People : Interview with Donald Stokes

In this article dated 21 June 1971 from The Guardian, Lord Stokes gives vent about the present and future of British Leyland Motor Corporation. It’s more of a stream of consciousness than a structured interview – enjoy!

Lord Stokes

The Guardian newspaper interviewed British Leyland Chairman Lord Stokes, and he was on top form, with nothing off limits. Sadly, there was a little distance between what he said, and the reality of the situation – still, it makes interesting reading today.

After discussing safety, Lord Stokes was asked why consumers should 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.’

Stokes: time to be proud to buy British

‘Can’t we get some pride in something British? Can’t we get some pride in having a British company, which sells 50% 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 the odd 2 or 3%. We have got a jolly good car industry. We are pacesetters. The Range Rover, quite a unique sort of vehicle, a very good one.’

‘Anyone would think we’d never innovated’

‘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.’

Why the Austin Maxi beats the Renault 16

‘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.’

On the subject of reliability, Stokes said; 

’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 the immediate engineering attention is given.’

How BLMC was improving quality

‘There is an engineering meeting every month, which analyses these defects, but obviously if it is 0.01 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.’

Stokes continued: ‘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 and accountancy and business schools for them. No one spoon feeds us like this.’

All customer complaints dealt with

‘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 do make them like they used to

Lord Stokes was asked if they didn’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).

‘People putting XL GT on is nothing like the mystique of having a Rover. You’ve arrived with a Rover.’
– Lord Stokes

‘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.’

The customer is always right!

‘On the Morris 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.’

And what about all those makes and models?

Not everything from BL was poorly developed. The Range Rover of 1970 has since become a vehicle beyond reproach

Stokes was asked an old chestnut, one that Sir George Harriman had also had to deal with. 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.’

Making more cars to meet demand

‘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 5500 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.’

If this interview revealed anything, it was that Lord Stokes could talk for England!

Keith Adams


  1. Lord Stokes appeared to ‘flit about a bit’ in his thinking – perhaps its just the way the paper reported it.
    If one considers his comments about buying foreign – he clearly did not allow himself in public to consider the whole picture. I don’t think people were ‘weird’ when they bought continental cars – they must have genuinely felt they were getting a better deal or a better car. However, as a young enthusiast at the time, I was amazed that people were buying Datsun Sunny’s and Nissan 190B’s – apparently because they came with heaters and radios as standard. My personal recollection is that they were mostly horrid – both mechanically and the interiors. I can’t think of any car more nauseating than the interior of Datsun from the early years. The Morris 1100 and the like were totally unique and had a solid but ‘off the wall’ thinking interior. No other UK car manufacturer did this. Even my beloved Vauxhall’s (which I was selling at the time) were very conventional – the Viva/Victor 2000 and the Ford Cortina all had very similar interiors. Of course BMC/BLMH/BL made mistakes – but I believe no company in the world producing a million vehicles a year from dozens of historic names could have done any better, especially bearing in mind the ‘strike’ attitude of the day – something that our ’30 somethings’ of today can never understand. And the 3ltr?
    Simple engineering, huge passenger space, world class ride – but Marmite looks and it was this that killed it in my view. The PC Cresta had a smaller interior space, equally historic engine (dating back to the 40’s), an average ride but looked so ‘sexy’ – and sold well when, as has been said, the smaller executive car (like the Rover and Triumph 200) had already appeared.

  2. While being a mixed bag in terms of style & handling, the Japanese cars in the 1970s at least worked out the box, something which helped sales, especially in the 2nd world markets & the 1st world countries without a motor industry.

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