IAN BREACH interviews LORD STOKES
Safety: British or American standards?
‘All I know is, which car I would rather be in driving if there was any tricky situation on the road, and that is in a British or European car. Obviously we are in favour of safety, every right-minded person is in favour of safety and believes in safety in cars-you would be an idiot if you didn’t, but British Leyland has probably been in the van.
The Triumph Herald, if you like, was one of the earliest safety cars invented with collapsible steering column and steel frame. We have got inumerable letters on our files thanking us for saving peoples lives, or their children’s lives, and everything else in accidents. The Rover was probably the first real safety car that was built, coming nearer present-day, so I don’t think we have been backward in safety but safety is like everything else in life, relative.
We make some of our cars very much safer than these people who are framing some rather exotic regulations. It is unfortunate that people from another country should come and criticise our Minister of Transport. I have no brief for the Minister but I think he is trying to probe this question of safety in a very sensible and intelligent manner and we have got to have a European common basis on safety.
Unfortunately we have got Sweden with one set of regulations, America with one set, and the rest of Europe with a different set. Take air bags, personally I wear glasses and I wouldn’t like to be in a car with an air bag bashing glasses into my eye. I would rather wear a seat belt, which I believe is on balance a safer proposition. They may have some specific thoughts themselves but people have been rushing into this getting on to a publicity bandwagon to a certain extent rather than taking a sensible, practical approach to what is a very real problem. It Is very good that safety should be ventilated, that people should be made safety conscious.
There is a very big difference between European – if I can include British and American cars. There is no question that European cars are safer, to handle and to drive than American cars. We have made very conscious efforts to make our cars safer. You won’t sell a car if it is unsafe and this is where I think people have a misunderstanding. I believe that people who road test a car before they buy it, not everybody does as you know, a lot of people buy them off the shelf, but quite a lot of people try a car and the one thing that makes them buy it is the fact that they feel safe. This is why people place repeat orders with the same car. There are some motorcars,not made by us, even British ones, that are not as safe as ours. The front-wheel drive Mini is a typical example of a safe motorcar.’
Have the stylists had their day?
‘I spent last week looking at some new thoughts and ideas that we have had and when it comes to things like agreed bumper heights, agreed light heights, agreed lamp distances, the abolition of disappearing headlamps, this is going to give a certain uniformity to the exterior appearance of a lot of cars. If you can standardise bumpers and things it’ s got a lot to be said for it. I am not against these regulations, I just think some of them have been too hastily imposed by people who are in danger of getting a bit of a power complex. They will change the industry without knowing what is involved. It’ s rather like this business of the pollution thing where they are setting regulations for pollution which are very difficult As far as I know, nobody can comply with the ’75 regulations. It was the same with this windscreen wiper regulation, where you had to provide a wiped area of screen greater than the total area of screen on a small European car.’
Why buy British?
‘You have got to get this in perspective. In the end my job is to make money for the shareholders through selling motorcars. Everything else is ancillary to that, designing them, etc, and if anybody expects me to get up and say foreign cars are better or something, they must be laughing. People ask such bloody silly questions. I don’t know what they expect me to do. I get criticised because I stick up for British cars. I believe British cars are best. I believe the cars that we make are best value for money. If I didn’t I wouldn ‘t be in this job. We sell twice as many Minis in Italy as all Italian cars put together sold in Britain. That’s not bad. Can’t we get some pride in something British. Can’t we get some pride in having a British company which sells 50 per cent of its output overseas. We may not be perfect, but I think we are going completely nuts in this country.
We denigrate everything we do. The newspapers are full of information about strikes but the fact is that we made over a million vehicles last year. If a man from Mars came down here and looked at the headlines, he would say that British Leyland can’t have made a car, they are always on strike. Actually we have 200,000 people and about 199,000 work bloody hard all year. Unfortunately we have got the odd 2 or 3 per cent. We have got a jolly good car industry. We are pace setters. The Range Rover, quite a unique sort of vehicle,a very good one. Old Alec Issigonis with his transverse engines and so on, a complete leader and innovator. Disc brakes first on production cars with Jaguar.
Even the torque converter was applied first by British Leyland in 1932 when I was an apprentice. General Motors took it from us. Anyone would think we never innovated. Take the Jaguar XJ6, judged by one of the newspapers to be one of the best six cars in the world. We sell 50 per cent of our cars overseas. I believe in competition. I can’t go abroad and say you must not buy a foreign car. But in England the price of foreign spare parts is quite fantastic. For a BMW which is much dearer than a Triumph PI, the engine is £400 against £80 for a Triumph.
If you back a Maxi into an Audi it costs you £10 for the rear light on the Audi and 50p the rear light on the Maxi. If you take the Renault, we are very friendly with the Renault, we make a lot of cars for R. Take the 16 and compare it with the Maxi 1750. Our independent assessment says that Maxi is a better value-for -money car than the 16 in this country. Of course, they will sell a few, but we are going to sell Maxis in France.
They can ‘t get enough of them. That’s our trouble. Of course an awful lot of people in this country are so peculiar that they buy a foreign car and spend the rest of their lives justifying it even if it breaks down every five minutes. Of course this happens in reverse. You go down to the South of France and the snob thing to have is a souped up Mini and swear it is the best car there is.’
‘ Dear Sir, My car has fallen to pieces… ‘
‘We take complaints very seriously. We have got a large department. We first of all analyse every defect. It’s broken down on to a computer so that we can get a cost per car of every defect and analyse into every part of the car so that we can see where the defects are, and of course, when it is a defect, how serious it is. This is flagged up every month, and followed when it becomes a defect of some magnitude.
Some are just bad luck. You are bound to get defects of some form or other, but when it becomes a serious defect then immediate engineering attention is given. There is an engineering meeting every month, which analyses these defects, but obviously if it is.01 per cent, that is just part of the luck of the game. If it becomes half of 1 per cent, then you begin to get worried. Very often we find that defects go sometimes in areas, in localities. Sometimes people point the defect out to somebody in a group who have never noticed it.’
And the man who is the 0.01 per cent?
‘First of all, we have got all this service business. We have a 12-month guarantee in this country or 10,000 miles. We do treat complaints very seriously, intelligently, and we try to be generous with them. We are not mean. You get an indifferent or bad tempered garage who gives the customer the brush-off, or is too idle to bother. Now we do take this up. and we have a new scheme where people go round to garages pretending they are customers, checking out garages to see the sort of attention they get as a customer.
Unfortunately we don ‘t own these garages; we can’t control them and it would be impossible and a bad thing if we did anyway. But we run training schools for them and sales and service schools end accountancy and business schools for them. No one spoonfeeds us like this. The customer can write to us and if it is a genuine complaint we will deal with it. But you have to remember, and I speak with feeling about this, a lot of people are extremely over-consumer conscious and are getting so unreal, It is almost unbelievable.
I had two letters this morning, from men with complaints, that came to my flat. One man wrote and complained that we were wicked British manufacturers and he was going to buy a foreign car because he bought a Rover and the tyres were noisy. I don ‘t know what you do about that! We tested the car for him.
They wore Michelin tyres,the best I think you can get actually,and they are within our noise level. The other man, among his serious complaints, told me he had taken his car to a garage and when he had the car back, the radio was tuned to a pop station of whose existence he was not aware. This shows the sort of mentality you are dealing with. There is a lot to be done about garages, though to be fair, they can’t get the labour.’
‘They don’t make them like they used to?’
‘That’s absolute rubbish. I think it is something we all think about the old days in every aspect of life. When I was a boy I remember the hot summers. This is part of the trick of memory. You look at our guarantee, even the higher cost of labour, which has inflated guarantee claims a lot (we have to analyse them and put down the labour costs). Yet, with the higher cost of labour and a much more censorious public, the cost per car of guarantee is in most instances going down, not up.
The Maxi, for instance, is the lowest cost/guarantee car that Austin Morris has ever produced. In the three years that we have had Austin Morris in the corporation, I would say that the guarantee costs have come down about 10 per cent, not taking into account inflation. These are, to the best of my knowledge being treated on a comparable basis. Normally with a new car, you generally get an upturn in the guarantee claims for the first few thousand cars because there is always some little adjustment or bits that you find. On the Marina, we are changing brake pads over to a softer brake pad where people want it to reduce the pedal pressure. If you took it to your agent you could get softer brake pads under the warranty. From now on all cars will have softer brake pads.
We have far better inspection, far better quality control than ever we did do and far better measuring and checking and instrumentation to make sure that cars are better. But on the other hand, this is where you have to put things in perspective, we are making a million vehicles a year and we are bound to get some complaints. It is inevitable.
You can’t make a million vehicles and not get some problem. We had recently to change steering column locks, but it wasn’t our fault. You can inspect and double inspect. Rolls-Royce, for instance, inspect and double inspect, and test drive, but I think you might find that Rolls-Royce get as many complaints from their owners as BLMC from Marina owners. This is only a guess. Every Jag is road tested, but you get fastidious owners. It is a case of what you pay for. The public is expecting higher and higher standards on motorcars, which we will try to give them.’
Too many models, too many names?
‘No, I don’t think so. We have got the greatest asset that any company could have in brand names which some of our competitors would give their eye teeth for. Rover, Jaguar, Triumph, for instance. People putting XL GT on is nothing like the mystique of having a Rover. You’ve arrived with a Rover. There will be a change of components where it is possible.
We had this tremendous task of putting into being not just a new car but a complete new range of cars which should have been done five years ago. When they were developing the Marina they also had to be working on another car which will come out at the end of this year, and one behind it. All three had to be started together because we were catching up on arrears and also at the same time we put into production a complete set of Triumphs, the Toledo, 1500, and another new model from the corporation later this year. The Range Rover was produced entirely since BLMC took over Rover.
But the Land and Range Rover are a different facility. We are increasing production of Land-Rovers (we have only had Rover four years in which we have increased production by 40 per cent) which is because some of our capital expansion is going up and we have also introduced Range Rover. We can’t make enough of them, we are making 150 a week and can sell out 250 a week. We have got to get rid of 5,500 Marinas a week by the end of this year.
This is gradually rationalising the range but it will take five years as we said it would at the start. We had a bad year last year, but Fiat made even less money. We haven’t got American resources, but I think the boys here haven ‘t done a bad job. I think we are going in the right direction and if we get a free run with labour, we have made many improvements with labour, the future will be a bright one.’