Opinion : How British Leyland shaped modern Britain

Morris Marina at launch in 1971

Mention British Leyland to anybody today and you will probably be told that it was a badly managed company that made terrible cars and its workforce were always on strike. Today, BL might seem like an embarrassing footnote in British history, best consigned to the past where it belongs, but I would argue that the whole drawn-out saga had a profound effect on Britain, its politics and its people and it still resonated as recently as 2019.

When the company was formed in 1968, Sir Donald Stokes and his new Finance Director, John Barber, began recruiting many cost control experts from Ford and General Motors with the specific intention of reducing the manufacturing costs of all the company’s vehicles. This was at a time when Britain’s attempt to join the Common Market had been blocked twice by France, and any dreams of selling substantial amounts of vehicles to mainland Europe had been dashed.

The problem with all this was that, while some cost-cutting was desirable, it went too far. From the Morris Marina of 1971, all British Leyland cars with the exception of Jaguar, were subject to brutal cost control in design and manufacture. That these cars should prove to be less than robust was no surprise, just as the Japanese were beginning to attack the British market. British Leyland took the patronage of their existing customers for granted, and cheapened the engineering integrity of its resulting products, making no real attempt to take on the threat from the East. Because many of the Cost Controllers were recruited from Ford of Britain, which was seen as a success story, no one questioned this strategy, and Lord Stokes in interviews repeatedly deflected criticism onto the now defunct British Motor Corporation.

A battle of ideologies

Whereas BMC had boosted sales through the adoption of front-wheel drive, British Leyland made no attempt to make genuine improvements on what had come before. This was embodied by the Austin Allegro, which was compromised by the need to cut costs and share components. The notion that it would meet serious competition from the continent was obviously not considered by the Product Planners, who probably looked on the Halewood-built Ford Escort as its main opposition.

The principal cause of British Leyland’s recourse to the Government in December 1974 was the ruinous Three-Day Week of earlier in the year, which had drained the company of its financial reserves. But the company had been on the slide before the events of early 1974. The failure of the Allegro had cost it around 5.5% of the UK market, as well as the development costs, the Mini was on the slide because British Leyland deemed it a loss maker and not worth replacing, and Rover-Triumph were losing sales to the Ford Granada.

To make matters worse, Britain had joined the Common Market in January 1973 and the UK car market was up for grabs. No longer would it be neatly divided between BLMC, Ford, Vauxhall and Rootes-Chrysler. Moreover, in truth, apart from the more specialist brands, Britain had nothing the Europeans wanted. In short, British Leyland was already heading for the rocks, alienating its customers with its new generation of cost-designed-out cars, something that would achieve its nadir with the Rover SD1 of 1976, and we haven’t even touched the issue of industrial relations.

Going cap in hand to the Government

When British Leyland went to the Government, Lord Stokes and John Barber successfully continued to propagate the view that the crash was down to the ineptitude of BMC, the Energy Crisis of October 1973 and the Three-Day Week, that was their undoing. They maintained that the company’s problems were merely financial – but it was, of course, much more complex than that.

It was in December 1974 that the Trade and Industry Minister Tony Benn entered the picture and to him British Leyland was more than just an ailing company in need of a cash injection. In his previous incarnation as Anthony Wedgewood-Benn, the moderate Minister of Technology in Harold Wilson’s previous Labour Government, he had been one of British Leyland’s godfathers. By 1974, the man many believe was the greatest Prime Minister Britain never had, had moved to the left and rebranded himself as Tony Benn.

Benn played a part in drafting Labour’s February 1974 election manifesto which stated: ‘The British people, both as workers and consumers, must have more control over the powerful private forces that at present dominate our economic life. Wherever we give direct aid to a company out of public funds we shall in return reserve the right to take a share of the ownership of the company… We shall also take shipbuilding, ship repairing and marine engineering, ports, the manufacture of airframes and aero-engines into public ownership and control. But we shall not confine the extension of the public sector to the loss-making and subsidised industries.’

Sorting the profitable from the lame ducks

Benn added: ‘We shall also take over profitable sections or individual firms in those industries where a public holding is essential to enable the Government to control prices, stimulate investment, encourage exports, create employment, protect workers and consumers from the activities of irresponsible multi-national companies, and to plan the national economy in the national interest.

‘We shall therefore include in this operation, sections of pharmaceuticals, road haulage, construction, machine tools, in addition to our proposals for North Sea and Celtic Sea oil and gas. Our decision in the field of banking, insurance and building societies is still under consideration….We intend to socialise existing nationalised industries. In consultation with the unions, we shall take steps to make the management of existing nationalised industries more responsible to the workers in the industry and more responsive to their consumers’ needs.’

In the case of British Leyland, the key phrase was, ‘Wherever we give direct aid to a company out of public funds we shall in return reserve the right to take a share of the ownership of the company.’

Moving to the left rapidly

All this was at a time when many observers thought that Britain was heading in a socialist direction. The Heath Government had tried to bring in legislation to control the power of the trades unions and had been brought to book by the labour movement in the February 1974 General Election. People power seemed to have triumphed over the forces of capitalism, and Tony Benn was seen by many in the labour movement as the new messiah.

Tony Benn was a man obsessed by the Labour landslide victory of 1945 to the end of his days. He would tell anyone who cared to hear it that Clement Atlee was Britain’s greatest ever Prime Minister, and that what Britain really needed was radical socialist policies again. He was oblivious to the fact that the world had moved on since 1945 and that many of his views now alienated voters, particularly the middle classes.

It appears that in the ensuing six months after British Leyland went to the government for money, Tony Benn took it upon himself to act unilaterally, believing he had the mandate of the British people who had voted for a radical socialist manifesto. While Sir Don Ryder compiled his report into British Leyland, Tony Benn was in regular contact with the Combined British Leyland Shops Stewards’ Committee. This body, formed in 1968, was originally led by Longbridge Convenor Dick Etheridge, who was succeeded in 1975 by Derek Robinson.

This committee had, since its formation, obstructed all attempts to rationalise British Leyland’s sprawling network of plants, saddling the company with the excess cost of perhaps 30,000 too many workers on its payroll. Any notion of British Leyland operating one model plants as many rival firms did, went out of the window thanks to the need to pacify the Shop Stewards’ Committee. While the lack of rationalisation may have concerned the Ministry of Technology in 1969 under Anthony Wedgewood Benn, by 1975, all talk of redundancies at British Leyland were off the agenda at the Department of Industry under Tony Benn.

Jeremy Corbyn: influenced by Tony Benn

Far from being neutral, Tony Benn was actively engaged in plans to enable some sort of workers control of British Leyland with various union officials, one of whom was a certain Jeremy Corbyn. He wrote in 2014: ‘I worked at the Engineering Union in the early 1970s and Tony came to our offices to seek support for his industrial strategy because he felt he was being obstructed by the dead hand of officialdom in Whitehall. He encouraged us to produce a blueprint for workers’ control of British Leyland.’

Jeremy Corbyn was one of many who came under the spell of Tony Benn and his enticing world view. Others on the left claimed at the time that with British Leyland now owned by the state, the strikes restricting production would peter out, that the workforce would knuckle down now that they were no longer working for the forces of private capital. In April 1975, Tony Benn personally addressed a meeting of the Combined British Leyland Shops Stewards Committee. It is quite clear from hindsight that Benn was telling the Shop Stewards that the Government was on their side, and the Ryder Report duly delivered an over optimistic assessment of British Leyland’s prospects.

The Shop Stewards wanted Lord Stokes and John Barber removed and the Government duly obliged, to be replaced by second string executives. When the Ryder Report was discussed at Cabinet level, Tony Benn claimed that British Leyland would act as an import stopper, which was way off the mark. It is indeed possible that Prime Minister Harold Wilson got wind of what Tony Benn had been up to and felt he had exceeded his remit. The premier counted Lord Stokes as a personal friend. Whatever, in a June 1975 Cabinet reshuffle, Tony Benn swapped places with Energy Minister Eric Varley, who was a genuine trade unionist from a mining background. Harold Wilson was in the process of watering down his party’s radical socialist manifesto, something that would rebound on his successor in 1979.

British Leyland: plans were in motion

British Leyland's 18-22 Series

Eric Varley found that, thanks to his predecessor, in the case of British Leyland, the die was cast. In the next two and a half years the workforce behaved like it was a part of the public sector and not competitors in a fiercely fought international market. The belief among the Shop Stewards that the money would always be forthcoming to meet their wage demands was widespread, that there was a bottomless pit of cash, that the British Government could not afford British Leyland to go under. The belief that the workforce would not strike now that the company was owned by the state was woefully misplaced.

When Trades Union officials met with Eric Varley to discuss greater employee involvement, they were politely rebuffed. They were gradually finding out that, while Tony Benn might have been their friend, his replacement was decidedly more neutral. To make matters worse, the models sanctioned in the Stokes/Barber era continued to come on stream, with degraded engineering and quality taken out on cost grounds. The 18-22 Series/Princess (ADO71) bombed while the Rover SD1 was launched with much fanfare and little quality.

By the end of 1977, when Michael Edwardes took over the helm, the damage had been done. In the space of a decade Britain’s reputation as a leader in automotive technology had been destroyed, while imported cars flooded into Britain and exports dried up. A decade earlier Ford of Britain had been hailed as an industrial success story, but by the end of the decade it was importing cars from other European plants to feed UK demand, and the same applied to General Motors. By 1979 British Leyland’s market share had dipped below 20% as recession hit.

Such was the accelerated pace of foreign car imports since Britain had joined the Common Market that in 1979 it was calculated that imported cars would have the entire UK market by 1987.

The imports are coming

1975 Volkswagen Passat
Why wait for an Austin Maxi, when you could buy a super-desirable Volkswagen Passat off the shelf?

It was also in 1979 that the Labour Government, now led by James Callaghan, fell after the ‘Winter of Discontent’, to be replaced by that of Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher, who was no fan of British Leyland. At that autumn’s conference the Labour Party descended into open civil war, with Tony Benn and his supporters claiming that the leadership had reneged on its radical 1974 election manifesto promises. The widespread nationalisations had not occurred, nor had ‘socialisation’ of existing state-owned operations, a euphemism for trade union representation in management.

To many, Tony Benn’s removal from the Department of Industry in June 1975 had resulted in unfinished business, and British Leyland was to have been the model for a socialist industrial strategy. Instead, the bold socialist experiment had been abruptly terminated with the arrival of Eric Varley, who had no interest in micro-managing British Leyland, and eventually oversaw the replacement of its part-time and second division management with the more capable Michael Edwardes.

By the time Tony Benn and his supporters were at loggerheads with his party’s leadership, the gloves were off at British Leyland as Sir Michael Edwardes and his hardline management began to tackle the Combined British Leyland Shop Stewards’ Committee and its decade long intransigence over rationalisation and working practices. Over the next two years Sir Michael Edwardes dismantled any notion that British Leyland was a partnership between management and workers, much to the alarm of left wingers, who were screaming for his resignation by 1981, one of them being Tony Benn, who had authorised the appointment of Edwardes to the National Enterprise Board back in 1975.

Such was the dire state of BL in early in 1980 that its UK market share was at one stage as low as 13%.

The all-too-brief recovery

Austin Metro 1980

The Austin Metro offered a brief glimmer of hope, but the bruising 1980 and 1981 pay disputes demonstrated that the British Leyland Shop Stewards had plenty of fight still left in them.

As a new car, after a house, is the most expensive item one is likely to buy, the quality and reliability of said item matters, and the events at British Leyland destroyed worldwide confidence in British manufactured goods and this was exposed in the recession of the early 1980s. How culpable one thinks the Thatcher Government of the time was, is a matter of partisan opinion, but one major factor was the sheer lack of consumer confidence in British manufactured goods, and that can be laid at the door of British Leyland. The Thatcher Government could in theory have saved a lot of Britain’s industrial base by propping it up with taxpayers’ money. But the British Leyland debacle was a stark warning to those who toyed with such ideas.

The Maestro and Montego further reinforced the belief that British Leyland was a dead duck, propagating the policy of designing cars to cost to take on Ford, instead of designing a quality product to take on the likes of Volkswagen and Peugeot. Back in 1945, the Labour Party manifesto had stated that unemployment was caused by under consumption. The situation in Britain in the mid-1980s made a mockery of this statement. Britain was enjoying record car sales, but had a shocking unemployment total of over three million.

The 1980s: a decade of aspiration

In other words, there was plenty of money floating around, but too few people wanted to spend it on UK manufactured goods. This I believe was the result of the failed attempt to revive British Leyland. The Maestro and Montego were more than just two botched cars that failed to take off commercially. They represented state investment in industry, a national project in industrial renewal, that Britain could compete on a world stage. Their failure therefore represented national industrial defeat and seemed to confirm that Britain was no good at manufacturing, even when a lack of finance was not an issue. If the Maestro and Montego was the best the one time workshop of the world could do, then the future was bleak, very bleak.

In Thatcher’s Britain this was ammunition for those who believed that the service industry was the way forward, that investing in manufacturing was akin to flushing money down a toilet. And, while it was fashionable to berate the Government for Britain’s shrinking industrial base, the factories continued to close and the imports flooded in, as the consumers spoke with their wallets.

Whole areas of Britain became an industrial waste land as long established industries shut down, their former employees and families entering an environment of benefit dependency for decades. This caused stark social divisions that perhaps will never be healed. Politicians as always exploited this division for their own ends, ignoring the fact that the populace they appealed to were part of the problem for not buying British manufactured goods in the first place.

The Japanese take the strain

As industrial exports dwindled and imports thrived, Britain could not earn the money to pay for its way in the world, becoming dependent on foreign investors setting up satellite operations in Britain, which were vulnerable to future economic troughs.

The 1983 General Election was a landslide victory for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party. Although much derided, the Labour Party’s manifesto was a rehash of the successful 1974 offering. The difference was that the party’s leadership now had the will to carry it through. However, the intervening nine years had seen the British Leyland debacle occur and the public appetite for massive public intervention had waned considerably. It was also a year of record car sales in Britain, but only 1,044,597 were manufactured in the UK, an indication of both the affluence of society and its willingness to tolerate mass unemployment within its midst.

The Tory landslide enabled to the Government to tackle head on the powers of the Trades Unions. Whether it was a good or bad thing to do is open to debate, but this was another consequence of the Labour movement’s failure to provide a convincing and electable alternative to that of Margaret Thatcher. Again I attribute this to the British Leyland morass.

Trying to revitalise BL

1989 Rover 200

1986 saw the arrival of Graham Day at British Leyland, which he soon re-branded as Rover, but even he must have known that the glory days of the BMC Mini and ADO16 series would never come back. The collaboration with Honda was a way of keeping the re-branded Rover Group on life support, with the 1989 second generation Rover 200 becoming a best seller. The vital difference was that the R8 was a much better car than its predecessors, but its improved quality may have been down to the fact that it retailed at a higher price and had more room to use higher quality components. For a brief period the BL/Rover sales decline was arrested. But how much of this all to brief resurgence was down to the Honda connection?

Jaguar Cars, hailed as an industrial success story in early 1980s Britain, had been privatised in 1984. In the autumn of 1986 it announced its new XJ40 saloon to much publicity. However, the new XJ40 was woefully underdeveloped by a small Design Team, despite its extensive testing, with new owners finding its complex electrical systems in conflict with each other, leading to dashboard warning lights flickering into life as soon as they drove off the dealers forecourt. Sadly, the original XJ40 has become another symbol of British industrial ineptitude, with many owners beginning to embrace the possibility of buying something made in Germany instead. In 1989, Ford took over Jaguar and began to rectify many of the problems, but the damage to the Jaguar brand was enormous.

Meanwhile, the Thatcher Government had given up on trying to persuade Ford and General Motors to return production that had shifted elsewhere in Europe after 1973, and focussed on persuading Japanese manufacturers to manufacture in Britain as a gateway to European markets. Honda, Nissan and Toyota all set up manufacturing plants in Britain and, by 1994, UK car production had improved to 1,466,823, the best year since 1974. That same year BMW took over the Rover Group.

And along came BMW

BMW had gambled their future on selling quality cars at a price that reflected their true cost of manufacture. This compared with British Leyland, which had joined Ford in the race to the bottom of the price listings. The Rover SD1 should have conquered Europe. But because it was badly built to a price, it tarnished forever the Rover brand in export markets. By 1994, the UK market was sucking in large numbers of BMW saloons, and those of the other prestige German manufacturers, reflecting how even the reputation of the premium UK car brands was on the wane.

BMW’s acquisition of Rover drove Honda to the exit door, resulting in Rover having to enlarge its K-Series engine range to replace Honda units. But the enlarged K-Series engine and its resulting head gasket failure (HGF) issues simply brought back bad memories of terrible BL quality. Talk of K-Series head gasket failure became common in the motor trade and gradually reached the mainstream media. The whole HGF saga was again to the benefit of Rover’s rivals, and again demonstrated that buying British was a risky business.

For Rover Cars, BMW’s investment resulted in the new MINI and the Rover 75. We now know the new MINI was a success, but how much of this was down to the decision not to use the problematic K-Series engine? The saga of the Rover 75 demonstrated what happens when a company launches a product, no matter how good, onto a market that has no real interest in it and no need for it. BMW’s capital investment required annual sales beyond that ever attained by a Rover-badged executive car before. The problem with the 75 was that it had the K-Series engine, which everybody knew was prone to HGF, it was not built in Germany and the Rover marque had a poor reputation in export markets thanks to the SD1 debacle.

Its failure was not something anyone wanted to contemplate, yet in hindsight, although it was the time of Tony Blair’s ‘Cool Britannia’, patriotism did not extend to purchasing something made in deepest Oxfordshire. The climate that German made was best meant that the 75 was doomed to fail, tragic though that was. As we all know, BMW offloaded Rover to the Phoenix Four and Land Rover to Ford. MG Rover finally ceased trading in 2005. That summer I visited the Birmingham Mini show and stopped off at Q Gate at the now silent Longbridge plant. I was disgusted by the number of German cars I saw in Birmingham, indicating how little support the British motor industry was receiving from its local community.

The Noughties also saw the end of car making at Vauxhall, Luton, Ford at Dagenham and Peugeot at Ryton. All these closures had been on the cards since Britain had joined the Common Market in 1973. The smaller British operations had become mere satellites of the larger pan-European multi-nationals, and it was already evident that, while the British public wanted the employment these factories brought, they were not particularly bothered about where their shiny new car was made.

Paradoxically, the end of volume car production at Longbridge may have been the shot in the arm that British industry needed. With Longbridge gone there was no longer a symbol of poor British quality out there on life support to moan about. The emerging economies of China and India resulted in a demand for premium products from western manufacturers and one of those to benefit was Jaguar Land Rover now owned by Tata Motors of India. JLR along with many other UK manufacturers of premium goods that had survived the industrial armageddon that had engulfed Britain from the 1970s, now found their public image transformed. No longer were they manufacturers of badly designed, badly built tat that disintegrated upon purchase, but purveyors of quality goods. Even Britons, so addicted to imported goods, bought JLR products in large numbers. As a result business boomed, enabling the notion that Britain could survive outside of the confines of the European Union to gain traction. Britain is a great trading nation is the cry. That may well be the case now, but only a few short years ago Britain was an importers paradise.

And on to Brexit

Britain had joined the Common Market because its former empire markets were under assault by Japan and the USA and because it thought there were substitute markets to be gained in booming Europe. Instead, it endured de-industrialisation and mass unemployment as European imports flooded in. But by the second decade of the 21st century, the demand from China and India had convinced many that Britain could re-conquer markets lost four decades before and that Brexit was commercially viable. The success of JLR, a surviving part of British Leyland, is part of the Brexit equation. Unlike BMW and Rover, Tata’s investment has produced a dividend. But is this all down to timing? The fortunes of JLR do seem to be tied in to the respective strength of the Indian and Chinese economies and its finances are affected by any economic blips. And China and India are not the only markets outside the EU.

After the 2015 General Election, the opposition Labour Party surprised many by electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader. A disciple of the late Tony Benn, as related earlier, he had been involved in drafting a blueprint for workers control of British Leyland in 1975. In the 2017 General Election he surprised many by boosting his party’s support, gaining 30 seats and eliminating the Commons majority of Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May. Real power seemed only an election away. Like his hero Tony Benn, Jeremy Corbyn believed that what Britain wanted was nationalisation and massive state intervention, that because the public had voted for it in 1945, they would do so again.

History (doesn’t) repeat itself

By the time of the 2018 Labour Party conference, some of the details had been fleshed out. The railways and energy utilities would be nationalised with worker and local government representation on the Boards to make them democratically accountable. The existing management would be fired and their positions replaced by lower paid executives. To this writer, this all seemed eerily familiar. Was this not a rehash of those 1975 blueprints for British Leyland? So on to 2019.

On 15 September Sir Michael Edwardes died, four decades after he had begun the process of rationalising British Leyland. Six weeks later new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called a General Election for 12 December 2019. The Labour Party manifesto contained this: ‘We will put people and planet before profit by bringing our energy and water systems into democratic public ownership. In public hands, energy and water will be treated as rights rather than commodities, with any surplus reinvested or used to reduce bills. Communities themselves will decide, because utilities won’t be run from Whitehall but by service-users and workers.’

Again, is this the offspring of those discussions held back in 1975 for workers control of British Leyland? History records that the Labour Party’s left-wing agenda went down to a crushing defeat as another attempt to recreate the spirit of 1945 crashed and burned. Only time will tell whether a future electorate is again offered the same choice.

How BL changed Britain

The whole point of this long, rambling article is to demonstrate how the whole British Leyland saga changed Britain. Had the company succeeded, we might be living in a wealthier, more confident and less divided nation.

In a nutshell, the whole long-winded epic that was British Leyland demonstrated to many, not least at home, that Britain was no good at manufacturing, that quality was to be found in imported goods. To invest in British manufacturing was like stuffing good money down a lavatory u-bend. This mindset cost Britain great chunks of its industrial base along with thousands of well paid jobs, to be replaced by service industries offering lower paid employment. And this is epitomised by the Brexit debate. It is one thing to want your country back, but our roads are full of German cars. What part of being in the EU didn’t we like?

British Leyland was a failed industrial experiment that has scarred industrial policy in Britain ever since. It was a company owned by the people on behalf of the people, except the people didn’t want to buy its products. As a symbol of what Britain could do with the right investment, it was an industrial catastrophe resulting in economic collateral damage that affected millions of people.

Ian Nicholls
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  1. Congratulations Ian on an excellent and very interesting article. In the late ’70s and ’80s I was already living in Canada as a twenty year-old, and can well remember being embarrassed by BL offerings. Within a year Austin Marinas–advertised over here as having “a peppy MGB engine”–would disintegrate. I can also remember a fellow at a big BL dealership in Vancouver called Fred Deeley’s, complaining that his Triumph Spitfire, which was only a few months old, was the most unreliable car he had ever owned… When it was announced that the ugly TR-7, plagued with head gasket blow-ups, was going to get the Rover V-8 and be reincarnated as the TR-8, everyone in the sports car world over here was thrilled that the extra power would also be reliable…but the car’s build quality was deplorable…things such as switches would come off in your hands…reflecting endless strikes, tea brakes, and working to rule…

    I always would do my best to stand up for the British cars, usually by pointing out that the English cars I was in the habit of buying, Austin-Healey 3000s, a Jaguar XK-150 and an E Type, were a pleasure to drive and own… However, deep inside I knew that these sports cars I loved, and still love, were really part of the past. British Leyland and its Lucas electricals were always being denigrated whenever I would talk cars with Canadians, making me feel embarrassed for poor old England.

    • Great article and so correct, I worked at Cowley 1964-66 and was made redundant with 1500 of the 10,000 workforce, going, there were 16,000 waxed unsold cars stored in the open at Oakley airfield, the unions were the problem, unwritten rule 100 percent closed shop, I worked in the tuning dept and the cars coming in with the quality control card were littered with faults a lot of which were poor assembly, wildcat strikes to be able to go home off night shift and watch Cassius Clay fights and any other reason to down tools were common practice. This article is a real dejavu of what has just happened, based on head in sand attitudes. Tony Benn may have been hailed as the messiah but it was taken to completely the wrong levels and Corbyn has at last been found out, this country is great and it will adapt and prosper and the EU has been exposed as a a failed business model, just watch now regarding the PIIGS countries, nationalism in France Italy Spain Portugal unrest etc the British people are not fools they know what is required to get us back where we should be. We have been a dumping ground for Europe for far too long.

  2. I’m having trouble following the logic that brings Brexit into the picture as a positive force. When we joined the Common Market the UK industry was no longer artificially protected from continental competition. The crappiness of much UK output was exposed to scrutiny. That is true. But as you say, British manufacturers were already losing the Commonwealth market, largely to Japanese competitors. The key point is that Brexit is not now going to make non-EU markets any more accessible to UK manufacturers; and it will make EU markets, potentially, less accessible. The Brexiteers argue that Britain, post-exit, will be ‘free to trade with the world’. Er … it is already. The Germans do it pretty well. The French do it pretty well. All that Brexit does is to make Britain less attractive as a target for inward investment – as the voters of Sunderland and Swindon will find out. And we will cease to enjoy the benefit of trade agreements negotiated by the EU. All very sad.

    Anyway, the motor manufacturers of the world are soon to discover that the Chinese and the Indians have been carrying out technology and IP transfer on a massive scale, and will soon have developed their own indigenous brands technically the equal of anything made anywhere. Jaguar, Mercedes, Buick – marginal fashion brands with a very dicey future. The diminution of our own ‘home market’ through the loss of Continental Europe is not going to help us, that’s for sure.

    Whether British Leyland was killed by the trade unions or by blinkered management is an argument that will never be resolved. I would say 60:40. I remember all those TV appearances by bleary, sleep-deprived Pat Lowry after failed union negotiations – poor guy had an impossible job.

    Anyway, thanks for a thought-provoking article.

  3. Mass federalisation of several car manufacturers with different design values and perspectives to become BL seems to have resulted in dragging the likes of Rover with the SD1 down to the mass market marques’ qualities in BL. With hindsight separate marques pursuing their different strategies would have been far more preferable to my way of thinking, albeit with those who did not respond to customer requirements falling by the wayside.

    • It was always hard to separate the different marques within BL, especially as Triumph had small saloons, which overlapped with Austin / Morris; large saloons which overlapped with Rover, & small sports cars that overlapped with MG.

      For the first few years of BL Triumph seemed to be the “blue eyed boy” of the company, with made it hard to trim out the overlap when it was against them.

      If BMC had merged with Rover, & Triumph with Jaguar things might not have sunk into a mass of squabbling factions.

      • It could’ve worked, though. Merge Austin and Morris into a single brand and by 2019, it could’ve ended up as something like a mix between Citroen or Fiat, Triumph could have been the equivalent of Peugeot or perhaps Volkswagen. Rover would have taken on Volvo and MG would be the equivalent of Seat or Mazda. And sitting pretty on top, you’d have Jaguar which would take on the upper echelon Mercs, Beemers and Porsches.

  4. Renault in the early 70s was about the same size at BL. Yet still exists and still with a large French government ownership. The big difference then was that the French government invested considerably more that the UK government.
    State ownership is not always a bad thing, it is how the company is run that is the key. Much of our railways are owned by state owned European railway companies.

    • The main difference was Renault had a fairly straightforward model range in the 1970s with a lot of shared components between cars.

      The 4, 5 & 16 alone were big enough sellers so they indulge with the 15/17 & not struggle too much when the 14 didn’t live up to being a “Golf beater”.

      Also they managed to set up a lot of manufacturing outside of France, which helped them become a global brand.

      Another string to their bow was their racing team, which won the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1978 & pioneered turbocharged engines in Formula 1.

      • I would say there was a more fundamental key difference.

        The French political objective with Renault was to build a global automotive business, the UK Governments objective was to keep voters onside in marginal constituencies.

        The result was that the French Government was willing to spend money buying market share, setting up manufacturing operations across the world, investment in new products, power units and an F1 team.

        At BL and also the rescue package for Chrysler, it was to do the minimum that was necessary to keep the jobs around for the next election.

        In truth the French were not actually that successful in their objective, but this long term commitment and high ambition is a principal reason why we have Renault with us today and we do not have BL.

        • You are probably right on all those points,

          Renault & Citroen also opened factories outside of the greater Paris area in the 1960s, so they were thinking nationally as well as internationally.

  5. British Leyland could produce good products, eg buses and commercial vehicles, but it drained its successful business sectors of resources to prop up its volume car business. IMO, if Longbridge had been closed in the 1970’s (although politically unacceptable) the story might have been different.

    SAIC (with Ricardo inout?) managed to fix the K series problems and, given its engineering expertise, I see no reason why BMW couldn’t have done it if they wanted to but suspect it fell foul of its “not invented here” prejudices. Incidentally, when Nanjing and SAIC were duplicating each other, eg Rover 75, were they using a common source for engines since photos taken at the time seemed very similar?

    I understand how British Leyland was cost constrained by accountants but suspect that the limitations could have been overcome by closer co-operation between development engineers and purchasing staff with a willingness to consider a wider supplier base.

    • The K-series was never fixed. Don’t get me wrong, in theory it is a brilliant design, in practice it is a nightmare to deal with. Cheap detailing, combined with poor tolerance control in the plant it was produced in, screws the end user.

      Liners that may or may not be the correct height above the deck of the block. Heads which can’t be skimmed because of the casting process used. Even if you modify the damn thing, there is no guarantee it won’t blow in the future.

      Put it this way, I know how to take a K-series apart, no idea how to do the same with engine in the Honda we own. Why? It is bullet proof, never gone wrong, never had to take it apart.

      The average person doesn’t give a s**t about clever engineering, they want bullet proof engineering and Rover couldn’t manage that.

      • My friend who has a small independent garage does a lot with Hondas and they are by no means as bullet proof as they are made out to be. He has repaired his fair share of blown engines.
        Still Top Gear always said they were very reliable so they must be.

    • BMW evaluated the K Series although they recognised the many virtues in its design, they also recognised that it had limited scope for future development to meet future emission controls and its was expensive to manufacture in an under capitalised plant. So BMW strategy was for it to die as it would be replaced by a new generation of compact 4 cylinder engines (it is why they built Hams Hall) that would be built in the UK.

      Many of the reliability issues that the K Series earned a reputation for, originate from attempts by MG Rover to cut manufacturing costs following the purchase from BMW and the declining quality of their after sales service at this time.

  6. My basic arguement is that British Leyland took down great chunks of British industry with it because as a flagship manufacturer it tarnished the whole manufacturing sector.
    The comaprison with Renault is valid. The difference is that Renault was not conceived as an exercise in socialist economic planning and did not build cars to a rock bottom price.
    British Leyland became an industrial morass that could be likened to the American involvement in the Vietnam war. It started with good intentions but when it became clear that victory was not in sight, pulling the plug became problematical.
    As for the Brexit debate. What I was getting at was the success of firms like JLR has convinced many people that Britain can survive outside the EU.
    Now that the arguement over Brexit has been resolved I feel that for Brexit to succeed Britain must buck its ideas up. It is no use expecting the rest of the world to buy our goods if the British people carry on buying any old imported junk that arrives at our ports. Our roads are full of German cars. We may want to be out of Europe, but at the same time we want to buy from Europe at the expense of our indigenous industry. If being in Europe was bad, why did we take advantage of the retail opportunities it provided?
    The British people voted for Brexit, but only they can make it work.

    • For decades the EU has provided a useful scapegoat for everything that has failed in the UK. The British seem to be incapable of taking any responsibility themselves and always have to have someone else to blame. Throughout the election campaign the Government linked the need to get Brexit done to allow any improvement in public services. The crisis in the Health service has nothing to do with the EU, the shambolic way our railways are structured has nothing to do with the EU, the funding crisis in schools has nothing to do with the EU, our potholed filled roads and crumbling 3rd world infrastructure has nothing to do with the EU. In every case the buck stops with us or our government. It really begs the question why should we trust them to sort all these once Brexit is out of the way when they actively ignored them before – and who will they blame next when in 5 years time nothing has changed?

      • Well said, it seems that people think they can wind the clock back to the “I’m Alright Jack” era when British manufacturing had a near commonwealth wide monopoly, they & the nationalised industries had massive workforces where the unions were strong enough to keep all but the most incompetent workers in a job, so too many could slack off & still bring home a decent wage.

        The era of BL was when the loose foundations of this all came crashing down for a lot of the private sector.

    • The problem with brexit is the retired voters who backed it come from a different world, a world that no longer exists. In the 50’s and 60’s Britain was an industrial giant and had access to Commonwealth markets. We really could be independent.

      That is all gone, supply chains are multi-national now. The idea that the country can go no-deal and live without access to European or World markets is utterly deluded.

      Alas that argument takes more than 5 seconds to make, so is beyond the average British voter. Get brexit done is about their level.

  7. Corbyn never advocated state control of manufacturing industry, only basic utilities and the railways. There is nothing Marxist about that. Every other developed country in the world has state control of these, indeed it is commercial arms of other countries state industries are the principal providers of those services here. Eon, EDF, Arriva, DHL and Abellio are just a few examples of German, French and Dutch government controlled companies providing key public services in the UK – The West Coast Mainline franchise has just been handed to a consortia including Trenitalia, the Italian state railway. You could argue that we didn’t privatise these industries at all, just gave up doing it ourselves and invited other countries to come and do it for us. How that aligns with taking back sovereignty and control I really don’t know!

  8. Can we leave the political bullshit behind ( surely we have had enough of it ? ) and stick to motoring topics please ?

    • I’m afraid that if there’s a website called Austin Rover Online or BL Online or whatever, it’ll be intensely political. It kinda comes with the territory.

    • Interesting article. For me, the decline of the British motorcycle industry was the key in changing the world’s perceptions on British manufacturing quality. A high profile industry that the Japanese destroyed with superior product. With the CB750, the British bike industry was doomed. The car industry fell later.

      • Yes a little stretching of the scope of this site, but well worth someone writing an article on it.

        The home electronics industry is another area, along with the ship building, but even more out of scope.

    • When I saw that Corbyn and Brexit were in the article, I knew it would a political hornet’s nest, as on this blog one finds quite a bit of “political diversity”…

  9. The Japanese invasion was everywhere in the seventies, motorcycles, cars, television sets, hi fis, being the most obvious examples. They were making products that were cheaper and more reliable than their British rivals, and which had repeat purchases as the products were so good. It’s likely someone who had a bad experience with a British Leyland car went over to Toyota 40 years ago and is probably still a regular customer, praising the reliability of ever Corolla and Auris he’s bought.

  10. I agree that on the whole the Truck and Bus division, Leyland’s heartland, was not as beset by strife as its volume car side, but there were still issues, the three brand new power units (510, V8- 800 and 2S/350 Gas Turbine) launched in 1968 were all to a greater or lesser degree failures, Opening up of truck markets had started earlier than EEC membership with British foundation of EFTA (a free trade zone with Scandinavia). Because of Swedish government regulations on safety, emissions and minimum power to weight ratios, the Volvo and Scania products imported into Britain from the late 1960s were literally years ahead, and having ploughed money into failed new engines Leyland had eroded their goodwill, The Marathon could have held up against the competition had it been released, fully developed, in 1969, instead, thanks to car division creaming off all spare group funds it limped into production in 1974. With buses, the National deserves an article of its own, but had Leyland and Bristol been fully funded and able to meet demand there would have been little room for competitors, the reason Volvo, Scania DAF and the Germans got in and MCW and Dennis were able to enter was inability to build enough Fleetlines, Atlanteans and VRTs added to which the Ryder era but Stokes-style announcement that all three successful double decks would be replaced by the Park Royal-built TN Titan, a London bus, too tall for many non-London routes and designed to bankrupt and close the coachbuilders who bodied BLMC’s double deck chassis.

    A back track was that if say Glasgow ordered them then CKD kits could be sent to Alexanders, Manchester ones to Wigan etc. but they were still envisaging clearance on all the UK’s overbridges being rained by over a foot to accommodate Titan, and forward orders for Fleetline were closed for 1978 production, VRT for 1980 and Atlantean for 1982, excepting export.

    Strangely though, Park Royal was the only truck and bus division plant to have real industrial unrest. And it was strikes over Titan that increased LT orders for a Londonised version of the Birmingham built Metrobus.

    The Jaguar Land Rover engineering management function is now located in Budapest, so to suggest that JLR is a driver of Brexit is ironic to say the least.

      We have opened a new technical engineering office in Budapest to support our European supply chain management. Engineers in Budapest will work alongside Jaguar Land Rover’s supply chain located in Europe to support the launch of vehicles into the company’s global manufacturing locations. The team here will complement our corporate R&D, engineering and manufacturing functions headquartered in the UK. The office in Budapest joins Jaguar Land Rover’s engineering network in the UK, Republic of Ireland, China and North America

  11. The problem with British industry go back way before the 70’s. This country was in relative industrial decline by the 1890’s, with complaints about how many of the hi-tech products of the day we had to import. Too much concentration on outdated mills and not enough on the latest electrical, chemical and engineering products.

    I read a book Lost Victory, about the mismanagement of Britain after WW2, were importers were already complaining about the poor quality of British goods in the 1940’s. The problem isn’t just insane unions, it is much deeper than that. Short termism is built into this country, in its governmental and financial system.

    Everything is about balancing this year’s books, maximising this year’s profits; to hell with the future. So while other countries invest, we sweat our factories for one more year, make the same product for one more year.

    Eventually that catches up with and bites you on the backside. We have some the lowest levels of R&D spending and investment in the developed world. The British disease wasn’t cured by Thatcher, it is alive and well to this very day.

    • Have heard of the idea by some the British Empire became complacent and thus fell behind both Germany and the US during the Second Industrial Revolution from 1870-1914, only to fall into further bouts of declinism from there on.

      • This was exposed during the early years of the First World War, when German Industry could produce more war materials than the allies could.

        • The Panic of 1873 and the subsequent Long Depression of 1873-1896 certainly did not helps matters for the UK, with the latter said to have been hit particularly hard during that period.

          Have to wonder though what catalyst could have allowed the UK to wake up from its complacency and bounce back around this time to not fall behind during the 2nd Industrial Revolution?

          Do not believe the British Empire was sustainable, however they could have certainly done a better job of declining gracefully and focusing on domestic infrastructure projects / etc which would have place the UK in much better position up to the present day.

    • Thatcherism was short termism at it’s worst. The country is in a bad shape lets sell off the nationalised services without an actual plan how these monopolise would cause problems later on!
      British management is always about fire fighting – if you look at local councils it’s all about the now and no forward planning which leads to short term fixes and poor services.

      • If you have ever watched the series War factories you would not believe that Britain was behind, according to them our industry one us the war!
        I think it was more the obsessive nature of the Nazis and the Allies greater numbers that one it! Compare a Tiger tank to a Sherman or a Cromwell and there is no comparison.

        • Sherman and Cromwell compare very well with a Tiger Tank, because comparing them Top Trumps does not reveal that the Tiger Tank would have been less use to allies than the Sherman and Cromwell.

          You need to understand that the Tiger was designed to fight against the massed formations of heavily armoured Russian tanks that surprised the German’s in 1941. So it features the infamous 88 mm high velocity gun and a heavily armoured hull particularly in the front and sides (because the Russians had on times swamped the German tanks). It was designed to be a tank killer. But it paid its price in mobility, reliability and ease of maintenance, however when it arrived in any numbers on the battlefield in 1943, the German army was not going anywhere other than backwards down its supply chain, so these were not such a big issue, than they would have been in the previous 3 years.

          However when you look at the Cromwell, its 100mm front armour compares well with the 80mm to 120mm front armour on the Tiger and it looks light to the 152mm on the later versions of the Churchill. Some later versions of the Sherman peaked at 178mm. The idea of the Tiger being formidably armoured tank is thus an urban myth.

          For armament you have to remember that whilst the German’s faced many tanks, the allies did not, just 1,347 Tiger 1 v 49,234 Sherman’s alone plus add some 10,000 Churchills and Cromwells so the allied tanks biggest issue was not Tiger tanks, but German infantry positions armed with antitank guns (Germans produced some 30,000 88 mm antitank / flak guns) and other anti tank weapons (German’s produced some 6.7 million Panzerfaust). This needed a general purpose weapon, as most allied tanks were equipped with and then the 17 pdr gun on the Challengers and Fireflies to support them if a Tiger showed up. It is also why the Comet which succeeded the Cromwell, whilst it had a more powerful gun than the Cromwell, it was lower velocity weapon focused on killing buildings and infantry rather than tanks.

          Had the allies had Tiger Tanks instead, that whilst they would have managed to build a few more of them but certainly their complexity would have meant much less numbers than those they had. Its lack of reliability and poor mobility would have been a big hindrance, as the allies did have to move forward with ever longer supply chains but most importantly, its 88 mm gun would have been relatively ineffective against infantry positions and offered its no better and in some cases worse armour protection than the allied tanks offered.

          • If you ever talk to any one at the Bodington tank museum, or at Muckleborough they will tell you that the Tiger was far superior. The Cromwell did not appear until 1944, by which time it was just about a match for a Panzer 4, while the Sherman was about the same. The Germans built superior tanks, but their issue was the over quality manufacturing instead of mass production (a part would be rejected if it match very fine standards). The best tank of WWII was the T34 – it had the armament and protection that nothing else matched, except for the Panther, but again this was rush job by the Germans and they never had enough or were reliable enough to take on the opposition.

    • I assume you mean the quality of British goods in the latter part of the 1940s -1946 onwards as we were concentrating on war production prior to that. Even after that I doubt many countries would have been buying anything other than essential goods so I am not sure how credible that is

      The problem was the UK was virtually bankrupted by WW1. We had also lent a lot of money to the other Allies who couldn’t pay us back. George Osbourne finished paying the last 1.9 billion in 2015!

      The UK never really recovered from that. That’s why R&D spending declined and we fell further behind in the 1920s. The debt to GDP ratio soared from 20% I 1914 to a peak of 180% in 1922.

      UK productivity more than doubled between 1891 and 1935 – roughly the same as Germanys’.

      After WW2 we had no Marshall Plan to build us new factories like Germany and we had to repay the Americans for Lendlease. Interestingly it was Lend lease as the US would not loan us any money as our credit rating was so bad as a result of WW1! (Gordon Brown finished paying for LL in 2006)

      As to R&D spending, the UK is 7th to 9th (depending on what figures you use) in the G20 countries. So yes we could do better but its not as bad as the UK knockers brigade would like to make out.

  12. Engineering and manufacturing is treated as ‘trade’ by all ruling elites in the UK. Engineering ids not treated as a profession. Look at the MPs we have. Very few have STEM background and few have real business knowledge. So they will always be impressed increased sales of Brompton bicycles.
    Finally the UK public, despite Brexit, are very unpatriotic when it comes UK made product.

  13. Another example of an industry that declined was the manufacture of televisions. Until the eighties, when colour televisions became far cheaper in real terms and renting went out of fashion, British manufacturers like Thorn EMI were protected by owning large chains of rental shops that rented out their products. Never mind that their pictures were never as sharp as their Japanese rivals, or as reliable( possibly to keep the repairmen busy), Thorn EMI and other British manufacturers were protected from foreign competition by the vast rental market. Meanwhile those who could afford to buy were shunning British sets in favour of German and Japanese models, and when the rental market went into decline, so did the British television industry.
    A counterpoint to this decline, similar to the car industry, was Japanese companies were encouraged to set up factories in areas of high unenployment, with South Wales becoming a favoured locations, and the former Rank factory in Plymouth being bought out by Toshiba. By the end of the eighties, British manufacturers like Thorn EMI, Philips, Rank and GEC had largely abandoned the UK, while the industry became dominated by superior Japanese sets made in the UK.

    • Another aspect where British TV makers were protected was the use of the 405 line system for the 2 main channels up to 1969, which other manufacturers very rarely made models for.

      Granada started to rent out some European brands like Tandberg & Solara sets from the 1970s, the later using Finlandia badging.

      Recently I got into collecting old TV sets, & one in my collection is a 30 year old British built Toshiba which works almost as good as when it was new

  14. I was selling brown and white electrical goods in the mid 70’s. TV’s were mostly Ferguson, Ecko, Bush and the like – and then our byer bought some Hitachi’s. The picture was so radically better that I don’t think I sold another British name after that. In many years of retail (including cars) I did see many examples of companies just churning out the same old stuff – with little evidence of future R & D. Hoover made the Junior and Senior upright cleaners for donkey’s years – neither could pick up a match because all the dirt had to travel through the fan. Hotpoint brought out the 502 which could pick up much better – the dirt by-passing the fan! The problem is. I guess, that we as a country we had too many Hoovers! Hoover’s exception was the Constellation floating cylinder model but a bit like the Austin Cambridge – they left it soldiering on far too long.
    Thank you Ian for a really interesting article. It is unfortunate but one can’t read (study?) as I have the history of the British car industry without including politics. Herbert Austin – shadow factories? Nuff said! Britain lagged behind right at the dawn of motoring because of a political decision to please the wealthy! Why else did we have the ‘red flag’ man? The poor folk didn’t have a horse to frighten!

    • The Sony Trinitron was a leap forward as well. Launched in 1971, it was an all transistor design, when valve sets were still prevalent, with a flat screen, which meant it was far more reliable and the picture quality was excellent. Also being priced below European sets was another selling point. It wasn’t unheard of for a Trinitron to last 20 years as the quality was so good.
      British manufacturers did hit back occasionally, the Ferguson TX was praised for its picture quality and reliability and Philips sets were usually good, but sets like Bush acquired the name in the trade of The Burning Bush due to their habit of overheating and catching fire, and others had fuzzy pictures and poor quality tubes that gave up quickly.

      • My parents used to rent a set from Granada until 1984, when they bought a Philips set from Comet on credit.

        This was our main set for nearly a decade & only ever had problems with the channel memory battery needing to be replaced. After many years as a second set my parents only got rid of it because of the memory problem & analogue turn off.

        After that we had a Panasonic which never went wrong (apart from the remote wearing out & being replaced by a universal one) & only disposed off because it was too big to be used as a second set.

  15. Funny how we’re talking about TV sets now! Great stuff. My parents first colour TV in 1970 was a Ferguson that replaced a b/w Sobell. That was followed by a Panasonic then Seleco, then back to Panasonic widescreen. At the start of this period my Dad had British Vauxhall cars but every car he had since 1973 was foreign, starting with Mazda rotary.

    it’s true, Japanese cars were better equipped from that time which had to spur on the UK manufacturers to catch up.

    • We had a 1977 Toyota Corolla,for two years. Apart from being totally reliable and very eoonomical for the time( 40 mpg), for a 1.2, it was surprisingly powerful, not even feeling strained at 80 mph on the motorway, and also quiet for a small car. Only problem was for a family of five, it was too small and we traded it in for a Chrysler Alpine from the same dealer. For all people knocked these as being rust prone and not very reliable, ours never developed much rust due to being Ziebarted every year and the only faults it had were niggling minor electrical ones that were easy to fix.

  16. Ah Ziebart… there’s a name from the past along with Cadulac rust proofing!

    My Dad had a 1978 Corolla 1.2 Auto with cream vinyl roof that he only kept for 15 months. But it was reliable and smooth to drive and reasonably well equipped back then. It was the only auto car he owned

  17. Bearing in mind he was a BMC/BL man through and through – and was at PS in Swindon from when they opened to when he retired (very early) – how’s this for a change of my Dad’s heart? I might have missed a few but the fleet ran consecutively from the war something like; Alvis – Austin – Vauxhall – Jowett – Vauxhall – Austin – Rover – Jaguar – Daimler – Maxi – Maxi – Toyota Starlet – a what?
    All of them needed work at some point – anything from conplete engine rebuilds (Daimler Conquest Century Auto) to just annoying little ‘fixes – except the Starlet. (It pains me to record!)

  18. Just on the TV thing again – when Annie and I got married in 1970 we were still using my grand parents brown bakerlite TV with a 9″ screen. It was a bit grainy but remembered most for giving off a gassy smell all the time it was on. We lived with it though – we was poor! They also gave us a gas fridge – that gave off a gassy smell too! Did I mention we was poor? We were very fit though ‘cos we had to push start the upright Ford Pop – couldn’t afford a new starter motor! Poor, we were…..no, no – please don’t send money – we got through it and we’re still together after 49 years!

  19. If there is one success to come out of the end of Rover and its predecessors, it has to be the Mini. Just think 20 years ago, the old BMC Mini was still on sale and only selling to a cult market. but the rebirth of the Mini under BMW was a huge success. Imitating the 1959 design, but making the car bigger, safer, more reliable and with far better engines was a masterstroke and sales were massive from day one. As well, the success of the two door 2001 Mini has enabled the range to grow to crossovers, four door models and estate cars and the MIni brand is one of the most successful in the world. Also the once troubled Cowley plant, now Plant Oxford, is now a huge success and employs 5000 people.

    • It is a success but also a hint of what could have been. You get rid of the useless British owners and suddenly the same engineers, workers and designers dismissed as useless, can create a world beater.

      it shows were the real problem is in British industry. Imagine if we could have replaced the useless British owners and senior management of our car, aircraft, ship building and other industries with competent people? How much more successful this country would now be.

      • Management, government and unions all had their part to play in the demise of British Leyland. Management for being aloof and having an us and them mentality, the government in 1968 for creating such an unviable mess of a company, and the unions for wanting to create class war in the factories. Also bean counting accountants have a role to play for making a car like the Marina as cheap as possible, with parts carried over from a 1948 car and a driving experience that was worse than its fleet market rivals.
        Is it any wonder BL went into freefall after 1973 and even brief oeriods of recovery in the early eighties and early nineties were followed by yet more years of falling market share and eventual bankruptcy. In the end, the bean counters won by being too mean to fix the K series engine, which like many of its predecessors had reliability issues that were ignored.

      • I don’t recall there being much wrong with the British Aircraft Industry that was caused by anything other than government interference in it, and indeed it is still a world leader in military aircraft, and in the Airbus wing production . RR is now one of only two major producers of engines, Pratt and Whitney having largely faded out of the picture, and despite some well publicised problems with the more esoteric versions of the Trent ( those problems equally being shared by GE with the uprated versions of the GE 90 ) it is a company of which we can still be proud

        • Another major problem the British Aircraft had for years were the main civil aviation customers often insisting on designs that not many other airlines wanted.

          A good example was the Trident, which BEA insisted be made smaller than Hawker Siddley had originally designed, & followed by struggling attempts to made it larger.

          At the same time Boeing introduced the 727 which was for nearly 30 years was the best selling jet airliner, with nearly 1800 built against the 117 or so Tridents.

          • BOAC and BEA betrayed the British aircraft industry. It was clear from the start they wanted to buy American and would do anything to weasel out of their commitments to British companies. As you say they often forced British manufacturers to build aircraft undersized, when the manufacturer wanted to build one with more seating.

            The most tragic example was the VC 10, BOAC bad mouthed the VC 10 to get a subsidy from the government. Having your national airline bad mouthing a plane by one of your national companies is a brilliant way to prevent any export sales.

            The problem was BOAC were lying. The VC 10 had its engines in the tail, which made it a much more comfortable plane for passengers, so much so passengers booked flights when they knew the VC 10 would used. It had higher average passenger loadings than the 707. It used more fuel than a 707 but it was a stronger plane, so required less maintenance. Meaning it was no more expensive to operate.

            As for the Trident, Hawker Sidney’s inept management allowing Boeing to have full access to the project, in the initial stages of development of the 727. It is hardly surprising Boeing has half the market, while we have the scraps the French and Germans throw us.

        • We invented the jet airliner and managed to go from that position, to being a bit player in a pan European plane maker. Even that small role is more by accident that design, with the British government and companies being luke warm towards Airbus.

          As for military jets, we threw that anyway in the 1950’s. Too many mediocre jets of similar design, handed the market to the Americans and French. Our idiot government basically abandoned military jet development in the 1957, in a notorious white paper. With the only British supersonic jet being the lightening.

          Sure we haven’t lost anything but this country could have been an absolute world leader, we should be the dominant and controlling partner in European civil aerospace and we threw it away.

          • How about the Hawker Harrier jump jet, a revolutionary fighter that didn’t need a runway and could be hidden in a forest? This was a fantastic design and in naval form helped us win the Falklands War as it could hover over much faster Argentinian jets and shoot them down as they flew past.

          • The Harrier was developed for a NATO specification, so it escaped being shutdown by our idiot government. It wasn’t originally fighter aircraft, it was a ground attack aircraft.

            The plane being available in the Falkland’s war was sheer dumb luck. The British military is riven by infighting. The RAF hated the Navy operating fast jets, so did everything they could to get the Navy’s carriers scrapped. In one notorious case, they move Australia on a map so they could pretend RAF jets could cover naval ships. What the poor old sailors were suppose to do while they waited for RAF aircover to arrive, from land bases hundreds of miles away, god only knows.

            The Navy had the Invincibles on order but classed them as through deck cruisers, to get them passed our moron politicians and the RAF. The fighter version of the Harrier was the Sea Harrier. It was an excellent plane but it was barely adequate for fleet defence.

            It only had short range missiles, a limited radar and there were too few of them. The taskforce sent to the Falklands also lacked air early warning aircraft. Combine that with the poor quality of the Royal Navy’s anit aircraft missiles and it hardly surprising that six British ships were sunk during the war.

            Six ships that wouldn’t have been lost if the navy had been properly equipped.

          • Glenn: The Harrier only exists because its development was funded by the US Marines, had the Americans not done that the UK Government would not have purchased it.

            It was also developed on a tiny budget (Congress was only ever going to sanction the minimum that was needed to be spent on a foreign aircraft), basically just a militarization of the P1127 research project. Sydney Camm was opposed to this because he recognised that the design was flawed in being too hard to support in the field (you have to take the wings off to change the engine, needing a crane with serious lifting capacity, which was not ideal for a plane designed to operate from a “cabbage patch”) having been engineered for absolute minimum weight. He had designed the P1154 to have a engine pod that could be swapped out on a pallet truck after just jacking up the aircraft.

          • bartelbe:

            We did not invent the Jet Liner, everybody in game (British, Americans and even the Soviets) was striving for it, (it is like saying the Soviet Union invented Space Travel), but because of our edge in engine technology and Geoffrey de Havilland’s ambition we were able to get one to production ahead of the American’s.

            However to do it, De Havilland’s had to push the limits of their structural engineering, unfortunately they had some “issues” in this area, not only in the Comet but the structural failure of the prototype DH110 in 1952 at Farnborough and the underestimation by a considerable margin of the stresses on the air frame structure for their GOR.339 requirement (TSR2) proposal, picked up in the technical review by the Royal Aircraft establishment in 1957-59.

            With hindsight Comet’s fatigue failure should not have been a surprise, during air displays the pilots would entertain themselves and other test pilots enjoying the ride, by watching the fuselage flex and twist along its length during the display. Also (hushed up at the time) the crack that led to the failure of fuselage in the Comet testing after its grounding and consistent with evidence gathered from the crashes originated from the rivets fixing the astrodome being punched rather than drilled as designed. The change having been made on the production without the authorisation of the design office. (Ironic on a AROnline sight to be referring to shoddy workmanship).

            In 1957, the UK did not give up the development and manufacture of military jets, the paper simply cancelled “fighter” aircraft development beyond the Lightning. Which is why the NA39 (Buccaneer), GOR 339 (TSR2), GOR 351 (AW 681) and GOR 356 (P1154) continued.

            However with the exception of the Buccaneer which benefited from a simple well focused requirement placed with a single manufacture, the others all involved a combination of widely over ambitious requirements, multiple manufacturers and poorly managed projects, meaning the others were as good a dead (including TSR2) when they were cancelled in 1964.

  20. I know sweet fanny adams about aircraft – this chat from you guys who do, is fascinating. AROand AIROnline Keith?

  21. It wasn’t all doom and gloom in the British Leyland years. After a shaky start, the Leyland National became a popular bus and was still a common sight in the nineties on less busy routes. Then the truck side of the business seemed to mostly escape the chaos around it, even if some of the designs were becoming crude and old fashioned by the late seventies, until a new range of trucks in the eighties appeared that were comparable to their rivals. Also pleased to say the former Leyland Trucks factory in Leyland still lives on as part of DAF.

    • I got the impression that the commercial side had to bankroll the rest of British Leyland.

      The Leyland National sold OK but not as well as expected. While planned as a “world bus” there weren’t that many exports.

      • The bus factory at Workington that assembled the Nationals( the engines and chassis came from Preston) rarely suffered from industrial action and was one of the most productive factories in British Leyland. Also they moved on to assembling DMUs for British Rail in the late eighties in a new factory near Workington docks that had a rail link to the Cumbrian coast line. I worked in both these factories in the nineties when they were turned into warehouses, and there was still the paint shop at Lillyhall , which had been blocked off, and the factory on Workington docks had the remains of a rail line at the entrance.

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