MG - Decline and Fall

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Extract from November/December's NAMGBR publication - MGB Driver

MG - Its Decline and Fall

by John Thornley

Sixteen years ago this past October the MG plant at Abingdon closed for good. Two months after the closure John Thornley, the former Abingdon Plant Director, decided to set the record straight and wrote the following article which appeared in Safety Fast, the magazine of the M.G. Car Club, in December 1980.


Now that production of MGs at the British Leyland Plant at Abingdon has finally ceased, it may be timely for me to tell you what I know of this sad event. Much has already been said, too much, some might say; certainly much has been said which was inaccurate, some from ignorance, some from a downright desire to mislead, so that a distant or casual observer could easily have got it all wrong. What I have to say now is not the whole story by a very long that must await a different but it will, at least, give a general guide and, I hope, correct some misconceptions.

To get the background right we must go all the way back to the MGA. We at Abingdon had this design all tidied up and ready for production for over two years before it finally appeared in 1955. But it then continued for seven which was two years too until the MGB appeared in 1962. The GT version followed in 1965. The Leyland takeover became effective in 1968. Abingdon meanwhile, had produced the prototype of the MGB's successor, but one can scarcely lay the blame for inactivity at the door of BMC. There wasn't time. And in any case, they had other they were virtually broke!

The other half of the equation was the Standard Motor Company. Their recent history had not been tranquil. They had fought off a take-over bid by Massey-Ferguson in 1958 and reorganized themselves, in the following year, as Standard Triumph International Ltd. Late in 1960 there were rumblings of an amalgamation with Leyland Motors and this became fact the following spring. The Leyland Motor Corporation had as its Chairman, Sir Henry Spurrier, who had been Chairman of Leyland Motors Ltd. Alec Dick was Managing Director (ex-Managing Director of Standard Triumph Int.), and on the board was one Donald Stokes, lately Sales Director of Leyland.

It was only a matter of time before Stokes had fought his way to the top and, as Sir Donald Stokes, he was Chairman of Leyland Motor Corporation at the time they began their negotiations with British Motor Holdings. The British Leyland Motor Corporation became a reality in May of 1968. The important fact, from our point of view, is that, at this time the only "car" people that Stokes knew were Standard-Triumph men, with the result that the upper echelons of the management structure of BLMC were filled, almost entirely, with Standard Triumph chappies and the BMH-men didn't get a look in. This then, was the wicket on which MG had to bat (to use a cricketing term!). MG, which was certainly not the most important component of BMH, now found itself less in proportion to the whole, and with a potentially hostile supra-management.

The fledgling BLMC was beset with many problems, among them that it had two lines of sports car, Triumph and MG. Quite early on, a committee was set up to review the sports car field. Indeed a second one was set up in 1977. Both came to pretty much the same

  1. ) That BLMC had the sports car market in their hands;
  2. ) if they couldn't make a profit on sports cars they couldn't make a profit on anything; and
  3. ) the name for worldwide penetration was MG. Such conclusions were learned solely by leakage, the reports themselves being quietly stifled.
The great MG historian Wilson McComb in his book stated that "The story of MG in the seventies is, sadly, that there is virtually no story to tell". I commend to you that you re-read these chapters in McComb's book. They leave no doubt of a concerted effort to kill off an effort which was so conspicuously unsuccessful that an overt sentence of death became necessary. This was pronounced on "Black Monday", the 10th of September, 1979.

The announcement of "The Plan" kicked the hive over! All manner of people rushed around, up to London, onto television and into the radio stations, where much was said which more mature consideration would have left unsaid, some of it even running the risk of being counter-productive. From what I have already said you will understand how it was that I resisted the emotional reaction, but cast around in my mind for what I could best do to make top management change course. Two thoughts were uppermost.

First, the United States was MG's principal market, and MGs made up the greater part of Leyland sales in North America. Without MG, the sales network in the US would fold and the US dealers, many of whom had been my friends for years, would be out of business. Leyland's foothold in North America would be gone! To me, this was so transparently obvious that my second thought was that the BL Board had been misled! As the Abingdon Trade Unions so succinctly put it, in an open letter to Sir Michael Edwardes following one of his early appearances on television, "...This suggest that our marketing people either gave a sycophantic report to a Triumph-oriented board, showing complete lack of integrity, or completely misread the market situation, thereby showing lack of competence."

From telephone conversations with my friends in the States, which I had during the twenty four hours following the announcement, I was alarmed to discover that they were so incredulous as to raise doubts that they would take any serious action unless they were prodded. There was only one person who could or would, prod them and that was me!

So it was that the evening of the Thursday following Monday's announcement saw the Thornley and the Beer families working far into the night preparing over 400 one for each MG dealer in the which bearing US stamps were flown out that night across the Atlantic in a USAF plane! And, of course, a copy went to Sir Michael I delivered it to Nuffield House myself. The letter drew attention to the extravagances of the promises being made by BL to its American dealers, explaining why the estimate of 50,000 TR7/8s to be shipped in 1980 was wildly optimistic, even if the market could absorb them. It pointed out that with the MGB, Midget and the Spitfire discontinued, at least half the BL business would be gone, which would spell ruin for the dealers, and the loss of BL's foothold in the American market. The letter further stated that the MGB could be reinstated if only Sir Michael would say the word and that it was for the US dealers to persuade him to say it!

Whether it was because of this letter, or in spite of it we may never know, but all eight members of the Jaguar Rover Triumph National Dealer Advisory Council came to London a month later. It took that long to get an appointment with Sir Michael who had scuttled off to the Antipodes immediately following Black Monday. Remember? But even when they did get to see him, they made no worthwhile impression.

It was coincident with their arrival in London that Alan Curtis erupted onto the scene, and within days, the media were busy with the news of the Consortium which would negotiate to salvage MG. Leavened with the wildest flights of fancy, the most significant feature of the news stories at the time was the complete lack of anything concrete. This was quite understandable, but the silence seemed interminable.

The hiatus was filled with feverish activity, from many directions, designed to secure governmental pressure on BL to consider favorable the proposals being put forward. Robert Adley, the Member of Parliament for Christchurch was persuaded to espouse the cause of MG and having teamed up with Abingdon's own MP, Tom Benyon, called a meeting at the House of Commons and formed the "MG Group" with myself and Dennis Ogborn joining the two lawmakers. The function of the group was to feed information to interested parties in Parliament.

Robert Adley secured a debate on MG, an event which saw some hundred or so MG Car Club members attend the House of Commons, one night in December at 1:30 AM in the morning! Later Robert put down an amendment to the Industry Bill as a result of which MG affairs rattled around Parliament for several weeks. I myself, wrote to Mrs. Thatcher while Dennis Ogborn pursued the "Save MG" campaign relentlessly.

To be continued in the NAMGBR's "The Driver"'s next don't miss it!

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