In praise of the oily rags

Believe it or not, people in this country do still make things. Why? Because they're mad. Jonathan Glancey fills up his Jaguar and goes in search of what's left of British excellence
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The Independent Online
The Great Western Designer Outlet Village opens this week. It replaces Swindon railway works, which for more than a century built some of Britain's finest locomotives - Cities, Saints, Stars, Halls, Manors, Granges, Castles, Kings - and was a world-famous centre of British engineering and workmanship. Swindon's transformation is a paradigm of the decline and fall of traditional British manufacturing, and the Great Western Designer Outlet Village a mirror in which we see reflected the inexorable rise of a nation of incurable shopaholics.

Manufacturing accounts for just 20 per cent of the British economy's output in 1997. Perhaps this suits us well; perhaps those 150 years during which Britain was the workshop of the world were no more and no less than a polluted hillock on the historical landscape. How much nicer the countryside is becoming now that so many of our clothes are made in sweatshops in India, the Philippines and Central America, and our cars in Japan, Korea and Malaysia. We like to consume, not to make. We are increasingly a nation of couch potatoes rather than a workshop of active producers.

This year, Brush Electrical Machinery of Loughborough will make a handful of locomotives for the Channel Tunnel's Le Shuttle car-ferry service, but the only important order for main-line locomotives in Britain is one from Wisconsin Central, the US railroad corporation that, since the privatisation of British Railways, runs our national rail-freight network. The 250 diesel- electrics are to be made by General Motors in Ontario.

There is just one other main-line locomotive - Tornado - under construction, in Doncaster, birthplace of Mallard and The Flying Scotsman. Tornado is an exact replica of a 1948 A1 Pacific, a 100mph, 3,000hp express passenger steam locomotive which will earn its keep pulling enthusiasts' specials. Its construction is symbolic of contemporary British attitudes to heavy engineering. We think it outdated, the stuff of museums and theme-park displays.

The country that invented the railway locomotive has all but abandoned it. And manufacturing along the way; do we want to make anything in 1997 that requires physical effort, oily hands and the desecration of what could be cosy countryside? In his provocative book English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit (Penguin, 1981) Martin Wiener, an American historian, argued that an obsession with social betterment and snobbery sapped Britain's industrial vigour. The children of industrial magnates were packed off to public schools, had the classics beaten into them, built country houses and idled their lives away chasing foxes and passing the port. Today, few pukka middle-class graduates venture into industry. For many, their dream is a well-paid job doing something "creative", a fashionable flat in town and a super place in the country to play latter- day milords and ladies. They are the pages of Country Life come to life.

With these reflections in mind, I decided to find out why anyone could still be bothered to manufacture anything that could be called industrial, when the world of arts, culture, property, leisure and financial services beckon with their promise of social prestige, easy money and manicured hands. So I filled up the twin tanks of my V12 Jaguar Sovereign - a car built on the scale of a locomotive during Jaguar's brief spell of independence between the dead hand of British Leyland and the vital grip of Ford - and set out in search of what remains of our industrial landscape. This took me along highways and byways lined with the visually obnoxious effluence of post-industrialism: superstores, DIY centres, "country clubs" (whatever they are), leisure centres, motorway service stations, business parks, ostrich farms, insidious estates of executive homes (exurbia in excelsis), to Canterbury, Wimbledon, Malvern, Llanwern, Derby and Doncaster.

In these towns I talked to men and women who tan and cut leather, craft sports cars, extrude steel and set the world's finest aero-engines whirring into life. Stiff and suspicious at first, they wanted to talk statistics, investment strategies, marketing initiatives, and arcane MBA management stuff, but what I wanted to know, and finally got from them, is why they continued to go to so much bother to make things in noisy factories for relatively little profit when they should be, if the Wiener theory holds up, riding to hounds or dabbling in the arts.

"I actually quite enjoy what we're doing," says a tentative Joseph Connolly, managing director of Connolly Leather, supplier of seat covers to Jaguar, and to hansom cabs, gigs and broughams before the carriage went horseless.

Quite enjoy running a tannery in Canterbury and a leather works in Wimbledon in the face of stampeding foreign competition? Come, come Mr Connolly.

"Well, I certainly don't want to be the member of the family who closes down the business father and grandfather fought for. Father died of a heart attack right here in the factory. Can't let him down, can I?"

Yes, he can. Sir John Betjeman famously turned his back on the family firm, Betjeman & Co, which made cabinets and costly gewgaws for Aspreys. The decision broke his father's heart. It also produced a future poet laureate and one of Britain's best-loved authors. Portrait of a Deaf Man, a poem in memory of the father he spurned, was one of the best things Betjeman wrote.

I turn to Joseph's younger brother and fellow director, Tim, and ask him the same question.

"These are tremendously challenging times for us. No more cosy contracts with old pals in the motor industry the business grew up with. We're out to prove that a British family business can become a global supplier in an increasingly competitive market. Wimbledon is our base, but we've set up joint ventures in the US and Argentina and factories in Singapore and Melbourne ... ". Tim Connolly's enthusiasm begins to ignite and accelerate through the emotional gears.

It's Joseph and Tim's brother-in-law, Anthony Hussey, who finally says what no-nonsense, lantern-jawed business executives are not meant to say.

"Let's face it, Jonathan, the reason we make things when we could be investing elsewhere or enjoying an easy life is because we're mad. Nuts. Barking. In a good year, we're lucky to make 5 per cent profit on a pounds 35m turnover. If we chose to commit ourselves to the luxury goods business, for example, we'd be looking at easier money. Look at Louis Vuitton [the French company famous for its artfully monogrammed luggage]: their profit on pounds 960m turnover is, I think I'm right, pounds 445m."

That's it. While there are few saner and more delightful businessmen than the Connolly clan, it is ultimately their love of making things and proving that there is a market for the things they make that drives them on. "That", says Hussey, "and the fear of boredom."

"We might be mad," says Joseph Connolly, "but I can't help feeling that making things is good for the economy in the long run. It underpins an otherwise precarious set-up based on financial services and other intangibles. Manufacturing helps an economy weather storms. Even the Swiss are keen manufacturers."

Charles and Peter Morgan, makers of the famous and perversely old-fashioned sports car that bears their family name (in wings on long, louvred bonnets) have been weathering storms for decades. The business was set up by Peter's father, HFS Morgan, in 1909. It moved to its present rambling home in clear sight of the Malvern Hills in the Twenties. Despite the famous storm warnings announced by Sir John Harvey-Jones, former chairman of ICI and television's business Trouble Shooter, Morgan's archaic methods of manufacturing continue to pay off. Morgan builds and sells 500 cars a year, and there is never less than a four-year waiting list for these charismatic and characterful timber-framed, timber-floored machines. The company employs 135 people, exactly 100 of whom make cars - carpenters, panel-beaters, seamstresses - clattering away in a rambling row of brick and tin sheds. Staff turnover is a meaningless concept.

"We have a good old barney over pay once a year," says Peter Morgan, retired MD unmoveable from his desk, "but we all enjoy making the cars, and that's what counts."

"It certainly is," says Charles, former ITV cameraman and sports-car racing driver. "I gave up with telly. It was thrilling filming under fire in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion, but when the industry became more interested in management structures than making films, I bailed out. Making cars is fun; in fact, I can't think of anything better. I rather hope my daughter might want to take the business on when I retire."

We walk through the factory, inspecting antique sliding-pillar suspension assemblies, plywood wheel arches cut to perfection, iron-pumping V8 engines stacked in corners ... 15 minutes of this and anyone with a glimmer of Toad in their hearts will be signing up for a Morgan of their own. It is the very making of Malvern's finest that sells them. Morgans are not a means of transport, but a passion.

So, too, are the mighty jets that lift countless civilian and military aircraft into the stratosphere, though you wouldn't know it from the matter-of-fact monotones of the chaps who run Rolls-Royce Aero Engines, Derby. Quintessential Midlanders, they give the impression of being almost indifferent to the magic they perform. It's just their manner. I'm sure that they feel with me that a top aero-engine is a kinetic sculpture and a thing of ineffable beauty, as well as a machine of gratifying precision and prodigious power. Its construction, executed in surgical sheds, marries the logic of the computer to the dexterity of human hands and eyes. This year Rolls-Royce is set to become the world's biggest manufacturer of aero-engines. Some achievement. R-R management might appear cool and detached, but if a Spitfire flew over the factory there would be a rush to the boardroom window: no besuited executive would ignore, much less mistake, the operatic thunder of a Merlin engine on song. The latest generation of R-R turbo-fans may be whisper- quiet, but there is no mistaking the passion that moves the blades that create the thrust that lifts jumbo jets and drinks trolleys reliably high above the ever-changing British cloudscape.

My own love of planes derives partly from making Airfix and Revell kits of Spitfires and Corsairs when very young: making them helped me to understand the way they worked and their inherent grace. By reminiscing in this manner, I encouraged one reluctant, sober-suited aviation executive to admit that he had done the same. But why the initial embarrassment about confessing to his childhood enthusiasms? What on earth is wrong with wanting to make things?

As the big Jag wafted me back to London, several things seemed clear. The British are best at making highly crafted machinery, highly technical machinery, or, in the case of Rolls-Royce (or racing cars, or hi-fi equipment), a fusion of the two. There is little point in our competing with the Chinese steel industry when British Steel at Llanwern can make a healthy profit producing a much lower volume of hi-tech "clever steels" beyond the ken of mass-producing nations. Equally, it would be pointless for Morgan cars to think of competing with Mazda or Ford.

I learnt, as I suspected, that energy and enthusiasm are more than a match for the flip-chart, overhead-projector, my-jargon-is-more-macho- than-your-jargon school of business management. Detached professional management might well turn a profit deciding that designer labels are more profitable than diesel locos, but I can't get excited by the Great Western Designer Outlet Village; nor, apparently, can those promoting it. The press kit announcing the opening of this retail "facility" was wrapped around a scale model of the Great Western Railway 4-6-0, 6005 King George II (although the one sent to me is literally off the rails). The full-scale original was designed and built at Swindon railway works 70 years ago. The retail sector may have triumphed over manufacturing, but I get the feeling that not so very far under the surface, and despite Martin Wiener's astute analysis of the upper-middle classes, there are many people who wish we were still making things rather than simply consuming those made by others. You don't have to be mad to want to make useful things in Britain at the turn of the century, but it might be the only way to produce anything as enduring as Connolly leather or as endearing as a Great Western King.