Earlier this week here at Great Escape Classic Car Hire we spent a day at Studley Castle in Warwickshire to attend the AGM of the Historic & Classic-car Hirers Guild (HCHG). Afficionados of the British motor industry will know that Studley Castle was British Leyland’s conference and management training centre from the 1960s to 2005. This got us thinking about our illustrious indigenous car industry, particularly as I’m currently reading Back from the Brink, Michael Edwardes’ riveting story of his time at British Leyland. This book should be proscribed reading for anyone in the motor industry. I got chatting by email to a friend of mine who has also read this excellent book. He produced the following succinct and – I think – very accurate assessment of what Edwardes did right and, perhaps only hindsight can we say this, wrong. Here is it, thanks Anthony Griffiths. Edwards wins you over with his backs-to-the-wall portrayal of devotion to an impossible job. It got me questioning my leftwing beliefs, especially over the Red Robbo saga, particularly as any right-wing South African suspicions I may have harboured were allayed by his increasing dislike of Thatcher. And to a certain extent, his strategy was correct. Confront unions, update working practices and decentralise management. Revitalise sales to stabilise BL, and convince government to finance future investment (more brinkmanship!). Protect the ‘meat & drink’ of the company, and sell off or close down the rest. Thus Austin Morris is saved, Jaguar and Land-Rover sold, and MG and Triumph (Acclaim excepted) wound down. His strategy works very well up to the early ’90s, by which time Rover’s revised Metro, 200/400, 600 and revised 800 are set to serve the company well for the forseeable. However, what Edwards failed to predict (and perhaps could never have predicted), was that to survive beyond the next Millennium, BL would have to be big and global (eg. Ford) or small and specialist (eg. Morgan). With the Austin and Morris names irrecoverably damaged, the whole range was rebranded Rover. But rather than enhance the former Austin-Morris range, this tactic diluted Rover. Then BL was caught in the middle: a brand too weak to expand, yet too common to be specialist. It was a British firm with insufficient overseas presence to court one of the big players, yet with a history of volume production not seen as a traditional cottage industry. With the benefit of hindsight, Edwards was right to preserve Jaguar and Land Rover, should have kept the stronger brands of MG and Triumph, but ditched Austin and Morris. I think the company might have survived as a selection of small-scale traditional British firms. Alex Moulton’s 2000 bid to take over and rebrand Rover as The MG Car Company (which I hated at the time but now see as commercially sound) tends to support this. But thirty years ago, although Austin and Morris reputations were dead in the water, their factories were still considered key to national prosperity. Thus many jobs and vulnerable Midlands Parliamentary seats lay in the balance. To close the factories was unthinkable. The company was therefore propped up, and the inevitable decline delayed as long as possible. The rest is history. Honda was called upon for help, which it did, but cannily creamed off the royalties. Sick of bailing out BL, the Tory Government gratefully passed Rover to British Aerospace. Rather than investing in new models, British Aerospace cannily sold at profit to BMW. BMW underestimated the investment required (abandoning the 600 due to royalties now payable to Honda), and took the company into ill-advised retrofest. With the ‘English Patient’ doomed, Pheonix were tasked with providing life-support, but in the end supported their own lives and the company died. Unfortunately, the most successful aspect of this saga, is that the UK managed to kill its enormous car industry without blame being attributable to any one individual!
The British Leyland saga is fascinating and sad. Here in Worcestershire we’re surrounded by plenty of businesses either run by ex-BL employees or former suppliers to ‘the Austin’. We are consistently impressed by the knowledge and sheer commitment of individuals – whatever history may suggest, this wasn’t a company manned by a majority of disinterested employees. We’ve added several British Leyland cars to our fleet including two Jaguar XJ6 cars for hire and the UK’s largest fleet of MGBs.