Friday, 24 October 2014
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Recognising UK car sector's drive for improvement

Depending on what time you tuned in, you may have seen two very different pictures of the British automotive industry on BBC2 on Sunday night.

At 8pm, “Top Gear” ended its current season with a celebration, bringing together examples from every motor vehicle manufacturer in the UK and rattling off statistics to highlight to a public that so often seems to believe we don’t make anything anymore just how big our motoring industry still is.

But straight after came a programme with a very different perspective, albeit a largely historical one. “Das Auto: The Germans, Their Cars And Us” told the story of the different approaches and fortunes of the British and German car industries in the decades after the War.

Historian Dominic Sandbrook made the case that the UK’s decline was due to class divisions, complacent management, militant unions, a lack of focus on quality and a failure to develop strong brands, while Germany avoided all these problems and rose from the ashes of military defeat to become one of the world’s leading car producers.

I’m not a Top Gear fan (although I appreciate why others enjoy it) but was impressed with both the decision to run its triumphant look at Britain’s industrial success and the way it was handled: though its presenters are known for being politically incorrect and grumpy old men, on this occasion they asked viewers to put aside their cynicism and gave an insightful presentation without jingoism or unnecessary bombast.

Das Auto, meanwhile, was an interesting and shrewd historical documentary, though bizarrely it largely ignored the role of political interference, nationalisation and subsequent privatisation in Britain’s industrial story. But by stopping the narrative in the 1990s, the tone of the programme became so overwhelmingly negative that viewers would be forgiven for thinking we no longer make any cars in the UK.

A throwaway line at the show’s end about Britain still manufacturing 1.5m cars a year could easily have been missed, and those who heard it will have been confronted with the conclusion that we now make cars for our wartime rivals and line the pockets of Germany’s economic titans.

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Source: BBC

Top Gear brought together every kind of motor vehicle made in Britain for a celebration on The Mall (except the electric ones).

Arguably, there is truth in this description, but expressing it such a way obscures the benefits that foreign ownership and investment has brought, the great strides the UK car industry has made in recent years, its current success and its future potential.

The pros and cons of foreign ownership will continue to be debated for many years but it would be foolish to ignore the positive aspects of having overseas companies operate in Britain. For one thing, it’s helped overcome the problems that nearly broke the car industry in the first place: we have better management, better labour relations and produce more reliable vehicles under brands that have been allowed to develop strong and attractive identities.

That’s not to say a home-grown solution couldn’t have been found but foreign ownership has provided a way forward. Plus it’s brought with it huge and much-needed investment and new routes to export markets. And by opening our doors to overseas companies we’ve become arguably become a European hub for Japanese manufacturers.

As Top Gear noted, Toyota UK even exports cars back to Japan, while Nissan made more cars in Sunderland last year than the entire Italian (domestically owned) industry. And Nissan, which is betting billions on electric vehicles, chose to manufacture its new Leaf EV here, despite the firm’s alliance with Renault. (Strangely the Leaf didn’t appear in Top Gear’s lineup of British-made vehicles.)

Sandbrook’s analysis of the British car industry’s past wasn’t wrong, but the programme’s conclusion was backward-looking at a time when the UK’s automotive sector is in its strongest position for years, something that it’s worth the public understanding. Studying history can help us avoid the mistakes of the past but if we don’t stop focusing on our failures we won’t move on. That’s why, for once, I’d encourage everyone to watch the latest Top Gear. Or maybe just the last 10 minutes.

You can watch Top Gear on BBC iPlayer here (until Sunday).


Readers' comments (11)

  • Chinese or German car producers could stretch their procession around the M25 so let's not get too carried away...

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  • Its not about getting carried away, but we should celebrate the Engineering / Manufacturing industry we have in the UK. To many times we hear doom and gloom, much like Das Auto, after Top Gear. Watching Top Gear's celebration of British Automotive Manufacturing made me realise what a diverse industry we have, leading the world in some specalist areas. What a great way to present it too, light hearted and proud. Good on them.

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  • It was poor management and unions clashing that finally put the nails in the coffin of the British car industry. Poor and unreliable cars which had poor levels of design.

    We sold off the best kitchen silver to foreign companies such as BMW and VW which are the German Car industry leaders.

    I do feel that we have a very good car industry now or workers have been rewarded, but sadly these are not British companies and the large profits are going to Germany and Japan.

    I feel we have always had problems under British management in producing quality car products. There has always been an us and them philosophy in British manufacturing. Germany and Japan have a different attitude to work together for the common good of the company and the country. This is where we ultimately went wrong.

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  • Overall, it has been a very good thing in terms of investment and presenting a different attitude towards work that the British Car Industry is run by foreign Companies such as BMW, VW, Toyota and Nissan. We build quality cars again which have a very good design philosophy and are reliable.

    Unfortunately, in the past we have had poor British Management that lacked vision and Unions that were out of control. It was a workforce against the management situation which ultimately saw poor productivity and inferior products.

    It is our own fault that we could not change are attitudes and work towards the common good and we have paid the price by losing direct control of our motor industry.

    Today because of foreign intervention we still have an expanding motor industry, but the key problem is if there are any major slumps in car production will they pull the plug on Britain first?

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  • Top Gear was jingoistic while Dominic Sandbrook's account was factually lazy and riddled with clichés. The truth lies between the two extremes.

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  • Both programmes are needed although possibly they should have been shown in the opposite order.

    It's easy to say what went wrong in the past and harder to see what's wrong in the present. Back in the 70s perhaps most people had no idea how negative the management/union battle was. Perhaps they didn't realise that they were competing and would lose. In other words the problems were not made evident to the population in general - most people must have been living in some sort of fantasy where they thought they could put other concerns before the quality production of better and better cars.

    At the very least one can try not to make those mistakes again and it's a phenomenal thing if the lesson can be learned by the population at large through TV programmes like Das Auto. It's not good enough, however to learn negative lessons - one has to learn positively how to succeed. Everyone in the world has had to learn from the Americans, then the Japanese and to a degree the Germans. So what? Let's do it and then push on ahead.

    BTW, I think Top Gear was the least jingoistic program you could possibly make. It just told people to have hope and there's not a tiny thing wrong with that.

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  • The Indian ownership of Jaguar Land-Rover is not mentioned much in this article but to me is one of the most remarkable. The company was within weeks of closure when Tata took over. It is now thriving and profitable. On a recent visit employees told me there are no Indian managers. The difference is the investment. Yet, we are constantly told London is the World's financial centre. So why don't our own financiers invest in British industry?

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  • It's not just what we manufacture. The UK is highly-regarded when it comes to its innovative automotive consultancy companies. Quite a few "big names" get design work done here.

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  • Steve- Absolutely spot on. All too often a company is paralysed and sinking because it does not invest. It needs to invest in research, invest in people and not focus on the bottom line.

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  • Well, I found the end of TG with the parade of cars under Union flags frankly embarrassing. OK they are made in the UK, but the vast majority by foreign companies.

    Steve is right - it's lack of investment in UK owned companies that is the real issue. If someone had waved a magic wand back in the 70s or 80s and given us perfect labour relations and a motivated workforce, the UK owned car industry would still have failed to compete with foreign rivals. Imagine it - an Allegro made with as much love as possible in a near Dickensian factory, but still with a 3-decade old engine design and a dopey square steering wheel!

    Insufficient investment in research, design, development & production processes was / is the real problem. Why that is is a different matter - whether it's short-termism in the investment community or lack of desire (courage?) to build global sized enterprises by those who run UK companies I don't know.

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  • But surely Steve Whiteley's point is that foreign ownership has brought investment to Jaguar Land Rover that was missing when the firms were British-owned.

    Though of course it's not quite that simple - both companies were owned by Ford for years before Tata Motors came along.

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