Motoring: How the British won then gave it away

There are many good things about Barbados, not least that it is one of the few countries where McDonald's failed: the locals cite their predilection for healthy food and their preference for poultry and fish over beef as prime reasons why the first (and only) McDonald's hamburger restaurant in Barbados, just outside Bridgetown, closed six months after opening.

A more important plus about the eastern-most Caribbean island is that they're fond of Brits. They like and, what's more unusual these days, respect, the Royal Family. They erected plaques and monuments to the 300- odd years of British rule after being granted independence. And the island is full of places with names like St James, the Scotland district and St Michael. There's even a Trafalgar Square, complete with Nelson looking smug after whipping the Frogs and the Spaniards, shortly before asking Hardy for a goodbye kiss.

Years ago, when given the chance, they also used to buy British. You can see the evidence in the (many) scrapyards dotted through the island: old Fords and Morrises and Austins and Hillmans in their final stages of decomposition, as they return to earth. Some old stagers battle on. Although I went to Barbados for the sun and the sea, not to spot cars, I did a quick exercise on the way back to the airport, identifying the first 100 cars I saw. Two were British: an old Cortina, with not long to go, and a Hillman Hunter, also on its last legs. Far more significant, 91 of the 100 cars I saw were Japanese (for the anoraks among you, there were three Korean cars, a Malaysian Proton, an American Jeep, plus a Peugeot and a Citroen).

Twenty or 30 years ago, of course, 90 percent of the cars would have been British. The same is, and was, true of scores of ex-British colonies dotted around the globe, from the Cook Islands to Kenya. We owned their car markets. And then, in one of the greatest industrial suicides in history, we threw it all away. And it wasn't just in little countries, with tiny car markets, either.

I spent my childhood in Australia, where throughout the Sixties my dad was PR and advertising director for BMC-cum-BL-cum Leyland Australia. The British company was the biggest-selling importer. Minis and Morris 1100s were prized as inexpensive runabouts. Rovers, Triumphs and big Austins were more sophisticated and comfortable than the crude locally made Holdens and Fords. Land Rovers dominated the important 4 x 4 market. MGs were the best-selling sports cars, helped by their fold-back roofs (Aussies have always loved the sun) and their mechanical ruggedness.

I remember, with great clarity, my dad going to a business meeting in Britain in the late Sixties, when the Japanese were first starting to attack the Australian car market with their ornately styled, tinny, cheap little cars. Australia was the first Western car market they hit in a big way: it was big enough to give them an idea about whether Westerners would accept their wares but small enough so that a failure would not have resulted in an international loss of face.

My dad said to the gathered senior worthies of BL that the Japanese were a big threat, were starting to steal sales, and that unless they got off their butts and started to improve quality and value-for-money then they could, Hardy-style, kiss goodbye to it all. And a BL guy stood up and said they didn't consider the Japanese a threat. Simple as that. (And, parenthetically, don't be such a silly colonial git.)

My dad went back to Australia and resigned. Five years later, Leyland closed its Sydney assembly plant and, effectively, pulled out of the Australian market, handing it to the Japanese. The Japanese haven't looked back.

Leyland (now Rover) has. It now has a tiny operation out there, selling Land Rovers and, starting next year, new MGFs. One day they hope to sell Rover cars again.

During this centennial year of the British motor industry, it's become fashionable to mourn Rover's - "the nation's car maker" - loss of primacy in the home car market (its market share is now barely a third of what it was). But, to my mind, throwing away all the goodwill that existed towards Britain and British goods in scores of markets around the world - some tiny, some big - through shoddy workmanship and inept management was a much greater sin.

The irony is that Rover now makes good and reliable cars again: cars well suited to international markets. But it'll never get a chance to fight for market leadership again in the ex-British colonies. The Japanese are too well entrenched. And, unlike Rover, the Japanese are not stupid enough to throw it all away.

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