close one of Europe’s most modern car plants. Recently, BL had spent £1.5 million on the Paint Shop and many thousands more on reorganisation to prepare for the new car. This, in itself, was a tacit acknowledgement that the paint work on the SD1 had been less than satisfactory.
‘We do not accept that losses are so bad that Solihull has to close. The lunatics at the top are wrecking Leyland, not the workers,’ he said.
Although the plant was only producing a quarter of its planned weekly capacity of 3000 cars, workers were doing everything required of them. They regularly achieved 99.9 per cent of output targets, which resulted in a £16 a week bonus payment, among the highest in the group. Mick Clarke said he would lead a march of Rover workers to join the national People’s March for Jobs. He said he was aware that similar campaigns had failed to stop the closure of Triumph Speke and MG Abingdon, but added: ‘This time they are taking on West Midland car workers who can call on their colleagues for support.’
Alvis sold off
On 2 July BL announced the sale of its profitable Alvis military vehicle company in Coventry to United Scientific Holdings plc. The sale would pump another £27 million into BL’s depleted coffers. Alvis was at first absorbed into United Scientific Holdings plc, but in 1982 the whole group was rebranded Alvis plc. Alvis is now part of BAE Systems Land and Armaments group. Alvis had been purchased by the Rover company back in 1965.
On 8 July 1981 the last Austin Maxi was produced at Cowley. Cowley had produced 486,273 Maxis since it had gone into production in 1969. The Maxi was the last Austin-Morris car designed without Ford-style cost control methods and, for all its missed sales targets and lack of profitability, it did demonstrate how to manufacture a technologically complex vehicle reliably, thus earning repeat sales. The reason for pulling the Maxi from production two years before its replacement, the LM10 Austin Maestro came on stream, would soon become apparent.
The fate of the Rover plant in Solihull was effectively sealed the same day when a meeting of workers refused to take industrial action to avert closure. By a majority of about three to two the 2000 strong labour force rejected a recommendation from their Shop Stewards for a disruptive campaign to frustrate BL’s plans to switch production of the Rover to its Cowley site. Senior Shop Stewards, who had been predicting that their advice would be followed, said later that they were disillusioned and dismayed by the vote, which left the way open for the company to complete its rationalisation scheme by the spring of 1982.
Car production at Solihull grinds to an end
Despite a sustained anti-closure campaign, which was supported by local MPs and the West Midlands County Council, and despite threats to occupy the plant, BL refused to give ground. It appeared that the balance of shop floor opinion might have been tipped in favour of capitulation when the Rover management told workers earlier in the week that disruptive action would jeopardise redundancy payments.
The company had offered discretionary payments of one week’s pay for every year of service, and an additional 12 weeks pay, on top of the legal minimum, on the condition that the transfer of production was completed smoothly. The next day the annual summer break began and BL took the opportunity to begin moving machinery from the Solihull Rover SD1 plant to Cowley.
‘Work of this sort is normally done when it will cause the least disruption and that is during holiday closedowns,’ a company spokesman said.
Resolution still a way off
On 27 July, it was revealed that the Series 2 version of the Rover SD1 was going to be produced simultaneously at Solihull and Cowley for at least five months to avoid a repetition of the costly interruption that followed the TR7’s move from Speke to Canley, Coventry. However, Rover Shop Stewards were still smarting from the company’s ‘no move, no money’ threat. A senior Shop Steward said: ‘They have not taken a great deal yet, but the gaps they have left are already causing some angry comments.’
A project team headed by a Manufacturing Director had been set up at Cowley to oversee the move and to start training operatives. No new labour would be recruited because the Rover would be assembled alongside the Princess on the track that was used for the Maxi. The Maxi workers, who had been retained on short time, would be retrained to assemble the more complex Rover. BL wanted to send groups of them to work alongside their opposite numbers at Solihull, but managers acknowledged that this could cause friction.
Doubts about Cowley’s ability to build a prestige car such as the Rover to acceptable standards were dismissed by management. They pointed out that the Honda-designed Triumph Acclaim was produced on an adjoining line and was attaining, and in some respects exceeding, the highest Japanese quality standards. A Cowley executive said: ‘The Japanese had the same initial worries about quality but they are now delighted with our product; in fact they agree we have shown them a thing or two. Rover traditionalists should have no fears. Quality throughout BL has improved enormously. Now with our new paint plant and the fact that Rover bodies will only have to move from one part of the factory to another instead of making the long road journey from here to Solihull with the possibility of damage, they will get a better Rover than ever before.’
Out with the old, in with the new
Without doubt, 5 October 1981 was a sad day for Triumph enthusiasts, as the last Triumph TR7 was produced at Solihull. This was also the end of the long-running TR series. Only two days after the last TR7 had emerged from Solihull, the new Anglo-Japanese Triumph Acclaim (above) went on sale. The Acclaim was being marketed as a sporting and well-equipped small saloon in the tradition of the extinct Triumph Dolomite.
Apart from the 1335cc engine, gearbox, suspension units and fascia, most of the Acclaim’s components were made in Britain. The value of the car’s British content was around 70 per cent. By buying a ready-made design from another manufacturer, BL had been able to get a new model into production more quickly, and at a lower cost.
To recap, in late August 1971 Bill Davis, the Triumph Managing Director, wrote in the division’s newspaper about two unnamed Japanese cars he had examined. He said: ‘The retail prices throughout the world and the dramatic increases in production quantities which have recently been published leave no room for complacency.’
The Triumph story had come full circle in a decade. The Acclaim was the last Triumph-badged car of all. Production would end in 1984 after 133,625 examples. The future was Anglo-Japanese and built by Austin-Morris.
More job losses as Project XX is confirmed
On 12 October, amid another pay dispute, BL Cars announced further job losses. Among 3000 jobs going were 900 at the company’s body plant in Speke, Merseyside, and another 430 at the Alford and Alder truck axle manufacturers in Hemel Hempstead. Speke No.1 was going along with Alford and Alder, the acquisition of both had been announced by Standard-Triumph in December 1959. The Speke No 1 factory, which mainly manufactured body assemblies for the Mini, was to shut and its work would be transferred to Longbridge, where final assembly already took place. Alford and Alder was closing, so as to move its production to other factories from late 1982.
On 12 November 1981 in Tokyo, BL and Honda announced that they had reached an initial agreement to design and develop a car, codenamed Project XX. We now know that Project XX became the Rover 800 of 1986 to 1998. This meant the end of the Bravo project, BL’s own attempt to replace the SD1.
Meanwhile, development of the existing Rover SD1 continued. David Bache’s Styling Department was looking at introducing a high-performance version, provisionally called the Rover Rapide. On the same day as the Tokyo announcement, a Rover Rapide proposal was photographed in the styling studio. The rights to the Rapide name were held by Aston Martin Lagonda, and they refused to release the name, so the car became the Rover Vitesse (below).
Rover-Triumph death throes
In January 1982, BL Cars announced the facelifted Rover SD1, initially produced at both Solihull and Cowley. A lot of the problems of the SD1 were solved with this revised model, but it was five years too late. The recession had tightened the grip of the Ford Granada on the executive car market as the production problems of the SD1 had severely damaged the whole Rover brand. In response, Austin-Morris had created a new SD1 variant with a familiar name, the Rover 2000.
This was an SD1 fitted with a twin-carburettor O-Series engine originally slated to prolong the life of the since axed MGB. The new Rover 2000 may well have helped boost SD1 production to 32,855 in 1982 and 33,455 in 1983, since the fleet buyers probably avoided the troublesome six-cylinder models, and the more expensive V8 was only for the most senior executives.
The same month as the final incarnation of his finest design was revealed, David Bache was fired as Austin-Morris Design Director after disagreements with Harold Musgrove. Not only would the next Rover not be built by Solihull, it would not be styled by David Bache or engineered by Gordon Bashford, who retired in 1981. David Bache died in 1994.
Austin Rover replaces Austin-Morris and Rover-Triumph
In March 1982, Austin Morris was rebranded as Austin Rover, although still headed by Harold Musgrove. By now, Rover-Triumph engineering led by Joe Farnham had been merged with Austin Morris engineering led by Ray Bates. Joe Farnham emerged as the new Austin Rover engineering supremo.
Meanwhile, Land Rover sales to the Middle East, one of the biggest markets in the world for four-wheel-drive vehicles, had increased by 64 per cent. To meet demand, particularly for deluxe Range Rovers, Land Rover was recruiting a further 200 workers at the Solihull assembly plant and introducing a Saturday morning shift and considerable overtime in key areas.
Production at Solihull was running at about 250 Range Rovers and 900 Land Rovers each week. Mike Hodgkinson, Managing Director of Land Rover, claimed that, after too many wasted years when one overseas market after another was conceded to the Japanese, the tide was now turning. He said Land Rover customers had grown so accustomed to its domination of the market that, when Japanese rivals appeared, they were bought experimentally. Once the Japanese had their ‘feet under the table’ they were hard to move. Instead of fighting back, BL had taken the view in the past that its Land Rovers were in such short supply they could always find another market.
Mike Hodgkinson said that, since 1978 when he took over the newly-created Land Rover company, he had adopted aggressive pricing tactics. ‘We have stopped conceding ground on price alone. We have fought back so well that Japanese sales of four-by-fours are faltering overseas and there are signs that a similar trend is developing in the United Kingdom. People are beginning to realize that ours is the quality product with much slower depreciation,’ he said.
Investment in Land Rover – about time, too!
Now at the halfway stage of a £200 million investment programme, he conceded that the recession could hardly have come at a worse time for Land Rover. But by cutting back on capital investment in new plant and switching to new products such as a new range of Land Rover to be launched on 31 March 1982 (Land Rover 90 and 110), the company had stayed in the black although with smaller profits. Production of the basic Land Rover in 1982 was 28,384 plus another 13,255 Range Rovers, but they were now being made by 10,800 employees instead of 14,000. New plant and reorganised working methods meant that, with minimal additional manning, Land Rover could increase output by as much as 70 per cent to more than 90,000 per year.
Mike Hodgkinson was being optimistic. While the Range Rover had gone from strength to strength, the basic Land Rover had been on the slide since 1971 when 56,663 left Solihull. Since then production had crashed by nearly 50 per cent as Japanese off-roaders drove Land Rover out of many markets. Things would get worse before they got better, production diving below 20,000 for the first time in 1986.
It was the end of an era at Solihull on 22 April, when the Rover SD1 car plant, opened to such fanfare in 1976, closed and 800 workers were made redundant. From now on Solihull became home to the Land Rover brand, while Rover cars would be manufactured at former BMC plants. However, it was not the end of the Solihull SD1 plant. We now fast forward to 1983.
Solihull’s Rebirth begins
On 11 November 1983 Land Rover announced it was to close nine plants, with the loss of 1560 jobs, and concentrate all its manufacturing at Solihull, where the former Rover SD1 assembly plant, closed in 1982, would be reopened. The regrouping would save about £14 million a year and make Land Rover much more attractive to private investors who regarded its ramshackle collection of frequently duplicated plants as a major obstacle to privatisation. Inter-plant deliveries of components totalled nearly one million miles a year. It also relieved the state-owned group of the problem of disposing of the redundant Solihull plant.
Tony Gilroy, the new Managing Director of Land Rover, said: ‘Austin Rover’s recently announced decision to manufacture XX at Cowley gives Land Rover a once in-a lifetime opportunity to make fundamental improvements in cost and efficiency. We will be replacing a series of mainly very old, small, uneconomic plants with a single, integrated modern facility. It will rid Land Rover of a very heavy financial burden and create a fully cost-effective, advanced manufacturing operation.’
The doomed plants were all in the Birmingham area, except Pengam, Cardiff, where 600 workers produced gearboxes. The other plants with number of employees in brackets were: Perry Barr, axles (300); Tyburn Road, gear cases (200); Tyseley, engine components (1000); Acocks Green, engines and transmissions (650); Garrison Street, chassis (450); Bordesley Green, pressings (725); Saltley, stores (20) and Draycon Road, engineering research (250). Land Rover said that three quarters of the workers would be offered jobs at Solihull. Closures would be phased in from the late summer 1985, and be completed by the end of 1986.
More closures, more job losses
Grenville Hawley, National Automotive Officer of the Transport and General Workers’ Union and Chairman of the BL Cars Joint Negotiating Committee, said: ‘This centralising plan maybe very attractive to the company, but 1500 more redundancies is a real setback.’
James Callaghan, the former Prime Minister, who was Labour MP for Cardiff South and Penarth, said that the closures were a device to enable major sections of BL to be privatized. The doomed Pengam transmission plant was in his constituency. Back in 1961, the plant there had arrived there in response to ‘the amiable arm twisting’ of the Board of Trade, as William Martin-Hurst, then the Deputy Managing Director of the old Rover company, put it, ‘this left us no alternative but to expand our industries, in places which we certainly would not have chosen and which at the time not infrequently appeared unattractive to us.’
Tony Gilroy had seized the initiative and relocated distant outlying facilities into the former SD1 plant, which gradually became known as East Works at the Solihull complex. The £31 million invested in the plant was not wasted after all. It also dawned on Tony Gilroy that Land Rover had no real hope of clawing back the markets lost to the Japanese 4×4 makes with its base model, now called 90 and 110, and that the way forward was to expand the Range Rover theme.
The legacy passes on to Land Rover
This led to the Range Rover being moved upmarket to become a luxury car, a later day P5, and the gap below being filled by two new models which became the Discovery and Freelander. Although Tony Gilroy left Land Rover in 1988, his basic plan led to Solihull once again becoming a major player in the passenger vehicle market.
In June 1986, the last Rover SD1 was produced at Cowley, finally bringing to an end the ill-fated Rover-Triumph expansion plan. It was replaced in the showrooms by the Anglo-Japanese Rover 800, again built at Cowley. It could be argued that the 800 was a success because of the Honda connection. Buyers rightly or wrongly believed that the car was a quality product because of the Japanese involvement not because it wore a Rover badge. This was a consequence of the SD1 debacle. The new 800 took the fight to the Ford Granada, but was not seen as a BMW rival in the same way as the P6 had been.
This image had been squandered by the quality issues of the SD1. The one-time Chairman of BL Cars, Ray Horrocks, later observed: ‘When the SD1 was designed back in the early 1970s there were not enough Production Engineers alongside the Design Engineers. It was built by Engineers for Engineers, so the car was productionised as it went down the line. There wasn’t enough development done of the car which reflected the lack of testing facilities then available to the company. When you launch a new model, there are a number of things you aim to avoid. They are putting it into production at a new plant, with a new Paint Shop and with a new engine and transmission. The SD1, particularly in its six-cylinder form, suffered from all these shortcomings.’
The main legacy of all this was the East Works at Solihull, which remains in use and the LT77 transmission, which evolved into the R380.
So why did Rover-Triumph fail?
Was it dire industrial relations, poor design, bad management, or a combination of all of these things? In such a complex story, there is no such thing as a simple answer. If one word sums up what is wrong then that word is ‘quality’, or rather the lack of it. No motor manufacturer deliberately sets out to instil poor quality into their products, but somehow British Leyland/Rover-Triumph managed it. At one stage it was possible to buy a new Rover or Triumph with worse build quality than a bottom of the range Mini 850. How had this come about?
The concept of a Rover-Triumph range for the late 1970s was perfectly feasible, but the execution was flawed. How could the Rover and Triumph Designers suddenly go from inspiration to desperation? The biggest mistake was to import Ford-style cost control methods into the design and development of premium priced Rover and Triumph cars, no doubt at the prodding of John Barber and Gerry Wright, who were both ex-Blue Oval. Their recruitment came out of the mindset in late 1960s Britain, adopted by the Government’s and industry analysts, that the only way to manufacture vehicles was the Ford of Britain way. Any other way was bound to lead to financial ruin. The whole raison d’etre of the creation of BLMC in 1968 was the widespread belief amongst the clever people that the British Motor Corporation was heading for the rocks because its cost management was poor.
That’s a viewpoint which has been pedalled ever since…
Cost-engineering paid a heavy toll
The solution was to merge it with Leyland, recruit Ford finance experts and inject it with effective cost control measures. Problem solved… According to the BLMC Central Finance staff, both the Mini and Rover P6 were too expensive to manufacture and therefore only marginally profitable at best, and probably the same criteria applied to many other of the company’s models, if not all. One suspects that, by Ford’s costing criteria, many of Europe’s most successful cars probably failed to make the grade as well.
George Farmer, the Chairman of Rover, was himself an accountant and, in conjunction with his fellow Directors and Engineers led by Peter Wilks, had managed to reach an effective compromise between cost and quality on the P6 model, without the penny-pinching extremes that afflicted development of the Rover SD1. The Rover P6 really was the 1960s equivalent of a 21st century BMW saloon. Customers willingly paid over the odds, when they could get something cheaper elsewhere, because they knew they would get quality engineering. Having established a reputation for advanced engineering, British Leyland cynically exploited the quality image of the Rover P6 by designing and manufacturing the technically cruder SD1 to a price with a plan to manufacture it at twice the rate.
It was a supermarket mindset adapted for motor manufacturing. Triumph, with its own 2000/2500 saloons, had shown how to manufacture a technically simpler car than the Rover P6 with quality built in, something that was missing from the SD1. Harry Webster and his team, with Walter Boardman in charge of the finances at Standard-Triumph, had the ability to instill engineering quality into their cars without resorting to costly technical sophistication that could lead to warranty issues. Both Rover and Triumph had been allowed to design cars with relative freedom, but retained enough self-discipline to deliver quality cars at reasonable prices.
The product: chasing unattainable goals
From 1972, British Leyland’s ex-Ford Product Planners were obsessed by the threat from the Ford Granada, which was sold at a ridiculously low price that Rover-Triumph had no hope of matching despite the penny pinching. The SD1 replaced the Rover and Triumph executive saloons in the showroom, but inherited neither of those cars’ positive virtues.
The Triumph TR7 took until 1978 for the car to come good, with its faults measured in the hundreds, and then it ran into a recession and this, combined with the strength of sterling, led to BL pulling the plug. The bitter truth must be faced that, from a quality point of view, both the early Rover SD1 and Triumph TR7 were truly awful cars, with BL Engineers frantically trying to retrofit the quality components and materials that had been excised at the design stage due to the intervention of the Central Finance Staff.
The paranoia about manufacturing costs led to the engineering integrity of Rover-Triumph designs being deliberately degraded in order to boost profit margins. Engines also played a factor in the demise of Rover-Triumph. The Triumph V8, Slant-four Sprint and six-cylinder PE146/166 engines all suffered from reliability issues resulting in warranty claims and disillusioned customers. British Leyland blamed its own workforce, but perhaps the production tolerances were insufficient and that is a design issue.
As Bernard Jackman said back in February 1974: ‘Quality and design are a completely integrated thing. If you have a poor design, no matter what you do on the line or how good your facilities are you will still turn out a poor product. It is not possible for fellows on the assembly line to make good the deficiencies of bad design.’
The management: not focused enough
The role of management in the failure of Rover-Triumph begs the question of which management? Rover and Triumph were merged in March 1972, only to be dismantled in August 1975 and absorbed into Leyland Cars. The Ryder Report criticised the Stokes-era management for having decentralised. The constituents of British Leyland, apart from Austin-Morris, retained their boards, but were answerable to the main BLMC Board for decisions over funding and new model development.
In the case of Rover and Triumph it enabled the localised management to keep a grip on quality. The formation of Leyland Cars removed this layer of management. Plant Managers in fear of their jobs soon found themselves answerable to remote Leyland Cars diktats for quantity and never mind the quality. No wonder corners were cut. During the ‘Barber Boom’ of 1972/3 Rover-Triumph had been unable or unwilling to respond to the greatly expanded car market, and perhaps this helps to explain the emphasis on quantity over quality as sales went begging and the Ford Granada benefited.
When he arrived at British Leyland, Michael Edwardes restored the localised management, but by this time the old Rover and Triumph hands had departed the scene and the senior posts were occupied by outsiders who were just as remote as Leyland Cars had been. The managerial merry-go-round that was part of life at British Leyland meant that it took a full five years to rectify many of the faults of the Rover SD1 with the Series 2 model. No doubt it was deemed cheaper to alienate customers rather than rectify the problems.
Industrial relations: lamentable and destructive
The role of poor industrial relations in the collapse of Rover-Triumph was considerable, although it was the company-wide problem rather than local disputes that was to hurt Rover-Triumph most, forcing a corporate rethink.
Another factor was that British Leyland’s gradual programme of rationalisation resulted in a much reduced Rover-Triumph range by the end of 1977, with the SD1 as the company’s only executive car on the market. This, in theory, should have been good for British Leyland, but the reduced customer choice offered by BL in the UK market was alleviated by Britain now being a full member of the European Economic Community. UK buyers put off by stories of dreadful Rover SD1 quality and who did not want to be seen dead in a Ford Granada now had a wider choice of continental cars at competitive prices.
Marques such as Alfa Romeo, Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Saab and Volvo were no longer expensive oddities favoured by a snobbish minority which were available from a small exclusive dealer network. They became mainstream and had been allowed to gain a foothold because of British Leyland’s inability to manufacture the SD1 to the expected quality. The cancellation of the Triumph SD2 also allowed these manufacturers to gain traction in the market for small sporting saloons.
Failing to learn from its rivals
During the 1960s, not only Rover and Triumph but other manufacturers such as Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Saab and Volvo faced a dilemma. To survive against the American-owned giants with their marketing and product planning know-how, combined with huge engineering resources, did they try to compete on price or sell their products at a higher price that reflected the true cost of manufacture and hopefully stay in business?
Alfa Romeo, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Saab and Volvo decided to design their products without strict input from committees of accountants. They designed their cars with durable components and charged the appropriate price, relying on creating an image of robustness in order to earn repeat sales.
Instead of going out of business as perhaps some industry insiders expected, these firms thrived by creating quality products that earned what became known as brand values. One can contrast the Ford Cortina with the Peugeot 504. The Cortina 2000 GL four-door cost £3452 in October 1977, while the 1.8-litre Peugeot 504 L cost £3730. The French car was a full 8 per cent more expensive than the Anglo-German Ford, but it did not stop Peugeot from selling copious quantities of the 504 all over the world and nor did the company go out of business because its products were over-engineered and expensive by Ford standards. The Ford way was not the only business model in town.
Unfortunately, Rover-Triumph decided to compete on price with fatal results.
As we now know, the premium German manufacturers did not go bust because they overcharged their customers. Eventually, they drove the mighty Ford Motor Company out of the executive car market and BMW even took over the remains of British Leyland, by then known as the Rover Group. BMW funded the last Rover-badged model, the ill-fated 75. In development BMW had to persuade the Rover Design Team to use quality engineering solutions rather than the cheapest option, a legacy of the imported Ford costing methods.
The one bright spot of the Rover-Triumph story is the Range Rover, now the core product of Jaguar Land Rover, the spiritual successor to Rover-Triumph. The original Range Rover was the last real product of the old Rover company. Conceived by Spen King, and seen through to production by his cousin Peter Wilks, the design was far too advanced for the BLMC Cost Controllers to degrade it. Perhaps this is why, along with the original Land Rover and BMC Mini, it survived the British Leyland debacle relatively untarnished?
Sadly, for the later Rover-Triumph designs, this was not the case – with Rover-Triumph, British Leyland really did manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory…
- History : The Austin-Morris story – Part Nine : 1972 - 6 February 2021
- History : The Austin-Morris story – Part Eight : 1971 - 14 December 2020
- The cars : Jaguar XJ (X350) development story - 29 November 2020