Recognising UK car sector’s drive for improvement

Senior reporter

Top Gear’s celebration of the British car industry was a welcome counter to the continued focus on its past failures.

Depending on what time you tuned in, you may have seen two very different pictures of the British automotive industry on BBC2 on Sunday night.

At 8pm, “Top Gear” ended its current season with a celebration, bringing together examples from every motor vehicle manufacturer in the UK and rattling off statistics to highlight to a public that so often seems to believe we don’t make anything anymore just how big our motoring industry still is.

But straight after came a programme with a very different perspective, albeit a largely historical one. “Das Auto: The Germans, Their Cars And Us” told the story of the different approaches and fortunes of the British and German car industries in the decades after the War.

Historian Dominic Sandbrook made the case that the UK’s decline was due to class divisions, complacent management, militant unions, a lack of focus on quality and a failure to develop strong brands, while Germany avoided all these problems and rose from the ashes of military defeat to become one of the world’s leading car producers.

I’m not a Top Gear fan (although I appreciate why others enjoy it) but was impressed with both the decision to run its triumphant look at Britain’s industrial success and the way it was handled: though its presenters are known for being politically incorrect and grumpy old men, on this occasion they asked viewers to put aside their cynicism and gave an insightful presentation without jingoism or unnecessary bombast.

Das Auto, meanwhile, was an interesting and shrewd historical documentary, though bizarrely it largely ignored the role of political interference, nationalisation and subsequent privatisation in Britain’s industrial story. But by stopping the narrative in the 1990s, the tone of the programme became so overwhelmingly negative that viewers would be forgiven for thinking we no longer make any cars in the UK.

A throwaway line at the show’s end about Britain still manufacturing 1.5m cars a year could easily have been missed, and those who heard it will have been confronted with the conclusion that we now make cars for our wartime rivals and line the pockets of Germany’s economic titans.

Top Gear brought together every kind of motor vehicle made in Britain for a celebration on The Mall (except the electric ones).

Arguably, there is truth in this description, but expressing it such a way obscures the benefits that foreign ownership and investment has brought, the great strides the UK car industry has made in recent years, its current success and its future potential.

The pros and cons of foreign ownership will continue to be debated for many years but it would be foolish to ignore the positive aspects of having overseas companies operate in Britain. For one thing, it’s helped overcome the problems that nearly broke the car industry in the first place: we have better management, better labour relations and produce more reliable vehicles under brands that have been allowed to develop strong and attractive identities.

That’s not to say a home-grown solution couldn’t have been found but foreign ownership has provided a way forward. Plus it’s brought with it huge and much-needed investment and new routes to export markets. And by opening our doors to overseas companies we’ve become arguably become a European hub for Japanese manufacturers.

As Top Gear noted, Toyota UK even exports cars back to Japan, while Nissan made more cars in Sunderland last year than the entire Italian (domestically owned) industry. And Nissan, which is betting billions on electric vehicles, chose to manufacture its new Leaf EV here, despite the firm’s alliance with Renault. (Strangely the Leaf didn’t appear in Top Gear’s lineup of British-made vehicles.)

Sandbrook’s analysis of the British car industry’s past wasn’t wrong, but the programme’s conclusion was backward-looking at a time when the UK’s automotive sector is in its strongest position for years, something that it’s worth the public understanding. Studying history can help us avoid the mistakes of the past but if we don’t stop focusing on our failures we won’t move on. That’s why, for once, I’d encourage everyone to watch the latest Top Gear. Or maybe just the last 10 minutes.

You can watch Top Gear on BBC iPlayer here (until Sunday).