What trashed the British car industry? – Part 3: Quality and Strike

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A pervading issue surrounding the era between the mid-1960’s and the late-1970’s was one of huge discontent and civil unrest. This was the era where political and social liberalisation came to a head, either through comparatively peaceful, though drug-fuelled, movements such as the Hippies, or militant civil rights and socialist groups. The rise of the Cold War in the late 1940’s and the huge divisions it entailed between the capitalist west and the communist east meant that each bounded to their farthest point to try and maintain their values. In the west, the drive was to maintain the family values and traditions of yesteryear, holding on to ideals that had been established in the Victorian era such as good morals and respectful conduct, while also showing off everything that the capitalist world had to offer in terms of technology.

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The Attlee Government of 1945 brought about many of the reforms which helped give power to the Trade Unions.

While this was very much the mindset in the United States in the late 40’s, 50’s and early 60’s, they had the advantage of having not been bombed to pieces by six years of violent conflict. The UK on the other hand was more in touch with its liberal side, due largely to the perception that staunch Victorian ideals and traditions had been the culprit in leading to the calamitous wars of the early 20th century. Though not particularly evident in the 1950’s and early 60’s, with there still being a strong sense of national pride, there were underlying rumbles of discontent among the working classes who had borne the brunt of the war’s violence; either being bombed to pieces in their own homes during the Blitz or shipped off en masse to fight and die on the field of battle. The move towards more liberal ideals, as well as the disillusioned opinions on Victorian standards, came to a head when the first Labour Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, was elected in 1945.

Attlee’s modus operandi was to introduce a wave of reforms and services that would, for the first time, be aimed to please the working classes. Conditions in the workplace, such as Health & Safety legislation, turned archaic and very dangerous working conditions into much safer environments. He also nationalised large swathes of the British industry in order to fund its rebuilding and future operations directly by the state, the most prominent of these being the healthcare service and the railway industry. With state funding, the National Health Service (NHS) made healthcare and medical treatment available to everyone for free, while the integration of what was now named British Railways (BR) into government control allowed them to directly manage the rebuilding of the tired and under-maintained rail network. However, the cost of mass-nationalisation was completely underestimated by the government, with there being far too little money to deliver the promises of Attlee’s election campaign. The results were substandard operations or very slow rebuilding of a decrepit and heavily damaged industry.

Now, what does this have to do with the British car industry?

Basically, the appointment of Labour as the ruling party led to greater powers being handed to the Trade Unions.

Trade Unions had existed since the mid-1800’s, created to demand extra rights and privileges to the workers who would often live and work in harsh conditions for little pay. The peak of the Trade Unions came following the 1945 election, where prominent union leaders and their respective movements gained positions of political power and were able to influence government policy.

This would come into play later.

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Peace and Civil Rights movements began to upturn convention, bringing about the drug culture and the rise of the working class in the mid-1960’s.

Come the 1960’s, the continuation of the Cold War and the seemingly aggressive actions of the United States, NATO and even the UK in events such as the Suez Crisis, the Bay of Pigs incident and the Vietnam War had further divorced the masses from the concept that capitalism was the one true form of society. Oppressive government initiatives such as McCarthyism in the USA and other forms of political witch-hunting only served to compound the problem. By the middle of the 1960’s, there was a general sentiment that the governments of the west were actively trying to bully the people into seeing their point of view while those who opposed them were persecuted and ostracised. This was compounded by the Cuba Missile Crisis, where, after bringing the two major superpowers to the brink of nuclear annihilation, the people of the world were now firmly convinced their governments were actively trying to kill them all!

It was in this capacity that peace movements, such as the Hippie movement, started to defy convention and bring about the liberalisation of society at large. This was signified by the use of recreational drugs, promiscuity, passive protests and, let’s be honest, some of the best music ever written! At the same time, groups which had been traditionally oppressed by the ruling classes, including racial groups, women, homosexuals and religions, took the 1960’s as an opportunity to bring about reform that would result in their equality. This took the form of either peaceful movements or acts of violence by militant groups. In Britain, movements such as these were far more subverted though riots and violence did still occur.

Regardless, this upheaval of preceding social norms and traditional culture led to a clash of concepts at the very heart of which lay most of the UK’s major industries; none more prominent than the car industry.

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Cars undergo assembly at the Austin factory in Longbridge.

By the time of British Leyland’s formation in 1968, the UK car industry was starting to reel under the strained relations between workers and management; this being reflected in the quality of the cars being output by the factories. Despite the innovative design and prestigious reputation of the Mini and the Rover P5, cars would roll off the production line with serious faults owing to deliberate sabotage by some of the workers. These faults would range from poorly fitted body panels to improper wiring, mechanical issues, leaking roofs and boots, missing parts and other signs that no care was given in the construction of these machines. Sometimes the line workers would even leave customers a personal, if unintentional, gift in the form of a Coke can rattling under the seat or a cheese sandwich in the glove compartment. While a Coke can and a sandwich aren’t the easiest things to miss, quality control managers really didn’t care; giving the car a brief once-over before sending it off to the showroom. Therefore, if something obvious like a sandwich could slip through quality control, what chance was there that someone would notice a poorly fitted body panel?

I would mention the incredibly poor rust resistance of British Leyland’s products, which would often start to oxidise before customers had even driven them home from the showroom, but this was an issue prominent on pretty much all models built at the time. Whether it was the Morris Marina, the Ford Cortina or the Hillman Avenger, each had their fair share of rust problems.

The issues of worker relations, however, were not just endemic to British Leyland but to all the mass car builders of the time.

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HRH Duke of Edinburgh at the opening ceremony of the Linwood plant, unaware that it was only part finished and this Imp was one of only three in existence that actually worked.

During the 1960’s, the only other large car manufacturer in Britain, aside from Ford, was the Rootes Group, a subsidiary of Chrysler. This company was the parent for many UK builders including Sunbeam, Talbot, Hillman, Singer and Humber; making it the most prominent competitor to the Leyland giant. However, even the companies of the Rootes Group were suffering from their own ailments thanks largely to a malcontent workforce and incompetent management decisions.

The most prominent example of the company falling over in the face of poor workmanship, as well as being the incident which would begin the company’s slow and very painful death, was the launch of the Hillman Imp in 1963. This car was built to be a competitor to the Mini; a small, oddly shaped little machine which seemed harmless enough at first glance. However, a look into the history of the impish Imp and you find a whole myriad of problems.

Due to overcapacity at the Rootes factory in Coventry, a new factory was constructed to help build the Imp range in Linwood near Glasgow. At the same time the car was undergoing its design and construction phase, but this is where problems start. The Imp was hurried through conception and production, trying to cash in on the new trend in supermini cars before it was too late. The result was a poor mechanical design which was prone to failure; due largely to the use of alloy engines. At the same time, construction of the Linwood factory had fallen behind due to minor acts of sabotage by members of the workforce. Eventually, when the factory was inspected and opened by HRH Duke of Edinburgh, large portions of the plant had not yet been finished and were crudely covered up by large curtains to hide this fact. As for the Hillman Imp that the Prince drove during his tour, it was one of only three working examples in existence, the rest having either failed or weren’t even finished.

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Hillman Imps are assembled at the Linwood factory, though the plant’s location in Glasgow was a logistical nightmare for the company.

However, once construction did eventually start at Linwood, the problems accumulated massively, coming down to two major issues caused largely by the management. The first was the fact that engines and other mechanical parts for the Imp were still constructed in the Coventry plant, which meant they had to be shipped 300 miles by train to Glasgow before being fitted to the cars; a logistical nightmare as it turned out.

The more important problem though was the local workforce. Rootes had been encouraged to setup shop in Linwood due to the massive unemployment of the Glasgow workforce. Large scale reduction in the prominent and world famous Clyde shipbuilding and locomotive industry had led to mass-redundancy, and crime was at an all time high for the region. The workforce adopted to build the Imp wasn’t unskilled per se, but their experience was more in steam-driven machines with large-scale mechanics, examples of their craft being the creation of massive boilers and piston arms for steamships and locomotives. Small-scale precision mechanics and vehicles based more on electrics they had very little experience with. This was reflected when the Scottish locomotive industry attempted to build diesel engines; the results including the infamous Class 17 ‘Clayton’, which had a tendency to burst into flames at a moment’s notice!

The Imp, therefore, was a sales calamity when compared to the Mini. Though it sold well in its own right, the massive reliability issues and poor build quality of the cars meant that it was not a recommended buy. The failure of the Imp to recoup its costs began a spiral from which the Rootes Group could not recover. In 1971, Rootes became defunct and its various marques struggled on under Chrysler ownership before being sold to Renault and Peugeot in 1978. By 1990’s, the few remaining strands of the Rootes legacy were discontinued, the last being Talbot; which stuttered to a halt in 1994 after years of building humdrum, boxy family cars and Fiat-based motorhomes.

But back to British Leyland, as by 1973 things there too were spiralling out of control.

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Cars queue for miles in length during the 1973 Fuel Crisis, desperate to get whatever they could from what little remained.

The aforementioned problems of social unrest and cultural change were compounded further by the Fuel Crisis of 1973; a side affect of the Yom Kippur War of the same year. For their support of the Israeli’s during this conflict, the Organisation of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries placed oil export embargoes on the nations of Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States. The result was a massive spike in fuel costs literally overnight, with queues up to two miles in length forming at petrol stations across the western world as people desperately tried to get as much fuel as they possibly could. While the effects of the fuel crisis weren’t as prominent in Europe as they were in the USA, seeing as nations like the UK were already forced to be frugal due to a lack of immediate oil reserves, the economic catastrophe wrought by this event was equally as painful. The crisis led to the worst recession since the end of World War II, and the lack of money available only exacerbated the existing issues relating to worker/management relations.

Enter Derek Robinson, better known to you and I as “Red Robbo”.

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Derek Robinson’s charisma and public speaking abilities made him one of the most notorious men in Britain during the 1970’s.

The late trade unionist, who had originally joined Austin at Longbridge as an apprentice in the 1940’s, was a prominent communist figure in British society during the 60’s and 70’s. His membership and involvement with the Communist Party of Great Britain meant that he had fellow members in car plants all across the UK; a huge influence which enveloped thousands of people. The power he had over the workforce almost rivalled that of the management itself, and in some cases outdid it.

With his prominence, he launched a wave of strike action against the executives of the company, citing mismanagement as the main point of contention. The results were alarming as thousands of workers walked out for days, even weeks, at a time, and stoppages at individual plants happened nearly every day. Line workers couldn’t resist the idea of a 3-day week, coming in for a few hours a day to hastily slap together about a dozen cars before disappearing either home or back to the picket line. What you got were cars so poorly built and so wretched in quality that they simply fell to pieces in no time flat.

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Strikers and Police do battle outside the Longbridge factory; a common sight at the height of the tensions.

Theft was also endemic during this period, with many line workers going home with brand new parts to help fix their own cars. Paint was also a valuable commodity, with colours such as British Racing Green, Allegro Astral Blue and Tara Green Metallic being found on nearly every doghouse, garden shed and fence in the West Midlands. In some instances, though these are disputed, workers would transplant the polished wood veneer of luxury and high-end models with floorboards ripped up from derelict houses, resulting in the customer getting splinters off their own car!

The hopeless build quality and design of British Leyland’s products, combined with the huge negative press of the strikes, meant that the company was losing money hand over fist. Cars weren’t selling and even fewer were being built, leading to a self-destructive dive which saw the company bankrupt in 1975.

However, while this could’ve been the premature end of British Leyland, help came from an unlikely place; but this too would lead to its own slew of problems.

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