A faltering auto giant whose brands are synonymous with the open road. Hundreds of thousands of unionized workers with powerful political backers. An urgent plea for the government to write a virtual blank check.
This is not the story of Ford and General Motors, but British Leyland, a car company that went through £11 billion of inflation-adjusted British taxpayer money, or $16.5 billion, in the ’70s and ’80s before going out of business. All that is left of the company now are memories of cars like the Triumph, and a painful lesson in the limited effectiveness of bailouts.
“It’s all too evocative,” said Leon Brittan, a top official in the government of Margaret Thatcher, the free-market-minded prime minister who nevertheless backed the rescue. “I’m not telling the U.S. what to do, but the lessons of the British experience is don’t throw good money after bad. British Leyland carried on for a few more years, but they’re not there now, are they?”
Other experts are sounding the same alarm. “The British Leyland experience is a relevant and cautionary one,” said John Casesa, a principal in the automotive consulting firm Casesa Shapiro Group in New York. “The government got in the business of trying to make a winner out of a structurally flawed company. That’s the risk in the U.S. as well.”
Though Continental automakers have fared better than British ones, Mr. Casesa argues that the long history of government support in Europe made companies like Renault and Fiat strong players in their home markets, but not worldwide.
“With the exception of BMW and Mercedes, European automakers haven’t been globally successful,” he said. “Nor have they been hugely profitable.”
That comparative history is receiving new attention as Congress turns its attention this week to the fate of Detroit.
The British Leyland bailout remains the classic example of a futile government intervention. The tight cooperation between governments and automakers on the Continent has produced happier results.
For half a century after World War II, the French government was the majority stakeholder in Renault, and Paris still holds a 15 percent stake in the company. In the 1980s, the company received a bailout equal to nearly 4 billion euros, or $5.1 billion in today’s money. Now it is highly profitable — at least compared with its American counterparts.
Today, G.M.’s German subsidiary, Opel, is appealing to Berlin for help, seeking more than 1 billion euros in credit guarantees, according to Carl-Peter Forster, G.M.’s European chief.
Monday, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany said her government would make a decision before Christmas.
“It’s not decided yet whether these loan guarantees will become necessary,” Mrs. Merkel told reporters in Berlin after meeting with Mr. Forster and other management and labor officials.
“If these guarantees become necessary, those funds should remain within Opel” in Germany, she added, echoing a concern some Americans have expressed that any United States bailout money go only to American automakers.
So far, Asian companies have not complained that such a bailout would amount to an anticompetitive subsidy. But José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, said last week that he thought an aid package for Detroit could be “illegal” under World Trade Organization rules.
That has not stopped European automakers from seeking 40 billion euros in loans from the European Investment Bank, ostensibly to help develop cleaner cars.
For Garel Rhys, head of the Center for Automotive Industry Research at Cardiff University in Wales, the trajectory of General Motors is reminiscent of British Leyland not only because of the former’s decision to seek aid to avert bankruptcy, but also for its slow, seemingly inexorable loss of market share. “Both had a history of being the biggest in their market but couldn’t adapt as they lost sales,” he said. “They couldn’t get customers back.”
Historically, British Leyland’s roots stretched back further than Henry Ford’s Model T. The company controlled 36 percent of the British market well into the 1970s, with mass-market brands like Austin and Morris and premium lines like MG and Jaguar. But rising competition from Japanese and German automakers, shoddy workmanship and a breakdown in labor relations brought the company to near bankruptcy by 1975, Mr. Rhys said.
Michael Edwardes, who took over as British Leyland’s chief executive in November 1977, recalled that when he joined, no one even knew whether individual brands were profitable. “It was a farce — no one knew what the costs were,” he said.
As it turned out, every MG the company sold in the United States resulted in a loss of $2,000 for British Leyland.
Wildcat strikes consumed more than 32 million worker-hours in 1977, and the company became a symbol of labor strife, with some employees walking out the door with spark plugs in their coat pockets and engines in the trunks of their cars, Mr. Edwardes said.
Mr. Edwardes immediately began reducing the company’s work force of roughly 200,000 — to 104,000 within five years — and closing 19 factories. He appealed to the Thatcher government for aid, arguing the money was needed if British Leyland was going to be able to afford to lay off workers while investing in new models.
Eventually, the government put up £3.6 billion, equal to £11 billion in today’s money. But the rescue did not do much to preserve British Leyland’s labor force or market share in the long term.
By the time it received its last government infusion of cash in 1988, Mr. Rhys said, British Leyland’s market share had slumped to 15 percent. British Leyland evolved into MG Rover, which was eventually acquired by BMW, then spun off, finally going bankrupt in 2005.
According to Mr. Rhys, just 22,000 workers remain at British Leyland’s successor companies, about 10 percent of its work force in the mid-1970s.
“It was a very poor return,” he said. “We felt collectively and nationally that we got our fingers burnt, and this was always used as a reason to avoid bailouts, both by Labor and Conservative governments in Britain.”
Mr. Edwardes still defends the government aid, arguing it preserved parts of the company that remain in business now — like Jaguar and Land Rover, which were bought by Ford.
Jaguar never made a profit for Ford, however, and was sold with Land Rover to Tata Motors of India earlier this year. Ford recouped only about half of what it paid to acquire the two brands, and is estimated to have poured $10 billion into Jaguar.
Despite the British experience, the case of Renault, which combined fresh money and new management in the 1980s, showed that government bailouts can be beneficial.
The French government help for Renault also came amid increasing losses for the company. But Mr. Rhys said that unlike British Leyland, Renault was able to use the financing to create new car models that were ultimately successful. That, along with tough cost-cutting by a newly installed chairman, cleared the road to profitability by the time the government began privatizing Renault in the 1990s.
If Washington does go ahead and help Detroit, Mr. Edwardes said, it is crucial that the government overhaul the management of the Big Three. “Throwing money at them isn’t enough,” he said. “They need money and they need new management. They need both, not one or the other.”