UK low-volume sector has high potential

When Dutch ‘supercar’ maker Spyker revealed late last year that it was relocating its production to the UK, the news was jumped on by some as evidence of a long-hoped-for UK manufacturing renaissance.

Might the firm’s decision to move its assembly to the home of the Morgan, Ariel and Caparo, they wondered, suggest that the seeds of recovery for our automotive sector are quietly taking root in the UK’s niche car industry? We thought we would take a look and our story Race to marketshines a fascinating light on this innovative, often overlooked, and incredibly diverse niche of the UK automotive sector.

No prizes for guessing that, despite the hype, the low-volume sector isn’t going to become the high-volume sector any time soon. The cars aren’t cheap and the engineers involved — most of whom honed their skills, design philosophies and construction techniques in the world of motorsport — aren’t particularly interested in producing cars for the masses.

But that’s not to say the low-volume sector doesn’t give us a number of reasons to be optimistic. First, companies from the niche sports-car sector are able to innovate far more freely than their larger cousins. With few of the legacy constraints that face the wider automotive industry, low-volume car makers can take more risks than larger firms and are an important force in the development, test and commercialisation of new technologies. Indeed, if you’re looking for the kind of disruptive technology that might shape the high-volume industry in the future, this is where you’re most likely to find it.

Take Morgan, for instance. Almost universally viewed as the most quintessential of traditional English sports-car manufacturers, its fuel-cell-powered LifeCar concept, launched two years ago at Geneva, played a major role in driving forward a suite of technologies (from wheel-hub motors to supercapacitors) that are now poised to make their debut in the wider automotive industry. Meanwhile, its Aero Eight was the first all-aluminium car in the world. Elsewhere, while the high-volume industry is still struggling to decide exactly what role an all-electric car should play, Peterborough-based Lightning Cars is poised to launch the Lightning, a 130mph GT claimed to be capable of 300km on a full charge.

The vibrancy of the UK’s low-volume sector also speaks a wider truth about UK engineering in general. It’s a reminder of where some of the UK’s most valuable skills are: in low-volume, highly specialised products. So, while the throaty roar of a British supercar may not quite herald a new dawn for the UK manufacturing sector, it is, at the very least, a symbol of where many of our engineering strengths lie.

With the CBI’s latest figures showing that UK manufacturing has returned to growth for the first time in two years, have you spotted any signs of a manufacturing renaissance? As always, we welcome all of your comments on this emotive issue. Please also take a moment to vote in our online poll.

Jon Excell Editor