Motoring Insight Magazine Online

Margaret Thatcher: ‘We must have secret ballots’ to save motorhome industry, after hearing of strike at Southampton Ford Transit plant

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Published: 18 July 2013


margaret thatcher


Richard Holdsworth, the founder and owner of the now defunct Holdsworth Motorhomes, has spoken of how Margaret Thatcher insisted on trying out the new Holdsworth Ford motorhome and his personal story. 


It comes after Mr Holdsworth spoke to Motortrades Insight last month about how he feels British motorhome manufacturers have to fight off an increasing amount of competition from European rivals. 


“I admire anything that works well and any designer or engineer who will settle at nothing less than ‘The Best’,” he said. “Brunel is a hero – to read his life story is to see a man who struggled against doubting Thomases and, at times, outright hostility. Yet he never wavered from creating the best. The fact that trains run today over his railway at 125 mph and one bridge as an example – the bridge at Maidenhead – is testament to his vision. Experts of the day said the Maidenhead bridge would not last more than a few months. They demanded that it be shored up with timber before they would allow it to be used. A gale one night blew the timber away and trains still ran without mishap!”


The Holdsworth Motorhomes founder was also partially inspired by Beethoven, the ‘revolutionary’ composer, and ‘creator of the greatest music ever’, a man profoundly deaf, without friends and suffering ill health – a super-human with a determination to ‘create’.


“Margaret Thatcher had that same determination – yet no so many symphonies!” Mr Holdsworth said. “And it was nothing short of a disaster when her party ousted her. The first time I met her was at the Caravan Show at Earls Court – as leader of the opposition. At that time, she opened the show and was introduced to a handful of major exhibitors. She was running late and a buzz of petty officials rushed around telling us she was scheduled to stay four minutes but we must cut that down to two – she stayed 20! 


“She walked onto the stand, hand outstretched, and said, “Now you two young things must tell me what you do.” We explained and she sat in the driver’s seat of our new Ford.


“When we reminded her that the Ford Transit plant at Southampton was on strike so we couldn’t get vans to satisfy orders, Thatcher said: “We MUST have secret ballots. I am sure the rank and file don’t want to strike.” She was right as she was over so many things. She saved this country and the effects are still being felt despite the years of sloppy leadership since then.”


HOW HOLDSWORTH MOTORHOMES WAS LEADING THE WAY IN SAFETY


Speaking on the famous motorhome brand he created, Mr Holdsworth said: “It was difficult to compete with Autosleepers as they had been established longer than us, had an excellent dealer network and dedicated customers. The way to stand out was, thus, by being more innovative and also leading in terms of safety. We obtained BS5750 and started crash testing the seats and other fittings in our vans. When Renault brought out the ground-breaking Trafic van, we received approval along with Autosleepers and for the first time we beat Autosleepers to top the sales with the French van. 


“Not so long after this, Renault asked us to build 12 and 15 seater mini buses and the French manufacturer tendered for the contract to build the mini buses for the MoD using our conversions.  We won the contract – initially worth £49 million which meant – among other things – increasing production from 10 mini buses a week to a maximum of 100. Our buses went to all three forces – Army, Navy and Navy – and every base worldwide. 


“It was the first time ever that the MoD bought wheeled vehicles from a country other than the UK. We never let them down once.

“But when the French started nuclear testing, the second four year phase of the contract went to British Leyland and Fords despite the fact that we had been given the unofficial nod we were the winners.


“However, with BS5750 and crash testing behind us, Volkswagen in Japan appointed us as the official supplier for the Japanese motor caravan market (against all three UK manufacturers and the seven in Germany) and on the back of this we decided to get into Germany where the total sales of motorhomes was 22,000 units a year compared with the UK’s 5,000. 


“We received backing from Volkswagen in Germany on the basis of our style and quality and our history of crash testing the product and “sealing” this quality with the BS5750 regime.  Operating from a small factory close to the Dutch border and a staff of three, we exhibited at all the major German leisure shows. 


“We had a German consultant – ex-Mercedes-Benz – and secured some 25 dealers within two years. Sales were slow but the German customers liked the English style and quality.  We had a future in the most competitive market in the world.


“Unfortunately, with the loss of the MoD contract – which had underpinned our drive into Germany – plus a new factory at Woodley where the rent had increased to £125,000 a year – we had a cash flow problem and sold out to two entrepreneurs. They said they would keep Heather and me on to run the company but three months later, on Christmas Eve, they made us redundant. 


“They folded the company and closed the Holdsworth factory less than two years later and all our excellent staff, built up over 25 years, were out of work. Sad.”


After deciding to leave the motorhome and caravan industry when he reached 65, Richard wrote for magazines such as Best of British and This England and has also self-published two successful books – Six Spoons of Sugar, detailing his experiences as an evacuee and In the Hot Seat, his ‘Aussie tale’. Between them they have sold some 3,000 copies.


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