Autocar Leyland Motors, Maggie and me

Discussion in 'News Feeds' started by Autocar, Monday 15th Apr, 2013.

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    Growing up in the middle of the British Leyland horror show, I took advice from Lord Tebbit and Mrs T and 'got on my bike' It was weirdly appropriate that I should have learnt of Mrs Thatcher’s demise, while scanning Twitter, sitting in the bath at my parent’s house. It was the very same place from where I had been plotting the escape from my home town 30 years earlier. A task made immensely easier by Mrs Thatcher’s arrival as PM in 1979.
    I grew up in small industrial town in an Lancastrian industrial area that was dominated by what politicians call the ‘1945 national settlement’. In the 1970s, the local Royal Ordinance Factory, British Aerospace and British Nuclear Fuels were all owned by the government. As, of course, was British Leyland. The giant Leyland truck and bus factory, which gave its name to the great British industrial disaster, was only a few hundred yards away from home and dominated the local economy.
    In fact, I now wonder whether I grew up under technical Communism, such was the overwhelming reliance on state-owned industry. Even my parent’s second house had been built to be affordable on the union-negotiated wages at the Leyland plant. British Leyland affected virtually all of my childhood. Especially when the plant was on strike.
    I can remember a famously long-running dispute at the end of the 1970s when BL boss Sir Michael Edwardes threatened to close the plant if the strikers didn’t return to work. The whole town came to standstill waiting for the traditional ‘show of hands’. They did back down, but we all wondered what would have happened to Leyland itself if the ‘workers’ had tried to call Edwardes’ bluff.
    The plan for people from my background was to try and get an apprenticeship with ‘the Motors’ or one of the supplier companies. I had other ideas and thought university might be plan. Even though I was brought up in a small, insular, town I could see the writing on the wall. Leaving school at 16 and heading for the heavy industry and the smoke stacks was not a good bet long-term.
    Sure, in its heyday of the 1960s, Leyland was the largest commercial vehicle company in the free world, shifting 150,000 units annually. By 1983, the year I left school, it had declined to just 11,000 units. The reasons were numerous, but Leyland trucks had failed to keep up with the motorway age and could not produce the kind of reliable machinery that could pound autobahns year after year. Leyland’s home-grown engines left much to be desired.
    One of Leyland’s big markets by 1983 was west Africa. There were desperate pleas in the House of Commons to keep open satellite Leyland factories in Scotland and Yorkshire, with one Labour MP suggesting the international aid budget should be used to buy Leyland products and then give them to African countries.
    If you weren’t around in those circumstances, it’s hard to imagine the impact Mrs Thatcher had our nationalised economy. Even as a 16 year-old you got a strong sense that the end of four decades of strikes, government money and failed promised were over and it was time to move on and upwards. I did, sneaked into 6th Form and took off for six years of art college.
    But Mrs Thatcher was surprisingly pragmatic about the BL I turned my back on. She allowed the technical collaboration with Honda and even wrote out a cheque for over £1bn in the middle of the 80s’ recession to keep BL upright. Lord Tebbitt even convinced her to cough up for the K-series engine development, while the Tories were trying to slowly dismantle and sell off the various loss-making BL brands.
    After all, attempts to fix BL started back on 24 April 1975, when PM Harold Wilson stood up parliament and suggested that letting a bankrupt BL go to the wall could have cost a total of one million jobs and that it needed at least £13bn investment in today’s money. Too big to fail, indeed.
    So here’s the irony. The day after Mrs T died, Paccar, owners of the (much shrunken) Leyland Truck plant announced a new range of DAF trucks, designed and built at Leyland. Paccar’s boss admitted that, while it seems unlikely, the Leyland plant is the best of Paccar’s global manufacturing network. Three decades on, my fellow Leylandians have also proved that they can be as good as anyone in the world. But Maggie was right: throwing good money after bad was a dead end and there was no need to accept managed decline. Now, we need build on what those ex-BL brands such as Jaguar Land Rover and Leyland Trucks have achieved over the last decade.