Saving Grace – Part Four

Understanding the background to Jaguar’s 1979 annus horriblis.

(c) Jaguar Cars

The Castle Bromwich paint debacle crystallised the manner in which the relationship between Jaguar and its adoptive parent broke down in the years following its absorption into British Leyland; one characterised by unwarranted interference and lack of meaningful communication on one hand and distrust, insubordination and outright defiance on the other.

The roots of this go back to the creation of the car giant in 1968 – a piece of well-meaning, government-led commercial engineering. Much like a certain latterday piece of political engineering currently paralysing Britain’s political establishment, the BLMC experiment was undeliverable, but more fundamentally still, should probably never have been attempted in the first place.

Following the Leyland takeover, instead of fostering a sense of shared-mission among the multifarious business units that comprised the BLMC organisation, Donald (Lord) Stokes appeared on one hand to allow the various divisions to carry on unregulated, while on the other adopting a we-know-best, dogmatic approach.

A missed opportunity was the fact that an engineering overlord for the so-called ‘specialist division’ was not appointed in the wake of the merger. Certainly someone of the calibre of Spen King might have had the credibility and authority to both fight the corner of the individual marques, but also to bring some much-needed joined up thinking.

It was Jaguar’s good fortune that Sir William Lyons sat on the newly constituted BLMC board, ensuring that its interests were at least represented. What’s clear in retrospect is that Rover and Triumph’s lack of influence here probably hastened their downgrading and eventual demise.

Yet when Stokes appointed Geoffrey Robinson as Lyons’ successor in 1973, even he ended up ‘going rogue’, taking it upon himself to commission an £multi-million paint plant to be built on a greenfield site next to the Browns Lane factory in 1974. The dissolution of BLMC later that year put paid not only to that gamble, but to Robinson’s tenure in the motor business, precipitating a career as full time politician and ultimately Tony Blair’s controversial Paymaster General.

Geoffrey Robinson. (c) Coventry Telegraph

Lord Ryder’s 1975 report and the recommendations enacted by the government-run NEB were well-meant, but disastrous in practice. Not only was it suicidal in brand-identity terms, it essentially starved the BL business of urgent funding which was required to radically restructure and modernise a ramshackle, poorly-run Hydra of a car company.

In its wake, a power vacuum developed, which at Jaguar was filled to some extent by Bob Knight and Browns Lane Plant Director, Peter Craig who together became the bulwark for a campaign of disobedience, obstruction and obfuscation. Knight, a man who could contentedly carry on a scholarly discourse on some recondite technicality for hours, would frequently bore his interlocutors to distraction – which proved an effective means of getting rid of unwanted visitors.

But this was no way to run a car business. By the time the Castle Bromwich plant was commissioned in 1976, British Leyland had in effect become a ship of fools, where failure wasn’t simply an option, but the expectation. A shining example being management’s deaf-blind adoption (at enormous cost) of an already discredited paint process, despite every possible warning to the contrary being voiced.

Certainly any residual trust or meaningful communication between fortress Browns Lane and BL’s Berkeley Square HQ had long-since been lost. Fortunately for Jaguar’s bottom line perhaps, the costs of Castle Bromwich, were absorbed by the parent company but the damage done was felt most acutely in Allesley, coming bitingly close to bringing the house down entirely.

Knight had been endeavouring to obtain sanction and funding for a new car for most of the ’70s, to no avail. Not only was this a consequence of funding being mostly funnelled into the unfathomable abyss of the volume car division, but also the fact that BL became so hopelessly inefficient, it was haemorrhaging money from every orifice. All that was forthcoming was the £7m required to put Series III into production, a figure which Mercedes routinely spent on hubcap development.

Overwhelming evidence points to manufacturing being Jaguar’s particular weakness, a consequence of a long-standing reluctance to commit to large scale investment in tooling and plant – legacies of Sir William Lyons’ stewardship of the company and perhaps one of the greatest indictments of his management.

This make-do-and-mend policy got Jaguar (just about) through the ’60s but the XJ-series represented an entirely new paradigm. Lyons may have believed he could obtain the required investment within a larger, better funded organisation, or perhaps he became irredeemably locked into a scrupulous mindset, one for which time and tide had departed. We may never truly know.

Jaguar’s manufacturing facility was already in real trouble before BLMC’s leaky vessel hit the reefs in 1974, and only serious investment is likely to have alleviated it. Jaguar’s management of the time were not blameless either, but by the late ’70s those who had been defaulted into leadership roles at Browns Lane had already adopted a fortress mentality.

One could argue that in carrying out their subtle form of civil resistance they were behaving in a manner which ran contrary to BL’s interests and there is truth in that assertion. But Jaguar was, despite its many glaring faults, an organisation which fostered deep emotional bonds. Furthermore, having already witnessed what had happened at Rover and Triumph they were determined to prevent the same happening there.

Bob Knight assumed the role of Managing Director in 1978, but while some of the functions shorn by the implementation of Ryder were handed back, Knight was not in possession of a functioning car company – only disconnected elements of it. He also lacked not only the leadership experience to successfully get to grips with Jaguar’s structural problems, but one also suspects, the fundamental zeal required to grasp the issues head-on – not while there remained existential battles to be fought at board level or intractable engineering and design-related puzzles to unpick.

Either way, by the time Ryder was abandoned and Michael Edwardes appointed, so much damage had been done to the entire BL business that it would prove impossible to rescue in its entirety. And while the decision to adopt the TPA paint process had already been taken, it doesn’t absolve him for casting the blame for its catastrophic failure entirely upon Knight’s hapless shoulders. Certainly a well placed former insider pointed out to this author that Bob had made quite a few enemies within BL over the years of strife and that in his view, he was essentially driven out.

(c) Jaguar Cars

But if Knight was viewed as the wrong man, John Egan was unquestionably the right one. The turnaround of Jaguar under his leadership was a combination of hard work, yes – but no small amount of good (economic) fortune, and more importantly still, political will. (Not to mention the Series III product itself).

But despite Egan’s successes, Jaguar’s perennial manufacturing weaknesses would come back to bite. Unaddressed structural issues at Browns Lane once again helped undermine Jaguar’s recovery and its new-age (XJ40)  saloon. It took Ford’s billions to finally pummel Jaguar’s manufacturing base into the twentieth century, before they finally bowed to the inevitable and shut it entirely in 2005. So it was a something of an ironic twist that Castle Bromwich, having been extensively refitted in the late 1990s with Ford’s money, would in its wake end up becoming Jaguar’s primary assembly site.

The Egan-led, post-1980 reforms at Jaguar have frequently been viewed in quasi-miraculous terms. But the real miracle, given the chaos surrounding its birth, is that Series III happened at all.

Saving Grace continues

©Driven to write. All rights reserved.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

4 thoughts on “Saving Grace – Part Four”

  1. Geoffrey Robinson’s career in the motor industry didnot end with leaving Jaguar because he was involved in setting up ‘Meriden Motorcycle CoOp’, the workers’ co-operative producing Triumph twin cylinder motorcycles where he stayed until around 1982, shortly before the company closed.

    Lack of re-investment into production facilities was a common problem in British industry. I remember a BSA production manager stating that Honda spent more money on a machine tool for reaming the camshaft bearing surfaces in the 250cc motorcycle cylinder head than his yearly budget for the whole BSA production machinery.

  2. Eóin, I have to congratulate you again on your superb, insightful research into Jaguar’s tortured history. You’ve obviously investigated the subject matter meticulously. I’m sure there’s an excellent book to be published, starting with the material in this series combined with your “History Repeating” series and “Reconvening the Committee” piece. Most current books on Jaguar seem rather romanticised, focusing on the seminal cars and William Lyons, rather than on the company itself.

    Incidentally, I’m currently reading Tom Bower’s excellent biography of Jeremy Corbyn, “Dangerous Hero” and, in the book, Donald Stokes is referred to as a “corrupt salesman” without elaboration. I’d be fascinated to know the basis for Bower’s assertion.

    1. That’s kind of you to say Daniel. A lifetime of reading and research, and still I know next to nothing. But I would be devastated if there was nothing left to learn. As to the quote regarding Mr. Stokes, I couldn’t rightly comment. From the reading I’ve done, one gets a sense that he was a little out of his depth. His ego also appears to have got the better of him, both as Chairman of the BLMC juggernaut and as it imploded, but then as later, there was plenty of blame to go around.

      Certainly old Bill Lyons had little regard for him, describing him as ‘a very successful exporter of commercial vehicles’, and ‘only a salesman, not a manufacturer’. Which is a little ironic, given that Lyons started out in that line of work himself. But the inference was, I suspect, that while Sir William had successfully built an empire from the ground up, Stokes had acquired his. And while it comes across as elitist (and Lyons allegedly was a snob of the first order), he was also a very astute man and a fine judge of character.

      Lyons was present at the meeting between Stokes, his deputy, Jack Plane and BMC’s George Harriman, when the latter (at the time a very unwell man), was alleged to have been harassed and bullied by Stokes and Plane into resigning as a condition of the putative merger between the two companies. Lyons, who had previously rejected a tie up with Leyland because of his distrust of Stokes, saw his future boss in an even less flattering light. Sir William, who was a pretty inscrutable character, is unlikely to have forgotten that exchange.

  3. Have read books citing the example of Andre Citroen as to why Nuffield and likely other British carmakers / industry were either reluctant or unwilling to re-invest into modernizing their production facilities and new products (together with outdated / self-sabotaging notions), yet that ignores what Austin under Leonard Lord managed to achieve prior to the formation of BMC.

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