How that German car overtook us in life’s fast lane…

I FANCIED a German-German car but ended up with a Spanish-German one. A Chinese-Swedish car was beyond my reach and I didn’t look at an English-Japanese model. With purely British cars, as opposed to cars made here, the choice is limited to Morgan, Caterham or McClaren, at least from what I could discover on an AA website.

The Spanish-German car is good and cheaper than its German cousin. We got the newish car under a sort of complicated lease deal, and shortly afterwards I went for a drink with two friends, one of whom said: “That’s a terrible way to buy a car.”

In truth, it was the only way we could pull off buying anything decent. The old car had become a liability and I need a car at present. For the first time in my life, I am driving some distance to two different jobs, and can no longer cycle three miles into York (this is not an improvement).

Perhaps the need for a motor explains my probably fleeting interest in cars.

Plenty of cars are made in Britain by foreign-owned companies, from Mini, Honda and Toyota, to Jaguar/Land Rover and Bentley, which is owned by the German-German company whose car I couldn’t afford.

It was all very different after the Second World War. I say this not from memory – please – but thanks to reading David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain 1945-51. This thumping book of 600-plus pages is a memorable and marvellous piece of social history, and despite its weight is only the first part of a series than runs all the way to 1979.

There is so much of interest in this book, which maps Britain after the war, and runs the memories or ordinary people alongside the political ups and downs of the day.

Towards the end, there is a section on the British motor industry, and this reminds us that once this was a mighty beast indeed. On the eve of the first post-war Motor Show in October 1948, the Minister of Supply, George Strauss, told the annual dinner of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders that the industry had “confounded the wiseacres who foretold that the industry would die a lingering death in the post-war world”.

It is one of gnarled ironies of history that the wiseacres are right in the end. This pleasing noun, by the way, refers to “a person with an affectation of wisdom or knowledge, regarded with scorn or irritation by others; a know-all”.

By 1950, “the British motor industry enjoyed a staggering 52 per cent of world motor exports”, Kynaston writes. Tellingly, in the same year now mighty Japan only produced 2,000 cars in total.

A report for the British motor industry did concede that this rosy situation would not continue for ever, and identified Germany as an important “potential future competitor”.

The report loftily declared that the competition would not come from Volkswagen, which was reckoned by British standards to be “uncomfortable and noisy”. Look around on our roads today and nearly every other car seems to be a VW Golf. You will be looking sometime for a Morris Oxford or whatever.

Kynaston points to the beginnings of cracks in the industry even at its peak, with reports from abroad that British cars were becoming a byword for unreliability, although it would “take a lot to shake the industry’s complacent assumption that British was still best”.

Perhaps in a sense that was Britain’s problem at the time: being a winner in terms of the war turned us into losers in other ways. Germany certainly won the ‘car war’, or it had until last year’s emissions scandal, which placed VW under huge pressure.

Our motor industry did die a lingering death, although the end came a little later. Today it is a different world and motor companies are tangled up in multinational complications, and many cars are made here. People seem to like driving these international cars so, away from sentiment, it isn’t all bad.

A few weeks ago, in the swirling post-Brexit chaos, Theresa May promised Nissan that the company wouldn’t lose out when Britain leaves the EU. The terms of her pledge have not been elaborated. But in essence, a multinational company worth untold billions was offered a sweetener of some sort, or so it seems – a reminder of where complacent attitudes can lead us.


  1. The fate of British Car making was sealed by nationalisation and the strike ridden days of the 70s. If you read the book by Michael Edwardes ‘Back from the Brink’ he details the chaos that he inherited. Sadly the models that were supposed to save BL, the Austin Allegro and then the Metro were both poorly built and years late coming to the market. There were also over 40 car plants around the UK which was far too many and it meant engines were built in one location and shipped to another. In addition many of the parts were made by suppliers who were also struggling with industrial disputes, price of steel, etc. and often late in delivery.

    The UK market loved the letter at the end of the registration plate and garages were struggling to fulfill orders in August when the new letter started. It was easy for Japanese, French, Italian and German carmakers to put through extra right hand drive models in the summer in the lead upto August. Whereas the UK car plants had to build thousands of cars and store them to hold onto our market share. We were poor at exporting and delivering out of date poor quality cars that other countries no longer wanted.

Leave a Reply