This isn’t rocket science, but our high-speed tour of Britain’s car factories still owes something to the line uttered by John F Kennedy when he committed the US to the space race: “We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
That’s doubly true when it comes to getting to Sunderland in time for 9am if your starting point, like ours, is Twickenham in South-West London.
The idea is simple: visit every significant car manufacturing site to put a sense of scale on what remains Blighty’s most dynamic industrial sector. Readers with longer memories might remember that we’ve done something similar before, with a 2005 expedition serving as the partial inspiration for this one, but it has also been made topical by Brexit and all the unanswered questions about what it will mean for our car industry. Whereas the original tour was a marathon, including taking a car from each factory to the next (see ‘All change since 2005’, below), this one is definitely a sprint, given the need to compress a tour of the 16 UK sites that produce more than 100 road-legal cars a year into just three days.
For transport on this high-mileage mission, we’ve opted to go straight to the top. The Bentley Bentayga Diesel has been selected on the basis of its Britishness and general niceness as a place to spend time, but also by the fuel range given by its huge 85-litre tank. There’s steady rain throughout our four-hour trip from Autocar HQ to Wearside, but the gauge still reads half full as we arrive.
Sunderland is a long way from the heart of the British car industry, but the Nissan plant is one of the most productive in Europe. Jaguar Land Rover might produce more vehicles overall, but no other British plant got close to the half-million Nissan Qashqais, Jukes and Infiniti Q30s that Sunderland built last year, along with a smattering of Leafs. A total of 7000 people work here and its importance to the local economy is emphasised by the fact that the entire workforce is being given the freedom of the city two days after our visit, although nobody we speak to seems sure what this will entitle them to do. There’s just one problem, though. Our plan is to photograph the whole production line-up outside each factory, but there’s an absence of available cars here, with only a box-fresh Qashqai waiting to go. “You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to get cars in a car factory,” says plant PR Stuart Boyd, ruefully.