With more marques being made in Britain than ever, the industry is healthier than you might think, writes Sean O'Grady

A casual observer of the scene might easily reach the conclusion that the British car industry is quite as moribund as some of the famous badges long since consigned to the heritage centres and museums. And it's true that the great domestic combines of the past have disappeared.

Rootes Group, with its stable of Hillman, Humber, Singer and Sunbeam, is now but a distant memory. When it was formed in 1968, British Leyland was one of the largest car producers in the world. Now Austin, Morris, Triumph and Daimler are no longer with us. Landmarks such as Ford's Dagenham works and the Vauxhall factory at Luton have closed. Jaguar's historic works at Browns Lane will soon follow them into oblivion. Not a single car with a "blue oval" Ford badge is now made in Britain. MG Rover's sales are sagging. All, it would appear is lost.

And yet the industry survives, and, in some corners, even flourishes. Production has not yet surpassed its previous peak of 1.9 million units reached in 1972, but at 1.6 million or so last year, it is not so far from it. The key to this success has been foreign (competent) owners and a move upmarket.

Nissan is now the biggest car maker in the UK, with more than 300,000 units per annum churned out of its works at Sunderland. Honda (celebrating the 10th anniversary of UK Civic production), Toyota and Peugeot are not so far behind. Vauxhall, Land Rover, Jaguar, and even MG Rover make a respectable contribution to the total. BMW's new Mini has been a huge hit, selling in numbers comparable to those of the old Mini at its peak.

So instead of relying on two or three volume makers, as it used to, the British industry is broader based, and less exposed to the failure of one brand's "make or break" model. What's more, it is biased to the top end of the market; more value-added and profitable, in other words. A Bentley (now VW-owned) may not sell in vast numbers, but it is much less likely to be supplanted by products from Korea or China in the future. And the tiny "cottage industry" makers provide variety and excellence.

There are worries, of course. Will MG Rover's partnership with Shanghai Automotive bring security to our principal indigenously owned business? Will Ford carry on making all its Jaguars and Land Rovers here? But the variety of the British industry's products has never been greater. From a Rolls-Royce to a Mini, from supercars such as the Mercedes McLaren to hatchbacks and 4x4s, there is a British car to suit you.

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