Japanese made stylish vehicles that people wanted

Joseph Bulmer

Derek ‘Red Robbo’ Robinson, the trades union convenor at British Leyland, died four years ago.

A lifelong Communist, he was widely held responsible for poor production at Longbridge and allegedly called 500 walkouts in 1978/79 with £200million of lost production in the Winter of Discontent.

Opinion of him varies widely depending on who you talk to.

But was he to blame for the malaise at BL?

The story is much deeper than just one man and his ability to flick a walkout switch.

Donald Stokes was the successful head of Leyland Trucks until the merger with BMC in 1968 but he never really got to grips with the scale and politics of British Leyland.

Car sales within senior management at BL suffered persistent in fighting between Triumph/Rover, Austin/Morris and MG. At dealer level, this had a disastrous effect.

Dealerships up and down the country switched to Toyota, Datsun, Honda and other manufacturers from Europe like Opel, Volvo Saab and Audi.

At a stroke, BL lost access to Middle England, which had loyally and staunchly bought Austin, Morris and all the other marques since before the war.

These dealers were still there in the town centres but just sold a different product as much for their own survival as anything else.

Japan made stylish and reliable cars which people wanted, with radios, wing mirrors, heated rear windows, vinyl roofs, centre locking and electric windows.

As a young salesman in 1972, I was still drilling holes in new Jaguars and Rovers to fit mirrors and aerials and charging the customer for the pleasure and this was the norm.

BL was still flogging us abominations like the Marina and the Allegro.

The Rootes group were no better having ditched their classy Humber, Singer and Sunbeam marques and then simply re badged the Hillman Hunter. That fooled no one.

BL sacked Robinson in 1979 but the damage was done.

Once the buying public got a taste for value for money and that other rare commodity, ‘reliability’, there was no turning back.

‘Quod Erat Demonstrandum’  (Japanese for I told you so!)