This little chart was spotted by eagle-eyed deputy editor Matt Burt when he was recently in the Autocar archives (which stretch back to 1895). Published at beginning of 1960 it provides a fascinating insight into the shape of the European car industry half a century ago and how it has constantly merged.
Volkswagen was - as it is now - on top of the European heap. You can also see how the European industry consolidated. Even then, VW was on the brand rampage. By 1969 it had bought Auto Union and NSU/Audi. Ford UK and Germany stopped producing different cars and merged, as did Vauxhall and Opel. Chrysler thought it could break into the European car market by buying Rootes Group and Simca. Lancia was bought by Fiat,
BMC also hoovered up smaller brands, buying Jaguar. Profitable commercial vehicle maker Leyland stepped in and bought Triumph and Rover. Borgward folded in 1961 and Panhard stopped building road cars in 1967. Peugeot bought Citroen totally by 1976 and then bought Chrysler’s European arm in 1978.
Clearly, the biggest loss from this chart is BMC which was the second biggest European car maker and the biggest in terms of income. Arguably BMC should have been poised to accelerate towards being Europe’s most successful car-maker by volume, as well as income.
BMC had just launched the Mini. It turned out that it wasn’t going to be very profitable (famously, Ford stripped a Mini down and declared it a loss-maker) but it was a huge image builder and was followed by the ADO16, the Mini’s big brother, which was in production for 12 years, and the best-selling car in the UK for a decade.
But by 1966 BMH (as it was now known) was in decline. It had bought Jaguar in 1966 but sales had collapsed to around 313,000 units of which 72,000 were manufactured overseas. In 1967, the then Labour government pushed failing BMH into a merger with Leyland, leading to the industrial chaos we all know so well.
Pretty, technically advanced, models such as the ADO16 1100/1300 and the Mini and a raft of brands (including MG, Riley and Vanden Plas) should have been the basis of a successful modern manufacturer. However, these models were also sold alongside the ancient Morris Minor and A-series Austin models. And where modernity was tried, such as the Maxi hatchback, a combination of mean-spirited style and appalling production engineering put paid to the idea.
Alex Issigonis, BMH’s creative supremo, had a final pitch at a future car, the sharp-edged 9X concept of 1967, which effectively foresaw the format of the original Golf. It was, however, just too advanced: Austin engineers found it impossible to build the 9X’s modular engine within the tight tolerances required, showing just how British engineering was falling behind.
For me, it was probably the UK’s near non-existent engineering and technical education that killed BMC, Leyland and the UK’s mass car industry. Firstly, the technical schools promised post-war never materialised under either political party and the aspiration to build separate technical schools was finally killed off in the mid 1960s. And secondly, government and Whitehall is dominated by essay writers from Oxbridge.
It is depressing that, 46 years after the panicked attempt to prop up the UK’s mass carmakers, JLR is still calling for more finance for the UK’s manufacturing chain and underling the need for more graduate engineers. This week, JLR’s Mike Wright said “If schools can promote STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects….this will help to inspire and encourage them to consider a career in engineering and manufacturing.” Which was just what was being said in the 1940s.