The year 2021 sees the 45th anniversary of the launch of the Rover SD1, the great white hope for British Leyland and all who sailed in her.
After years of running AROnline and being privy to the expert opinions of many insiders, Keith Adams reckons this beautiful executive fastback was just the product the Corporation didn’t need in its weakened state brought on by the failure of the Austin Allegro.
Rover SD1: how it helped kill British Leyland
Ah, yes the Rover SD1, a popular and iconic car that’s now seen as a mainstream and desirable classic car. It’s been lauded by AROnline many, many times over the years as the greatest car to come out of BLMC, and probably the one that most of us reading this would like to own. Now, however, I’m talking about it as a contributing factor for the fall of British Leyland during the 1970s. What gives? Well, please bear with me, and I’ll try to explain.
Firstly, it’s best to start with a little context. As we all know, in 1968 British Leyland was formed out of the merger between Leyland Motor Corporation and British Motor Holdings (essentially the British Motor Corporation plus Jaguar). Each of those constituent parts had been formed out of other mergers – on the BMC side, these included Austin, Morris, MG, Wolseley, Riley, Vanden Plas and Jaguar; while Leyland Motors incorporated Rover and Triumph.
There were also trucks, buses, tractors, military vehicles and, er, fridges in this coming together of marques. Alongside that was the body builder Pressed Steel Fisher, which was also the conglomeration of a number of companies. In other words, between 1952 and 1968 more than a dozen marques and 60 factories were crashed into each other to form one single, super car manufacturing giant. No wonder there was confusion.
Then there was the issue of selling those cars – and this where it gets interesting because within BMC, both the Austin and the Nuffield Group of car dealers were still very powerful and separate entities going into the formation of BLMC, despite having been merged in 1952. And what do Dealer Networks need? Cars to sell. And did it matter that many towns had more than one dealer from each side of the fence competing for the same buyers – and who ultimately worked for the same paymasters. As for Rover and Triumph, the constituent parts of Leyland Motors, they too were still competing with each other via separate dealers, often with similarly-priced cars.
British Leyland: competing with itself
So, the group was ripe for rationalisation. The Dealer Networks needed slimming down, as did the factories. However, most importantly, so did the myriad of competing marques. From the comfort of having the benefit of 50 years’ of hindsight, that’s a most easy and obvious conclusion to make. But, in 1968, BLMC’s figurehead and overall leader, Donald Stokes, was in an unenviable position.
He would have struggled to understand even the most basic concept of knowing where to begin. He grew up industrially in the Leyland machine and, truth be told, that’s all he’ll have known. We’ll come on to where that left him in terms of product in a minute, but if the state of the factories was anything to go from, making BLMC work would have been overwhelming for just about anyone. In 2001, he said, ‘Longbridge was clapped out. Everything was clapped out. It had just carried on after the war. It was very peculiar – the place had grown like Topsy. There was a foundry in the middle of the works! In one factory I remember seeing machines that had been there since 1914 – it was quite unbelievable.’
Did he rationalise? It would appear not. ‘You had to try to get a new culture going in the place. First of all Austin and Morris were scarcely speaking to each other. You had to break this down as quickly as you could. These were minor things. You couldn’t let it go on. If you did, it would just get worse. We were trying to drag them out of the past. You had to go in and say who was boss.’ It would seem that he might well have wanted to bang heads together, but either didn’t have the strength of will to follow through on this wish, or he had his hands tied by Government, the unions and possibly a lack of resolve to make cuts.
‘I thought we could run an industry and keep people employed,’ he said. ‘I didn’t reckon it was my job to get rid of people – I wasn’t brought up in that tradition. I suppose that’s one of my many faults. We couldn’t afford to cut back on our model range, because if you stopped making the cars you didn’t make any money. We had to make the money to pay for the pressing plants and so on to make all those platforms. We were completely undercapitalised.’
Really, what BLMC really needed was a Carlos Tavares-style figure with clear focus and balls of steel. Instead, it had Donald Stokes, and he was patently not that man.
New models needed
This would imply that all of the mess was happening at Austin-Morris, but the situation was far from rosy at Rover-Triumph. In 1968, both marques looked to be in good shape. Their product lines consisted of the 1300/Dolomite family, the Triumph and Rover 2000s and the larger V8 Rovers. On the Triumph side were the still popular and profitable sports car lines, while Rover had the Land Rover. Future models were in development, although not nearly enough of them. The main source of Rover/Triumph crossover was in the highly profitable 2.0-litre class.
So, as the BLMC merger continued to bed in, the issue of product was addressed, and with some urgency. Austin-Morris, ably led by ex-Leyland men George Turnbull and engineered by Harry Webster would concentrate on tidying up the range, and delineating Austin and Morris. The plan was for Austin to produce front-wheel-drive family cars, and Morris to make more conservative rear-wheel-drive models – that policy was evidenced by the appearance of the Austin Allegro and Morris Marina. Triumph would produce premium mid-market cars, while Rover would slot in to the executive car market between Triumph and Jaguar. Sounds logical now, but it took BLMC’s Board a great deal of time and money to make this decision. And all the while, sales were slipping due to lost production, stronger opposition and an increasing lack of competitiveness.
We’ll come back to the holes in that wider plan an a later essay, I’m sure, but needless to say a stronger Management Team would never have signed off the Austin-Morris 18/22-series/Princess or continued with the smaller-engined Triumphs or Austin Maxi on that basis – but they did.
Rover SD1: a good plan, surely?
Yes, absolutely… The Triumph 2000/2500 and Rover P6 were both well into middle age by the time of the formation of BLMC and, in a more conventional situation, the replacements for both would have been well underway, as they would soon be badly needed. As it was, the Triumph Puma was still to get off the drawing board, while the Rover P8 was shifting around on its axis. Pre-BLMC, it was to be a P6 replacement (among other things), but post-merger in 1969, Rover started work on the P10 (above) while the P8 morphed into something else entirely. Even before the Rover SD1 programme was signed off in 1971, it therefore found itself in an uncomfortable position. Resources had been spent on both Rover’s and Triumph’s projects, with the P8 almost making production. These had been canned with the arrival of the SD1 (via the short-lived RT1 project) and, in the case of the P8, it had been costly. BLMC needed to pay £2 million in cancellation fees, while the press reported that it had cost at least £3 million to develop. You can bet it had actually been a whole lot more than that.
With the Rover P8 and Triumph Puma gone and the P10 now morphed into the more cost-constrained SD1, this sub-Jaguar project began to take shape. And as it was going to be an expensive project, the resources for the programmes to replace the Morris Marina and Triumph Dolomite, known as the ADO77 and Triumph SD2, were limited. Moreover, they were being squeezed all the time post-1972, when BLMC’s profitability and sales fell off a cliff due to loss of production through industrial action, and a less-than-competitive Austin-Morris range.
By 1974 and towards the end of BLMC’s financial independence, the squeeze was very much on spending on future models across the board. The ADO74 supermini was canned, and ultimately so were the Triumph SD2 and ADO77 Marina-replacement (before being briefly merged into the TM-1 project). They would make way for the Rover SD1 project, as it was the most developed within the Corporation (the Princess and Triumph TR7 were much closer to launch and were funded by the first wave of post-1968 expenditure), despite having the potential to sell more and have much wider commercial appeal. So, because of this decision, the Morris Marina stayed in production until 1980 (1984 if you count the Morris Ital) taking its maker’s name with it, while the Triumph Dolomite stayed around until the arrival of the Acclaim – which also saw off its maker’s name.
It all comes at great cost
With pretty much all of BLMC’s resources behind it, and in a period of austerity post-Government bailout, the SD1 just had to succeed. Overall cost of the project had come in at a cool £95 million. As well as being built on an all-new platform in a brand-new £31 million factory in Solihull, the hopes and dreams of Rover-Triumph, Austin-Morris and ultimately BLMC as a whole lay on it. Much of the five-door hatchback SD1’s DNA was inherited from the Rover P10 project, but its six-cylinder PE166 engines and LT77 transmission came from Triumph, so it was very much a joint effort. It was engineered by Spen King’s team and styled by David Bache’s Designers, as with the P6, but interior quality had been dropped considerably in order to distance even the top V8-powered SD1 from Jaguar’s position at the top of the range.
It was planned as a volume-selling executive car. The new factory at Solihull was geared up to produce up to 150,000 SD1s a year and operate on a three-shift system – which, given the combined sales of the Triumph 2000/2500 and Rover P6, was still something of a stretch, even in the boom years of the early 1970s. But until recession that followed the 1973/74 Energy Crisis, sales of cars in this class were booming, and BLMC’s management would have seen a great opportunity to clean up with the SD1. And in development, confidence must have been high – this was a great-looking car that was intelligently engineered, and showed how progressive a company its maker was.
Except that the Rover SD1’s potential buyers weren’t so progressive. In a market that preferred three-box saloons, the hatchback was nothing if not daring – and, although it wasn’t alone in this market sector in offering a hatchback, rivals such as the Audi 100 Avant would be sold alongside saloon counterparts. Perhaps the fifth door should have been used on the Princess instead. The market for big estate cars was also healthy and profitable at the time of the SD1’s launch, and we know that an SD1 Estate (below) was in development, but the money ran out to launch it. So, instead of offering a saloon and an estate, Rover sold a hatch that didn’t quite fit the bill for either set of buyers.
Not enough quality or quantity
Even as the first SD1s went on sale, the factory building them went on strike – and, as a consequence, the company never stood a chance of meeting the huge early demand for its exciting new car. It was receiving praise and awards from all quarters, but unless you were prepared to negotiate paying a premium from your dealer (which got many retailers into trouble), you faced a very long wait for one. Then there was the late arrival of the six-cylinder models, which also stunted demand in Europe as well as the UK – regular supplies of the 2600 didn’t really arrive until 1977, while if you wanted a 2300, you’d have to wait until 1978. And that’s not even taking into account of the lack of a 2.0-litre model until the 1982 facelift.
By the time production was ramped up at Solihull, the shine had long since worn off the SD1, and tales of reliability issues and sub-standard build quality were widely being circulated in the press. Autocar reported on its Rover 3500 automatic long-term test car: ‘The most disappointing feature about the Car Of The Year was the sad lack of quality control during building and the minimal pre-delivery inspection. Most major fault was a gap between windscreen and pillars, which allowed in rain and draughts. Hatchback door was badly fitted, and the front doors were re-hung and adjusted to get them to close properly and to cut down wind noise. The general fit and finish was also poor.’ And that would have been an example specially prepared by the press garage.
Peter Grant, one time Production Manager at Solihull added: ‘I was at a dance at the Civic Centre in Solihull and a senior Director of British Leyland came up to me and said, “You Rover people are all the same. You worry about quality. We want quantity. We’ve got to get this SD1 turned out in quantity.” Morale was very, very bad. We had sensible middle-aged people. They didn’t want to be sworn at or screamed at and threatened with the sack if they didn’t decide this that or the other. The Plant Director was despairing of the quality of the cars that were going into sales. It had to be seen to be believed.’
Things improved in 1979, but then the second Energy Crisis happened and another recession inevitably followed, once again killing demand for large executive cars. Would BL have been in better shape in the late 1970s with a modern Marina, decent Dolomite and shiny new supermini to sell? Absolutely…
Conclusion: lack of sales, lack of profit, lack of success
As much as we love the Rover SD1, it’s clear it was a failure for BLMC, despite all those awards, that clever interior, fabulous interior and intelligent use of the Rover V8 engine. Had BL been in a healthy position, it could have stood having a poor-selling halo product, but it wasn’t – the combined sales of the Marina and Allegro were poor compared with the 1100/1300 they replaced, and the Maxi was selling a fraction of the numbers it should have been.
With 303,405 sold during its ten-year production run, it pales into insignificance compared with rival executive cars, such as the Mercedes-Benz W123, Ford Granada or Audi 100. Even the Citroën CX comfortably outsold it with more than a million units shifted. The company had thrown in just about everything it had so, not only did the SD1 need to be profitable, it needed to sell in big numbers – although it ended up meeting the former goal, in no way did it meet the latter.
That’s why the SD1 was a failure. It cost an absolute fortune to develop, demanded a new factory in which to build it and, as a result, by the time the money started pouring in from those early sales, BLMC had long since needed a financial bail-out from the Government in the wake of the 1973 Energy Crisis. Most damagingly, the SD1’s failure to sell and score huge profits meant that BLMC no longer had enough money to develop the much-needed replacements for the Triumph Dolomite, Morris Marina and many others – in other words, it haemorrhaged funds just when they were needed most.
In February 1978, Michael Edwardes said to a dealer conference: ‘the Rover SD1 range summed up what was best and worst in British Leyland. The cars themselves are runaway winners and the envy of many in the motor business. We spent £95m developing the car and building a brand new factory, the most modern in Europe, in which to produce it. And what happens? We have some of the worst production and quality problems in the whole company, customers are literally banging on showroom doors to get delivery. After six months they lost interest, and we alienate the customers. This is what I mean by a death wish.’
When people blithely say that the Austin Allegro and Morris Marina were the death of British Leyland, point them in the direction of this essay. They holed the vessel beneath the waterline – perhaps fatally – but their failure wasn’t the Corporation’s only undoing. No, the ambitious Rover SD1 has a huge part to play in the death of British Leyland – it might not have single-handedly killed BL, but it was misguided (no matter how well intentioned) and cost the Corporation dearly.