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The failure of Triumph in Speke

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British Leyland workers fighting to save the Speke plant in 1978

Rumours of closure, conflicting figures for job losses and a fight to survive in a global car industry - it could have been Vauxhall or Jaguar in 2009, but this story is set on a windswept site at Speke in 1978.

British Leyland's Speke factory symbolised all that was wrong with UK car manufacturing in the dark days of the 1970s, a million miles away from the high performing plants of today at Ellesmere Port and Halewood.

On 9, 10 and 11 December BBC North West Tonight is examining how far the regions car industry has come from those troubled days, and what the future holds.

In 1978 British Leyland's Speke Number Two plant was under threat of closure, afflicted by a series of crippling strikes, low sales of the TR7 it manufactured, and a history of poor industrial relations coupled with inefficiencies.

In 1959, Triumph, as it was then known, had relocated to Speke after the government 'twisted its arm'.

TR7
The car that was the beginning of the end for Speke, the Triumph TR7

The Speke factory built the Triumph Herald, Vitesse, 1300 and others through the 1960s.

In 1970 British Leyland, who had taken over Triumph, spent £10.5 million building Speke Number Two plant, it was one of the most modern and best equipped plants in Europe designed to build 100,000 vehicles a year all under one roof.

When BBC Nationwide visited in February 1978 the plant only had a few months of life left.

Workers were just returning to work, after a 17 week strike, to fight plans to close the site.

Graham Turner an Industrial Journalist gave his opinions on the problems facing the British Leyland plant in Speke, "The management over the years have I think, been very soft and they've let themselves get in to a position where the shop stewards virtually run the plant," he told BBC Nationwide in 1978.

"They are a pseudo management, the managers can hardly move a foot without getting the agreement of the shop stewards.

"There's a splendid thing called the Mutuality Agreement whose main purpose it seems to me is to stop the place being managed at all."

There's a very good case for saying Speke is one of the most inefficient car companies, not just in Leyland, but in the world.
Industrial Journalist Graham Turner speaking in 1978

The factory had been completely turned over to the production of the Triumph TR7, a sports car that was beset by reliability problems.

The TR7 was originally launched in 1974 to target the North American market, but after disappointing sales across the Atlantic it was relaunched in 1976 for the British market.

Workers at the plant didn't have a high opinion of the car, "This car is a disgrace," one told the BBC.

"It never sold, despite all that management have done is say it would be the greatest export they ever had for Leyland.

"It's a load of bloody rubbish that car, one load of bloody rubbish."

Another worker blamed management mistakes for Speke's plight, "There was one time on the TR7 they had 5000 left hand wings for the front end and they sent down to Coventry for 5000 right hand wings," he explained.

"And what happened? They sent 5000 left hands up.

"Now that laid us off for three days, through stupid management.

"That's nothing to do with us, but this has gone on time and time again.

"It's gone beyond a joke now."

Worker at Speke
Workers blamed 'stupid management' for the plant's failures

While the TR7's stuttering sales were a major issue for British Leyland, Graham Turner viewed the future of Speke as gloomy, because of a number of inefficiencies at the plant, "Speke is at the bottom of the league - the Leyland league - in so many ways and that's saying a lot," he said.

"If you take productivity Leyland is not a high productivity company and Speke is at the bottom of the productivity league. It's only half as efficient as Abingdon.

"Speke is top of the league for absenteeism, more than double the company average. On Monday's and Friday's anywhere between 15% to 25%.

"Over-manning is 25% worse than the next Leyland plant.

"All that adds up to a highly inefficient plant in a highly inefficient company.

"There's a very good case for saying Speke is one of the most inefficient car companies, not just in Leyland, but in the world."

In 1978 there was also a perception that industry on Merseyside suffered because of the areas reputation for strikes and poor industrial relations', Nationwide reported that "People talk of the so called 'Merseyside Disease', the idea that somehow people here don't work as hard as in other parts of Britain."

Speke plant
The plant shut for good in 1981, the site is now a supermarket

One British Leyland worker thought the problems were a legacy of Liverpool's dock system of labour, "I think it dates back this to our grandfathers and the time when they were on the docks in pens," he told Nationwide.

"It's just a thing that they hate management.

"They don't really hate them, but it dates back to that time when you were picked if your face fitted or if you'd work for less money.

"Even if you work say in Tesco, you still have a little thing about the management."

Workers at Speke were fighting to save their jobs, launching a 'Right To Work' campaign in an effort to keep the plant open.

It would ultimately prove fruitless as the globalisation of the car industry took it's toll, first on Speke, and ultimately on British Leyland.

As Graham Turner recognised in 1978 the company was now competing on a different level, "A 'Right To Work' campaign is alright," he said.

"But I don't think they can have 'A Right To Work When You Feel Like It' campaign, as unfortunately in the Big League that does not work.

"They're not playing in the Merseyside and District Football League, they're playing in a very tough world league."

"I'm afraid they've not been playing the kind of game that keeps you in that league, it just brings relegation and sometimes kills the club."

In May 1978 British Leyland workers at Speke withdrew their opposition to the closure of Speke Number Two and in 1981 all car production ended on the site with closure of the body plant at Speke Number One.

BBC North West Tonight is taking an in depth look at the North West car industry over three nights on 9, 10, 11 December, 2009. Tune in on BBC One North West at 6.30pm.




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