Tony Gilroy: The man who put Land Rover on the map
It was with sadness that many current and former Land Rover employees heard of the death of Tony Gilroy at the age of 85. Tony was Managing Director of the company in the formative years of the 1980s and the man who could rightly be credited with laying the foundations of the successful company of today.
A native of Cork, Tony kept an Irish twinkle in his eye but had a reputation for toughness. Starting his career with Ford, Tony then took on possibly the hardest job in the British motor industry – Manufacturing Director of the Longbridge car factory. It was here that he came face-to-face with the militant unionism of the 1970s. Realising that communication was key, he convinced the workforce to accept the British Leyland rationalisation plan and the subsequent dismissal of Longbridge union convener, Derek ‘Red Robbo’ Robinson. It was also while at Longbridge that Tony played a key role in the introduction of the Mini Metro, something that brought his talent to the attention of BL supremo, Michael Edwardes.
The Edwardes reorganisation of BL created Freight Rover and Land Rover as separate companies and Tony was appointed Managing Director of Freight Rover, turning the company around and producing a van range good enough to rival the Ford Transit.
Arrival at Land Rover
Tony arrived at Land Rover early in 1983. It was not a job he particularly relished at first, and what he found did nothing to change his opinion. Land Rover was burdened with high overheads with satellite manufacturing areas scattered around the country feeding the main factory at Solihull. Quality was poor, the workforce disillusioned, management apathetic and the market for the core Land Rover model in decline.
With characteristic energy, he began to change things. Less than impressed by the Land Rover One Ten, the Engineering Department responsible for it was subjected to a massive cull and people who had worked with him at Freight Rover brought in. To cut the overheads, he began a programme of closing the remote plants to concentrate production at Solihull, using the East Works facility vacated by Rover SD1 production. When communicating this plan to the workforce, Tony was initially met with hostility, but by sheer force of personality he won them round, receiving a standing ovation by the end of the meeting.
Realising that traditional Land Rover markets were in decline, Tony spurred the programme to push the Range Rover upmarket to make space for a new, leisure-orientated SUV. This was Project Jay which would eventually become Discovery, a model that would change Land Rover from a niche manufacturer to a market contender. When Engineering argued that developing a new model would take five years, he sidelined them and set up a special team with an 18-month deadline. The programme was also cleverly divided into elements that fell below Tony’s investment sign-off authority to avoid any Rover Group interference.
With Thatcher’s Government anxious to sell-off British Leyland, Land Rover was offered to General Motors who offered Tony a free hand at the company. But he had other plans, rejected the offer, and supported a successful ‘Keep Land Rover British’ campaign. What Tony wanted was to acquire the company via a management buy-out. He very nearly succeeded but Prime Minister Thatcher stepped in personally to prevent the Rover Group being sold off piecemeal.
The management changes brought in following the sell-off of the Rover Group to British Aerospace left Tony in an difficult position and he left the company, ironically before the launch of his creation, the Discovery. He then pursued a successful career in the Varity Group, home of Perkins engines and, later, Lucas Industries.
Tony will be remembered as a force of nature and a largely unsung hero of the British motor industry. As a former employee commented: ‘If you had done your homework, you were OK. If not, you were dead’. It was true Tony didn’t suffer fools gladly, but, as the news of his death has shown, he earned enormous respect. And, true to his lineage, many will remember that, behind this fierce exterior, there was a heart of Irish gold.
Top image: Courtesy of Land Rover Owner International magazine