I was there : Working with Harold Musgrove

What was it like working Harold Musgrove? It was interesting to say the least! Just think about the scenario that he was working in – he started off in his younger days in the manufacturing operation. His first big job was running the Bargoed plant in South Wales where ex-miners made the Austin J40 pedal car.

He grew up in a manufacturing environment which is always a hardener for anybody. However, in the period I was working with him as Managing Director, he was dealing with massive political issues and problems with the unions deep into the Red Robbo era. This was a real challenge for him and the organisation. Let’s also remember that he was fighting like hell with Margaret Thatcher’s Government to get the money to build the K-Series engine.

My career began in 1965 as an Apprentice for The Rover Company Limited. I worked my way through engineering roles into Product Planning and Marketing before joining the PR team in 1985. It was during these years that Harold and my paths crossed.

Badges and stickers

When I was in Product Planning, my first responsibility was for parts, accessories and rationalisation. It was a wonderful title – and a perfect introduction to Product Planning. I went on to look after the Triumph TR7 and Rover SD1 model lines after that – but, in the time I was working on the parts side, I ran a project to introduce stick-on badges to all the cars.

You probably remember these things. We thought we’d improve quality by stopping drilling the holes in the body panels that would rust instantly. Instead, we’d stick them on.

I was making a presentation to the Styling Committee in the Elephant House about their introduction to the whole Austin Rover range. It was also a presentation where we went over the final details of the Metro’s design including this badging. More worryingly, it was the first time I had spoken in front of the Board, and what an explosive meeting it proved to be. That’s because it was also the meeting where the relations between Harold and David Bache – the Design Director – broke down for good.

Triumph TR7

When Harold Musgrove fired David Bache

Trouble had been brewing for some time. Bache had come from Rover but by this time was responsible for all of the brands in the organisation. But he hated working on volume products for Austin and Morris – he was a Rover guy through and through. In the presentation things started getting heated. The issues causing friction between Bache and Musgrove were certain design elements and components on the Metro. They were having a very tough time agreeing on something with which Harold didn’t agree and David wanted to push.

It was clear that there had been a lot of winding up going on before this. It looked like he didn’t like David, and David didn’t like him. I could see this, there was clearly a crescendo coming where things were going to blow up. In the end, Harold just banged the table and said ‘stop!’ He beckoned Bache, and they disappeared into a corner office.

However, we could hear the conversation in there. It was getting heated – then it got louder and louder before suddenly going very quiet. We thought ‘he’s killed him!’ Then the door opened, Bache walked out of the door, straight across the middle of the studio between us all, and through the exit. Outside, he got into his Tara Green Triumph Stag and disappeared – never to be seen by us again.

David Bache with the Austin Metro

On to other business…

And that was that. Mr Bache and he fell out terminally. When Harold returned, he rubbed his hands and said, ‘let’s get on with the badges then!’

So, I’m making my presentation about the badges, and I’m pretty nervous after all that. About halfway through the presentation, I got something wrong. I presented something incorrectly, and then I got the cost of the programme wrong. I think I totalled the cost of one badge instead of the whole programme! There were several noughts discrepancy.

At the end, Harold stopped me and said, ‘say that again.’ Anyway, at the end of it, at the end of the presentation of the last item, he walked off, and then turned around. He caught my eye, and he beckoned me over. He took me into an office – not the same one he took Bache into – and as you can imagine, I’m just a bit nervous.

All part of growing up

He said, ‘you messed up there. You need to remember your facts. Make sure you get it right next time and don’t worry, it’s all part of growing up.’ With that, he said to come and see him at the end of the week to have a chat about things. Anyway, I later went to his office, we talked, and he became my mentor for about six months. We would have a little chat every few weeks, and he’d call me up and ask what was going on and was I happy with what I was doing.

That was great for me – he was a really, really nice kind ‘grandfather’ figure to me, but deadly serious at the same time. But, when you look at the background of what he was working on and the environment he was in, he had a really, really tough job to do.

On his very last day in 1986, when he resigned over other issues, his PA called me and said that Harold wanted to see me before he went. So, I went up to his office. This was a big old office at Fletch North with wood panelled walls, and a big sideboard. On the top of that was a large model of an Austin Metro, made by Bassett Lowke, that was presented to Austin Rover by BSM when their contract for a fleet of driving school cars was signed. It was a large, fully detailed scale model made of brass and it was beautiful.

BSM Metro

He said, ‘whenever you come up to my office, you always look at that bloody model over there. I’m a bit worried about it. If I leave it here, it’s going to disappear.’ He then asked, ‘would you like it?’ before adding, ‘would you take it away, because it’ll get stolen. Go and put it in your car and take it home – look after it for me.’

So, I did, and then the next morning, his PA called me and said, ‘by the way, there’s a nice album of photographs here by Bassett Lowke detailing the manufacture of the whole thing. Take it’. I’ve still got the model and the album at home, and it will stay there until it probably ends up at Gaydon.

That’s the kind of guy he was, and I had every respect for him in the way he was managing the environment he worked in. He was a lovely man, but he didn’t stand fools gladly. If you didn’t work with him, then you were on a hiding to nothing. You had to work hard and push yourself – do that, and he was happy.

Denis Chick
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  1. “Tara Green Triumph Stag”

    I am surprised that Bache drove a Stag and not an SD1 or Range Rover, although I understand that he and Spen King did not have the best of relationships, so may be that is why he took the Stag.

  2. The cult of personality – The reason nothing ever gets done or ends up a compromise that works for nobody in this country!

  3. @Graham:

    As this event likely occurred around 1981/early 1982, approximately four years after the Triumph Stag had ended production, it is possible the Triumph Stag might have been his own personal car rather than what would have been an ageing company car. I understand from an interview with former Rover SD1 stylist Kevin Splindler for the Rover SD1’s 40th anniversary video, that Mr Bache was driving an SD1 as his company car in 1980, so am assuming that trend would have continued right up until his departure from the company in late 1981/early 1982.

  4. Another fascinating insight, not only into AR but also business practices which must have been common across heavy industry in the era.

    Thanks for a great series!

  5. Denis – what a great article, please can we have more of these . Having worked through these times in Automotive I”m fascinated to hear stories of such larger than life characters, who were very much in the “ hard but fair mould” as seen by how you were treated. You would not want to make an enemy of them – but they could be great bosses and in your case mentors too .
    On a final note can I say how fabulous a white Tr7 convertable looks in that photo . I”ve seen lots of hardtop TR7s in white but never a roadster .

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