UK set for surge on auto engines

The UK is emerging as a major location for the design, development and production of engines.

Here’s some good UK news to offset all the gloom about recession and the global economy. One aspect of the upheaval taking place in the automotive sector has been barely noticed: the emergence of this country as a major location for the design, development and production of engines.

Some numbers compiled by Cardiff Business School explain how. It reports that around 2.1 million petrol and diesel engines of all types were made in the UK in 1990. As the country produced 1.57 million cars and commercial vehicles that year, around a quarter, therefore, went for export.

By 2003, though, the school forecasts that UK engine output will double to around 4.4 million. While domestic vehicle production is expected to breach the two million barrier over the next few years – finally laying to rest the 1972 record of 1.9 million – it will mean that more than half the country’s engine output will be exported.

Key players

The cornerstones of this growth will be Ford at Dagenham and its Jaguar subsidiary at Bridgend. Between them they will be capable of making nearly two million engines a year, or three times as many as a decade earlier.

Dagenham will become largely a diesel engine development and production site, and Bridgend will make V6s and V8s for other Premier Automotive Group brands as well as Jaguar.

Honda at Swindon and Toyota at Deeside are also scheduled to triple engine output by 2003, producing 250,000 and 400,000 units respectively. Nissan’s production at Sunderland is projected to rise 60% to 450,000 and Land Rover at Solihull by 25% to 250,000.

BMW, which was not a factor in UK engine production in 1990, will in the next two years be capable of assembling 400,000 engines a year at Hams Hall.

Cardiff’s Professor Garel Rhys is quick to remind us that Wales will be responsible for a third of the UK total, thanks to Bridgend and Deeside.

The headline implications of this change are positive as far as employment, suppliers and the balance of trade are concerned.

Local input

What is not yet clear, however, is the depth of local manufacturing that will go into those engines. Will they be true manufacturing projects, or just assembly? Where will the castings be done? Where will the connecting rods and camshafts be sourced? In the case of BMW, for example, the UK content of its Hams Hall engines is very limited.

The country’s emergence as an engine centre extends beyond production, though. Ricardo, which was contracted to complete the powertrain development of BMW’s new Mini, is arguably the world’s largest independent automotive engineering consultant. It has a turnover of £140m and a payroll of 1,500. Ricardo’s specialities are engines and transmissions.

Chief executive Rodney Westhead says the group is now developing a V6 petrol engine that will eventually be made by a client at a rate of two million units a year. Ricardo is not alone in the driveline consultancy business either. When its engineers travel the globe in search of new business, they can be sure that representatives from rival UK-based firms such as Cosworth Technology, Lotus, TWR and Prodrive will not be far away.

Collectively, the various engine projects now under way will literally turn the UK into a global powerhouse over the next few years.