The Laughing Stock of the Motoring Industry
News reporter "The Jaguar XJS is good value at £10,500. And soccer stars George Best and Rodney Marsh can afford that sort of money."
The car. The height of any red-blooded males ambitions, supreme status symbol of '70s Britain.
In October 1976, London's Earls Court was packed with car enthusiasts. Sales were on the up, with well over 1 million vehicles a year sold.
But British motors weren't always easy to love. They were widely seen as poor quality and less than reliable.
For the first time, drivers could now pick from a dazzling range of international models. Foreign models were cheap, smart and, above all,
dependable. No wonder almost half of all our new cars were imported. But in 1976, the nationalised car giant British Leyland took the fight
to the foreign invaders.
The Rover SD1. S for specialist, D for division. Even its name oozed machismo. This was British Leyland's secret weapon. Yet the Rover story
soon became emblematic of everything that was wrong with British manufacturing and a symbol of the decades wader industrial disarray.
I joined a vintage car fans at Birmingham's NEC. Among the classics on show is this. One of the first SD1s off the production line, still
painted in its original colour – turmeric.
According to the ads, the Rover SD1 was the car of tomorrow today. And it had some very distinctive features, this adjustable steering wheel,
a fully carpeted interior in tufted nylon. Even a cutting-edge cassette player.
Earls Court Motor Show
Such mod cons didn't come cheap. In 1975, the struggling motor giant had been bailed out by the big-spending Labour government to well
over £1 billion worth of tax payer's money. A slice of the cash was invested in the SD1's high-tech home, a sparkling new factory in Solihull.
The Rover SD1 was built in Solihull, but the parts came from all across the country. The manual gearbox from Pengam in South Wales. The
bodywork was built in Swindon. The nylon carpeting was delivered from Bradford and the windscreen wipers from the women at the Trico factory
in Brentford. That is when they weren't on strike.
All of these parts were built by different groups of workers with different shop stewards, different agendas and different ambitions.
The Rover SD1 was a national project but that made it vulnerable. With 17 different unions working across 55 sites, British Leyland was
acutely exposed to the whims of its workers. Almost every day production was disrupted by strikes. With inflation running at over 20%, many
strikers felt they had no choice, but their incessant demands led to a crisis of authority. For to managers distress, the unions seemed to
be running the show. The trade unions were part of the great trinity of British power.
On behalf of their workers, union barons broke bread with business and government to sort out the nation's troubles. This was the post-war
deal. But on the shop floor, union power wasn't always about co-operation and consensus. Often it could be petty, unreasonable and downright
destructive. At the British Leyland plant on Merseyside, 600 men walked out because, they said, stray cats had got into the factory. According
to the union, the cats were using the factory floor as a litter tray. But when cleaners scrubbed it down, the union said that it was now too
wet, people might fall over. So the men stayed out.
When the Rover SD1 was launched in the summer of '76, production ran at just 50% of capacity. Buyers had to wait up to 9 months for their
new cars to be delivered. Leyland's much lauded car of tomorrow today was fast becoming the car of the day tomorrow… Or maybe the day after.
The Sun's cartoonist captured the common view of life at British Leyland. Mugs of cocoa, games of Ludo, copies of Playboy, and the workers
all tucked up in bed. "Ere." One of them says. "How did that car get on the assembly line?"
There was, however, another way. In 1974, Leyland executive George Turnbull escaped Britain's industrial chaos. Turnbull and many of his
best men joined South Korea's car giant Hyundai. And in Korea, they did things differently.
Turnbull's greatest asset is a trouble-free labour force that works without complaint or question.
Turnbull's Korean factory turned out 25 cars an hour, on time and on budget. Ironically, they were supplied with parts, equipment and labour
by British Leyland.
Maybe saluting your boss, Korean-style, was a step too far but there's no doubt that in the 70s, the militancy of the unions, of ordinary
workers flexing their political muscles, was becoming a chronic threat to our national interests – a very British disease.