Archive : How we live through the storm

By David Benson

Lord Stokes

The man who took on the ” impossible task” of driving Britain’s No.1 car makers in among the top six in the world, looked back last night on a few bumps and scratches, but with the winning post now well in sight. Four years ago Lord Stokes , then Sir Donald , took over as chief executive of the newly created British Leyland.

“The company was in a mess,” he told me across the worn leathertopped desk in his Berkeley Square office.

“But although there were lots of things wrong, there were also lots of things right. We did have good people who only wanted confidence and to be given direction. Mind you, it was one thing sitting at this desk and saying this must be done and that must be done. It was quite another thing getting it done. Look, our labour force is larger than the British Army, we make over one million vehicles a year, our exports are vital to Britain’s economy, and we had to restructure our worldwide outlets.

We certainly didn’t appreciate the depth of the industrial relations problem. The motor industry is a sitting target for any disturbance. Someone once said that what was good for General Motors was good for America. The same could be said of British Leyland and Britain. Well our labour relations are now improving,but it has been an immense job. What we need now is a fair run of industrial peace with strikes put on one side. We could make this company the most profitable in Great Britain and then we could pay higher wages. At the moment we have a waiting list for every one of our models.”

Which goes a long way to making nonsense of a report out today , ” The Motor Industry ” , which suggests Britain’s car makers face a bleak future and that British Leyland will eventually have to merge with a Japanese car maker.

“This is a young and vigorous company,” said Lord Stokes.

” I am an old man in it at 58. I have just made Geoffrey Robinson, who is 32, the managing director of Innocenti in Italy , the company that makes minis for us out there. David Abell is only 29 and he is treasurer of British Leyland, that is a hell of a responsibility for a young man to control £1,200 million and all our investments.”

Stokes has a fine humour and he smiles and says :

“George Turnbull is getting on a bit now. He is 45, but his Austin Morris division is a bigger company than Vauxhall and Ford put together. He is also joint managing director of British Leyland itself. We launched the Marina in record time and it has been a tremendous success – third most popular car in Britain. It is a direct challenge to the American and Japanese while our Issigonis models are being widely copied in Europe.

“You know it’s quite a frightening thing to commit a company to £30 or £40 million for a new model that you hope the customers will like and buy in three to four years time. It takes real courage and we have had to do it four times so far. The Marina was the first and we have another three new models in the pipeline. We have got Jaguars up to 1,000 a week. And Rovers and Triumph are sorted out without being directly competitive with each other.

“When I think back we were pretty cheeky really to attempt to do everything we have done with very limited financial resources. But if the merger had not taken place it would have been the end for the British motor industry. B.M.C. would have been broke in a year and Leyland would have just plodded along.”

Keith Adams
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