Ian Nicholls recalls the best and worst of Derek Robinson through the prism of a BBC documentary that covered the darkest days of the 1970s and ’80s.
I recently saw again the BBC4 documentary The Lost World Of Red Robbo. Far from finding it a nostalgic trip into my childhood, I found myself watching with unease and disquiet as a 1970s nightmare replayed.
Oh, if only what I had been watching was a Life On Mars-type dream; instead it all happened for real. How could so many people be so gullible and so stupid as to behave that way and why did it take until the clock was two minutes to midnight for them to stand up and be counted? I am referring to the 1970s workforce at Longbridge; whose regular meetings in the adjacent Cofton Park proved so newsworthy. Trying to get my head around the mentality of it all does my head in, as I cannot see any logic in it all.
In 1945, British voters voted en-masse for a Labour Government committed to nationalisation of key industries, a welfare state, a free health service and other reforms. As far as the motor industry was concerned, the Socialist Government exhorted it to export to help Britain pay its way in the world. Someone recently told me that ‘selling’ is considered to be a dirty word in Britain. Well, as far as the Atlee Government was concerned selling Britain’s industrial produce was essential for economic survival.
Yet, by the 1970s, selling had, indeed, become a dirty word, as salesmen tried in vain to sell cars badly built and, in some cases, most likely sabotaged by a workforce, who were disgruntled with their lot – and all too willing to listen to shop stewards who believed in an alternative form of society. Post-1975 British Leyland was owned by the Government, which had twice acted to save the workforce from potential redundancy (in 1968 and 1975), and yet the employees continued to bite the hand that fed them by striking.
Between 1975 and 1977, British Leyland’s UK market share fell from 35 to 20.5 per cent – perhaps an unprecedented collapse in customer confidence. Lord Stokes has taken a lot of flak over the years, but whatever he may have done wrong is nothing compared to the 14.5 per cent of lost UK market share surrendered in the two years after he left the scene. This was a sales catastrophe.
Leyland Cars insiders in 1977 expected their market share to go as low as 15 per cent before new models came on stream. Yet, for all the talk of new models, the company already had some relatively new cars. However, the prospect of getting one properly assembled by a militant workforce who believed the taxpayer owed them a living seemed bleak. Tales of Leyland Cars unreliability were legion, from the MGBs that would not engage reverse on the set of The New Avengers to the Princess saloons that needed regular engine changes.
These cars used proven components, which brings into question whether sabotage was ocurring in the company’s factories. What was the logic behind all this? Were the workers holding the management to ransom by refusing to build the cars properly, until the bosses acceded to their demands? What were these demands? Better working conditions? The right to control the means of production through some sort of workers co-operative, or via workers representatives such as the shop stewards? Why did the aspiration for better conditions have to result in so many badly built cars? How was this meant to achieve this? Why did the concept of customer care mean nothing to the workers?
Philip Turner, the Midlands correspondent of Motor wrote in November 1977, ‘Leyland Cars cannot be closed’. He then went onto list all the economic and political reasons why the company could not be shut down and then added: ‘The very fact that the workforce are absolutely certain that Leyland Cars cannot be closed is one of the main factors bedevelling the companies industrial relations. For it is no use telling workers that if they go on strike they will ruin the company. They just don’t believe it.’
In other words, the employees felt they had a job for life – the vagaries of the world car market and the concerns of customers meant nothing to them. Another reason put forward for this attitude of workers by some political pundits is that the feeling at the time was that Britain was heading in a Socialist direction. Quite how this opinion is reached baffles me, I see no real evidence for it.
In the first general election of 1974, the incumbent Conservative Government of Edward Heath narrowly won less seats than Harold Wilson’s Labour party, but polled more of the popular vote. In the second election of 1974 Labour won a wafer thin majority, but this was eroded by by-election defeats forcing Wilson’s successor James Callaghan into a pact with David Steel’s Liberal party, before defeat to the Conservatives in 1979.
The reality was not a Britain going Socialist, but a bitterly divided nation. Perhaps, though, perception was more important than reality? There was a lot of political radicalisation in the 1970s, but unseen was the gradual drift of middle class, middle management voters who had made Harold Wilson’s Labour party the natural party of government, towards Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative party. They felt threatened by Trade Union power and the complete disregard for customers that seemed to exist in British industry and the scenes played out in Cofton Park helped this process along.
Watching The Lost World of Red Robbo and seeing the conduct of BL workers, who seemed to have no qualms about downing tools at the drop of a hat made me ask these questions:
Had I been older then would I have bought a BL car built by these people?
Did these people deserve state support?
I have to answer no to both questions.
In my view, the loss of market share between 1975 to 1977 sealed British Leyland’s fate. It is easy to knock the cars BL sold at the time, but as various enthusiasts who contribute to this site will testify, the company had some damned good models. It is just so sad that the very people who were meant to benefit from this investment were so reluctant to screw the cars together properly.
Regaining the ground that had been lost was simply not feasible. How much taxpayers’ money earmarked for new investment was used to keep the company afloat during crisis after crisis? How much economising resulted because of this. Is this the real reason why BL did not proceed with the OHC A-series engine?
That’s where the tragedy of this all lies.
When I go to a classic car show I am not interested in the foreign rubbish. The only cars worth looking at are British. The innovative Issigonis cars, the classic British sports cars, Solihull and Brown’s Lane’s finest. When I look at all this classic automotive ironmongery, I know that, with a lot more customer care, British cars should have conquered the world.