Surprise, surprise: Now Leyland is back on top

Living in Leyland gave Hilton Holloway a chance to see the fall and rise of a great firm
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Leyland is a name that became inextricably associated with the most damaging industrial era that this country has seen. British Leyland became a near-global byword for poor quality, poor decisions and poor execution.

Leyland is a name that became inextricably associated with the most damaging industrial era that this country has seen. British Leyland became a near-global byword for poor quality, poor decisions and poor execution.

All told, it's an astonishing 100-year soap opera, which began in 1896 when the Spurrier and Sumner families founded the Lancashire Steam Motor Company to build horseless carriages.

All of which is of particular interest to me because Leyland is my home town. My parent's first house was just a stone's throw from Leyland's Farrington works foundry. And, without wanting to sound too Pythonesque, when the wind blew in the summer, you got sand in your eyes. ("Ah yes," said a Leyland boss. "Southport sand. Very good for casting.")

Leyland trucks and buses had a much better reputation than the various car companies it acquired during the 1960s. The trouble started when the government encouraged it to absorb British Motor Holdings in 1968. The subsequent creation -- British Leyland Motor Corporation -- spanned a huge industrial base from Jaguar and Rover through to trucks and fridges.

By 1975, the BLMC giant had toppled over and was nationalised, becoming British Leyland. Then the process of de-merger at BL began in 1978 and has continued almost to the present day.

In 1968 the Leyland core truck and bus operation was at its most powerful. Some 13,000 people were employed across the sprawling site by the main London-Glasgow railway line. A significant proportion of this small market town, and the surrounding area, were employed at Leyland or one of its supply subsidiaries.

The influence of the company ran deep. I recently discovered that my parents' second house, a 1960s semi, was one of many built specifically to accommodate the legions of Leyland workers and their families. The houses were priced to be affordable on a typical Leyland wage.

My father didn't work at Leyland (although he once had a 1960s Leyland lorry which he described as "bloody terrible"), so my memories of this industry were from outside the gates. Strikes figure large, and always set the economic nerves of the rest of town on edge. That, and the thousands of workers pouring out of the plant on their bicycles at exactly 4.10pm. I'd swear Leyland motors had the biggest bicycle sheds this side of China.

Leyland Truck and Bus split in 1981. Volvo acquired Leyland Bus in 1988, only to promptly shut it down. The truck division had an equally tough time. Dutch company DAF bought it in 1986. But DAF folded in 1993, leaving Leyland high and dry.

A management buy-out secured the business until 1998 when it was bought by Seattle-based Paccar which owns the Kenworth and Peterbilt brands as well as, ironically, DAF.

But here's the surprise: 108 years after it was founded, Leyland Trucks is back on top. The plant has been ranked Best Engineering Factory by Management Today magazine and the Leyland-designed DAF LF was ranked international truck of the year in 2002.

The company invited me inside the gates for a look around. And how could I resist after so long in its shadow?

Leyland is the sole remaining truck maker in the UK (20 truck brands including names such as AEC and Scammell have folded since WW2). With a staff of just 1,000 under one roof, the Leyland Assembly Plant makes 14,000 DAF trucks each year and 1,000 Fodens. Sadly, the Leyland badge was dropped a few years ago.

The company has also pulled out of the race to supply the armed forces, despite its track record, leaving US rivals Oshkosh and Stewart and Stevenson in the race, alongside MAN and Mercedes. (Three of the companies have promised to build the military trucks in the UK if they win, Oshkosh in south Wales, S and S have teamed up ith LDV vans and MAN says it will take the ERF Sandbach factory out of mothballs.)

Leyland's 100-strong design team is the global centre of "light truck expertise" for Paccar, and is even working on designs for the North American market. Much of the work is completed in 3D and the computer systems can simulate virtual ride and handling tests. A 50 per cent (12-month) reduction in product development times is the upshot.

The Leyland Assembly Plant is a civilised environment. The factory floor is quiet and the attention paid to such details as lighting is impressive to even an untrained eye.

But, as one of the bosses pointed out, the technology involved in building a truck would still be recognisable to a factory worker from 50 years ago. The first component swung into place on the production line are the huge chassis rails, pre-drilled with hundreds of holes.

It's much like a giant Meccano kit, with hundreds of bolts being used to assembled a mix-and-match final product. Unlike the Leyland of old, there's no component manufacture, it is strictly an assembly operation. This is also an operation across three time zones (the clocks on the wall are marked Seattle, Leyland and Eindhoven).

Leyland management makes great play of the "Six Sigma" quality control system employed at LAP. Apparently, correct execution allows for just 3.4 problems per million -- an accuracy of 99.997 per cent.

A stern Dutchman, who describes himself as a "master black belt" in the art of Six Sigma, explained the mantra as "Define, Measure, Analyse, Improve and Control". Six Sigma could, he said, be applied anywhere, including a hospital.

But the quality hangover still exists. Leyland Trucks admitted that the press trip was partly to convince European journalists that Britain can turn out high-quality products.

Back on the shop floor, I noticed an overhead display board announcing the day's canteen menu. Steamed Hoki and jam sponge seemed to perfectly straddle old and new Leyland. And although the bike sheds are gone, replaced by a huge car park, one thing hasn't changed. Everyone still leaves promptly at 4.10pm.

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