Another Remnant of British Leyland Faces Ruin
By Andy Bannister
British Leyland, that great corporate hotch-potch of the 1970s whose creation destroyed the reputation of many once-great marques, continues to unravel, years after the state-owned firm’s unlamented demise.
Whilst makes like Triumph, Austin, Morris, Wolseley and Riley are long since history, the rump of the company, MG Rover, only went out of business in 2005. China’s SAIC and Nanjing (themselves since merged) are currently keeping the MG name going, so technically that badge remains alive, if only just.
The best-placed survivor of the BL era is Mini, the marque revived by BMW during its brief and disastrous ownership of Rover, which has prospered worldwide and still makes cars at the historic Cowley plant, once home of the Morris Minor.
The other main ex-BL nameplates, Jaguar and Land Rover, latterly abandoned by Ford to the mercies of India’s Tata, are currently looking in rough shape and face a very rocky few months.
It’s the least-heralded and in many ways most unlikley survivor of the bad old days of BL, a company once known as Freight Rover and now called LDV, which looks set to hit the skids first and drive another nail into the coffin of Britain’s struggling motor industry.
LDV is a manufacturer of light commercial vehicles – mainly panel vans and minibuses – which somehow survived the chaos caused when British Leyland’s van and truck division ended up in a merger with DAF of Holland. The short-lived Leyland-DAF firm was another victim of the curse of BL, but its van business was rescued by a management buyout and has survived under the LDV name (the acronym means Leyland DAF Vans, although it is never spelled out).
After an almost-disastrous flirtation with the Korean Daewoo company a few years ago, LDV is currently in the hands of the Russian company GAZ, best known for the Volga car, but also a considerable presence in the van and truck market in its homeland. GAZ was interested in the LDV range to supplement and possibly replace its ageing GAZelle vans.
Now, however, LDV is in deep, deep trouble. The company’s factory in Birmingham, in the former BL heartland of the British West Midlands, hasn’t built a vehicle in months due to oversupply.
The company’s staple product is called the Maxus, a relatively modern design dating from 2005 and developed during the Daewoo era. The Maxus model itself had a chequered history, with the tooling having to be rescued from a Daewoo plant in Poland before British production could get underway.
The Maxus is a competitor for models like the Ford Transit and Mercedes (Dodge) Sprinter, and is a relatively popular vehicle in the UK and has a rather smaller foothold in some west European countries. Big customers like Britain’s Royal Mail and police services have been loyal LDV customers until lately, and the minibus version is a staple of hire and local authority fleets
Prior to the launch of the Maxus, LDV made a small van, the Pilot, whose roots could clearly be traced back to the British Leyland Sherpa van (shown at left) of the mid-1970s, making it one of the longest-lived small commercials of recent history.
With much bigger van plants tottering – Ford’s only remaining British vehicle factory, the Southampton works which makes Transits, is also in danger currently – does anyone care about an obscure little outfit like LDV?
Certainly the plant’s 850 workers do – they have begged the British government for money to tide them over the current crisis. Ministers, however, say previous bundles of taypayers’ cash injected into LDV has never been paid back, and it is up to GAZ to save the company it owns.
GAZ, meanwhile, says it has its own problems at home in Russia and cannot afford to put in any more cash to its troubled British offshoot. Trade union officials are predicting the plant has just days left, with unpaid bills mounting up and creditors even being offered payment in vans.
Birmingham City Council has rejected calls for it to rescue the plant, and a further management-led rescue has been ruled out due to lack of finance. Unspecified overseas investors are seemingly offering the workforce the only glimmer of hope just now, although why they should succeed when GAZ has failed is another matter.
In its brief heyday, LDV made great play of being Europe’s only specialist light commercial vehicle manufacturer. In a recession like this one, when companies and small traders have effectively stopped buying new commercial vehicles, the company’s problems show the danger of any firm putting all its eggs in one basket.
For Britain, whose motor manufacturing industry is almost all in overseas hands, the other lesson may well be even harder. Large companies traditionally withdraw to their heartland during hard times, and foreign plants are the easier option for many managements to close. Little LDV, the plant that survived the BL meltdown, may be one of the first of many to taste this bitter truth.
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