Heroes and villains

Keith Adams

Were personalities or the product to blame for the death of an industry? Or was it something more fundamental?
Were personalities or the product to blame for the death of an industry? Or was it something more fundamental?

IT’S FUNNY HOW the passage of time manages to put real context on current events. A few days back, I suggested on my Twitter feed and Facebook page that I’d like to write a piece for AROnline about who were the true heroes and villains of the long and involved history of BMC>MG.

It’s a subject that a lot of people will have very strong opions on, but is there any way that the good and bad charaters can be categorized? The answer, of course, is no. And that’s interesting because, when I thought of doing this, I was going to break it down into a nice web friendly list layout and invite comments accordingly.

However, as the depth of the subject truly manifested itself, I realised – finally – that I was going to have to write something longer and much more involved. In truth, there’s enough material in this one subject to fill (a thick) book.

Interestingly, when I started this odyssey known as AROnline, I was in the throes of completing a (never to be published) book on the subject. It was called Last Chance Saloon and charted the history of BMC, Leyland and Rover from 1952 to the immediate aftermath of the Phoenix Four takeover in 2000. It’s interesting that, in the chapter headed ‘Heroes and Villains’, I’d concluded that the real villain of the piece was Westminster. I still blame the UK Government for all of its ridculous policy-making regarding the British car industry, nearly a decade on.

Ironically, the chapter also included a certain John Towers – under ‘Heroes’. The passage of time, truly does take chaos and make order out of it.

[P.S. I’ll upload the piece when it’s completed]

Keith Adams


  1. Heroes and villains?

    My money is on the motoring press or some of them. Those and the general public for not getting behind the company when it needed that support.

    Granted the management made some crucial errors of judgement but less negative publicity could have made the difference!

  2. Villains:
    Red Robbo – Effectively killed off the TR7
    BMW – Asset stripped the place
    The Phoenix 4 – For embezzlement and concentrating on low revenue niche models instead of mainstream ones.
    Whoever sold out on Honda
    Malcolm Harbour and David Bache – The former for failing to stand up to Michael Edwardes to hang fire for the S-series before launching the Maestro. The latter for designing a goddamn ugly car to go around the tall, short-lived R-series engine.
    George Harriman – For decreeing that the Maxi use ADO17’s effectively making the Maxi look old-fashioned at launch.
    Management in general for insisting that the Princess and Allegro weren’t hatchbacks and failing to rationalise the range properly following the 1968 merger.

    Roy Axe – For making a silk purse (Montego) out of a sow’s ear (Maestro)
    Michael Edwardes – For getting Red Robbo and Honda in.
    Honda – For providing decent donor cars (except for the Domani) for Rover to improve upon effectively making Honda a bit-part player until the relationship ended.
    Harris Mann for the Princess (not his fault it wasn’t a hatchback)
    Issigonis – For genius engineering
    Michelotti – For genius styling

  3. True – a hugely complex subject – but let’s face it, the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s were a tough time – I struggle to see how ‘Westminster’ can be blamed for pumping millions of taxpayer money into the firm with nary any questions about how us as British taxpayers would see a return for our ‘investment’.

    Who do I blame? Well, the British public of our own generation for eventually abandoning the notion of supporting our indigenous motor industry (there really isn’t one any more, hence the lack of any new car motorshow of any substance in Britain).

    The past month has shown how ridiculous our concept of nationhood really is with German, French, Japanese, Italian and Korean cars all driving across England flying the flag of St George…

    I felt like replacing every one with the nationality of the car the person was driving to show where their financial allegience was in reality.

    In the same way, ‘Back British Farmers’ stickers on Shoguns and Jeeps also get my dander up.


  4. I have managed to get to the same stage as you, Keith, albeit in serialised form, in terms of writing the Rover Cars story.

    Despite four years and 27,000 words invested in it so far (it has been published in a Rover magazine), I recognise that to do the story real justice you really have to dig deeper and be even more analytical. Indeed, just like an academic dissertation or thesis, you can only come up with a conclusion based on the evidence that is either available or which you have decided supports the direction you are taking the hypothesis.

    Heroes and villans is a classic example of this. John Towers is seen by many as a villain because of the collapse of MG Rover Group. Yet here is a man who worked tirelessly to give the Rover Group a stronger future with Honda in the mid-Nineties and who ultimately gave the commercially damaged Rover Cars division almost five more years of trading just as BMW were preparing to put the ‘closed’ sign up.

    Of interest, I often have a few ‘what if’ thoughts about Rovers Cars covering various chapters in their history stretching back to the early 1940s!

  5. I put the failure down to egotistical management and in-fighting throughout the organisation.

    You only had to read some of the articles associated with the death of Spen King to see how, as an Engineer, his efforts where constantly thwarted by the likes of Harry Webster, Harold Musgrove or others with their own agendas.

    It’s not only the motor industry that has fallen as a result of ego and arrogance. It seems to be a British trait that we can’t work together to achieve a common goal. It’s always every man for himself. You only had to watch the performance of the national football team in the World Cup to see this!

    I do wonder, though, if we are over-doing it by saying the British motor industry is dead. I read an article in Autocar this week concerning Cowley. It is now BMW’s second largest plant, it is running at twice its design capacity via three shift round the clock working, the cars have around 70% local content including major components such as engines and it makes a huge contribution to the UK’s balance of payments.

    Likewise Jaguar Land Rover – another BL survivor – is launching new models, has seen sales up massively in the last year and is recruiting 1000 staff for Halewood.

    Both these companies may ultimately be foreign owned, but they are very much self-contained UK subsidiaries.

  6. Interfering politicians didn’t help in the 50s and 60s, preventing manufacturers expanding in their area, and instead sending them off to the other end of the country to create jobs.
    The creation of BL was flawed too, if BMC was really in trouble, bringing down a very successful truck manufacturer, and emasculating the likes of Rover, Triumph, MG and Jaguar was a high price to pay.
    However, since then, how much are politicians to blame. BL in the 70s and 80s got vast amounts of subsidy, management made rubbish decisions, and produced cars that weren’t good enough. It took Ford to sort out Land Rover quality, it took BMW to realise the potential of an upmarket new MINI.

  7. @Phil Simpson
    Issignois belongs in both!
    Heroes – CSK, John Towers, the Phoenix 4 for backing tie company when others didn’t, including Alchemy, Tony Gilroy,

    Villains – the Business Secretary Patricia Hewitt, Kevin Howe, Kevin Howe and KEVIN bloody Howe, the Honda Domani/Rov 400, BMW, Bernd Piestriecher, the unions, BAe, Tony Benn for encouraging the terrible Leyland / BMC merger

    Btw, the Maestro was fine, it was just that it was launched seven years later than it should have been, so was already out of date

  8. To me the biggest villain has to be BMW. They took the MINI. They gave Land Rover and Range Rover to Ford. They had obviously bought the company in 1994 because they thought it was in top shape and looked to be going somewhere, which it was. Six years later they pulled the plug on the firm. Criminal. Actually I blame BAe managers as well for selling to BMW in the first place. Oh, and for not building that wonderful Metro replacement. Keith’s right – where do you stop? The dodgy Montego. The Princess with no hatchback. That Allegro disaster. Those Maxi doors. The Marina. The strikers. The government. The marketing team. The in-house in-fighting between different marques. The crap advertisers.

  9. BL made a few bad design decisions – but then every large company does at some point.

    The true villain here is BMW. They took a promising Rover, riding a high after the R8 200/400 with replacements on the way, 600 and the elegant 800.
    They then did their best to stunt growth, insisting that Rover do not in any way encroach on the core BMW car market, and the stunt at the launch of the 75 did no help matters.

    They took the Mini for themselves, the 400 replacement fitted with RWD to become the 1, photocopied the Land Rover design guide for the X series SUVs before selling to Ford, and left Rover in the lurch.

    Their business practices can be seen again, just last year, in the way they got rid of Sauber. That is why they are racing this year as “BMW Sauber Mercedes”, because the team was entered officially before BMW pulled out.

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