It is with sadness that many current and former Land Rover employees have learned of the passing of Tony Gilroy, the company’s managing director in the formative years of the 1980s and the man who could rightly be credited with having laid the foundation for today’s successful business. .
Hailing from Cork, Tony kept an Irish twinkle in his eyes but had a reputation for toughness. Beginning his career at Ford, Tony went on to hold what was probably the toughest job in the UK motor industry – manufacturing manager at the Longbridge car plant. It was here that he came face to face with the militant unionism of the 1970s. Realizing that communication was key, he managed to convince the workforce to accept British Leyland’s rationalization plan and the subsequent dismissal of Longbridge union official Derek ‘Red Robbo’ Robinson, who had objected. It was also at Longbridge that Tony played a key role in the introduction of the Mini Metro, which caught the eye of BL boss Michael Edwardes for his talent.
Edwardes’ reorganization of the company created Freight Rover and Land Rover as separate entities and Tony was appointed managing director of Freight Rover, transforming the business and producing a range of vans good enough to rival the Ford Transit.
Tony arrived at Land Rover in early 1983. It wasn’t a job he particularly enjoyed at first, and what he found did nothing to change his opinion. Land Rover was burdened with high overheads with small satellite manufacturing areas scattered around the country supplying the main plant at Solihull. The quality was poor, the workforce disenchanted, the management apathetic, and the market for the base Land-Rover model was shrinking.
With characteristic energy, he began to change things. He was unimpressed with the One Ten when shown to him prior to launch. The responsible engineering department was subjected to a massive cull and people who had worked with it at Freight Rover were brought in. It launched a program of closing remote factories to concentrate production in Solihull, using the East Works facility that was once the home of the Rover SD1. When communicating this plan to the workforce, Tony was initially met with hostility, but through the force of his personality he won them over, receiving a standing ovation at the end of the meeting.
Tony has boosted the program to upscale the Range Rover to make room for a new leisure-focused SUV.
Realizing Land Rover’s traditional markets were in decline, Tony spurred the program to upscale the Range Rover to make room for a new leisure-oriented SUV. Project Jay would eventually become Discovery, a model that would transform Land Rover from a niche manufacturer into a market competitor. When engineering indicated that development of a new model would take five years, he brushed them aside and set up a special team with an 18-month deadline. The program was also cleverly divided into elements that fell outside Tony’s investment approval authority to avoid interference from the Rover Group.
With the Thatcher government keen to sell British Leyland, Land Rover was offered to General Motors who offered Tony the job of managing director. But he had other plans, rejected the offer and backed a successful ‘Keep Land Rover British’ campaign. What Tony wanted was to acquire the company via a management buy-out. He nearly succeeded, but Prime Minister Thatcher intervened to prevent the signing of the Rover Group piecemeal.
G-WACs were the first discoveries to emerge from the Project Jay program.
Management changes following the sale of the Rover Group left Tony in an impossible position and he left the company, ironically before the launch of his creation, the Discovery. He then went on to a successful career with the Varity Group, home of Perkins Engines and later Lucas Industries.
Tony will be remembered as a force of nature and a largely unsung hero of the British automotive industry. As one former employee remarked, “If you had done your homework, you were fine.” Otherwise, you were dead”. It was true that Tony didn’t put up with fools willingly, but, as the news of his death showed, he earned enormous respect. And, true to his lineage, many will remember that behind that fierce exterior, there was an Irish heart of gold.