Less gloom, more vroom

If you are after some early ideas for light summer holiday reading, why not consider The British Motor Industry 1945-1994 — A Case Study in Industrial Decline.

A quick search on the internet provides details of author Timothy Whisler’s in-depth investigation of just what went wrong with the UK automotive sector in the 50-year period he examines.

It is not difficult to imagine the ground he covers in what is no doubt a compelling and authoritative study. Poor management, union strife, government interference, unreliable products and mounting losses must provide fertile ground for the economic historian in search of a genuine post-war industrial basket case.

But that, as they say, was then. On behalf of the UK automotive sector, The Engineer makes the following plea to those who persist in viewing it as a national embarrassment — cheer up please!

In the second of an occasional series of special issues that take an in-depth look at key sectors of engineering and technology, we set out the case for the defence and believe it is a strong one.

Our April 21 issue tells a story of an automotive sector very different to the one of 25 years ago. In the first place, for a nation regularly described as ‘having no car industry’ the UK can actually make a fair claim to being the car manufacturer of choice to the world.

As the Nissans, Toyotas and Minis roll off the production lines it seems perverse to maintain the UK is incapable of making vehicles.

Then there is our hugely impressive automotive technology sector, encompassing engine development, novel transmissions, advanced structures, vehicle electronics, alternative power systems and just about anything else you care to mention.

Throw in a world-leading position in motorsport technology and the ‘Britishness’ of some of the most recognisable brand names in the global industry and things don’t seem nearly so bad.

So why is the UK auto sector all too often viewed through a prism of negativity? Perhaps in the end it all comes down to a sense of ownership. The UK may make all those cars and develop all that clever technology, but the ultimate ownership lies elsewhere, in the US, in Germany and, increasingly, in Asia.

If so, this is more a matter of wounded pride than a rational response, possibly tinged with regret for what ‘might have been’ if things had been handled differently in the era chronicled by Whisler. It is tempting to make an analogy with the England football team, where some see the need for foreign management as demeaning to the nation.

That isn’t the way the world works any more. If a mobile phone manufacturer chooses to make its products here, and especially if those handsets include elements of UK-developed technology, we celebrate it as a double-win rather than bemoan the fact that the name on the box is Finnish or Japanese.

And imagine if a nation of our size and population had come from nowhere to a similar status in the global auto sector. We would look at it as a success story.

It isn’t about where we have come from but where we are going, and that will be the real challenge. The UK automotive sector will have plenty of ups and downs in the future, as will every other industry in every other nation. But just for today, let’s raise a cheer for it.

Andrew Lee, editor