Blog : Was it really 40 years ago?

Forty years ago this month, Michael Edwardes officially became Chairman and Chief Executive of British Leyland. It was 9.25am when the new Chairman arrived in a chauffeur-driven car outside his new office at Nuffield House, 41 Piccadilly, Mayfair in London. Edwardes would be using the office of British Leyland’s Honorary President, Lord Stokes.

He had been expected to clock in at 8.30am. Waiting reporters asked him what he thought about being head of the Government-owned car firm, and he said: ‘It will be a formidable task. I hope to enjoy it.’

Edwardes also said that the vote by British Leyland car workers in favour of a new pay bargaining system was encouraging. ‘I think it’s good news. It shows a lot of people want to get things sorted out. If a few more people buy British and Leyland it would help.’

On the day Michael Edwardes took up his new post, Leyland Cars was hit by another stoppage

Michael Edwardes was also asked if he could bring about the recovery of British Leyland. He replied: ‘Yes, if I have to stand on my head to do it.’

Edwardes brought three staff members from Chloride: John McKay, Communications Director; Sheila Witts, his personal assistant and Margaret Evans, his secretary. By 2013, Michael Edwardes’ original British Leyland office was a Pret a Manger restaurant.

Strikes ahoy at British Leyland

On the day Michael Edwardes took up his new post, British Leyland was hit by another stoppage. Some 1500 workers at the Triumph Speke No.2 plant on Merseyside, which produced the TR7, walked out only a few hours after they had resumed work. They had been laid off for over three weeks by a strike since settled at Triumph, Coventry.

The trouble centred on management plans based on studies by industrial engineers to introduce new manning scales and work levels to improve productivity. Shop stewards claimed that the company had broken a local agreement by taking a unilateral decision to implement these new arrangements.

However, the company maintained that the decision to go ahead with the plans was taken only after national negotiating procedures had been followed when it became clear that no progress towards agreement could be made at plant level.

Ian Nicholls
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  1. Like most of us, I was just a young lad when Michael Edwardes took the reigns at BL. However successful or not, he is regarded as the man who facilitated the tie up with Honda and after the initial scepticism, its first product (the Acclaim) led to many more successful joint venture cars by the company Pity it’s all gone now. .

  2. I wonder if a last interview with sir Michael would shed any new light on his years at BL, other than his Back from the Brink.

  3. Edwardes main achievements will be the tie up with Honda, which helped to save the company in the eighties, the Austin Metro, the revival at Jaguar, and making the company’s range of cars more coherent and modern However, for all the company was rationalised and the unions power reduced, market share under Edwardes fell by 6 per cent, there was still a simmering them and us atmosphere in the company that led to a five week strike at Cowley in 1983, and the Maestro and Montego soon developed the usual quality and reliabllity issues. He was better than the hopeless Donald Stokes, but Edwardes was far from being the saviour of British Leyland that he considered himself to be.
    To me the saviour of Austin Rover, as the rationalised British Leyland Cars became, was Graham Day. He rapidly realised the company could no longer rely on government bailouts, he ditched the Austin name as it had negative connotations by the late eighties and concentrated on Rover, and decided to develop a smaller, upmarket company to compete with the Germans, Also a massive campaign to eliminate poor quality and introduce upmarket cars like the 400 seemed to work.

    • I think Graham Day just responded to circumstances. When the great white hope LC10/Maestro/Montego bombed the game really was up for BL/Austin Rover as a volume manufacturer. The only option was to move forward as a niche operation using bought in technology.

      • Had the Maestro been better made, then Austin Rover could have really prospered. This was a car that could have done really well against the Escort ,as it was better looking, had a massive interior and fair sized boot, had a range that went from the poverty spec 1.3 models to the MG, and had a far better ride and was more refined. I really do feel sorry for the Maestro as it was badly let down by its reliability issues, although the Escort wasn’t exactly Mercedes like for its reliability, but hey ho it was a Ford and fleet buyers loved the discount.

        • What Ford had was an image, by the 80s it was the cool kid on the block, mk3 Escort was a sharp suited modern hatch design. By comparison, while the Maestro may have been more practical, and had innovations such as digital dashboard and full wraparound plastic body coloured bumpers, it just had a bit of a frumpy image.
          Maestro was probably more forward looking – the mk3 Astra, Citroen ZX, mk1 Focus and Skoda Rapid Spaceback all doff their cap to it. Modern hatchbacks tend to have a Maestro style near-vertical tailgate compared to the old Escort-style small-saloon-bustle.

          • Even before the eighties, when Ford overtook British Leyland in 1976 tp become the country’s biggest selling carmaker. Ford had a competent range of cars that covered every base, from the Fiesta to the Granada, and were good cars by the standards of the time, and, of course, the Cortina had become the darling of the fleet market with its 25 per cent discounts and huge dealer network. Then Vauxhall was steadily catching up with the Cavalier and Chevette, two cars that banished the rotbox Vauxhall image and were decent cars.

  4. Surely Michael Edwards was somewhat hampered by the Ryder Report which talked of expansion when contraction was the answer. Michel closed Abingdon – in my view one of his rare mistakes. But he did begin to break the unions hold on the business – he did that , no one else. Graham Day’s contribution I would never denounce but he started from a much better place than Michael did!

  5. British Leyland was a total mess in 1977 and was heading for oblivion. The fleet market had deserted it for Ford and Vauxhall, private buyers were turning to foreign cars, and exports were drying up. Then there was the militancy of the unions, with strikes happening almost every week in the company, that was crippling production. Edwardes had a huge task, the big shakeout in the company did hurt places like Coventry and Speke, the unions finally were tamed with the dismissal of Red Robbo, but something had to give and thankfully the company survived the eighties.

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