British Leyland: Chronicle of a Car Crash 1968-1978

For students of the history of Jaguar Cars, a book written by Chris Cowin, first 2012 and republished 2014 may be of interest. The book, British Leyland: Chronicle of a Car Crash 1968-1978 is simply packed with interesting history. This is the comprehensive story of a collection of once great and diverse British industries, primarily automotive, and their slow but relentless move toward destruction with only a few surviving pieces, Jaguar and Land Rover. For Jaguar only followers much of this book may be irrelevant as it deals in great detail about the downward spiral of the largest indigenous British car companies beginning about 1968 but this date is approximate.

British Leyland: Chronicle of a Car Crash 1968-1978

The saga of a desperate attempt at gaining efficiencies and survival during a never ending roller coaster ride of the economic misfortunes of the various companies, Austin Morris, Triumph, Rover and Jaguar are explored with incredible detail, although Jaguar was only for a time a part of the massive and diverse BL empire formed in the late 1960s. This industrial group included production of everything from paving and refrigeration equipment to army tanks, to buses, to heavy trucks to mass market family cars, sport cars and luxury cars, the book makes for exceptionally interesting reading if one can digest the voluminous production numbers, investment decisions or lack thereof, the machinations of exchange rates, UK taxation policy, import restrictions and tariffs of export markets. Not to mention the decade of the 1970s and its never ending labor disputes.

Still, for one inquisitive enough to leBritish Leyland: Chronicle of a Car Crash 1968-1978arn where we were and how we got to where we are now with Jaguar and Land Rover, the book is a tour de force of detail and research. I can only imagine the hours Mr. Cowin spent pouring over marketing and financial records at Gaydon. The bibliography runs to 32 sources and his ability to put voluminous amount of material together in a single book is astounding. While many cars, and their impact, or lack impact on the overall success of the company in its combined state may be unfamiliar to other than UK residents or hard-core British car followers, the book is an interesting walk through history. The Mini, Maxi, 1100/1300, Allegro, Marina, Maistro, Toledo, Dolomite, Stag, Rover P5, P6, SD1, XJ6, XJS all are covered in detail. To assist in identification, photos of many of the various cars and some of the key managers are provided in this large format 197-page soft-bound book. Jaguar history takes up about the Mark II, E Type, Mark 10 era and the rest of the products, XJS, XJ6 Series 1 to 3 are all woven into the tapestry that was once this national industrial colossus. Its later destruction and disassembly of selling off is part of the story up to the era of the early ‘90s. How Jaguar survived but chafed under the BL corporate umbrella, and its despised designation as the “large car assembly plant” is fully discussed. The book takes us up to, and includes Jaguar’s spin-off by the British government into a publicly traded entity and ultimately its purchase by Ford in late 1989 for £1.5 billion.

Factory names, their ups and downs and production figures, such as Canley, Solihull, Longbridge, Cowley, Castle Bromwich, Browns Lane, Speke, Bathgate and others roll of these pages as do the players in management and factory labor movements that were, for the most part of the 70s, so disruptive to consistent production and quality. The overseas operations in South Africa, New Zealand, Australia as well as wholly owned operation in Seneffe Belgium, Portugal, Spain, and Italy are featured and their contributions to the corporation in production numbers of whole vehicles or CKD (completely knocked down) units.

There is a multi-page section on just the USA operations and how they contributed in sales volume of certain exported products The winners here were Jaguars, MGBs, Triumph TR6s and the losers were Triumph Stags, Austin Marinas, and Rover SD1s. Players in this USA operation, first in Leonia New Jersey and finally in Mahwah, are mentioned such as Graham Whitehead, Bruce McWilliams, Johannes Eerdmans, Chris Andrews, all prominent in the US operations over the years. This section of the book actually takes us up to the early 1980s when the US operation had to downsize dramatically from a higher volume marketer of sport cars to just Jaguars and a 1980 sales figure of only 3,000 units, down from over 60,000 just a few years earlier but mentions the slow by continual increase in Jaguar sales in the USA through the remainder of the 1980s.

British Leyland: Chronicle of a Car Crash 1968-1978

Cowin’s summary states the following in his ultimate paragraph: “It would have been hard for British Leyland to avoid a crash, but circumstances conspired to bring one about earlier than most expected. After a brief period of trying to reverse the irreversible, failure was accepted and a new course adopted, which sought to limit the cost to the State of supporting the company while avoiding the disaster of an unmanaged implosion. Sadly, even in 1968, British Leyland was an accident waiting to happen. Too little was done to prevent a crash while there was time, and the subsequent aid came too late.” And all that in spite of the UK government plowing £2.6 billion into the operation before 1988 during a period when the UK government flipped back and forth from labor to conservative parties.

For me, who spent his career in the USA British car industry, all this material is simply fascinating. The fact that through all the ups and downs, corporate name changes, lost sales volumes due to industrial action, delayed or flawed new product launches, and woeful quality control, I actually survived for 32 years gainfully employed in this enterprise is nothing short of a miracle. Perhaps that was due to the fact I was a west coast warranty manager and in this field, there was never any shortage of work! For that kind of longevity, I was indeed blessed.

Title: British Leyland: Chronicle of a Car Crash 1968-1978
Author: Chris Cowin
Publisher: Chris Cowin / Create Space
Date: 2012 / 2014
Pages: 201
Price: $18.99 paperback, $4.99 Kindle ebook

John F. Quilter
John F. Quilter is a long time British car fan and former employee of British Leyland in North America. He has a collection of over 2000 British car models, and that collection continues to grow. Originally from California, John now makes his own in Eugene, Oregon. Click here to see more about John and his cars.