An industry which continues to thrive, despite the closures

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The Independent Online

The casual observer could be forgiven for assuming that the British motor industry is in a state of terminal meltdown. First the collapse of MG Rover, then the closure of Peugeot's Ryton plant in Coventry, and now the announcement that TVR's sports car factory in Blackpool is to close.

In fact, it is anything but. The UK today boasts the largest number of volume car makers of any country in Europe. Meanwhile, output levels are on a par with those 30 years ago, and productivity is almost three times higher.

It is true that Britain no longer possesses an indigenously owned motor industry worth the name. It is also the case that imports now account for four in every five cars bought in the UK. It is also the fact that Ford, once the mainstay of the British car industry, is no longer engaged in volume car production here, while Vauxhall is a shadow of its former self.

But to assume from all this that the British car industry is dead would be quite wrong. The likes of Ford, Vauxhall and Rover have been replaced by a new wave of Japanese transplant factories. Indeed, Britain is the only EU country which hosts all three of Japan's big volume car makers - Toyota, Nissan and Honda.

And although Ford-badged cars are no longer made here, the company's Halewood plant on Merseyside, which these days makes Jaguars, is regarded by Ford as its best car plant, not just in Europe, but the world.

Not only this, Halewood last year won a coveted gold award in the influential JD Power survey of European plants manufacturing cars for export to the United States.

Halewood is not the only success story. BMW's Mini plant in Oxford, the one piece of Rover which the Germans decided to salvage from the wreckage, cannot produce enough cars to meet demand.

And while TVR is having a tough time, there are any number of other sport car makers still producing cars here - Aston Martin, Caterham, Lotus and Morgan to name but four.

What is certainly true is that the UK motor industry dwindled in terms of employment. In 1980, there were still 450,000 workers employed directly in British car plants. Today, that figure has shrunk to 175,000. And yet car production this year is forecast to hit 1.53 million - some half a million more cars than in 1980 and only 400,000 short of the all-time record of 1.92 million cars set in 1972.

The reason that production has remained remarkably resilient is that the UK's car makers have discovered new export markets. Three in every four of the 1.6 million cars built in Britain last year were shipped overseas.

But one word of warning. The fact that the UK car industry is no longer UK-owned means that production plants here will always be vulnerable when the shots are being called in Detroit, Tokyo, Paris and Munich.