Archive : Battle Of Britain’s Car Giants

By Patrick Mennem

The lights are going out all over Europe for Britain’s car makers. And yesterday, Continental car importers explained why. British cars are shunned because of bad workmanship, unreliability, poor delivery dates and difficulties with spares, they said.

One of them, Armad Lorenzoni who runs a big car distributors in Switzerland, said:  “People here are losing confidence in British cars. We had a lot of problems with their engines, gearboxes and paintwork, and too often we had difficulty in getting spares.”

He added: “Getting the right kind of car in the right trim was very difficult. Now we read every day in the newspapers of strikes in the British car industry.”

Mr Lorenzoni’s firm used to import Triumph cars. Now they distribute Japanese Mazdas. He said: “When people lose confidence, they change to a make which they know will give them quick delivery , good quality and spares if they need them. With the Mazdas we sell now, there is only a four or five-day wait. And if there is any trouble, it is put right quickly. ‘

“For instance, we had trouble with exhaust valves—so Mazda’s gave us a three-year guarantee. This gives confidence.” In Germany, Karl Sautmann told me: “Servicing and parts are difficult with British cars. It is much better to stick with a German one.”

Peter Stephens, chief of the Daily Mirror Paris office, told me: “The workmanship of British cars is not considered by Frenchmen to be as good as that of German cars. Service is very expensive and spares are difficult to get.”

When Britain joined the Common Market our car chiefs claimed that a new era was dawning for British cars. Lord Stokes, who was then chairman and chief executive of British Leyland, said that a market of 250 million would be opening for us, whereas only an extra 50 million would be offered to our Continental competitors.

It sounded great, but it has not worked out like that. Imports into Britain reached a peak of 36 per cent, and are now running at 30 per cent. Imports into the major car – producing countries of the EEC are between 20 and 24 per cent , but our share is derisory. Last year our imports into France were 1-3 per cent of the total, into Germany 0-6 per cent , and into Italy (discounting Innocenti, which is owned by British Leyland) 0-4 per cent.

Volkswagen, after catastrophic losses last year, are fighting back with a fine new range of models that are selling well. Fiat of Italy have seen their sales rocket by 40 per cent, in the past year. In France, there is a big effort to rationalize the motor industry. But in Britain, British Leyland, after its traumatic upheavals, is still labouring on without a chairman and without a clearly defined policy.

It will require something dramatic now if the British motor industry is to survive.

Keith Adams

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