Blog : Cowley – axis of defeat

Words: Ian Nicholls Photography: Martin Brodetsky

Cowley (1)
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.

Cowley (2)

Cowley (3) Cowley (4) Cowley (5)

Ian Nicholls
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  1. Sadly true. My next-door neighbour used to work for Rolls-Royce Cars here in Crewe. They had serious problems with the bodyshells, which were produced in Cowley, missing spot welds was the worst thing, something that seriously compromised the integrity of the car. SO he went down to confront the manager in charge who, when shown the evidence told him that he agreed, but didn’t dare to anything as “they’ll all go out on strike”, and he could even suffer violence !

    RR had to put in expensive rectification work on every bodyshell. Of course the car was very expensive to buy, so this unnecessary cost was easy to hide.

    Of course we all know that the 70s was a time of complete and utter madness in Britain. SO the unions almost finished off British industry, and Thatcher finished the job and handed over the country to the City spivs and chancers.

    • S’funny…..Rolls Royce had their bodies designed and built by Pressed Steel at Cowley for almost 50 years….and kept renewing the contracts year on year….

      • Yes..They should have gone down the Cadillac Allante Route and ordered a special VC10 to fly in bodies from Italy.
        Makes sense to me, anyway.
        Point being, what other choice did they have????
        BTw they kept the mini in production for 30+ plus years.
        The other point being that just because something continues for a long period..doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best option..does it??

    • It does show how bad things were for Chrysler UK at Linwood, as the same operation at Cowley doing those Rolls Royce bodies was pressing and welding the Rapier / Alpine bodyshells and shipping them up to Scotland. (The lack of Profit in this arrangement was one reason Chrysler never pushed the Rapier / Alpine hard against the Capri).

      The thing is that these were considered to be built to a much better standard than the Hunter bodyshells being pressed and welded at Linwood.

      My Father when working for Roots / Chrysler always had preference for the Rapier over the Hunter in his choice of car. However I do remember him having a late Sceptre (I think it was a P reg), whose rear door seals whistled over 50 mph and the rear windows could not be wound down because the glass was so tight in its runners (I guess because the door and or bodyshell was twisted in some way).

  2. With quality… its not something you can really learn… its more of a mindset thing.

    I have visited Cowley in the good old bad old days many times – twice work related and recall windscreens going into Montego’s fitted by the Gurit robot with uneven gaps, Maestro rear doors with tolerances measurable in millimetres not thou – it was a dark dirty tip of a place.

    MINI showed Cowley to be bright, forward thinking, quality orientated and above all PROUD of their work and output.

    Everyone from the loo cleaner to the plant director have to have a certain mind set of pride, flexibility and a dogged determination to do the job right.

    The really nice quote that kept coming up was “ask yourself if you think its good enough to leave the plant”

    Yes its a shame that the brand and plant incumbency is German but ask the guys and gals on the line if they give a toss about the cheques being signed off from Munich? I very much doubt it one jot!

    But that’s the story of British manufacturing under state rule isn’t it? We eventually get the company into shape, get it to produce a genuinely competitive product, get it to make a profit and stand on its own two feet… and then flog it off!

    Examples include: BT – Inter-City – British Steel to name but three.

    Sometimes, its breaks my heart to be British 🙁

    • Um, Cowley is only producing competitive products and (probably) making a profit SINCE BMW took it over.

      The quality may have been better in the 1990s than before, but I doubt the 600 and 800 made much money for Rover

  3. My point is that it took far too long to get things right, that no one got a grip on quality until the UK market share was well below 20%.
    One can understand the frustration of the Thatcher government with BL and a lot of the firms problems were self inflicted. Sub standard cars were allowed into the public domain and tarnished the firms reputation. What was really going on inside Cowley?

    • Nobody is interested in what really went on inside Cowley. They’d rather believe the preconceived prejudices of the uninformed armchair expert….”it was all the unions” is the usual nonsense that’s spouted. Even when the true picture is given, it’s ignored because it doesn’t fit the received wisdom.

      I’m not even sure it really matters now.

  4. I was a dealer briefing sometime in the early ’80s where a senior BL manager actually stated they considered the 12 month warranty period to be an extension of the manufacturing process !

      • “So what?” Despite your protestations , Kev, this state of mind , which apparently you personify, seems to have been the difficulty which lay at the heart of Cowley’s problems . The customer’s answer to the question you pose is to buy products from someone who ,when a quality issue arises, does not shrug his ( usually his ) shoulders and say “so what? “

      • Not to the same extent as BL at that time. ‘Warranty Claims’ was a sub-industry in itself directly employing hundreds of people in BL itself and alos supporting hundreds of dealers with a steady and lucrative income stream.

        Every new car had a PDI at the dealer – just like today – but this would always, 100% every time, generate at least an hour’s worth of work in mechanical and paint rectification. Then there was the additional P700 quality check with every car, BL paid the dealers an additional one hour warranty claim for this, then you had the ‘Action on Quality’ bulletins specific to each model that involved more checking, reworking or replacing known faulty components.

        The big shock came with the Acclaim. Wot ?? No warranty work ??

  5. I worked at Cowley from 1984 to 1991 and can vividly recall production supervision rubbing out rejection criteria on bodies to get the numbers up.
    I recall union reps being drunk at lunchtimes and the plant manager railing at a delivery driver so obscenely the guy punched him in the face.
    Rolls bodies were pressed in Swindon but finished in Cowley and theft of car parts was rife.
    No one deliberately tried to make bad cars but the culture was rotten from the top down and from the quasi ‘representatives’ of the workers.
    It was sad, so sad for the ordinary person on the line or in the offices, trust me

    • Pete, please tell us more?
      All this lack of quality control effectively squandered all the taxpayers investment in Cowley. No matter how innovative the designs were, if they fell apart as soon as they left the showroom, the customer was going to go elsewhere.

  6. I worked in car rental in the 1980s, we used to get a transporter a week of new Austins/rovers. You could bet that at least half of them would go straight to the local dealer to have rectification work carried out on them before they went out on their first rental.

    It was a right pain when we were short of cars and it didn’t do our fleet utilisation figures any good.

    The first Rover 800 we had in, arrived via AA recovery with the boot lid fitted so poorly it was nearly hanging off.

    • A lot of technicians (myself included) wore a black armband when the Maestro / Montego were finally deleted.

      The only car where the PDi could sometimes last half a day.

      Ahh… the bonus!

      • How did you make bonus on warranty?

        All we got was time taken if we were lucky as all warranty operations have a code and time assigned to them which were on the whole unachievable especially on big jobs, as they were created using ideal conditions with all the necessary special tools available.

        Far from making bonus, most warranty jobs cost you any bonus already made!

        I once spent a whole day rectifying the problems found when PDI’ing an Ambassador HLS – rattles squeaks ill fitting panels you name it.

        Modern cars will alway be of better quality as they have removed the human element from a lot of the production processes such as engine and body building meaning quality will be uniform and always good once the robots are programmed correctly.

        Even now if you by something that is hand built the quality isn’t consistant and variances occur needing good quality control to maintain standards – something BL was sadly lacking.

  7. I would refer m’learned friends to “Mini – The True and Secret History of the Making of a Motor Car” by Simon Garfield which paints a fascinating view of life in Cowley, and how it was perceived within BL/BMC/Rover from when the classic Mini was made there upto BMW’s Mini. IMO there was actually quite a lot of union pragmatism but the whole operation was dysfunctional.

    • It’s complete rubbish from start to finish – probably the worst motoring book I have ever bought

  8. There is a danger with looking at such factories as Cowley in the BMC and BL days with the presumption that the quality was rubbish and the factory was a terrible place to work. A kind of attitude that everything past is bad and everything today is so much better, don’t believe this hype! Yes it is now a very different place as Making Cars Live showed very well but it is just not true to say there was no quality control to speak of, it actually very unkind to so many parts of the works and its employees which as I viewed in the mid sixties was working with a huge range of products and huge demands for vehicles. It has probably been said before but there are many many misunderstandings around the philosophy of rectification. As Cliff says the warranty was indeed an extension of the manufacturing process but if the dealer knew his work and road tested his vehicles and checked and re checked that everything worked you had a happy customer who in turn built a relationship with the dealer not minding a few adjustments with a few helpful explanations! Rectification got a bad name I am told but it paid the dealer’s wage bill and became a kind of art where each vehicle could be tuned to perfection. The check lists ran into pages and if done properly had the good feeling of a job done well. I don’t buy this negative image of rectification as if everything has to be perfect leaving the factory, BMW MINIS have had their problems too over the years leaving the factory, it is just that the factory is gifted with a first class public relations team. I am not deriding BMW, just noting that we have changed our philosophy so all the garages seem do now is stick on a pair of number plates!

    • At the same time we should not pretend that Cowley BMC/BL quality was acceptable, it was not, although Canley, Speke, Linwood, Longbridge etc were not at best much better and often worse.

      This was how the Japanese managed to break into the UK market, because whilst a Sunny or Corolla was a primitive drive but then so was an Escort, Marina etc they were in stock and had few rectification issues (my Grandfathers K plate Range Rover series 1 arrived 6 months late and then it was different colour to ordered).

      The other point to note is that all this rectification work, is doing the same job twice and so eating profits, I have seen it written that the warranty costs on the ADO16 wiped out what little margin BMC had on them.

      We should also note that many of the BL quality issues were the result of design flaws in both the cars and manufacturing process and not failings on the assembly lines.

      I think BL were slow due to their limited resources to catch up with the Japanese and many European brands in this area. Having had a succession of “Ronda” cars with hindsight I realise the interiors and the powertrain seemed to get very tired by 50K and in the mid 80’s that was the limit we took the company Montegoes to before replacement.

      However I recall taking my first Volvo over 50K just a decade later in the outside lane of the M40 at a liberal interpretation of the speed limit and looking around the car and thinking, there is nothing about this car that does not look or feel any different than when it left the showroom.

      Sadly that was not the impression I got when i returned to MGRover products a decade later, I had both a TF160 and ZT260. The TF had many minor faults and the ZT260 was quite simply the least reliable car I have ever owned.

      • The consistent horror stories about badly built cars tend to be associated with Cowley over a long period, which suggests to me there was some sort of endemic problem within the plant.
        Longbridge seems to have had a better record on quality. Granted, the early Allegro’s were nothing special, but once the teething troubles were sorted it seemed to settle down to become a fairly reliable product.
        The formation of Leyland Cars in 1975 seems to have been the catalyst for an all round collapse of build quality. Management became centralised and remote and targets were imposed. In the 1970s ‘just in time’ was a joke concept. The component suppliers might just happen to be on strike and supplying the assembly lines was haphazard. Half completed cars were left outside awaiting vital parts as managers struggled to meet their targets. It is no wonder corners were cut.
        Triumph at Canley did introduce quality controls in the early 1960’s, but whether these survived the formation of Leyland Cars, I have no knowledge.
        Certainly corner cutting did occurr at the Rover SD1 plant at Solihull, but Michael Edwardes responded by closing it down. Edwardes may have rationalised BL, but he did nothing about quality, taking at face value what his subordinates were telling him about alleged improvements in build quality, which we now know were simply untrue. Indeed for all his hard man stance against the shop stewards, market share continued to decline and quality was still bad.

      • From my own ownership experience
        1989 F 1.6L Montego saloon completed 125000+ miles and never missed a beat. Only ever needed routine servicing
        1992 K 1.4SLi R8 Rover 200 5 door completed 115000 miles and also never missed a beat (note NO head gasket failure – see C3 below…)
        1993 L 220 GSi R8 Rover 3 door completed 135000 miles and was faultlessly reliable until the alternator failed (at 135000 miles!)
        1993 K Rover Metro 1.1S completed circa 70,000 miles, and other than some dodgy after market brake pads causing some problems, no faults over 7 years.
        98 R Land Rover Discovery TDi Auto, fabulous vehicle with only fault during our ownership up to 70k being a temperamental alarm/CDL unit.
        All of the above vehicles were owned and run by my wife and I. All were used on varying journeys, including my daily 160 mile round trip commute. All of them were sold on or traded in as fully working, roadworthy vehicles, other than the 220GSi which was sold as a non runner due to the alternator.
        Since these we have owned various cars including
        03 plate Octavia (great car), 98 Vectra (terrible car) 03 Zafira (brand new, kept only for 14 months as it was riddled with problems & faults which dealer wouldn’t even acknowledge, worst car I have ever owned),Citroen Xsara Picasso (decent car but weak chassis components and clutch) Citroen C3 1.4 petrol (11 plate, bought with 5k on the clock with FDSH & 1 owner, just dumped after head gasket failure at 25k!!) and finally a 62 plate British built Honda Civic, which is a superb car.
        Point being not all of BL/Austin/Rover stuff was bad, and a lot of competitors products were as bad/worse!

  9. I’ve heard a lot of dealers (not just in the UK) turned to selling Japanese cars because they could be sold “out the box” without having to sort out all the things that should have been done on the production line.

  10. The antics at Cowley re-enforced the view of many that Britain was no good at manufacturing. The huge number of Volkswagen Golfs on our roads is testament to this.

    • VW have their own problems at present!

      Once they’ve paid out for their ‘rectification’ will they continue to be the same group of ompanies?

  11. VW will probably use this to their advantage and they have a huge loyal buyer base. BL were in the 1970s quite a small company. VW are an enormous company. They did have financial problems before the original Golf was launched. They are too big to fail. German pride is at stake. They will buy their way back and the Golf is still probably the best and most desirable small car. So they will build on that and they have a very modern range of cars that buyers want, no bangers or badly styled cars.

  12. They may bounce back but they will be impoverished by the recall costs, litigation being brought against them by governements, and private individuals. This could be many billions of dollars and what company (apart from the likes of BP)can absorb that kind of cost without causing major problems for future development.

  13. @ Ian Nicholls, Edwardes might have tamed the unions and closed down some unproductive parts of British Leyland, but people weren’t flocking back to the company and actually during his six year tenure in charge, market share fell from 24 per cent to 18 per cent. Also his great white hope for the company, the Maestro and the Montego, proved to be reliability nightmares( far worse than their often mocked predecessors)that were underdeveloped and underwhelming in their design. It wasn’t until Graham Day took over, Austin Rover was privatised and had to make its own way in the world, that quality improved massively and the company became profitable.

  14. I think our PDI record on Montego was a claim for 24hrs rectification work. Shocking quality, in both design, manufacture and final assembly. Some of those cars should never have left the plant.

    Then there was the Maestro windscreens leaked from new. Was that a design flaw or manufacturing flaw? Eitherway, that along with rusty cills was something everyone knew about, did chose to laugh it off.

  15. It wasn’t all down to the shop floor workers – after all, strikes aside they were only assembling the junk they had to work with.
    It’s quite simple: BMC, BL, Rover etc were not capable of designing and building decent cars at any of their plants. The Stag and SD1 are two shining examples of this. If you were to carefully build an example of each car from scratch with decent quality components, you would have the cars BL would have liked to have built, but didn’t!
    Ford and GM made some crap as well but they tended to learn from their mistakes. BL just replaced one heap of crap with another one and the fact that the only decent cars they built were rebadged Hondas says it all.

  16. There seemed to be a problem with designing cars that would fit together on the production lines without needing must remedial work.

    I’ve heard a few horror stories on here in that past of large batches of components not fitting properly & management left with a choice of losing production while a new delivery was sourced, or else fudging them to fit.

    IIRC Ford once had a huge amount of wings pressed incorrectly & had to manually reshape them to fit.

    Someone did mention the Acclaims were along easier to build as Honda had designed them to fit together quite simply.

  17. When our Service Manager came back from the Acclaim Technical Launch, he claimed that if you put all the components and parts of an Acclaim into a box, shook it up and emptied it out, it’d still ‘fall together’ on the floor such the was quality and logic of its design and ease of assembly.

    Unsurprisingly then, we couldn’t sell them fast enough.

    • I recall the only common problems on the Acclaim were heated rear window failures and leaking radiators – apparently both parts were UK sourced. Says it all really.

  18. @ Lord Sward, the Acclaim proved British Leyland could make a decent car that would sell, but it’s just a shame this was such a reliable car while the Maestro built alongside it was the complete opposite. You can’t blame bolshie workers when the same workforce built the Acclaim to Japanese standards and the same workforce had to assemble the woefully underdeveloped Maestro.

    • I often think back to the early days of the Honda, Rover tie up. Huge quality, industrial relations issues but Honda still had faith, saw an advantage in the deal

    • Kind of.

      Acclaim was built at Cowley North Works where Maestro and Montego were built at South Works.

      R800 also built at North Works.

  19. I think what frustrates so many on this site is this – The era of Graham Day with improved quality, popular products (R8, Rover Metro, R17 800, even Roverised Montego) was not continued. An acquisition by BMW in 1994 seemed the perfect answer…. alas it was not.

  20. It beggars belief how it’s all gone so to speak, I can’t get over the scale of it all, the size of cowley before it was all sold off, even with the current extended MINI plant. It’s still only a third of what it used to be. Same with Longbridge, the scale of it all astounds me. But business is bussiness, and that is the brutality of it, politics aside. Dud products don’t sell.

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