Well, it seems the boys from Top Gear managed to redeem themselves in some style on Sunday evening. There I was watching the episode unfold, when the subject turned to the British motor industry. As you can imagine, at the start of the piece, my toes curled as I wondered what fresh hell they were going to foist upon us; what cliches we were going to have to endure in the name of education.
As it transpired, my fears were unjustified. JC, the short one and James May celebrated our fine motor industry, rolling out not just the usual suspects building supercars and trackday weapons, but highlighting the output from the factories churning out cars that you and I actually buy. You know, real world cars such as Nissan Qashqais, Honda Civics, Toyota Aurises and, gasp, MINIs.
As the list of Great Britons was reeled off, you could sense the segment coming to a climax – and, boy, did they do it well, by filling up Pall Mall with Astons, Bentleys, Campers, JCBs, lawn-mowers… you name it. And for all of five minutes, I was proud to be British. And somewhat vindicated in everything I’ve set out to achieve with the grubby little corner of the Internet.
So what a shame that it was the BBC2’s programme controller decided to place its programme, ‘Das Auto: The Germans, their cars, and us‘, by Dominic Sandbrook immediately afterwards. Let’s face it, any car enthusiast who’s offered the chance to watch a motoring documentary after Top Gear is going to take it – because we don’t get enough motoring on the telly and most of us crave any opportunity when it arises. Sadly – and this is a real shame – the programme was part of BBC2’s German Season, and was offered in a package alongside Teutonic-themed cookery and travel programmes.
The irony is that it was pretty much a complete hour of regurgitation about how British Leyland (not the British motor industry as a whole) failed and why we were led kicking and screaming into the bosom of the German manufacturers. My main problem with the programme Das Auto was that it really simplified the whole British love affair with German cars, while turning into the usual ‘let’s knock BL’ diatribe. Okay, we know the failure of BL is something a surprising number of people still care deeply about – but, considering the programme was supposed to be about the German car industry, this BL navel gazing seemed completely out of place.
And did the failure of BL mean we arrived at VWAudiBMWMercedes‘s door in one fell swoop? Of course not! Let’s not forget that the Japanese makers gained the most through the contraction of BL and did so quite rightly on the grounds of value, reliability and availability. The march of the Japanese could only be stemmed by import quotas, something never levelled against EEC manufacturers.
Germany’s rise in the UK really only happened in the mass market in the mid-1990s when UK/European prices equalised due to currency movements – and German products were no longer seriously more expensive than ours. Finance houses made leasing these cars to fleets completely viable (thanks to balloon payment lease deals) – leaving user-chooers with the easy question of what to put on their drive: a 3-Series or a Mondeo. So, the exclusive image of these cars was within the grasp of so many more aspirational Brits, who just wanted a car that looked good and worked well.
Yes, BL failed all by itself, but the Germans weren’t responsible.
And that’s what was so puzzling about this documentary – if it was a programme about the rise of the German car industry, then why so much BL navel-gazing? And if it was about the failure of BL and the success of those who replaced it, then why no analysis of Datsun, Toyota, Renault, Fiat, Vauxhall et al?
But most of all, how disappointing that the most uplifting episode of Top Gear – perhaps ever – celebrating the greatness of the British motor industry, was followed by this ill-considered documentary about how said same industry was one big, fat, failure? I guess BBC2’s programme controller would have had no idea that Top Gear‘s programme was going to be such a patriotic affair (because, let’s face it, JC’s record on that subject is far from exemplary), so it was just a case of bad luck.
It just goes to show that many, many of us out there aren’t just satisfied with learning lessons from the past, but want to continue to parade our inglories at any given opportunity. Still, at least Top Gear was good…