Video : Speke closure on the BBC

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Keith Adams

The closure of Speke was big news in 1976.
The closure of Speke was big news in 1976.

British Leyland history is full of tragedies, and here’s one that probably ranks among the worst of all – the closure of the Speke factory in Liverpool. It was a factory closure that ended up being bloody and acrimonious, and cost us the Ford Capri-rivalling Triumph Lynx…

Here’s an interesting version of events broadcast on the BBC at the time. Enjoy it while you can… and try not to end up weeping too much.

 

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

48 Comments

  1. This makes so much sense. The Workers where always being blamed for the demise of British Leyland, when actually the management where the ones to blame, and I’ve got to agree with the workers and say that the TR7 wasn’t a well developed car.

    Thats on thing which FORD always did well in, and that was giving the public what they wanted, and this is something which Leyland never understood.

    The Management where clueless! Lack of communication maybe????

  2. I always felt ford gave the public what they THOUGHT they wanted, or were TOLD what they wanted by the press.
    I have always found BL to be smoother, quieter, more comfortable, more refined than any ford, and I have driven any number of each.

  3. Speke was a disaster, it was badly managed, the unions were of the Derek Hatton mentality and the TR7 was just so badly made. I haven’t seen this in full, but I’m sure in one report the BBC reporter, who was running a TR7 for a year, had endless problems with the car.
    Actually once the TR7 was moved to Canley, quality seemed to improve and the last cars out of Solihull were quite well made. However, the damage had been done with the early cars and the TR7’s reputation was permanently damaged.

  4. Never has the term “Beyond a joke” ever been so apt.
    I also think that around six minutes into the video, I’ve never heard the word “bloody” used as much as I did there!

  5. Fascinating stuff. The attitude of the workers was truly scary. 25% off on Mondays and Fridays tells you all you need to know about the failure and what caused it.

  6. The ‘Stragegy To Re-Locate Industry’.
    Leyland didn’t want to move from The Midlands and The Hillman Imp also suffered because the govenment wanted it built in an unemployment blackspot.

    The British Motor Industry would, in my opinion, be healthier today without the govenments plan to re-locate.

    Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

  7. Happy new year.

    God I thought my work was bad when it comes down to order stuff. the guy at 6:45 on about 5000 left hand wings more when they need the 5000 right hand ones to do the job.
    Thats not John Bishops dad by any change.

  8. I’m an Aussie who purchased a new TR7 when they first came out. It was in destructable. I purchased another new TR7 in 1980 for my wife. We still have the car and it now needs a lot of work but it has 1 million kms on the clock. It had a complete overhaul at 500,000 kms.

    So why were my two TR7’s so good?

  9. Re Michael O’Brien- because the people who run down the TR7 have probaly either driven a badly maintained wreck or have never even driven or owned one. There was nothing wrong with the TR7 as your post proves.

  10. It is almost History repeating itself just like the Hillman Imp Factory in Linwood, Highly Modern Factory costing Millions, but built in an area dictated by “The Government” Dreadful Relations between Workers and Management, you would of thought the World and especially Britain would of Learned by the mistake that Rootes made.

    However I do get the impression that the once Great British Motor Industry, plodded on producing products that made little profit to invest in new cars/plant but just managed to pay the rent (hence the long life of the cars Rover/Triumph 2000 etc), However once the floodgates opened to all the Foreghn stuff it wasn’t long before it was all brought crippling to its knees !

    If this is true then Britain was ill before Imports cleaned up! But who do you blame for this…. Government again? Cost of Living too high hence lower than should be prices, Despite very few “Working Class” could actually afford them new and conspiracy theory’s start up again! We may have won the War but we are still fighting a loosing battle.

    Also interesting to note very few Triumph cars, One Toledo unless I missed them, but plenty Vauxhall Viva HBs, Ford Zephers etc, Hillman Hunters.

    Is anything left of the Old Triumph works? using http://gridreferencefinder.com/ and grid reference SJ 42372 84074 is this the old site? with Jaguar just long the road, and Triumph Trading Park above (note spitfire/vitesse way).

    One further thought could Harris Man stylist for the TR7 really be partly blamed on the demise of Speke?

  11. Sounds like a perfect storm: lousy product, crap management and a lazy and bolshy workforce. Plus the economic situation wasn’t too healthy in in the mid to late 70s.

    I think the impact of joining the EEC (as it was then) is often overlooked. The British manufacturers had been protected by tariffs of over 10% during the 40-60s so a VW or Renault was considerably more expensive during that period than the similar Austin or Triumph model. After joining the EEC in 1972, all the tariffs went. It also meant that Ford and Vauxhall could afford to face down the unions in their UK plants by importing from their European plants which wasn’t open to BL.

    • @AllFormsOfMotoringFan

      Indeed, in retrospect the taxation pre EEC did protect the UK car plants. But this had to do with the products themselves. From the German perspective, BMC cars have been very expensive before the UK joined the EEC. A Morris 1100 Mk1 was about 25-30% more expensive than a German competitor (VW, Opel Kadett), despite being so expensive they had their niche in the market. My father could have saved some money if he bought an Opel Commodore 2.5 or a Citroën ID19 instead of the Austin 1800 S…

      After 1972, when the prices got competitive, the cars were not anymore. Initial sales of the Austin 1300 Mk3, particular the GT, were brisk (a last of the line 1300 had a lower price tag than a Morris 1100 8 years earlier!), but the quality was abysmal. Marina and Dolimite was withdrawn from the German market practically at launch. SD1 was the cheapest V8, but many customers quickly returned to the more expensive Mercedes and BMW. BL’s name tarnished to such a degree back then (almost 40 years ago!), that in the minds of many people here in Germany cars from the UK still are thought of as badly made and unreliable (“Britisch Elend”).

      Pre EEC a more closed market allowed UK’s car industry to shift enough un-competitive cars to have an (relative) easy life. The first wake-up call in form a Japanese cars was not taken serious… The rest is history. Sadly.

  12. That video made grim viewing. Obviously belligerent trade unions played their part in the downfall of BL but the lion’s share of the blame clearly rests with apalling standards of management in every way. The workers were completely de-motivated and who could blame them?

    When Japanese car firms came to the UK and ran plants with the highest productivity in Eurpoe were they using Japanese workers? No, they used the same workforce as had been available to BL.

    Even today the organisation I work for has very poor managers who are kept afloat by the efforts of the workers.

  13. I guess if you have a totally inept management and you thought what you were producing was rubbish like the guys in the vid said, you’d be not bothered to come into work much,

    Why was the management so bad in BL? You don’t need a PHD to order the correct types of wings for a car plant.

  14. I must take issue with the general claim that BL management was inept. Many BMC/BL managers later went on to great success in other firms, Allen Sheppard and David Abel immediatly spring to mind. What they were not equipped to handle was was a rebellious and uncooperative workforce who listened more to the combined British Leyland Shop Stewards Committee instead of senior management and government ministers who were trying to build a UK motor industry to be proud of. Because the managers spent most of their time trying to keep people at their workstations it is no surprise that took their eye off the ball and mistakes were made. Also the Ryder Report cast the ‘Mutuality’ that Grham Turner refers to in the film, in stone which meant that the shop stewards were able to prevent reform of outdated working practices and prevent managers from managing properly, which no doubt de-motivated many of them, resulting in more mistakes.
    And what must be remembered is that the Speke workforce were on strike for 10 weeks when the plant closure was announced, and crying wolf after the event is bad form.
    Speke played a major part in destroying the Triumph brand.
    Was the TR7 a bad car ? Okay, it may have had its faults, but I don’t think it was that bad.
    As Alan Leighton discovered when he was running the Royal Mail Group, all the accrued business skills, charm and good wiil towards your employees count for nothing when you are confronted by a union ( CWU ) who are determined to fight you tooth and nail to prevent you from implementing your plans.

  15. Totally agree with Ian’s last statement, these militant unions are hell bent on getting what they can and will continue to cause trouble making their ridiculous demands. RMT’s Bob Crow is a classic example, suggesting that the already overpaid Tube Drivers walk out – holding hard working Londoner’s to ransom – for utterly ridiculous demands on pay increases and bonuses which are completely out of touch with reality and totally inappropriate given the situation a lot of public sector workers find themselves in.

    I’m a Labour man for life, but these w@nkers have no right to masquerade as ‘trade unionists’ – such as those who fought for acceptable working conditions, equality etc all those years ago.

  16. Brian
    Thank you for agreeing with me , but I’m not going to get into a debate about tube drivers !
    Besides I live in North Norfick !

  17. The failures of British Leyland have been discussed many times, poor management, militant Unions, parts suppliers, British arrogance that the world would always buy British, a merger too far, poor products, all are relevant and played their part. Many strikes in BL were not Union backed from the top, but orchestrated by a few bully boy shop stewards and their mates, it was a failure of management not to deal with these people. Dodgy parts supplied to Speke from the Midlands side of the business, does that really surprise anybody?
    But if you really want to know why there is a them and us mentality between management and workers, that exists today but really came to the fore in the 70’s, then you have to go back to the end of the second world war. Whenver this country is in trouble, be it financial or war it is only the working classes that are big enough to pull this country out of the crap, and each time we are told a much fairer society will emerge after the crisis is over and each time the men in grey suits lie. So who is really to blame for the rise of militant workers, whenever that occurs, its a reaction to bad management or Goverment policy.

  18. Love this video – really shows the issues at the time at Speke. A couple of points come to mind. First, it would have been possible to manage the company, despite the over-mighty unions, as Michael Edwards proved. But he had to be exceptionally tough. Second, it was perfectly possible to build good cars in other parts of the country, as Nissan, Toyota and Honda showed. Or for that matter, Ford and Vauxhall in Merseyside. I still think stronger management would have helped. Stokes had a habit of giving in to union demands in the early 70s, in efforts to maintain production levels, perhaps sowing some seeds for disputes later in the decade.

  19. @AllFormsOfMotoringFan

    Joining the EEC back then did indeed mean that other European carmakers could sell their products cheaper to UK customers, but it also meant that UK carmakers could sell their cars to European customers cheaper, so in effect they would indeed lose sales on one hand and win some on the other end…

    However the European customer wasn’t interested in those cars… There were several reasons for that, one was that it was not “made in Germany” and the other was just that BL didn’t make what the customer wanted… In this particular case, the TR7 was a niche product afterall…

    VW was in also a lot of financial problems during the 70’s but managed to turn things around with the Passat and Golf they just developed… What was BL making? Rrrright.. The Allegro and Marina…

    If you really want to know why BL lost the battle, all you have to do is look at what the competition was offering…

  20. Speke was a disaster yet cruelly not too far down the road Ford’s ex Halewood plant goes from strength to strength producing Jaguars and Land Rovers, ironically ex British Leyland products.

  21. I went on an official visit to the plant at Speke (I taught at a school just up the road) and we toured around on a Saturday when there was no shift working–the place was a disgrace, parts all over the place,parts bins tipped over, part finished vehicles dumped everywhere etc etc. To add insult to injury when the time came for the film show (The TR7 launch film for the USA) the manager who was taking the tour couldn’t work the projector –I had to do it! Says it all.

  22. The TR7 wasn’t a bad car at all, nor was it bad looking. What it was not though, was well-built, or reliable – if the design was Ok, what else can you blame? The supply-chain – yes. The QA procedures – oh yes, very much so. The work-force – sorry, but for all the impassioned cries about management, the 70s BL workforce, well-paid, thinking they had a job for life, and becoming increasingly Bolshie (anyone remember Bobbie Grant?) I’m sorry, but I’ve worked in a non-union, private sector industry for all of my life, and I’ve thankfully never witnessed the dissent seen in that film – why? Because we’d all be fired! Unions and lazy, over-opinionated workers killed British industry – along with power-hungry, status chasing management, who had no vision, and worse of all, no idea how to manage either manufacture of goods, or people. The Datsun analogy at the time was bang-on – the products, although weak in design, worked, and were constantly in production. BL’s designers and engineers tried their best, (I’ve watched the films – they are all very earnest about producing the very best product they can) but were generally overruled by the top brass, and then had the cars nailed together by over-paid Trotsky-ists – is it any wonder we failed miserably?

  23. I hope the Evoque doesn’t go down the same route! Anyone know the distance between Speke & Halewood?

  24. Discipline was lax at Speke because trying to impose any form of order would have resulted in a strike . You can only impose discipline if the workforce will accept it is for their mutual benefit .
    It was a different world back in the 1975 to 1978 timescale . Many people belived Britain was heading in a socialist direction and in state owned firms like British Leyland Limited , things like profit and loss , production , quality and productivity didn’t seem to matter . This may have been what Tony Benn wanted , but as the Labour supporting Daily Mirror pointed out , the Callaghan government were trying to pay off a big IMF loan and all state owned concerns had to play their part by turning in a profit .
    The axing of Speke was one of Michael Edwardes first big decisions and it demonstrated he meant business . Gradually he ended the worker participation schemes and the mutuality agreements between management and the shop stewards .
    Unfortunately although Edwardes was a determined man , he was dealing with equally determined political activists to whom the means justified the cause and the negative publicity from these confrontations led to BL’s UK market share declining to an unrecoverable sub 20% .
    Some BL executives like Desmond Pitchers resigned feeling Edwardes approach was far to confrontational . Maybe he had a point . Mrs Thatchers nominee Graham Day seem to have been far more willing to engage the unions in productive discussion without resort to rancour .

  25. I agree that the unions played their role in the downfall of Speke, management’s patience will eventually snap if the factory is closed constantly by strikes. However, while the workforce probably headed to the dole queue, I wonder where their comrades who ran the unions went to, no doubt sent somewhere else to cause trouble and cause more people to lose their jobs.

  26. Lest we forget, whilst Speke was troublesome, it was not the only part of BL taking industrial action, neither was BL the only part of the car industry suffering strikes, Dagenham too signed its own death warrant during the 70’s along with several others. So the route cause was much deeper than just what was happening at Speke.

    Dave

  27. From the archives or what was said at the time….

    THE TIMES

    Speke: high hopes that ended in disaster

    R. W. Shakespeare describes events at the £30m British Leyland car complex on Merseyside, a large part of which it is proposed to close.
    Leyland’s Triumph car plant at Speke, Liverpool, which is now coming under the axe, represents more than just an investment of more than £30m in two decades. It has been a crucial element in Merseyside’s struggle for economic survival, involving as it does the creation of 5,600 manual and white collar jobs in what was, and still is, one of the highest unemployment areas in the country, together with many more jobs supplying service sectors. More than that, it represents an operation which for a time seemed destined to fulfil all the hopes that it would prove to be an outstanding success and which has now ended in a spectacular and, for Merseyside, tragic failure.
    It was early government strategy on the relocation of industry in the regions that first persuaded the former Standard Triumph Company to move to Merseyside in 1959 and take over a factory owned by the Hall Engineering Group which had been making Herald car bodies under licence. At the same time the motor company bought an adjoining 110-acre site from Liverpool Corporation for future development. In the original factory Standard Triumph, incorporated in BLMC’s car manufacturing division and subsequently in British Leyland, expanded the body-pressing operations, increased the labour force from an initial 900 to 1,700 and, during the 1960s, turned out car body shells for a wide range of models, including the Herald, Vitesse, the 1300, the Dolomite and the TR 4, 5 and 6 (fore-runners of the TR 7). This was followed by a £10.5m development plan for the vacant site, where building was started in 1968 and completed in 1970. This involved a new purpose-built plant capable of complete car manufacture from first assembly to paint and trim. The first “start to finish” car made at Speke was the Triumph Toledo. In retrospect it can now be seen that the downturn for the Merseyside plant really began with a decision to turn almost all the Speke complex over (with the exception of Dolomite body-making facilities) to the manufacture of a new sports car, the TR7, designed entirely for the American market. The car was launched in the United States in January, 1975, but it failed to realize anything like the high hopes that Leyland had for it. This was partly, it is now clear, because of the inexplicable design fault of making it a hardtop car, when it was well known that the American preference was for an open sports car. There was some hurried rethinking of the project and in May, 1976, to the accompaniment of some very high pressure publicity and public relations ballyhoo, the TR7 was ” relaunched ” on the British market. It sold quite well in this country, achieving a record sales figure for sports cars in Britain only a month after its launch. The only trouble was that financially it was a flop. Some Leyland executives have suggested that the car has sold only because it was being virtually “given away ” and they imply that during the past 15 weeks, while Speke has been closed because of strike action, Leyland has actually been saving itself money by not making the TR7. The really serious feature of the shut-down on Merseyside has been that it has also meant stopping production of the Dolomite at Coventry, where the assembly lines rely on supplies of car bodies from Speke. The dispute itself has obviously been publicly tied to speculation about the plans being drawn up by Mr Michael Edwardes, British Leyland’s new chairman, for reorganization of the state-owned company’s car manufacturing operations. Perhaps unfairly the Merseyside workers have been beld up for public inspection as an example of what has gone wrong in Leyland. In fact, the Speke plant had until the present strike an enviable labour relations record in the motor industry. It had not had a strike for five years. The trouble started when Leyland wanted to implement new manning and productivity arrangements.
    Leyland claims that over a period of eight months it took the proposals through the full negotiating procedure up to and including, talks with national officials of the car unions and it was only after this procedure had been exhausted that it went ahead and implemented its plans on the shop floor at Speke. It was this that led to the walkout by 2,000 workers on November 1 last year, coincidentally the day that lfr Edwardes took over as chairman. The stewards claimed, and still claim, that the company was in breach of local agreements when it took its decision unilaterally to put the new working arrangements into operation. The effect of the strike, which until this week was being run unofficially by shop stewards (both the Transport and General Workers’ Union and the Amalgamated Union of Engineering workers have now made it official) has been disastrous, at least in terms of the nominal losses that have been suffered. In all, production of TR 7 and Dolomite cars worth, at showroom value, well over £100m
    has been lost since November 1. Now the decision to move TR 7 production from Speke and to retain only body-making operations at Liverpool,
    which in effect puts the site back in its pre-1970 state, is bound to cause uproar on Merseyside, since it involves more large scale redundancy in an area where unemployment is already running at 10.6 per cent. Possibly the worst feature of this fresh disaster for Merseyside is in the effects it will have on the area’s efforts to promote itself as a suitable place for new investment. Only a week or two ago the North West Industrial Development Association held a big and expensive seminar at the Hilton Hotel in London aimed at selling the region, and to some extent Merseyside in particular, to potential investors at home and abroad. Undoubtedly, British Leyland’s decision to cut back the Speke operation will be blamed to some extent on labour relations, in which Merseyside’s image has been badly tarnished over the years. This may, in fact, be an unfair judgment, if all the circumstances are taken into consideration, but it is clearly the one that will be made in many quarters.

    The dole queue looms for 3,000 workers in hard-hit area
    From Craig Seton

    Speke. Few would deny that Speke is one of Liverpool’s grimmest dormitory towns and even a cursory glance from a passing motorist could not fail to take in the deprivation that grips the area. Yesterday its people, more used than most to hard knocks, were coming to terms with Leyland’s decision to close the TR7 assembly plant there at a cost of 3,000 jobs. The plant provides work for people from Liverpool right along the conurbation straddling the A561, including Garston and Speke, through to Halewood, home of the big Ford works, and Widnes. Few now seem to doubt that closure is irrevocable.
    Yesterday the strike that has crippled the doomed plant for 16 weeks went on. Pickets still manned the gates to the number 2 factory, where the TR7 is assembled, and policemen directed traffic as the workers arrived to collect tax rebates owing to them because while they are on strike they are no longer earning a weekly wage. The one topic of conversation was the closure. Leyland was bluffing, some said. It was a ruse, a trick to end the strike and get the men back to work. Others, who seemed to be in the majority, were in no doubt that the decision was final and that they were heading for the dole queue, or, if they were extremely lucky, another job in an area that has an unemployment rate of 12 per cent, twice the national average.
    In the town, Mr Raymond Griffiths, headmaster of Speke Comprehensive School, which has 900 pupils, was assessing how much more difficult the closure would make his job and the job of other schools as more children saw their mothers and fathers thrown out of work.
    “Losing so many jobs is just another door, slammed in their faces, another opportunity of employment lost. It is very dispiriting “,
    he said. Many pupils at his school and others near by are suffering severely from bad housing and home conditions. The school takes its children mostly from the untidy council housing estate surrounding it; an area of derelict houses and graffiti daubed walls and smashed windows with very little for the children to do in the evening. Local traders, too, were full of misgivings. One proprietor said that Leyland workers who had been on strike had been having difficulty meeting weekly payments for goods, including furniture. If the factory closed more people would be unable to pay bills and more shops would inevitably close. At the factory workers spoke of the continuing strike and the part it may have played in the closure. Workers talked bitterly of the bleak prospects ahead. Mr William Cross, aged 48, a married man with two children who lives at Walton, Liverpool, said he had worked in the paint shop at the Leyland factory for seven years.
    ” I reckon this is it, this time “,
    he said.
    ” People have been talking about it for 12 months and nobody is really surprised. I am quite prepared to accept the decision. I do not think the strike was the reason for the closure; the plant could not carry on losing money like that.”
    Mr Cross and some of his workmates thought jobs might be available for a few men at the other Leyland plants in Speke or at Ford, but for most, particularly the older men, the dole queue was their likely destination. Mr Eric Field, aged 37, who also works in the paint shop, said he had earlier been made redundant by English Electric and had been drawing unemployment benefit for a year. He said:
    “I was single then, so it was not so hard. My wife works so we are hoping that the dole won’t be so bad, but it is always possible that I can get another job, perhaps at Ford.”
    Another Leyland worker suggested that the management had engineered the strike to provide an excuse for the closure. But he conceded that productivity was low and that the workers could hardly be surprised by the decision.

    DAILY MIRROR

    Triumph And The Tragedy

    By Geoffrey Goodman

    The closure of British Leyland’s factory at Speke had to come , it seems like a clap of thunder to the 3000 workers at the plant .
    It ought not . It has been on the cards for months . As soon as Michael Edwardes took over the hot seat at the summit of British Leyland he looked at the books and marked down Speke for closure .
    It has the worst production record in the whole of the Leyland group ; the absenteeism was about double the company’s average ; the cost per vehicle on a man for man comparison was higher than in any other Leyland plant .
    All that was the situation when the plant was actually operating , producing the famed TR7 . The 16 week strike over manning levels , which has finally brought about its closure , made no material difference to the basic problem .
    Michael Edwardes wanted to close it before Christmas . He was persuaded to think again . He wanted to shut it down in early January . He was persuaded to wait a while longer .
    There will be no backing down now .
    The Speke plant will stay closed even if its shutdown provokes a major clash between the Leyland boss and the unions .
    And the government have already made it clear that they stand behind Edwardes .
    Last year , 1977 , production of the TR7 at Speke fell to just short of 23000 vehicles – barely half the scheduled output .
    And though the big strike did not start until November 1 last year there had not been a full week of unbroken production since the last week of August 1977 .
    The whole saga of the Speke assembly plant – Leyland also has a body plant at Speke – is one of tragedy in an area of tragic distress .
    Merseyside is an area of unemployment blight .
    Nearly 100,000 people are now registered as jobless – 11.5 per cent of the working population . Its unemployment rate is 50 per cent higher than in any of the other black spot areas , the zones described as “special development areas”.
    It has always been an area of unemployment and social distress problems .
    If you reckon that each unemployed man costs the state an average of about £55 a week then the Merseyside unemployment problem is currently running up a bill of £300 million a year .
    With that kind of background you would have thought that jobs would have been regarded as Gods gift .
    Yet Liverpool has one of the worst strike records in the country .
    Merseyside and Clydeside are reckoned to be the most difficult of all areas for industrial relations .
    When north country comedians run out of jokes about politicians they fall back on cracks about “strike city” – Liverpool .
    Of course that is unfair . In fact 95 per cent of firms on Merseyside have excellent industrial relations with scarcely any trouble .
    But the remaining 5 per cent – chiefly docks and cars – are trouble zones .
    The closure of Speke assembly plant will not , of course , mean the end of the TR7 . Leyland will transfer production of the car to its Triumph plant at Canley , Coventry , where there is spare capacity .
    But it does mean another mortal wound for Merseyside .
    No area in Britain can less afford such self inflicted punishment .

    THE GUARDIAN

    THE PLANT THAT DIDN’T TAKE

    PETER HILDREW reports the pressures that led to Leyland axeing Speke

    Speke was the first car plant I visited as industrial reporter ; although opened as late as 1971, it immediately brought back memories of Charlie Chaplin chasing along an assembly line with a spanner in pursuit of vanishing nuts and bolts. A car assembly worker has his task defined to the second; reach overhead for the tool, lean over or climb into the vehicle, bolt on the part , climb out again and the next car is already bearing down on you. Overshoot your time and you delay the next man, throwing the whole clockwork sequence into disarray; and all the pressure is to find ways of doing the job faster. An engineering craftsman would not call most of the work skilled ; it is repetitive—not difficult to learn but requiring a mechanical discipline.

    Since the Government first pushed the motor industry to develop on Merseyside in the early 1960s, managements have struggled to fit men brought up on dockwork into the mould, and they have found it difficult. It takes more than a generation to establish a tradition of efficient and disciplined factory work, and even if the tradition is already present as in Coventry or Cowley, assembly line operations are notoriously troublesome for recognised psychological reasons. Both Vauxhall, who began car production at Ellesmere Port in 1962, and Ford, who opened Halewood in 1963, have committed themselves more firmly to Merseyside than Leyland and they show every sign of continuing although productivity is not yet as good as in the south. Both parts have big strike records. Therefore , in spite of the complaints that Speke is overmanned , the least efficient of Leyland’s plants, prone to absenteeism and poor on quality, the company would in all probability have persevered in Liverpool if it needed the capacity. But with the rationalisation of models and declining sales it does not; it has spare capacity at the Canley factory in Coventry, to which production of the TR7 sports car can be transferred. It must shrink until it can demonstrate the capacity to grow and sell the 150,000 cars that could theoretically be assembled in a year at the Speke plant compared with the 22,945 it made last year. No wonder costs are high.

    Standard Triumph first came to Speke in 1959, shortly before being taken over by Leyland Motors. Mr Alick Dick, managing director at the takeover, said this week that they only went to Liverpool because the Government refused an industrial development certificate in Coventry. They took over an established company. Hall Engineering, which was making body components for the Triumph Herald and expanded the bodymaking operations into what is now the Speke No. 1 plant employing about 2,000 people. At the same time they bought a vacant 110-acre site nearby from Liverpool City Council and after stalling for several years announced in September 1965 that the No 2 assembly plant would be built on It. An ” act of faith ,” Mr George Turnbull, general manager, called it; Merseyside was to be Britain’s second area for the motor industry, although it was 1968 before work on the new factory started and 1971 before the first Triumph Toledo left the Speke assembly line. The body plant at Speke is to continue in operation under the new Pressed Steel Fisher subsidiary and Leyland is quick to point out that the strictures on inefficiency are only supposed to apply to the sports car assembly site. The company still needs union cooperation in the body plant to produce shells for the Triumph Dolomite and for the TR7 when production is transferred to Coventry, although there have been problems in the body plant too.

    The issue came to a head at Speke, where the management , exasperated by the failure to agree on a scheme for boosting output , tried to implement new work rates on November 3 and the labour force walked out. There is a suspicion on Merseyside that by then the writing was already on the wall. The decision to close Speke is a reassertion of the view that management must manage , and it comes from the top. The Government, like the TUC, subscribes to the philosophy that the energies of working people can be more fruitfully engaged by encouraging participation. But they have handed the Leyland reins to Mr Michael Edwardes , a small brisk man brought up in South Africa who believes that the company needs prolonged debate ” like a hole in the head ” and that management must listen to views briefly put, decide its line and drive it through. It is this battle , rather than Merseyside’s that the Leyland conveners are fighting.

  28. @Ian Nicholls

    Thank you for putting up these press cuttings, which certainly provide a useful illustration of what was going on in Speke, and in BL, at the time. It seems hard to argue with Edwards’ contention that Speke should close, a decision which was part of a drive to make the company profitable by reducing excess capacity. The plan led to all car production being focused on Cowley and Longbridge, and the rationalisation of the range to the ARG line-up.

    I have always thought that BL’s problems in the 70s were the result of a complex set of problems, in which the Unions, the Government, the designers and the management all played their part. It was a very hard company to manage profitably, and as you say there were unhelpful political drivers in the background.

  29. BL in that era was THE byword for what happens when you mix a vast, over-manned, loss-making, nationalised industrial concern with politics, even though the unions and government of the day were both on the left. It was by no means the only car maker in industrial strife at the time, but certainly in the worst condition. The issues were massive, and Speke was Edwardes’s baptism of fire – had he not carried the closure through then he would have gone instead. The wonder is that having dealt with much of the poor BL management and union issues, got the remaining workers and (much of) the new Thatcher government on-side and developed the first really decent BL product for years (the Metro), Edwardes had pretty much the whole thing heading in the right direction by 1981-2. If you can find a copy of his ‘Back From The Brink’ in a charity shop near you then it’s well worth a read.

  30. Think of how in ideal World the TR 7 / 8 could have developed… with the SD1 5 speed box as minimum standard.

    TR7 2.0 FHC / DHC
    TR7 2.0 Sprint 16v FHC / DHC
    TR7 “Lynx” in 8v or 16v Sprint form
    TR7 “Lynx” 3.5 V8 Automatic
    TR 8 FHC / DHC

    Sad indeed………

  31. Moving on to the present – BMW own the Triumph name as well as several other marques. They sit on them and do nothing. The TR7 may have been a dud, but there were many Triumphs that were very appealing cars, and could be again today. I guess the Rover 75 experiment scared off BMW, but they could have made it a great car if they made a real effort, it certainly had the looks. I can imagine a 21st century TR9, Stag Mk3, and 3000S Sedan, and if executed properly, could be as successful as the Mini and the Triumph motorcycle of the current era, but BMW would rather not go down that path, and as well, prevent anyone else to.

  32. I presume the body plant shut down once first the Dolomite, and then the TR7 were finally discontinued?

    Why was the Speke assembly plant opened anyway, as the decision was taken well before the TR7 programme had commenced? Did they reallt think that Triumph needed a new 150k assembly plant when the existing production level in Canley was nowhere near this level?

  33. Using Ian Nicholls’ press cuttings:-
    In 1977 Speke produced 23,000 vehicles using 3,000 workers, or just under 8 vehicles per worker. Even if that was half capacity that still gives a theoretical maximum of 16 cars/worker.
    In 2011, Nissan at Sunderland produced 480,000 vehicles with 5,500 workers, or 87 per worker. And the place has been strike free since it was opened.
    Shows what can be done in UK when we put our minds to it.
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-16391397

  34. I wonder if the decision to build the massive Speke No2 plant was taken just before the merger of Leyland with BMC and they were thinking of expanding the Triumph range so needed the volume.

  35. Not surprised Speke shut – more surprised that JLR, with the support of the local workforce, have been able to turn around Halewood. I used to go there years ago when they made Escorts and was always expected each time to be the last! It really is a fantastic effort.
    As regards the Lynx – am I alone in thinking that it looks like two different cars welded together. It looked awful -and I actually dont mind the TR7 although I always though it striking (pardon the pun) rather than beautiful

  36. It’s a shame because the TR7 was an attractive looking sports car for its time. It wasn’t weak management or striking workers that let the car down. The simple fact is that these cars were made using poorly engineered and cheap components that resulted in poor reliability, high warranty claims, and bad publicity in the media. Customers disappeared overnight and simply switched to German and Japanese cars, never to return again.

  37. Hello from France,
    Since 2007 after 2 drophead TR7 black and grey SERIE between 1981 and 1987 I return to the drophead TR7 ( canley MY 1980) bought in Switzerland in april 2007.
    Between 1997 and march 2007 I have drove the last LHD S4 Esprit Lotus for 80000 km from new. But because of law rules on road driving … I decided to return to the great Drophead TR7. Since 50000 km with it . I think definitively that TR7 is the best car of all the TR range. ( I owned a tr6 between 1971 and 1976) Simple and clever it’s to day one of the rare sport car able to give you a full driving pleasure on the roads of “2012”.
    33 years later and well maintained my TR7 is driving like my first one of 1981 ( all tr7 essential parts are avaible in UK with very good service )
    It ‘s shape was really for futur and the TR7 futur start now .
    best regards from France

  38. The cars were not that bad from Speke once the gearbox was replaced. I had one new in 1977 and it ran perfect for 2 and a half years we only sold it due baby on the way.
    A friend worked at Speke and he told me the Coventry managers would make really crazy decisions in his opinion to start problems with the workers; done to get the plant closed and the work moved back to Coventry. He said that the parts logistics was always a mess and caused most of the initial delays. The old factory worked fine during a lot of the crisis period as it was not “managed” by Coventryites.

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