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.
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.
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.
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