Video : The closure of the Speke factory

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Keith Adams

The closure of the Speke factory in 1978 made national news. It was a make or break situation for BL, as it was an unproductive factory, suffering from terrible quality problems – and building the Triumph TR7, which, as we all know, was underdeveloped at launch. The outcome was inevitable, given that the company was in a period of painful contraction at the time.

Try not a shed a tear when you watch this one – and remember that life was very different back in the late 1970s.

Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...

Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

38 Comments

    • I spent four years working in Speke recently. An Asda and other shops are now located on the site. Surprise, surprise!!

  1. A very sad story, but the original TR7 was a reliability disaster, didn’t sell and was made in the least productive factory in British Leyland. However, not everything could be blamed on the workers at Speke as the union rep says the quality of the components that were sent from Coventry were terrible and had to be rectified. However, the Speke factory’s reputation for chronic absenteeism, low productivity and a 17 week strike killed the plant, with dire consequences for the local area, where unemployment was twice the national average. By 1980, when the body pressing plant closed and a Lucas components factory closed, unemployment in Speke reached 40%.

    • Didn’t sell well? It sold over 50,000 more than the TR6 its predecessor and that was over 6 not 8 years! Yes BL thought they could sell more but unfortunately they went for the rather controversial styling. Had it got the looks of say TVR’s Tasmin it may have sold more. However sports cars were starting to be a dying breed in the US and Europe, with the Yanks preferring “personal cars”

      • It didn’t sell well since it effectively replaced MGB, Midget Spitfire and TR6 in the market place it needed to do better.

        The absence of a convertible at the launch didn’t help. Engines overheating and doors falling off didn’t improve sales.

        The 70’s was a dire time to launch a sports car in America, emissions and weight due to safety regs killed the small sports car.

        The Miata sells at about the same rate as the TR7.

  2. “The right to work” attitude is very evident. Some seemed to have absolutely no concept of business. They could not see that there had to be acceptable quality to maintain demand. Nor did they seem to realise the financial implications of their strike action upon their employer. Their employer, British Leyland, seemed to be viewed as a bottomless pit of wages.

    ”’ and the above said by someone who sees themselves as fairly socialist!

    • There seemed to be a few companies seemingly run for the benefit of their workers.

      It reminds me of normally left leaning Bill Bryson having not much sympathy for the print workers during the Wapping strike, as they had long being the bane of almost anyone working at the Times.

    • Not true , in the video the workers are complaining about the poor quality of the parts which need rework before they are offered to the car body, eg axles, gearboxes, engine bolts, one worker described the TR7 as a heap of rubbish!

      • Yeah, I noted these comments too but a workforce frequently absent either side of the weekend and on strike for 17 weeks can hardly be too concerned about the quality of their product. As Julian says below, the whole thing had become toxic. A worker complaining about the quality of parts probably didn’t care too much about his own work either.

        • It is interesting to note though the wider issue. I’m sure at the time the shopfloor workforce would have been largey if not totally blamed for all the troubles. Evidently, though, it was not just the fault of workers on the line. With faulty, incorrect parts being supplied to the line problems obviously lay further up the chain of command too.

  3. I lived in the locality during the 1976 /77 era, therefore 6 min 48 in the video, the wrong TR7 wings sent to Speke which closed production for 3 days, the local rumour , an act of sabotage towards Speke to hasten the demise of the plant. As for Ford Halewood, workers claimed management engineered shop floor strikes as a means of controlling over-production of cars when supply exceeded demand, plus when shop floor workers won a good pay rise, it strengthened the case for white-collar pay rises to maintain differentials

  4. Looking at it now it’s clear that everything had just become completely toxic. The workers hated the managers, Speke hated Coventry (and both, no doubt, vice-versa), people whose livelihood depended on building TR7s appeared on the national news saying they were rubbish. Even the BBC said the car was ugly and unsophisticated and was basically being sold here because it had failed in the USA. Not sure who the bloke in a suit was, but his analysis was pretty damning. Anyway, basically everyone was slagging everyone else off, and saying they were useless, and no-one seemed to present any ideas about how to make any of it better. It’s staggering that, 10 years later, working relations in BL were actually quite good. It’s a warning from history to show how things really shouldn’t be.

    This report is rather tongue in cheek and seems more in the style of Newsnight (if it existed then) than the 9 o’clock news. Does anyone what programme broadcast it?

    • The man in the suit who provided the analysis was I think Graham Turner, one time BBC Industrial Correspondent and one of the very first commentators in the early 1960’s to highlight the underlying ominous cracks in the BMC facade. His highly perceptive analysis of British industry generally and the motor industry in particular, notably through a series of books published during the 60’s and early 70’s (‘The Car Makers’, ‘Business in Britain’ and ‘The Leyland Papers’) make for fascinating reading.

  5. I taught Design & Technology (not that it was called that then!)in a Halewood school at this time –we sent kids to both the Ford and Triumph plants and visited both many times “on tour”. The Triumph plant was dire, components just strewn across the floor, huge paint runs on the headlamp housings (they were painted on props inside the car)etc etc. There was just an appalling mood of “couldn’t care less” from all sides. The Ford plant was better but still full of extraordinarily dishonest practices but at least was all of a piece when it wasn’t on strike. Our Chair of Governors, when he was the local Mayor, got busted going into the factory in the Mayoral motor to collect his strike pay!!

  6. I still don’t get it when the BBC reporter says the TR7 is ugly. I always considered it to be a good looking car and quite futuristic, with a hint of the Italian supercar to it. Of course, it was a reliability nightmare when made at Speke, which really let it down, but once production moved to Canley and Solihull, the TR7 improved markedly and was almost a good car when it was cancelled.

    • I’m with you, Glenn, on the TR7’s styling. I’ve always liked them – as a young lad and now. Different, futuristic but never ugly.

      • I agree with both Glenn and Dave — I well remember when the car came out and the stir that it created in the USA. My dad bought a ’76 four-speed in ’76 and was quite upset that he paid so much for a !@#!@$ car (I think around $6,000 ).

        It was, unfortunately, an absolute disaster as far as reliability is concerned — I can remember replacing certain parts three and four times. But replace them I did — the only other alternative was walking!

        He gave me the car in 1979-sh and I kept it running until 1985 when I traded it on a BMW E30 three series — an infinitely better car. I (seriously) remain so traumatized by my TR7 experience that I cannot bear much more than a passing glance at an under-hood picture!

        However, the TR7 was a wonderful teacher as far as diagnostic skills are concerned. I can pretty much analyze and diagnose any problem (I’m a lawyer by trade) and I thank my TR7 for those skills — I tell clients that I have a PhD in systems analysis from the University of British Leyland!

  7. 17 weeks on strike, 4 months. What was the strike even about? And they only called it off so they could start fighting to save the plant.

  8. I can recall back in the summer of ’77 PJ Evans Triumph dealers in Birmingham were selling brand new 4 speed TR7′ s for as little £2750. Amazingly cheap for a new model denied to the British market for many months after the USA launch. Of course the catch was the dire quality and reliability.

  9. I did read online that people used to clock on and off their mates when they were absent and when someone challenged a shop steward about this, he was kicked in the bullocks. Possibly an exaggeration, but the atmosphere at Speke was so toxic, it’s not totally unbelievable.
    On the other hand, the nature of assembly work then was completely monotonous, the workers knew they were churning out a hopeless product( the Toledo that preceded the TR7 wasn’t a bad car for the time), and they were assembling a car that was sent to them by a contemptuous factory in Coventry, they could have had a point. Also ironically the Canley plant the TR7 was sent to when Speke was closed, was shut down 2 years later.

    • The clocking on clocking off situation was probably the same at most factories at the time – I know it was rife at Dagenham until they introduced electronic pass cards. The funniest one I recall my Dad telling me was when him and his mate decided to clock off early on a Friday. They were sitting at the lights on the A13 when the Boss of the Body shop pulled up along side them. My Dad tried to hide but he saw them. On Monday said Boss came up to him and said was that you I saw on Friday on the way home – my Dad replied yeh so you left early too! The boss walked off – he couldn’t say anything because he had done the same and the Union would have kicked off.

  10. Personally I always liked the TR7, and I wonder if anyone thought of putting the Saab turbo version of the Triumph engine in a TR, that would certainly have pepped things up a little.
    I recommend a read of Correlli Barnett’s book The Audit of War to find out where all this red robbo and co stuff came from, I can guarantee some depressing surprises, like the miners strike over an unpopular tea lady!
    I was a little young at the time of Speke but I can remember a few years later the strikes and Thatcher putting the boot in, or should that be the handbag…

    • At Dagenham they went on strike for having the wrong toilet paper! They also walked out because a person who was accused of stealing was suspended by Fords, and even though everyone disliked the guy and knew he was guilty they al voted with their feet!

      • That’s the part I still don’t understand, they must have known the only people they were hurting were themselves but they still did it. I can understand if a profitable pit was being closed by the government just for giggles; but putting their own jobs at risk for toilet paper?
        Another question is why don’t we have the strikes now? It’s not as if the quality of the British meatbag has suddenly improved over two generations, in fact it’s probably declined given the number of the current generation who die by selfie (more worldwide if I remember than are killed by sharks).

        • Back in the 60s and 70s to vote to strike was a lot easier. The steward would call a meet and they took a vote of hands. Unfortunately unscruplous union stewards would bring in men who would vote to strike. Also workers could come out on strike in support for other union members at other firms. There are those who believe that it was USSR funded, especialy those in the security services. Today they have to raise a call for a vote with the Electoral Commission and its done via post and you can only strike for the reason on the ballot paper or it is illegal – it was rules put in by Maggie which many unionist moan about stating it has put more power in the hand of the employer, but considering how bad Britain was in the 70s and most of it was caused by strikes, it secured Britain from being a laughing stock in the world to a respected player (of sorts).

  11. It seems to be the whole “job for life” mentality that workers seemed to think they were “untouchable” & the government would always bail things out, no matter how much market share had been lost in the meantime.

    Now with a generation of workers with less job security & changed to employment laws strikes are only a last resort.

    When I first started working in the late 1990s someone I worked with reckoned employment laws had improved so much trade unions are hardly needed.

    • Thats an idelogy which doesnt ring true. Many of those people who work in small business with no union involvement however will tell you that many are treated like c**p. However unions dont always offer real help. When TXU Energi went bust back in 2003, the unions stepped in with Powergen and made them agree to redundancy payments be made on TXU contract terms. Trouble was they were worse than Powergens!

  12. @ Richard 16378, the problem with British Leyland was many of the unions were politically motivated and seemed more interested in destroying capitalism than sorting out genuine grievances and when British Leyland was nationalised, they saw the company as a bottomless pit that would guarantee huge wage rises every year and jobs for life.
    Unfortunately the militancy of British Leyland unions in the seventies saw the compnay lose the production of hundreds of thousands of cars to industrial action, which meant more people flocking to their rivals, and quality, productivity and profits went down the drain. It meant within 8 years British Leyland went from having 40 per cent of the market and a massive lead on their biggest rival( Ford) to 16 per cent of the market and being 12 per cent behind Ford. Also the company’s dire financial position by 1979 meant the company could no longer guarantee jobs for life and had to make massive redundancies to survive.

  13. Good comments Glenn. Also of course, the 70’s were a time when the Japanese rivals were building up in the British market, being cheaper and in many cases offering better equipment levels. Ford & Vauxhall also improved their cars and equipment too.

    Cars like the Cavalier & Cortina / Capri were more appealing to the fleets than BL products seemed to be.

  14. @ Hilton D, you could buy a new Datsun Sunny for slightly less than a basic Allegro in 1979 and quite often the cars were pre registered for immediate delivery, so no worries about delays in ordering. Unlike the Allegro, the Sunny would come with cloth seats, a radio, clock, cigarette lighter, seats with headrests and tinted glass, where you’d have to move up the Allegro range( possibly the top model) and spend a lot more. I know talk of the Allegro’s unreliability have been exaggerated, but people were buying Japanes as they knew they’d get a car that would start every morning and wouldn’t break down on long journeys.

  15. What’s surprising, is that of the 3 Merseyside plants, 2 (Halewood and Ellesmere Port) are still around which is as better survival rate than in the Midlands, which lost Longbridge (effectively), Canley and Ryton, or the major car plants elsewhere which closed (Linwood, Dagenham car assembly and Luton car assembly).

    It seems that once the workforce issues were resolved, these 60s factories proved more efficient that some of the older plants elsewhere.

    The TR7 had the potential to be a good car. I always thought it a shame that the Lynx derivatives never made it into production, considering how popular 2+2 coupes like the 240Z etc were in America.

  16. Someone else mentioned a while back on another thread that in it’s later years Longbridge needed at least £2 Billion spending on it just to get the tooling up to date.

    Maybe it was a case of the right car at the wrong time for the TR7, especially the American market for small sports cars being tricky at the time & hot hatches beginning to appear.

    The failure of the MGC left the market wide open for the 240Z which was hailed with the headline “The Big Healey Lives!”

  17. @ maestrowoof, though not as big, the South East also lost Abingdon( MG) and Kingsbury( Vanden Plas), which means that only Plant Oxford( Cowley) survives as a major car assembly plant in the South East. Another Midlands casualty, whose three wheelers and Scimitar sports cars were quite popular in the seventies, was Reliant at Tamworth, who employed over 1000 at their peak in the early seventies.

  18. It’s interesting since Liverpool shed its reputation for trade union militancy and the Derek Hatton period, it’s really come back as a city. The once troubled Halewood factory is now hugely successful, the docks are expanding again, and the city is a very popular tourist destination. Unemployment, which was well over 20 per cent in the Militant Tendency era, is now down to 7 per cent and Liverpool’s population is increasing again after a massive decline in the seventies and eighties.

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