Opinion : Back to 1953… Let’s hope temporarily

Chris Cowin looks at recent developments in UK car production and exports, in the context of industry history since the 1950s.

The Austin A30 in 1953

UK car production in June 2021 was the lowest of any June since 1953 (except for COVID-19-hit 2020). The global shortage of semiconductors led to reduced output, especially at Jaguar Land Rover, and helped produce that dramatic headline which rather exaggerates the recent contraction of Britain’s car manufacturing sector, but contraction there certainly has been.

In 1953 (for the year) Britain manufactured only 595,000 cars – one third of the 2016 figure – so it’s depressing that output has been knocked back to the level of that time, even if temporarily.

Myths of grandeur 

It’s sometimes thought the UK was the ‘workshop of the world’ in the 1950s and producing vast numbers of cars. However, as the chart below shows, annual output only passed the 1 million mark at the end of the decade. And (closely related) it’s often stated Britain once exported more cars than any other nation.

That’s technically true, but in 1950 (when it could be said) nobody else was exporting very much. The Americans were focused on pent-up domestic demand and other car-producing countries (there weren’t many) were still rebuilding from the war. We took a big share of a tiny cake, at the cost of making new cars practically unobtainable on the home market.

The evolution of UK car production (line) including exports (area shaded red) since 1948. Rapid expansion in the 1950s was followed by a plateau of output in the ’60s when the domestic market was flat. Rapid decline in output after 1972 was closely linked to the run-down of UK exports by Ford, Vauxhall and Chrysler. From the mid-80s onwards a rebuilt, export-focused industry was able to restore output to near-record levels by exporting far more than in the past, exports hitting an all-time peak in 2016. The last five years have seen sharp contraction. The chart refers to purely “Cars” not “Motor Vehicles” which would also include commercial vehicles. Data: SMMT.

The actual volume of British exports (coloured red on the graph) was much lower in the early 1950s than in subsequent years, or recent years. (In 2016 the UK exported over 1.35 million cars, more than triple the 1950 figure of 409,000). Today’s industry is heavily export focused (82% of production even in depressed June was for export) which perhaps explains why many people don’t appreciate its scale.

Exporting in the 1950s. William Morris admires an export Minor saloon in 1950. However, even in those Export or Die days, the numbers involved were far less than UK car exports of recent years

Statistical distortions

Britain, of course, accounted for a higher percentage of world car production in the 1950s and ’60s than she has recently. The same can be said for Germany. The number of countries manufacturing cars and the global production total has expanded greatly over the years with China, South Korea & others coming from nowhere. So a shrinking percentage share doesn’t mean the British industry has diminished massively in size – despite the colourful graphics on YouTube which create exactly that impression. After all, 3% of a Christmas cake is a lot more filling than 10% of a cupcake.

And employment in car manufacturing has contracted massively, but that’s due to automation. Huge leaps in productivity occurred in the early ’80s with Longbridge for example (re-equipped to build the Austin Metro) catapulting from 8 cars produced per employee (for the year) in 1980 to 17 in 1981. Fewer people were needed, but more cars were built.

A recent peak 

So it was possible as recently as 2016 to make a convincing argument for Britain’s car manufacturing sector being as strong as it ever has been, with more production exported and focused on higher value models than in the past. At the all-time peak of production in 1972 (1.92m) the “product mix” was considerably less premium.

1972 represented the absolute peak of UK car production (1.92 million). There could have been hundreds of thousands more without a wave of damaging strikes.  However, compared to recent years, the product mix was less premium, while that total included many cars exported in kit (CKD) form (of reduced value)

But one can’t salute an industry as strong as ever now, as there’s been a dramatic contraction in output since 2016 (as shown on the graph) – even before COVID-19 hit, 2019 output of 1.3 million was 25% down on 2016’s 1.72 million.

The ownership issue 

Nearly all the car manufacturing sector is, of course, now ultimately foreign-owned, and some people will tell you we simply “assemble kits of foreign parts”. But that’s very far from being the case.

Jaguar Land Rover rivals Nissan as our biggest producer and, though ultimately Indian owned, the UK is very much their R&D and manufacturing hub. Where would those kits be coming from?

The 21st century car industry. Delivering major economic benefits. (Photo: SMMT)

The Mini’s engines and body panels are UK manufactured in Birmingham (Hams Hall) and Swindon respectively, prior to final assembly in Oxford.

Moreover, as described recently by Keith Adams, the new Nissan Qashqai was designed in Cranfield and has a high level of UK content (it’s not even available in Japan). Such cars are export stars, something Global Britain sorely needs.

The Honda factory in Swindon (which sadly closed in July) was one of the most vertically integrated in the world with ingots of raw aluminium (for engines) and sheet steel going in one end and finished cars coming out the other.

All the same, though, people scorn the value of car manufacturing in the UK saying “the profits go abroad” forgetting that three of the big four manufacturers in the 1970s were foreign owned (yet weren’t judged as worthless then).

Profit margins aren’t huge in the car industry anyway (typically less than 10%) and let’s not forget that, when we owned part of the car industry in the form of state-controlled British Leyland, the talk was not of who gets the profits, but how much subsidy had to be pumped in. (Approx. £15 billion in today’s money during 1975-88).

And experience shows that firms like Nissan, BMW-Mini and Jaguar Land Rover tend to plough profits back, rather than cream them off.

International trade

Admittedly, a higher proportion of components are imported nowadays than in the past, in an industry that’s become much more international. But by the same token, the UK exports more automotive components than it used to. It’s wrong to think of the component sector as “hollowed out”.

Look no further than engines, high value-added items which the UK produces in considerably bigger volumes (2.5 million in 2016) than it does cars, which rather proves the point. Ford exports big quantities of engines from Dagenham, while engines are sent from Birmingham to Bavaria to be fitted into BMWs there. A “coals to Newcastle” story it’s hard to imagine happening in the 1970s, but which nobody talks about – ever.

People choose to focus on the two JLR models assembled abroad forgetting most aren’t, and forgetting (or unaware) the French car industry has totally “offshored” assembly of many models. Not just niche products like DS9 and Renault Arkana, but the popular models. Twingo, Clio, Megane, Captur, 208, 2008, C3 and C4 are no longer assembled in France, French ownership or no. Indeed, if there was some kind of EU plot to destroy manufacturing, as some believe, it seems France was the big loser. They once built 3.5 million cars annually, but this year it’s forecast to be around 1.3 million.

There seems to be a lack of understanding of all the economic benefits a car industry can deliver including employment, tax revenue for the Treasury from companies and employees, business for suppliers in Britain, R&D investment and a boost to the trade balance. Interestingly, the terrible UK trade deficit on cars of the 1980s was briefly transformed into a trade surplus in 2012.

Austin Rover cars in France in 1984. By this time BL was the only company exporting cars from the UK in serious volumes – if you exclude the incomplete Peykan (Hunter) kits sent to Iran which only just qualified as car exports. Nationally, exports were one quarter of the 1969 level, a big factor in production slumping to levels not seen since the ’50s. With imports booming, a huge trade deficit on cars resulted

All of those benefits apply irrespective of whether the firms concerned are ultimately UK or foreign owned. When the British Government decided it had no choice but to rescue British Leyland in the 1970s, it wasn’t because they were worried about British shareholders missing out on their dividend payments. It was because they recognized the motor industry was an engine of the economy, supporting a supply chain, supporting thousands of jobs and contributing positively to the trade balance.

It still is.

But you’ll find people saying (and I quote) that the Range Rover is ‘as British as an onion bhaji’. And hoping that BMW-Mini will fail (bringing job losses and hurting the trade balance) just to prove some kind of point. I’d simply say ‘Think again’.

The Australian car industry was essentially foreign owned. But now that it’s disappeared, the Australians (some of them anyway) don’t half miss it.

You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.

Car manufacturing in the UK. Who built what in 2018 & 2019, showing the percentage change between those years. Source: SMMT
Chris Cowin


  1. French car industry now strange as Peugeot is making Opels and Vauxhalls in Sochaux while producing 208s in Turkey. With Stellantis it will enhance. And Renault will concentrate on LCVs and EVs and châssis components, building thermals in Spain, Slovenia and Turkey. What à mess ! All the more, all car makers have large engineering centers in India like Mercedes in Bangalore, Renault-Nissan in Chennai, Peugeot elsewhere …What’s left then ?

  2. @ Chris Cowin. Good article, and well said. The conclusion will be challenging to some but if UK manufacturing (not just the auto sector) is to remain relevant in a fast changing world then all its industries, be they UK or overseas owned need to be properly funded and focused on the markets they intend to serve.

    • I agree with rusty brown Austin. A good article again Chris, and how will the UK stay relevant in what will be a vastly changing world of automotive? Nissan announced a large battery plant, and Stellantis an EV van plant at Ellesmere, but we already know that Ford’s Welsh plant is likely to close and what of Dagenham and its diesel plant? If the planned nuclear fusion plants that will come on line in the next decade happen, will battery power be dumped for hydrogen and we all start again?

  3. One of the best articles I’ve read on any subject (not just motoring) for a long while. Nice to see a lot of urban myths demolished.

  4. That most German of brands Mercedes produces its A class in Hungary and the C class in South Africa as labour costs are lower and there is little difference in quality between these and German made Mercedes as the quality control is just as strict. These do still contain German drivetrains and many ancillary components, so are German in a way, unlike a British built Vauxhall, which has little British input. ( This has been the case with Vauxhalls for decades, where their cars switched to Opel drivetrains in the late seventies and early eighties).

    • A and B in Rastatt close to French border, C class in Bremen. Big engines, E and S in stuttgart, small in Kolleda

  5. Great write up! Shatters a lot of myths perpetuated by the haters pervading UK journalism & politics

  6. A most interesting and largely speaking encouraging article . The statistics are particularly fascinating and put the global growth in car production into clear perspective

  7. Bear in mind as well, in 1953, less than one in five households owned a car, and among those who were lucky to afford one, quite often it was a used car. However, car ownership levels were to rise steadily over the next 20 years and car production was to treble in this period, and imports didn’t really start to take off until 1973, when the end of tariffs on EEC cars made them cheaper, as well as the growing Japanese invasion.

  8. The pic of the blue A30 above reminds me of my brothers first car (a blue 1956, A35 2 door).

    While i am on, the Ellesmere Vauxhall plant was always owned by GM, then now Peugeot. So where does the name Stellantis fit in? Is it some British sub division of PSG?

  9. That 21st century photograph cant be from 2012. It includes current model XF, current MINI and just replaced versions of the Astra and Qasquai. Must be 2016 at the earliest.

  10. From the post-war era up to the mid-1970s is it known what the UK”s additional / potential production capacity was relative to what the UK ended up producing over that same time period, particularly in terms of potential exports from the early-1960s when it was anticipated the UK would join the EEC from 1963?

    • Yes – broadly speaking. It’s fairly simple to calculate the production capacity of the UK car industry based on the nominal capacity of the plants up and running at a given point in time. There was a huge expansion in capacity in the early sixties (when EEC entry was seen as imminent) with Halewood, Linwood, Ellesmere Port, CAB2 at Longbridge (& Speke 2) added. That gave the UK car industry a production capacity of around 2.5 million cars annually on paper by the mid sixties. That expansion was in line with what was happening in France & Germany (which they utilized). But UK car production slumped to 1.5 million in the bad year of 1967 and never broke the 2 million barrier. Under-utilized capacity (scattered around the map of the UK) was the root of many problems.
      Exports struggled in the 60s (though they picked up after devaluation in late ’67) and the domestic market was stuck at approx. 1 million units annually for the whole decade until 1970 – which was not what the car industry had expected at all. The AROnline article “The Bottom Line” I wrote with Ian Nicholls recently looks at a lot of this …….

      • I see, roughly 2.5 million or more was the latent production capacity in the UK at the time.

        Had the EEC entry happened for the UK 1963 (with the resultant butterflies appearing to preclude the possibility of anything resembling BL forming), was the UK car industry capable of building upon the 2.5 million figure at about a similar rate experienced by France if not quite matching Germany over the next few decades? Or were there other challenges that would have needed to been overcome for the UK to not fall completely behind relative to its neighbours on the continent?

        • Well that’s a big question : ) I think if you had asked it at the time people would have said yes. Certainly the cars in production in the UK in the early 60s were a match for the Europeans (Leading German magazine Auto Motor und Sport even had an edition saying “Are British cars better than ours?” in 1963 with a BMC 1100 on the cover).
          A lot of people would say that terrible industrial relations would have held Britain back in any scenario.
          But there’s an argument that poor industrial relations were themselves a symptom of the malaise of the 60s rather than the cause of it.
          Because new car demand was being erratically restrained by government through credit restrictions which changed constantly, production was very volatile with periods of overtime being followed by periods of lay-off and redundancy. That was a fertile climate for militancy ……..
          Many would argue that EEC entry would have led to the UK economy being stronger in the 60s with less of a trade deficit (which was the main point of joining) and therefore those credit restrictions (designed to limit imports and “push” exports) and consequent demand volatility would not have occurred, and therefore industrial relations would have been much better. So that problem sort of solves itself ….
          But like a lot of “what if” questions you rapidly end up in a parallel universe : ) The truth is we’ll never know.

          • It is admittingly all speculation at the end on the day, albeit very fascinating nevertheless as more is uncovered to cast things in a new light.

            OTOH Have seen others have a very dismissive attitude (almost irrationally so) towards the British Motor Industry’s prospects, even in the best case scenarios with an early EEC UK entry, no disastrous push for new factories in far off areas with bad financially crippling logistics/high militancy (from Macmillan onwards) and significant overseas presence (both pre and post war) on top of the latent production capacity amongst other things.

            They would vastly underestimate what was within the British Motor Industry’s as well as the British engineer’s capability to develop/change in the right circumstances (when various literature, information and more in different mediums would suggest otherwise), believing they would inexorably continue to botch things up even in the best case scenarios (e.g. preferable/cheaper in their eyes to slot the heavy bulky 1.5-1.8 B-Series Marina-style into the FWD ADO16 above the 1300 instead of a properly developed compact 1.5-1.6+ inline-4 engine).

            To them the UK was more akin in some ways to say Italy due to their belief that like the latter (that is dominated by Fiat with a similar if worse reputation for strikes), the UK did not have the population or domestic production capacity available to domestically support an equivalent of a thriving British Big Three (plus lower-volume manufacturers) like their other neighbours in Europe and elsewhere, nor was ever in a position to eventually form/grow into a non-BL British equivalent of General Motors and Volkswagen (in being capable of managing different yet not overlapping marque portfolios and platforms/engines).

            In their eyes the UK could only support a single domestic carmaker under a single marque (like Renault) likely foreign owned as well as a sole domestic truck/commercial vehicle manufacturer (that either retreated from car-making or never entered it to begin with) at best.

            That is not to say those with such views do not have some valid points, am far from an eternal optimist concerning the British Car Industry myself. Rather would contend the British Car Industry was certainly capable of performing much better to not be left completely behind their rivals in Europe and beyond.

        • Wonder why entering the EEC would have doubled number of potential customers with France, Italy, and Germany heavily producing too

          • Well the British car industry reckoned its products were as good or better than those produced by continental rivals (in the early 60s that was a fair assessment) and given a level playing field, would conquest sales. The Mini managed to conquest continental customers anyway helped by assembly on the continent and more competitive pricing after the devaluation of sterling in late 1967 but if the UK had been in the EEC that exercise would have been more rewarding in volumes and profit, and cars like the 1100 might have done much better in European export markets.
            Ford of Germany and Opel would not have been the obvious lead suppliers to EEC markets that they were (at the expense of Ford of Britain and Vauxhall).
            And there were fundamental “free trade” issues. Why would you want barriers with a huge fast-growing car market on your doorstep (the EEC market was booming in the ’60s) when your domestic market was flat and when traditional Commonwealth export markets were turning their back?
            Australia & South Africa were fostering their own car industry and placed high tariffs on the import of British cars starting in the 50s. Canada imposed tariffs also, then signed the Auto Pact with the USA in 1965 eliminating any advantage for British cars, Rhodesia was lost totally due to sanctions … etc. etc. – so sales to the Commonwealth were dwindling – and that was before Japanese competition arrived which accelerated the trend. British car bosses (BMC’s Harriman notably) were convinced of the need to build European sales to compensate.

  11. Apart from Mini and ADO16 there was nothing better from the UK than everywhere else in the EEC for mainstream cars – not speaking Jaguar. Peugeot 204 and Renault 16 were to be launched in 1965, Opel and Ford Germany were traditionnal RWD and live axle like any “non Issigonis” British car. Fiat 1300/1500 were brilliant and soon to be replaced by 124/125. Oxbridge/Peugeot 404 not that much differences ! The Beetle was heavily selling even though not as good as anything else. Not speaking about low-end cars like Renault 4, 2cv, Fiat 500 and 600. As for Jaguar, they were a bit dated compared to Mercedes W111/112 or Opel Kapitän/Diplomat, even though now we love them much more !!

    • Well that discussion could go on and on and on 🙂 But take a look at how the British car industry fared in (non EEC) European export markets which were more of a level playing field: Switzerland is often taken as a good “barometer” of taste in cars as it’s a rich country with discriminating consumers and no car industry to protect. In 1964 British cars (with 20% market share) were second only to German in Switzerland. The Swiss preferred British cars to French or Italian (or American – as the USA was still a significant force in the Swiss car market at that time). BMC was the biggest British player selling 11,082 cars to the Swiss but Ford of Britain sold 7,830 which was more than Ford of Germany.
      And a few years later – In Denmark British Leyland alone had 20% market share by 1969. In Switzerland almost 10%. In Austria 6%. Admittedly those countries were in EFTA like the UK which gave some small tariff advantages by the late 60s, but on the other hand they all actually share a land border with Germany which industry experts at the time believed more than compensated by making transport costs from Germany (or indeed elsewhere in the EEC) lower than the cost of transport from the UK.

    • Gosh, the Mercedes 112 range- the fintails with the fins filed off. How modern were they compared with the Mark 10 Jaguar and even more so the XJ6 when it arrived with their swing axle rear suspension which put you in the ditch at the earliest opportunity ? And the Opel Kapitan… gosh, how we all lusted for this live axle, pushrod relic of the mid 1950s . I am used to reading drivel on this board, and this is a classic example .

      • In 1963 we were far from the XJ6 but then compare to the 1965 W108/109 especially 109 with air-suspension, not speaking of the sleek Paul Bracq lines. And yes the 1963 “new” S plus 1961 Mk10 and Mk2 were looking outdated. Sure the Jag IRS is the only example of British technics with the Issigonis Mini and ADO16. As for the rest Vauxhall, Ford, Rootes … nothing. Iron-steel engines, iron-steel heads, pushrods, RWD and live-axles, even leaf springs ! Have a look to the 1951 Renault Fregate, RWD but already all independant suspensions and light alloy head like the 4cv, even look at the 1948 2cv all alloy engine, independant suspensions FWD, the 1948 and 1954 Panhard and of course the 1955 DS !

        • Rover 2000 ? (European Car of the Year 1964)
          But held back in European export markets (EEC anyway) by tariff barriers. (Rover never had any continental car assembly for the P6 cars – which could have eased the burden). How might that have fared on a “level playing field” in the ’60s?

        • Oh Philippe, your rose coloured spectacles are leading you astray . In what way was the mark 10 outdated ? As far as IRS is concerned, Ford with the Mark IV Zephyrs , Triumph with the 2000 , ( and the Herald /Spitfire rather less successfully from 1959 onwards) , Rover with its peerless de Dion setup from 1963. As far as engines are concerned, Jaguar of course were unmatched with the XK engine , Rolls Royce had the all alloy V8 from 1959, Vauxhall used alloy heads in the VX4/90 from 1961, Rover used the alloy heron head on the 2000 from 1963 . But then nothing can compare with the DS with its terrible engine dating back to long before the second world war, can it ?

          • Apart from the antiquated flathead Ford V8 all French cars had alloy heads since 1948. And even though the long stroke 3 bearings(still for 2 years in 1963) had hemispherical head, like all Peugeots. Renault 8 Gordini would then come. The Mk10 problème was not technical but aesthetics, round, antiquated dash, narrow tracks, the reason why we love it, as well as the S (I own à 3.4S as well as an XJC). Yes you can mention RR, but W112 was all alloy engine too. As for the good old XK there was not much competition despite its very long stroke and heavy iron block. W112 engine was lighter, as powerful as the 3.8 in net DIN rate and was injected (as well as some 404s). Fiat’s 2300 was hemi head but small displacement, so no match for Jaguar’s big block. Herald/Spitfire had a transverse rear leaf spring that made them dangerous. The UK had interesting niche cars like E Type, Midget, big Healey, Mini, RR but nothing apart from ADO16 to invade the EEC mainstream market.

          • Philippe – I realise that this is not your first language , but some of the things you write are just preposterous . The mark 10 having narrow track ( and think you are thinking of the early 2.4’s rear track ) ? The Rover 2000 conservative ??? Apart from the de Dion , not to mention the heron head , what about the unique front suspension layout? And you seem to think that there is something inferior about rear wheel drive … do just explain that to us . I could go on- I am not convinced about your bald assertion that ALL French cars had alloy heads from 1948 on because I do not recall cars like the lethal Simca 1000 having an alloy head

  12. I’m afraid ownership does matter. As you say Australia lost its car industry because a car company can shut a plant in a heartbeat. German and French companies could never shutdown their entire industry because their governments would never allow it. Alas the fools who govern this country don’t have that kind of sense.

    In a way the destruction of the British car industry is quite astonishing. It is one thing for a country that lacks engineering and design talent to lose its industry. For a country that still dominates motor racing and F1 to do the same takes a level of financial mismanagement and managerial incompetence that beggars belief.

    One day the fools that run this country will succeed in their mission to sell everything off and shut every factory down. When the City is revealed as the ponzi con it is, the housing bubble collapses and the world will no longer accept worthless pounds, there will be outrage. The public will demand to know how it could have possibly come to pass?

    Still the population of that future third world nation will be able to tell their impoverished children tales of great ships, cars, planes and other engineering feats their grand parents and great grand parents built and accomplished. Not that they will be believed.

    • Well in extremis you are right.
      It would be lovely to have a car industry where all the companies involved were wholly British-owned. As the French have had in recent years though as mentioned in the article, that hasn’t prevented a huge fall in French car production from 3.5 million units not long ago to 1.3 million this year – and the “offshoring” of popular cars like the Renault Clio (Imagine if that had been suggested for the comparable Metro in the 80s?).
      But we are where we are.
      I remember the 1970s well, and people were not going round saying “We only have half a car industry” on the basis that Ford, Vauxhall and Chrysler (later Talbot) were foreign-owned. On the contrary the products of those companies were treated as British and their products included on the purchasing lists of the fleet customers who operated a “Buy British” policy.
      And when Chrysler UK got into trouble in 1975 they were seen as worth rescuing (at considerable cost to the taxpayer).
      Eventually – which rather proves your point in fact – they all upped sticks (to a degree) and walked away from UK car production although Ford has compensated by investing in engine production in Britain for the world, and GM boiled down to building just one car (Astra) but was building it for the whole of Europe with most exported, bearing Opel badges, in recent years. They also invested heavily in vans at Luton in recent times.
      But the American multinationals became disillusioned with car production in the UK, not least due to the terrible strike record of the 1970s – something now firmly consigned to the past. They lost patience.
      It can’t be in anybody’s interest if the current players in UK car production do the same, and despite recent upheavals, there is little evidence that they are likely to do so. Let’s hope not.
      They have been investing in manufacturing in the UK and opening new factories – like the JLR engine plant in Wolverhampton, where British people make British designed engines from (mostly) British parts that are fitted in British built vehicles which are exported round the world to the benefit of Britain’s trade balance, making us all a little better off.
      But when people go around saying “We don’t have a car industry anymore” or “The UK doesn’t build cars anymore” it’s not helping – apart from being an insult to the 120,000 people who go to work each day – building cars (or who are employed directly in the industry).
      Places like Warwickshire benefit hugely from the presence of (in that case) Jaguar Land Rover.
      But there are some who seem to take an “all or nothing” approach: If we can’t have the all-British MG Rover (or something similar) then they’d rather have a wasteland.
      That’s not in the national interest, or anybody’s interest.

      • Alex Moulton, his wonderful sense of humour, he described British car maker management as so much capable than even the Americans. He quoted American car makers achieving only 2/3rds bankruptcy of their industry by 2010. In contrast British management achieved 100% bankruptcy by 2005 !

      • The Americans didn’t just leave because of the unions. The major issue was lack of access to European markets. Which plant do you invest in? The one in Germany that can sell to the whole of Europe or the one in Britain that can’t?

        Alas it is a lesson that those who foolishly voter for brexit have failed to learn.

        • That distorts things (quite a lot : )). The UK joined the EEC on Jan 1st 1973 – having been negotiating to join (with success expected this time) since 1970. All tariffs on trade in cars between the UK & other EEC members were abolished by 1977 after a 5 year transition. Ford UK, Chrysler UK and GM-Vauxhall were all still full-fledged car manufacturers in the UK in 1973 – so it’s hard to say they ran down UK production because we were not in the EEC. It’s rather the other way round. (Though it’s almost certainly true they were in a lot worse shape in 1973 than they would have been if the UK had joined the EEC in 1963 – which is maybe what you mean (?).
          By that stage production in the UK compared so badly to production on the continent (partly due to strikes) that the removal of tariffs encouraged the centralization of production for the whole EEC for model after model (Granada Ghia was first) on the continent – at the expense of the UK.
          When decisions were made in the 1970s on where to locate production of a new model for Europe the UK was going to lose out based on poor productivity, poor quality and strikes. The production that remained in the UK was increasingly for the UK only (exports by Ford & Vauxhall ceased almost totally in the early 80s) and was downngraded to mere assembly for a while at Vauxhall (the import of the required kits of course being tariff free due to the EEC).
          Ironically Ford and Vauxhall exports to the EEC ceased (for a period) shortly after EEC entry was achieved (Ford stopped in 1974, Vauxhall in 1982 – the last being Chevettes retailed through Opel Germany). They became big “captive importers” instead.
          Overall – and a phrase I’ve written many times – having argued so long for a level playing field the car industry got slaughtered on the pitch when EEC membership was eventually attained, with BL unable to exploit the opportunity and the attainment of membership provoking (or accelerating) disinvestment by the American owned multinationals.
          At first anyway, but then the tide turned.
          EEC membership was crucial to the establishment of a new much more dynamic industry focused on exports to the EEC. The Japanese replaced the Americans and production surged upwards in line with exports from 1986 onwards (as the graph I posted in the article shows). And at Rover the Honda link (which would have made no sense without EEC membership) underpinned a revival. In the 1990s Rover were selling as many cars in continental Europe as the UK. The R8 (200/400) had succeeded where the Allegro failed in being a “car for Europe”. And despite a loss of share in the UK, Rover’s production total remained stable as a result. It changed little between 1980 and 1997 (at approx. 450,000 units) but their export ratio shot up.
          Taking a very “long” view one could argue that joining the EEC gave the UK car production sector the jolt it needed to re-invent itself, with one bunch of foreign owners changing (mostly) for another bunch. The component industry was re-vitalized and raised standards in order to be a supplier to the Japanese (becoming more internationally competitive as a result). And Ford & GM revised their opinions of the UK in later years, and (as Daveh notes below referring to the 1990s) invested again (and remain major players today if you include components and vans). Vauxhall built exports started again (with Opel & Holden badges). The strong car manufacturing sector in recent years has been underpinned by strong exports to the EU (760,000 cars in 2016 – almost equivalent to the entire UK production total in 1982). But that’s probably the subject for another article! This is a subject with a lot of moving parts – spread over about 50 years and interwoven with the often heated Brexit debate – so complicated : ) ….

          • To be honest the rumor at Dagenham was that Ford mostly left the UK because a certain CEO had his fingers burnt while in charge there and took his revenge. At the time Dagenham closed as a car production plant, it was as efficient as Cologne, Saarloius and Genk and Ford of Europe were looking at all four plants when deciding to close one. The probable main reason was the cost of redundancies. It was cheaper here than on the continent to close Dagenham. Also Halewood closed as a Ford plant and became Jaguar, if the Americans didn’t want to invest in the UK the X Type could have been built elsewhere.

          • Ford didn’t close Dagenham anyway. They stopped car assembly and converted the factory into their main diesel engine site.

            Diesel might be seen as the antichrist these days, but 10 years ago it was seen as the super efficient and environmentally friendly fuel, so it was a positive move for the site. At the time

    • For years the Australian car industry only really existed because of protectionism, and once trade deals were changed it was on borrowed time.

      Motor racing is very different because he cars are only made in limited numbers with none of pressures of being mass produced down to a cost.

  13. The most important is to keep jobs and plants but with the EV revolution and all those Chinese entering European markets I fear we are going to an end, like for TVs, HiFi in the past, smartphones more recently, moved to Japan, then Korea and finally China. Production costs will always drive choices and we do not tax imports enough. With the Brexit we can expect better protection for the UE, fair-trade is perfect for the City but not for citizens.

  14. We have to note the capacity for car manufacturing assembly plant capacity of Germany far exceeds the internal needs of the Germany public, Germany must export vast numbers of cars or cut back capacity by 50%, possibly more, Germany will not relinquish its dominant position easily. Against such a hard fact, against a ruthless cartel, the export performance of UK car makers can be judged as being far better than expected,

    • Just because the German car industry is well managed, builds cars that people across the globe want and know how to market them doesnt make them a ruthless cartel.

  15. The Eu courts have just disciplined the German car makers for operating a secret well-managed anti-competition cartel, Daimler escaped the fines for reporting the existence of the cartel to the Eu, the Dieselgate scandal, the biggest corporate fraud on both the public and regulatory authorities for many decades, emphasises the ruthless character of the cartel

    • Perhaps. But an “anti-competition cartel” describes a covert agreement between manufacturers to maintain prices at a higher level than would result from free competition. If BMW, Mercedes, VW (and others?) have been operating a cartel to keep the prices of German cars higher than would otherwise be the case – restricting price competition between themselves in other words – that may be good for their profitability – but it actually creates bigger opportunities for other manufacturers who are not part of that cartel (from the UK, France, China, Korea or wherever) to undercut them on price. And thus win more customers than would otherwise have been the case. Put another way – if BMW/Mercedes/Audi etc. abandon attempts at cartelization and start cutting prices in an effort to win sales from each other, all around the world – that would be bad news for Jaguar Land Rover (for example).

      • Don’t worry, it’s the usual anti German jealousy too many members show here because they still have many many mass producers, while too many of ours became a mass of squabbling factions after being lumped into a single unmanageable company that ended up all but destroying itself in spite of the government spending money like water to prevent this.

      • From the Eu report, the cartel was established so to stifle technical improvements of vehicles sold to the public, the fines were set at 875,000 euro per participant, of the 5 participants, Daimler, having self-confessed and self-reported the collusion to the Eu authorities, received a judgement less severe.

        • I see – not price-fixing then but (as I understand it) an agreement to refrain from recalls. Well all the more reason to buy a British-built car : )
          Of course the “indigenous” British car industry wasn’t always squeaky clean. British Leyland was involved in a huge scandal involving “slush funds” and the bribing of customers (overseas government officials etc.) in the 70s.

  16. @Christopher Yes 14″ wheels and tracks dimensions did not fit with the body. Not that it was dangerous but it spoiled the cars lines. Mk2 and S were more balanced even though not really with the then trendy square lines introduced by Farina.

    As for the 315 engine, it features an alloy head as well as the post 1968 (tapetty) Poissy engine : https://minute-auto.fr/guide/voitures-anciennes/simca-1000

    As for the Rover P6 for sure it was not the worst compared to a Ford Corsair.

    In the 2 litre class, neither Rootes nor BMC had anything strangely.

    BMC was stepping from the 1.6 Oxbridge to the handsome big 3.0 Farinas.

    Rootes had Super-Snipe, Rover had P4, Vauxhall had Cresta, many high-end cars which maybe would fill some gaps in the EEC ? Were the import taxes just stopping selling expensive cars ?

    In France Peugeot was stopping at 1.6 and Renault had stil 2 years before lauching the 1.5 Renault 16, Citroen was the only one in the 2.0 class while VW was sticking to underpowered RWD 2 doors, Ford Germany had not yet overcome 1.7, Opel and Mercedes were the only ones producing big cars.

    • Depending what timescale you’re looking at – you are over-looking BMC’s Austin 1800 (ADO17) of 1964 (European Car of the Year 1965) and Morris 1800 (1966) and Wolseley 18/85 (1967) siblings. They fell into the gap between “Oxbridge” and the 3 litre Farinas even if they didn’t fill it.
      They made little impression in France admittedly, with tariffs being one reason why – which brings us on to your second point.
      Cars like the Austin 1800 – fairly expensive but not “luxury” tended to be the worst hit by the high tariffs that applied to UK exports to the EEC – and also EEC exports to the UK – in the 1960s.
      Small and cheap cars were not so badly hit because the impact of the tariff – in cash terms – wasn’t so great, and because cars like Mini, Fiat 500 and VW Beetle especially were built in volumes so big that some quite aggressive pricing was possible – making them a reasonably priced buy despite tariff barriers, which in turn added extra volume and thus reduced unit production costs further. Manufacturers of such models were prepared to sell in export markets at zero margin purely to build volume.
      At the other end of the scale buyers of premium/luxury models tended to be less price sensitive ….
      You can see this clearly in the UK in the early sixties (when tariffs were still 33%). There were quite a lot of low-end imports: Fiat 500, VW Beetle and Renault Dauphine – and Mercedes also sold well (even though they were hugely expensive). But very few mid-range imports like the Peugeot 404 and bigger Fiats – because on such models the tariff burden in cash terms was quite high, but they were usually unable to justify a big price premium over domestically produced equivalents – which Mercedes (and similar) could do in the eyes of the people who bought them anyway.. Volvo and Saab got a lucky break because Sweden was in EFTA (like the UK) so later in the 60s they faced a lower tariff than imports from the EEC – and you saw more of them than continental equivalents.

  17. Lets also not forget other factors that affected the UK and EU carmakers.
    The oil crises of 1956, 1973-74 and 1979 that reduced demand as fuel not fully available. They did lead to shifts in markets to smaller and more efficient cars.
    Major economic recessions in the UK, EU, USA and elsewhere at times, in particular the 2008 Crash.
    Politics like with South Africa anti-Apartheid trade bans.
    The UK’s and some EU ‘export or die’ policies in the post-WWII era. That after WWII, Germany’s car making was very limited until the 1950’s.
    The political need to create jobs but at a huge cost with terribly inefficient systems and locations something particularly bad in the UK.
    Starting in the 1970’s with shifts to computer controlled machinery meaning fewer workers.
    When the UK entered the EU, people in the UK could get much better made cars made there and without past high tariffs.
    The loss of key export markets, in particular the USA/Canada by the mid-1970’s. Poor reliability, increasing anti-pollution and crash standards, shift to making smaller models in the USA/Canada rather than imported, exchange value of the Pound and US Dollar, the better quality Japanese brands and models. Still JLR survived, have modest sales in the USA. UK made engines, other parts are used in a number of USA/Canadian/Mexico assembled models and some UK plants make certain models for USA sale. For example my nephew has a 2019 Honda Civic, one of the 4 door sports models with stick and it was made in the UK. Of course that has ended but possibly some Nissan models or parts may be exported to the USA/Canadian/Mexico.

    • No commonalty between Nissan-US range and Nissan-UK’s.
      X-Trail in the past was made in Renault-Korea plant for the US and in the UK for Europe but I think new X-Trail will not be produced in the UK anymore and the production for US will comme from Japan.
      Infinitis and large Nissans saloons, vans, SUVs for the US market are made in the US or in the joint Mercedes-Nissan plant in Mexico.

    • I wouldn’t call Jaguar Land Rover sales in the USA “modest” really. In 2019 125,000 Jaguar Land Rover vehicles were retailed in the USA. That’s considerably more than British Leyland ever managed (around 80,000 at best), despite BL sweating blood in the effort – and with a much richer product mix (those MGBs, Midgets and Spitfires were sold cheaply in the peak years for BL in the USA). Mini meanwhile retailed 36,000 cars in the USA in 2019.
      The vast majority of those JLR & Mini vehicles were manufactured in the UK which explains why the UK exported a total of 200,000 cars to the USA in 2019 (18.9% of all car exports). That’s much better than the 1970s or 80s.
      It’s close to an all-time record – being close to the freak 1959 figure which was boosted by Ford and GM-Vauxhall exporting large quantities to the USA briefly (Zephyr/Zodiac & Victor) to meet demand for smaller cars, before they introduced their American-built “compacts” for 1960.

  18. What remains of the British car industry is vastly more desirable to foreign buyers than in the seventies and eighties. Would an American want to trade in their fully equipped Chevrolet Caprice for a Vauxhall Viva E, or a German chance exchanging their Mercedes 280 for a Rover 2600 with all the horror stories about the reliability? The American no doubt would willingly take a Range Rover over an American SUV and the German would find little difference in quality between a Jaguar XF and a BMW 5 series.

    • And export customers are buying them of course (so no need for the conditional : )). UK car exports of 1.35 million in 2016 were five times greater than in the mid-80s. And 2019 though a decline (1 million exports) still exceeded any year before 1999.

      • @ Chris Cowin, it seems the old image, sometimes exaggerated, of the British car industry being dominated by strikes, poor quality and low productivity is long gone. Mind you, the Italian car industry in the seventies had even more strikes and their cars were notorious for rust and poor quality, so this wasn’t just a British problem. Fiat had to pull out of America in the early eighties as buyers tired of rust ridden, badly made products and French cars made almost no impact due to being complicated to maintain.

  19. I heard car production at Dagenham closed because it needed a lot of investment compared to Ford’s other plants, and as Ford Europe excess capacity elsewhere it wasn’t a great loss.

    The redundancies could be covered by selling off the land, as they would get a good price being close to London.

    • All four factories were being looked at, Dagenham, Cologne, Saarlouis and Genk needed investment. Genk and Saarlouis if I remember from the Ford News had newer lines, although Ford had spent a bit on new presses during the nineties and Dagenham was still producing body pressings for Land Rover, Ford and Jaguar for about 8 years after the main plant closed. My uncles last job as a contractor at Ford was looking at what production could be moved to Dagenham’s press shop. My father was offered jobs in either the engine plant or the press shop and decided he wanted the easy life in the engine plant. That the site stayed unsold for nearly 10 years makes the redundancy argument invalid.

      Bosses at Dagenham had seen the writing on the wall, probably with Ford not confirming production of the new fiesta would be built there. They had thrown their hat into the ring to build the X Type, but lost to Hailwood which they saw as a kick in the teeth as its quality levels were still no where near what Dagenham was producing.

      • I replied something similar earlier on in this thread, but wasn’t the Dagenham end of car assembly combined with increasing diesel engine production, and making it their main European centre, so it wasn’t just a “bad news” story?

        Bad news now, but 10 years ago diesel was still seen as the fuel of the future, the environmentally friendly choice

        I do fear for Dagenham now, unless they get significant government support, why would Ford locate a battery factory there instead of in mainland Europe?

        • Your right in that the engine plant was increased which along with the press shop kept some production there, but the number of jobs created by expanding the engine plant didn’t really goto meeting the number lost. The engine plant during my father’s time there only became the diesel centre for Ford after much campaigning by its management team. One of their biggest wins was convincing them to build the V6 diesel for Jaguar.

          As you said it doesn’t look good for Dagenham, but not having any family or friends working there anymore I cant say what is being said there. Currently there is rumors going round Dunton which go from closure to being realigned for “other manufacturer” whatever that means.

  20. @ Richardpd, another reason might be that Ford of Britain’s market share was dwindling by 2001 and their cars were no longer the default choice for fleet managers. Dagenham was quite an old, rambling factory and only produced one model range.

  21. Those Vauxhall Astra production numbers from the table at the top – 2018 77k and 2019 62k – are awful, and massively down on what they were 5 or 10 years ago, as sales of the model have slumped

    Ellesmere Port will switch to produce small vans (and their passenger variants), which should result in an increase in production

  22. Part of the reason for the slump in Astra production is that apparently only the estate version is produced in the UK. Admittedly it is exported as an Opel but all hatchbacks of the current generation model are imported from Poland I believe. I think the estate steel sections are pressed at Ellesmere Port.
    Good news that the factory will get the EV van but a shame that all Astra’s will soon come from Germany.

    • That’s incorrect (or it was until very recently) though it’s often stated. When Vauxhall say in press releases etc. “The Astra Tourer (estate) is only produced at Ellesmere Port” it wasn’t supposed to mean “Only the Astra estate is produced at Ellesmere Port”. It’s true that no other plant has been producing the estate – but Ellesmere Port has been building the hatch as well.

      • Correct. Astra production has slumped because Astra sales have slumped. It used to be a regular top 5 seller, behind the Focus but ahead of the Golf, but now the Golf is top in its class with the A Class second. Indeed Ford now sell more Pumas than Focuses.

        New Astras are a rare sight these days, whereas the new Corsa has been a success and is the best selling car in the UK currently

        • SUV effect ! Puma over Focus and Crossland over Astra.
          The Opel/Vauxhall SUVs being Peugeot derivatives are made is Sochaux, Peugeot original site.
          More generally now groups are organized by “regions” like ASEAN, EU+UK+Swiss+Norway+Balkans, Russia, US ..
          In each region they are subdivided by platform-oriented plants.
          Means all 308 derivatives in the Stellantis group should be made in one or two European plants, same with 208 derivatives (like new Corsa), same with 3008/5008 derivatives like Crossland, same with LCVs, now Luton as well as the original Peugeot Sevelnord plant will produce all Expert derivatives for Stellantis (now Vauxhalls and Fiats are no longer Renault Trafic derivatives) + a Toyota (specific venture).
          The only ones who are not able are … Nissan and Renault, apart from Nissan LCVs which are cross-badge Renault, they share components but not plants !

  23. The UK has always had lack of ambition when it comes to engineering, science and manufacturing. We rely upon external, ie foreign investment rather investing properly internally. We prefer to flog off companies, usually to foreign inventors now via PE, rather than build our companies into the biggest and best internationally. BL had a fraction of the investment that Renault had in the 70s. We are unable to think big despite our Brexit swagger.
    This is a cultural problem as STEM is considered ‘trade’ by our PPE rulers and the public have a negative 50 year old view of our industry. The plague of flogging of businesses has not abated post Brexit, in fact it seems to have got worse. Look at the sale of Meggitt and other defence companies that have been in the news recently. Nobody seems to care. Ownership means control, IP, most tax revenue and expertise remaining in the UK.

    • Well I’m glad you mentioned tax as I steered clear of that really, for fear of the article becoming an accounting text. But it’s worth noting that Jaguar Land Rover (though ultimately Indian owned) is registered as a UK domiciled business: Jaguar Land Rover plc. As such its profit is subject to tax paid to HMRC – to the UK Treasury in other words.
      Their UK tax bill for 2017 was approx. £2 billion. (Compared to a £4.2 billion R&D spend in the UK financed from profits on sales). This may all come as a surprise to some who imagine all their profits are siphoned off to India, including the taxation of those profits.
      And of course JLR’s 38,000 UK employees are all subject to UK income tax on their earnings. And all the UK based suppliers to JLR – and their employees – pay UK taxes as well.
      Something similar applies to the other companies manufacturing cars in the UK.
      So JLR is just as much a part of the tax base as British Leyland was. (though cynics might add that in many years British Leyland made no profit, so the question of who received the taxation levied on its profits was a little academic).

      • Don’t know whether £2 billions is realistic but there is a well known way to “escape taxes”, paying royalties to Tata’s services in such and such area, copyrights and so on.

        However paying 38 000 workers and their income taxes is a fact !

        Can someone make a comparizon with Mini and BMW ? Taxation in Germany should not be lighter than in the UK anyway.

        • £2 Billion is the documented (net) payment to HMRC = the UK state.
          If you’re looking for tax avoidance examples Ford, GM Vauxhall & Chrysler were much better examples – as they operated as true multinationals with Ford of Britain (for example) purchasing huge amounts of material – and completed vehicles – from Ford of Germany / Belgium / Spain in the 1970s and services from the USA – and therefore able to shift profit around between tax jurisdictions (legally) through transfer pricing. It’s hard for TATA to do that to anything like the same degree. Ford of course did siphon a lot of profit out of the UK (and other Ford of Europe operations) to bail out its struggling US business in the late 70s. But I don’t remember people saying Ford were in some way “not part of the British car industry” or worthless to Britain on the grounds they were a multinational and could do that.

          • Importing parts or cars is business, Fiestas from Spain, like 208s from Czech republic or wire-harnesses from Tunisia. ‘Services from the US’ is the trick !

  24. With regard to the annual output of 2.5 million, which year is this for?

    Whether it includes two modifications of Corley to manufacture Maxi and Marina, Speke No.2 and Solihull East work, I think this adds up to an annual output of about 600000

    • That 2.5 million figure is an estimate of the nominal capacity of the UK car manufacturing industry once the big wave of expansion of the early/mid 60s was complete. So around 1967. It’s capacity – not output. Which was much lower. Which was the problem.

      • My fault, I really mean capacity
        So this means that by the mid-1970s, another 600000 capacity was added, and the capacity increased to more than 3 million,less than half utilization
        This alone explains why the British auto industry was so chaotic and hopeless in the mid-1970s

        I thought even if the British automobile manufacturers have really good products to resist imports and export a lot at this stage, it is difficult to increase the utilization rate to 70%
        In this case, the product cannot save the company

        • In various ways yes. BMC had a stated aim (stated in the late 50s) to be building 1 million vehicles a year in the UK by the early 60s (without which they didn’t think Mini & 1100 would make sense – they were the big volume models & heavily sensitive to “economies of scale”) They set about installing the capacity to make that possible, CAB2 at Longbridge being part of that ….. At the 1958/59 AGM Chairman Leonard Lord talks about “the magical figure” of 1 million vehicles per year (BMC never did achieve it in fact before the British Leyland merger).
          Generally, when new factories were commissioned by the motor industry – their capacity would be a design parameter.
          The new Rover Solihull factory for example – opened in 1976 to build the Rover SD1 (and potentially other models) had a stated capacity of 3,000 cars per week (or approx. 150,000 annually).

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