How big British automaker came 'Back From the Brink'

It didn't even know how much money it cost to build a car, let alone which side was up. In 1977, British Leyland, the huge British government-supported auto manufacturer, was on the edge of collapse. Its car models were aging fast, shop stewards were in control of the factories, and its losses were enough to sink a battleship. Beyond all this, the British Parliament was increasingly reluctant to spill any more money down the drain.

Sales were disasterous, the quality of the cars was bad, and delivery schedules were in chaos.

''The worst type of corporate centralism was at work,'' writes Michael Edwardes in ''Back From the Brink,'' his play-by-play book on the five-year rescue of British Leyland. The book is published by William Collins Sons & Co., 8 Grafton Street, London W1.

''I found it stifling,'' he asserts with obvious displeasure.

Besides a massive rebuilding job among the management team, Edwardes, who had been asked to take over the helm of the ailing company by the National Enterprise Board, also had to restore some identity to the cars that were being built.

''Great names like Rover, Austin, Morris, Jaguar, and Land Rover were being subordinated to a Leyland uniformity that was stifling enthusiasm and local pride,'' he says.

''The manufacture of engines for Jaguar was carried out in the Radford Engines and Transmission Plant under a separate management from Jaguar car assembly, which took place in the Browns Lane Plant, Large/Specialist Vehicle Operations. The Austin factory was designated Longbridge Body and Assembly Plant , Small/Medium Vehicle Operations. The Rover factory was simply known as the Solihull Plant, and MG works as the Abingdon Assembly Plant.

''In addition, the engines for these vehicles were the responsibility of a separate management function. So as well as erasing the marque names, the organization divided management responsibility so that there was no overall responsibility for individual products.''

This is the mire in which Michael Edwardes found himself when he took over the wheel in 1977.

Over the next five years, the company - renamed BL Ltd. - backed off from the brink, either ousted or reassigned hundreds of key managers, tamed the union, launched the Mini Metro, and readied more new products for production.

Meanwhile, some 90,000 jobs - both white collar and blue - were eliminated, factories were closed, and such well-known name plates as MG and Triumph were turned over to the history books.

The British automobile industry came out of World War II solid and intact. But, with the march toward socialism, it soon began to stumble, and more and more individual companies fell into disarray.

Ultimately, numerous companies came under a corporate umbrella to become the British Motor Corporation (BMC). Then, when BMC tied up with Leyland, a large truck and bus manufacturer, the resulting company became British Leyland.

Of the time when he took over in 1977, Edwardes writes: ''We had a classic case, on a massive scale, of faulty executive appointments - the wrong people in simply hundreds of key jobs - and only a change of organization would provide fluidity in which personnel changes would be the norm.''

Quick action was essential if the company was to stay in business. As part of the job, Edwardes had to parry with the politicians and keep the workers on the job.

''Slowly, but with increasing momentum, morale at the senior levels was rebuilt, and this paved the way for regaining control of the business,'' he writes.

Productivity in the last several years is up by some 150 percent, and even the union cleaned up its act.

After five years in the driver's seat, Michael Edwardes, in 1977 a little-known businessman from South Africa who had spent 26 years with the Chloride Group - builder, among other things, of Exide automotive batteries - decided last fall to step aside.

Indeed, Sir Michael brought a new spirit of enterprise to BL as well as to British industry as a whole.

(Incidentally, as head of Chloride, Sir Michael drove a Ford.)

While the job at BL is still far from complete, at least the wheels are finding some solid pavement on which to turn. This book gives a chairman's-eye view of the last five years.

Among the gains: BL has a cooperative deal with Honda of Japan, quality is on the rise, and Jaguar sales are booming in the United States.

It might have been worse. BL could have been down the drain.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.