If you were one of the millions glued to last night’s climax of BBC drama Life on Mars, you will undoubtedly have pondered one of the central questions raised by the series: how different is the UK now from the country of the 1970s?
It’s an entertaining exercise, particularly when it comes to the UK’s engineering base. For example, one of the notable features of the 1970s recreated by the BBC was the regular appearance of British-made cars on the streets of Manchester, of Allegros, Rovers and a host of marques now consigned to the history books.
Ah yes, the days when Britain had a car industry, flagship of the UK’s much lamented manufacturing base. It’s strange that the British car industry of the 70s can induce misty-eyed nostalgia in some people.
It was hardly the nation’s finest hour. A combination of a struggling economy, poor products and volatile labour relations made British Leyland a symbol of a former industrial superpower that seemed to have lost its way.
Far from achieving its grand ambitions of competing on the global stage, BL found itself unable to compete in its own back yard.
British buyers by the thousands turned their backs on cars made in this country as they realised that imported vehicles were quite simply superior products.
A common response to the decline of the 70s car industry, like that of other aspects of the UK manufacturing base, is that ‘the government should have done something to stop it.’
It was, however, the consumers of the UK, not its government, who sealed the fate of the Life On Mars era models. They just weren’t good enough, and no amount of government subsidy was ever going to paper over that particular crack.
Fortunately times have changed, and it cannot be stated too often that the British car industry is alive and kicking. Manufacturers from around the world choose to build their cars and carry out major R&D work in the UK. There is a thriving specialist automotive sector, particularly in the motorsport industry. There may be some things worth hankering for from the 1970s. The British car industry isn’t one of them.