The news that General Motors has found a buyer for its gas-guzzling Hummer brand marks a symbolic moment in the history of the global automotive industry.
Loved by premiership footballers and Arnold Schwarzenegger but derided by many as the embodiment of automotive excess, the Hummer is a potent symbol of where GM – and the US car industry in general – went wrong: slavishly backing the big and thirsty SUVs of the past, while Japanese firms Honda and Toyota wrestled the market share with nimbler, more fuel-efficient models.
There are important lessons here for the UK. While the US auto industry had perhaps the furthest to fall, its fate should act as a sobering warning to our own government that if it’s going to help ensure the long term survival of a UK automotive industry, it needs to look beyond the short term and help develop a sustainable approach for the future.
GM – and also Chrysler – have arrived at their current situation largely through complacency: overly confident of their status as part of America’s national fabric they took their eyes off the business of engineering, continued to back the wrong vehicles and paid the price.
With this in mind, resources in the UK must be deployed strategically. Ensuring the survival of a UK auto industry must be about more than knee-jerk responses and last-ditch rescue packages. Our engineers should be given the chance to develop develop the step-change advances of the future.
This will be of little or no consolation to the thousands of UK auto workers wondering whether they’ll still have a job at the end of the month, but in the longer term a global car industry where technology takes precedence over branding would be a good thing for the UK.
Meanwhile, in another telling sign of the times, Hummer’s prospective buyer has today been revealed as Chinese firm, Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Company.
Reportedly close to agreeing a deal of between $150m and $250m to buy the brand, the deal would make it the first Chinese company to own a US car maker. It’s unlikely that it’ll be the last.
Jon Excell, Deputy Editor