Blog : What if they’d not backed BL in 1979?

Keith Adams


In 1980, BL’s terminal decline was arrested. Firstly, by the newly installed Conservative Government’s decision to back the company’s corporate plan by investing more than £100m and then by the arrival of the popular and likeable Austin Metro. However, as we saw in the recently declassified government documents, which recount this period completely, it had been touch-and-go for a for BL for a good few months following Margaret Thatcher’s installation as Prime Minister.

BL was a basketcase in 1979 – its product line was ageing and unappealing but, far worse than that, market share was dissolving and its reputation both in the UK and overseas was tatters. Almost as soon as Thatcher’s Government set to work, BL came under intense scrutiny in Westminster – as did all publicly-funded organisations. In the end, and against the advice of a number of high profile cabinet colleagues, Margaret Thatcher signed the cheque and BL was allowed to continue.

Why? Because there were two major factors in the company’s favour: the presence of Michael Edwardes as Chairman and Chief Executive and the recently-signed deal with Honda to build the upcoming Acclaim. Edwardes was popular with the public and, in being seen to support him, the Tories knew they’d be seen as siding with one of their own – a strong manager unafraid of fighting the unions. And Honda’s deal with BL certainly had potential for the future…

What, though, if Thatcher hadn’t been convinced and, instead, backed her Chancellor, Geoffrey Howe, who’d already said, ‘Parts of BL are profitable and there is no reason why they should not continue in business. Other parts could be run down over a period rather than closed immediately. To the extent that BL loses its previous market share, it must be the case that other British manufacturers will pick up at least some of their business.’ What if, in October 1979, she had made that fateful call to Michael Edwardes, saying – you’re on your own.

Without the injection of cash from the Government, BL would have continued, at least in the short term. But Edwardes would have immediately began the process of breaking up the organisation, selling off the most profitable and desirable parts first.

First to be sold would have been Land Rover. In 1979, it was undoubtedly  the jewel in BL’s car making crown and that would have been snapped up by an acquisitive rival – perhaps Ford or GM. The Range Rover was the goose that laid the golden egg, but Land Rovers were still being bought in numbers. And let’s not forget all those juicy defence contracts.

MG could also have been parted out quite quickly. In 1979, it was in an interesting place – it was making losses on big export sales and it was still one of the most evocative marques in the business – there was still a great deal of equity in the brand. The downside was that notice had alredy been served on Abingdon. There was a deal to buy MG  on the table from Alan Curtis of Aston Martin and, in late 1979, it was still very much an option. Would the canny Edwardes have off-loaded MG to Aston Martin, without the possibility of serious future investment? I think so, yes, probably reversing the decision to close Abingdon in the process now it was off the books. Would it have worked, given the mess Aston Martin was in at the time? Perhaps not… Then again, Victor Gauntlett was just around the corner and who knows what great things he could have gone on to do with a combined MG and Aston Martin?

Jaguar was more of an inponderable in 1979 – it was before the John Egan miracle and his appointment in March 1980 might not have happened at all in a BL that was being wound down and split off. On the positive side, the XJ Series 3 had just been launched and was greeted with rave reviews across the world. But countering that, the XJ-S wasn’t selling at all. Would a rival such as Mercedes-Benz or BMW have considered picking up the tarnished Jaguar of 1979-’80? Or maybe, as happened in 1989 via the 1984 privatisation, might Ford have gone for the leaping cat as that all-important luxury brand to top its European range? Either way, BL’s most prestigious marque would be heading overseas.

Would that also be true of Rover and Triumph? Hiving off this part of BL should have been simple, as it meant a simple extraction of Solihull and Canley, which built the SD1 and TR7. Although both model lines were in mild trouble in 1979, there was plenty of potential for the future, thanks to platform and component sharing, as well as relatively (for BL) young drivetrains and model ranges. I suspect that packaged up with a new factory and innovative future model line – as well as healthy export sales (for the sports cars at least), Rover-Triumph could have made a case for itself.

Even if it had not found a suitor, with careful management, and without the albatross of Austin-Morris around its neck, Rover-Triumph might have made it. Personally speaking, I think it could have been a long shot, as 1979-1982 would prove to be lean years and, without a cash benefactor backing the company, it probably wouldn’t have made it to the point where new models could be rolled out.

That leaves what had been described as the ‘unsaleable rump’. Austin-Morris would still have had the Metro to sell in 1980, but there was no way the Maestro and Montego could have been developed, at least without external investment. Could a mid-1980s range comprising only of the Mini, Metro, possibly the Allegro Mk4 and Ambassador have sustained the dealer network without significant new car product introductions? Undoubtedly not… Even with the Metro, it’s likely that Austin-Morris would have faded away quite quickly. Unless…

Would another carmaker have been interested in taking on Austin-Morris without the massive improvements made during the early-1980s? Again, that’s unlikely. It’s interesting to consider Honda, though – would it have gone ahead with the BL deal, knowing the Government was no longer backing it? My hunch is the Japanesse might possibly have continued, but only by taking a big stake in the company, eventually converting Longbridge and/or Cowley into Honda assembly plants – unless, of course, that Michael Edwardes identified Austin-Morris as a dead duck, steering Honda in the direction of Rover-Triumph…

Either way, I reckon we’d have ended up with a landscape that looked like this:

  • Austin-Morris: Dead
  • MG: Life support
  • Jaguar: In foreign hands
  • Land Rover: In foreign hands
  • Rover-Triumph: Life support/In foreign hands

That’s not awfully different to how things ended up anyway but, although the ultimate outcome might have similar, it would have happened sooner, denying us that generation of Rovers – the 200-800 – that you all love so much. Having said that, had by some miracle the Rover-Triumph plan worked, I wonder where that would have been following the Rover Bravo/Triumph Boxer plan? Could it have become the British BMW, with Triumph serving up sporting saloon and roadsters and Rover servicing the executive car market? Stranger things have happened…

Over to you…

Keith Adams


  1. Some interesting points here, particularly about Rover-Triumph. In the short term, Rover (one model, obviously) and Triumph operations would have been kept on life support by the meagre profits generated by Land Rover. However, the downside to this is that it would not have enabled much needed investment in updating the current Land Rover models such as a five-door Range Rover, to take the model more upmarket and generated greater profits. Nor would there have been investment in updating the Land Rover to become the coil-sprung models in 1983 and 1984, or introduction of improved engines. All this would have delayed/stalled this much needed enhancements to existing models and Land Rover itself would have found itself in an even bleaker situation than it ultimately found itself in during the early 1980s. It may also have delayed the investment needed to sell the Range Rover in the highly prized North American market from 1987.

    Replacing the Rover and Triumph cars would have been problematic in the medium and long term, unless of course, there could have been a tie up with another manufacturer to share development costs and key components. On the upside, this may have meant the Rover brand would not have been applied so enthusiastically to a lightly badge-engineered model or taken down market so spectacularly. Triumph would have probably continued to have represented the majority of the new car model portfolio, although the obvious issue to a militant management would have been how to replace their sports cars and also maintain rear-wheel drive.

    Triumph’s models were of course rather old, particularly the Dolomite, and some important profit-generating models such as the 2000/2500, Stag and, to a lesser degree, the Spitfire had ultimately not been replaced by new production models. Triumph’s engine range, as with Rover’s, was either quite old or rather limited in terms of displacement size. This alone would have hampered their chances in the medium and long term, with the only solution being to buy in smaller engines from another manufacturer.

    A Land Rover/Rover/Triumph operation would have appeared to be the best chance of survival out of the other options for BL’s companies, but it could only have been achieved with early association with another manufacturer, compromises in their desire to keep producing sports cars and rear-wheel drive, and there being no overlap between models wearing Rover and Triumph badges.

    Although it saddens me to say this, I think the recipe for success also needed many of the senior ‘old guard’ managers to be replaced by younger, more aware managers who knew something about effective brand management beyond ‘middle England’ rose-tinted ideology. Managers who had considerable experience in developing new products with a focus on manufacturing and components quality, and who were not afraid to ‘get into bed’ with another manufacturer.

    Finally, any financial or ownership partners needed to recognise that if this company was to prosper, it could only be done with a long term commitment to achieving the objectives already mentioned. That would have ruled out the British Government straight away. Floating part of the company on the stock market would also not have achieved this as history shows that British investors are more interested in the size of their own dividends to keep their loyalty than how much is invested in delivering the new products that will give the company and its products a realistic chance in a competitive environment.

  2. I forgot to say, tying in Land Rover with the then Solihull-built Rover SD1 and Triumph of Canley was suggested on my part, so as to have just two main manufacturing sites and also for Land Rover to continue some of its key component sharing with the Rover SD1, in order to deliver mutually beneficial economies of scale.

  3. Howe shows himself being typical of so many of the Conservative wets, willing to talk in private about doing what was necessary to turn the country around, but not willing to walk the talk in public, unlike Thatcher and Tebbit who were prepared to do what was necessary.

    It does however show that despite the popular myth of the Thatcher style of Government, that when you read the cabinet papers you realise both the openness of debate and broad opinions represented across her cabinets. We have to remember that this was time when most Politicians had had careers outside politics and were so capable of forming an opinion without first consulting an opinion poll.

    It’s clear though the public backlash against a Land Rover sale, that breaking off bits of BL public knew about was not an option.

    So the Leyland Truck and Bus sale would have still happened, being sold off earlier and I would suggest being taken not by DAF but by Renault and Volvo who were heavily cooperating at the time. Both Volvo and Renault would have benefited in the short to medium term in having the T45 cab to use as well as integrating the Leyland and Dodge dealers (taken by Renault from PSA at the same time) to close gaps in their dealer networks.

    The Public backlash at the Land Rover sale suggests that it would need to be packaged with Jaguar, Rover and Triumph brands for a buyer. Abingdon was so backward it’s hard to see it surviving and its closure in 1980 suggests the Edwards board did not appreciate the MG brand value so it may have ended up in an opportunistic sale to Aston Martin.

    Long bridge and Cowley would be managed to closure with their current products, I would guess that Mini, Allegro and Ital which still sold in reasonable volume could have survived for a couple of years at breakeven, but Maxi Princess I suspect would have to go immediately.

    So that would leave the Premium brands with a strong American following Jaguar, Triumph and UK following Rover, Edwards would have been tasked with making it saleable in shortest possible time, which would mean freshening up the products and may be a quick TR7 reskin to replace Dolimite .

    The problem is that the high sterling value would have killed the US market in the early 80’s and so I would think that Edwards brief would have then changed sell and close down what could not by 82. Land Rover would still be worth having, may be a sale to JCB (who offered to step in at the GM sale), but Jaguar and Triumph would be dead meat without the US market and Rover SD1 failure in US would have also sealed the end of Rover car production as well.

  4. So the only sound bits would have been Jaguar and Landrover both in Foreign hands. Exactly how things have ended up! – The MG life support is also correct, although it now seems to be in a permanent vegetative state. Only MINI would have been difficult to imagine in your 1979 scenario.

  5. @4 Agree about the Mini, without the Metro to give volume to the A Series it would have died with the Allegro.

    MG was actually killed by Edwards, I believe the MG Metro etc were a result of the backlash of the Abingdon closure. One of the reasons for not selling it and the MGB tooling to Aston Martin was that it would have been a competitor to the TR7 in the US. So I think Edwards would have still killed MG, to help sweeten a sale of Triumph / Rover.

  6. I would have thought that rather than selling off piecemill the ‘profitable’ bits of BL, they would have been kept together as a rump ‘BL’ with the unprofitable bits wound down and closed.

    Cowley could close quite quickly, as the older models were killed off, and the Acclaim moved to Longbridge. The Metro was too close to launch to be sensibly killed, but wouldn’t be replaced, and with it Longbridge would go.

    I can’t see Honda being particularly interested in Longbridge or Cowley, 2 ‘strike ridden’ plants with a reputation for inefficiency and strikes.

    Realistically, some investment would have had to go in to support the remaining parts of the business, but nowhere near the levels that actually did go in during the 80s.

  7. MG could have survived in a Jaguar Rover Triumph combine if the Metro were launched solely in MG form (in Turbo form too).

    A Metro based Midget replacement could have been launched with Triumph taking the matle of larger TR based sported cars & MG taking the brief for the smaller ones.

    Allegro, Maxi, Ital & Ambassador would wither in the same wat that the 25, 45 & 75 did later with the most modern one probably being the most successful due to a light facelift (rev counter, 5 speed LT77 built under license from JRT etc.)

  8. You would need some rationalisation for sustainablity, if you were able to spin a new Mini and Metro, FWD MG/Triumph roadster and small Rover from the LC10 Maestro/Montego, and multiple sports cars and small/large exectutive saloons from the XJ40 there could have been potential for retention of 3 brands, with Land Rover likely to be the first to be poached (probably by GM who tied up with Suzuki in the early 80’s). I suspect that Ford would still take an interest in Jaguar if it purchased Aston-Martin, but I could also imagine the Italian and German Marques being keen on a successful range of sports cars/executive saloons, the Italians would want to badge engineer and the Germans would ‘buy the player and keep him on the bench’, pretty much the same as back in 1994.

  9. As a “Yank” I can’t help but wonder
    if the lessons learned from the 1970s
    and “if” all sides would have gotten together
    for the better,at very least stop bickering
    for five years and make quality number one
    what would have happened?

    Look at the American Auto Industry today.
    It has turned around and for the most part
    flourishing and profitable. Although we shall
    see what happens in another four years. Could
    the same thing the American Industry went through
    have helped the UK Industry?

    In all fairness toyota failed many times and
    was bailed out and supported by their government
    and now look at them..

  10. As the story of BL has been brilliantly recounted on this website, I find the Edwardes era the most fascinating. Here was an industrialist brought in specifically from outside the motor industry, by the Thatcher government, to sort out BL, and (although it was never mooted at the time) make it an attractive proposition for a sell-off. The transitional arrangements Edwardes made to try to re-invigorate the 70s model-range are what I find most intriguing – it is well documented that by 1979 BL had no new or even significantly facelifted models worth promoting, and buyer apathy was at an all-time high. Yet by 1982 we had the Metro (a runaway success at launch), the Acclaim (never a desirable car, or a successor to the Dolomite, but new tin and a new approach to QA), the Ital (the most desperate facelift ever conceived by a Western car maker), the Maxi 2 which ironed out a lot that was wrong with the Maxi, 7 years too late, but neverless was quite appealing, the Allegro 3, which, like the Maxi 2, became quite an appealing car, saddled with a poor reputation, the Ambassador, which finally gave the Princess a 5th door, but no 5th gear, rev counter or high-powered versions to take on the Granada, the TR7 drophead and TR8, which were finally the cars they should have been at launch, and finally the XJ series 3 which apart from only being available in white, red and yellow at first, successfully updated the brilliant XJ series, giving it at least another 4 years of life. Had the M-cars (which were near launch) not come along there is no doubt that Austin-Morris would have disappeared – the revisions made by Edwardes were only providing the public with the cars they should have had in the first place. So Edwardes managed, in 3 years to ensure that BL offered, for one year only (Ital aside – that car should never have happened) the product range it could have offered in 1977, if the investment, and management had been in place. What happened next, with the M cars, could have been ready and in place by 1978/9, had BL not been in such a poor state. In fact, up until the Rover R8/XX series era, ARG’s product line all had roots in the mid 70s – which would have been fine if the cars had been launched in 1980 as they should have been, rather than 1983/84 as they were…….

  11. I think Unipart came out of this fairly unscathed,remember the strapline-the answer is yes, now whats the question?

  12. Love this kind of thing! I wonder how Truck and Bus would have played in? They were profitable I think, and in the later 80s they were nearly sold as a job lot to GM with Land Rover. Honda were pretty clear that they didn’t want ownership (not even a stake). The Japanese always built new factories from scratch rather than taking over old ones at the time.

    So I reckon Longbridge and Cowley would have closed, and probably Canley too, leaving Solihull (newish factory and saleable products) and Browns Lane (great brand). Truck and Bus would have to someone, perhaps GM, Solihull (SD1 and TR7) similarly, and Jaguar too. Seems likely to me that Ford and GM would have been the most likely buyers, given their interest in the later 80s.

  13. @7
    Interesting comment about a Metro-based Midget replacement. That was more or less what became the MGF (with a degree or artistic licence 😀 )

  14. Apropos MG

    I have an MG Midget of 1977, and it is a nice little car to run around in in Summer. Only 30k miles and in apple-pie order. A true classic

    My logical side, (no rose coloured specs!!), also has to say what a dog’s breakfast of a car even for 1977! There is so much that could have been done to keep the car up-to-date and competitive whilst a more modern car was developed, but it was never done, they were just cash cows for the company, and eventually the Americans realised they were being taken for a ride and stopped buying. The MGB was the same. What a tragedy, when you look at how well the Mazda MX5 has done, and continues to do. OK< we had the MG F and MG TF, with the head-gasket-blowing 1.8 engine that must have just about put MG ROver in the mortuary on their own !!

    I also had a 75, and that was an absolutely brilliant and wonderful car, at least for me. SO the product could be OK if the engineers were allowed to make it so.

  15. Politics and industry at this time was a strange place with everyone seemingly bent on self destruction and a feeling that everything will be alright tomorrow.

    Maybe if Rover/Triumph/MG had been offered to Honda for a nominal sum and Land Rover to the highest bidder then that could have been a good long term option. Mini and Metro maybe could have gone with Rover/Triumph but I am sure we would have lost either Longbridge or Cowley.

    Pain was inevitable no matter what and we could easily have lost Jaguar as well.

  16. Keith – this is such a great blog, here are my (admittedly far less well thought through) ideas…

    Austin survives, with Metro, Maestro and later Montego, plus MG versions, with extra taxpayers’ cash because Maggie is fighting Scargill and she can’t make the whole of the Midlands unemployed at once! Honda buys a chunk of them to get around Japanese import restrictions at the time, and they work on a range that is Jazz, Civic and Accord based to replace the Ms – Austins 100, 200 and 300 (400, or anything with ‘4’ in is unlucky in the Far East). Mini tooling sold to India, made in the Enfield factory!

    Jaguar goes to Ford (who else?) because it needs a luxury brand and the Granada will never be that. XJS quickly dropped due to poor sales and an XJ40-based 2+2 starts development, alongside the 40 (which is already work in progress by the early eighties)…

    Rover/Triumph merge and Rover makes the saloons, Triumph does Lynx and TR8, then a new Stag based on SD1 platform; Rover looks to make a volume mid-sized car to compete with Sierra, Cavalier and Austin 300, plus a P9 to go against 7-series and S class. TR9 arrives in 1985, to steal TVR 350i business and becomes something of a Yuppie plaything…

    Land Rover could even go to the Japanese, who were in an expansive mood and had the cash; Nissan or Matsuda because Mitsu and Subaru had 4WD machinery, and Honda wasn’t interested in off-road or high end at that time?

  17. In such a scenario, the following ideas borrow more then a few elements from 18) David above though with some differences.

    Austin – Goes to Honda with the Mini replacement being a modified Honda Today called the Austin Match or Austin City, sitting below the other Austin badged Honda models (Jazz = 100 / Civic or Integra = 200 / Accord = 300).

    The existing M-Cars are put out to pasture in China and India with the Metro managing to achieve a Suzuki Alto / Maruti 800 like status.

    Mini – Either lives on under Honda receiving both Honda engines (from the Today / Jazz) and Minki-like modifications prior to being put out to pasture in India/China/South East Asia/South America/Africa (albeit possibly in A-Series/Plus form).

    With Honda’s future Kei Cars drawing heavy influence from the original Mini. Perhaps BMW would be more opportunistic and buy Mini from Honda.

    Morris – Either dead, lives on as a commercial brand for another carmaker, lives on as a brand in the far east or as a part of Volkswagen playing a similar role to the real-life Skoda brand from the Octavia onwards (becoming a British-Market only brand selling rebadged Skodas under the rationale that the Skoda brand became too damaged in the UK).

    MG – Either to Honda (as sporty rebadged Austins with the Metro-based MG Midget being replaced by the Honda Beat along with MG versions of the Integra, Prelude, S2000 and potentially NSX) or to Volkswagen playing a similar yet more credible/profitable role then SEAT did in real-life (albeit with Coupes and Convertibles).

    Jaguar/Land Rover – Mostly goes to Ford as in real-life with a revitalised Rover-Triumph Group managing to retain a stake.

    Rover-Triumph – Similar to 18) David above though including the possibility of a premium Escort-sized car badged either as a Triumph or a Rover (maybe under the Dolomite or Toledo name), perhaps be part of a few joint ventures with SAAB or Subaru during the 80s/90s while managing to retain their independence from the likes of GM.

  18. I remeber reading somthing some years ago that compared BL and Toyota, aparetly in the 70’s both found themselves in similar positions however the solutions were somwhat differnt. It’s been a long time scince I read the book, I can’t actually remeber what it was called, However the results were somewhat different, BL is gone and I think Toyota are now the largest car maker in the world?

    I have a feeling the banks just took over the management of the company

  19. @Ford Prefect

    Toyota felt it important to empower every employee using the Kaizen / Kanban systems. Thus, if an employee felt that a process could be improved, rather than striking, they raised it as an item.

    This improved quality, and boosted morale.

    It is a process that is copied to this day as a software development model.

  20. A more interesting question in some ways is what would have happened if Austin/morris had not bought Jaguar. The extra cash could have been spent to making sure the maxi worked properly and if the company had stayed out of the Leyland merger, would have ended up with a line up of mini, 1100/1300, MAXI, 1800/2200, and 3 litre with midget and MGB. Seems to be a remarkably rational line up.

    If the money spent buying Jaguar and then on developing and modernising their range, had been spent properly developing these cars then they would all have been much better imagine the 3 litre with a 2.6 E series 6 cylender or better a 3 litre E based V8. Either engine put in the MGB. A bored up A series in the Midget, A 4 door maxi, a 5 door 1100/1300, a 5 door 1800/2200. a short wheelbase 3litre Riely coupe. An 1100/1300 based midget replacement.

    Rover-Triumph would probabaly have continued thier co-operation with Saab and a Rover-Triumph-Saab and possibly Volvo co-operative would have made a lot of sense.

    Jaguar would undoubtably have attracted enough private investment to have produce the V12 etc on its own.

  21. drae
    The problem with that Austin/Morris lineup is that everything above the ADO16 was a sales disaster, the 1800 and 3 litre were flops, the Maxi would become a flop, and even with more development wouldn’t be what the public wanted. What BMC needed in the late 60s was a conventional styled rwd saloon like the Marina.

    Maybe BMC should have bought Rover, and Leyland Jaguar, as there’s less clash between Triumph and Jaguar, and Rover would give BMC some up market presence.

  22. If BL wasnt backed in ’79 it would have shut with the loss of many tens of thousands of jobs if not hundreds of thousands which would have ruined the economy locally and nationally-without a doubt.

    It would have been political suicide for the government of the day although Micheal Edwards was prepared to do just that if the unions wanted to piss about.

    The Japanese working practices while welcome had to overcome a cultural barrier- i doubt Burnaston or Sunderland do five minutes of howdy doody star jumps every shift, but to me its a case of fair days work,fair days pay any problems lets talk.

    They should never have merged.

  23. You could imagine a scenario with the Government continuing to back the original BL rump – Rover, Triumph, Landrover, trucks and buses with Jaguar thrown in. This had the potential to be profitable from relatively low volumes whilst operating from a much smaller set of plants. Austin Morris would simply be wound down. Given all their cars at this stage where old models on life support that would not have been terribly difficult from a product planning point of view. The money wasted on Maestro/Montego would be pumped into projects such as Broadsward and Bravo instead, whilst the Honda collaboration would also still be pursued. The only fly in the ointment here is the Metro. This was virtually showroom ready with a new assembly hall at Longbridge nearing completion. Could a MINI brand be created here? Continuing to produce the classic Mini and the Metro (still to be called the Mini Metro)as a sub-brand within the new Leyland keeping at least part of Longbridge open.

  24. It was a shame that Triumph had declined too far in many ways. If SD2 had been developed and the developments of TR7 then it may have flourished. SD1 needed a saloon and an estate variant and a real sales push in the USA and Europe (with Range Rover.
    If all that had happened then Rover Triumph might have been sold with a limited Government sweetener. Jaguar could have been privitised. The only hope for Austin Morris was to have launched the Acclaim as an Austin Allegro replacement, the Metro including the 5 door and saloon (including a Wolseley and Riley version as well as MG) and the Ambassador as a Wolseley 17/85 and 20/100 with hatchback and better fascia than was fitted. Maestro should have been developed to be better than it was and Montego as well. Morris should have been an espace multi purpose type based on the Montego platform.

  25. #20 perhaps this is title of the book you are thinking of:

    The Machine Which Changed the World.

    A literary report funded by USA Govt investigating the world automobile industry, an early response to the imminent slaughter of the USA car making industry by the superior methods of the Japanese, especially Toyota and Nissan

  26. @23

    My point is that the bigger cars were sales disasters because the purchace of Jaguar sucked much needed capital out of the company to develope them properly. Further after the “merger” with Jaguar and Leyland the maxi, 1800 and 3itre were deliberately positoned to not “overlap” with other products.

    A bit like BMWs refusal to sanction putting the KV6 into the MGF or building a coupe version.

  27. Fascinating article, as well as the opinions as always.

    To me, being a BL loving 10 year old in 1980, I think it was a case of not seeing the wood for the trees. Sir Edwardes in his book pointed out the vast difference in time spent on industrial relations at BL versus the competition.

    Imagine trying to manage at any level in such a place. Utterly soul destroying. Not bad people, but I can see in the bus industry in which I work how easily a good attitude can turn to be bad. In my role, I’m always trying to tweak those attitudes for a better outlook, but I deal with 160 people which is hard…how would it be with 180,000?

    You can see the spiral. Line workers seeing the management giving them undercooked cars to make, not realising it’s the disputes which took their eye off the ball to allow such cars to reach production. They get home & get all sorts of stick about working for the laughing stock that is BL. Makes them angry…they strike again.

    Could have all been done so much better, from the 50’s onwards. Years after the close of MGR, I still shake my head in wonder as to how so much promise faded to nothing. And I look at my ZT-T, one of 49 in Australia & wonder how such a wonderful car could be such a rarity here.

    Was there an easy solution to all of this? No. But realising that the Empire was fading & looking to the future would have saved BL. To me, the 3 litre, MGC & Maxi show how the company had lost their way & dropped the ball. Then the quality issues…

  28. I see a couple of points missed by some of the contributors in the comments, is that this decision in 79, was where they decided to bring the Metro to production and commit to following it with the launch of the LM10/11 when they were ready. If the Government had decided not to back BL, there would have been no new Metro assembly line at BL or Maestro and Montego at Cowley. So they would have been left to struggle on with Mini, Allegro, Ital, Maxi and Ambassador, although the Allegro and Maxi had been made into decent enough cars they were still out of step with the market and had poor image, and the Ambassador took the Princess further away from where the 2 litre exec market was going.

    However we need to remember the industrial and political Landscape was very different in 1979, the Oil revenues had still to really start to flow into the treasury and the Labour party had still to render itself unelectable through division and hard left politics. Mrs Thatcher’s government before the Falklands War lacked both the popular mandate and the revenues to push through the legislation and build resources that she had available to defeat the Miners in 84/85 strike.

    I would predict that if Chancellor Howe and his treasury team had got its way and Edwards would have been told to sell what he could and close the rest of BL, then the Automotive trade unions would have appealed to the TUC for support. Seeing an unpopular Conservative Government with an empty treasury they would have looked to repeat 1974 victory over the Heath Government, by calling strikes in the Coal, Power and Rail industries to force a General Election.

    Contrary to popular myth Mrs Thatcher knew when to pick a fight, if you look at the preparation for the Miners strike. She showered money on the Miners for a good two years with incentives to mine every ton of Coal, which was stockpiled on newly purchased land next to the Power stations. She incentivised Miners to buy their NCB houses, so giving them a mortgage to finance. She successfully exploited the Labour Party and NUM leaderships hostility to Nuclear Power to align the mostly skilled workers in the Engineering / Power Workers Union with her, getting them to lead the way with the single Union Deals at the New Japanese car factories despite opposition from the TUC. Critically when the removal of the clearly uneconomic incentives and announcement of a number of Pit closures triggered the Miners Strike, it was in the Spring to take advantage of the low energy demands of the Summer months.

    So in conclusion, if Government had not backed BL in 79, then it’s quite likely modern Britain would look very different today; but Mrs Thatcher was too good a politician to have fallen into the trap, although she did not know about the Falklands war, she knew North Sea Oil was coming and with the Cold War at a critical turning point that this was not the time to fight the Unions, so she would have backed BL until opportunity such as the Japanese car plants provided an alternative path.

  29. Great article:- I think the Honda/BL joint ventures were great partic with Honda”s reliabilty I do think BL(or the now Austin /Rover group)Had an “Identity crisis” i.e putting the wrong badges on the various models”Austin” was dropped from the Metro/maestro&Montego ranges so what were they?Rovers?or Austins?They put the Rover badge on their smallest car(the metro)which i thought was ridic This badge represented Large executive models not a”small”city run about They should”ve put the MG or Riley/triumph badge on the metro &smaller Rover 200series with the Honda mechanicals

  30. They had to rationalize the identity,the BL days were coming to a close anyway. Riley was a long time dead,shame Triumph fell,Austin wouldnt last either.

  31. Luckily for workers at Longbridge and Cowley, although they did have heavy redundancies in 1980, they still remained and employed thousands as the decision to keep Austin alive saved them. However, the death of Morris was inevitable as they only had one elderly model in production and the brand had no status by 1980. Also Austin was finally dropped in 1988 as it was seen as tarnished and the models renamed Rovers.

  32. In 2013 there seem to be more Austin A35s on British roads than Metros, this must tell us something about relative quality.
    An A35 with a Metro turbo engine (Google it) must be a great Q car, also look at A35s at Goodwood.

  33. The main failing from the UK governments failed was it never invested enough. If one compares the subsidy that Renault were given by their owner, the French government, it was considerably greater than what BL received. As a result shoestring R&D was continued. Poor management was tolerated and plant investment and rationalisation was not properly realised. JLR shows what proper investment, vision and management can do. Since the manufacturing industry is seen as ‘trade’ it has never been properly supported.
    Do not forget also that without subsidy from the Saxony local government VW would not exist today and nether would BWM without the Quandt family and the Bavarian regional government.

  34. No one has mentioned Vanden Plas in all this, producers of the Allegro based 1500 and Daimler Limousine. The brand was effectively killed off when Kingsbury closed in 1980 and the 1500 was discontinued. After this, Vanden Plas, like MG, was just a brand name for upmarket Austin Rovers than a brand in its own right.

  35. @28 But BMC only purchased Jaguar 13 months before falling into British Leyland. Far too little time for the purchase of Jaguar to have made any impact on BMC’s development budget. I think the reality is the revenue from Jaguar probably helped prop up BMH off-setting the catastrophic losses from Austin/Morris.

  36. @35, Did Renault have as many subsidaries as BL? I know they had Saviem and Berliet Trucks,not sure what elsethey had but it was nowhere near what BL had.

    In a nutshell, with such a myriad of companies its little wonder money was spread thin.

  37. @38

    PSA Peugeot-Citroen has had many brands.

    The two active brands, Peugeot for mainstream models, Citroen was originally to be the ‘leftfield’ models.

    Talbot, which was a brand to rebadge the Chrysler models.
    Soon dropped, though lived on on the Talbot Express van.

    Until 2005 owned Panhard, though wasn’t used on production cars in recent times – military vehicles.

    All of the dormant brands – Hillman, Sunbeam (used on a Talbot), Rapier was a 406 spec level.

  38. @38. Renault had very few ‘brands’ however the companies were very similar in size. Poor competing management meant that sensible rationalisation never happened property. The Ryder Soviet style rationalisation did not appreciate the value of certain brands. Also Unions, understandably, did not want closures. However with proper investment, volume could have been increased thus reducing staff losses.

  39. @23
    I agree that the 3ltr was not a sales success but 1800’s were hugely popular – they were everywhere at that period. You only have to look at 60’s/70’s photos of car parks to see them as popular as Cortina’s or Hunters. The car also had a reasonable amount of competition success – understandably as it cornered like a train in basic form and needed nothing doing to the suspension to head off for the next competition event. Whilst the Maxi was not a roaring success mainly because companies hardly ever bought them, they sold well to the private sector being very popular with ‘tuggers’ (caravaners), antique dealers and families with push chairs to transport about.
    I don’t think either of them could be called flops in accepted sense of the word. I was a Vauxhall man in the 70’s but I couldn’t resist a couple of 1800’s and dear father had several Maxi’s – and utterly reliable they were too.

  40. @41
    Not sure what car parks you were looking at, the 1800 had a production capacity of 4000 cars a week, but its annual sales peaked at 40K and struggled to better annual sales of 20K a year for most of its life. Meanwhile Ford produced over a million Mk1 Cortina in four years and did the same with the Mk2 in 3 years.

    As for the Maxi, by the mid 70’s as high taxation took hold in the UK the fleet market was 60% of the UK car market, to then hand that market over to the American owned producers as the Maxi did was suicide. Private buyers preferred something smaller like 1100/1300, however of course BL messed up the replacement of that in mid-70’s with the Allegro.

  41. The 1800 didn’t flop like the 3 Litre, but sales were below target and the car was underdeveloped during its ten year life. However, as a very spacious, comfortable, smooth riding and quiet car on a long journey, they were good. It’s just the styling and problems with heavy oil consumption on early cars put people off. Also the Maxi was a similar, this was a clever car for the time with a massive hatchbakc and a fifth gear to reduce noise and fuel consumption at higher speeds, but early problems damaged it. That said, it turned out to be a reliable car after problems were sorted after 1970.

  42. Re 37: The reality of things by the mid 70’s was very different to how you seem to percieve things. Land Rover and (especially) Jaguar, were killing the company, losing millions. They were only kept going by the efforts of the volume division. Triumph had been essentially condemed by the efforts of Spen King, and Truck and Bus were floundering.
    There was a plan to rescue the situation: Browns Lane and Solihull were to close, with production going to Cowley. Longbridge would take over all AM production. A site was aquired for a single engineering centre – Gaydon – between the manufacturing sites. This was the only part of the plan that came about, albeit in a (at the time) limited way. The remainder was halted mainly due to the moves by local (Labour) MPs, using their influence on the pre-Thatcher Callaghan government.

  43. Rover/Triumph/Land Rover (maybe Leyland Truck and Bus as well) seemed to be fairly easy to extract from the almighty clusterfudge. So that’s Solihull, Canley and Speke (if that had struggled on). To be sold off as an alternate universe version of JLR? In the early days, Rover SD1/Bravo would cover the saloons, Triumph the sports cars and Land Rover the 4x4s but their roles would broaden in following decades.

    Then that would leave Austin Morris, Jaguar and MG. AM has no future but there is the Metro. Metro could have been the seed of a standalone MINI brand, 20 years earlier. Jaguar could have been moved to Cowley, closing Browns Lane or retaining it as an R&D centre. Abingdon sounds like it had no future as a plant but the MG name had plenty of kudos attached to it. If BL abandoned any pretensions of taking on Ford and GM, MG could have been the brand used to go upmarket, rather like Rover was used in the real world. It would be attached to M cars instead of the Austin brand, but they would be restyled by a Roy Axe who would’ve taken up the reins at the styling dept earlier than actually happened. The sports car would’ve been the updated MGB that Aston Martin proposed before its takeover was cancelled.

  44. British Leyland had become a bottomless pit by the end of the seventies and a drastic restructure was needed for it to survive the eighties. Obviously this meant making half the workforce redundant and closing factories like Canley hurt the community around it, but it was a case of having to cut back so the company could survive. Michael Edwardes at least saw focusing the car side on Austin and Rover( Jaguar was to be sold off after a period of home rule) and concentrating production at Cowley, Longbridge and Solihull was far better than overlapping ranges of cars that had little in common( the Triumph Dolomite had totally different mechanicals to a Morris Marina), produced in separate factories.

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