Essay : I’m backing Britain (regardless of who owns what)

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

2015 promises to be a great year for Great Britain with record numbers of cars being built right here. Mike Humble shares a thought or two about getting behind the brands that create, design and build cars in the UK and spending less time knocking the parent companies or taking part in petty xenophobia…

Well, it looks like 2015 is hotting up to be a good year for British motor manufacturing, which can only be a good thing. Those clever folks up in the Midlands at Jaguar Land Rover have a spanking new engine plant on the outskirts of Wolverhampton – possibly the most recent automotive development there since the closure of Guy Motors. Obviously, the purpose of this is to wean the group away from the reliance of Ford-sourced powerunits in the long term but the £500m investment also shows the confidence of parent company Tata Motors in Blighty’s car workers.

Not only that, but we are soon to see the launch of the Discovery Sport and Jaguar’s rep-chasing XE so, despite what many may think, times have never been busier for the factories in the UK. Further down the pecking order our Anglo-Asian friends at Honda are building up steam for the launch of the face-lifted Civic and CR-V. Up on the Wirral, Vauxhall have recently produced the 5 millionth car at the Ellsemere Port plant and it’s also been confirmed that the up-coming new Astra will continue to be produced there despite tough competition from other worldwide GM plants.

2014 saw a £500 million pound investment in UK powertrain production. This year sees the launch of the Discovery Sport and Jaguar XE along with a revised XF and XJ. It all shows a huge vote of confidence from parent company Tata Motors
2014 saw a £500 million pound investment in UK powertrain production. This year sees the launch of the Discovery Sport and Jaguar XE along with a revised XF and XJ. It all shows a huge vote of confidence from parent company Tata Motors

It’s not because we are cheap, but it’s because we are efficient and damn good at what we do in terms of automotive engineering and design – something we ought to be vociferously proud about. And yet there is one thing that sticks in the throat like a bone from a Kipper, and that’s the reluctance for some people to just let go of certain aspects of automotive history. Jaguar Land Rover are Indian-owned while Honda, Nissan and Toyota are Japanese. Even MINI is in foreign ownership with its incumbency being German – and let’s be honest… and I mean brutally honest… do you think for one moment MG Rover could have done a better job with the MINI brand than BMW? Sorry, you won’t fool anyone else but yourself if you reckon so.

Being an Admin. on a small number of Facebook groups relating to motors, the same little snipes and brickbats fly around about who owns what in Great Britain – and I ask the question: Who Cares? Ask the lads and lasses and Cowley, Ellesmere Port, Solihull, Sunderland or Swindon who signs the wages cheque and I’ll bet you my last Rolo that noone cares… or, if they did, they are long past it. We had our day of running an automotive Empire and we cocked it up. The jury has been out for so many years now as to who or what destroyed our British-owned and British-run British motor industry – we all played our part, nothing more nothing less.

But 2015 marks a sad time in history. It will soon be 10 years since the death of MG Rover, but writing from first hand experience, it was terminally ill for a good few years before 2005. The issue is that many of the now defunct automotive names were run by people who had little experience or ability to run a car factory or safeguard its workforce. Also, our press did nothing to instil confidence in the potential customer – despite what you may think, people DO believe what they read in the papers. Customer loyalty simply dissolved but the arrogant attitude of top management back in the BL days thought that the customer would always stay loyal to Britain. How terribly wrong they were and from these times onwards, BL/ARG/Rover Group et all never really recovered.

The dark days of our motor industry: Derek Robinson has gone along with the bloody-minded militant culture. Our workers are now amongst the most productive in the world
The dark days of our motor industry: Derek Robinson has gone along with the bloody-minded militant culture. Our workers are now amongst the most productive in the world

Sir Michael Edwardes hit the nail on the head back in the 1970s when he said that “managers should reserve the right to manage” and that was the last time that real law and order almost won the day in our car plants. But I’m not singling out BL – MG Rover, the anarchy was rampant in all factories from Austin to Vauxhall in all fairness. By the time the workers had realised and smelt the coffee, it had gone cold and Mr Nissan and Mr Toyota showed the British buyer an amazing, never-been-seen-before trick – his car could, in fact, work properly on a cold winter’s morning. The same refusal to change, adapt and buck ideas up generally, happened in the 1960s with our motorbikes – nothing was learnt there either and by the time some order was established, there was no money to build or design a sustainable long-term future.

Let’s be brutally factual here, as a nation generally, we have shown the world countless times that we have not got a hope in hell of managing a volume automotive business to success and fruition, but, in recent years, we have built and designed some great cars. It makes no odds which nation owns the UK plants, or what they produce here – if it’s nailed together by British workers and designed by British engineers, what the hell matters otherwise? The Oxford-built MINI is an epic success story throughout the world and the Nissan Qashqai has gone on to sell more than 2 million units since 2007. To put things into perspective, Qashqai is the most successful Nissan ever produced, not the Micra, not the Cherry or the Bluebird. And where exactly was all this Nissan magic performed? Tokyo? Somewhere else in Japan? Some sterile Bavarian facility deep in the Black Forest? Nope… Cranfield in Bedfordshire.

Nissan's most successful model ever produced selling well over 2 million since 2007. And where exactly was this record breaking car developed, engineered and designed? Bedfordshire...
Qashqai – Nissan’s most successful model ever produced selling well over 2 million since 2007. And where exactly was this record breaking car developed, engineered and designed? Bedfordshire…

Even right at the top of the tree with brands like Bentley and Rolls-Royce, demand is outstripping supply – in the case of Rolls especially, they have seen an upturn in sales of over 40 per cent from the previous year. Again, both of those brands are in European ownership but they are built here virtually by hand – do you think the Germans would accept anything less than total quality and ruthless efficiency? The days of lazy striking workers sitting on their backsides complaining about the quality of toilet paper are long gone, our men and women who build or supply to the motor trade are amongst, if not are, some of the very best on the planet.

It’s time to back Britain, for its finest hour is yet to come in automotive terms. The products we make are sold on a world platform, too. Did you know that over 80 per cent of UK-produced cars and trucks are exported? I for one am deeply proud of that fact. Of course, it’s good to celebrate and cherish the history of our automotive heritage and, yes, it is a shame that many once wonderful names or brands are now in foreign hands, but it’s time to move on and celebrate the hard fact that we are producing more cars in the UK than we have done in years. We employ some of the very best engineers and stylists in the world right here in Britain – many of them coaxed back to Blighty after running away from the crumbling automotive days of old.

This year is going to be a good year for our car plants and the hard grafting 760,000 British workers who either directly or through the supply or logistics chain make the magic happen – just watch this space.

Mike Humble

Upon leaving school, Mike was destined to work on the Railway but cars were his first love. An apprenticeship in a large family Ford dealer was his first forray into the dark and seedy world of the motor trade.

Moving on to Rover and then PSV / HGV, he has circumnavigated most departments of dealerships including parts, service and latterly - the showroom. Mike has owned all sorts of rubbish from Lada to Leyland and also holds both Heavy Goods & Public Service Vehicle licences, he buys & sells buses and coaches during the week. Mike runs his own automotive web site and writes for a number of motoring or commercial vehicle themed publications

42 Comments

  1. Cracking article and I enjoyed that. On a slightly smaller front we could see the rebirth of TVR aswell if we are to believe Mr Edgar.

  2. All fair comment though, seeing that you mention the death of the British bike industry, it might be fair to mention the success of the (completely British owned) Triumph motorcycles at Hinckley in Leicestershire.

  3. Looking forward to the launch of the XE, it looks absolutely stunning in that shade of blue. Why are there not more cars in that colour? Plenty of silver, black, white etc. repmobiles about, last time I saw such an eye catching shade of blue was on the 406 facelift Piana Blue.

    XE should take the fight to the Germans, if they can get the business lease rates and emissions targets right (something Audi-BMW have excelled at in the last decade or so) then they’ll have a winner.

  4. What a change from when I was growing up and all the talk was of strikes, plant closures, poor products and falling market share for British cars. Although it might not be obvious, we now have one of the most successful car industries in the world and I don’t think a day has been lost to industrial action since the eighties. Also well done to Nissan UK, whose Qashqai has been a huge success and for all the badge is Japanese, everything else is British and all the owners I know would buy another one.

  5. I agree with all you say. However, (yes, you knew that was coming) there are two good reasons why it does matter who owns the car factories. Firstly, the profit made from the design and manufacturing we’re doing goes overseas. That isn’t good for the long-term prosperity of the country as we don’t receive as big a benefit from economic growth than if they were British-owned companies. Secondly, as a country we have less control over factory closures and investment opportunities – it’s always easier to close an ‘overseas’ factory than one in your home country, or invest at home rather than overseas. Over time this will have an impact on our relative living standards.

    As for the reasons we’re manufacturing so many cars, again I accept all your points, but we also have relatively weak labour laws compared to much of Europe, which is a major consideration in deciding where companies expand and invest. It’s also quite useful that we aren’t bad at speaking English, the language of international business.

    It’s a battle I completely accept we’ve lost, and I’m not belittling this success. As a country we should focus on our strengths – design, innovation – and attract the best talent from wherever in the world it lives.

    • Indeed. Well said.

      Another point is that foreign owned companies will usually a high proportion of specialist and high value activities in their home country. R+D, etc.

      There is also the impact to the many automotive component suppliers. If you take apart a MINI or a Rover 75 you will find a high proportion of components are designed, tested and manufactured abroad, usually in Germany.

  6. I totally support the UK car industry, but still wonder why we can make them, design them as well as the best in the world, but can’t find the right caliber of management to run the companies… I’m pleased the Qashqai is so successful, but I can’t help wonder why such a bland, generic shoe box of a car could ever be so desirable? I drove one a year or two ago and was staggered at how uninteresting it was, I think the new version is even more soul-less and boring!

    • As much as it is a UK success story, I’m not a fan either.

      I can guess that Nissan had the right product at the right time, at the start of the SUV-crossover craze.
      A well priced crossover with ‘Japanese reliability’. Despite the floorpan being based on a Megane, and with Renault DCi engines…

      The Primera unfortunately had a bit of a bland image, despite (before the last gen at least) being a very competent car. Nissan saw the writing on the wall, where the market was headed, and despite surprise from many by axing the regular C/D segments Almera and Primera, got it spot on.

      • I was surprised when Nissan launched the Qashqai as it seemed a radical departure for them compared to the Primera, but they seemed to have done their homework right in terms of what the market wanted.

        I was also surprised when my Dad bought a Qashqai to replace his Mondeo 2 & a bit years ago, as it didn’t seem to be his kind of car.

        While he doesn’t clock up a lot of miles these days, it’s not had any problems, the dealer evne rang up to check everything was going alright with it.

        • The sales arena for the segment Mondeo/Vectra/405/Primera etc, was it known as “the Killing Field”? So many manufacturers chasing after the business, cutting each others throats on pricing, especially the fleet sales for businesses, hence the wise decision for Nissan to fold their tent to seek new pastures with the Qashquui

  7. Another good read from Mike. Yes the UK Motor Industry is much more bouyant than in 2008/09, so congratulations all round.

    Nissan have come a long way since imports of Datsun Cherry’s, Sunny’s Bluebird’s etc in the 1970’s, (liked them anyway). The fact that the Qashqai is designed and built in Britain and exported too, is testemant to the quality from British Car workers.

    Also agree with Will that the XE looks good in that blue, similar to “Sapphire Blue metallic” on MK1 Cavalier’s in late 70’s.

  8. Yes, today’s British motor industry really is something to celebrate. A real success. The fact ownership is foreign is largely a sign of the times – it’s a small world!

    There is no denying the success. It would still be great, however, to see success at Longbridge, for MG UK. This would be like the core part of Austin Rover surviving in a modern form.

    • How could it be? The good news is that the luxury end of Austin Rover already survives and flourishes through JLR. If only MG had become part of that organisation.

      On the other hand, MG UK is an importer of unremarkable Chinese built cars, exploiting a name and identity that they picked up for a song when MG Rover went bust. Let’s not forget the false hopes from the time when SIAC were negotiating the intellectual property rights away from MG Rover and how they got what they wanted for next to nothing, then the hoped for investment never came and MGR went straight into receivership. They weren’t the savour of MGR at Longbridge then and they sure aren’t now!

      • Nope, I still think if Longbridge, MG UK was putting out loads of 3s, 6s and whatever is in the pipeline this would still be like another bit of BL>MG Rover surviving in modern form. I know they’d only be kits coming from China but don’t forget there is a lot of British engineering input.

        The “unremarkable Chinese” is a bit strong I think. A good write up on the 3 in an MG enthusiast magazine springs to mind.

        • But they aren’t kits coming in from China, they are complete cars being imported from China, with only the 6’s having had very minor finishing work, in very small numbers.There may be wishful thinking aplenty but there’s very little, if any, hard evidence that Longbridge will be anything other than an importers from here on in.
          True, there is a very small amount of design input from Longbridge, with around 200 staff. To put that into perspective, Ford employ around 3,000 at their Dunton Technical Centre in Essex, yet that’s never reported here.
          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunton_Technical_Centre
          It does, however,give SIAC the opportunity to use the gullet-sticking phrase “Engineered in Britain”, thus degrading the value of such a tag for those that genuinely do build in this country (JLR spring to mind again).
          The 3 and the 6 remain completely unremarkable third division hatchbacks, outclassed by the likes of Kia and Hyundai, with their only remarkable aspect being the curious use of a defunct British badge and an illusion of British manufacture.

          • Did you even read the article – I believe it was based at comments like yours.

            An MG3 owner.

          • Sorry, I dont mean that it was based on comments like yours but it certainly does discourage them.

            By the way, there are far more than 200 staff at Longbridge and more being taken on all the time.

            The ones that I have met are very enthusiastic about the MG brand too, which is good to know.

            I believe that MG UK confirmed to this site that both the ‘3 and ‘6 undergo final assembly work at the factory.

          • Yes, I read the article.

            May I suggest visiting one of the many genuine UK plants, that offer tours where manufacturing takes place (Vauxhall at Ellesmere Port, Jaguar at Castle Bromwich, Land Rover at Solihull and Halewood, MINI at Cowley etc, etc) to be able to fully appreciate just how little is assembled, let alone manufactured, by the relative handful of employes at MG UK.
            Putting the Chinese built engine, into a Chinese built car and then adding the Chinese built wheels and Chinese built exhaust, to a very small number of 6’s, doesn’t change anything.
            I’m pleased that you’re happy with your 3, really I am, but I’d be very interested to see any hard evidence that anything more than a few stickers is added to fully complete MG3’s. It would certainly go against anything that I’ve read from SIAC so far.

  9. I was staying in a pub in the Lake District a couple of years ago and got talking to a couple who worked at JLR in Halewood. I was enthusiastically saying how impressed I was with the success of the business, great model range and how bright the future of the company looked. This was greeted by blank looks on their part followed by a list of gripes and moans about working conditions, pay rises, pensions and managers bonuses. I pointed out that jobs like they had were at a premium here in the North West and surely they must recognise that with the companies success there would be good jobs for generations to come unlike the situation with the Triumph facility down the road at Speak. They quite obviously thought I was some kind of idiot and clearly had no interest other than the next pay packet. I find it utterly depressing that these militant attitudes are still alive and well even with all the evidence of history over the last 40 years.

  10. If by “we” you mean the British government, (aka the British taxpayer) one thing that’s been made very clear from all the evidence of history on this web site, is that the combination of state ownership and car manufacture, in the UK at least, does not work.

  11. “We had our day of running an automotive Empire and we cocked it up.” Spot on.

    Regarding ownership, every international company has accountants and lawyers to minimize their taxation and other costs. The balance is to maximize income from the skills your employ and minimize the costs. Locally subsidies can attract investment. Local red tape can dissuade you.

    The motive to close plants outside the home country only really kicks in if you’re being subsidized by the home government in the first place. I mean you PSA.

    Regarding the Qashqai: Of course it’s got character, because it’s different. Otherwise how would Nissan have got so many people out of their saloons and estate cars? If by character, you mean foibles, then I’m all for cars of no character.

    • Well BL shut down Seneffe when it was more productive than Longbridge and Cowley, but then can you IMAGINE the political storm if they had shut Cowley say and moved more production to Belgium!

  12. @ Nige, if they were from Liverpool, maybe changing the subject to football would have been more productive. Mind you I come from Newcastle originally and have zero interest in football, where I am expected to be knowledgable about what’s happening at St James Park.

    • I recall attending one of the final public meetings by the late Lord Soper, the famous orator and philanthropist, answering a question as to his greatest regret in his life ,in a moving speech he described the way working class people have been shortchanged and manipulated to accept vacuous trash such as football, tabloid papers satellite TV and celebrity worship in lieu of serious thinking as to how our society may evolve for the better

  13. @maestrowolf, Seneffe was rather like the Ryton factory became under Peugeot, it assembled cars from kits and didn’t have much local input. Closing Cowley or Longbridge would have caused far more problems than closing a branch plant in Belgium and at least Cowley now produces a popular car that keeps 5000 people in work and which relies on British suppliers.

  14. Don’t forget a lot of the companies which produce cars in the UK yet are ‘foreign owned’ are public trading companies and as such are owned by shareholders from all over the world e.g. only 50% of BMW shares are German-owned. 15% by the US and 12% UK!

    Nissan, Honda and TATA are also floated on various stock exchanges, so profits are distributed far wider than just Japan and India.

    Very interested to hear the argument that manufacturing in this country is actually BOOSTED by our employment laws and native language. I hadn’t thought about that before.

  15. Spot on article. Very good.

    I am a little wary of Nissan claiming the Qashqai is a
    purely UK design, when almost the exact same car known as the Rogue, albeit with an extra 6 inches of wheelbase, is assembled in huge quantities in the US as well. There it only has a petrol engine. I just think manufacturers butter up local markets by claiming the design was done there. I mean, who really wants to claim the little toad known as the Juke? From what I read, the basic work was done in the UK, but Japan HO finished it. Literally, following salarymen drinking nightmares after binge drinking, I should think.

    • Wikipedia (and Mike’s article) state that development of the Qashqai was led by Nissan’s technial centre in Bedfordshire. I think it’s safe to claim it as a UK success.

      In an automotive world where people claim “every modern car looks the same”, I’m glad the Juke exists, and I’m glad that healthy numbers of people are buying them. It’s a bold design, and amazing that the final production model stayed so true to the original Qazana concept car(http://www.autocar.co.uk/car-news/new-cars/nissan-qazana-will-split-opinion)

  16. One think that always surprises me is how little “Joe public” knows and cares about where their products are made.

    Some friends who are Astra owners over dinner said that they would like to buy British but no “affordable” cars are made in the UK anymore, so I started at Swindon and went North from Honda, and worked by way up the country ending with the Astra, which apparently they thought was made in Spain.

    Also another conversation I had with a recent purchaser of a new Triumph Bonneville and asked him if it was made in Hinckley or Conburi (Thailand) and he did not care ( I believe in fact all their European bikes, plus a good share US bikes come from the Hinckley), which struck me as rather odd given that he was buying such an “English” bike.

    • As a recent Bonneville purchase, it would have come from their Thailand factory, although (oddly enough), every engine, for every bike they make, is built at Hinckley and then (in the case of the Bonneville) shipped out to Thailand to be built into complete bikes.

  17. Well even when the Big Four were at their peak in the early seventies, only British Leyland was British owned and for all Ford, Vauxhall and Rootes Chrysler had big manufacturing plants here, plans were afoot to standardise models so strikes in British factories could be beaten by importing cars. It’s the same then as it is now, suppose Nissan had a huge strike in Sunderland, they could simply import most of their models from other countries and close the factory down. However, the completely foreign owned industry we have now is completely strike free, the unions have no interest in class warfare and the workers take a pride in what they produce.

  18. It’s very rare to find a good British (particularly English) CEO. Something in our culture about greed at any cost.

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