Some time ago I wrote a blog detailing how I was using The Times Online archive service to research the history of British Leyland from 1968 to 1985. I have now extended my research back to 1959. By going back to 1959, I was able to examine some of the major news stories as they appeared at the time and to look at some of the myths that have come to be accepted as the truth. One such myth is that Donald Stokes ruined the British Motor industry, which was, we are told, faring okay until he took control. This was the period when the British motor industry was at its zenith, both in production terms and engineering creativity.
Let us, then, review the major events on a year by year basis.
1959 – This was a year in which the British motor industry was plagued with industrial disputes as bad as any period during the 1970s. BMC and Jaguar were particuarly hard hit. BMC fired the senior union convener at Cowley, Mr Frank Horsman, which prompted mass walkouts in a scenario eerilly similar to that surrounding the dismissal of Derek Robinson two decades later.
Three major new cars were announced: the Triumph Herald, the Jaguar MK2 and the Mini. The first myth that needs to be dispelled is that the Mini was a flop until various celebrities endorsed it by purchasing one. This is palpable nonsense that does not stand up under scrutiny. The Mini was produced at a rate of 3000 per week from the outset with a plan to raise it to 4,000 per week but that was already insufficient.
This was in excess of that for the outgoing Austin A35. What restricted production, apart from the strike happy workforce, was BMC’s own production facilities. In November 1959 BMC announced a £49m. expansion plan.
“Currently we are producing at the rate of 750,000 vehicles per annum”, said Sir Leonard Lord, the BMC chairman. “When extra facilities become progressively available in 18 months to two years, the magical figure of one million units a year will be within our reach. This cannot be done in the existing factories and it will mean new sites, new buildings, and a fresh approach to the problems of production and automation.”
CAB2 was built at Longbridge but it would be September 1962 before it produced its first car.
Perhaps one of the reasons for the outbreak of industrial action was that a General Election was in the offing and the Labour party, under Hugh Gaitskell, was expected to win. Perhaps many in the Labour movement thought the day of judgement was around the corner for their employers? In the event the country went to the polls in October 1959 and re-elected Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government with a 100 seat majority.
1960 – Mini production for 1960 was 116,677 and this was much better than the best Austin A35 year, 1957/58, when 81,930 were produced, and still better than the combined A35/A40 figures for 1959/60 of 104,184.
In January 1960 BMC announced plans to build new plants at Bathgate in Scotland, Llanelli and Cofton Hacket at a cost of £21m. Harold Macmillan’s government intervened in the motor industry as much as any Labour government, forcing firms to expand and build their factories in areas of high unemployment. Unfortunately most of their efforts backfired.
Standard Triumph announced they were building an £11m. plant at Speke on Merseyside, but the company’s finances soon hit the skids. Rover announced they were building a transmission plant at Pengam, Cardiff, again not their preferred site, and its functions are now carried out in the factory originally built at Solihull to assemble the Rover SD1.
In the autumn there was a credit squeeze by the government which pushed the motor industry into recession and short time working. This was enough to push Standard-Triumph over the edge and the Leyland truck manufacturing firm stepped in with an offer to take over the ailing Coventry car maker.
Elsewhere, Jaguar took over Daimler. Once again Jaguar, along with Rover, suffered from excessive strikes. Worst hit was BMC, with Cowley particuarly strike prone.
1961- In February the government eased the credit restrictions, which meant full time working, only for key workers to go on strike, thus reducing output again. BMC announced they were investing in increasing their production of the Mini to a theoretical 400,000 a year. Unfortunately they never got near that figure and the Mini was a car that depended on volume to be profitable.
By May 1961, Standard Triumph was a wholly owned subsiduary of Leyland Motors and a clearout of senior management occurred in August.
The sensational new car of the year was the Jaguar E-type. Jaguar took over Guy Motors and promptly fired two directors, both sons of the firms founder. Jaguar was again plagued by strikes and the disruption seemed to step up a gear in the autumn after the company won a £22.5m. export order from the USA with strict conditions attached over delivery times. Rover also suffered from disruption but nothing as bad as BMC, which seemed to be having industrial disputes all the time, again with Cowley to the fore.
Rover began building its plant at Pengam, Cardiff. Mr William Martin-Hurst, deputy managing director of Rover, said of their dealings with the government.
“This left us no alternative but to expand our industries, in places which we certainly would not have chosen and which at the time not infrequently appeared unattractive to us.”
Leonard Lord stepped down from BMC, to be succeeded by George Harriman.
1962 – Jaguar’s attempts to meet the deadline for their £22.5m. export order was again disrupted in February. In April the new Triumph plant at Speke was hit by a strike by 1000 workers who bit the hand that fed them and suggested that providing work in areas of unemployment was not gratefully received by those who benefited from it.
Leyland Motors merged with its biggest UK rival, Associated Commercial Vehicles (ACV), to become the Leyland Motor Corporation. Again Jaguar were plagued with strikes and again BMC had even more disruption. The car of the year was the ADO16 Morris 1100. Unfortunately this model was produced at strike prone Cowley – possibly because Longbridge did not have the capacity at the time to produce it. CAB 2 began operation at Longbridge in September 1962.
1963 – This was the year of the Profumo scandal, JFK, satire and the Beatles. By May it was reported that their was a nine month waiting list for the Morris 1100. BMC did its best to step up production but the stoppages at Cowley kept occurring. In the autumn the Austin 1100 appeared on the scene – this was built at Longbridge and so enabled BMC to make a better fist of satisfying the market. The two major new cars were the rival Triumph and Rover 2000 executive cars.
On the strike front Jaguar and BMC were joined by Standard Triumph in having a bad year. It goes without saying that BMC had the lion’s share of strikes, with Cowley to the fore. Rover had a good year but, for 1964, they had an acclaimed car that everybody wanted….
1964 – Rover was plagued by strikes in 1964. The P6 2000 was an instant hit but getting the workforce to knuckle down and produce the cars was another matter. It was a similar situation to the Rover SD1 saga, over a decade later. At least in 1964 if you couldn’t get a Rover 2000, you could get another British built executive car in the shape of the Triumph 2000. In the late 1970’s you bought foreign if your SD1 failed to materialise.
Triumph seems to have had a relatively strike free year. Jaguar had another bad year and, as usual, BMC and Cowley were the most strike prone.
The most interesting new car was the Austin 1800 but it failed to sell in the numbers expected. 1964 was a General Election year and everybody knew it so perhaps this explains the industrial strife as per 1959. The Conservative government had been discredited by scandal and sniped at by trendy satirists but did well to win as many seats as it did. Harold Wilson’s new Labour government promised a modern Britain built on the white heat of technology with no restrictive practices on either side of industry. Such soundbites were enough to win power but getting the Midlands car workers who voted for him to actually abolish restrictive practices and accept mobility of labour was another matter.
1965 – The millionth Mini was built in February. The same month, John Silver, recently Jaguar’s director of production, was jailed for fraud and corruption. In May 1965 the combined efforts of Cowley and Longbridge managed to produce 5000 Minis in a week, the highest production total ever.
BMC chairman George Harriman stated, “Sales over the past year have gone exactly according to our forecasts . But we have not been able to supply enough cars to customers because we have not been able to make enough, because of a spate of small industrial disputes.”
BMC announced they were taking over Pressed Steel in July and Triumph announced that they would build another plant at Speke. Jaguar and Standard Triumph were hit by strikes and Rover continued to be disrupted with a series of disputes stopping P6 2000 production.
William Martin-Hurst of the Rover Car Company said of its P6 model: “We could sell twice as many as we are making at present and we are working steadily to expand production.”
The constant brake on production of the P6 must have been frustrating to Rover executives who knew they had a winner on their hands. As usual BMC suffered the most strikes but, in 1965, it was Longbridge that suffered the most disruption
The government decided to act and sent a troubleshooter by the name of Jack Scamp and a team of experts to investigate all the strife in the motor industry. A lot of pontificating followed but that didn’t actually stop the strikes.
1966 – This was the year BMC took over Pressed Steel and Jaguar. Pressed Steel boss Joe Edwards was appointed managing director of BMC and then British Motor Holdings. The same month as the formation of BMH, July 1966, the government inflicted a credit squeeze on the motor industry and a series of mass lay offs began. In the autumn a series of strikes and the credit squeeze resulted in 38,000 BMC workers being put on short time and 10,000 being made redundant as part of Joe Edwards plan to reduce overmanning.
A strike by delivery drivers resulted in Longbridge becoming overcrowded with new cars. All this brought BMC considerable negative press and eventually most of its production halted. BMC also missed its planned annual production by some 93,000 vehicles and pundits began asking questions about the company’s future.
Rover again suffered from strikes and was sold to the Leyland Motor Corporation at the end of the year . Industrial disputes hit everybody, with BMC being the frontrunner, but by mid year the situation at Jaguar seemed to be improving.
1967 – The final year before the formation of British Leyland saw BMH declare a £7.5m loss in April. In the last quarter of 1966 the company’s production had missed all its targets and its UK market share had dropped from 40% to 27% simply because of it inability to supply the market. Also in the spring trading conditions improved and full time working resumed.
Sir William Black retired as the chairman of Leyland to be succeeded by Sir Donald Stokes.
Despite their gloomy finances, BMH announced a further expansion plan, to invest £20m. to increase production to 1.25 million vehicles by 1970. In the late summer rumours of a BMH-Leyland merger began in the press and by October the Prime Minister Harold Wilson began to take an active role. At the same time BMC announced that Roy Haynes was joining from Ford to become their director of styling. By the end of the year negotiations had become more serious.
There were still to many strikes but perhaps not as many as in previous years.
One claim made about this period is that the British motor industry did not invest enough. This is nonsense. The British motor industry invested all it could but, with strikes crippling production volume and therefore profits, there was a limit to what could be borrowed to invest. In my previous blog I laid the majority of blame for the demise of the British motor industry at the door of the workforce and I see no reason to change my opinion.
Whether it was class hatred, an envy of those with a higher social and financial status or sheer rebelliousness, the number of strikes proved critical in crippling the finances of the British motor industry in an era of escalating development costs for new models. It seems the more successful a car was, the more likely it was to suffer from strike action, the Mini, ADO16 and Rover P6 come to mind.
It was later claimed that British Leyland destroyed its workforce’s marque loyalty at its constituent plants and tried to weld them into a more cohesive unit but, instead, undermined morale. However, that assumes the workforce felt some sort of loyalty to the likes of Austin, Morris, Jaguar, Rover, etc. in the first place and I see no evidence of that. Workers were just as likely to strike against Austin, BMC, BLMC and the Government.
To them work was a chore, a way of making a living, a way of getting food and shelter. They didn’t enjoy it but it had to be done and they hated their bosses for making them do it. This was a Britain where selling was a dirty word and the concept that it was the customer that mattered hadn’t sunk into the national mindset.
At Jaguar even Sir William Lyons’ official biographers admit his workforce had little love for him and most Jaguar writers fawn over Lyons, although there is some evidence that he spent little or nothing on employee amenities. It appeared that Geoffrey Robinson did and and his employees respected him more. It is claimed that, after Lyons retired, Jaguar was infected by everything that was bad about British Leyland including strikes. From what I have read, the 1970’s was a relatively calm period at Jaguar, it was far worse in the 1960’s. As for quality, can you expect high build quality from any workforce who hate their job and their boss?
I believe one of the vital factors in the formation of British Leyland was the work performed by Keith Hopkins, Leyland’s head of PR in the 1960’s and BL PR boss in the 1970’s. The press were inundated with stories of Leyland’s sales success, often exports, practically every week.
This created the mindset that Leyland was successful and dynamic whilst BMC and the other midlands based firms were strike ridden and lacked drive. This took a lot of people in, including those in government. In Graham Turner’s book, The Leyland Papers, the heroes are quite clearly Sir Donald Stokes and his team, who are portrayed as the men with their fingers on the financial pulse, whilst George Harriman and others are inept and incompetent.
If Leyland’s commecial vehicle plants suffered from strikes, the information never made the papers. Perhaps one of the reason the Wilson government never considered nationalising BMH was that, by merging the company with Leyland, they got the man they wanted to run it for nothing.
Sir Donald Stokes thought he could use his sales techniques to persuade the British Leyland workforce to stay at their workstations – we now know he failed. It took an iron lady, a recession and fear of redundancy to do that.
So did Donald Stokes ruin the British motor industry? I have to say no. Even at its 1960s peak, it was tottering. It was far to strike prone to remain viable. This was not an industry with a long term future. The management did not have the co-operation of its workforce, some of whom seemed to actively work against their employers, and trying to insist on quality workmanship could and did provoke stoppages.
Some of the cars like the Mini, ADO16, Rover P6 and Triumph 2000 were in a sellers market but they failed to generate the profits they should have made. Ironically, the one firm that could have survived as a world player was the Leyland Motor Corporation – its just a pity that the company got involved in car making.