Not all doom and gloom for British motor industry

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The Independent Online

Listening to the depressing news from Longbridge you might be forgiven for thinking that the game was well and truly up for the British motor industry. Certainly the collapse of MG Rover is a catastrophe for the company's workers, suppliers and customers, just as the closure of the Vauxhall car factory at Luton and the end of car making at Ford's Dagenham plant were. These three famous sites have all suffered in recent years. Only a few weeks ago, Jaguar's owners, Ford, announced the end of car making at the historic Brown's Lane factory. Famous names such as Austin, Morris, Triumph, Sunbeam and Hillman have long since been consigned to the history books and motor heritage centres. Are there any reasons to be cheerful?

Listening to the depressing news from Longbridge you might be forgiven for thinking that the game was well and truly up for the British motor industry. Certainly the collapse of MG Rover is a catastrophe for the company's workers, suppliers and customers, just as the closure of the Vauxhall car factory at Luton and the end of car making at Ford's Dagenham plant were. These three famous sites have all suffered in recent years. Only a few weeks ago, Jaguar's owners, Ford, announced the end of car making at the historic Brown's Lane factory. Famous names such as Austin, Morris, Triumph, Sunbeam and Hillman have long since been consigned to the history books and motor heritage centres. Are there any reasons to be cheerful?

Well, quite a few. It's true that UK car production will never again reach its peak of 1.9 million units reached in 1972, but at 1.6 million last year, it is not far off it. If MG Rover never makes another car - and it is possible that a small-scale, MG-based production might survive - the loss of the 120,000 or so units it made last year equates to about 7 per cent of the industry's entire output. Not a step forward, but hardly the end either. The key to the survival of the British industry against the odds has been diversification, foreign (competent) owners and a move upmarket.

Britain has the widest car production base of any European country and most of the industry's giants are represented here. Nissan is now the biggest manufacturer in the UK, with the most productive factory in Europe, at Sunderland, turning out 300,000 Micras every year. Toyota is on about 285,000, with assembly at Burnaston in Derbyshire and engine making at Deeside, Wales. Then there's Honda, Vauxhall and Peugeot. The Ford-owned brands of Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover and Range Rover join Volkswagen's Bentley and BMW's Rolls-Royce marques in topping off the high-skill, high-value added end of the business.

Most remarkable of all, though, is the success of the new Mini: under BMW's management, Cowley has made half a million since 2001, three-quarters for export. And BMW, much maligned for abandoning Rover and Longbridge five years ago, makes all of its petrol four-cylinder engines at the Hams Hall plant near Birmingham. LDV Vans is back with a new design, the Maxus; Transits are still built in Southampton; and Dagenham is an important centre for engine production.

The real niche players, such as Lotus, TVR, Noble, Bristol and Morgan, seem to be thriving, and it is interesting that Mercedes-Benz went to McLaren to help build its £313,000 SLR supercar in Woking, Surrey. Indeed, highly specialised Formula One and other racing operations such as McLaren, Williams and ProDrive generally contribute a good deal to the industry.

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