Memories : Coventry, 1977

Coventry 1977

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

Hillman Hunter Mk2

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…

If you enjoyed this, let us know in the comments and, if you have any pictures you’d like featuring, drop me a line via any of the links below.

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Keith Adams
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  1. To those from Coventry who are confused as where this Sainsbury’s is, it is at Cannon Park and is now a Tesco.

    • That takes me back to being a child. When I used to go there in the 1980s there was both a massive Tesco and a Sainsbury’s in the same complex, along with a load of smaller businesses and a McDonalds-style burger place. I think the Tesco is still there but Sainsbury’s moved down the road to Canley. Nice selection of cars – I would have been in either a 1978 Mini Clubman or a 1986 Montego HL.

      • Yes Tesco is still there, although not the posh Tesco it used to be, the Canley (built on the Canley plant site) Sainsbury’s creams off the middle class customers from the South side of the city, and Tesco aims at the students from the much expanded Warwick University.

  2. I am somewhat bemused by “During his speech Sir Richard referred to allegations that British Leyland had a ‘slush-fund’ for making payments to foreign countries to assist orders.”

    Had he been in charge of any of the British companies involved in defence whose products are bought by other governments – because it suits our government to have those foreign countries using British military equipment and weapons – I imagine what might be called “British foreign policy” would have served the same purpose as any “slush fund”. Why we sell so much military equipment to Saudi Arabia has always puzzled me. To keep the Ruskies out? Or the French?

    • I don’t think they are Rostyles. They look convex and as such more like wheel trims. They look annoyingly familiar but I can’t place them.Could they be from something Japanese?

  3. I find it funny how the showy new modern Sainsburys in the background has a car park full of old motors! Funny how Sainsburys in Southend was given a similar look and this was opened 12 years later. Always thought the Hunter was an underrated machine, my Grandad had one from new and the only problem he had was that it rusted away.

    • Didn’t many cars of that era rust away? The Hunter, sold in the US and Canada as the Sunbeam Arrow, was a great leap forward in those markets, providing new levels of dependability for Rootes cars. Unfortunately Chrysler had little interest in promoting its success in North America. But for an underrated machine the Hunter did pretty well in Iran, surviving 40 year as the Paykan. (Rust less of a problem there, I guess.).

      • Yes but in five years it was scrapped! His next car was a 3 year old cortina that lasted a further 8 years before it went the way of the scrap man

      • The Hunter was generally a reliable car and thousands were sold as taxis, where reliability is important. Even in its twilight years as the Irish assembled Chrysler Hunter, the car still had a following as it was marketed as a budget family car, and, of course, survived far longer in Iran as the Peykan( assembled from British made kits).

  4. Another interesting picture from the Time tunnel! That advert image of the Hunter MKII reminds me of what a decent looking car it was back then. Perhaps those wheeltrims were off Datsun Cherry / Sunny / Bluebird?

  5. I can remember playing golf in 1990 on a huge field adjoining an MFI store that in 1977 would have been the old Standard Triumph works in Canley. 1977 was sadly the year British Leyland would head into a prolonged decline and huge job reductions that would see the end of Triumph in the early eighties and the closure of Canley that would have a huge impact on Coventry’s economy.

    • And that MFI has gone now. Told us that it was out of date no one wanted flat packed furniture! IKEA, wayfair, argos!

  6. Heralds were not rust free by any means – the ‘outriggers’ used to go first usually – but they did hang on for a long time – probably because of the separate chassis. The engine and drive train was also pretty unburstable – my convertible was great fun. I loved the big central tunnel and stubby gearstick – the driving position was very sporty – very comfortable on long trips.

  7. I can solve the mystery of those Hunter hubcaps – they came from an early (1970-72) Avenger GT. That L reg Allegro was very early in the production run.

  8. The Dolly will be a Sprint as the HL wasn’t available in yellow.

    You never know, it could be my car which was only on the roads of Coventry from ’76~’83 but will hopefully be back there in the next year or so.

  9. The Avenger, which competed against the Allegro and 1300 cc versions of the Marina, was a bit of an unsung hero of the seventies. It attracted none of the contempt the Allegro had, or the endless media interest Ford had whenever it brought out a new version of the Escort, it just kept selling steadily and generally being liked by owners. The Avenger. like the Vauxhall Viva in the same class, proved that not all British cars in the seventies were rubbish.

    • I remember the Avenger seemed to be regarded as a “non-classic” in the 1990s when 1970s cars started to emerge from bangerdom.

      My Dad wasn’t too happy with his Avenger estate in the 1970s, saying it was underpowered with a typical family load & having a steering wheel that felt like it should have been fitted to a bus!

      I imagine plenty of people managed to get satisfaction from their Avengers though,

      • It was similar to a Vauxhall Viva when the classic car boom started in the nineties, just regarded as an average seventies car with little classic potential, although the Tiger version did have a following among people who wanted an alternative to a fast Escort as it was rarer. Also I’d imagine the late Avengers with Talbot badging must be especially rare now as they were only in production for two years and sales weren’t as high as the Chrylser and Hillman models.

  10. I did all my driving lessons (in 1975) in an Avenger. I’d not driven anything previously so it was the yardstick by which I judged others for many years to come. And on that level it came out very well.

    It was – and still is – the best car I’ve ever driven for heel-and-toe clutch operation and gear changing. It handled well, had a reasonable turn of speed, and seemed to tick all boxes for a learner.

    I’ve never driven one since those days, but I always felt it was better than many other models I could’ve learned in.

    • I failed my first driving test in an Avenger then passed second time in a Viva HC. I also bought a Viva later on so must have liked them 1976 till 79.

  11. I was based in Coventry thirty years ago and as Chrysler/ Talbots were produced in the city until 1985, it was amazing how many Alpines and Horizons were still around relative to other parts of the country, and a few Avengers and Sunbeams were lurking in poorer parts of the city.

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