Opinion : Pressing the self-destruct button

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.

Jaguar XJ12

Ian Nicholls
Latest posts by Ian Nicholls (see all)


  1. I have just watched “Rover – The Long Goodbye” and this blog does not surprise me one bit. How silly where they to think they could get away with it and for so long before killing the company they are trying to save.
    Sad really.

    • I watched “Rover – The Long Goodbye” last weekend –

      Yes, the Rover name was no longer what it was in P5 days. However, they focussed too much on Rover as opposed to the whole BL story. Rover was chosen as the brand to save BL. Faced with no return to higher volume days Rover was selected as the brand to create a smaller, higher quality, premium manufacturer. Not a Rover of yester year but still a premium brand nonetheless. In many ways, the Rover name was simply moving with modern times where premium brand names were being used in different, new market sectors.

      The feature did not focus enough on the highpoint of the late eighties, early nineties which saw the smaller premium producer strategy almost being a long term success. They were rather critical of SD3 but failed to mention how much the public bought into the baby Rover concept. AND R8 barely got a mention!!

      Also there were inaccuracies – Rover was not acquired by British Leyland. Rover was already part of Leyland when BMC and Leyland merged. The Rover name was not simply applied to the Metro. The car may have looked similar but was mechanically transformed.

      … and yes I know it’s Christmas eve but I had a spare hour and my interest will never cease!!

  2. Ian – thanks for this item – I havn’t seen the Red Robbo programme (yet) but will catch up with it as soon as I can.
    Having lived through the period and my Dad being part of it all, I well remember my Dad’s sheer frustration at the culture promoted by the unions of the day.
    I will no doubt be strongly criticised for this but I have spent most of my life comparing the Nazi regime and the following of the German people to the Unions and worker situation in the UK through the 70’s.
    I have done a lot of research and read many books by pro-union and pro-militant action – yet I (like you) still don’t understand the real thinking of these people. I guess the only explanation is the sheer power of the union conveners and speakers – the sheer magnetic power they portrayed over the scene. It could also be argued that ‘the working man’ was incapable of seeing the bigger picture – he wanted his extra .5 of pence per hour NOW – not as part of a scheme for prosperity for all.
    The other side of the coin of course is that BL management were at times very inept – stupid on occasions. I have also read that if Red Robbo had never worked for BL the savings to the company would have paid for the development of a new car! Probably an exaggeration but there’s probably some truth in it!

  3. Of course the influx of Datsun’s, Toyota’s, Honda’s etc plus the relative dominence of Ford & Vauxhall didn’t help BL either. I’m not looking to blame Unions & BL Management of the day, but all these factors played their part.

  4. The failure of BL/Rover didn’t lie with the unions, but with weak/incompetent management and a lack of a modern/desirable product range, hence why people bought cars from strike-ridden Ford or Vauxhall.

    The biggest mistake was focusing on the volume cars business with small profit margins leaving the company unable to generate enough cash to reinvest in new models.

  5. Hard to blame one side over the other and while all the strikes didn’t help you should remember the poor design of many components was due to cost cutting. The Triumph Stag engine and the slant 4 engine then the K series (seemingly fixed by the Chinese)these were good on paper but under developed. This has nothing to do with the worker but lays fairly with management. I note too how we now make more cars than ever, they are as good as any in the world, they are made buy British workers the only thing that has changed is the management.

  6. For me the unions were the main villains but the inept management came a very close second, A National tragedy that should have been foreseen.

  7. The unions filled a void caused by an inept management unable to communicate with/convince the workforce, partly since it didn’t know what the real messages were. Britain has changed a huge amount since the war, eg compare the 50’s with the 70’s, and the powers that be simply failed to change/improve quickly enough.

    “Sabotage” continued for many years after the 70’s, possibly more like practical jokes through sheer boredom, eg ball bearings put in seat frames with a dab of grease – eventually the ball releases itself and rattles around on corners, etc…

  8. Thanks for your blog mate,not a popular opinion on here,but one i share with you,i love the cars,but other things/attitudes less so,well done and cheers.

  9. Paul @4
    “The failure of BL/Rover didn’t lie with the unions…….”
    I just wish things were that simple. Let’s suppose you (Paul) and I are running a big business.
    We are trying to make cars but our workforce go on strike for very little reason, a fabricated reason or no reason at all. The cost of these strikes in terms of production losses are crippling – so much so that we have no funds for developing new models – and we are thus spiralling into oblivion.
    We can’t sit round a table and talk with the staff (unions) because they are not interested – they have a simple agenda of winning the battle of workers versus management.
    As your partner in this company of ours – I give up. You tell me how to get our company back on the road! I’m always prepared to listen and learn.

  10. Very well put. I had the same experience relayed by my father who railed against a shop steward over a staff of around 30-40. Handling maintenance at a private hospital.

    @5 spot on. They didn’t have enough money to design what they wanted, use the materials they wanted because of cost cutting. Trouble is that’s a vicious circle that must have gone wrong at some point. The workforce would demand more pay or strike for whatever reason, frequently, which pushed up costs for no benefit so other costs would have to be cut.

    When there were appalling conditions and workers were blatantly exploited unions had a right and proper place. Once the power was there (as often the case with an absolute) they held the power legally (flying pickets a good example) until those rights and un-democratic practices were removed by government.


  11. …….just remembered a conversation with my Dad. The guys on the line had called a strike and he was explaining to me just why. I’m going back nearly forty years but the gist was that someone had put in the suggestion box that three holes that were drilled in a panel should be deleted. These holes were for trim on a previous model – but the trim was not fitted any more. The management adopted the suggestion and the guy who operated a ‘jigged’ machine to drill the holes was told not to do so. He was told instead to assist another guy fitting another component. The union immediately called a strike until the three holes process was re-instated. I can’t remember how long that debacle lasted but eventually – in an effort to get the cars built – the management gave in. Dad’s longer term view was concerned about the holes being a source of rust for ever-more! Apart from the stupidity of the whole episode!!!
    ……….and you think running this plant was easy?

  12. I recall heated discussions my Uncle who worked at Longbridge and my father (both trade unionists, but with very different views on life). Whilst I liked my Uncle a lot even at a young age I was astounded at his bragging of stacking crates on night shift to create a hideaway for his colleagues to have a card school.

  13. I think after the company was nationalized- the problems got worse because the workforce herded by militant union shop stewards were conned into believing that a labour government (whom they subsidized through closed shop union membership) would agree to any demand.
    (our brothers are running it now- they will do as we say?)

    It was also a period of high inflation that fuelled wage demands.

  14. The idea that the unions single handedly destroyed BL is a myth, they certainly didn’t help, but there was more to it than that. You imply in your article that cars suddenly became unreliable in the 1970’s and then ask if it was workers sabotage.

    The reality is, British cars were far from perfect in the so called golden age of British cars, in the 50’s and 60’s. Alot of BL problems can be traced back to BMC and other BL firms.

    There was a disconnect between the often brilliant designs and the production engineering. There is a book about the history of the Mini that describes problems not fixed, or even complete drawings not being sent to one of the factories. With cars having to be bodged on the production line and the problems never being resolved.

    A senior man at Jaguar took a MK2 out for a drive, and was shock by the quality, the rattles and noise. Had it checked out and found half the spot welds hadn’t been done properly.

    Not surprising when Jaguar used a second hand pre-war production line and that is what really killed BL and the British car industry. Lack of investment, using dated production methods, and technology. Even if the unions had been as good as gold, that lack of investment would have killed them.

  15. The other thing is while there were similar strikes at Ford and Vauxhall, both those companies could rely on supplies and cars coming in from their european factories.

  16. Sorry, it wasn’t just the workers’ fault. The company was too big and diverse for anyone to manage (the Government’s fault), too much investment too often went on products that were stopped just before reaching production (P8, SD2, Lynx etc – management’s fault) and there was appeasement of the Unions (management’s fault). That’s not to justify union practices, which were often appalling, but to give a more balanced view. I agree, I doubt I would have bought a car from BL at the time – the Datsun 120Y was clearly superior in important ways to the Allegro. But you can’t say that people didn’t deserve state support if you believe in a caring, compassionate society.

  17. @15

    I don’t think they did Ben. There were some foreign builders, but none of these cars were officially imported on a large scale as it would have been politically embarrassing for a nationalised car maker to build cars in a foreign country, not to mention the unions’ reaction.

  18. @16

    Remember though that the main management at BL weren’t the board, it was the government. Tony Benn had a bright idea that the company should let the unions have a say in the running of the factories (Industrial Democracy). This could have worked out well, except for the fact that the unions weren’t that fussed about BL actually surviving, but rather screwing over the management for anything they could get.

    Some of the stories you hear from the non-car departments beggar belief. For example at the Leyland tractors plant in Bathgate one of the sales bods was on a tour of the production line, and spotted a man bolting top covers on to rear axles. As he worked, the sales bod spotted he’d missed a few bolts, and went and told him. The reaction he got was shocking, as the line fitted swore and threatened him. If the management had tried to sack or retrain him the inevitable consequence would have been a damaging strike.

    Another case was constant complains from new customers and dealers that new Leyland tractors were being supplied out of the factory with scratches and faults in the paintwork. The paintshop foreman’s reply was “well they’ll soon be covered in mud so what’s the problem?” Not quite realising that when you spend the equivalent of £30,000 today on a tractor you want it looking perfect when it arrives from the factory…

  19. @18

    Yep, all fair points. They point to weak management in my view, which Sir Michael eventually strengthened enormously.

  20. Weak management didn’t help, but when you’ve got unions essentially running the company in their own interests, knowing full well that the labour party they paid for would never let the management sort them out, you’ve not got a chance.

    There was one big difference between the union’s outlook and the managers. The managers wanted a company that made money making cars.

    The unions on the other hand simply wanted a company that provided jobs, and to hell with any concept of making a profit or putting the company on a solid footing for the future.

    As someone at Ford asked a apprentice at Dagenham “What do we make here?”

    “Cars” said the apprentice

    “No son, we make money”…

  21. Fair enough, but when your discussing a car maker who’s sole shareholder was the Government it’s hard to avoid!

  22. Bartelbe’s interesting tale at 13 about a Jaguar Mark 2 is correct as a fact ( absent spot welds ) but totally wrong about its being the result of Jaguar’s equipment. The bodies were built by Pressed Steel , and it was they who had failed to follow the specification. Nothing to do with lack of investment – a straightforward mistake . For those who think that today is a halcyon era in production engineering , and that these things couldn’t happen now, just consider the enormous recalls that supposedly well-managed companies such as Toyota have had to make in the recent past. As far as BL management is concerned, of course it was not top-notch – how could you attract good quality managerial talent to a company whose efforts ( and many of them such as the SD1 and XJ6 were very good efforts ) were being ruined by politically motivated wildcat strikes at every juncture ? Ultimately it was the communist menace which brought BL and indeed most of the British motor industry to its knees , and it was not until Thatcher took them on that things started to improve

  23. Perhaps the basic problem was the lack of political will to outlaw the unnofficial strike.
    It is easy to slam weak management, but when a few people can stop production, a manufacturers lifeblood, deep pockets are needed in order to defeat the source of disruption.
    Barbara Castle and Harold Wilson had a go with ‘In Place of Strife’ in 1969, Edward Heath actually passed the ‘Industrial Relations Act 1971’, but it was defied and portrayed as an attack on ordinary working people.
    When Harold Wilson was returned to power in 1974 it was to a manifesto created by Tony Benn and the TUC, which it has to be said, he did his best to ignore, by sidelining Benn to the Energy Department in 1975.
    The Labour party of 1974 was much more left wing than the rainbow alliance of 1964 that was so resoundingly re-elected in 1966.
    The effective outlawing of unnofficial strikes did not occur until the Thatcher government came on the scene, and by then Britain had experienced the 1978/79 ‘Winter of Discontent’, where the unions had put their interests above the national interest in striking for more pay with an election looming and creating an inflationary spiral for the rest of us to founder in. The climate in which the unions operated had changed since 1974 and the ‘Three day Week’. They were no longer seen as defenders of the poor, but to many they were the enemy within, or an electoral liability to the labour movement depending on your point of view.
    And by the time unnoffficial strikes were outlawed, who wanted to buy a British car?

  24. You’ve hit the nail on its head again Ian.

    The unions held a powerful veto over the management and by extension the company, and in the end the customers.

    While the recent BBC documentary on BL/German cars was terrible, there was one line that did stick in my memory.

    A man was asked why he drove a BMW 5-series. His answer:

    “Back in the late 70s I went looking for a car, the Rover dealer couldn’t supply me with a car for months, BMW sold me a car that day, and have done ever since…”

  25. The company should have been broken up sooner, way too much diversity with the likes of Prestcold and so on.

    The divisions should have been split off and left to make money as a business in their own right. Or wither on the vine.

    Only Unipart become a success story out of this disastrous combine.

  26. Toyota managed to implement the Kanban system – the above story about the 3 holes would’ve been seen as employee empowerment, not as an excuse to strike.

  27. Another area that changed quickly in the 1970s were some key export markets, where the Japanese makers managed to carve a large market share over the decade.

    This was something the government & unions couldn’t really do anything about.

  28. 26
    Rather more than Unipart has been successful, Mini under BMW now make and sell almost as many cars as 70s peak of original and make money doing it. JLR know sell 400k cars ayear and make 2 billion pounds ayear exporting80%.and there are other successful parts of BL still going.

  29. @28 They should have seen it coming, take the Datsun Cherry, with its gearbox in sump engine that did not leak like the mini,and was better appointed inside too, never broke down either.

  30. The Japanese made cars that people wanted – we made cars that we thought people both wanted and had little choice over buying.

    I wonder about the effect of WW2 – Britain came out of it with a desire for a land “fit for heroes”/socialist principles, little competition, a need to export and old plant, with resultant complacency since for a time they were going flat out. The Europeans and Japanese had to start again with new/heavily rebuilt factories, partly bolstered by a US Marshall plan against a perceived Eastern Bloc/Maoist China threat? Similarly the US had a revolution in manufacturing capacity caused by wartime demand.

    Thatcher gave us the rather diversionary BAe takeover of Rover but arguably the best thing she did was encourage the Japanese to set up UK manufacturing capacity.

  31. On the subject of Jags – 2.4 and 3.4, I used to deliver them new to Tooley Street in London in the late 60’s/early 70’s. Remembering that I loved the things to bits, they were the dog’s what’s its of their day, I can honestly say of the ten I delivered over a three year period, I never got one the 84 mile trip without a problem – three of them required me to be rescued and the remainder I sorted out on the route.
    All the above comments have got so much truth in them. There were just too many dominoes to fall over – the size of the enterprise; restricted practices; union principles and practices; inept management; poor culture; poor customer focus; government intervention tactics; the pound; operations locations and distances; lack of development of models and factories…….and no doubt you can all think of a few more.
    To stand one domino up – say, ‘have a totally dedicated workforce who would never go on strike’ – would not save the day. Even to stand half a dozen dominoes up you would still have a mammoth job on your hands. And all the time, the competition never had anything like the same problems – Renault, Citroen, BMW, Audi, Toyota, Nissan, VW – all had significant issues of survival at some time in their history – but they did not have dozens of companies all doing their own thing under one collective banner – all spread over their country of origin. And certainly not with all those other dominoes falling over!
    I wonder if BMC/BLMH/BL could have ever survived? Was it humanly possible to make a go of it with the cards that were dealt? No doubt with five hundredweight of hindsight we could say yes. Would we have been that clever back in the mid 70’s though?

  32. “Bartelbe’s interesting tale at 13 about a Jaguar Mark 2 is correct as a fact ( absent spot welds ) but totally wrong about its being the result of Jaguar’s equipment. The bodies were built by Pressed Steel , and it was they who had failed to follow the specification. Nothing to do with lack of investment – a straightforward mistake . For those who think that today is a halcyon era in production engineering , and that these things couldn’t happen now, just consider the enormous recalls that supposedly well-managed companies such as Toyota have had to make in the recent past. As far as BL management is concerned, of course it was not top-notch – how could you attract good quality managerial talent to a company whose efforts ( and many of them such as the SD1 and XJ6 were very good efforts ) were being ruined by politically motivated wildcat strikes at every juncture ? Ultimately it was the communist menace which brought BL and indeed most of the British motor industry to its knees , and it was not until Thatcher took them on that things started to improve.”

    You are correct, it was pressed steels fault, but Jaguar were working with dated production equipment. There also other stories from before BL and government ownership.

    The mini floorplan put in the worng way round, so the car filled with water. The orientation of the distributor, so it failed due to water ingress. Quality issues didn’t suddenly appear in the 70s.

    Why do you think BMC had to be bailed out in the first place? Because basic things like cost management were not done properly. The cars did not make enough money.

    The idea that Thatcher saved the car industry or any other industry is a joke. Look at this countrie’s spend on R&D and investment. Amoung the lowest of any developed nation. We demand short term return, at the expense of long term investment.

    The real saviour of Britain’s car industry has been foreign ownership, taking away the poisonous pressure of the British financial system and ownership. Foreign owners invest over the long term, they allow car companies to plan 5 years or more in advance.

    If Thatcher was really that great for British industry, we wouldn’t have a massive trade deficit today.

  33. It is worth doing a comparison with Renault in the 70s. About the same size and state owned. Look at Renault now.
    It shows that a state owned company can work. There has to be the right business model and support.

  34. @30, I don’t think it was a case of making cars people wanted, merely they wanted to be able to buy a car there and then and it not break down every two minutes.

    Throughout its life the 180B, 120Y and 140J never got near to outselling a Ford product, and the Datsuns were the better car by a healthy margin.

    @33, Did Renault being state owned really work? Billions have been poured into this company for political reasons,
    It probably sell more vans in the UK than cars now.

  35. Bartelbe : some of the points you make are valid. However, I was around in the 1960s and 1970s and indeed was a director of a BLMC agency up to about 1972 . There were many problems, but the one which loomed larger than any other was that you could never rely on delivery dates being kept, because of almost continuous wildcat strikes, which of course also had their effects on quality control. The first third of my motoring career was exclusively with what became BL products, from a 1958 Standard Pennant, via things like AH Sprite , Rover 2000, several 2.5PIs , Rover 3500 SD1 to the final straw ( !) which was a 1979 XJ6 which gave me no end of trouble. Apart from that last, the cars were good to drive and pretty reliable by the standards of the time

  36. Renault are the world’s 10 largest vehicle manufacturer and Nissan (which it partially owns and runs) is 6th. If you add together their production they would be 4th in the world. (2012 figures).
    If that is the price for state ownership, investing in local engineering and jobs, bring it on.

  37. Correction the French Government own 16% now since privatising in 1996.
    However during the dark days of the 70s the government held Renault together despite the vice president of Renault being assassinated. They also invested heavily, much ore so than the UK government and only partially privatised when the company was on a good footing.

  38. @37, So when did Renault break even or dip into the black?
    Without the Nissan Alliance or indeed work with Mercedes Benz (lets see how those engines are after year 3-4) they would be nearly dead.

    Renault cars have committed suicide in the UK, the Laguna was a joke and apart from the RenaultSport Megane who buys them?

    I hope the Captur sells it looks interesting.

  39. Some quick number crunching shows the production figures of the 180B, 120Y and 140J are close to if not beating the equivalent European Fords of the same time, at least on an average units per year basis.

  40. I was using total sales figures.

    In some ways it’s fitting because BL seemed to take a slap-dash attitude towards exports in the 1970s.

    It would have been interesting if the Government had imposed an export quota on BL as a condition of nationalisation.

  41. @32

    I agree that foreign ownership has done wonders for the UK car industry and has shown that the British car worker can bolt stuff together as well as any other in the world.

    However would these foreign owners have invested in the UK in the 1980s/1990s if we still had 1970s labour relations?

  42. @41

    The problem was that BL simply couldn’t compete internationally with the Japanese etc on a level playing field.

    Once Land Cruiser exports started to Australia Land Rover’s market share collapsed. The simple fact was the Land Cruiser did pretty much everything a Land Rover did, but gave a fair bit less trouble.

  43. Several people have mentioned that Ford/Vauxhall were on strike as much as BL back then. Can’t speak for Vauxhall But my Dad worked at Ford from 1971 until he retired and I don’t remember him being on strike as much as BL was back then.

  44. Re 46: Take of the rose-tinted glasses. They even made a feature film about one the Ford strikes – “Made in Dagenham”.

  45. The unions “job for life” deal must be one of the most stupid things ever to happen in the auto industry in the UK.The unions could see MG Rover were in trouble in the early 2000s and would not back down.There are many reasons over the years for the demise of BL(or whatever you want to call them) but the unions were the major factor in the failure of this once great british car manufactor.

  46. I seem to remember that, irrespective of the strikes, a lot of people bought BL cars here because either (a) they felt it was their duty to do so (politicians at the time being obsessed with the balance of payments) or (b) because BL products were sort of institutionalised (people were friends with the local dealer, knew the products of old or had company car schemes which only offered BL products). Given that, it’s even more horrifying that the company just sort of collapsed.

  47. I don’t think you can blame unions for the final collapse of MG Rover.
    Mervyn Milner is quite right about the Japanese sweeping aside Land Rover in export markets. Land Rover had been one of the cash cows that kept BL afloat until the early 1980’s when sales of the basic 90/110 collapsed alarmingly. I suspect Solihull was not as adept as Jaguar were in dealing with poor quality bought in components.
    Renault was not nationalised because it was a failing company, but because of the alleged collaboration with the occupyng Germans by its founder Louis Renault.
    It is a key difference with the nationalisation of British Leyland. With BL the government used taxpayers money to re-enforce failure.

  48. We cannot let the Unions off the hook on the damage they did.

    I have been researching a history of the Linwood factory and in this research I have found an article published by a Linwood shop steward at the factory in International Socialism 1975 (publication became the Socialist Worker), in which he is calling for the factory to be occupied to force the Government to nationalise Chrysler UK.

    He then goes on to describe how once it is nationalised, the workers should continue the fight to force the Government to do more “socially good work” with Linwood such as building agricultural equipment for the 3rd world or cars for the disabled.

    Clearly we can see that this Shop Steward was not only totally opposed to the concept of the business he worked for being profitable, but even opposed to the very work he was employed to do, one can only imagine how he felt when something elitist came down the line like a Sunbeam Rapier or Humber Sceptre. It clearly would have been impossible to deal with this person in any reasonable way by the management.

    Of course once Linwood closed, he was found a cushy number at Strathclyde University where he went on at the public expense to continue his anti-capitalism campaigns.

  49. Until recently if you was in public sector employment you see time and time again people swinging the lead, six months off here for depression four months off there for a bad back all put in place with Union help.

    It was just on a grand scale at BL,if you spoke to a shop steward at the wrong amplitude it would mean a five week strike.

    Where are the unions now people have zero hour contracts? one of the most disgusting working practices around, and please don’t spout on about our recovery, there will be another recession in 2014 mark my words.

  50. Great stuff- enjoyed reading all these comments. Perhaps some of those unionists who were there at the time might come forward and elucidate?….I rather doubt it.

  51. Good article Keith, but your comment in the last paragraph says it all! ‘Foreign Rubbish’ those words must have been echoing around the coridors of Longbridge, Cowley, Abingdon, Solihull, Canley and Browns Lane. Problem being that it wasn’t the foreign stuff that was rubbish, as the customers soon demonstrated.
    This time when I went to the NEC in November,I made a point of looking at the ‘Foreign Rubbish’ having been to so many classic car shows I was getting a bid bored of the same old Brit Stuff.
    I was able to see why so many UK car buyers left BL cars for the foreign stuff. Those well engineered and build Mercs and BMWs, those comfortable Renault’s, the grace of the Citroen DS. The clean design and high quality of the Mk1 Golf. The innovative DKWs and Auto Unions. The Honda S800 and the Datsun 240Z. The list goes on. These cars are not rubbish, and the reason that the British owned industry ended up going bust because it could not accept this.
    By the way I own a P6 Rover and love it, but I acknowledge that there is alot of Citroen DS and some Fintail Mercedes in it. I wouldn’t put Rover(The Rover Company Ltd.)down as innovators but more clever and discrete copiers. That’s why it was such a shame they got involved with British Leyland.

  52. What a terrible tale. It paints the usual picture of unionists/socialists behaving like belligerent children. It’s such a shame that they ruin and destroy employment – maybe they will learn one day but I do believe they are too dim witted. A terrible tragedy….

  53. @55, Is it just unionists/socialists? and I don’t care for either.

    Lets take Dyson Vacs for example, Shipped the factory overseas, lets not beat about the bush its cheap labour, never mind he could not expand the factory could he not relocate here?

    So then your decimate the local economy, nobody buys things and the town declines.

    But that’s global markets for you. Does anyone remember they are paying for the 07/08 crash as well?

  54. @47, Yes but Made In Dagenham was about a 1968 strike, as I said in my post I as talking about my Dad from the 70’s onwards. I spoke to him about it last night and he agrees, as far as he remembers BL were on strike a lot more often that Ford plants were in the mid 70’s/80s.

    The problem was back then that if one Ford factory walked, the rest had to walk out in “symphony”. He also said the Halewood plant was the most militant of all the Ford ones back then.

  55. 54. Your P6 Rover was far more innovative than you think. Show me another mainstream saloon with De Dion rear suspension . The horizontal front suspension was also a fascinating and effective design, but not followed probably because of expense. The detachable panels on a skeleton are as far as I know unique . The heron head was probably its first use in a road car . The roofline had a touch of DS about it, but any influence of the fintails is , for me, impossible to detect

    • @ Christopher: Apart from all those sporty Italian cars using de Dion suspension, there was also DAF – and of course the Volvo 340…

      The body structure of the P6 is more or less a plain copy of the one found on the DS a decade earlier – as with the shape the DS was very influential for the P6. The special layout of the front suspension – often cited to be created for the future adaption of the gas turbine – greatly enhances perceived body stiffness by feeding the suspension forces into the bulkhead instead of the front inner wings. Not hindered by RWD Alec Issigonis found simpler way to achieve the same results with the horizontal suspension in the 1800 and later Maxi (but across the car – like the engine).

      All of these things may not have made the P6 as cutting edge as the DS was at launch – but it was modern and more importantly a quality car. Something that was missed with the later SD1 in quite a few areas.

  56. @57 I understand your point although macro-economists would argue that countries should specialise in the areas where they have an economic advantage. Therefore, low value assembly moves overseas whilst the R&D presence is expanded in the UK. Low value jobs exported, high value jobs imported. Net result: UK wins.

    The other feature of the global economy is that we are importing increasing numbers of high value assembly jobs in to the UK (Nissan/Toyota/Honda/Mini etc.). Another UK win.

    Such specialisation increases global GDP and, thus, our own living standards.

    Of course, it’s very difficult when your own job is one of the ones lost but the harsh truth is that trying to fight against economic reality results in investment funds being directed towards the unproductive areas of the economy. This then kills jobs and promotes economic decline….

  57. Alenader – the cars you are talking about came 10 to 15 years after the Rover 2000 , and the same applied to the Alfa 75 someone else mentioned ( although I can’t remember whether the DAF 750 had a de Dion rear , and I don’t remember whether my 44 from 1974 did ) . The point you make about the SD1 however is correct in that technically it was a retrograde step – it was, however, just as nice a car as the P6 to drive

  58. Alexander ( sorry about the previous typing error ) – the cars you are talking about came 10 to 15 years after the Rover 2000 , and the same applied to the Alfa 75 someone else mentioned ( although I can’t remember whether the DAF 750 had a de Dion rear , and I don’t remember whether my 44 from 1974 did ) . The point you make about the SD1 however is correct in that technically it was a retrograde step – it was, however, just as nice a car as the P6 to drive

  59. One aspect that has not been mentioned so far is the ruthless prevention of motor industry development in the Midlands by the use of “Industrial Development Certificates”. These were controlled by Government and not issued to firms in the Midlands who were “encouraged” to set up factories in other parts of the UK. So we had Linwood, Speke (BMC), and Halewood. Now only Halewood survives but was once a by-word for union intransigence and stupidity, as were the others.

    I am convinced this refusal to allow the motor industry to develop fully in its home base was one of the main factors in eventually ruining it. Of course we all know now that we were living in a fool’s paradise of apparently never ending prosperity. This will never return in our lifetimes due to the cheap labour and skills in China India and elsewhere.

  60. @61, We still have to employ thick people. Your point seems weak really, for example, a few years ago the Continental tyre company in France had a plant delivering record profits year on year as well as productivity, it was decided that the plant would close with huge job losses because they could relocate and get the tyres made cheaper.
    That’s not harsh truth but unfettered greed, the workforce even kidnapped the M.D.such was their anguish- all they wanted was to keep their jobs.

    Whom is insane enough to trust Global markets having had gamblers spunk our pensions and savings away?

    I also understand we need high value jobs, but those production lines just have well paid fitters, we do need engineers and we also need an education system.

    Anyway, I could be wrong but I don’t think so.

  61. All of the points are valid. I must have lucky because all the BMC cars that I owned were reliable. I worked in a BMC garage for a few years and the biggest problem was supply of new cars. Those that know the.history of Austin will know that in1955 the Austin plant was the most advanced plant in the world. As.regards the modern plants in Britain the manufacturers like Honda, Nissan, Toyota ,they obviously tied the workers down to a tight contract of employment. The Rover models of recent years are still giving good service and look better than the models from the other manufacturers of the same period. As regards VW reliabity Ugh!

  62. @69 (hehe) I’m straying off piste here but the company I work for shut their entire French operation because the workers there were so protected by unions they had so many rights it was impossible to get rid of lazy staff – the only solution was to shut the place. Another union victory.

    More importantly, of course any relocation needs to at lease match the previous quality but whilst your point about the dishonest banking industry is correct they are separate to an argument about international manufacturing and industrial specialisation.

    Bottom line – jobs good, Frenchies bad. lol.

  63. Peter @58, Ford had a seven week strike at the start of 1971, which badly disrupted production of the new Cortina, and a six week strike in the autumn of 1978, with some smaller disputes in between( Halewood seemed more strike prone than Dagenham). Ford weren’t exactly Datsun in terms of their industrial relations history, but their record for disputes was considerably better than British Leyland’s. However, poorer productivity and quality in British plants did see production of the Granada and Capri moved to Germany in the late seventies and the shortfall in production caused by the 1978 strike saw production topped up by importing cars. Maybe Ford knew their American owners had this sanction of moving production abroad and behaved better.

  64. By the mid seventies Ford made in Britain, Belgium and Germany were almost identical and should Ford have shut down Dagenham then, as happened in reality in 2002, they could import Cortinas quite easily from Germany. For all there was the big strike of 1978, the workers knew how easy it was to transfer production to other European plants and there was never a major strike at Ford again. Also Ford continued to top up production of their British models from Europe after the strike and by 1980 it was pot luck whether you bought a British Ford as you were just as likely to get one from continental Europe.

  65. I read this story and all of the comments above and one thing HITS me between the eyes – PASSION – The thing that we look as if we have lost is still there. I take great solace in reading as I now know the Lion only sleeps. The disasters that have fallen upon us in the 70s ,80s and now this great recession, have only suppressed but not crushed the passion we hold within us to achieve. FOCUS & CONFIDENCE because we now understand ourselves far better and why and where we went wrong. You, as individuals will make the difference.

  66. A combination of factors I would say, but unions, a striking workforce must have been a significant one. However, as pointed out above other makers survived this militant era.
    To me, it seems mis-management was repeated over a far longer period. Having left Red Robbo behind the Three M’s were never going to be enough to recover the company. British Aerospace and under investment followed. Graham Day and the Honda link was a high point but how often did this prevent investment in pure Austins, Rovers? The Phoenix 4 were evidently trying to attract investment but, for example, would a 75 Coupe not have been a better bet than the XPower SV? Huge salaries, accountants being fined! The end – BMW management leaving Rover a car plant rather than a car company.
    The new beginning? I ain’t going to criticise SAIC – slowly does it!!

  67. Some very interesting points in this trail. I think we can all agree that during the 1960/70’s in particular the unions in most UK car plants were pretty good at wrecking their employers chances of survival.
    However I think with BL, the problems inherited from BMC were insurmountable. Weak management by George Harriman and Alec Issigonis had enabled the unions to virtually take control by the time BL was formed in 1968. Add to this the inability to cost the vehicles properly ( Mini, 1100 & 1800) so as to make a profit. Additionally, the lack of economy of scale, with Longbridge and Cowley competing with each other added to their woes. Donald Stokes arrives and produces the Marina as a saviour of the volume car side…did he even evaluate the Cortina? Had Stokes been able to make profits in the 70’s, BL may have survived?
    To sum it up 1960’s brilliant products,badly costed and poor quality. The 1970’s rubbish products, rubbish quality. Both decades bolshi unions.
    If you get a chance read the book British Leyland The Truth About The Cars by Jeff Daniels.
    In respect of Ford strikes in the 1970’s, I remember waiting from Feb to Oct 79 for an Escort 1600 Sport due to industrial action. Not sure the car was made in the UK though.

  68. #76. Issigonis had absolutely nothing to do with management of labour relations . Indeed he was not really a manager at all – as technical director he was the boffin behind the cars, and like most boffins he had blind spots, but the cars were undeniably ingenious and in the case of both the Mini and the 1100, ground breaking. I’m also totally unconvinced about the alleged inability to cost the products – BL made big profits throughout the 60s and into the 70s and it would have been impossible to do this without the volume cars making a decent profit per car. The alleged loss per car came from Ford and almost certainly was sour grapes . The real losses came from the persistent losses of production in the 70s through strikes, ( although I agree that the high overheads caused by the widespread carting of partly completed product between plants did not help )

  69. In 1968, when British Leyland was created, the company had 40 per cent of the market and had a huge export market and most of its products were well respected and popular. Ten years later, market share was down to 18 per cent, its export markets were drying up and cars like the Austin Allegro were dire with terrible quality. Even good looking and good to drive cars like the Rover SD1 were cursed with terrible quality and strike prone factories.
    I often wish BMC and Leyland were kept separate as I’m sure the Rover and Triumph brands would have still been alive now, producing BMW rivalling cars.

  70. Under Leonard Lord in the 1950’s Issigonis was controlled and directed. In 1961 George Harriman takes the helm and because of Harriman’s weak management style Issigonis goes off in his own direction. Consequently, as Chief Engineer under Harriman Issigonis is not focused on developing new/ improved models to keep the Mini and 1100 competitive. Whilst Issigonis was undoubtedly an engineering genius, his arrogance of what customers should want, his contempt for salesmen and his inabilities to understand a balance sheet, contributed significantly to the demise of BMC by 1967/8.
    The business was profitable in the 1950’s(very) and in the early 1960’s despite the loss making Mini, profits continued albeit reducing. The formation of BLMH/ BL in 1968 failed to prevent the falling market share and increasing losses to the point of bankruptcy in 1975.
    Had a Len Lord type character been in charge through the 1960/70’s things may have been very different? We would almost certainly had the Metro 10 years earlier and ahead of our rivals from Europe.
    Rhyds mentions the Marina was a match for the Cortina Mk2, I agree it was. However the Cortina Mk 3 was launched Oct 70 and the Marina in Spring 71. The Cortina 3 was a far superior car after the initial engine problems were sorted out, as the sales proved. Ironically the Cortina Mk2 and the Marina had the same designer Roy Haynes.

  71. many years ago I bought a book called (I think) “Whatever happened to the British Motorcycle Industry?”
    Although I felt that it contained a number of comments by the author (probably helped with hind-sight too) along the lines of “if they’d have done XXXX as I suggested at the time things would have never gone wrong!” the underlying feeling I got when I read it (which was a long time ago) was the fact that all of the companies were so complacent. “We know what we’re doing, there’s no need to modernise our bikes and (most importantly) there’s no need to worry about the Japanese, they’re a joke and will never build anything better than we can!”
    Now, I’m not saying that BL thinking was the same, and I’m sure that the crippling strikes and union activism in the 70’s didn’t also have a huge effect, but I do think that the whole of British Engineering Businesses (can you remember when Britain had an engineering business?) have to some extent suffered from this same complacency…

  72. Rhyds@80, the Marina was British Leyland’s most successful car in the seventies. It was as conventional as the Cortina with rwd and conventional suspension and was designed to take on its rivals by being a conservative product that was cheap to buy and own. The Marina certainly was a rather stodgy car with poor handling and indifferent quality, but it was also acceptably reliable for the period and a large range esnured sales were decent.

  73. What about the case of the TR7 – a new car in 1975.

    Firstly produced at Speke and the Americans loved them but quality was poor and then a long strike so the Americans started to look elsewhere. Production then moved to Canley and production improved and finally to Solihull for the best produced cars.

    However, the original strike meant that the Sprint engined version did not see production and also held up production of the TR8 to a time when it was too late. What would have been the outcome if the Speke strike had not happened.

    As for the SD1 I once commented to Gordon Bashford (engineering design at Solihull [Rover]) about the poor quality of the SD1. He gruffly replied ‘it was OK before Leyland got their hands on it’.

  74. The writing was on the wall as soon as Leyland was forced to merge with loss-making BMC/BMH in May 68 by Tony Benn.

    If they had managed to hold off merging until BMC had rationalised their crazy product range there may have been a better outcome…

  75. The first big improvements for years came in 1978 when the B series was pensioned off in favour of the O series for the Princess and Marina. This endowed both cars with better economy and refinement and a 2 litre version was created for the Princess, which was aimed at the 2 litre Cortina. This engine, which survived into the nineties, developed a reputation for reliability and economy and powered six different BL/ Austin Rover cars.
    I think the arrival of Michael Edwardes saved the company, as apart from the O series engine, there was the Metro,the Ital, the alliance with Honda and the pensioning off of dying models like the Triumph Dolomite and the Austin Allegro. Also for all he halved the workforce and had a bitter fight with the unions in his early days, the company he left behind was in far better shape and regaining market share.

  76. I think it is too easy to blame the unions and workers. After all it takes two to tango and managers were just as responsible for toxic labour relations. The truth was, workers didn’t trust management and doesn’t trust owners.

    You can condemn British workers compared to their counterparts in place like Germany but in Germany unions had a seat on company boards. They were informed about the company’s plans and understood why certain things had to change. Whereas far less impressive British management just handed out decrees from up high.

    I also think the view of the quality of the components in British cars is viewed through rose tinted lenses here. I read about workers in British Leyland having to shim machine tools with cigarette papers because they were so worn out. Even if the unions played nice, how could they compete with worn out equipment when their competitors in Germany and Japan were working with upto date tooling and equipment?

    Proven components can also mean old components. How many British engines in the 1970’s were compromised in a desperate penny pinching attempt to reuse old tooling? Whose fault was that? Managers or unions?

    The unions did lose their minds in the 1970’s but I don’t think you can lay all the blame on them. One of the reasons the workforce was so demoralised was they could see they were building rubbish that wasn’t competitive. In plants that were dated and desperately needed investment.

  77. The big problem was cars went into production with numerous quality issues and weren’t improved until the market had moved on. The Montego’s reliability issues weren’t beaten until the car was five years old, by which time Vauxhall had launched a new Cavalier, which was a big leap forward from the Mark 2, and Ford had revamped the Sierra with less controversial styling, a saloon version and better engines. Also the Metro was left to grow old with the same Mini based mechanicals and by the mid eighties was outclassed by most of its rivals.

    The unions certainly couldn’t be blamed for the problems with the eighties cars as strikes were far less common and died out after 1984. I think the problem lay with lax quality control, penny pinching (the plastic gear linkage on the Montego was a notorious problem) and a feeling by senior management that the government would always come to the rescue with more money. It wasn’t until Graham Day arrived in 1986 and privatisation that there was a huge drive to improve quality that the decline at Austin Rover stopped.

    • @ Paul, this must have referred to a post above mine, but while ” foreign rubbish” is a sweeping generalisation, British cars weren’t the only ones with problems in the seventies and eighties. Italian cars were notorious for rust, where at one stage cars like the Alfasd and Lancia Beta could have terminal corrosion at three years old, and some of their cars like the Fiat Strada were unreliable as well. Then there were truly awful cars that only sold on price like the FSO, which only had a low price to commend it, and the two stroke Wartburgs from East Germany that were among the worst cars ever made.

  78. If you manufacture cars deliberately tainted with numerous build quality faults and plenty of fit’n’finish issues etc through strike action, then you will inevitably tarnish your customer base, who will vote with their wallets, walk down the road to other marque’s showrooms and dealerships,and they’ll automatically buy from European and international brands which were,and ARE,far better than BL’s offerings. British Leyland had effectively made a rod for it’s own back in allowing workers to sabotage production if they didn’t get what they wanted in wages and better working conditions.

  79. Surely the majority of unionized workers had children and wanted a good future for them. Unfortunately they seemed to be unable to co-operate with management to ensure that future. Young people in Longbridge who once might have worked for MGR now work on zero hours contracts or in phone shops – jobs not careers. “Them and us” has a lot to answer for. I wouldn’t say management was free of blame – I started my career in a nationalized company where many people felt the world owed them a living. I could see the world was changing, they couldn’t. I left that company to make my way in the world – it wasn’t easy, but I have seen more of the world than I would have being a white collar jobsworth.

  80. @ Ken Strachan, you only have to drive past the former factory at Longbridge now, which is housing and a retail park, where once it employed 20,000 workers. The rot that set in during the seventies with union militancy, useless management and substandard products like the Allegro saw the factory never recover to its glory days in the sixties and it endured a slow death.
    OTOH, you have Nissan in Sunderland, where the factory has never lost a day to industrial action in 38 years, has consistenly had very high productivity and makes cars people want to buy all over Europe to see how a British car factory can be a success. Only recently has announced the next generation of Nissan electric cars will be made in Sunderland, guaranteeing work for the next ten years.

  81. A lot of British companies seemed to be stuck in a “if it’s ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality even when it was obvious things were broken!

    I remember reading something about an electronics company who had tried to break down the “them & us” mentality between management & workers by employing older workers to advise the senior staff.

    This worked to an extent but some of these veterans were set in their ways, so some products ended up being designed to be assembled cheaply & easily by their advice, but were hard to test while working by field engineers, who had to deal with a rat’s nest of cables between circuit boards rather than neat ribbon cables at the edges of the boards.

    The author called it something like “because Brian says so / no”, listing a few other issues that he personally encountered that made repairing devices tricky.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.