It’s October 1977 and we’re in the heart of the UK’s car-building country. Coventry’s newest branch of the J Sainsbury supermarket at Cannon Park is open for business, and the shoppers are heading in to catch up on their weekly shop. As can be seen in the photograph, it’s cold and grey, but what do you expect in Coventry at this time of the year?
It’s an interesting time – British Leyland is struggling with industrial action across the board and, although the Rover SD1 has been on the market for just over a year, the impressive new executive fastback is still in short supply. Blame this on the failure to ramp up production at its impressive new Solihull factory as much as sheer number of strikes in the offing. In short, it’s a combination of the two factors. But even worse, there’s trouble at the top as the company has just lost its latest Chairman, Sir Richard Dobson.
On 27 September, he’d been invited by the Twenty Club – a group of retail businessmen – to give a talk at the Dorchester Hotel in London. In a career-limiting move, Dobson used racist language to describe British Leyland’s business current practices. His speech was secretly recorded and later released to the media. During his speech, Sir Richard referred to allegations that British Leyland had a ‘slush-fund’ for making payments to foreign countries to assist orders. He said that those allegations were accusing the company ‘of the perfectly respectable fact that it was bribing [censored].’
And on 21 October, he bowed to the inevitable pressure and ended up resigning. The main disappointment is that he didn’t really apologise for the indiscretion, but gave the impression that he was more regretful about the recording being made instead of what he’d said. British Leyland’s statement says it all: ‘Sir Richard Dobson states that the recent unauthorised disclosure of extracts from a light-hearted and unscripted speech made to a private club after dinner has been used to convey a totally false impression of his personal and social attitudes and business ethics.’ The silver lining is that, as a result of this, Sir Michael Edwardes received a call, and the product-led recovery of British Leyland can begin.
So, tell us about the cars
There are some beauties to be spotted in Sainsbury’s on that morning, all of which are typical family cars of the day and, aside from a single Volkswagen, it’s a near-100% clean sweep of British cars. From left to right, we have a locally-registered Hillman Avenger, a Triumph Herald, a Ford Cortina Mk2, a Mini Clubman Estate and a Hillman Hunter Mk2 (above) on some seriously sexy hub caps. The profusion of Rootes and Triumph models here is no surprise considering we’re within shouting distance of the companies which built them here.
Beyond the Volkswagen Beetle and Austin Allegro 1300 De Luxe (which was taxed until 1989), there’s a Ford Cortina Mk2 with must-have wing mirrors and roof rack, a Triumph Dolomite 1850HL (or Sprint), a Hillman Avenger estate, a Ford Cortina Mk2 estate and another Triumph Herald. Seeing those Heralds on the road in 1977 must have looked a little jarring as, in terms of design, they would have looked as old as the Dead Sea Scrolls in the context of the cars around them.
And finally, on the row behind the Cortina and Herald nearest the camera, you can just see a Wolseley 18/85 version of the BMC 1800 Landcrab with one of the finest roofracks we’ve seen in years…
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