Motoring: Britain's car industry revival was made in Japan

AT THE Tokyo Motor Show a couple of years ago, I had dinner with two journalists, one English, one Japanese. My compatriot, with a bluntness surprising for an educated Englishman, asserted that the Japanese were merely imitators, not innovators. 'You improve on European inventions, but invent nothing of your own,' he said (a view shared by many European car industry bosses).

The Japanese journalist retorted: 'You are wrong. The Japanese have been responsible for the most marvellous motoring invention of all. We have given the world the assumption of mechanical reliability.'

He was right, of course. Twenty or 30 years ago, if you set out on a car journey, you half-expected a problem. Now you expect to arrive at your destination - be it the other side of London or the other side of Europe - without mechanical trouble. The Japanese made cars reliable; we Europeans followed.

The secret was simple, as all good remedies are. It involved caring about the way cars were assembled, and using good-quality suppliers. British Leyland cars of 20 years ago were unreliable because many of the workers did not care and many of the parts arriving at the factories were substandard (they also frequently arrived late, but that is another story).

The British components industry remained in the doldrums throughout much of the Seventies and early Eighties. Now that has all changed and, again, we largely have the Japanese to thank. Britain's car components industry is now among the best and most cost-competitive in the world. It has been shaken out of its lethargy, primarily by the arrival of Japanese assembly plants: Nissan, Honda and Toyota all now make cars in England (with Toyota's engines coming from Wales).

Those Japanese makers awarded contracts to British suppliers only if they could guarantee quick delivery and good quality. Most succeeded (those that did not have mostly gone bankrupt). Those same companies also supply Ford, Rover, Vauxhall, Jaguar and Peugeot. It is a major reason why all British cars - not just the Japanese-designed ones - are now so reliable and well made, and are in such demand abroad. It is one reason why, by the end of the Nineties, Britain should have the second-biggest car industry in Europe, after Germany.

It is also partly why foreign car- makers are increasingly turning to Britain for parts - anything from glass and tyres to elaborate micro- electronics and catalytic converters.

Volkswagen, Europe's biggest car-maker, took less than pounds 200m worth of parts from the UK in 1992. By the end of this year it expects to double that. It is quite likely that, in three years' time, the UK will export more parts to the VW group in Germany than we import in completed cars - in value terms. A contact at VW tells me that quotes from UK firms tendering for work are typically 40 per cent lower than the prices VW is currently paying.

It is common, when talking to the British motoring trade, to hear Japan's efforts in this country derided. Of course, it would be better if our car industry was British- owned, as it used to be: that way, cars built here would also largely be designed and engineered here.

This view, though, ignores reality. The choice, when the Japanese first set up here in the early Eighties, was not between a Japanese- owned car industry or a British- owned car industry. It was between a Japanese-owned industry and, probably, no car industry. Far from having stolen our motor industry, the Japanese have saved it.

ONE OF the most intriguing cars to be unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show, which opens on Tuesday week, will be a new version of the Volkswagen Golf. It is likely to be the most environmentally friendly production road car ever launched.

'Green' cars are common at motor shows. They are unveiled amid a frenzy of PR-orchestrated publicity, car-company bosses make self-congratulatory speeches about how their firm is helping to save the environment, brave noises are made about the prototype's production viability, and then . . . nothing happens.

None of the environmentally friendly show cars that have been unveiled over the past half-dozen years have ever made it into production. Not one. Until now, that is.

The Ecomatic Golf uses a conventional 64bhp diesel engine. Apart from its semi-automatic five- speed gearbox (like a manual gearbox, but without a clutch pedal), it drives like a normal car. Yet it has one particularly clever feature, so simple that you wonder why no one has done it before. When you take your foot off the accelerator, the engine automatically turns itself off. That means you don't waste fuel at the traffic lights, or when decelerating. Prod the accelerator, and the engine starts again.

VW talks about an average 20 per cent fuel saving compared with a conventional small diesel car - that means about 60mpg in town, even better on the open road.

Emissions are also handily reduced. Nitrogen oxides, which can cause respiratory irritations and are particularly bad on diesel vehicles compared with catalysed petrol cars, are down by more than 20 per cent.

Apparently, the frequent stopping of the motor reduces the engine's temperature, thus reducing Nitrogen oxide emmissions. Soot emissions - another worry with diesels - are also reduced.

Although German sales of the Golf Ecomatic will start shortly after Frankfurt, it is not certain that the car will go on sale in this country. VW in Britain is hopeful, though, and reckons it could sell the Ecomatic for about pounds 11,000.