British Car Makers Look to the Next Century
by Stuart Birch
European Editor, Automotive Engineering
From the moment the design of a new car is finalised, its creators are thinking about its replacement.
The automotive industry is a restless business and always has been. Its evolution has seen dramatic changes in almost every aspect of manufacturing technology including its use of the human resources that make it all possible.
And nowhere in the world has that evolution been more graphically illustrated than in the UK. This year the motor industry in Britain celebrates 100 years of manufacturing - years that have seen it expand, contract and move forward again to produce high quality products built by highly trained and well- motivated people in plants using advanced technology.
It was in January 1896 that the Daimler Motor Company of Coventry was registered as the first manufacturer of cars, and Daimlers are still being built in the same city a century later. Although Daimler made that first move it did not actually produce cars for sale until the following year. Wolseley of Birmingham under the eye of its general manager, Herbert Austin - who was later to become a motor mogul did make cars for sale later in 1896.
"Motor vehicles had, of course, been produced in Britain prior to this date," Roger King, Chairman of the British Motor Centenary Trust. "But they were made by enthusiasts for enthusiasts rather than for commercial purposes.
As one of the world's great engineering and manufacturing nations, Britain was a natural environment in which the infant motor industry could grow rapidly to maturity. Between 1896 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914, car design made steady progress and new companies proliferated, with some of the most famous names appearing including Rolls-Royce.
Cars As Tools
By then, the car was not merely a horseless carriage - a grown-up toy for just the rich - but a functional tool for transporting people and freight . The US company, Ford, had established a factory at Trafford Park, Manchester, in 1911 to produce the remarkably successful Model T, the "Tin Lizzie".
In the 1920s and 1930s the British motor industry continued to expand along with huge investment to produce a diverse range of cars - from coachbuilt limousines to rapid open-top two-seaters - that established Britain at the forefront of automotive engineering with, by the standards of the day, impressive overseas sales.
AC, Alvis , Austin, Bentley, Daimler, Ford, Frazer-Nash, Hillman, Humber, Lanchester, MG, Morgan, Riley, Rolls-Royce, Rover, Singer, Standard, Talbot, Triumph, SS (later re-named Jaguar), Sunbeam, Vauxhall (part of General Motors from 1926) and Wolseley, were all designing and building cars in Britain, some of which were to become recognised as classics.
With so many companies vying for business, rationalisation was inevitable and before and after World War II, there were many mergers, some names disappearing forever, others suffering the
ignominy of "badge engineering" whereby large corporations would use a common body shape and give it a different identity according to specification.
A regular version of the Farina-designed BMC saloon of the late 1950s was an Austin Cambridge but with luxury specification became a Wolseley or, with added engine power, an MG.
Despite the British motor industry's success - and perhaps because of it a full realisation of the need for design, manufacturing and marketing advances in the 1960s and 1970s was not appreciated.
The industry was certainly capable of new thought (the Mini and E-type Jaguar were fine examples) but too often many out-moded build methods were adhered to and fresh designs were not always properly developed before going on sale. Labour relations and management techniques were also a problem.
The result was a painful metamorphosis which saw the structure of much of the industry changed. But the outcome now is a re-shaped, efficient, hi-tech design and manufacturing base, Nissan, Honda, Toyota and BMW have invested heavily in the UK. Ford factories at Dagenham and Halewood are achieving fresh peaks of efficiency that compare with the best in Continental Europe, and at Luton, Vauxhall has recently completed massive investment in advanced automation with a high robot population to produce the Vectra hatchback in both Vauxhall and Opel forms.
Thanks to extensive training and a totally new philosophy in terms of individual responsibility, labour relations in Britain's car plants have been transformed to a degree that: would have seemed unthinkable 20 years ago.
Today, quality allied to advanced product and manufacturing technology is the absolute priority for all UK car manufacturers. Rover, now part of BMW, is a fine example of that philosophy. The company has developed the innovative mid-engined MGF sports car which has been launched to international acclaim, and it recently revealed a smooth and powerful new V6 engine developed from its successful four cylinder K-series unit. The engine is powering the latest, up-dated version of the luxurious 800 model and will be used for future Rover products.
From its beginnings a hundred years ago, Britain's motor industry quickly established itself as a world force. The changes which it has undergone have been radical but the outcome is now a capability to produce quality products efficiently that are able to meet and beat the strongest competition.
It is all set for renewed success as it embarks on its second century.
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