I was there : Working with the people of BL

Sir Michael Edwardes

In the years when I was responsible for organising new car launches and business meetings for dealers and fleet operators, I worked with a wonderfully diverse range of people from the bloke who swept the floor of the exhibition hall near Q Gate at Longbridge to Michael Edwardes. Some were more surprising than others.

Alex Park was, in my experience, charming. I first met him in 1976. The National Exhibition Centre was being opened in March and the management wanted to test out their systems. I believe the suggestion that BL should stage an employee day came from them. The idea was that if as many employees as possible could be persuaded to go there on 3 January, the traffic management, car parking, security, catering systems and so on would be tested before any paying exhibitions arrived.

I was involved on the periphery of the event and arrived bright and early on that Saturday morning. I think there were one or two others there as well but then Alex Park arrived. He was the big boss at the time so we were slightly unnerved by the fact that none of the local management were onsite yet. We offered to alert somebody to the fact that he was there but he wouldn’t let us. He said that he hated people making a fuss just because it was him. He added that one of the things that he’d discovered was that he had to be very careful what he said.

Alex Park and the Rover SD1

The charming Alex Park

As an example, he said that he’d once mentioned in passing that he’d quite like to drive a particular model that, at the time, had only just been launched. Apparently, there was one outside his office the following morning which he found embarrassing. So, a couple of us sat in a windowless office at the NEC, chatting with the top man in the company.

The next time I met him was a few years later when he was speaking at a dealer conference that I organised at Longbridge. When he arrived, he apologised because he couldn’t stay to lunch, he had to get back to London. I asked if he’d like some sandwiches to take with him so he wouldn’t have to go hungry and he was grateful for the suggestion.

At the end of the show, I was standing in the lobby of the exhibition hall, with a pack of sandwiches that I’d got the canteen to make up for him. As he came out, I stepped forward held the pack out to him and said, ‘Your lunch Mr Park’. He smiled, thanked me and went on his way. After he’d gone somebody came and asked what it was all about, so I said I’d had the canteen prepare a packed lunch for him, so he’d have something to eat. I got the distinct impression that I wasn’t supposed to provide sandwiches for the boss.

Edwardes the indomitable

Michael Edwardes was different. To start with he was quite small and I’m very tall so, when I had to talk to him, I would stand back to try to avoid making him look up too sharply. In 1977 he was appointed as Chairman and Chief Executive and the following February there were two key events. The first was at Chesford Grange Hotel near Kenilworth in Warwickshire. A number of union Conveners were invited to a conference. They gathered in the conference room, Michael Edwardes and others came in and, as they entered, you could almost feel the hostility. He took his jacket off, hung it over the back of a chair and talked to them for more than 40 minutes. Then he took questions. At the end, the mood had changed significantly. I wouldn’t say that the union people had been converted but at least they didn’t seem so hostile.

Two days later 1800 Dealer Principals gathered in the main auditorium of the Wembley Conference Centre. Michael Edwardes was the main speaker and, as he talked, he demonstrated that he could be a very persuasive speaker and, much to my surprise, very funny. I’m pretty sure Ray Horrocks (below) was in that conference too because, when I got back to the office, colleagues wanted to know what Edwardes and Horrocks were like. I told them that I reckoned that Edwardes was the hardest individual I’d ever met. ‘I reckon if you put a foot wrong with him, he’ll probably verbally tear you limb from limb,’ I said. ‘I reckon if you go wrong with Horrocks, he’ll probably just ignore you’.

Soon afterwards I inadvertently put this to the test. I was running a dealer conference at the Metropole Hotel at the NEC. We were, as was so often the case, rehearsing on a Sunday afternoon. Ray Horrocks was the keynote speaker and, at one point in his speech he turned to the screen where an organisation chart was being shown. He stopped his speech and said ‘That’s wrong. You need to get it changed for the show.’ It was Sunday afternoon. This was in the days of slides. Even if I could get hold of the company, I often used to produce slides, there was no chance of getting the artwork changed and a new slide produced in time for the show on the Monday. I discussed what could be done with the production company and realised that I had to go and deliver the bad news.

Ray Horrocks

Developing a great working relationship with Ray Horrocks

I went up to Ray Horrocks’ suite and told him, ‘I’m sorry. It’s my mistake. I must have taken the wrong name off the wrong piece of paper. I can’t get a new slide made in time for the show.’ I then gave him a choice of two alternatives. He thought for a moment and told me which option he wanted and then he said, ‘Want a drink?’. I’m sure if I’d tried to blag my way out of it, that would have been the end of my relationship with him. As it was, I developed a really good working relationship with him to the extent that, when I came to write my book on the history of Jaguar, he was enormously helpful.

However, it wasn’t all plain sailing. The dealer and fleet launches for the Austin Metro were staged on board a cruise ship sailing from Liverpool to the Isle of Man. One day when we were at the dockside in Liverpool the port agent warned me that there was a forecast for gales the following day. That was bad enough, but Ray Horrocks was due to be transferred by ship’s tender to Douglas first thing in the morning to fly to London for a shareholders’ meeting. It was clear that it wouldn’t be possible.

I went looking for him and found Tony Ball, who was Chairman of BL Europe and Overseas. I asked him where Mr Horrocks was and explained the problem. Tony said that Ray had to stay on the ship and talk to the dealers. I argued against the decision, but Tony was adamant. There was nothing more that I could do.

Presentation cars onstage with (l to r) Norman Rossington, Peter Bowles and Tony Ball (Chairman BL Europe and Overseas).
At the Rover SD1 Series 2 dealer launch, Tony Ball (Chairman BL Europe and Overseas), is on the right next to Peter Bowles

Scuppered by weather

At 6am the following morning I was woken by a call from the Captain to confirm that it was too rough to put a tender in the water. A few of us gathered in the conference office and, after a certain amount of discussion, somebody suggested to me that a lifeboat would come out, but it would cost us. I asked how much and was told (I think) £7 per crewman so I said, ‘Get them out’.

Ray did his presentation as planned and then he went down to the boat deck where he was dressed head to toe in oilskins. As the lifeboat approached it was heaving up and down in the swell with spray drifting over the deck. It came alongside in the lee of the ship and Ray, with great aplomb, stepped on board at just the right moment and was taken off to the island. The film I have of the event shows the lifeboat with spray sweeping over it. (Yes, I know Graham Robson had Ray being transferred to the lifeboat by breeches buoy in his book about the Metro but he was given inaccurate information.)

I talked to Ray a couple of days later when he returned to the ship. He told me that it was a horrendous journey but, as he was being taken to land, he was making conversation with one of the crewmen.

‘How many engines do you have?’ he asked.

‘Two sir.’ replied the crewman.

‘And what make are?’ asked Ray.

‘Ford sir.’ said the crewman.

Ray’s response wasn’t entirely unexpected under the circumstances.

The state of the nation

One of the challenges involved in major dealer conferences was that Ray was always expected to make a speech – we called it the state of the nation piece. The problem was that I wasn’t allowed to communicate directly with his office to request his presence. I was supposed to get my boss to ask his boss to ask his boss who was supposed to… I don’t know how many layers it had to go through until it reached somebody who was senior enough to send a memo to Ray’s office asking him to be at the conference.

This was daft in my view because, in the time it took for the request to make its way through the various levels, his diary could be filling up with appointments. I finally came up with a solution. I got on well with Ray’s PA so I used to call her as soon as the dates for a show had been confirmed and tell her that a request would be coming through. She would pencil the event in his diary, so she knew she had to keep those dates free. I suppose that figuring out how to get around restrictions is a normal part of the corporate environment.

Some of these senior figures were a regular part of my working life while I was at BL but there was little or no contact after I left. Tony Ball was different because the working relationship with him went on way beyond my BL days: he was the man who led me into a career as a freelance writer, so I suppose it was not entirely surprising that my first encounter with him was through writing.

And to the wonderful Tony Ball

I was based at the office in Redditch and a dealer conference was coming up. Tony was due to speak at it. One Friday evening a couple of weeks before the show, people were leaving the office for the weekend and I was lingering, chatting with colleagues. The phone on my desk rang and it was somebody telling me that Tony had seen a speech that had been written for him and he didn’t like it. Three of us were to get together on Saturday morning and write a new speech. Great – just what I needed – another Saturday ruined.

Later I realised that if three of us sat down to write a script from scratch it would probably take all weekend. It’s always easier to have something to work with rather than starting from a blank page so I decided to write a first draft that night. I hadn’t met Tony at that stage but, somehow, I’d got an impression of his speaking style so I wrote a speech that used all the rhetorical flourishes I could think of because I thought they would suit him. Those tricks (and they are tricks) were necessary because there was absolutely nothing of substance to tell the dealers. The product range was old, quality was poor and business as a BL dealer was tough. The best were being wooed by importers but there were no sunlit uplands that Tony could promise were just over the horizon.

The following morning three of us got together at the office and re-wrote the first draft that I’d produced and faxed it over to Tony. He wanted a few changes but overall, he liked what we had done.

Delivering the goods…

He delivered the speech at Wembley with all the panache and drama that I expected, and he pulled it off. As the dealers left, they seemed to have been lifted by what they’d heard. Later one of them told me ‘I left Wembley feeling really confident. Then, later, I realised that Tony hadn’t really said anything. But he’d done what needed to be done.’ Sadly, I didn’t keep a copy of the script, but I remember one line that I wrote: ‘There’s plenty of pontificating pundits just waiting for the day when they can sit around at the wake and say, ‘I told you so’. Well, I’ll tell you this. There isn’t going to be a wake because you can’t have a wake without a corpse and there isn’t going to be a corpse.’ Imagine it being delivered by a Welsh Baptist blood and thunder preacher and you’ll have some idea of what he did that day.

But there were other occasions when Tony’s contribution seemed a bit off track at first. Throughout the build-up to the Metro launch the instruction from on high (and I suspect that it started with Tony) was that everything about the launch had to emphasise its Britishness, hence the advertising strap line ‘A British car to beat the World’. It was also the reason that we couldn’t do the dealer launch abroad which was the normal thing to do in 1980.

We had the run-through of the various non-speaker elements of the Metro launch in a warehouse in the east end of London. It finished with the reveal which was always the climactic moment of any dealer launch – it was the first time they’d seen the car in the metal. It had to look as good as possible, and the reveal had to be as dramatic as possible. It always used what the production companies referred to as ‘a searching, driving theme’. That usually meant a rock track played loud.

Setting the right scene

That was what we heard when the Metro reveal moment was played through. After the noise had died down, Tony said ‘What that needs is Land of Hope and Glory’. What? That’s a piece of classical music written by Edward Elgar in 1902. How can that be the right soundtrack for the launch of the first all-new car from BL in however many years? The trouble was that the rest of the Directors who were present agreed with him. At that stage I decided there was no point in arguing. The best tactic seemed to be to just try the new track but keep the proper one available to drop in when Tony’s suggestion didn’t work.

One of the snags was that many of the senior people at the production company were Americans. They hadn’t got a clue what Land of Hope and Glory was, nor its position in British culture. After the Directors had gone, I had to explain what Tony wanted. They couldn’t believe it, but I told them there was no choice. We had to do what we’d been told but be ready to revert to plan A when Tony’s plan didn’t work in rehearsal.

Annoyingly, Tony was right. At the dealer shows, the Metro appeared to the orchestral version of Land of Hope and Glory, and it worked beautifully.

Doing things differently

There were occasions when he didn’t get his own way. At the dealer launch of the Triumph Acclaim, we used the full width of Hall 5 at the NEC. There was a seating block for about 350 people mounted on rails. It started at one side of the Hall and progressed through several stages of the launch until it reached the reveal area. It was the usual combination of a rock and roll lighting rig, gallons of dry ice vapour and the obligatory music soundtrack.

As the dry ice evaporated Tony strode out and began his wrap-up speech. After the dealer shows finished, we rehearsed the fleet show. Tony must have done something to annoy the crew because the rehearsal had started when the sound engineer came on the communications ring that the crew used and said, ‘Tony hasn’t come to get miked up’. He was supposed to go and be fitted with his radio mike before the show started so that his final speech could be heard throughout the auditorium.

Perhaps more important, the Autocue operator would be able to hear him. She was on the opposite side of Hall 5 to the reveal. An amazingly capable woman called Mollie was calling the show and over the communications ring she replied to the sound engineer by saying ‘Oh dear. What a shame. Never mind. We’ll manage somehow.’

Just winging it…

We got through the whole show and reached the reveal. Tony bounded on and began to read his Autocue. The operator couldn’t hear him, so she didn’t roll it on. Tony looked up at where Mollie was sitting and said, ‘The Autocue isn’t working’. Mollie used the VOG (Voice of God) microphone that plugged into the whole sound system and explained that it was because he hadn’t been miked up. ‘Never mind,’ she said, ‘we’ll roll the Autocue, you just follow it’.

It started at normal speaking speed but gradually got faster until there was no way for him to keep up. He never missed getting his radio mike after that.

Tony was a great help to me in various ways. On one occasion I was told that he had lobbied on my behalf and, as a result, I was given a higher job grade than Personnel (as it was in those days) thought was appropriate. He also got me out of a difficult situation: we were both in a meeting about a new model launch with Harold Musgrove. We discussed the cars to be used in the ride and drive (dealers were usually given the opportunity to drive a new model on public roads).

Musgrove leaned over the table, pointed a finger at me and told me to pass a message to the Quality Control Director (I can’t remember who it was at the time). The gist of the message was that, if the cars weren’t up to scratch in Musgrove’s opinion, then the Quality Director’s reproductive abilities would be significantly reduced. Tony weighed in immediately saying ‘I don’t think Mr Clayton is the appropriate person to deliver that message. I’ll make sure it gets passed on.’

A larger-than-life character

And then there was Tony Jennings. I never really had that much to do with him but got to know him a little before I left, and I liked him. He was what is often described as ‘a larger-than-life character’. There were certainly many stories circulating about him. But my first encounter with him was not encouraging. I was responsible for our involvement with the Piccadilly World Match Play Championship at Wentworth Golf Club.

We provided courtesy cars for VIPs and players and, in return, we had a hospitality marquee. I would have to be onsite for six days, staying at a hotel near Heathrow and hosting the marquee. At the time I was broke and couldn’t pay the costs involved in living away from home for 6 days so needed an expenses advance. Tony Jennings was the person that I was told would have authorise it.

He had an eye injury inflicted, I believe, by a cricket ball. As a result, he wore a black eye patch some of the time. He was a very forbidding figure as I walked across his office – solidly-built, unsmiling and with that black eye patch. I explained why I was there, and he took the form that needed signing, told me that I’d got the spelling of Piccadilly wrong and signed the form.

Watch those expenses

As he pushed it back across the desk, he looked at me with his one good eye and said, ‘I want to see that expense claim form myself when you get back’. It seems innocuous when written down but delivered by him there was no doubt that there would be trouble if I got any part of the claim wrong. It was enough to make me check it over several times to make sure that all the receipts were there, and I could justify every penny I was claiming.

After Michael Edwardes arrived everybody above a certain management grade had to complete an industrial psychology test. It was claimed that Tony was told that he had ‘lower than executive level vocabulary’. Apparently, when he was told this, he said ‘Listen, if you had to deal with the f****** idiots I have to deal with you’d have lower than executive f****** level vocabulary’.

I was never able to substantiate that story, but it was different with the best story I heard about Tony. It occurred as a result of a problem at the factory in Speke on Merseyside. Unfinished cars were ending up in the finished car compound which was causing problems. Tony was going on a shooting holiday in Scotland, so he said he’d stop off and sort the problem out.

How to sort out the workers

He discovered that the men in the factory liked to play football in their break. The difficulty for the men on night shift was that the only place that was floodlit was the unfinished car compound, so they needed to clear space to have their game. The only way to do it was to move enough cars into the finished car compound make a decent-sized pitch.

When Tony had discovered this, he said, ‘I’ll sort the buggers out’. He went to his car, fetched his shotgun, loaded it and shot out the floodlights in the unfinished car compound. Problem sorted, he went on his way to Scotland. I’d always had my doubts about that story. It fitted with Tony’s reputation but… A couple of years ago I met his widow. I told her the story and asked if she knew whether it was true. She said it was and she was very definite about it.

Obviously, there were many other people I worked with and, in the earlier days, they were mostly people I liked and respected. Sadly, the number of such people was reduced in later years. By the time I left in 1984 there were very few at the top levels of the organisation that I either liked or respected.

© 2022 Ken Clayton


  1. Thanks Ken for your latest candid insight into life within the company. I’m enjoying all of these ‘I was there’ articles, it’s great to hear about what really happened on the inside.

  2. Ken- I really enjoy these insider insights – please keep them coming .
    I”m still laughing at the shotgun and floodlights story .

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