BRITISH LEYLAND: Birth of a motoring giant in Lancashire

It is 50 years since the name of small Lancashire town was confirmed as the one of the biggest players in the global car making industry. James Graves looks back at the history of British Leyland

Thursday, 12th April 2018, 2:54 pm
Updated Friday, 13th April 2018, 12:51 pm
Leyland Motors Special Vehicles Dept workers in the 1980s

It is a tale of initial opportunism which turned into a large failure, British Leyland (BLMC) should have been Britain’s answer to America’s General Motors.

Britain’s two biggest car manufacturers were encourage to merge by Tony Benn, who at the time was the chairman of the Industrial Reorganisation Committee.

Despite being the bigger of the two manufacturers, British Motor Holdings (BMH) was close to collapse while Leyland Motors was the far more successful company of the two.

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Workers mass vote in Leyland, 1972

The Government was hopeful Leyland Motors’ expertise would help revive BMH and create one large and successful company

The merger in 1968 created the second biggest car manufacturer outside of the United States and the fifth largest company in the UK by sales value.

At its peak there were 250,000 employees and it was Britain’s biggest exporter. The brands of Austin, Morris, Triumph, Rover, Jaguar, Mini and Land Rover, among others, were all under the same control.

BLMC controlled more than 40 per cent of the UK’s car market and incorporated most of the British-owned motor industry.

One of British Leyland's most successful cars the Metro

The company had more than 40 different factories in the UK alone, including the commercial factory at Leyland, as well as a number overseas.

The Longbridge factory in Birmingham, home to the Austin brand, was, at the time, the largest manufacturing site in the world and employed more than 25,000 employees. The Lancashire Evening Post reported at the time of the merger BMH’s chairman Sir George Harriman said the “motor merger will have no bloodshed”.

In the following years, the statement could barely have been further from the truth.

BMH was already a large car manufacturer and grew mainly out of three manufacturers: Austin, Morris and Jaguar.

Union protest in the 1970s at British Leyland

The Austin Motor Company was formed in 1905 by Herbert Austin and made famous by its successful Seven model, one of the first mass manufactured British cars. It merged with its main rival, Morris Motors Ltd, in 1952 to create the British Motor Corporation (BMC) Morris Motors Ltd was formed in 1919. It was best known for the Minor model and it later absorbed the MG and Wolseley brands.

Jaguar first started as SS Cars Ltd. It changed its name to Jaguar Cars in 1945. It later purchased the Daimler brand in 1960 and by 1965 it merged with BMC.

Leyland Motors could trace its roots back to 1884 where James Sumner, of Leyland, built his first steam-driven wagon. In 1896, following investment, he set up the Lancashire Steam Motor Company, which was subsequently renamed Leyland Motors Ltd in 1907 after the company began testing with gas-powered engines.

The success of Leyland Motors as a commercial vehicle manufacturer resulted in the purchase of the Triumph Motor Company in 1961, followed by the merger with the upmarket Rover Car Company in 1966, which contained the sought after Rover and Land Rover brands.

Workers mass vote in Leyland, 1972

Soon after the 1968 merger, problems had already started for the new company.

BMH had made no plans to replace its ageing range of cars, the Mini hardly created any profit and the Austin/Morris 1100/1300 ranges, which at the time was the UK’s best selling car, were facing increased modern competition. At the start of the 1970s, new models started to be released like the Austin Allegro and Morris Marina, and while they were successful they became widely regarded as poor products with a reputation for unreliability which damaged the company’s name.

Another major problem was bringing all these car marques together caused overlapping ranges and models.

Even before BLMC, Austin and Morris were key rivals and they were manufacturing the same car, albeit with a different badge, known as “badge engineering”.

This led to many in-house rivalries by employees and different factories, despite them working for the same company.

Jaguar and Rover competed in the upper market, while Triumph’s family car range competed with Austin/Morris and its sports car models rivalled with MG.

One of British Leyland's most successful cars the Metro

It was during the 1970s when BLMC became notorious for industrial unrest and mass strikes almost daily at some of the factories.

The industrial action would routinely bring manufacturing to a standstill, mainly at the largest Longbridge factory, and this would have a knock-on effect for the other factories.

During this time, Ford of Britain overtook BLMC to become the Britain’s best selling marque. It would soon be knocked into third place by Vauxhall.

All of these internal problems, as well as issues with the trade unions, the 1973 oil crisis and ineffective management, had a catastrophic impact on the company.

Seven years after the merger, BLMC was bankrupt and it became partially nationalised in 1975 when the Government created a new holding company, known as just British Leyland, shortened to BL in 1978 but more commonly known as Leyland Cars.

Following the bankruptcy, the Government launched an enquiry, the Ryder Report, into what the position of BL should be.

It was decided the business should be split into four different divisions – Leyland Cars, Leyland Truck and Bus, Leyland Special Products and Leyland International.

Famously, Leyland Trucks hit the headlines in 1982 when it built the ‘Pope-mobile’ for Pope John Paul II’s visit to Britain.

Weighing in at 24 tons, it had bullet proof glass and underfloor armour and the body design incorporated low ballistic material, which will repel small firearms.

Meanwhile, in 1976 the new Rover SD1 executive car was voted European Car of the Year.

This was also the first time when BL rationalised its car range, the SD1 replacing both the Rover P6 and the Triumph 2000.

Also in 1976, £140m was invested by the Government to create the replacement for the Mini. This was released in 1980 as the Austin Metro, which became one of the best selling cars of the 1980s.

Sir Michael Edwardes became chief executive in 1977 and reversed the decision of the Ryder report and returned the focus back to the individual brands.

BL ditched its tarnished name in 1982 and became the Austin Rover Group. It was renamed again in 1986 to just the Rover Group after the Austin brand was discontinued.

The Morris and Triumph marques were discontinued in the 1980s as well. The Rover Group was privatised in 1988 after the Government sold it to British Aerospace.

Jaguar was privatised as a separate company in 1984 and later sold to Ford in 1990.

Rover Group was later sold to BMW in 1994 and, after a loss making period, it was offloaded to Phoenix Venture Holdings for a token £10 at the turn of the millennium when it was renamed MG Rover Group.

It subsequently collapsed in 2005 with debts of £1.4bn. The MG brand was later purchased by the Chinese company, Shanghai Automotive (SAIC).

The valuable Mini brand stayed with BMW and has been a huge success, operating from the former Morris factory in Cowley, Oxford.

The Land Rover and Range Rover brands, which were separated from Rover Group in 2000 and sold to Ford, have also gone on to global success alongside Jaguar. Both are now owned by India’s Tata Group, with a major factory at Halewood, Merseyside.

The familiar Leyland ‘roundel’ logo still exists today in India on a range of Ashok Leyland trucks, a former partnership BL created with the Indian company Ashok.

Leyland Trucks was merged with the Dutch truck manufacturer DAF in 1987 and traded as Leyland DAF in the UK before becoming a division of America’s

PACCAR group. It is known again as Leyland Trucks and currently employs 1,000 people at its factory in Leyland, where the DAF LF, CF and XF trucks are manufactured.

Union protest in the 1970s at British Leyland