Donna Green grew up in the shadow of the giant Cowley car plant on the outskirts of Oxford. Her grandfather helped make Morris Minors, her father was an engineer with British Leyland, and evenings out as a child were spent with other workers’ families at the factory’s social club.
One of her earliest memories is waiting to cross the road as thousands of workers on bicycles pedalled past on their way to lunch. Among them, in his oil-streaked overalls, would be her father, who joined the factory straight after World War II. ‘That smell of oil still reminds me of my dad to this day,’ she says.
But the plant seemed in terminal decline in those dark days of the Seventies. The management was mediocre, the design of cars dreary, and the 28,000 workforce led by feuding militants who thought they could spark revolution from the shop floor. With the nation on a slippery slope to self-destruction, nothing symbolised the strife wrecking the economy more than the British Leyland car plants. Union firebrands such as Derek Robinson — ‘Red Robbo’ — became infamous.
Just two decades after being the world’s largest exporter of motor vehicles, the British car industry had broken down. Fast forward to today, however, and things could not be more different. The workforce may be smaller, but as the factory churns out brightly-coloured Minis — that most British of vehicles —Cowley symbolises the rebirth of our automotive industry.
It is, as Business Secretary Vince Cable proclaimed on a visit to the factory earlier this month, an unheralded success story, proving British manufacturing can still take on — and beat — the world. Amid the meltdown of morality in the City of London and the economic gloom hanging so heavy over the country, here is a glint of good news: an industry that has risen from the ashes and rediscovered its pride.
Fuelled by newly-rich buyers in China, India and Russia, who adore traditional British marques, car exports are at an all-time high, and comprise nearly a tenth of Britain’s total sales abroad. The sector has just recorded its first trade surplus for 36 years and, with the number of cars made in Britain set to double in six years to two million, is on course to break historic production records.
According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, exports of cars jumped 14 per cent last year to 1,194,000. There are more manufacturers in Britain than anywhere else in Europe: seven major car-makers, 11 bus and coach producers, and at least 25 niche vehicle manufacturers. There are also eight of the 12 Formula One teams, many in a cluster of specialist firms in an area around Oxford known as ‘Motorsport Valley’.
Sadly, the biggest players are no longer British-owned. But such is the industry’s confidence in this country and its once-notorious car workers that it is pouring unprecedented sums into new assembly lines, plants, technology and training. This month alone, BMW announced plans to spend another £250 million making Minis, and Jaguar Land Rover said it was creating another 1,100 jobs in the West Midlands to build new models. Over the past 18 months, the car industry has invested an extra £5.8 billion in Britain, much of it in areas hit hard by the downturn.
‘People thought we were managing decline in automotive manufacturing in this country,’ said Paul Everitt, chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. ‘But that has changed dramatically in the past few years. We are one of the few areas of success now in the British economy, designing and manufacturing products being sold all over the world.’
The boom is so strong that companies are fighting over the best engineers and technicians, while apprentices are offered paid sponsorship through university. When I asked one long-time company boss how business was going, he replied with one word: ‘Mad.’ Visiting Cowley this week, it is instantly clear how far the British motor industry has travelled in recent years. The main car park has signs for ‘guests’ and ‘associates’ — the internal name for all 3,700 workers, whether teenage apprentices or middle-aged managers.
Everyone wears the same black jackets, with ‘MINI’ on the back and jobs defined by fluorescent flashes on the front. Inside the plant, banks of one-armed orange robots whirl around sheets of steel, welding them into car bodies with sparks arcing high into the air.
The 513 robots outnumber shift workers five-to-one in the body shop. A handful of humans were feeding them supplies of silvery metal, pressed down the road in Swindon. After painting, the embryonic cars are whisked overhead into the assembly area, where staff install glistening engines, tangles of electrical cables and bespoke fittings. The operation, currently running 22 hours a day during the week to meet demand, is impressive to watch.
With 53 vehicles rolling off the assembly line each hour, the cars stop for precisely 68 seconds to allow teams of about eight workers to do their jobs. To ensure variety, each person is trained to do four tasks, and they constantly switch around. Computers alert them if bolts need tightening or a part is wrongly-installed.
Keeping up supplies of components is a logistical nightmare. One break in the complex chain can cause disruption. Last year, a fire in a German chemical plant caused chaos in the global car industry by hitting supplies of a resin used in brake systems.
Alongside the line runs a wire nicknamed the ‘andon’ — yanked to stop the process if a team needs extra time to complete their task. Supervisors sprint along to help get things moving again. A total delay of two minutes a day can impact on bonuses. Everyone gets bonuses, worked out on a three-tiered formula based on personal, team and corporate performance. There are no rewards for failure.
The work — ten-and-a-half-hour shifts with three 30-minute breaks — looks intense. But Anna Barclay-Suter, 42, one of the few women in sight, told me staff enjoy working there. ‘When I see the lorries leave with 15 Minis lined up on them, it gives me a lovely warm feeling.’
She used to work in the NHS. ‘It felt far more like I was working on a production line there,’ she says. The new Mini was launched as an experiment in 2001. It proved an instant hit, the flagship hatchback rapidly joined by coupes, convertibles and estate wagons. A van is being launched soon. Last year, the firm sold 285,060 cars, a rise of more than one-fifth on the previous year, helped by big increases in sales to China, Russia and Brazil. The cheerful little cars are produced on what is, arguably, the most historic site in British motoring heritage, which celebrates its centenary next year.
The factory was built on the grounds of a disused military college by William Morris, a former bicycle maker. He became interested in motorbikes, then turned to designing cars with a model called the Bullnose.
Morris pioneered the British use of Henry Ford’s mass production techniques, making the first Morris Minor in 1928, then the inaugural MG Midget the following year. He later became Viscount Nuffield, using profits from his cars to establish the Nuffield Foundation and found Nuffield College at nearby Oxford University.
Today, Cowley reflects the British motor industry’s chequered history. Morris Motors was subsumed into the British Motoring Corporation, then the nationalised British Leyland and finally MG Rover, which was finally put out of its misery in 2005. Donna Green, who once watched her father go to work here and is now herself a 50-year-old training manager, said the modern plant is a world away from when she started as an apprentice in 1978.
She recalled having to cross picket lines soon after starting at Cowley. ‘It was pretty intimidating for a 17-year-old girl,’ she said. ‘All these burly men blocking my way.’ In those days, bullying, racism and sexism was rife. Men were not immune: one veteran told me he used to dread going into the trim shop, filled with female machinists who wolf-whistled at young men.
Meanwhile, six splinter groups of communists and Trotskyists fought for supremacy on the shop floor, calling workers out on strike and typifying the industrial travails of the time. The last dispute there was in 1984 — a two-week walkout that ended in a wage increase of just 50p a week. Among those who took part was Chris Bond, 59, a former member of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party who has since joined the Labour Party and is now the plant’s union convener. ‘It was all very exciting for me as a young man,’ he says.
While disputes still arise, the affable Bond says there are good relations between staff and managers now: ‘We have moved on,’ he says. ‘If we had not changed, we wouldn’t have had any jobs here.’
Though this is the story of the revival of the British car industry, one key reason for the turnaround has been the arrival of foreign owners. They broke antediluvian attitudes among managers and workers by forcing through flexible modern practices, aided by the Thatcher government’s restraint on union powers.
They came in three waves — Japanese firms such as Honda, Nissan and Toyota from the mid-1980s, then Germans such as BMW around the turn of the millennium, and most lately new players from China and India. So now Tata, an Indian conglomerate, owns Jaguar and Land Rover — two classic British marques.
Already this year it has announced the spending of an extra £1 billion on British components, the creation of a new logistics centre at Ellesmere Port, and plans to build a successor to the legendary Jaguar E-Type in the West Midlands. And while Morris’s MG badge has all-but gone from British roads, the brand is owned by China’s biggest vehicle manufacturer and employs 300 engineers here designing cars for the Far East.
Meanwhile plants such as Nissan’s in Sunderland — opened by Mrs Thatcher in 1986 — are among Europe’s most productive car factories. Last year, a workforce of 5,462 made close to half a million cars — or 88 cars per head, up from 60 cars per head in 1999. Success breeds success, so such expansion boosts Britain’s 2,350 component manufacturers.
Among the beneficiaries of the latest Mini investment is CabAuto, which just won a £4 million order from Mini to make armrests and will employ 16 new staff as a result. The privately owned firm in Tipton, West Midlands, is only seven years old but already has a £19 million turnover, with 227 staff making fittings for the likes of Aston Martin and Bentley.
Managing director John Faulkner started working in the car industry more than three decades ago as a 16-year-old apprentice at British Leyland. ‘I’ve seen it all,’ he said. ‘And the transformation is just incredible.’ He believes his industry’s resurrection offers a stark lesson for the scandal-plagued City of London. ‘The banking industry may well benefit from staring defeat in the face as we did — and bankers will become better people for it.’
The disgraceful reluctance of Britain’s blighted banks to back firms that could drive the nation out of recession is holding back even faster growth. Faulkner said his company would never have won support to start up these days — a view endorsed by a recent survey of 83 automotive firms that found the majority wanted to expand but could not access capital from lenders.
The good news is that for all its success, the motor industry is not unique and British manufacturing is in far better shape than it is often given credit for, and accounting for a bigger share of the economy than financial services. Much-maligned industries such as cars, aerospace and pharmaceuticals ensure this country is still the world’s sixth-largest manufacturer.
Britain’s wealth was founded on the first industrial revolution, which unleashed mass-produced goods on the world. After the recent economic crash, it is the likes of Mini that can put us back on the road to prosperity.
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.