Just before the Xmas break you might recall news reports of a huge fire in Lancashire, which broke out close to the London-Glasgow main rail line. You might also have heard that it was caused by warehouse full of loo roll combusting.
You might not have twigged that the fire was at the old Leyland bus and truck facility in the small Lancashire town of the same name. The Farington facility dates back to before WW2 and was part of the massive facility that dominated the town.
Indeed, in its heyday, it is said that Leyland Motors, as it was known locally, was the biggest exporter of the commercial vehicles in the free world. (That latter qualification takes into account the Soviet Union’s notorious ‘tractor factories’ that churned out vehicles regardless of demand).
The ruggedness of Leyland vehicles was appreciated in the developing world, but they were rather out of step with trans-continental European use. Only when it was used to create British Leyland did the well-documented trouble begin.
I should say, though, that a greatly shrunken Leyland Trucks still does modestly well under US ownership, making Peterbilt, Kenworth and DAF trucks down the road at the modern factory built in the 1970s for the stylish T45 Roadtrain series.
Anyway, I was in Leyland for Christmas – I grew up in the Farington area – and popped down Centurion Way to look at the damage to the original site. It was – as these snaps show – pretty bad. Local gossip suggested that the buildings dated back to WW2 and were originally used for tank production (hence, Centurion Way).
It’s all pretty depressing. Leyland Motors has been crumbling away since it was forced to absorb Austin-Morris-Jaguar 40 years ago. For a large chunk of the old factory – admittedly now used for warehousing – to be destroyed by a loo roll fire shows that old company’s terrible luck shows no sign of letting up.
And here’s the weird thing: a few days after the Leyland factory fire, news filtered through that the infamous BL ‘plughole’ logo is set to fly again in the UK. It seems struggling bus builder Optare is set to be taken over by a Indian company called… Ashok Leyland.
Yes, that is the same Leyland – the company’s one-time Indian operation, now prospering under the ownership of the Hinduja Group. And it still uses the old BL logo. It gets weirder: Optare was born out the decision – in 1984 – by BL to close its Roe coachworks in Leeds. A management buy-out re-launched Roe as Optare.
So we have the old Indian Leyland operation coming in to rescue the old Leyland Leeds operation. It was 30 years ago that the massive, global, BL operation started to disintegrate and explode into tiny pieces. Now, some of the those pieces are being joined back together. And, in the next few days, Leyland’s old Rover operation and BMC’s old Jaguar operation (joined together by British Leyland, separated by privatisation and put back together by India’s Tata…) will announce record sales and record profits.
Obviously, British Leyland is not coming back from the dead, but bits of it are showing remarkable signs of life.