In August 1977 the inevitable happened and Ryder resigned as Chairman of the NEB. Ryder did not leave on bad terms; in fact when he left he remained upbeat about the company’s chances of success in the future. Ryder, however, always considered that debate about British Leyland was discouraged at the NEB and now that his deputy Leslie Murphy had replaced him and with the crisis ever deepening, the exchange of views needed to be great deal freer.
Ryder felt that the plan was entering its second phase and if he were to see it through, he ‘…would then be there for another three years.’ Ryder plainly also had suffered enough at not being able to push his plans through. His replacement, Murphy was no fool and he accepted that changes at the top of the company would absolutely have to happen. First things first, Murphy needed to know exactly what the state of play at British Leyland and arranged to meet Alex Park to discuss the company’s finances. The first thing he asked Park was the simple question of what models made money and what models did not. Murphy was exasperated to find that Park was unable to tell him and further more, he would not be able to tell him at all, as the ‘accounting system at BL is such as not to produce an answer’.
In October 1977, Murphy telephoned Michael Edwardes and asked him whether he would like to take on the Chairmanship of British Leyland. Edwardes remembers that it took him at least thirty seconds utter a reply to Murphy, such was his shock, but once this had passed, he saw a certain logic in his appointment. Michael Edwards, therefore, deliberated the offer and told Murphy that he would get back to him. In reality, Edwardes knew he would take the job; in his own words, ‘Do you think one can refuse a task like that?’
When Edwardes accepted the post, it was as the company Chairman and the Managing Director. The government had sanctioned his appointment and they saw Edwardes as someone with the strength of character to carry through the tough decisions that would need to be made. Such was the strength of his position he even managed to persuade the government to accept his appointment to BL on the basis that it was on a three-year secondment from Chloride Batteries, his current employer.
There would be no more management by committee; the company needed a figurehead and Edwardes was definitely that man. Michael Edwardes, the self-assured 47-year-old South African and member of the NEB board, had been previously awarded The Guardian Young Business Man of the Year in 1975 in acknowledgement of his previous pivotal role in turning around the fortunes of the Chloride Batteries Group.
There was also the advantage in his appointment as Company Chairman that he had already gained an inside track on the machinations of British Leyland, helping make decisions on running the company, as part of his job in the National Enterprise Board. The first change came almost immediately, when he renamed the company, BL Ltd., it would be the first step in a wide-ranging reform of the company. Now, however, he was given the sole responsibility for turning BL into a profit-making company, with full Government backing. Edwardes was given carte blanche: Make Leyland work or close it.
When Edwardes took office on November 1st 1977, the ramifications were massive – Alex Park resigned immediately, Derek Whittaker followed him within weeks. Shockwaves were sent through the corridors of power and by the end of December, it became clear through a series of controlled ‘leaks’ that Edwardes was there to slim the company down – and the first such ‘leak’ was one raising questions about the viability of the Speke factory. Edwardes also let it be known publicly that his first task would be to take on the Unions, something that he was unafraid in doing because he had full backing from the NEB.
Edwardes comes in to save BL from oblivion
He knew where the problems lay and he felt that in order to Save BL – he had to employ ‘Management’s right to Manage’. In other words, he was quite capable of doing what it took to make the factories produce cars again – if blood were spilt in order to get BL working again, he would be the man to do it.
He had to radically change the company in order for it to survive:
- Overhaul the model range and produce cars people actually wanted
- Overcome Union militancy in order to increase productivity and quality.
What Edwardes faced first though was an enormous cash crisis. BL may have been (to use the words of Edwardes), ‘one of the largest public sector lame ducks’, but on the very week of his appointment, it was about to run out of money again, just as it had done at the end of 1974. He had to approach the clearing banks in order to obtain funds, simply to stay in business. Once this land had been made, he then approached the Government through Industry secretary Tony Benn and made them very aware of the fact that they would be having to put their hands in their pockets to fund the development of the new generation of cars that would be needed to replace the Maxi, Allegro, Marina and Dolomite.
The Labour Government agreed to this proposal, as they had done previously with Ryder in 1975, but made sure that Edwardes was aware that he had a responsibility to each and every BL employee. When government got wind of the plans for Speke, they called Edwardes to task, requesting that he produced a full and frank account of why this closure was to take place. He actually met James Callaghan and explained that the TR7 was to remain in production, its production would be transferred, to which Callaghan replied that a sound business decision would have been to scrap the car, not move the assembly of it.
Obviously, the Unions took an intense dislike to the new management regime, which they felt was putting the financial interests of the company ahead of its workers. Undoubtedly, this was untrue. In February 1978 and in his first major speech in his capacity as BL chairman, Edwardes laid out his plans to save the company to a delegation of 720 Shop Stewards, Union and Employee representatives. He pulled no punches, his programme was going to be ruthless – he needed to cut out the excesses in the company in order to save it.
But he could save it. When balloted, this assembly backed him by a majority of 715 to 5. They had been won over by Edwardes’ strength and charisma and an unstinting belief that he could achieve what he was brought in to do. Edwardes himself was heartened by this response and told Edouard Seidler in an interview published in Autocar in November 1978, that, ‘the remarkable reception I got (made me happy) when I addressed the shop stewards and the national union officials. Also when I went around SU carburettors, I got a standing ovation from the work force, who shouted support for what we are doing’.
Yet, even armed with this knowledge, industrial relations between Edwardes and the Unions took an immediate nosedive. Too often, strike action became the first, rather than the last resort in dealing with industrial issues; Longbridge, Cowley, Solihull, Canley and Speke were bought out on Strike by militant shop stewards, defiant of the Management and unafraid to use their ultimate veto, the withdrawal of labour, against Edwardes, despite his own proclamations. As Edwardes himself said in response to a question put to him about how he felt about this, ‘What made me unhappy is that the 99 per cent of the work force who want to get on with the job have not yet found a way of neutralizing the one per cent who want to paralyse us’.
Edwardes knew that he needed to break these Shop Stewards and do it quickly because these strikes were an epidemic throughout the company. In 1977, for instance, the production of 250,000 cars was lost to industrial action. The shop stewards responsible for calling these strikes may not have known it, or even cared, but undoubtedly, they were destroying the company.
Unflinching factory closures begin
The most infamous meeting of minds took place in 1978, when the workers of the doomed Speke factory were brought out on strike again. Production line workers there knew pretty much from the day that Michael Edwardes took over the Chairmanship of BL, that their factory was living on borrowed time: Edwardes made it public that he wanted to downscale operations at the plant – and the first step of this plan was to move Triumph TR7 production over to Canley, near Coventry. So when the management requested Union assistance in getting the production line moved out of Speke, they were met with Shops Steward disapproval, which quite rightly feared for the jobs of the production line workers.
The assembly line staff immediately staged a sit-in at the factory, which obstructed all work that needed to be done at Speke – not only that, but their counterparts in Canley came out in sympathy. On one side, we had Michael Edwardes who had made it quite clear that if they did not desist in this action, he would have no choice, but to close down the entire factory (the plan had always been to keep Speke open, abeit in a scaled-down form) and on the other, we had the workers, who believed that by fighting for their jobs, Edwardes would back down. As a consequence, Edwardes warned in quite plain terms, there would be a huge loss of jobs, not only at Speke itself, but also to the local economy as a whole.
Michael Edwardes delivered this ultimatum to the Unions – assist the management or lose the entire factory for good – and this was no bluff: as he had said before in February 1978, he had the Government behind him and he was prepared to ‘do what it takes’.
No one actually believed that Edwardes would deliver on this promise, after all not only was the fate of the new Triumph Lynx sports car at stake, the political climate in the company was surely against such confrontations: Surely a Labour Government would not allow such a confrontation between the head of a ‘nationalised’ industry and the Unions that represented the company’s workers to go in favour of the management? The Union leaders would prove to be disastrously wrong in these beliefs. Unfortunately, after protracted union belligerence at the Merseyside plant, which involved not only sit-ins, but also acts of sabotage, Edwardes finally called time – and closed down the entire car producing facility at the factory – with the Government’s backing.
The cost of this action had been huge: not only in terms of Jobs lost in the Merseyside area, but also in terms of future production cars: the promising V8-engined Triumph Lynx, nearing production at that time, was cancelled immediately. The tragedy of this is that the Unions had called a strike in order to gain better conditions for their workers and yet had gained absolutely nothing, losing everything. Edwardes, on the other hand, had gained everything – instead of a gradual closure of Speke (with its potential protracted problems), the operation was closed in one fell swoop.
‘Red Robbo’ joins the party
After Speke, Unions were more circumspect in their approach to the Management and their attitude to the withdrawal of Labour was revised. Not entirely, though. At Longbridge, the man who had led workers to many, many strikes was Derek Robinson. In doing so, he was responsible for bringing to a halt the production line of the largest factory in BL, which by implication had brought him into direct conflict with Sir Michael Edwardes.
Robinson had been a worker at Longbridge for many years and had risen through the ranks to become the plant’s Communist Union Convenor. He was a believer that the British Motor Industry was worth saving and he felt that the right way to produce the right cars was to ensure that the car workers were given fair conditions to work in – an admirable stance, of course. Robinson has since gone on record saying that BL would have flourished had they produced more cars by following the Ryder plan and not succumbing to the plant closures that Edwardes was putting in place. But if this is so, how could BL produce more cars, if Longbridge was always at a standstill, due to Robinson-invoked car strikes?
Support for Robinson from the Longbridge production line staff, however, had been on the wane for some time. They had seen what had happened at Speke and could see with their own eyes what Edwardes was capable of in order to get the factories working again.
The National Press who had portrayed this man as something of an anti-hero had called Robinson’s methods into question. They systematically turned him into a figurehead for the Union and all the bad that the Union movement was supposed to stand for, even giving him a nickname, ‘Red Robbo’, truly a sign of infamy.
That Derek Robinson had been allowed to reach this level of control (his will alone could stop the production line) was as much the responsibility of previous weak management as it was Union Belligerence – and Edwardes knew this. But for Longbridge to return to a sensible level of productivity, Robinson had to go. The national media was calling for it, BL management wanted it and increasingly so, the Longbridge workforce wanted it.
When this man was finally relieved of his duties at Longbridge, in November 1979 (and the decision to do this had come right from the top) a marker had been laid – along with the closure of Speke; this had underlined in thick black lines that Edwardes would do what it took in order to turn BL into a profitable organization again. Something he had said right from the start of his tenure. Robinson’s departure was not without its problems, however – a partial walkout at Longbridge ensued and the dispute lasted until February 1980.
This was because a vote of the assembly line workers was cast at Longbridge, calling for a strike in sympathy of Derek Robinson’s dismissal, and although the vote went 14,000 to 600 against a walkout, it was enough to cause disruption. This did indicate yet again that the man on the production line simply wanted to work, be given the opportunity to produce cars. Because of this continued unrest though, the new Conservative Government was already losing patience with the whole BL situation and during this strike it became increasingly obvious that the future of the company hung in the balance.
After the return to work, it took a further seven weeks of tough negotiation between management and shop stewards to finally agree on new working practices. Sanity was, however, beginning to be restored in the car plants. When a march was held in the Centre of Birmingham, culminating in a meeting of support for Robinson, the full extent of how politically motivated were the people that supported Robinson was sadly very obvious. There were a lot of people at the meeting and those present comprised a great number of people with very far-left political affiliations. Very few of the delegates at this activist meeting were actually the car workers of Longbridge – the people actually affected by all these stoppages.
As always, minorities with vested interests were proving to be more destructive than they ever thought possible.
Time after time, Edwardes and his handpicked management team would take on and beat the militant shop stewards, wrestling back control of the factories from them and handing it back to local managers. In doing so, the balance of power was moving away from the workers’ representatives to the Management.
Green shoots of recovery begins?
So, that was the state of affairs with the Unions, but as market share for the actual products continued to decline, Edwardes knew that BL had far too many factories producing far too few cars that no one wanted. Speke had been closed in the most public way possible, but other factories needed to go the same way in order to control costs and match output with demand.
Time was sadly called on MG at Abingdon in 1980 and later on, the car making facility at Canley went the same way. Amazingly, the next plant to come under review was the showcase factory Solihull (opened in 1975 at a cost of £31m), which had its SD1 and TR7 production lines, halted. Eventually this plan of closures cost 90,000 jobs in the industry and maybe this rationalisation was necessary, but it cannot have been easy for anyone, even Sir Michael Edwardes, to stand up and say that he cost the country that many jobs.
This rolling series of closures left a core of factories: BL retreated to regroup at Longbridge and Cowley, traditionally their stronghold. Browns Lane, where Jaguars had been produced for years and years thankfully survived the 1970s pretty much untouched – even if that lack of investment would have implications of their own.
Whilst juggling industrial relations issues, and slimming down the number of factories, he also worked hard on the product itself, the intention being to give BL a logical model range. He also worked on how this range of models would be marketed, who would do that marketing and from where. His first marketing shuffle was to undo the ‘lump it all under Leyland’ approach recommended by the Ryder report, finally burying the Leyland name for good. In a reversal of the Ryder plan, Edwardes restructured the company so that it was split up into four main divisions; Special Products, Trucks and Buses, International and the motor division – something that eerily resembled the structure that Donald Stokes had put in place.
Although this may have looked to be the case, Edwardes denied this vehemently, ‘In no way are we going back to how Leyland used to be!’, he proclaimed, ‘On the outside, it might look as if we were going back to what the company was like before BL was founded. This is not so. It is true that we have done a lot of decentralizing. We have decentralized operations, but we are centralizing decisions.’ Edwardes had correctly reasoned that the Leyland name had no place on cars and should from that point in time onwards, be reserved for trucks and buses only.
He also made sure that (pre-Ryder, what was known as) the Specialist Division were given the degree of autonomy in the company that had been lost to them, immediately post-Ryder. This had served up to heighten the distinction between Austin-Morris (the volume arm which also at this point in time, included MG) and Jaguar-Rover-Triumph (the upmarket arm) and rightly so.
Ex-Ford man and Edwardes-trustee Ray Horrocks was placed in charge of Austin-Morris while William Pratt-Thompson, an American landed the plum JRT job. In the immediate aftermath of the Government buy out and all the bad press associated with this event, people still held the products of Rover and especially, Jaguar in high esteem. Why not try and distance these from Austin-Morris?
Now there was no distinction between Austin and Morris dealers any more, he had succeeded in completing the job that Stokes and his predecessors had never managed, nor fully understood: uniting the two brands of Austin and Morris. Dropping the Austin and Morris versions of the 18-22 series, to be renamed the ‘Princess’ had been the first tangible step down this road. By 1978, this process was complete: You still had the choice of buying a Morris Marina or Austin Allegro, but you would have to go to the same dealer to buy one or the other.
So, by stealth and on the back of the Ryder reorganization, Edwardes had also fought the self-serving interests of the dealers and wrested power away from them and back to the company.
Like Stokes before him, Edwardes knew that the range of cars produced by Austin Morris was in need of replacement, but at the same time, knew that rushing this job as Stokes had done previously would be counter-productive. Time was taken, money forthcoming from the Government would need to be spent wisely (as there would only be strictly rationed amounts of cash from this moment onwards) and a definitive plan for the future was drawn-up.
Such was the sheer size and tremendous overlap of the BL range, that their diminishing market share could no longer sustain such a large number of unique models. Edwardes looked across at a company like Ford, for instance, and saw a logical progression through the range from Fiesta to Escort through the Cortina to Granada and saw minimal overlap and a logical choice to the buyer. He wanted to emulate this with BL, he wanted to put an end to the ragbag mixture of cars that the company currently offered – he wanted rationalisation.
Because work on the replacement for the Marina and the Dolomite had been cancelled long before Edwardes took up his post at BL, a future model programme would have to drawn up and built around what was already in development. It was the replacement for the SD2 and ADO77, the LC10, which would prove to be the centrepiece of the Edwardes plan.
Also under review was the ongoing saga of what to do about replacing the Mini – so much time and effort had already been thrown at this, but still there was nothing to show by the mid-1970s. Management liked to dust off the idea of replacing the Mini, only to conclude that there were more pressing matters. This was habitual in the Company, a running theme that took until 1987 and Graham Day to finally conclude that the Mini was ‘cool’ and that it should stay in production for as long as it were legal to make it.
Sir Michael Edwardes had said that the Mini would remain as long as demand showed, ‘no sign of easing’, but that was hardly the same as Day’s ringing endorsement of the product. But during the ‘dark years’ of the 1970s, no one drew this conclusion and so millions of Pounds were wasted on the search for a new Mini. First there was the Issigonis 9X prototype that by all rights, BL should have got into production before 1970. Then there was the costly ADO74 debacle, having resources thrown at it until John Barber put a stop to the development in 1974 as a result of his cost-cutting measures just at the point the car should have gone into production.
As detailed in the Austin Metro development story, it was cost that constrained BL and led to the development of the ADO88 as the company’s new small car. But still at this point, 1977, the car was destined to be a replacement for the Mini!
As Sir Michael Edwardes has subsequently observed, in the 1970s the average German Car Manager would spend 5% of his time dealing with industrial relations, whereas his UK counterpart would spent 60%. With this in the background, it took longer for Sir Michael Edwardes to finally be able to put some effort into making sense of the model range than perhaps it should have done. He identified the fact that the Mini could fend for itself with a small series of cosmetic improvements, as it continued to sell in reasonable numbers, especially in Europe. He knew that there was still a place in many people’s hearts for the Mini and as it was output for the factory, it was a known quantity; it should remain in production for the foreseeable future.
However as a result of direct intervention of Sir Michael Edwardes and new-appointment Ray Horrocks, ADO88’s planned move upmarket (instigated by Derek Whittaker, who simply “fattened out the sides”, to quote Spen King) was steam-rollered through. This, boldly changed its intended role in life from a Mini replacement to a fully-fledged Supermini. Just why the ADO88 was not refined into a supermini, years before is anyone’s guess, but the fact is that the Supermini was always a BMC idea – after all, the ADO16 literally was a Super Mini.
Sadly, the supermini concept was never allowed to be pursued, usually because of financial constraints, but more often because of a lack of vision in the company’s management. Because of this procrastination, just about every car manufacturer has a small hatchback on the market before the MiniMetro finally appeared in 1980. How tragic this is and it does not reflect the talent that worked within the organization.
The state of play in the late-1970s
In terms of larger, prestige cars, JRT had their new product, the World-beating Rover SD1, to sell and alongside that, the Austin-Morris Princess was still fresh and reasonably new. So it was the lower-medium car situation that would be in receipt of the first line of major attention from Edwardes. Plans were drawn-up to introduce a streamlined package of small-to-medium sized cars encompassing work already done on the LC10 which had been started in late 1975 – and expanding it to include a larger saloon-bodied version.
As was the case in just about all of BL’s competitors, this model plan would involve the sharing of the LC10’s front wheel drive platform. In order to cut costs, the new cars would also use a slimmed-down range of engines, which would be carefully developed, versions of existing units.
The new cars would benefit from being created by the best engineering talent from right across BL and it went without saying that the cars would have to be excellent – and judged to be so by their customers. A lot of importance was laid at the feet of these cars because they would have to repair the damaged reputation of BL and if they were not good enough, there would be no more excuses. Simply put, the LC8 and LC10 had to be good enough to save BL. Edwardes used this fact to secure further finance for their development from the reluctant Conservative government, staking the future of BL on these cars.
The green shoots of recovery for the Company would start to appear from the nadir of the late 1970s. The years 1977 through to 1980 were very tough years for BL, market share further falling (it was 24.3% in 1977), there were no new products to show and the less well-informed elements of the Media were still calling for the closure of Austin-Morris. Ray Horrocks, the chief of Austin-Morris and Edwardes trustee was busy telling anyone in the press that would listen to keep calm, be patient and wait for the new cars – he knew that just about the entire development effort of the company was now behind the LC10.
However, market share would begin to rise again and stage a modest recovery: 1979 had seen BL dip below the 20% mark for the first time in its history, dropping again to 17.9% in 1980, but thanks to the arrival of the Metro, market share did start to improve again for the battered company. Importantly, the Metro won sales from the opposition, as well as their own fading models like the Allegro and Mini – once production of the Metro was fully up to speed and the exports of the car started in 1981, the signs were beginning to look promising.
The major difficulty at the time, of course, was that between the launch of the Metro in 1980 and the LM10/11 (Maestro/Montego) in 1983/4, there would be three very tough years where the existing middle-rank cars would have to soldier-on against far more modern competition. The problem with this was that with the SD2 and Marina 2 long-since axed, the Marina and Allegro would have to live on far longer than their sell-by dates (the former would be 12 and the latter would be 10 years old by 1983) and even with the cosmetic improvements they were continuously receiving, these two volume-selling cars would be seriously over the hill – they already were.
What was needed was a stopgap in order to generate sales until the new cars came on stream, but also once the LC10 was in production, something would be needed to plug the (admittedly small) gap in the market between this and the MiniMetro.
A new dawn from the east – collaboration with Honda
Astute financial planning and some ruthless cuts to the business had enabled enough money to be saved in order to modestly revise the range piece by piece. Genuine improvements were made to the Allegro in 1979 and the Marina became the Ital in 1980. But Edwardes knew that this would not be enough Edwardes and the Leslie Murphy of the NEB both knew that there would need to be a collaborative venture with another company in order to quickly develop a new mid-range car that the company could launch to plug this three year gap. Edwardes had always made it known that he wanted BL to play a greater role in the world affairs – companies were all linked to form a ‘spider’s web’ of collaboration and assistance and the company needed to be a part of this.
After much deliberation and a great deal of groundwork by Ray Horrocks and Mark Snowdon, Honda was chosen from a short shortlist of companies that were deemed suitable to do business with. Once it was determined that Honda were keen to collaborate with BL, both companies quickly established a favourable working relationship. What followed came quickly; the Honda Ballade was chosen as the basis of the new car in May 1979 – and the deal was signed to produce this car under licence in the UK that Christmas. The resulting car (called the LC9 internally and ‘Bounty’ by everyone else) was the first to benefit from extensive development work done on the company’s newly opened test track at Gaydon, Warwickshire.
Initially, this co-operative deal was seen as a way of producing a stopgap car in double quick time, but Edwardes was far-sighted enough to see that this could be the start of something much bigger. He reasoned that the World was becoming a smaller place and car manufacturers would increasingly want to share costs and development – and saw that the Acclaim was a good starting point and would leave the possibility open for BL and Honda to co-develop cars in the future. How right he proved to be.
Margaret Thatcher takes the helm at Downing Street
When Margaret Thatcher swept into power in 1979, she made it clear to Edwardes that she was extra-keen to return BL to the private sector as soon as possible. Her feeling was that the government should no longer continue to fund the car company: it had already cost the taxpayer £2bn to this point in time and the economy could not realistically continue to fund the company at such a rate. Declassified documents that emerged in 2013 reveal just how close the company came to closure at the end of 1979 – with the Honda deal and Sir Michael Edwardes’ future plans ensuring the government chose to keep the company open, despite front bend opposition.
Edwardes possessed enough acumen to convince Thatcher that if privatisation was the ultimate goal, then BL should not be carved-up piecemeal because he figured that without MG, Jaguar and Rover, the high image parts of the company, there would be the ‘Unsaleable rump’ of Austin-Morris, as he called it, left over. Edwardes even managed to persuade Thatcher to release further Government funding of £990m in order to increase the development budget of the LC10 in order to get both versions into production as painlessly as possible. The fact that he managed to persuade her not to carve up and privatise the profit making parts of BL would become a bone of contention between the Two.
Once this extra money had been agreed, Edwardes would undertake his last internal re-organisation of the company. Now that the new Triumph Acclaim was nearing introduction and the TR7 and Dolomite were to be killed, the traditional Austin-Morris/JRT divide was re-evaluated. As it was, when Pratt-Thompson resigned his post of JRT supremo in 1979, having run it from an office at the Jaguar factory in Browns Lane, the premium car division was disbanded. Pratt-Thompson remained in the fold, though, recently commenting: ‘I was simultaneously made Chairman of BL International, a post I kept for several years.’
Edwardes described JRT as, ‘really only a holding company with Rover and Triumph still separate identities in the minds of many managers and employees, and with Jaguar quite rightly, looking for greater independence.’
The result was that the car division was remodelled into two component parts: Light Medium Cars and Jaguar. Harold Musgrove was chosen head-up the LMC division alongside his opposite number, John Egan, at Jaguar. Musgrove was no doubt chosen because of the fact that in his previous incarnation as the head of Austin, he had been geeing along the team developing the Metro and had produced real results. Ray Horrocks was promoted to the post as Managing Director of BL, leaving Edwardes to concentrate on the Chairmanship. The upcoming cars in development had their development names changed to reflect this and at this point in time, only the LM10 and LM11 were heading for certain production.
During his tenure as Chairman of BL, Edwardes and his team of hard working executives had successfully broken the Union stranglehold on the car factories, streamlined the array of factories and, most vitally, had put in place plans, for a logical range of cars: Metro, Maestro and Montego. He had trimmed production volumes to realistic levels and improved productivity at both Longbridge and Cowley.
When his contract came up for renewal though in 1982, the eve of the launch of the Maestro, Margaret Thatcher did not renew it. Thatcher felt that Edwardes had stood in the way of rapid privatisation of the firm and she never forgave him for this. So much so, that by keeping BL together as a group, he had increased the burden the company was already placing on the economy. Edwardes had been smart enough to choose the man to replace him as Chairman, 67-year-old Sir Austin Bide, before the event, knowing that as a ‘strong businessman’, he would continue to run the company the way that Edwardes would have wanted.
Edwardes leaves after five-years
The legacy that Edwardes had left was a leaner, fitter car producing company, one with an image that was improving – and one that was a player on the world stage again, having forged a lasting partnership with Honda. It is fair to say that quoting an oft-paraphrased statement of the time, that Edwardes had brought the Company ‘back from the brink’ and allowed it to fight another day. Unfortunately for Edwardes, his grand plan of a ‘product-led’ recovery, relying on the massive success of the Maestro and Montego models, failed fundamentally.
The two cars had both emerged as worthy, but rather dull cars, not selling nearly well enough, not making a big enough return on their development costs, or enough to cover the £147m investment in the modernisation of Cowley. This meant that the products that he had conceived in order save BL from closure in the 1980s sold only adequately and merely maintained the question mark that was hovering above the whole operation.
Thankfully, in the Honda tie-up Edwardes had engineered, he had left BL with a resource to call upon in the development of future cars.