Words: Ian Nicholls Photography: Martin Brodetsky
Cowley in 1991 (all exterior pictures below are also from 1991)
The recent BBC series Making Cars Live revealed the extraordinary lengths BMW goes to at Cowley to ensure that the customer gets a well-built, reliable vehicle. The logic behind this is that a satisfied customer is more likely to be a returning customer.
The irony is that, for some of the British Leyland period, there was probably next to no quality control at Cowley, a period from at least 1975 to 1987. This was a crucial time, as Cowley was the factory earmarked to produce the cars that were meant to generate a profit for the volume cars division of BL.
During the 1970s, Cowley had a reputation for dire industrial relations and low productivity. In 1974, wives of men laid off due to strike action protested at the factory gates about the militants causing their menfolk such financial hardship. BLMC’s Cortina beater, the Morris Marina was built at Cowley, so was the Maxi, 18-22/Princess, the Maestro, Montego and Rover 800 (below).
All of them had build quality issues that seriously harmed sales. And these continued to happen despite the managerial merry go round that was a regular part of life in British Leyland. Indeed, some of Cowley’s senior managers were promoted higher in the BL management stream.
No one there at the time is probably going to admit that cars were going to dealers in an appalling state. No one was willing to admit it at the time. We can only speculate that there was a culture of managers telling their superiors what they wanted to hear, whether it was true or not – and the truth will probably never be known.
What we do know is that Cowley absorbed a lot of taxpayers’ money and yet continued to churn out sub-standard cars, undermining the faith of people like me who wanted to see a viable British-owned motor industry. The turning point appears to have been the arrival of Graham Day at the head of BL, soon to be renamed Rover. He took over personal control of the Volume Cars Division and appointed outsiders who had not been BMC apprentices.
From about 1987 build quality was at last tightened up and the decline in sales was halted. Customers were at last able to feel confident with a Maestro or Montego and Rover began to make money. It had taken at least a dozen years to get a grip on quality, something that should have been achieved much, much earlier.
The tragedy of all this is that, if such measures had been in place in 1975, the outlook for British Leyland, when it held a 30% UK market share, would have been so much brighter.