Tony Gilroy – The Man Behind Land Rover’s Success in the ’80s

Tony Gilroy, the man who saved Land Rover in the 1980s and turned the company into “the jewel in the crown” of the UK’s manufacturing sector by the early 1990s, has died peacefully at his Worcestershire home. He was 85.

Tony Gilroy The Man Behind Land Rover in the 80s
Tony Gilroy

A native of Cork, Tony kept a twinkle in his eye but had a reputation for toughness. In the boardroom he demonstrated a detailed knowledge of every aspect of the business, forensically identifying key issues and actions to resolve them.

Outside the boardroom he never sought the limelight. He also shunned the perks, such as a personal chauffeur, believing it was an unnecessary company cost. He was never as widely known as his contemporaries, Michael Edwardes, Harold Musgrove, Graham Day, and George Simpson.

But many who worked with him at a senior level, or for him on the shop floor, saw him as an unsung hero of the British motor industry.

His career started at Ford before taking on one of the toughest jobs in car industry – manufacturing director of the Longbridge factory. He managed to convince the workforce to accept the British Leyland rationalisation plan, and was instrumental in the dismissal of the Longbridge trade union convener, Derek “Red Robbo” Robinson, who opposed it. Robinson was reported to have led 523 walk-outs in the 30 months before he was sacked in 1979.

Tony played a key part in the introduction of the mini Metro in 1980 and was promoted to managing director of Freight Rover, the van manufacturer. Given six months to turn the company around – or close it – Gilroy saved the business.

In 1983 he was appointed to the top job at Land Rover, and within months had identified its deficiencies and had developed a plan to make it successful. At the time 75 per cent of the company’s business was from sales of Land Rovers in Africa, the Middle East and Far East. But the collapse of the African economies, and the decline in oil revenues, meant that these markets could no longer afford to buy Land Rovers.

Tony recognised that Land Rover had to be more successful in mainland Europe and Australia. More importantly, Land Rover would have to sell vehicles in the world’s two largest car markets, North America and Japan (where Land Rovers were not sold at the time).

To succeed in North America the Range Rover had to be come a luxury vehicle with bigger engines, luxury leather interiors, and a host of other refinements.

Looking to the future Tony identified changes in the world’s four-wheel-drive markets. New vehicles being developed by Japanese manufacturers (such as Toyota, Nissan and Mitsubishi) were in a growing new four-wheel-drive market segment between the agricultural Land Rovers and the luxury Range Rovers.

So Tony set up a special team that developed the Land Rover Discovery in a record time of 36 months – when most new vehicles took five years to plan and bring to market. Tony cleverly divided the development programme into elements that fell below his financial sign-off authority to avoid interference from British Leyland headquarters.

By using the existing Range Rover suspension and chassis – as well as raiding the parts bin from Austin Rover vehicles – Tony was able to develop the Discovery at a fraction of the cost that other manufacturers were incurring for their brand new cars.

The investment in improved Range Rovers, and the Discovery, was made possible by Gilroy’s plans to significantly reduce the company’s manufacturing cost base. He saved millions of pounds by closing more than a dozen satellite component-making plants and moving 3,500 people and their 22,000 manufacturing operations onto the main Solihull factory.

With Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government anxious to sell off British Leyland, Land Rover was offered to General Motors who offered Tony a free hand with the company. But he had other plans, rejected the offer, and supported a successful “Keep Land Rover British” campaign.

What Tony wanted was to acquire the company through a management buy-out. He very nearly succeeded but Thatcher stepped in personally to prevent the Rover Group being sold off piece-meal.

The management changes brought in by Graham Day (merging the Austin Rover Group board and the Land Rover Group board into one Rover Group board) left Tony in an impossible position. He left the company at the end of 1988, ironically before the public launch of his creation, the Discovery, in the autumn of 1989.

Tony later headed up Perkins Engines, part of the North American-based Varity Group. When the company was merged to become LucasVarity Tony rose to chief operating officer worldwide working both in the United States and Europe.

When he retired he was able to spend his leisure time playing golf (he had been a member of Redditch Golf Club since 1974) and also took up shooting. Tony leaves a widow, Sandra, son Declan, daughters Claire and Fiona, and seven grandchildren. He was pre-deceased by son Aidan.

His legacy in the UK was that he had saved Land Rover, developed one of the most commercially successful vehicles in British motoring history, and had laid the solid platform from which Land Rover became a successful worldwide brand.

As a former Land Rover employee commented: “If you had done your homework, you were OK. If not, you were dead.” It was true that Tony didn’t suffer fools gladly, but he enjoyed enormous respect from the people who worked for him. Many will remember Tony as a man who had a fierce exterior – but behind it there was a heart of Irish gold.

Note: Press release courtesy of Newspress UK.