What trashed the British car industry? – Part 4: National Importance and Turning Japanese

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In 1975, after suffering harsh sales and losing money like water, British Leyland was nationalised by the then incumbent Labour government led by Prime Minister James Callaghan. Following the publication of the Ryder Report, which outlined the many issues with the ailing company and what could be done to secure its future, British Leyland was nationalised on March 26th, 1975; a move once again falling under the auspices of Tony Benn, Secretary of State for Industry.

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The troublesome Speke factory in Liverpool was among the largest of the major cuts, with Triumph TR7 assembly moving to the West Midlands.

With this, the company was rebranded BL in an attempt to distance itself from the now tarnished name of British Leyland. Furthermore, a radical wave of reform took place to try and cut as many outgoings as possible from its operation. The company’s Italian distributor, Innocenti, was sold to Alejandro de Tomaso, while the Wolseley marque was discontinued following the end of the 6 month production run of the Wolseley Saloon (a high-end version of the Leyland Princess). The following years saw rationalisation of the number of plants used by BL, starting with the Triumph factory at Speke, Liverpool being closed in 1978 after a controversial run of strikes which saw it inoperable for over a year. Next to go was the MG factory in Abington in 1980, bringing an end to the classic MGB and Midget lines.

However, there were some good things that came about from this somewhat dismal period, namely the Rover SD1.

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The Rover SD1 was by far British Leyland’s most innovative design, though it would sadly be ruined by woeful build quality.

The SD1 was by far the company’s most capable machine, an executive saloon which delivered all the affordable luxuries the modern businessman wanted while also adopting the beautiful styling of a Ferrari Daytona. The car was way ahead of its time in terms of look and even went on to win the European Car of the Year award for 1977; the only BL product to do so. Though this perfectly capable car would later be ruined by abysmal quality and poor reliability, it was still a magnificent machine and one of the few bright spots in this dark time.

The real change, though, came in 1977 with the appointment of South African businessman Sir Michael Edwardes as Chairman of the British Leyland group. It was under his management that many of the large cuts to the company were authorised; bringing it back from the brink. His efforts saw a massive reorganisation of the company assets including the various factory closures, discontinuation of poorly performing models such as the Triumph Stag, rationalisation of the company board and overseeing the start of development for new models which would replace those which had marred BL’s name.

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Sir Michael Edwardes was one of the driving forces behind the reorganisation of British Leyland.

However, perhaps his greatest achievement during this period was to finally do battle with the strikers and trade unionists. By this point, divisions within the communist unions had resulted in there being no real semblance of organisation among the strikers. Unofficial strikes were held without permission or planning of the unions and the higher trade unionists were struggling to maintain control of the workforce. The result was the trade unions losing support and being put into decline, especially following the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 as Prime Minister of the new Conservative government; her staunch anti-communist and anti-union sentiments being clear from the start. The notorious ‘Red Robbo’, who had once been seen as a hero of the workers union, was given the sack in November 1979, with a 14,000 to 600 vote in favour of having him dismissed.

Workers gradually got the message that causing such disruption and intentional corporate sabotage was not going to keep them in their jobs, thus the vocal minority of the trade unions quickly fell out of favour.

Perhaps the biggest incentive of this period was the development of a new series of models under the reorganised Austin-Morris and Jaguar-Triumph-Rover (JTR) sectors of the company; namely the development of the Austin Metro, Maestro and Montego. All three of these cars, unofficially dubbed the M-Cars, would do away with several models at once; the Metro replacing the Mini, the Maestro replacing the Morris Marina and the Austin Allegro, and the Montego replacing the Princess range. However, the cash-strapped British Leyland was unable to conjure the funds to deliver the Maestro and Montego by their projected release date of 1980, thus these projects fell to the back.

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The Austin Metro was intended as a replacement for the classic Mini, but the car failed to sell in the same numbers as its predecessor.

The most important model on BL’s mind was the Metro, a supermini which was intended to replicate the phenomenal success of the Mini by being the small family hatchback to take on the world. Released in 1980, the Metro was a highly successful machine in the UK but failed to grab an international audience the like Mini. This was due to the fact that unlike in 1959 the supermini market, as well as the hatchback market, was now saturated. The comparatively humdrum Metro now faced competition from the likes of the Volkswagen Polo, the Renault 5, the Fiat 127 and the Talbot Sunbeam; all of which had garnered a reputation for greater practicality and a proven City Car image. However, while the Metro was only ever able to garner domestic success, it still made money and helped to keep the company afloat for many years due to high UK sales. Regardless, the failure of the Metro to become a smash hit meant that the Mini got a reprieve and would remain in production for another 19 years while the Metro suffered the fate of languishing eternally in its shadow.

In terms of corporate affairs, 1979 saw BL start a massive attempt at reversing their fortunes through the assistance of an unexpected ally; Honda.

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Cars such as the Datsun Sunny helped establish the efficiency and reliability of Japanese builders.

During the 1970’s, it became apparent that Japan was starting to become the true expert of building efficient, comfortable and reliable cars. While Japanese built machines had previously been seen as something of a joke, the Fuel Crisis of 1973 brought to light the inefficiency of domestic European cars. Japan, having no oil reserves of its own, had to make do with highly efficient machines with exceptionally low fuel consumption. A lack of space on what little land there is in Japan also meant that companies such as Toyota, Honda, Nissan and Mitsubishi had mastered the art of creating small but practical cars; something western builders had failed to consider in the past.

With Japanese cars now selling in Europe and America, they quickly dominated huge swathes of the market and soon proved themselves incredibly popular among customers. Desperate to save themselves, European car builders turned to the European Union for help, the result being import levies being applied to cars built outside the EU. These extortionate import taxes meant that any attempt by a Japanese builder to sell cars in Europe would come to a substantial cost; taking away a large part of their profits.

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As thanks for the merger between the two companies, Edwardes was presented with this 1979 Honda Prelude.

Edwardes, however, was a highly pragmatic chairman and saw the potential of Japanese reliability married to British vehicular styling and internal refinement. The result came in 1979 when Honda and BL formed an alliance whereby Honda models would be built and sold in Britain under BL marques and in BL factories. The result was a perfect exchange; BL would finally get reliable machines to help rebuild their reputation and earn money, while Honda would be able to sell cars in Europe to exploit that otherwise restricted market and earn a cut from BL’s profits.

The first of the breed, the Triumph Acclaim, entered sales in 1981. This car was essentially just a rebadged Honda Ballade; being built in the UK as a replacement for the Triumph Dolomite. The car would go on to become BL’s most reliable model, with mechanical fidelity and build quality being in stark contrast to the reputation the company had garnered throughout the 1970’s. The success of the Acclaim, which sold 133,600 in a three year production run, opened the floodgates, with a decision made to base all future BL models off Honda products or to include Honda mechanics.

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The Triumph Acclaim was the first Honda/BL model, its Honda roots being evident in its design.

Such was this desire, the development of the Maestro and Montego was pushed back to 1982 and 1984, respectively, so as to incorporate parts from Honda. In the meantime, BL killed off many of their ageing and unreliable models, though what replaced them wasn’t much better. The infamous Allegro struggled on until the arrival of the Maestro in 1982, but cars such as the Morris Marina and the Princess were given a minor facelift in order to provide a stopgap until the Montego could be launched in 1984. This resulted in the seldom remembered Morris Ital and Austin Ambassador, somewhat unremarkable machines which differed little from their predecessors but shared the same issues of unreliability. These cars did sell though, due largely to their highly economic performance.

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The Morris Ital, a facelifted version of the Morris Marina, proved to be the last car to be built under the Morris marque.

With the rise of Honda’s influence, BL underwent further cuts to their brands to try and keep costs down. The launch of the Austin Montego in 1984 saw the end of both the Triumph and Morris marques as both the Acclaim and Ital were axed with its arrival. In that same year Jaguar was sold off, returning it to the position of an independent company. The result was BL being rebranded Austin-Rover; the last two marques remaining in the former BL lineup.

However, the Honda revival of BL did have its issues, namely in terms of brand identity. The first model to really raise questions was 1984’s Rover 200; the first Rover car to be based on Honda underpinnings. The car, which took influence from the latest version of the Honda Ballade, included many luxuries the Honda did not such as a refined interior with plush seats, high-end equipment and wood veneer. However, it quickly became apparent among customers that what people were essentially buying was a regular Honda Ballade but with wood interiors, plush seats, the Rover badge and a higher asking price. The two cars were in terms of performance basically identical; so why would anyone buy a Rover 200 for a higher price than a Honda which was near enough the same car?

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The Rover 200 was essentially a Honda Ballade with a few internal refinements and a higher price-tag, which left customers questioning the differences and reasons why they should pay more for the same.

Such concerns were summarised in comparatively poor sales of the Rover 200. While did find an audience in the UK, its expectations weren’t exactly topping the charts. This wasn’t helped by the fact that the Ballade was now being sold in the UK and produced at Honda’s new car plant in Swindon. In fact, Longbridge were contracted by Honda to build Ballade bodyshells alongside Rover 200 shells before shipping the Ballade’s to Swindon for intensive quality control checks and final assembly.

This is basically where the nub of the matter was; quality control. Though the Honda mechanics fitted to the Montego, Maestro, Acclaim and Rover 200 were much more reliable than those built in the UK, the quality of the cars being output was still very hit and miss. Lax attitudes towards car construction had been carried over from the old days of British Leyland’s dark 70’s spell and thus these machines were still prone to breakdowns at regular intervals. The Maestro and Montego were particularly prone due to their largely British-based design; the Honda influence only extending to a few mechanical modifications.

Try as they might, the cancer of poor quality control continued to pervade in the bones of the revived British Leyland, and this is before we get to the biggest event of them all.


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