12:00 am on November 3, 2021
British Leyland union leader Derek ‘Red Robbo’ Robinson died four years ago.
A longtime Communist, he was widely held responsible for poor production at Longbridge and reportedly called 500 walkouts in 1978/79 with £ 200million of production lost during the winter of discontent.
Opinion about it varies greatly depending on who you are talking to.
But was he responsible for the malaise at BL?
The story goes much deeper than a single man and his ability to operate a clutch switch.
Donald Stokes was the head of Leyland Trucks until the merger with BMC in 1968, but he never really understood the scale and politics of British Leyland.
Car sales within BL’s senior management have suffered from the ongoing battles between Triumph / Rover, Austin / Morris and MG. At the dealer level, this had a disastrous effect.
Dealers across the country have switched to Toyota, Datsun, Honda and other European manufacturers like Opel, Volvo Saab and Audi.
Suddenly BL lost access to Middle England, which had loyally and firmly bought Austin, Morris and all the other brands since pre-war.
These dealers were still there in the city centers but were selling a different product as much for their own survival as for anything else.
Japan made stylish and reliable cars that people wanted, with radios, mirrors, heated rear windows, vinyl roofs, central locking, and power windows.
As a young salesman in 1972 I still drilled holes in new Jaguars and Rovers to fit mirrors and antennas and billed the customer for the fun and that was the norm.
BL always whipped us abominations like the Marina and the Allegro.
The Rootes group was no better after dropping their posh Humber, Singer and Sunbeam brands and then simply rebranding the Hillman Hunter. It didn’t fool anyone.
BL fired Robinson in 1979 but the damage was done.
Once the buying public got a taste for value for money and that other scarce commodity of “reliability”, there was no turning back.
‘Quod Erat Demonstrandum’ (in Japanese because I told you!)