Today, the roads of Europe are dominated by the German premium carmakers, who it seems, can do no wrong as far as their customers are concerned. The only real challenge seems to come from Jaguar Land Rover, but they still have a lot to do to catch up in terms of sales volume.
However, back in 1945, as the dust settled after six years of war, Europe seemed awash with luxury car manufacturers, each with something to offer in terms of style, engineering and innovation. Where did they all go to? In this article I seek to produce a timeline that reveals how Europe’s premium car manufacturers fell by the wayside, leaving the field clear for Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz to dominate the sector for upmarket cars. The main focus is on producers of upmarket saloon cars as opposed to manufacturers solely focused on sports car production.
In July 1945, the British electorate voted by a landslide for the Labour Party led by Clement Atlee. Nationalisation of major industries and the formation of the National Health Service is what the Atlee-led Government is remembered for, less so the decision to develop nuclear weapons and the policy of encouraging the British motor industry to export vehicles in order to earn much needed foreign currency, particularly from the United States. The USA had actually emerged economically stronger from the Second World War and now had the buying power to suck in European premium cars.
This would result in Britain exporting vast quantities of sports cars and luxury saloons.
Although the road ahead would be rocky, with the British motor industry staring extinction in the face by 1980, Britain is still a major vehicle exporter today, with its surviving premium brands proving to be particularly successful. In France, home of some of the most highly-regarded automotive brands, a different philosophy towards its indigenous motor industry prevailed. The French Government commissioned Paul-Marie Pons, a former Naval Engineer turned senior Civil Servant, to come up with a post-war plan for the country’s motor industry.
The Pons Plan was influenced by the Economist Jean Monnet, who was a firm believer in the benefits of government economic planning. The Pons Plan was for a government-devised and directed rationalisation of the French vehicle industry. The plan identified in France twenty-two manufacturers of passenger cars and twenty-eight manufacturers of trucks. This was regarded as too many. The plan, applied in a way that some thought authoritarian and arbitrary, defined complementary roles for seven of the larger manufacturers: Berliet, Citroen, Ford SAF, Panhard, Peugeot, Renault and Simca.
The upshot of all this was that the French Government presided over shotgun marriages of several major vehicle producers. Although I have no intention of going into greater detail of the Pons Plan, when reading about it one can see how Tony Benn and Harold Wilson must have been influenced by it during the formation of British Leyland in 1968 and its subsequent nationalisation in 1975. During the late 1960s French car production surged ahead of Britain as Common Market car sales expanded rapidly, something a Britain locked outside by the veto of President Charles de Gaulle was unable to exploit.
The Pons Plan worked well for France for a long time. However, the downside was the introduction of a punitive fiscal horsepower tax on larger engines of 2-litres and above leading to the demise of most of the Grand Routiers such as Bugatti, Delage, Delahaye, Hotchkiss et Cie, Salmson and Talbot-Lago by the mid-1950s.
Tractor manufacturer David Brown Limited bought Aston Martin under the leadership of Managing Director Sir David Brown.
At the 1948 Earls Court Motor Show the newly re-christened Jaguar unveiled the sensational XK120 sports car. Then the fastest production car in the world, it established Jaguar Cars as an exporter to the lucrative US market.
Swedish industrial concern Saab began car manufacturing with its 92 model.
French manufacturer Salmson went bankrupt. The same year, Delage, now controlled by Delahaye, ceased production.
Facel, a French manufacturer of car bodies, among other things, launched its own range of luxury cars powered by imported engines. Their most famous car, the Vega, used Chrysler V8’s of 4.5-, 5.4- and 5.8-litre capacities. Despite celebrity endorsement from many of the shakers and movers of the era, it was to all end in tears for Facel. The same year an ailing Delahaye was purchased by rival Hotchkiss to become Société Hotchkiss-Delahaye. The new combine soon shut down Delahaye car production.
Citroen unveiled the technically advanced DS saloon in October 1955. Ultimately available with 1.9, 2.2 and 2.3 litre engines, punitive horsepower taxes meant that the DS was about as good as it got for a mass-produced French premium car.
Société Hotchkiss-Delahaye ceased all luxury car manufacture to focus on military vehicles. The last Lanchester car was produced by its Daimler parent company.
Société Hotchkiss-Delahaye was in turn purchased by Brandt, a household appliance manufacturer.
Renault bought the Salmson factory at Billancourt. Frazer-Nash, perhaps better known for making aircraft gun turrets, ceased car manufacture.
Allard, a London-based, low-volume car manufacturer ceased trading. An Allard P1 had won the 1952 Monte Carlo Rally, but this had not been enough to generate enough sales to make the company viable. Daimler Benz bought 87 per cent of Auto Union, increasing their share to 100 per cent the following year.
Talbot-Lago ceased trading, ownership of the name was transferred to Simca. Jensen Motors Limited of West Bromwich, founded in 1934, was bought by Norcross Limited. The Quandt family bought around 45 per cent of BMW’s shares, only a year after the car division had been on the verge of liquidation.
In the same year as Jaguar bought Daimler, Armstrong Siddeley ceased car manufacturing.
After stumbling along in the post-war years Bugatti finally pulled out of motor manufacturing.
Rover and Triumph both announced 2.0-litre executive cars, which re-defined their respective market sectors.
In October 1964 French luxury car manufacturer Facel ceased trading. The use of an Aston Martin in the third James Bond film, Goldfinger, proved to be an enormously successful example of product association as the world was gripped by Bond-mania. Just how crucial was this link to the worlds most famous secret agent in securing the future of Aston Martin?
Volkswagen bought 50 per cent of Auto Union. Eighteen months later it took total control. The intention was to use the Ingolstadt factory to ramp up Beetle production.
Volkswagen launched a revised DKW using the defunct Auto Union brand Audi, last seen on a car in 1939.
Jensen Motors Limited announced the Jensen Interceptor, using a series of large capacity Chrysler V8s, the largest of which was a mighty 7.2 litres. Founders Alan and Richard Jensen left the company in 1966. Like other luxury car manufacturers, the use of imported American V8 units enabled Jensen to circumvent their own lack of a bespoke engine.
As well as manufacturing its own cars, Jensen had built various BMC, Rootes and Volvo models as a sub-contractor. The end of these contracts resulted in the company re-focusing on its own products. Jaguar merged with BMC to form British Motor Holdings.
Alvis, now owned by Rover, ceased car production to concentrate on military vehicles. Rover was, in turn, bought out by the Leyland Motor Corporation. The Wilks family, which had effectively controlled Rover since pre-war days, finally relinquished control.
Jaguar, Rover and Triumph all became part of the British Leyland Motor Corporation. Jaguar unveiled the outstanding XJ6 saloon, which redefined the refinement available in a luxury car. The same year Citroen bought out Italian car maker Maserati.
Norcross Limited decided to sell Jensen Motors Limited. The Audi 100 was launched, a completely new Auto Union design.
Fiat bought out the loss making Lancia concern, which had been founded in 1906. Although the company excelled in motorsport, a reputation for corrosion was to harm sales leading to the eclipse of the Lancia brand as a premium manufacturer of executive and luxury cars.
Fiat also bought a 50 per cent stake in Ferrari, safeguarding the company’s future. British Leyland pulled the plug on the Riley marque. Auto Union was merged with NSU. Audi was now being marketed as a separate brand from Volkswagen.
Citroen unveiled the SM, the best GT car ever made. It was fitted with a Maserati engine of 2.7 and 3.0 litres. With a 140 mph top speed, there were high hopes of selling large numbers in the USA.
British Leyland announced the Range Rover. Gradually, the Range Rover was moved upmarket to become a luxury car, a successful newcomer in the premium sector. Norwegian-American Kjell Qvale was now the majority shareholder in Jensen Motors Limited and he appointed Donald Healey as Chairman. The result of this partnership was the Jensen Healey sportscar of 1972.
Rolls Royce Limited went bankrupt and was nationalised.
Aston Martin was sold to Company Developments, a Birmingham-based consortium chaired by William Wilson. BMW launched its first 5 Series. Mercedes-Benz launched the first S-Class, its range topping model.
The cars business of Rolls Royce was separated from the aero engine division and sold off by the British Government. The October 1973 energy crisis was to have a catastrophic effect on many of the lower-volume luxury car manufacturers.
Both British Leyland and Citroen ran out of money in this year.
Following Citroen’s bankruptcy in 1974 production of the SM ceased. Some observers cited the Energy Crisis as a contributing factor. Maserati went into liquidation. Although primarily a sports car manufacturer like rivals Ferrari, Maserati had produced some saloon cars. A workforce sit-in resulted in a deal being brokered with Alejandro De Tomaso to take over Maserati. Around the same time the Argentine businessman took Innocenti off British Leyland’s hands.
Also bankrupt was Aston Martin. The receiver sold it to North American businessmen Peter Sprague and George Minden. This year also marked the end of the road for the Wolseley marque.
Jensen Motors Limited went into receivership, with Kjell Qvale, now both Chairman and Chief Executive blaming his unionised workforce. Under the jurisdiction of the Receivers, Interceptor production limped on into 1976. British Leyland was nationalised. BMW launched the first of its 3 Series cars.
Leyland Cars unveiled the Rover SD1, intended to replace both the Rover P6 and Triumph 2000/2500. The SD1 was the last Rover created by the old Rover company’s design team. With engine capacities of 2.3, 2.6 and 3.5 litres it was designed to slot below Jaguar in the Leyland Cars range.
Amid industrial turmoil, British Leyland produced the last Triumph 2000/2500 saloons. Although the Triumph marque would survive until 1984, this was the end of Triumph as a manufacturer of executive cars. BMW introduced the 7 Series saloons.
Rolls Royce cars was bought by Vickers. BL Cars closed the Abingdon MG factory. Not only did it mark the end of the long-serving MGB, it was also the end of MG in the North American market.
Maserati launched the Biturbo, which as the name suggests, was a twin turbocharged luxury saloon. The architecture of the saloon would serve as the basis of all Maserati’s until 1997. CH Industrials and Pace Petroleum became the new joint owners of Aston Martin.
The last Triumph TR7 was produced, and this really was the end of British Leyland sports cars in the USA.
Production of the Rover SD1 ceased, to be replaced by the Anglo-Japanese Rover 800. Ultimately, serious quality issues had blighted the SD1’s career to the extent that the rival, German-built Ford Granada had usurped it as Britain’s best-selling executive car despite it having a less prestigious badge. The new 800 seemed to be more focused as a Granada beater than as a major European premium brand to rival the fast rising German makes.
This was reflected in its choice of engines, 2.0 and 2.5 litres. There was no place for the Rover V8 in the new range. By the time the 800 reached the showrooms, Jaguar had been privatised, and the conditions for avoiding market overlap no longer existed.
The same year Fiat bought Alfa Romeo, founded in 1910, merging it with its Lancia subsidiary.
After more complex ownership changes, Ford took a shareholding in Aston Martin.
The Audi V8 was launched. With a 3.6 litre V8 engine, later upgraded to 4.2 litres, it marked a move upmarket for the Audi brand. In hindsight this was probably just as significant as the appearance of the Lexus LS the following year.
Toyota launched its own premium car brand, Lexus. The first model was the Lexus LS featuring a 4-litre V8 engine. The news that the Japanese had entered the luxury car market sent shock waves through the motor industry. Not only was there now a contender manufactured to Japanese build quality standards, the Lexus LS also impressed in other areas. The Lexus V8 was considerably more refined than the engines of some of its more prestigious rivals.
The Saab car manufacturing division was re-structured as an independent concern, separate from the Saab parent company. The arrival of Lexus sent some of the motor industries behemoths scrambling to acquire smaller premium manufacturers.
General Motors bought 50 per cent of Saab shares. Ford took over Jaguar with an ambitious plan to expand the brand’s appeal.
Ford took full control of Aston Martin, securing its long term future.
Fiat bought Maserati.
BMW bought the Rover Group. Any notion of developing a luxury Rover saloon, a latter day P4 or P5, to rival the German brands disappeared with this event. Audi replaced the V8 with the first of its A8 series. By sharing platforms with its mass produced Volkswagen cousins, Audi was able to reduce costs and without attracting the stigma that Jaguar later gained when it used Ford Mondeo underpinnings with the X-Type.
In a bizarre move, Fiat sold Maserati to Ferrari, which itself was owned by Fiat! While Ferrari continued to focus on sports cars, the acquisition of Maserati at last resulted in a financially viable Italian luxury saloon car for the 21st century. However, hopes that Alfa Romeo and Lancia could compete in the executive car market were fading away by this point as the German brands became omnipotent.
The Rover 75 was announced. This car crystallised BMW’s vision of the Rover brand, a sub-2.5 litre car priced below the 3 Series. Jaguar announced the S-Type, a BMW 5 Series rival.
Volkswagen acquired the Bugatti brand from Italian businessman Romano Artioli, who had owned it since 1987. Vickers sold Rolls Royce cars. A complicated series of events resulted in BMW gaining control of the Rolls Royce brand, while Volkswagen purchased Bentley, which had been part of Rolls Royce cars since 1931 – all this came into effect from 2003 and, as a consequence, Bentley once again became a standalone marque instead of a badge-engineered Rolls Royce.
General Motors bought out the remaining shares of Saab to gain total control, the same year BMW offloaded the Rover Group to various parties. BMW retained Cowley for its new MINI, Ford bought Land Rover and the Longbridge plant was given to the new MG Rover organisation. By now any aspirations that the Rover marque was a premium brand had evaporated.
Jaguar launched the X-Type, a BMW 3 Series rival.
Porsche introduced the Cayenne, its first non-sports car vehicle. A luxury SUV, it widened the appeal of the Porsche brand into the premium family car sector.
MG Rover at Longbridge ceased trading, marking the final demise of the Rover brand. The Bugatti Veyron was announced, perhaps the ultimate supercar.
Ford sold Aston Martin to a consortium led by David Richards of Prodrive.
Ford sold Jaguar and Land Rover to TATA of India after its expansion plans for Jaguar had spectacularly and publicly failed.
General Motors put Saab up for sale. It was bought by Spyker Cars, which like MG Rover in 2005, eventually ran out of money in 2011. Is the Saab brand dead or merely in hibernation? Only time will tell…
So what do we learn from all this?
When Ford took over Jaguar in 1990 they were appalled by what they found. Antiquated plants, outdated working practices and a management whose greatest attribute was its impressive public relations skills in effectively duping Ford into paying five times the net value of the company’s actual assets.
Yet the parsimony of Jaguar’s founder, Sir William Lyons, was not without reason. This policy had one tangible result, survival at a time when other premium car manufacturers were dropping like flies in the post-war era.
The post-war history of the British motor industry might look like a grim catalogue of misfortune, but one thing that did go right was the survival of many of its premium brands. Indeed, of the major European motor manufacturing countries, the only serious competition is Germany.
Germany winning, who is fighting back?
In Italy, Alfa Romeo and Lancia seem to be gradually fading away, although Maserati is now resurgent thanks to Ferrari. Italy is still justly famous for its sports cars. Perhaps the most tragic loss of premium car brands occurred in France, one of the pace setters in the early development of the automobile.
The loss of brand names like Delage, Delahaye, Hotchkiss and Salmson was, in hindsight, a big mistake, when perhaps they could have been used as premium badges on upmarket cars from the major French manufacturers. Moreover, although Bugatti survives as a supercar, it is perhaps a waste of a brand name that belongs on a French luxury saloon car.
Hopes for a successful French premium car now reside with the DS brand. The effective wiping out of an entire automotive sector because of Government intervention now looks like gigantic blunder of epic proportions.