Wednesday, 2 September 2015

RELIVING THE MERIDEN CO-OPERATIVE

Special thanks to Triumph Owners Motorcycle Club for allowing us to use this article from the August 2015 edition of Nacelle.

As Triumph are building up to celebrating 25 years of producing motorcycles in the Hinckley factory in Leicestershire; if it hadn't been for the action taken by a dedicated workforce over 40 years ago, that celebration may never had been able to happen. Here is a story of those intervening years written by Nick Swain of the Berkshire Branch, with thanks to John Rosamond.


On the 14 September 1973, Dennis Poore the Managing Director of Norton Villiers Triumph (NVT) made his first ever visit to the Triumph factory in Meriden, and announced that the factory would be closing in stages with the loss of all 1700 jobs. He then left, refusing to answer questions, saying he had an urgent meeting in London; leaving behind a stunned group of factory workers. It looked as if Triumph's 71 year history as a motorcycle manufacturer was finally over. But it was not. The next few years were to be the most extraordinary in Triumph's eventful history. The Triumph workers took over the factory, eventually bought it off NVT, and formed a successful co-operative, which continued to develop and manufacture the legendary Bonneville motorbike against all the odds for nearly another eight years. John Rosamond was at the epicentre of the action during that period as the second and final Chairman of the Meriden Co-op. He later went on to become the General Manager of the new Triumph Motorcycle Company when John Bloor bought the Triumph intellectual property rights in late 1983.
     John Rosamond came to the TOMCC Berkshire Branch earlier this year and gave a personal inside account of the Meriden Co-op. Like many of the Branch members, I knew the outline of the Co-op story, but it was a privilege to be able to hear about it in detail from someone who had been in such a key role through all its up and downs. John came to our regular Thursday club night at the Burghfield Community and Sports Association (BCSA) Hall and more than 40 members turned out to listen to him and ask questions. A buffet meal had been laid on, so John split his talk into three sections allowing intervals for members to help themselves to food or get drinks from the bar. There were a lot of questions from the floor to which John was able to give answers from his personal experience.
He started his talk by putting the Co-op into its historical context, recounting the background leading up to Poore's dramatic announcement. Motorcycle design at Triumph he explained, had always been carried out at the Meriden factory since they moved there during the war. As John put it "The beating heart of any motorcycle company is the engineering design and development function". But by 1970, when he joined Triumph Engineering, their owners the BSA Group, had decided to centralise all Group design activities at Umberslade Hall, Hockley Heath, Birmingham. This design group according to John "had about 300 highly qualified engineers. The majority however, sadly lacking any experience of motorcycles."

They decided to design a new mass producible, all welded frame for the best­selling Bonneville and Trophy models designated the P39. The new frame was intended to be stiffer and stronger, to give better handling, with the hollow main tube section large enough in diameter to hold all the engine oil, thereby eliminating the need for the separate oil tank that Bonneville and Trophy models had previously had on their hearth brazed frames.
     To manufacture the new P39 frame Triumph needed to recruit 40 MIG welders, and that is how John came to join the Triumph Engineering Company. But on his first day, he was surprised to see all the welders sitting around with no work to do. The vital design drawings for the manufacture of the new frame, welding jigs and fixtures were already three months late with a rumoured 1200 (approx.) late design modifications still taking place.
Faced with this production delay, the rest of the factory had been kept busy producing a whole year's production of the 5oocc Daytona models, as these did not use the new P39 frame. Also a huge stockpile of Bonneville and Trophy engines had continued to be built to the 1970/71 production schedules in readiness to go into the new frames as soon as they were built. Meanwhile the days and weeks were slipping by, until it looked certain that Triumph would miss that all important North American spring and early summer very seasonal market window; when the majority of bikes were sold.
     Eventually the P39 frame drawings were delivered to the factory and once the jigs and fixtures became available, the welders were able to produce their first production frame. As the frame was also to act as the oil tank it was important it did not leak; so all P39 frames were completely immersed in a tank of water and pressure tested to 50 PSI with compressed air. The resulting torrent of bubbles from the first frame produced showed it had a major problem; it leaked like a sieve! The factory MIG welding team set about solving the problem and soon developed a welding technique that enabled leak-proof frames to be produced consistently. Unfortunately there were to be further problems. Incredibly, after all the months of delay and design changes, and despite the frame having been specifically designed for the Bonneville/Trophy engines, it was found that the engine would not fit without removing the rocker boxes and cylinder head!
Mindful of the fact that by now there were thousands of engines stockpiled around the factory, the remaining Meriden factory Design and Development team led by Bert Hopwood and Doug Hele, modified the cylinder head and rocker box fasteners to enable the engines to be fitted minus the cylinder head and rocker boxes. These were then fitted after the engine was in the frame; however yet more problems were to surface. Once the first bike was built, it became clear that the seat height had increased by around 3 inches, meaning only the tallest of riders would be able to touch the ground with their feet. As a stop-gap measure and before yet more fundamental changes to the frame design were implemented, alterations were made to the seat padding and nose of the seat. The downside being that by the time these problems had finally been sorted; even more time had been lost.
     A valiant effort was made by the Frame Section workers in an attempt to pull back lost time. In one mighty week of 60 hours on both the night and day shift working, 1460 P39 frames were manufactured. The rest of the Meriden workforce downstream of the frame section also started to work those long hours. Inevitably these production problems impacted the financial performance of Triumph Engineering and had a knock-on effect on the BSA Group's bottom line. With 75% of Triumph's annual production normally destined for the US market, missing out on the critical US early season motorcycle sales had a huge impact. Thousands of late arriving Triumph 1971/72 models had to be carried over in US warehouse stock until the following year. When eventually sold, at a heavy discount, they represented multi­million dollar losses for the BSA Group.
     These losses, and the overall poor performance of the motorcycle companies within the BSA Group, left the Group Board of Directors with no alternative but to seek an emergency government loan. This was refused, although the government did support a plan to merge the motorcycle businesses of Manganese Bronze Holdings (MBH), which included Norton and Villiers, with the BSA motorcycle businesses including Triumph. The plan was to form a single new company to be called Norton Villiers Triumph (NVT) with MBH former boss, Dennis Poore as its Managing Director. As a result Poore had to rationalise his sprawling new motorcycle businesses. The answer to the question of how he was going to do that and which part he would close, was provided on his visit to the Meriden factory. Once the agreed production schedule of 7500 bikes had been completed he announced production of the three­cylinder Trident would transfer to Small Heath, Birmingham, while the production of the iconic Bonneville twin would be discontinued. Meriden would close and for those employees not at the meeting with Poore, there were copies of the mid-day edition of the Coventry Telegraph newspaper on sale at the factory gates telling the full story with the headline: 'Triumph Meriden to Close'.
To the workers at Meriden, building Triumph motorcycles was a way of life and they had been working their socks off to get production back on track. They refused to accept the factory was closing and as soon as Poore left the premises they chained the gates closed. The now infamous Triumph Meriden factory occupation had begun!

Workers picketing factories was not an uncommon phenomenon in the 197o's, but this trade-union action did not follow the normal course. It wasn’t a strike, it was initially a work-in and production briefly continued at full tilt. It soon became clear though that the NVT management were not prepared to negotiate. Accordingly, following a mass meeting of the whole work force, the full 24/7 around the clock 'workers occupation' of the Meriden factory started. An action supported by the Trade Union and the Labour Movements, who undertook to mobilise all possible support. Months of picketing of the factory followed, during which the pickets made sure that the thousands of finished and part finished motorcycles did not leave the premises while the workers representatives and their advisers developed plans for a workers co-operative at Meriden.
     "Meriden had the skeleton of a worker's co-operative proposal" John told us, "ideally timed as the Tory government had just lost the UK General Election".
     This brought in a Labour Government and with it the left wing Tony Benn as Industry Minister, who wanted to experiment with industrial democracy. Benn saw Meriden as a good opportunity to set up a worker owned co-operative and he gave it his full support with the promise of financial backing from the government. The Meriden workers factory occupation also attracted the interest of Geoffrey Robinson, the socialist CEO of Jaguar cars located in nearby Coventry. Robinson offered his commercial expertise and advice, helped put the case for government funding, and worked alongside representatives from the Co-op to negotiate a deal with NVT.

The US Triumph dealers were understandably worried by developments at Triumph, and their fears were exacerbated by the negative messages they were getting from NVT about the Co-op. Bob Myers, representing the US dealers, flew over to the UK to check out the situation at Meriden for himself, and whilst expressing concerns he was broadly supportive, returning to the USA re­assured. As John explained to us: "For the US dealers, the possibility of the Meriden factory reopening, even as a workers Co­op, represented for them a glimmer of light at the end of a very dark tunnel".
     Eventually, with the help of Robinson's commercial experience, Benn's sponsorship and the support of the US dealers, the government came up with the funding and an agreement was reached with NVT that would enable the workers to buy the factory and its contents, with NVT acting as distributor. Eighteen months after Poore's devastating announcement, the Co-op was up and running and production of Bonneville motorcycles restarted. It wasn't all plain sailing though, the Co-op had to walk a financial tight rope, but the new owner-workers were extremely enthusiastic. John estimates that this enthusiasm translated directly into a productivity gain of around 30%. Management expertise was brought in from GKN and later from GEC, and a number of Triumph workers with key production engineering skills who had previously left, re-joined the Co-op.
     In spite of the Co-op having very limited financial resources, they still managed to continue development of the Bonneville throughout this period. A Bonneville with a 75occ engine and five-speed gearbox had been introduced as the T140V in the year before the occupation. The Co-op decided to focus on this and discontinue the 65occ T120. Over the next few years they introduced a series of innovations - the change to left foot gear shift/right foot rear brake in order to comply with the latest stricter legislation in the key US market, as was a reduced emissions T140E version engine for the same reason. Various spin­off models appeared based around the same basic Bonneville theme, with uprated specifications such as gas-filled rear shocks and electric starter.
The most successful early marketing proposal came when the Co-op was receiving managerial help seconded from GEC. This proposal was intended to move excessive factory stock (into which all the Co-op's very precious operating capital had become tied up) that had built up due to NVT dragging its feet in negotiations for a new product sale agreement. To accelerate the sale of this stock, GEC came up with the idea of the 1977 Silver Jubilee Bonneville to celebrate Her Majesty's 25 years on the throne. This was combined with financing from GEC. Each time one of the Special Edition Silver Jubilee Bonneville's was sold, the Co-op was able to draw down a percentage from each sale from the GEC financial facility, gradually replenishing the Co-op's operating capital.
The very striking red, white and blue patriotic livery to celebrate the Queen's Silver Jubilee stimulated UK, US and European customer demand. What started as a mere trickle, soon developed into a raging torrent as customers attempted to buy at least one of these 'Limited Edition' collector's items that still command a premium price today.
     The Tiger Trail semi-off-road Triumph, both in its 75occ and 65occ forms, also secured a steady customer following as did the 750 Fully Equipped Triumph Executive. But perhaps the two most popular models produced in the later days of the Co-op, were the US Custom styled TSX and the High Performance TSS 8-valve versions. Triumph US Dealer Jack Wilson of 'Big D Cycle of Texas' entered a pre-production 8-valve TSS prototype in the Battle of The Twins race at Daytona with the bike lapping at over 150 mph. The TSS certainly gave the Bonneville back its 'street credibility', whose performance had been throttled back over the years by the ever tightening US 'Noise and Emission Regulations'.
     Not only did the Co-op continue to develop and manufacture the Bonneville, it actually survived longer than NVT, which was eventually wound up in 1976. Unfortunately by the early 1980s, the external economic situation deteriorated and the UK went into recession as the new Conservative government pursued a policy of high interest rates to cut back on inflation. This resulted in a dollar exchange rate rise to $2-45 to the pound; a move that effectively priced the Triumph Bonneville out of the US market. Sales dried up and by 1983 the Meriden plant was facing closure again.
Even at this late stage, the Co-op was very nearly saved due to the increasing value of its underused 22 acre factory site as a potential housing development in the rising property market - converting its use from industrial to residential status almost doubled its value! Plans were put in place to sell the site and move to a smaller leased factory in Cashes Lane, Coventry, the former site of Triumph Motors, the car side of the Triumph business in the 193o's. But at the last hurdle the deal fell through when West Midlands County Council failed to provide the promised lease and the Co­op's bankers advised that sadly, it was time to call in the receiver. It may have been the end of the Co-op; but it wasn't the end of Triumph!


John Rosamond stayed on to help the receiver sell the assets, being heavily involved in the sale of Triumph's intellectual property to John Bloor (who had made a fortune over the years building and selling houses). It was then that John Rosamond told us, contrary to what many people think, Bloor had
no interest in purchasing the Meriden factory site for house building. The site was sold to another builder and became a housing estate. He wanted to invest in an engineering company and saw Triumph Motorcycles as that opportunity. John Bloor asked John Rosamond to work for him in the new Triumph Company and to pick five other workers from the Co-op to come with him. How the new Triumph Company worked in virtual secrecy for years to develop a new range of motorbikes, build a brand new factory in Hinckley and then make a sensational return from the dead at the Cologne International Motorcycle Show in 1990 is another story. John Rosamond was reluctant to talk about it. One of his last acts working for Triumph was helping to organise that product launch in Cologne. He recounted talking to journalists expecting a single new Triumph model or at the most two to be launched, and were stunned when they realised there was a totally new range of six modern motorbikes at the show. Triumph had never seemed a more appropriate name for the company than on that day.
     One question John was asked by members was whether he thought the Co-op had been a success. John hesitated before replying, no doubt mindful that it had ended in administration. However his answer referred to the new bikes that the Co-op had produced, particularly the 1978 Jubilee edition; which he thought had been a GEC marketing masterstroke, allowing the Co-op to clear a backlog of unsold, stock piled bikes with an astute marketing and advertising campaign.
     He also believed the Co-op had been a successful experiment in industrial democracy and was only brought down by external economic forces. Indeed at the point it closed, it was near to sorting out all its debts and was about to re-launch the model range in a new factory.
John Rosamond has written a fascinating book 'Save the Triumph Bonneville' that goes into a lot more detail. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about this extraordinary period in Triumph's history. But why not invite John Rosamond himself to give a talk at your branch. If you get the chance to hear him talk, go and listen. You will have a interesting evening. The Berkshire Branch certainly did.

John's book Save the Triumph Bonneville! – The inside story of the Meriden Workers' Co-op is available here.