AROnline has chronicled in much detail the decline and collapse of British Leyland during the two decades since the site first appeared on the interweb. However, not just MG Rover at Longbridge, but other major factories, which also contributed to Britain’s vehicle production capacity, have also disappeared.
The Browns Lane, Coventry plant of Jaguar and the Rootes/Chrysler/Peugeot plant at Ryton, also in the Coventry area, have closed and the now Stellantis-owned Vauxhall plants at Ellesmere Port and Luton plant have switched from car to van production – even Ford has ceased manufacturing vehicles in the UK. These were the factories owned by supposedly well-managed companies that did not skimp on investment, so why did it go wrong?
I would argue that what went wrong is that, for about the past 25 years the market, has preferred German cars. When company car drivers started demanding Audis, BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes in the 1990s instead of Ford, Rover and Vauxhall, the writing was on the wall.
Coincidentally, this was around the time BMW took over the Rover Group. Did Rover really fail because its products were no good and its staff next to useless as some pundits would like to maintain, or was it a victim of changing circumstances and buyer habits?
Ford and General Motors had nurtured the company car market, fighting tooth and nail for market share and then they were suddenly cast out into the wind as German cars suddenly gained favour. Fleet buyers no longer wanted mundane rep-mobiles, but cars adorned by the badge of a premium Teutonic marque.
As for Rover, its new 75 model was in direct competition not only with Audi and Mercedes-Benz, but with the cars of parent company BMW. Motoring historians argue over when the Rover brand was finished, but it was probably in this period. No matter how good the 75 was, it was now the product of a brand that had suddenly gone out of fashion after a promising period in the early 1990s that had encouraged BMW to purchase it outright.
Perhaps the real reason the Rover 75 failed was not because of the BMW Chairman’s faux pas at its launch, but because it wore the wrong badge. That there was demand for a car smaller than the 3 Series from the BMW Group, was exemplified by the subsequent success of the 1 Series.
The belief that German cars have indestructible build quality and are ultra reliable is now widespread. It has become the mantra for many a motoring journalist to repeat at regular intervals – whether that is actually true or not, it has seeped into the public consciousness. For many buyers the main requisite for purchasing a new car is that it has to be German.
This mindset that German is best has ruined the best-laid plans of many motor industry executives. It could be argued that it did for Rover, and made Jaguar an endangered species.
When it was launched in 1999, instead of winning sales from rival brands, many of the new S-Type’s sales were of the substitutional variety, reducing volume of the larger XJ saloon. This process was repeated with the launch of the smaller X-Type. Instead of selling 200,000 Jaguars of all types in 2002, the actual total was around 126,000, and it was downhill from there.
This was blamed on Jaguar’s retro styling, so the TATA-owned Jaguar introduced a series of cutting edge-designs from Ian Callum’s Styling Team that were a cut above the anodyne German offerings. Yet no matter how much praise they received, nor awards for reliability, the sales did not lift enough to enable Jaguar to be a major player in the market for premium cars. Sales of the XJ saloon dwindled to a trickle and it was finally axed in 2019. The future for Jaguar we are told is as an upmarket electric brand. Whether that comes to pass, or Jaguar is heading for extinction is anyone’s guess.
As for Saab, General Motors hopes that it could expand its niche customer base and compete in the premium sector were over by 2010 when the American giant baled out. Was it quality issues, or was the Swedish concern squeezed out by the trio of German manufacturers?
I would argue that what is shaping today’s car market is not who actually produces the best overall product, but which manufacturer the public think is producing the best product. And at the moment the German manufacturers are ahead. But perhaps you, the reader, have an opinion on this.
Feel free to comment…