I was there : How technology changed at British Leyland

1970s office

Accelerating pace of technological change

I joined Rover Triumph in what I think of as the BTech days (Before Technology). It was early 1973. IBM had introduced the golf ball typewriter but many offices still relied on manual typewriters. We didn’t have a telephone at home but we got one installed shortly afterwards because my son was due to be born in the summer and it seemed like a good idea to be able to call for help from the house instead of going to a ‘phone box five minutes’ walk away.

At Canley there was a typing pool (below) – for those of you too young to remember, it was a room occupied by a number of women, each one equipped with a typewriter and a Dictaphone. Anybody who needed a letter sent out would either write it out or dictate it into the tape machine (that’s what a Dictaphone was) and one of the women would type it up.

When I got to Lode Lane, I found that the department had two secretaries and they worked to the same system although, if they were feeling generous (or knew how bad your writing was), they would come and take down the letter in shorthand. They’d go away and type it up, bringing it back in a binder fitted with sheets of blotting paper. Each letter was held in the book between two sheets of blotting paper on the assumption that we would sign with a fountain pen.

Typing pool

Telephone calls had to go through the main switchboard. We had ‘phones on our desks but, when we wanted to make a call, we had to pick up the ‘phone, wait for one of the telephonists to answer and give her the number we wanted. She would dial the number and leave us to it. Incoming calls came by the same route: the caller got through to the switchboard and the operator would put the call through to us.

We may have been able to make calls internally without going through the switchboard, but I can’t remember.

About the only evidence that we saw of any technology was introduced by John Chatham who bought a Sinclair pocket calculator. I have no idea which of them it was although I’m guessing it would have been the Cambridge which cost about £33 and measured 56 x 138 x 9mm. By the standards of the day it was tiny and an object of fascination.

Sinclair Cambridge Type 1 Calculator

When we were moved to Longbridge, there was no change on the tech front. ‘Phones were still only used on the desk and, if we were out and needed to call anybody, it was a case of finding a ‘phone box and hoping we’d got enough change to feed the beast.

Watford Gap services on the northbound M1 used to have a couple of rows of phone boxes near the entrance to the main building. At Euston station, there was a row of them opposite the entrances to platforms 14, 15 and 16. Heading home in the evening there was always a queue of people waiting to use them. It became a little easier when BT introduced the ‘phone card in 1981.

This was a credit-card sized card that could only be used in a card-enabled ‘phone box. They could be bought in stationers, especially in railway stations and motorway service areas and they were good for a certain number of credits. The difficulty was that there was no indication on the card of the number of credits you had left so it could get tricky to make sure there were enough for the call.

BT Phone card

When we were staying overnight in hotels, we were allowed a certain amount in expenses but we all knew that making ‘phone calls from the room was horrendously expensive. The company had a special deal with the Royal Lancaster in London so I stayed there often and they had a row of public ‘phones on the ground floor near the lifts.

My first encounter with a form of mobile ‘phone came in July 1977 when I was organising a roadshow. I’d managed to get hold of the Leyland National Executive Commuter Bus to carry the crew between venues and it had a radio telephone on board. It was like an ordinary ‘phone but it had an elongated button on the underside of the handset. When you wanted to talk, you held that button down. If you forgot to release it, you wouldn’t be able to hear what the other person was saying because your phone was still transmitting.

When we moved to Redditch I’m pretty sure there was a Fax machine in the post room on the ground floor. I doubt that I ever used it but it was the beginning of what was to become an accelerating advance of the tech.

The company had an IT Department which was based on another site in Redditch but they handled serious bits of kit. They were probably involved in the CAD technology that I saw in Cowley some time in 1982. It could show the process of closing a car door but, when I wanted to get it filmed, we had to leave the computer running overnight with the camera on time lapse.

Given the growing popularity of 3D printing these days, it’s interesting that I saw what amounted to 3D printing in the early 1980s at Warwick University. At that time it was called rapid prototyping and involved a tank of some liquid or other with the component being created by solidifying the liquid to create an exhaust manifold or whatever was needed complete with all the voids.

But expectations of computers were growing. Apple had introduced the Apple II and John Maries, who ran the Finance section attached to the Marketing Department, realised that it could be a huge help to him. He asked to have a computer but was told that he couldn’t have one.

Such things needed specialists to operate them. John reacted, as would any sensible individual, by building his own computer. He brought it in one day because he wanted to try it out on the monitor that I had in the AV room that was part of my department. I don’t think he ever got to use it for proper finance work but I think he enjoyed building it.

Apple II

We got an Apple II in the Department, probably about 1979. It was equipped with five and a quarter inch floppy disc drives – four of them. Again, for the younger readers, at that time desktop computers could only store data on floppy discs. You’d have one disk for the programme and, in our case, three discs for the data. We used it for sorting out which attendees were going to be on which flights and allocating hotel rooms and so on.

I had a Sinclair ZX81 at home. It was, to the computer industry, what the Austin 7 was to the motor industry of the 1920s. Suddenly, here was a computer that was affordable and could be used by anybody. I discovered that I could write a program on it in the evening, test it out and then type it into the Apple the following morning and it would work. So I wrote a programme to calculate the budget for each of the shows – as you do…

Wang word processors were installed after we were moved to Canley. We had one outside my boss’s office and I think there was a server somewhere which stored all the data. I used it sometimes because my handwriting was so bad that it was quicker for me to type whatever report I needed than for one of the secretaries to try to decipher my writing.

I left BL in early 1984 and shortly after that I bought my own PC which ran WordStar (below), Calcstar and various other programmes that nobody remembers these days. I think they were referred to as ‘the Devil’s keyboard’ because you had to use a weird variety of commands even to move the cursor around the screen (the mouse didn’t become widely available until later in the 1980s). Various companies sold templates that could be positioned on the keyboard to help the operator to remember which function keys to use to do what actions. I didn’t encounter Word until I was doing some freelance work for Saab in Gothenburg in 1992.

WordsStar DOS

I first used a mobile ‘phone as we know them now in the early 1990s when Orange had a promotional exhibit at Euston station. I think I used it to call my then wife to tell her I was on my way home. I began to use a mobile ‘phone regularly in 1988 but at that time I had to hire one as and when I needed it because they cost around £100 a month to lease – that’s the equivalent of around £250 today. I wrote an anniversary magazine for Land Rover in 1988 and needed to talk to Mark Phillips. I had to be driving up to the Peak District at the time he was available so I hired a mobile in order to conduct the interview. I eventually got a mobile of my own some time later.

By the time I was freelancing, faxes were small desktop machines and I got one, probably in the later 1980s.

When it comes to the tech around the shows I produced, the major change came in the control of slide projectors. We still used them because video projection was pretty crude. In the UK we were operating on the 625 lines PAL television system. What that meant was that, no matter how big the picture was, a television image was still composed of only 625 lines. Slides, on the other hand, were superb, provided they had been produced by a good photographer on a quality camera and were projected by something like a Kodak Carousel.

Kodak Carousel

On a major show, we would have a widescreen display. Behind the screen was an array of slide projectors, arranged in five banks. The images from banks 1, 3 and 5 were butted up together so that they covered the whole screen between them. Those from banks 2 and 4 covered the joins. The production company could create a spread across the whole screen showing, for example, the dashboard of whatever car we were launching. When it was done properly, the audience saw a seamless image spreading right across the screen. That was impressive in itself. When there were 18 or more projectors teamed up with a soundtrack, it became brilliant.

The challenge came in controlling the slide changes, making sure all the projectors changed at the right moment and matched the soundtrack.
When I first got involved with conferences prior to 1976, we were still using punched paper tape but by 1977 we had begun to use purpose-designed computers. The system used a four-track tape recorder. Two of the tracks provided left and right stereo sound. One track was blank to make sure there was no interference between the sound and the clock track which was on the fourth track. One of the production team programmed the computer, telling it which projectors to activate at what points on the clock track. When the show was running the computer read the clock track and triggered the slide changes.

That gave rise to one of the most horrifying sounds in the conference industry at that time: the sound of all of the projectors stepping back to zero because something had gone wrong.

So far as video was concerned, the characteristics of the PAL 625 system meant that we didn’t use it in events. That created a problem in 1977 when the Government said that we had to have a tripartite conference and it had to be seen by the whole workforce. The conference itself was easy enough and involved Alex Park, Eric Varley (Secretary of State for Industry at the time), Jack Jones (General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union) and Hugh Scanlon (President of the Amalgamated Engineering Union).

The problem came in recording it in such a way as to be able to distribute a version of the conference around all the manufacturing plants in a form that enabled everybody to see it. In reality that meant film because a 16mm projector and screen could be hired pretty much anywhere so the programme could be shown to big audiences. Getting everybody to sit round television screens to watch a video, on the other hand, was totally impractical.

The trouble was that if it was to be recorded on 16mm film, we would have needed movie-style lighting and then the editing process would have been slow so we used television cameras and recorded it on professional video tape. I spent a day in an edit suite with one of my colleagues from whichever department was responsible for the event and we produced an edited version of the conference. Then it was transferred to film before being distributed around all the plants. It sounds improbable but it happened.

By the late 1970s video recording was becoming more common and the conference room that we had at Redditch included a Sony U-Matic (below) in a back room. For shows, though, if we wanted movie, we still shot everything on 16mm film and that was still the case when I left in 1984.

Overall, though, the technology had moved on dramatically in the eleven years I worked at BL. Even so, that was only the start.

Sony U-Matic video


  1. I can totally relate to Ken’s story here. I spent my entire career in Film /AV/Video & TV production. In the mid 1970s we were often asked to film in many Company’s computer rooms to show how big and impressive they were! The opposite is the case nowadays.
    The photos of the Kodak Carousel Slide projector and SONY U-matic 3/4″ video cassette recorder brings back happy memories too… Great nostalgia!

    • Thanks for the comment. I really regret the passing of the multi-screen use of the Carousel. The sorts of programmes we produced on those were so impressive – better than Cinemascope.

      • Okay Ken – I recall working on a few twin projector presentations using Carousels and Electrosonic. Looking back they were great fun but you didn’t realise it at the time! The AV & TV production industry has progressed so much, (showing my age when I say that)

        • I used to work for Electrosonic. AV with projection became really sophisticated and high quality imagery. Later video walls became popular.

  2. And the fax machine!

    The Longbridge DO fax machine had it’s own small room.

    The process used to involve several phone calls for each fax sent:

    1. Phone call to recipient to ask for their fax machine telephone number and agree a time for the fax to be sent
    2. a call from the recipient at the agreed time to confirm that their machine was switched on, working and had paper
    Send fax
    3. Call to confirm that fax had been received or to repeat send any missing pages
    4. Call to discuss contents

    • As I said, I don’t think I ever used the Fax machine at Redditch myself but I can imagine that the process was exactly as you describe.

  3. It’s funny how tech has changed so much. When I started working in the late 90s for Eastern Electricity, our IT systems worked on tape, anything more than a year of history was transferred to microfiche and the fax was king. Now days you can build a whole integrated system yourself using Power Software from Microsoft and the only people using faxs are the NHS.

    • Thanks for your comment. I tend to think about the times I write about as ‘just recently’ and then I realise that it’s nearly 40 years since I left what was, by then, ARG. Hmmm. No so recent then.

  4. I remember using telexes in the early 80’s – had to handwrite and an office team would type/send them which could take a day. First experience of mobile phones was coming across groups of people standing outside a pub one early evening in Birmingham – new fangled yuppies using new fangled brick phones with limited reception. In 1995 a guy working for me told me that I really should look into the Internet – no, what’s wrong with my paper Purchasing guides like Kompass and Dial…..

    • Prior to joining Rover Triumph I worked in an advertising agency in Birmingham. The Telex machine was in a room off the office where I worked and our departmental secretary was the only person who knew how to use it. I watched how it worked a few times so when she was away, I became the deputy Telex operator. It was quite fun. As to the Internet I was hired by Mercedes Benz in Milton Keynes to talk to some of their dealers about the Web. My view at the time was that yes, some dealers had websites but I suggested to the dealers that they’d be best advised to leave it for a while, watch what other people did and learn from their mistakes. I don’t think the MB people were please.

  5. It’s interesting to see the advert for the calculator from 1973, which cost £ 24.95( about £ 300 in today’s money) and how the price fell over 10 years. In 1983, I bought a Casio Fx 82 calculator, with a variety of mathematical and scientific functions, for my maths and physics O levels. This was considered a fairly advanced calculator and cost £ 7.95, a huge fall in real terms over ten years, and also light years ahead of earlier calculators that could only do basic maths functions. The Casio managed to last 11 years and was used by my brother for his GCSE maths in 1994, when it finally gave up.

      • A small point perhaps, but why change the calculator’s measurements from inches, as in the advert, to millimetres? The majority of people in the UK use inches.

  6. Around the 1992 timeframe Rover Swindon had a bank of Computervision mainframes running CGOS for the use of the drawing office. They were badge engineered and I don’t recall who the actual maker was. CV were phasing those out in favour of SUN workstations running SunOS 4 (basically Unix). This was before the Solaris days.

    • Thanks for the comment – what you had there was way above my experience. Interesting to note, though, that the Metro launch film, shot in 1979/80 showed a huge room filled with drawing boards. I wonder how long it took for the drawing boards to be consigned to the scrap heap.

      • I started at Longbridge in 1979 and the DO was full of drawing boards. By the time I graduated and returned in 1983 they had almost all disappeared. The layout tables were still in use. I went on a CADDS4x training course at Warwick University and never used a drawing board until I arrived at Lotus in 1990. That was a bit of a shock to the system after 7 years of CAD!

  7. A great article and a reminder of how things were done before the computer revolution!
    Thanks for writing it.

  8. It’s a pity that more thought wasn’t given to the quality control of the cars. After all, it was the cars that BL were marketing. I am lucky to own a Triumph TR8. Its a wonderful car, and it makes me sad that it was the last car Triumph designed and built. The Aclaim was, after all a Honda in drag.

    • I agree with you. My belief is that there were multiple problems with quality (and I may be completely wrong on this). For one thing a lack of investment over the years meant that the equipment on the assembly lines was old. I was told by the guy project managing the installation of the Metro assembly line at Longbridge that the machines that had been used to build cars up to that point and was being taken out was so old it could go into a museum. Sometimes investment decisions were surprising. When the XJ40 was introduced, a new paint plant was installed that used thixotropic paint but apparently this was already being phased out in the USA. Somebody else from manufacturing told me that the problem was that the cars weren’t designed with manufacturing in mind. He said ‘They think quality can be inspected in. It can’t. It has to be designed in.’ Then there was the way outsourced components were specified. When I wrote the book about Jaguar one of the quality team told me that there was a fundamental difference between British and Japanese manufacturers. The Brits would go to a supplier and give them the spec. for a component. When the supplier came back with a price, the British purchasing dept. would negotiate it down. The Japanese would say ‘Does this allow you to make enough profit to invest in improved quality?’ That was only one man’s opinion and others on here might disagree but it would be interesting to hear their views.

  9. With regards to the phonecard… the phone records the use of units.. by cutting vertical marks into the horizontal strip.. you see towards the top of the card. Bit late now I know but you could tell how many units you had used on a card.

    • Thanks for the comment. If I knew that at the time, I’d forgotten it so thank you for the reminder.

  10. Speaking of fax machines – I gave mine away after spam exceeded relevant messages. But there is a marvellous apocryphal story about the early days of UK-Japan industrial co-operation. There was a telephone meeting between UK and Japan, in which the JP guys were having trouble explaining a point of design. So they made a sketch, and faxed it through. After about 5 minutes, they became restive. “Have you receive fax?”, they asked. The Brits looked at the fax machine in the meeting room, and replied sardonically, “not a sausage”. The JPs replied, “we no send sausage!”

  11. I think phonecards are still used in prisons (probably the only place they are).

    Incidentally, recall a series of adverts in the 80s for phonecards featuring David Jason.

  12. I can remember working in a government training scheme office in 1994 and many of the computers were of the pre Windows generation, Amstrads with green screens that were little more than word processors and calculators. Four years later, I started my current job and all the computers were Siemens( remember them) Windows machines. It was amazing to see how far technology had jumped in four years and how ancient these made the old Amstrads look.

    • I started secondary school in 1990 and ICL had just sponsored the installation of Windows 3.1-equipped computers, which was a real revelation from the ancient things nailed to trollies we’d used occasionally in primary school. That said, some of the English classes did have some of those Amstrad word-processors for a good few years after that and they were comically old-hat and rarely used even then.

      • Those bolted to trolleys were probably BBCs or Acorns. We had NIMBUS Windows running PCs, but we still had until 1991 a typing classroom which was full of typewriters.

        • Computer club at school in 1981 had an Acorn, a ZX80 and a Commodore Pet, which only sixth formers could use. The ZX80 looked pretty naff even in 1981 and was wired up to an elderly black and white television. The Acorn was more advanced, but not by muc.

  13. @ P6 John, Amstrads did the job if you needed a word processor or a basic calculator, but were of limited use for anything else and not long after I left that YTS training centre, they had all been scrapped for Windows machines.

  14. Another computer name brand from the past… Dragon 32? My brother had one of those in the late 80s?

    • Oh yes. 32 kilobytes. It had rubbish graphics and if I remember could only operate in uppercase, no lowercase.

      There were so many home computers back then. Mine was a Commodore +4 which was supposed to replace the 64, but it wasn’t any better (other than it had a built word processor) and I got a 64 a few years later.

      • My interest in computers mostly faded after the micro computing boom of the early eighties and I never used them full time until 1998, when the Windows revolution changed everything. Our first work computers were Siemens desktops and could do vastly more than the computers from earlier in the decade, essential as we had a call centre and needed to record and store vast amountsd of data. We continued with desktops from Siemens, Compaq and Dell until 2014 when we went over to laptops, which have proven to be a godsend when the lockdown started 3 years ago and made home working possible.

  15. Computers have mental health problems like people do. I recently received a new work laptop, which I tried to use for WFH. In one day, it dropped out of our VPN eight times, and crashed once. What will it do when it gets old?
    But it was ever thus. When I worked in Engineering Computing in Rolls Royce Derby, we had Tektronix terminals. 4012s had tiny script, but on a 4014, you could blow it up to a legible size. One day I asked a 4014 to make its text legible, it said “This is not a 4014 terminal”. Identity crisis?

  16. And now you can do a lot more on your phone than you could on a computer in those early days.

    Nobody would’ve predicted that in the 80s….just as no-one back then saw the internet coming.

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