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History In Focus Decline Of The British Motoring Industry

What Happened to Britain’s Booming Industry?

The origins of the British motoring industry date back to the final years of the 19th century. By 1950, the UK had grown to become the world’s largest exporter of motor vehicles and the second-largest manufacturer. Today, the story is very different. With the exception of a few sporting oddities and bespoke one-offs, it is no longer possible to buy a car made in the UK by a UK firm.

So what on earth happened to the British car industry? Even now, looking back, it seems impossible that the behemoth could be so easily toppled from so great a height. The usual received wisdom falls short of providing a satisfactory explanation for how the mighty could fall so very far.    



Picture of car factory 1960s


Wolseleys and dear old MGs were frail shadows beside the hulking might and superior technology of Volkswagen and mighty young Toyota.    

Britannia: A Cruel Mistress

Admittedly, there is a grain of truth to some of this, but no more than a grain. British cars weren’t rubbish: we had the original Mini, the E-Type Jaguar, the Morris Minor. Those cars were all world-beaters, far superior to anything that the Germans, Italians or Japanese had on offer at the time. They were not badly made, but simply susceptible to the typical British tendency to do ourselves down. Where a broken down Lotus would be a reminder that ‘Lotus’ really stood for ‘Lots of Trouble Usually Serious’, the Ferrari, smoke spilling from under its bonnet, that was parked up beside it was forgiven as a temperamental Latin thoroughbred.    

Equally unfair was the accusation that Brits simply didn’t know how to run a car business. Unfortunately, our most impressive example of a superior British businessman expended his skills saving a German firm. All of the work invested in reviving the creature which grew to become the VAG leviathan, encompassing Volkswagen, Audi, Seat, Skoda, Bentley and Bugatti, was the work of an Englishman, Ivan Hirst. The British Army major was responsible for single-handedly restarting production at the Wolfsburg factory post-war. By the end of his tenure, his Volkswagen plant was spewing out Kubelwagens for the British Army and several thousand civilian cars for general sale. It was Hirst alone who motivated the demoralised workforce and renovated the bomb-damaged factory. By 1946 Volkswagen was firmly set on its course to becoming a world success story – and it was in entirely British hands.     

The Villains of the Piece

The problem lay, then, not in the hands of Brits on the factory floor, but in the hands of the grandees of the British motor industry, bumbling amateurs who ran the boardroom. They were the true architects of destruction, making the most illogical decisions imaginable. To these men, blessed with the talents of the finest and most imaginative engineers and designers in the world - the resources to create new and innovative designs - it seemed to make perfect sense to sell almost identical cars in direct competition with each other at Austin and Morris, though the two were part of the same firm. They were causing mayhem from the inside with their strict adherence to what they knew had worked in the past.  

The unions, of course, didn’t help. In the 1960s and 70s, Britain’s car factories became daily battlegrounds, where militant shop stewards and complacent managers fought out an overt class war. Where Germany’s car industry, going from strength to strength, enjoyed excellent labour relations and cooperation between bosses and unions, Britain’s factories were the scene of pitched battles. In 1978, for every day that German manufacturers lost to industrial action, Britain lost ten.  By the time Margaret Thatcher came to power a year later, the war had left behind a landscape too decimated to ever recover.

A Decline in Quality

In truth, the quality of the cars also saw a decline. By the 1970s, the build quality on some British manufactured cars was so poor that buyers and dealers had to effectively rebuild them. This was largely due to the decision of the ruling powers to locate car factories in places with no engineering tradition and a dearth of skilled workers. The intention was to boost employment in deprived areas, but this resulted in cars built by amateurs. The Allegro, for example, was a good car underneath, well-designed, but it was ruined by cost-cutting management, poor workmanship and an absolute refusal to outfit it with anything ground-breaking.

A Quiescent Defeat

The final blow was the British obsession with putting our national assets up for sale. France and Italy have retained major indigenous car industries because France and Italy would not countenance selling priceless companies such as Renault and Fiat to foreigners. Britain had no such qualms: Austin Rover was sold, in turn, to the Germans and then to the Chinese for the kingly sum of £40 million; Rover to BMW. As the industry declined, those who had once run it were unwilling to go down with it. Where they could have tried to save the industry, they walked away from it. Although more than a million cars a year are still made on British shores, they are not British cars, and the profits from ‘our’ car industry fill the pockets of German, Japanese and America shareholders.

The sad truth is that Britain’s car industry, now only a shadow of its former self, was destroyed by the men who had created it. Elderly and autocratic, they refused to embrace new technology and tap the European market, and Britain could not help but fall behind its thriving competitors. Germany’s industry had died a quick death in the muddy trenches of the Second World War, and when it rose again, it was a different creature entirely. Britain, on the other hand, had not fallen. The old war horse refused to acknowledge that it could no longer compete with younger competitors, charging blindly onwards. In the end, it fell behind, destroyed by the legacy of its own glorious past.

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