The Leyland car brand, which underwent several name changes throughout its rise and fall from popularity, was a vehicle manufacturing company. It was founded in the late 19th century and reached its peak in the mid to late 20th century before finally dissolving into privatisation in 1988.
Today, few remains of the Leyland car brand, specifically the later British Leyland Motor Corporation, are found in the car industry. The Austin Morris, Rover, and Triumph brands are nearly non-existent in the car industry other than classic and antiques, and Jaguar, Land-Rover, and MG are no longer British owned companies…
..but how did this happen?
The rise and fall of the Leyland car brand is intertwined with the history of cars themselves, and its dissolution can serve as a reminder that bigger isn’t always better, especially in the corporate world. To help understand, here is the history of the Leyland, including its rise in the early 20th century and its fall less than a hundred years later.
The history of the Britsh Leyland can be traced well before its rise to fame in the late 20th century, however. Its formation can be dated back to the late 1800s, 1896 to be exact. During this year, two families – the Sumner and Spurrier – founded what was then known as the Lancashire Steam Motor Company in the town of Leyland in North West England
During this time, however, production was quite focused on cars and other vehicles yet. Instead, the Lancashire Steam Motor Company focused on manufacturing steam-powered lawnmowers. Their first vehicle, a steam-powered van, was produced later, introducing the Lancashire Steam Motor Company into the vehicle industry.
By 1905, they begin to manufacture a more modern vehicle, petrol-engined wagons, and changed their name to Leyland Motors in 1907 when the company began to expand.
Acquiring the Coulthards of Preston in 1907 was a major success for the new Leyland Motors. The Coulthards had been making steam wagons since 1897, introducing new experienced workers and collaborators. In Chorley, the town neighboring Preston, a second factory was built, boosting production.
In 1920, Leyland Motors introduced a new vehicle into the industry: the Leyland Eight.
The Leyland Eight was a luxury car produced from 1920 to 1923, with only 18 made. This luxury touring car was designed by JG. Parry-Thomas, the then chief engineer of Leyland Motors, and his assistant Reid Railton. The Leyland Eight had one mission: the be the finest car available on the market. It was the first British manufactured car with a straight-eight engine.
Today, there is only one example known IN existence, a Leyland-Thomas assembled from spare pieces in 1929. You can view it at the Heritage Motor Centre in Warwickshire, England.
From 1922 to 1928, in Kingston upon Thames, Leyland Motor also produced another type of vehicle: the Trojan Utility Car. This car was produced in Leyland’s factory in the city through an agreement with Trojan Ltd. and continued to be produced until 1928 when Leyland reclaimed the factory space for the production of trucks. During the time of the agreement, however, Leyland produced over 15,000 cars for Trojan.
Though the 20th century was plagued with industrial unrest and movements, under the authority and control of the Spurrier family (which lasted through three generations until Henry Spurrier’s retirement in 1964), Leyland Motors reported excellent labor relations, creating an enjoyable and productive work environment, even during the turmoils of World War II.
World War II and the Aftermath
During World War II, most vehicle manufacturers dedicated their resources to war production. Leyland Motors was no exception to this movement. During the war, Leyland built several types of tanks and trucks, including the Cromwell tank. The Cromwell tank was the first tank used by the British that combined both high speeds and sturdy armor.
After the war, Leyland Motors continued to work in military manufactury with the Centurion tank. Introduced in 1945, the Centurion tank was the primary Brish army battle tank. It was also one of the most successful designs, remaining in production in the 1960s and in use until the 1980s.
In the years following the war, Leyland Motors continued to grow and expand. In 1946, the brand partnered with AEC to form British United Traction, which was dedicated to building trolleybuses. Then, in 1955, an equity agreement led to the manufacture of commercial vehicles under Leyland Motors’ license in Madras, India. These vehicles were branded as Ashok Leyland, after the new Ashok factory where they were produced.
Leyland Motors also acquired several other companies from 1951 to 1961, including Albion Motors, Scammell, and Stand-Triumph.
The 1960s saw a wide variety of changes within the brand. Donald Stokes, who had previously been the Sales Director for the brand, was appointed managing director in 1962, only to later become the chairman in 1966. Throughout the decade, the brand continued to thrive, growing into the Leyland Motor Corporation.
Foundation of the British Leyland Motor Corporation
The decade ended with the formation of the British Leyland Motor Corporation.
The British Leyland Motor Corporation was created rather than founded in 1968 when the Wilson Labour Government encouraged and ushered in the merger of two different motor corporations: British Motor Holdings and Leyland Motor Corporation. This merger changed the independent British car manufacturing industry by combining a total of nearly 100 different vehicle manufacturing companies specialising in cars, buses, and trucks as well as more diverse companies specialising in construction equipment, metal appliances, and road surface manufacturers.
The result was a single company with seven divisions all under a single chairman, Donald Stokes, who was the former chairman of the Leyland Motor Corporation and sales director for Leyland Motors.
Many consider this merger to be the beginning of the end for the Leyland car brand. Others consider it to be the merger that damaged the car industry in Britain. This is because of the turmoil and crisis associated with the British Leyland era.
Financial Crisis and Industrial Turmoil of the British Leyland Era
With the merger, the British Motor Holdings brought several marques to the Leyland Motor Corporation. As a result, managing became difficult, if not nearly impossible, due to the wide variety of companies all producing similar products. The result was a motor industry flooded by near-duplicates.
During the same time, industrial unrest became common in the area, with strikes happening regularly. Productivity slowed, and, after a period of financial difficulties, British Leyland reached out to the British government in late 1974 to receive a guarantee.
The company’s bankruptcy led to its nationalisation as the British Leyland, which split the company into four divisions in 1975. However, the turmoil didn’t end there, with the early 1980s introducing a new concern: oil scarcity. However, the export sales decreasing in oil-dependent countries were the British Leyland’s only issues.
The company also developed several design, development, and production issues. Several car ideas were produced, some models even coming into fruition, but it was rare for them to hit the market. Several designs were produced for a supermini car, with the Austin Metro later being produced and becoming a success.
However, even with the success of a more modern and practical supermini, the British Leyland continued to falter.
In 1986, the British Leyland, underwent another name change to the Rover Group.
The Rover Group and the Fall of Leyland
After over half a century of growth and development, after 1986, the empire of the Leyland car brand began to dissolve, beginning with the selling of the equity stake in Ashok Leyland in 1987. While the Ashok Leyland continued on its own, and exists even in the early 21st century, the Leyland, producing only about 10,00 trucks per annum, became more and more dependent on outsourcing engines for production as their 98-series continued to decline. The 1986 closure of Bedford Vehicle’s only further harmed the brand by disrupting plants on selling axles and components.
The Leyland name continued to dissolve from there.
In 1988, Leyland Bus, which was sold in a management buyout years prior, was sold to Volvo Buses, which discontinued most of the vehicles. One vehicle remained in the lineup, however: the Leyland Olympian. The Leyland Olympian was a double-decker bus produced between 1980 and 1993, first by Leyland on its own and later by Volvo Buses. It was withdrawn from traffic in 2005, though preserved vehicles can be found in collections.
A year earlier, in 1987, The Leyland Trucks division of Rover Group merged with DAF Trucks, a Dutch truck manufacturing company. In 1998, Leyland Trucks was acquired by the US truck manufacturer Paccar.
The Remains of a Legacy
Though the Leyland car brand all but disappeared in England, its name and logo continue to be both recognised and respected in India in the form of Ashok Leyland, the remains from Leyland Motors’ 1955 equity agreement. In 1987, the London-based Hinduja Group bought the company, where it then manufactured buses, trucks, defense vehicles, and engines. Even under the leadership of the Hinduja Group, it remains a leader in the heavy transportation sector in India.
Today, Ashok Leyland is considered of the largest manufacturers of commercial vehicles, trucks, and buses in the world. Though it is now headquartered in Chennai, it has 9 internal manufacturing plants with 7 in India, one in Ras Al Khaimah, one in Leeds, United Kingdom, and a joint venture with the Alteams Group. A $2.30 billion company, Ashok Leyland has been ranked as the 34th best brand in India, and the company, flagship of the Hinduja Group, only continues to grow.