Sir Michael Edwardes. 1930 – 2019

Sir Michael Edwardes has left us at the age of 88. It should be less of a shock given his advanced years, but the bold colonial boy called to rescue British Leyland at the age of 46 somehow seemed ever-youthful. We reflect on his five years in the hardest job in the motor industry, and his influence on the years which followed.

(c) quazoo

When Michael Edwardes was appointed Chief Executive of British Leyland in October 1977, on a three year secondment from his post at the head of Chloride Group, the company was an industrial disaster zone. Eight years from its formation, it was state-controlled, chronically loss-making and blighted by turbulent industrial relations and product quality failings which were the talk of the nation.

Edwardes was either an enlightened or desperation-led choice. From Southern African business aristocracy, and far from the core of the motor industry, he was an outsider taking on a task which had been beyond those born to the industry.

At first, the new chief seemed to be following the New Broom Textbook; new company name, slimmed down management structure, total strategy review. However there were soon signs of a willingness to understand the intricacies and sensitivities of the company culture. The factories were retitled with their traditional marque titles; Austin, Morris, Rover, MG. No more “Large/Specialist Vehicle Operations” nor “Abingdon Assembly Plant”.

That might have been window dressing, but the semi-independence of Jaguar was respected – that particular division had largely acted as if BMH and BLMC had never happened. When John Egan was persuaded to return in 1980 he was given virtual autonomy despite nominally reporting to Ray Horrocks.

With the mass-market operation, absolute priority was given to the LC8 Metro project. Development of the LC10 C/D segment range was shelved until the Metro was ready for production. Despite hefty state support, the financial and engineering resources to run the two projects in parallel were simply not available.

(c)  thismoney

LC8 was a simpler task; a re-packaged Mini dimensioned to compete with the Renault 5, VW Polo and Ford Fiesta. LC10 was more daunting, an all-new powertrain and unfamiliar steel suspension in what would now be called a scalable platform. It is possible that Edwardes drove the Metro’s development so hard that all those involved were utterly fatigued when the LC10 project was brought down from the shelf.

There was one Edwardes achievement which overshadows all others, and it may never have happened without the postponement of the LC10 project. At the start of the 1980s BL had no credible C or D segment products. The Morris Ital and Austin Ambassador were desperate attempts to fill the gap until the LM10 and LM11 arrived. Edwardes turned to the possibility of building another manufacturer’s car under licence to fill the gap. The answer could have been a Renault 18, but terms of engagement could not be agreed.

(c) aronline

Discussions opened with Honda. BL had something to offer – circumvention of the “Gentleman’s Agreement” on quotas, with minimal investment by the Japanese partner. The rest is history. The small, conservatively styled Triumph Acclaim a.k.a Honda Ballade was a runaway success, offering guilt-free Japanese car ownership across the EU market. The HX/XX large car joint development project was instigated in February 1981, eight months before the first Acclaims went on sale.

On the debit side, the losses of the TR7 and the Abingdon MGs were regrettable, but inevitable given the British government’s strong pound policy, vigorously criticised by Edwardes. The Chief Executive was never a ‘car guy’, nor did he pretend to be. For him the sports car operations, dependent on the USA and losing money at the rate of £800 per car, were unsustainable non-core business units no different from the Prestcold refrigeration subsidiary, also closed under the Edwardes regime.

The Edwardes secondment was extended to five years at the behest of Industry Secretary Keith Joseph. BL’s chief drove a hard bargain for these extra two years – funding to continue at the same level as the previous three years, and no premature sell-off of any parts of the business.

Michael Edwardes’ energy was not exhausted at the end of his five years at BL. By the end of 1982 he had completed his chronicle of the five turbulent years titled “Back from the Brink”. It is still a classic of the genre, and was a deserved best-seller. The story is told in a self-effacing style, without melodrama or self-aggrandisement, and Edwardes demonstrates a high regard for the workforce, and revulsion for the “we and them” situation which discriminated between manual workers and so-called white collar employees in British industry.

The story of the Edwardes era centred around the home grown high-volume products of Longbridge and Cowley. However, despite the creation of the showpiece BL Technology, the years which followed showed that by the mid ‘80s the company had lost the competence and resources to produce a competitive mass-market car on its own. At the most basic level it was a matter of numbers – the firm’s engineering headcount was far below their European and Japanese competitors’.

Even before this, the LM10 Maestro depended on bought-in gearboxes and ‘knife and fork’ engineering solutions to stumble to market a few months after Edwardes’ departure. Before long it was being outsold by its Honda developed in-house rival. Happily, the firm developed a talent for adept reworking of Honda products where the whole was greater than the sum of the diversely sourced parts.

Disruption of an established order will inevitably bring unintended consequences. Opening BL’s door to Honda gave the signal which drew Nissan and Toyota to manufacturing in the UK, just as Ford and GM were scaling down British manufacturing in favour of low-wage locations in mainland Europe. Michael Edwardes’ Japanese partnership didn’t just re-shape BL – it revived the entire British motor industry.

Sir Michael Owen Edwardes.  11/10/1930 – 15/9/2019

16 thoughts on “Sir Michael Edwardes. 1930 – 2019”

  1. R.I.P. Sir Michael Edwardes.

    An excellent summary of his five turbulent years at BL, Robertas. I have his book at home and must dig it out to read it again. As I recall, there was little apparent passion for the product, but certainly a drive to rid the company of the many entrenched and destructive prejudices and mutual resentments that were tearing it apart. In forming the alliance with Honda, he set the company up for a purple period in the late 80’s and early 90’s when its products were both competitive and genuinely desirable. It was a tragedy that the success it briefly enjoyed then could not have been sustained.

    1. Although aficionados of both Triumph and MG might beg to differ, I do believe that the Thatcher government’s decision not to extend Sir Michael’s contract beyond 1982 was not only an error, but one which hastened BL’s further decline. It’s highly likely to have been politically motivated, given that Edwardes, while politically neutral, was perhaps ideologically closer to Harold Wilson’s Labour administration than that of Thatcher’s Conservatives.

      Nevertheless, Edwardes impressed the Iron Lady (at first at least), after all, she liked confident, decisive men, and Edwardes, it seems, at first played her to perfection. Making the case that continuing to support BL throughout 1980 would in fact cost the government very little, he obtained guarantees which ensnared the government to subsequent injections of cash, running to hundreds of millions of pounds. It is said that neither Thatcher, nor her Secretary of State for Industry (and mentor), (Sir) Keith Joseph never forgave him for this slight of hand and from then on, his cards were marked.

      Edwardes’ successors were not of the first order, certainly by comparison. Ray Horrocks, certainly receives both barrels in Sir John Egan’s recent biography, while Harold Musgrove’s, (who at least seems to have been a somewhat honourable man), bull in a chinashop management style perhaps hindered more than helped.

      Edwardes of course made mistakes – perhaps the most egregious being his neglect of quality. BL products repeatedly came to market and failed to make friends there. The ‘Edwardes’ cars’ – Metro, Maestro and Montego, never met their sales projections and their lack of durability in the field was a major component in that failure. It definitely lost them the fleets, a major source of volume – (if not necessarily profit).

      What could have been achieved has he remained will be debated for years, but I would suggest that had he not been appointed, BL would have collapsed a great deal sooner and probably a lot more dramatically.

      RIP Sir Michael. He may have been small in stature, but in the context of the motor industry, he was a giant.

  2. Thanks for this item. Despite the arguments in his favour, I find it hard to care a great deal for Edwardes the administrator. The tack taken by BL under his tenure is closer to convenience than inspiration. Could anyone have done any better, one is tempted to ask. Labour probably didn´t understand consumers and the Conservatives didn´t understand product or the unions. BL stood in a middle ground where neither political mindset could grasp the complexity of the endeavour. Hence the appointment of a bloke who didn´t care for cars. The result was the savaging of Triumph and the introduction of a badge-engineered car. At best Edwardes delayed the inevitable.

    1. It’s interesting to look back at a documentary made at the time, where the emphasis is on BL “failure to invest”.

      My own view, long after the fact, is that BL primary failures were engineering and design. There had been plenty of investment – but it was wasted by poor engineering on unbuildable designs with poor inherent reliability.

      Even when BL attempted to build a simple, reliable durable car to compete with the imports (eg. Marina) they simply were incapable of doing it.

      The much higher quality of the Honda based designs proves that the workforce was capable of building a properly engineered car – the problem was BL in house engineering.

      I don’t think Edwardes or anyone else saw that at the time – although the door lock comparison with VW at the end of the video should have been a hint.

    2. Indeed – and what´s behind that? One does not want to reach for the old tropes reliant on assumptions about unions or national characteristics. Where did that enginering inadequacy emerge from? It was multifactorial so we need a list of factors and those factors varied in importance over time.

    3. It’s a bit unfair to compare the required work time for fitting a door lock between a new car and one that was sixteenyears old at that time. The Mini equivalent would have been the Beetle which was anything but optimised for easy production. The problem was that BL didn’t advance from this and created cars like SD1 that were a nightmare from production point of view. Jiust watch the guy polishing the metallic blue Rover’s bonnet which has a panel gap to the front wing that’s so wide that you don’t know whether it wasn’t shut or just incredibly badly fitted.

    4. “It’s a bit unfair to compare the required work time for fitting a door lock between a new car and one that was sixteenyears old at that time. The Mini equivalent would have been the Beetle which was anything but optimised for easy production.”

      Dave, i think that is part of the problem. Waiting for a new model to redesign something like a door lock, when it is something that can be changed without a major re-engineering of the car.

      btw, the Beetle door lock was redesigned at least twice over that production run.

    5. Richard, my list of factors contributing to the weakness of UK car engineering would include:

      -preference for clever and innovative designs over designs of proven reliability and durability
      -preference for high engineering effort on niche models and excessive emphasis on high prestige/low volume engineering designs
      -design tolerances and parts precision that were often beyond the capability of component suppliers and in-house production
      -assumption that low cost vehicles could be reliably built with low investment and engineering effort.
      -preference for “clean sheet’ designs rather than incremental improvement of existing components or platforms
      -low priority given to engineering for assembly
      -low priority given to longstanding problems like rust, electrical failures, oil leaks, body integrity, water/wind sealing, paint quality, which often got worse over time

      I think these problems were systematic across all the UK based volume manufacturers. And, if you look at the Japanese auto companies, they took the opposite attitude on every one of the above – with the results that we all know about.

    6. One aspect to be borne in mind with regard to Edwardes is the now widely agreed belief that by 1977 (the year he was appointed), British Leyland had not only reached the tipping point in its viability as a business, but had in fact tipped over. If one accepts this, the best Edwardes could have achieved was managed decline. In some respects, he did better than that, and it’s widely accepted that he was responsible for saving more of the company than many could have envisaged.

      Unfortunately for Triumph, such was the neglect they suffered throughout the early ’70s, coupled to the fact that both Speke and Canley plants were perhaps the most radicalised of all BL assembly sites meant that it was perhaps inevitable that they would go under at some point. In the end, events speeded up that process.

      The sportscar side of the BL business was primarily an export business, largely to the US market, where 2-seaters were then very popular. However, UK government monetary policies, particularly under Thatcher’s conservative administration essentially killed that business for them, notwithstanding the MG’s age and the Triumph’s build and appearance issues. Ironically, the TR7 was coming good just as the plug was pulled.

      One point made in the comments that bears highlighting is the repeated inability of BL production engineers (for whatever reasons) to design for ease and accuracy of production. One potential blindspot here was perhaps the lack of pilot build facilities prior to full production, which could have ironed out problems, but more fundamentally, I suspect a lack of a collaborative mindset within engineering teams. The tribal aspect within BL was never addressed resulting in factions working against one another.

      It was, in short, a failure of successive managements to manage, which predates Edwardes (who did try), through Stokes, back to Harriman and Lord and their predecessors. It was endemic and it above all other factors (I would contend) is what did for BL.

    7. This was an internal BL training video that was intended to motivate employees to improve quality. It is candid about the BL quality issues, and was obviously never intended for public release.

      The focus is on the disastrous consequences of engineering mis-specification, and how slovenly work could cause it ( the example is a braking system failure).

      I think it provides a valuable insight into how BL perceived their quality issues, their ultimate source, and how to fix them.

      At one point the narrator claims:

      “A quality car is any vehicle that comes up to the exact specification the customer is paying for.”

      My take is: this was a huge part of the problem at BL. Yes, the car needs to be built to spec. The problem at BL was too many of the designs were inherently fragile, failure prone and not durable.

      A fragile, failure-prone design “built to spec” is nothing but an “in spec” fragile, failure-prone design. It is still going to be unreliable crap.

  3. On the comparative quality standards matter, I found this in the Carver / Seale / Youngson book “When Rover Met Honda” (which has some QC issues of its own, but is essential reading for anyone interested in these matters):

    “The importance that Honda placed on foolproof assembly was amply demonstrated early in the relationship when the Rover manufacturing people reported on the first Triumph Acclaim from Honda, which had been sent over KD for us to confirm the assembly process.

    ‘We could have shaken the box, and driven the car out!'”

    When I first read that, I wondered if the same could have been said of a contemporary Golf, Kadett, or Ritmo.

    1. Design for assembly is probably a rich area of study. The most important part of it is awareness of the concept. That might sound banal. What I mean is that you could have a well-intentioned designer who assumes the line-worker can and wants to assemble properly. That´s not always the case. Beyond that there is matter of making sure that the assembled design will work and stay working (Angel Martin´s point). All the engineers in the design process need to be co-operating if those parameters are to be satisfied. In the case of BL, the lack of CAD/CAM probably hampered the iteration process with fewer and less thorough iterations. Without knowing the details, I would guess that Honda were further ahead in CAD-CAM than BL which made it easier for them to make a car that could be shaken complete from the box. Did the UK minister for cars in 1975 know what CAD-CAM was?

    2. Richard, this GM film of X body design shows significant use of CAD. More than in the Metro film.

      On the other hand, the Metro had computerized stamping die machining, and the body assembly and weld was completely automated. It looks like Roger Smith’s GM10 factories, except in 1980.

    3. British minister for Industry was Sir Anthony Wedgwood Benn, a dyed-in-the-wool socialist and I’m sure he didn’t know or care what CAD was. He forged the Meriden Motorcycle Co Op (I’m an old motorcycle buff), the workers’ owned Triumph motorcycle factory which didn’t work, either.
      The Golf Mk1 was designed for ease of production but had to adhere to the strange processes designed for the Beetle (like starting to build the body by welding up the rear side panels and the roof and then working forward) because VW couldn’t afford to fundamentally change the production equipment. The Japanese assembly approach “right first time” was adopted by European manufacturers only in the Eighties. Today’s CAD software simulates assembly steps and shows up porential problems in red colour.

    4. Ah, yes, dear Tony Benn. I don´t think he´d have known about anything technical but neither would his Tory counterpart.
      Today´s CAD/CAM can show a model of the construction sequence and, even simpler, you can see how parts fit together at every point in the X, Y and Z axes whereas in 1975 they probably had sections at 10 mm intervals with locally closer sections where it *was thought to be needed*.
      Speaking of which, there is an interesting exhibition in the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester which shows blue prints of trains from, I think, 1960-something. It beggars belief that these plan, elevation and side views were turned into massive chunks of train componentry. Much of the knowledge was tacit and I guess the same went for production plans for cars. In a way it was a kind of miracle that this process could not only yield dross like the Marina but fundamentally bullet-proof cars like the 911 and W-123.

  4. Sorry I am late to this, I had not read or heard from elsewhere about Edwardes’s passing. He certainly had a good innings and he deserves his RIP.

    I think it would be a little churlish not to recognise his tenure at BL overall in a positive light. It’s true that he only managed to delay the inevitable, but I think the collapse would have come within a few years but for his work to drag the Metro over the line and, moreover, sign the Honda deal. I think the damage to the core of BL was already irretrievable by the time he arrived and he managed to find a new way through. For once, his dispassionate ‘non-car-guy’ approach was what was needed. BL had not the resources to feed all the brands in its portfolio, nor the volume to justify all the manufacturing plants. Moreover, radical action was needed to oust the more extreme elements of the Union leadership. Edwardes recognised and executed on all of this and it stemmed the bad stuff and gave opportunity for new models and new capabilities to be leveraged from BL’s new Japanese partner.

    So, maybe not a great car-guy, not a Piech, but a decent business man who knew how to run a manufacturing company. As such, I shall be metaphorically raising a glass to him.

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