Blog : Car manufacturing – how British is British?

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

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We had an interesting selection of cars at AROnline Towers this weekend. I swapped my Dacia Sandero Access for an MG3, kindly lent at the last moment by the nice chaps at Longbridge, while a family member, who finds himself working as a car hack elsewhere, was smoking around in a Honda Civic Tourer. After a brief run in his car, he said to me, ‘my car’s more British than yours.’

I paused before responding, deep in thought, but then found myself unable to argue with him. Coincidentally, I had been on the launch of the Civic Tourer back at the end of 2013 and so had the chance for a chat with the Engineering Team responsible for converting the five-door hatchback into five-door estate – in a nutshell, the estate conversion was conceived and designed here in the UK; much of the dynamic development took place in the UK and Europe, and – as you all know – the Civic Tourer is also built here at Swindon. Good news all round, then – especially as, high price aside, the Tourer’s a pretty good estate, with clever seat-folding and rear suspension set-ups as well as styling which you could never accuse of being generic.

AROnline’s readership has picked over the MG3’s British credentials ad nauseum, even before it went on sale here in the UK. Here’s my take on it. It was styled and designed in the UK, launched in China, developed in China and the UK and, currently, if you buy an MG3, you’re likely to get a car put together in Longbridge from sub-assemblies shipped in from China. However, a number of cars have also been shipped in in their entirety from China in order to meet demand.

It’s a tough call to work out what exactly defines Britishness in a car these days, as the industry is so global. After all, pretty much all cars made here fall under the umbrella of overseas-owned companies. India owns Jaguar Land Rover, Germany owns Rolls-Royce, Bentley and MINI and China owns MG. We have ‘Japanese’ cars made here, such as the Civic, with huge amounts of British input – while the pride of Washington, the Nissan Qashqai, was styled, designed, engineered, developed and fully made here – yet, few people would see the brilliant new Qashqai as a British product.

That’s the crux, here – the nationality of what you drive is not cut and dried and, for those who wish to buy British, the choice of cars at your fingertips is far, far wider than you might think. You might not like the idea that Britishness is not what it used to be – it’s very different today – but our industry’s as healthy as it’s ever been and it’s an important international manufacturing and development hub – isn’t that good news for everyone?

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Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...

Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

32 Comments

  1. Like it or not the MG3 is probably how more and more cars will be done in the future. As the world gets smaller, and developing economies become developed, car companies have starting to become a sort of pick and mix of nationalities. Ford in Europe make a case example. Are they British, German, Spanish, Portuguese or Turkish?
    None, they’re “European”.

  2. Funny one this… The Land Rover Defender is British through and through, and all around the world people know it as a British icon. Same with the Mini (the original one at least). Show anyone (who’s not too clued up on such things!) around the world a Defender and they’ll say its a British car. Show them a British built Quashqai or Civic or whatever and they’ll say its Japanese.

    Not many manufacturers seem to be able to get the right balance of wood and leather like Rover used to though…

  3. I think it would have made sense (looking back) for Nissan to have bought MG. Nissan have a pretty reasonable bunch of cars and UK base and could have made very reasonable MG’s. Given Nissans commitment to the UK then one could say a Nissan-MG car could be quite British. perhaps more British than an MG designed in Britain built in China, and had the wheels thrown back at it in a shed in England. One think I could point out is that Nissan were selling the UK made Primeras here in NZ for a while as a “British Car”(& with the Union jack on the side). Honda were bringing us the Accord “Euro” too, although it might be that it was still built in Japan (not England). Alex

  4. Hmm… for Nissan, think Austin; in the 1950s, the British firm helped the then relatively small Japanese company rebuild its car-making business, building Austins under licence. The BMC B-Series engine played a crucial role in Nissan development in the 1950s and early 1960s. It is said that Nissan were disappointed when Michael Edwardes teamed up with Honda instead of turning to their former allies.

  5. I think the Qashqai is probably the most British of all mass produced cars, yet many will still view it as Japanese, as opposed to all of the Vauxhall and Ford ranges where only the Astra is produced in the Uk but they’re still British to most people. Certainly nobody looks at them as ‘American’ yet they are just as American as the Qashqai is Japanese.

    Given that Nissan have been building cars in the UK for almost 30 years I wonder how long it will be before that perception changes.

  6. Does anyone even care where it comes from? Cars are becoming more like any other consumer durable. As long as it does what we want it to do and we can afford the payments – yes more and more cars are being financed like mobile phones. We don’t make smartphones or TV’s and do we care where those are made when we chose them.

  7. If Nissan design, develop and manufacture cars in the UK under a foreign flag, they are as British as Ford was in the 1950’s and 60’s and certainly far more British than Ford are now. In Honda’s case I’m not so sure. They manufacture or assemble here, but how much engineering development takes place in the UK? Same applies to BMW/MINI although they do manufacture Engines in the UK. Jaguar Landrover are British through and through. Tata may be an Indian name and have an HQ in India, but they are listed on the London Stock Exchange and everything from the tyres up are designed developed and manufactured in the UK.

  8. Re 7 (rob h),

    I don’t think british build smartphone would be a good idea:

    “latest news! Roverphone (build in the new phonefactory in Sullihul) faces a lawsuit because off thousands complaints about paint chipping, badly fitted batterycovers, rusting of the housing, disintergrating apps and starting problems on could, wet morning”
    LOL ;p

  9. No-one ever mentions the brilliant and underrated Toyota Avensis, which is built in Derbyshire.

    The Civic estate is likely the de-facto Accord replacement.

    For all the Qashqai may be a good UK built car, I’m sick to the back teeth of seeing badly driven and badly parked examples.

  10. @10 — The inside is even WORSE!

    I owned a Honda FRV for 7 years and it was a fine motor. Loved it to bits but my needs changed and I downsized. Looked at the Civic but utterly hated the interior which is an ergonomic slum. Especially the cheap DAB radio speedometer and dreadful trip computer that won’t allow you to change from average MPG to range remaining without stopping the car! WTF were they thinking of?

    Interior of the Civic put me off so much that I saved some more pennies and bought a German!

  11. Have to say I quite like the look of the new Civic Tourer (better than the hatch). The Auris Tourer is rather smart too + the Focus Estate & Astra Tourer). I would agree the Qashqai & Civic are perceived as British these days. Only the Brand names remined us of Japanese ownership.

    I regard my current Focus as European/German built even though the engine is presumably British.

  12. @13, yes the tourer does look slightly better than the hatch. the rear of the hatch looks like it was designed by a committee that never met. that said, the interior is still a real coalhole to sit in. Not a great place for small children.

  13. funny question this, i have owned a rover sd1 vanden plas v8 for 24 years, described as the last all BRITISH rover the series 2 like mine has GERMAN central locking motors american v8 ex buick reworked nicely by rover and a GM auto box!!
    i do love the AMERICAN link though. so not all BRITISH i supose… and that came from the good old LEYLAND days..

  14. I love the look of the new Civic Tourer. My 55 plate Accord Tourer was described by the boy Clarkson as one of the most ugly cars ever built. Well possibly but it’s by far and away the best car I’ve ever owned. I’m confused though, are they stopping making the current Accord? It’s still listed on the Honda website…..

  15. It is likely that the Accord Tourer will be killed off in the UK at least due to the Civic tourer taking sales away from it.

    Must admit that the current Accord Tourer was on my list of cars to look at when I changed last year but, IMHO, after a trial, it is an oversized bloatmobile with not much interior space. Not only that, but the fuel consumption is significantly behind the competition, by 7-10 mpg. (C-class, 3 Series, A4, V50).

    The 55 plate one I also looked at when I bought my FRV but Mrs E described it as looking like a hearse and TBH, we were disappointed by the lack of interior space in the passenger compartment, in particular, the lack of rear seat legroom.

    Honda have lost the plot lately for me.

  16. I look at cars primarily from a design (styling) perspective, as I am far less experienced in terms of engineering. I find the comparisons here, between MG and Honda, and then the Quashqai, quite interesting. It’s a good argument that the Japanese cars are in fact British, and it is very relevant from a manufacturing perspective, and terrific for jobs and economy, that the Honda and Nissan are designed, developed and built in the UK. However, like most people, I still see them as Japanese simply because that is what they’re supposed to be. I’d like to think that ‘Brand DNA’ means something, even if in reality that’s not the case nearly as often as it ought to be. I do want to think of the current MG’s as British cars, for that is what they should be. I’m not happy about the new MG models being built in China, but what really bothers me is that it doesn’t really matter that they are in fact designed in the UK. If the management brief says ‘we want a car that’s gonna sell in China, and it needs to look bland/affordable’ then it matters less if the design team are in fact British and have their offices in the UK. That scenario is not much better than badge engineering an already existing product originally designed for someone else (see recently the ridiculous Chrysler/Lancia re-launch). So, assuming the MG3 is designed for the Chinese market, as supported by the evident tweaking of the UK version, I’d say none of these cars are proper British. Even if the Honda or Nissan design teams actually design for a British (and European) market, they would still need to do this within the confines of the foreign brand.

  17. I visited my local Suzuki and Hyundai dealer and for all people think these are Japanese and Korean cars, most of them sold here are either made in India or Eastern Europe, though it’s likely these are probably assembly plants to get round tariffs and to take advantage of cheaper labour.

  18. Also people think of Volkswagen as German, but the Polo has been made in Spain since 1990, admittedly with a large German content, and the Touareg is made in Slovakia.
    Indeed going back to the early 80s, when the big four had nearly two thirds of the market,many so called British cars weren’t. Ford made the Granada and Capri in Germany and production of Fiestas, Escorts and Cortinas was topped up from Ford’s European factories, Vauxhall produced its large cars in Germany and some Astras and Cavaliers came from there or Belgium, Talbot made the Tagora and the Samba in France, which only left British Leyland as purely British. However, in the late seventies, a few thousand Allegros made their way to Britain from Belgium and there was talk of producing more at Seneffe until union hostility forced BL to back down, even though the cars were largely produced from British kits.

  19. 7 . does any one care .I do .as a man with children I like to think if I buy a car its got local content ,the old peugeut 206 sw was assembled here .I got one. knowing local people would be employed ,they then had money to spend on other things which may give me work

  20. 23. I care too. I want to see design, development and manufacturing in the UK, not only for the employment and the economic benefit, but for our own national identity.
    I own a 2012 Land Rover and a 2013 Triumph and I’m proud to own both. As current products go, they couldn’t be any more British.
    What winds me up is where companies flog the “UK engineered” tag to death, flog it some more and then import complete, or virtually complete, cars from China. That sort of cynicism will simply dilute the credibility of the “UK manufactured” label.

  21. @24
    Why shouldn’t they “flog the engineered in the UK to death?

    It is factually correct and they can flog what they bloody well like-they own the firm.

    Just because BMW do not Say the 3 series is “predominantly” a tossers car, it is the quietly spoken word around town….

  22. @9
    The majority of chipsets in most ‘phones come from the UK.

    i.e. the Qualcom snapdragon series of chipset.

  23. @ 25:

    “Why shouldn’t they “flog the engineered in the UK to death?””

    Because no one on here has ever been able to define what “Engineered in the UK” actually means.

    With absolutely no manufacturing happening here, precious little assembly work (arguably, there is more assembly work done on Mitsubishi L200 pick ups in the UK, than on SIAC/MG’s) and levels of design and development work that are a token effort only, then any definition of “Engineered in the UK” would have to be either be hopelessly vague, desperately misleading, or it might have to expose the whole thing for the charade that, in my opinion, it would appear to be.

    Perhaps I would feel more comfortable with a description like “Minor design input and trivial finishing in the UK, unless it’s one that’s come off the ship from China completely finished”. Not as snappy though.

  24. @25. I quite like your suggested BMW strap line, it’s better than “The ultimate Driver’s machine”. Although I now know someone who drives a 3 Series who’s a throughly good egg. I’m having problems coming to terms with that….

  25. ” but our industry’s as healthy as it’s ever been and it’s an important international manufacturing and development hub – isn’t that good news for everyone? ” YES !!!!

  26. @30 You’ve got a point there! To it’s credit it’s different, new and interesting (and knowing recent Civis, it’ll probably have a huge boot, but by God, it’s ugly!

    It makes an interesting comparison to the SIAC/MG3 beneath it. Unfortunately, that’s no prettier.

  27. @27.
    How do you qualify the token effort statement? MGUK engineers are doing their portion as is the design centre.

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