MG was great at celebrating. On 27 May 1971 George Turnbull, Austin Rover MD saw this Blaze GT off the line. It was given away as a National Sweepstake prize in America the following September. Posed alongside Old Number One, Cecil Kimber’s pioneer trials car of 1925 the MGB went on to half a million, but nine years later the factory was shut. British Leyland thought sports cars passé. Mazda decided otherwise and on 22 April 2016 broke its own Guinness World Record with its millionth MX-5. Its newest goes on sale in September.. Classics do survive.
In the 1960s it looked as though the British Motor Corporation (BMC) understood MG. The B was successful and Abingdon was making Austin-Healeys and MG Midgets. Its Competitions Department’s Minis were winning the Monte Carlo Rally. Yet the motor industry was beset by strikes. It was untidy. Haphazard groupings were ill-prepared to repel imports of reliable cars from Japan.
In 1968 Leyland Motor Corporation and British Motor Holdings (BMH) created the second biggest car manufacturer outside America. The British Leyland Motor Corporation (BL) was the old BMC’s Austin, Morris, Riley, Wolseley and MG, together with Leyland’s Standard-Triumph, Rover, Scammell, AEC and Thornycroft. Jaguar joined when BMC took over Pressed Steel that was making its bodies, bringing with it Daimler and Guy. BL’s sales were over £800m, it was worth £412m, had 52 per cent of UK’s market and about 60 per cent of British vehicle exports. There was no stopping it, even though cars seemed the weaker end of the business. The heavy end, led by Leyland, was strong.
Yet it was badly managed. Ford had cleverer accountants, looked at how much it cost to make a Mini and found BL was losing £30 on every one.
Alarmed, Harold Wilson’s Industrial Reorganisation Corporation (IRC) brokered a deal. Established in 1966 to pick winners in “the white heat of new technology,” it was led by a board including Labour activist Geoffrey Robinson MP for Coventry North West from 1976 and later Paymaster General, the IRC lent BL £25m. Robinson had done well running Innocenti in Italy making Sprites and Sir Donald Gresham Stokes (1914-2008 later Lord Stokes) former chairman of Leyland had made a name for himself selling buses to the world. They were abetted by Minister of Technology, Anthony Wedgwood Benn (1925-2014) who had just relinquished his title of Viscount Stansgate, and Sir George Harriman (1908-1973) former BMH executive chairman.
It had been difficult enough amalgamating Austin and Morris into BMC in 1952. They had been rivals and never agreeable. Yet that was nothing compared to the jumble of BLMC’s manufacturing units, often competing with each other, few well-run and almost all dogged by fractious industrial relations. When the government changed in 1970 the IRC was dismantled, Ford and Vauxhall prospered at the expense of British Leyland and when Labour returned to power in 1974 Sir Don Ryder (later Lord Ryder of Eaton Hastings 1916-2003) was appointed to examine a loss-making industrial muddle now propped up by the taxpayer.
His job was to work out a rescue plan. BL sales were declining. Secretary of State for Industry, now Tony Benn, wanted a report by March 1975 and while Ryder concluded, “We do not subscribe to the view that all the ills of BL can be laid at the door of a strike-prone and work-shy labour force,” he acknowledged that labour disputes lay at the root of the problem. Industrial action trebled between 1971 and 1974. BL’s 170,000 employees worked in 60 plants in eight divisions, belonged to 17 different unions and had 246 separate bargaining units. The Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) was faced with reconciling not only unions and management, but also unions and unions.
It became apparent BL would be nationalised but the British Leyland Shop Stewards’ Committee, recognised by neither side and led by Derek Robinson (1927-2017), the infamous “Red Robbo”, was not happy. It wanted management by joint committees, nominated half by it and half by the government, but since government nominees were already under pressure from unions Ryder rejected this. Instead he put in place management councils with two levels of joint committees.
MG was approaching its 50th anniversary and was a minnow-in-the-middle, starved of investment. BMC may have understood it but BL decided sports cars belonged to a bygone age. It had scant regard for their production or their heritage and Abingdon with its 1100-strong workforce with exemplary industrial relations was scrapped. It left MG a deeply-cherished memory, a classic make of sports car celebrated in a bibliography that began with dreamy histories by Alfred Edgar Frederick Higgs, or Barré Lyndon as he preferred to be known. He eventually made his name as a Hollywood scriptwriter and his books, Circuit Dust and Combat, bequeathed a legacy of myth and legend to MG beyond the realms of anything so prosaic as a car. Reading them inspired 11-year old Eric Dymock.
MG Classics Book 3 covers 1965-2001, the turbulence of the British Leyland years and the transition to MG-Rover. The model-by-model guide details distinctive MG models, illustrated and described with record-breakers and rally cars as well as saloons and GTs, all listed with comprehensive specifications. Chronicles of speed records and motor sporting successes make all three MG Classics Books unique sources of facts and figures.