News : A roaring British success!


Bad old days: British Leyland strikers are pictured during a mass picket outside the Cowley works in Oxford in the early eighties

Donna Green grew up in the shadow of the giant Cowley car plant on the outskirts of Oxford. Her grandfather helped make Morris Minors, her father was an engineer with British Leyland, and evenings out as a child were spent with other workers’ families at the factory’s social club.

One of her earliest memories is waiting to cross the road as thousands of workers on bicycles pedalled past on their way to lunch. Among them, in his oil-streaked overalls, would be her father, who joined the factory straight after World War II. ‘That smell of oil still reminds me of my dad to this day,’ she says.

But the plant seemed in terminal decline in those dark days of the Seventies. The management was mediocre, the design of cars dreary, and the 28,000 workforce led by feuding militants who thought they could spark revolution from the shop floor. With the nation on a slippery slope to self-destruction, nothing symbolised the strife wrecking the economy more than the British Leyland car plants. Union firebrands such as Derek Robinson — ‘Red Robbo’ — became infamous.

Just two decades after being the world’s largest exporter of motor vehicles, the British car industry had broken down. Fast forward to today, however, and things could not be more different. The workforce may be smaller, but as the factory churns out brightly-coloured Minis — that most British of vehicles —Cowley symbolises the rebirth of our automotive industry.

It is, as Business Secretary Vince Cable proclaimed on a visit to the factory earlier this month, an unheralded success story, proving British manufacturing can still take on — and beat — the world. Amid the meltdown of morality in the City of London and the economic gloom hanging so heavy over the country, here is a glint of good news: an industry that has risen from the ashes and rediscovered its pride.

Fuelled by newly-rich buyers in China, India and Russia, who adore traditional British marques, car exports are at an all-time high, and comprise nearly a tenth of Britain’s total sales abroad. The sector has just recorded its first trade surplus for 36 years and, with the number of cars made in Britain set to double in six years to two million, is on course to break historic production records.

Amazing revival: Today's sleek Mini production line

According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, exports of cars jumped 14 per cent last year to 1,194,000. There are more manufacturers in Britain than anywhere else in Europe: seven major car-makers, 11 bus and coach producers, and at least 25 niche vehicle manufacturers. There are also eight of the 12 Formula One teams, many in a cluster of specialist firms in an area around Oxford known as ‘Motorsport Valley’.

Sadly, the biggest players are no longer British-owned. But such is the industry’s confidence in this country and its once-notorious car workers that it is pouring unprecedented sums into new assembly lines, plants, technology and training. This month alone, BMW announced plans to spend another £250 million making Minis, and Jaguar Land Rover said it was creating another 1,100 jobs in the West Midlands to build new models. Over the past 18 months, the car industry has invested an extra £5.8 billion in Britain, much of it in areas hit hard by the downturn.

‘People thought we were managing decline in automotive manufacturing in this country,’ said Paul Everitt, chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. ‘But that has changed dramatically in the past few years. We are one of the few areas of success now in the British economy, designing and manufacturing products being sold all over the world.’

Angry wives at the British Leyland plant at Cowley

The boom is so strong that companies are fighting over the best engineers and technicians, while apprentices are offered paid sponsorship through university. When I asked one long-time company boss how business was going, he replied with one word: ‘Mad.’ Visiting Cowley this week, it is instantly clear how far the British motor industry has travelled in recent years. The main car park has signs for ‘guests’ and ‘associates’ — the internal name for all 3,700 workers, whether teenage apprentices or middle-aged managers.

Everyone wears the same black jackets, with ‘MINI’ on the back and jobs defined by fluorescent flashes on the front. Inside the plant, banks of one-armed orange robots whirl around sheets of steel, welding them into car bodies with sparks arcing high into the air.

The 513 robots outnumber shift workers five-to-one in the body shop. A handful of humans were feeding them supplies of silvery metal, pressed down the road in Swindon. After painting, the embryonic cars are whisked overhead into the assembly area, where staff install glistening engines, tangles of electrical cables and bespoke fittings. The operation, currently running 22 hours a day during the week to meet demand, is impressive to watch.

With 53 vehicles rolling off the assembly line each hour, the cars stop for precisely 68 seconds to allow teams of about eight workers to do their jobs. To ensure variety, each person is trained to do four tasks, and they constantly switch around. Computers alert them if bolts need tightening or a part is wrongly-installed.

Keeping up supplies of components is a logistical nightmare. One break in the complex chain can cause disruption. Last year, a fire in a German chemical plant caused chaos in the global car industry by hitting supplies of a resin used in brake systems.

The Cowley plant seemed in terminal decline in those dark days of the Seventies. The management was mediocre, the design of cars dreary

Alongside the line runs a wire nicknamed the ‘andon’ — yanked to stop the process if a team needs extra time to complete their task. Supervisors sprint along to help get things moving again. A total delay of two minutes a day can impact on bonuses. Everyone gets bonuses, worked out on a three-tiered formula based on personal, team and corporate performance. There are no rewards for failure.

The work — ten-and-a-half-hour shifts with three 30-minute breaks — looks intense. But Anna Barclay-Suter, 42, one of the few women in sight, told me staff enjoy working there. ‘When I see the lorries leave with 15 Minis lined up on them, it gives me a lovely warm feeling.’

She used to work in the NHS. ‘It felt far more like I was  working on a production line there,’ she says. The new Mini was launched as an experiment in 2001. It proved an instant hit, the flagship hatchback rapidly joined by coupes, convertibles and estate wagons. A van is being launched soon. Last year, the firm sold 285,060 cars, a rise of more than one-fifth on the previous year, helped by big increases in sales to China, Russia and Brazil. The cheerful little cars are produced on what is, arguably, the most historic site in British motoring heritage, which celebrates its centenary next year.

The factory was built on the grounds of a disused military college by William Morris, a former bicycle maker. He became interested in motorbikes, then turned to designing cars with a model called the Bullnose.

Leyland's Range Rover: Much-maligned industries such as cars, aerospace and pharmaceuticals ensure this country is still the world's sixth-largest manufacturer

Morris pioneered the British use of Henry Ford’s mass production techniques, making the first Morris Minor in 1928, then the inaugural MG Midget the following year. He later became Viscount Nuffield, using profits from his cars to establish the Nuffield Foundation and found Nuffield College at nearby Oxford University.

Today, Cowley reflects the British motor industry’s chequered history. Morris Motors was subsumed into the British Motoring Corporation, then the nationalised British Leyland and finally MG Rover, which was finally put out of its misery in 2005. Donna Green, who once watched her father go to work here and is now herself a 50-year-old training manager, said the modern plant is a world away from when she started as an apprentice in 1978.

She recalled having to cross picket lines soon after starting  at Cowley. ‘It was pretty intimidating for a 17-year-old girl,’ she said. ‘All these burly men blocking my way.’ In those days, bullying, racism and sexism was rife. Men were not immune: one veteran told me he used to dread going into the trim shop, filled with female machinists who wolf-whistled at young men.

Meanwhile, six splinter groups of communists and Trotskyists fought for supremacy on the shop floor, calling workers out on strike and typifying the industrial travails of the time. The last dispute there was in 1984 — a two-week walkout that ended in a wage increase of just 50p a week. Among those who took part was Chris Bond, 59, a former member of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party who has since joined the Labour Party and is now the plant’s union convener. ‘It was all very exciting for me as a young man,’ he says.

While disputes still arise, the affable Bond says there are good relations between staff and managers now: ‘We have moved on,’ he says. ‘If we had not changed, we wouldn’t have had any jobs here.’

Though this is the story of the revival of the British car industry, one key reason for the turnaround has been the arrival of foreign owners. They broke antediluvian attitudes among managers and workers by forcing through flexible modern practices, aided by the Thatcher government’s restraint on union powers.

They came in three waves — Japanese firms such as Honda, Nissan and Toyota from the mid-1980s, then Germans such as BMW around the turn of the millennium, and most lately new players from China and India. So now Tata, an Indian conglomerate, owns Jaguar and Land Rover — two classic British marques.

Already this year it has announced the spending of an extra £1 billion on British components, the creation of a new logistics centre at Ellesmere Port, and plans to build a successor to the legendary Jaguar E-Type in the West Midlands. And while Morris’s MG badge has all-but gone from British roads, the brand is owned by China’s biggest vehicle manufacturer and employs 300 engineers here designing cars for the Far East.

Meanwhile plants such as Nissan’s in Sunderland — opened by Mrs Thatcher in 1986 — are among Europe’s most productive car factories. Last year, a workforce of 5,462 made close to half a million cars — or 88 cars per head, up from 60 cars per head in 1999. Success breeds success, so such expansion boosts Britain’s 2,350 component manufacturers.

Among the beneficiaries of the latest Mini investment is CabAuto, which just won a £4 million order from Mini to make armrests and will employ 16 new staff as a result. The privately owned firm in Tipton, West Midlands, is only seven years old but already has a £19 million turnover, with 227 staff making fittings for the likes of Aston Martin and Bentley.

Managing director John Faulkner started working in the car industry more than three decades ago as a 16-year-old apprentice at British Leyland. ‘I’ve seen it all,’ he said. ‘And the transformation is just incredible.’ He believes his industry’s resurrection offers a stark lesson for the scandal-plagued City of London. ‘The banking industry may well benefit from staring defeat in the face as we did — and bankers will become better people for it.’

The disgraceful reluctance of Britain’s blighted banks to back firms that could drive the nation out of recession is holding back even faster growth. Faulkner said his company would never have won support to start up these days — a view endorsed by a recent survey of 83 automotive firms that found the majority wanted to expand but could not access capital from lenders.

The good news is that for all its success, the motor industry is not unique and British manufacturing is in far better shape than it is often given credit for, and accounting for a bigger share of the economy than financial services. Much-maligned industries such as cars, aerospace and pharmaceuticals ensure this country is still the world’s sixth-largest manufacturer.

Britain’s wealth was founded on the first industrial revolution, which unleashed mass-produced goods on the world. After the recent economic crash, it is the likes of Mini that can put us back on the road to prosperity.

[Source: Daily Mail]


Keith Adams


  1. The Cowley plant tour is well worth doing. Two of us did it one Monday evening a few months ago and we were the only ones on that tour, which was brilliant as we had the guide’s personal attention for the whole 2.5 hours.

  2. My Dad worked on the line at Cowley, building Marinas. He often gives anecdotes about what life was like working for BL….cars given ‘free’ optional extras for mates, men walking home with components up their jackets, spares and accessories smuggled out regulary. It’s good to see Cowley working well and selling cars worldwide, let’s hope it continues for a long time.

    Not sure if Thatch had that much on an influence though, after all selling it all off to BAE wasn’t the best decision for our beloved company….but I guess it is the Daily Mail.

  3. They did quite well under BAE with the Honda tie up, the sell off to BMW who surgically asset stripped the company was the disaster that sank it.

  4. A wonderful and positive article! If only the national press would promote the positives of British manufacturing instead of making stories of many empty seats there are at the Olympics. Some useful stats here too, I didnt know we had 11 bus & coach manufacturers in the UK! I would however be interested to know how much UK component content there is in UK produced vehicles. Foriegn ownership of UK manufacturing has certainly put us back in the top world players, but I feel concern that such investment can be turned off and facilities relocated when owners think fit. (e.g. Peogeot Coventry). As an engineer and life long promoter of UK PLC, we have the ability to really improve our lot in manufacturing, I just wish the banks would too!

  5. @1
    I have also done the 2 hour Cowley MINI Factory tour a couple of times……on the special Mini 50th tours they even inlcuded the Paintshop and Quality areas. We were taken round by retired Rover engineers as our tour guides. If anyone wants to go ‘MINI Plant Tours’ below:

    It was actually BAE’s Property arm ‘Arlington Securities’ who asset stripped Cowley, speedily razing the historic North and South Cowley Works to the ground and then selling the land off for Retail Parks…….sadly as a result BMW now has no more space to expand the Oxford MINI Plant, as production increases with the new Coupe/Roadster models and the Mk3 MINI hatch now under development.

    In total about 40% of MINI components come from UK-based suppliers; other components come from throughout Europe and across the globe:

  6. BMW could expand the Mini site by taking over the adjoining Unipart site on Garsington Road – some time ago now it was advertised for sale on a Unipart website.

    It’s ironic what Thatcher did to support inward investment from Japanese vehicle manufacturers given the original disdain for UK manufacturing in general. Shame it wasn’t subsequently extended by the following Labour government to the Koreans and also more efforts made to keep infrastructure such as at Ryton available to potential new owners.

  7. Will M @ 3:

    “They did quite well under BAE with the Honda tie up, the sell off to BMW who surgically asset stripped the company was the disaster that sank it.”

    I’m no BMW fan, but please would you explain how “BMW asset stripped the company” when they spent more money on Rover than any other company before it, while it was BAe that sold off most of the Cowley site for office and retail development?

  8. @ Tigger,
    if BMW did not asset strip the company can you tell me who owns Mini and Landrover?? and who seperated them from the company? the sale of a relativly unimportant bit of land is loose change comapred to that

  9. BMW’s refusal to let the new Mini (MINI) to go with the Longbridge MG Rover business was asset stripping. I understand John Towers tried very hard to prize the MINI out of their grubby little mits, he knew it would be the saviour of the company like the Metro 20 years before. Without that very important car, the business was severely compromised with limited potential.

    ” when they spent more money on Rover than any other company before it”- wasted money: refused to invest the 55, a replacement the the 400/45 HHR. Instead spent on worker exchange programmes and a nice new paint plant- you can out lipstick on a pig…but….it’s still a Honda with Rover 45 badges that no one is buying, and when they do some of the cash goes to Honda, should have been a priority to replace this dead duck.

    Breaking businesses up and flogging off the bits is what asset strippers and venture capitalists do.

  10. BMW have always been ruthless business “partner”s. Just look at the way they left Sauber in the lurch for the 2010 season.

    Ironic that they started off by building Austin 7s, and were nearly bankrupt in the 60s if it werent for the popularity of their mid range 1500.

  11. If Towers had kept the MINI, then it wouldn’t be a fraction of the success it is now, as MGR have none of the global export network that MGR had.

    Asset stripping is surely taking capital out of businesses and running them down. LR was sold off to a new owner who grew it, and under it’s current owners is doing even better!

    If anything, is was the likes of Leyland, Triumph, Rover, Jaguar and MG who were ‘asset stripped’ during the 70s as all the money went to prop up Longbridge and Cowley.

  12. @11 There was no way on earth BMW would have let the MINI go to PVH-a 100% rover engineered design it was a sell out hit before production started,if they had this cash cow then perhaps we could be looking at RDX60 and way beyond,it was a born winner.

  13. “LR was sold off to a new owner who grew it, and under it’s current owners is doing even better!” I don’t disagree, JLR are doing very well NOW thankfully, and without BMW input, doesn’t change the fact that BMW asset stripped what was Rover Group Ltd until 2000.

    If Towers had kept the MINI, I believe it would have been a success, and R & D would have remained in Cowley instead of Bavaria.

  14. So many “BMW” assets still going strong today which were counted as losses against Rover, Hams Hall engine plant, refurbished Cowley. The MINI design itself. Don’t forget the BMW 1 series which was a stolen Rover project. LR was sold at a huge profit, and licensing BMW tech to Ford to build the L322 was another money-spinner for BMW, as was internally selling BMW-sourced parts to Rover with big markups. Post Phoenix the Rover group had to pay BMW a premium to buy their own engines!

    Rover’s only on-tap cash cow, the R100, was immediately canned due to low NCAP scored and yet the BMW 3 series of the day didn’t fair much better in the new tests – was that canned? – it was an excuse to kill off Rover revenue to push the “English patient” myth which so many people swallowed – even to this day amongst ARO aficionados.

    Why didn’t BMW invest in sorting out the K-Series? It didn’t take long with Chinese cash to do so, what about the selling off of Rover land?

    This was the clearest asset-stripping job I’ve ever seen – and to rub salt into the wounds BMW products still sell to the gullible British public who saw their last volume motor manufacturer’s guts ripped out and shredded under their own noses. I would rather saw my own leg off than buy a BMW product. I do not let BMWs out at junctions and I’d never help a BMW driver in distress – small minded? You bet.

  15. @14 well im with you on that Mr.Lee well said.I sat in a ZT of my pals the other day and still i think its a nice place to be,BMW’s for all thier fine driving abilities do nothing forr me at all,im a huge fan of the previous generation of the 5 series and that is it.Asset stripping follows many guises-long term plan/future does not mean safeguarding of jobs it merely means stripping a firm down to its knickers as PWC and the like did so expertly>

  16. @12 13 14
    The first MINI had an engine nothing to do with Rover, was styled in BMW’s US styling studio, and the end of the programme was managed by Munich after fall outs between BMW and Rover, something documented here.

    The 1 series is nothing to do with Rover, it is an ugly shrunken 3 series, you don’t create a rwd car from a fwd prototype.

    The Rover Metro/100 was a an ancient relic by the time it was killed off, it was only ever going to be a short term product

  17. I still think that the mk1 ‘1’ series has hints of R30 about it.

    The 1st picture from the R30 story on this site –
    The 2nd and 3rd picture have a similar rear balanced stance to the final 1 series.

    And I found a quote from a spy shot of the current 1:

    “The current BMW 1-series has been criticised for cramped and his style. These were factors influenced by the fact that its under structure from the bulkhead rearwards was developed for the stillborn Rover R30 at the end of the 1990′s.”

    @14 Good call that the E36 wasn’t far off a Rover 100. Neither was the likes of the Citroen Xantia which was a large family car.

  18. @16 Yes, the MINI styling was forced by BMW who wanted a retro new-Beetle-like lifestyle-car, Rover wanted to produce a cleverly packaged car, a spiritual successor to the Mini, in hindsight the BMW approach was the correct and most marketable one, however once the decision was made, the MINI was a 100% Rover project, it was designed in-house in Gaydon but subject to some cast-in-atone design criteria from above, one of these strange decisions, the one to force Rover to use the bought in, heavy, inefficient Brazilian Chrysler engine was all the proof you need that BMW intended from the word go to rip MINI away from Rover, further proof was the strange decision to force Rover to use BMW’s Z-axle rear suspension. Something that compromises the packaging of a small FWD car massively – BMW wanted “BMW DNA” in the design for some reason. I wonder why?

    Like the MINI the Rover 75 was similarly retro styled – something BMW was comfortable with so as not to compete with their “cutting edge” saloons, but then an interesting thing happened with R30, Rover came up with a cool retro long-bonnet design which looked a little like the 1970s BMW 1602, BMW’s immediate response was to force Rover to come up with something blander, they then took the project off Rover and kept delaying it. In hindsight I believe BMW saw the solution to their problem with the badly-conceived BMW compact which was expensive to produce (3 series based) and badly packaged, R30 was the car BMW should have come up with in the first place (BMW’s lack of design expertise with small cars perhaps?), R30 was mysteriously delayed despite Rover being desperate for a new platform in that segment and then it was taken off the Rover design team altogether and delayed some more – practically disappearing into a German black hole. In hindsight I believe this was to ensure the vital (to BMW) platform would not form part of whatever’s left of Rover after they dumped them. Converting basic designs to be front of rear wheel drive isn’t that difficult (Triumph 1500/Dolomite) – especially with the nice long nose on the R30 suiting a conventional RWD setup. Look at some of the styling models linked to above (@17) spooky eh? I wonder what BMW thought after seeing those? Bingo?

    The cost of R30 was on Rover’s books – even after the project disappeared off to Germany – another way to make Rover looking like they are bleeding BMW cash – even though the Rover budget was effectively designing BMW’s Compact replacement! How’s that for skulduggery?

    It doesn’t matter how much of a relic R100 was – it was making money – that’s what you are in business to do – unless your aim is to wind-down and destroy a company for some strange reason…

  19. Good job BMW did put the inefficient Chrysler engine in the Mini, Rover would have probably put that crappy K series lump in it and Mini would have been blowing head gaskets everywhere and earning a reputation for un-reliability. The problem with BMW and Rover was that BMW were not focussed enough to start with. They should have kept Land Rover, Mini and MG sports cars all strong brands that would have complimented their own brand. They should have ditched the rest, yes the Rover 100 and all the other Honda based cars. Keep Solihull and Cowley and sell off Longbridge. The Rover 75 would never have seen the light of day and MG would probably be making fine sports cars that would be selling like hot cakes in the US and China – not the sad MG badge sat on a Chinese hatchback. Yes BMW did get it wrong they were too nice in the first place, they should have been ruthless from day 1. Remember BMW is a company built on strong engineering and consistent product led growth,they are not by nature asset strippers. Their history is build on organic growth rather than by acquisition. Unfortunately they bought a basketcase when they bought Rover – yes at that time it was the “English patient”. Oh and it doesn’t matter whose books costs get written to BMW were writing the cheques using money earned from selling BMW cars, because Rover certainly weren’t earning enough to finance the development programmes. I think all these conspiracy theories are a right load of crap.

  20. @20 One of the first things BMW did when they took over was canning the planned relaunch of MG in the states – they didn’t want anyone stepping on the toes of Zn car sales.

    As for the crappy K series, There are now two post-Rover versions of the engine, a “quick fix” which is the engine in the Roewe – no problems at all so far, the second the NCI-tech which retains the block most of the bottom end with a new cylinder head – re-engineered on a small budget by British company Ricardo engineering – a company Rover have used many times in the past. Another success with no known failures or faults. The K-series could have been fixed with the sort of budget BMW spends on ashtrays. They didn’t want a fixed K-series because they didn’t want a Rover engine under the bonnet of “their” MINI.

    BMW clearly had no intention of Rover being a success, why did they stick the knife in on the launch of the 75? Why did they halt then hide R30? A car Rover desperately needed in the UK’s largest sector. Why did they force Rover to develop their own bespoke platforms? Show me an example with any other modern “takeover” where immediate platform sharing hasn’t been the #1 priority. This is THE point of merging car companies.

  21. MINI Plant Oxford on Megafactories TV
    A new documentary in the Megafactories series, about the production of the New MINI Coupe and the Plant Oxford factory, next Monday (13th August 2012) at 20:00, and repeated at various times over the following few days.

    It’s on the National Geographic Channel (Sky 526 or Virgin Media channel number 230 or 232 for HD)

  22. @20 the first minis heads were prone to cracking and were subject to a recall and are reliable in cooper s form to 275 BHP.If you think the chrysler pentastar engine was bad try the new Peugeot/BMW engine for unreliability.I dare say BMW took on rover with the best intentions and then suddenly shutting the purse is an over simplification of events-ask the quandt family and other major shareholders whom could not be bothered sticking with the firm why they pulled out incidently there was casualties in the boardroom of BMW at the same time.Those honda platforms still had years left in them,thet were just segmented wrong i.e 200/25 should have been fiesta segment and so on. For many,BMWdidnt do themselves any favours and i wont blow a trumpet for thier achievements anymore than i would BAE.

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