Best of British

There can be few industries as closely bound up with national identity as the automotive sector. Everyone has an idea of what a French, Italian, or German car is like; and when you say ‘British car industry’ to someone, it’ll instantly conjure up a series of images. Certainly, iconic cars will be in there; but so will industrial unrest and the complexities of foreign ownership. So when we decided to devote one of our special issues to the motor industry in the UK — which will reach readers of The Engineer next week — I decided to do some highly unscientific research to see what images the British motor industry brings to mind now. I asked my friends and family.

True, it’s hardly a representative sample of the population, but they’re a pretty diverse bunch of people. They watch the news, they read the papers, and they drive cars. They are, in short, informed members of the public. And, as it turns out, when asked ‘What does the rest of the world think of the British motor industry’, they all had the same answer: there isn’t a British motor industry.

As we and our readers know, that’s very far from the truth. Britain has some of the most productive car factories in Europe, and exported a record number of cars last year. There are flourishing R&D and design sectors. It creates many thousands of jobs. So why is it that the public think the industry is dead?

The overriding factor about the British car industry is that there is no longer a home-owned volume producer. It’s surprisingly difficult even to establish the identity of the largest British-owned car maker today (it certainly surprised us. Have a guess who it is). Some might say that means there’s no such thing as a British car anymore. But the industry, it seems, wouldn’t agree. For the makers of Bentleys, Minis, Rolls-Royces, Aston Martins, Lotuses, Land Rovers and Jaguars, a British car is one with a British history and pedigree, and it’s one whose value is maximised by being made to a large extent within the UK. And with Tata paying over £2bn for Land Rover Jaguar, that’s an appreciable value.

Indeed, with the global nature of today’s automotive sector, you could ask whether national boundaries and characteristics have any meaning any more. When Nissan chose to develop the Qashqai range, from initial engineering design to final assembly, within the UK, does that make it a British car? Is it more or less British than one made by Malaysian-owned but traditionally British Lotus, for example?

What’s certain is that the concept of a British car, and the British car industry, has slipped out of the public consciousness to an extent that would have been unthinkable 15-20 years ago. That’s a great pity. Because, as you’ll read next week, the industry might have changed; but it’s still there, it’s healthy, and it’s as much a hotbed and proving ground for engineering innovation as it ever was.

Stuart Nathan

Special projects editor