MOTORING / Rover makes its marque on history: A monument to Britain's motoring heritage contains some surprising omissions, as Phil Dourado reports

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THE BRITISH car industry has been turned into a tourist attraction, with the opening this Saturday of a new pounds 8m Heritage Motor Centre at Gaydon, in Warwickshire. The new home of the British motor car is an all-singing, all-dancing affair, housed in a gleaming new art deco building dropped somewhat incongruously into a 65-acre greenfield site.

Surrounding it are the inevitable trappings of a heritage industry geared to the family day out: a children's adventure playground, picnic site, cinema, conference rooms, lecture halls, a gift shop and a nature reserve - a small nature reserve, it must be said, which is just about right as it symbolises the car industry's cursory nod to environmental concern.

But for a centre that boasts the largest collection of British cars in the world, there are notable omissions. Look closely and you'll find no E-type Jaguars (in fact, no Jaguars at all) and no Rolls-Royces. There are Rileys, Austins, MGs and Wolseleys among the 400 British cars on display, but not a hint of the Vauxhall, even among the five million engineering drawings, blueprints, manuals and photographs that make up the archive.

The Gaydon exhibition seems to have re-written Britain's motoring history. Roughly 75 per cent of the industry's vehicles are represented here; the 75 per cent that was absorbed by British Leyland, and then taken over by Rover. Rover put up the pounds 8m that funds the new centre, hence the absence of any marque that isn't part of the Rover range (Jaguar used to be when it was part of British Leyland, but it is now Ford-owned so isn't allowed). The triumphalist architecture of the new building - not quite Bank of European Reconstruction class, but getting there - is clearly intended to celebrate the resurgence in Rover's fortunes as much as the heritage of the car.

The new centre aspires to being more than just a museum, like the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu, in Hampshire, where foreign and British cars mingle. It is intended to be a chauvinistic centre of excellence, presenting state-of-the art computer-aided design systems and the latest Rover models incorporating them, as well as the original MG 'Number One'.

But will it attract the crowds? The British, on the whole, seem to lack the regard shown by other countries towards cars and the motor industry. We have failed to develop the kind of love affair with the car that characterises the American auto-culture. Japan has had a centre of excellence devoted to the car for years, a kind of hymn to car technology where the public can see the first Toyota alongside concept cars of the future. Germany has an equivalent, too. The United States has Ford's 'birthplace of the motor car' in Dearborn, near Detroit. Even Latvia had one before Britain, based at the Transport Museum in Riga.

At 23 million cars to a population of 57 million, the British own significantly fewer cars per head than their counterparts in mainland Europe (25 per cent fewer than in Germany and Italy, though you'd never guess it from the ever-increasing traffic congestion). The reason we rely on cars less is partly one of geography. Britain is a relatively small island. But that doesn't explain our apparent inability to love the British car industry. 'We don't seem to respect the car or the car industry in this country the way they do abroad,' says Peter Mitchell, director of the new centre.

The reason is that there hasn't been much to respect in recent decades. Ford does not count, being American - despite the assumption among many motorists that buying an Escort means buying British - while Vauxhall was an ailing force until it was taken over by another US giant, General Motors. This left British Leyland as the sole representative of large-scale British car production. And, although they may have had their fans, cars such as the Austin Princess and the Maxi are less likely to inspire awe and devotion than, say, a BMW. This is ironic because, as Mitchell points out, the first BMW, called the Dixie, was copied from an Austin 7. And in 1930, the Japanese founded their car industry by taking the same British car, stripping it down and modelling the first Nissan. Herbert Morris was apparently so incensed, that he had a Nissan shipped to England to see if the company could make a claim for breach of copyright.

It has to be said that, apart from niche markets in sports cars, the traffic in car sales has tended to be one-way in recent decades, with European and Japanese manufacturers racing ahead, and imports flooding in.

Rover was one British marque that the average motorist could always aspire to. Despite a disconcerting tendency among some models to rust and break down, Rovers were seen as classy. It is no coincidence that the jumble of marques inherited by British Leyland were all subsumed beneath the Rover name in a re-badging exercise designed to invest the rest of the range with the Rover comfort factor.

As well as trumpeting the message that Rover is Britain's biggest car-maker, the centre's wider aim is to promote the car's role in society and its contribution to the economy; to become a kind of propagandist of the car at a time when environmental concerns have pushed manufacturers on to the defensive.

Despite the focus on catalytic converters and recyclability that characterise advertising campaigns, it is difficult to disguise the fact that cars are net contributors to atmospheric pollution on a huge scale. The new centre examines the car as an art form, as a source of technological innovation, and looks at its importance to the economy as an employer - all views designed to counter the guilt we may feel about what comes out of the exhaust.

'Cars make a great contribution to society, which we tend to overlook in our zeal to ban them from city centres,' says Peter Mitchell. 'The car is about individual freedom, about the ability to go where you want, when you want.' If you can afford one, that is.

It's a message they would lap up in the US. But whether the hitherto lukewarm British public can be made to feel the same way about cars remains to be seen.

The Heritage Motor Centre, Banbury Road, Gaydon, Warwickshire, opens Saturday 1 May. For details, ring 0926 641188.

(Photograph omitted)

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