Obituary : Lord Stokes

Lord Stokes: former president of British Leyland

Keith Adams and Clive Goldthorp

‘I was not and I have never pretended to be a manufacturing expert, ever. I have no pretensions as to that.’ This quote is all the more curious when one considers that it is attributed to Lord Stokes, the man charged by the Labour Government in 1968 to get the British Motor Industry back on track during the 1970s.

Stokes became the Chairman and Managing Director of the British Leyland Motor Corporation (BLMC) in 1968. BLMC was the result of a government-backed merger between British Motor Holdings (Austin/Morris/MG/Jaguar) and the Leyland Motor Corporation (Rover/Triumph) and Stokes faced the daunting task of making this disparate band of companies fighting fit.

However, the merger, which encompassed nearly 40 factories and over 100 businesses, became a symbol for the failure of government intervention in manufacturing – despite a promising start. In 1975 BLMC was bailed out by the government after nearly hitting bankruptcy in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis.

The idea that Stokes should be associated with British farce is an unfair one – British Leyland was a high profile failure that punctuated a career of success.

Donald Stokes joined truck-building company Leyland Motors in 1930 as an engineering apprentice and immediately found he had a gift of making the right decisions at the right time. By 1946, and after his war service, Stokes had climbed to the position of export development manager – and spearheaded the company’s overseas sales drive during the ‘Export or Die’ period.

Stokes’ remarkable success story continued and, by 1953, he had earned himself a seat on the Leyland board. His appointment coincided with the general move towards rationalization and merger in the UK industry and the ensuing years saw the company buy up rivals such as Albion Motors (in 1951), Scammell Lorries (in 1955), before making the jump into car production with the takeover of Standard-Triumph in 1961. After that came came ACV (the parent company of AEC, Thorneycroft, Crossley) in the early 1960s, and Rover in 1966.

Leyland Motor Corporation was formed a couple of years later and Stokes became the company’s Sales Director then Deputy Chairman and Managing Director. Stokes revelled in the role and ended up selling British hardware all over the globe – including Leyland Worldmaster buses to Cuba!

The government became increasingly interested and, in 1966, a year after Stokes was knighted for services to British export, he became a member of the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation board. He was now a key advisor and was called upon to ensure the future survival of Longbridge-based British Motor Holdings, which had not enjoyed a healthy margin, despite huge sales of the Mini and 1100 ranges.

The merger between BMH and Leyland was announced in January 1968 but this was, in reality, a takeover – the majority of the key positions within the new company were held by former Leyland people. The merger created world’s fifth largest motor company and represented the hopes and dreams of the nation’s motor manufacturing industry, with Stokes steering the ship.

The pressure was now on to deliver – Stokes’ team quickly realised that what BL needed was a car to fight the Ford Cortina in the fleet markets. The Morris Marina hit the market within three years and, from thereon in, a product-led recovery was planned – with the Triumph marque becoming the focus the company’s sportscar drive in the USA, Jaguar in the high-profit luxury class, Rover in the middle – and Morris for the fleets. Austin was to become the new pinnacle of advanced Euro-style engineering, with the Allegro at the forefront.

However, events conspired against Stokes and he found himself squeezed by the shocking industrial relations prevalent within the industry. Productivity and quality slumped and, although customer demand was there, there weren’t enough cars to go round. Time was running out.

Market share was surrendered, most notably to the Japanese importers, and so, when the Oil Crisis of October 1973 was followed by a global slow-down, BLMC was already mortally damaged. A shrivelling bank balance sent the company spiralling towards bankruptcy.

The Government called in Sir Don Ryder to sort out the mess in 1975. His report led to a radical, government-sponsored, restructuring of the now nationalised company which then became known simply as British Leyland (BL). However, although Stokes continued as non-executive President of BL until 1979, his involvement was largely symbolic.

Donald Gresham Stokes, Lord Stokes of Leyland, industrialist, born 22nd March, 1914: died 21st July, 2008.

Keith Adams

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