Today's city car cull is a result of an EU drive to cut emissions; the 1948 equivalent was due to our new road tax system

Currently occurring is a cull of city cars, as an unintended (you'd hope) consequence of a drive to reduce harmful emissions by the European Union.

We've in the past few months seen the Renault Twingo, Seat Mii, Skoda Citigo, Suzuki Celerio and Vauxhall Viva be removed from sales lists, while almost every survivor still has an uncertain future.

A historical parallel can be found in 1948, when it was announced by the Labour chancellor Hugh Dalton that the road taxation system would be changed.

Since 1910, road tax had been charged on a hierarchy according to a specially formulated (and often quite innacurate) horsepower hierarchy. Under Dalton's new regime, every car would attract a flat rate – initially of £10 per annum.

"Signs are evident," we reported at the time, "that the new system may lead manuafacturers to rationalise to the extent of having one model – naturally a car with plenty of engine power. This, The Autocar considers, would be a false move."

Our basis for this was that almost as soon as the change had been announced, Standard had revealed the Vanguard. This was an exciting model, but it cast doubt over the firm's popular budget car, the Eight. Rumours swirled as Vauxhall dropped the Ten, and Ford indeed soon saw off the Anglia.

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"The 'buzz box' description of the small car has been developed into the slick similes of the backbenchers in recent Parliamentary debates," we complained. "It is time that someone rose to defend the quiet, able and handy little Eight."

But why would such over-rationalisation happen? We explained: "From the manufacturers' point of view, the one-model policy may have a decided advantage; without full knowledge of the intimate and secret details of production costs, it is impossible to tell. The major expense of car production lies in tooling up. An outlay is made of so many thousand pounds – it can easily be millions – and that overhead cost is spread over the batch of cars which the machine tools will produce before they wear out, or before the model becomes outdated. But if the batch is to be very large, it is necessary to duplicate the machines, and the question then arises as to whether the new machine tools should produce the same car or another model.

"Production figures for the next five years at least are likely to approximate to those which are being compared now – 27,496 cars in May. Reasons against a vast expansion of output are familiar. Number one is coal. On coal depends steel and a host of other things.

"The manufacturer's problem, therefore, is whether on present figures and other factors in his organisation it is necessary to duplicate his machine tools, and if so, whether he shall duplicate a single car model or have two strings to his bow. 

"In that case, this journal unhesitatingly advises the makers to think twice about dropping the smallest cars which are listed at the moment – the Eights.

"It is at this point that the views of the owner become important – not the overseas owner, but the home owner. Any manufacturer who plans his production with an eye solely on overseas markets is heading for bankruptcy in these days of shifting economic and political sands. Who would have thought a year ago, for instance, that half the world would close its doors against British cars?

"The home owner is going to be a poor man for some years. A nation's wealth lies in its production of goods, not of paper currency. The inflationary surplus of today must lead to one of two things before many months are past – if it is not to get out of hand; increased taxation or higher prices, most probably the latter. And at the same time, the Government must balance the external trading account, most likely by drastic pruning of exports. The standard of living is therefore going to drop sharply, leaving everyone poorer.

"Against the credit of a few pounds saved on annual taxation [for larger cars] by the flat rate must be debited increased insurance, higher garaging costs, bigger fuel consumption, lower tyre life, more expensive servicing and repairs, and often greater depreciation in value.

"The buyer is going to think if he buys a Sixteen in the future for, say, £500, as the only car available, 'They could probably make one of those little pre-war Eights for about £250'."

There were also concerns created by an increase in the size of cars over small garages, narrow country lanes, tight city streets and small parking spaces.

"It is the view of The Autocar that two models from a single big-scale manufacturer should not be too few or too many," we concluded. "One of these should be the car that is to take advantage of the new flat tax rate, and that is to compete with America in the export market. The other should be a small car made, as the Eight is now, mainly for the benefit of the British buyer."

Fortunately, our pleas were heard. Standard introduced an all-new, third-generation Eight in 1953 after five years away, a new Anglia appeared in 1949 and Vauxhall re-entered the market with the Viva in 1966.

Now we can only hope that regulators see the incongruity of forcing city cars off the road and encouraging the introduction of massive, two-tonne-plus plug-in hybrid SUVs of which the majority will never reach their eye-widening official MPG figures.

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Comments
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6 November 2019

To be honest poor sales killed the Suzuki, ADAM and Viva, and low profit per unit probably fired the first shot at the others.  FIAT 500, Punto, UP and Mini all do pretty well! 

6 November 2019

I didn't know that the Skoda Citigo and SEAT Mii had gone. Funny how car companies don't announce failures with the  same blaze of publicity for new models. I always thought the VW Group trio was too similar to justify three brands, each with their own low volume model variations. But it begs the question whether VW will replace the Up. And maybe if does, it will be just as an expensive, low volume electric model? 

So it seems that small car buyers have a choice restricted to Korean models, or the fading remnants of the European small car industry. Such a shame when these cars are so good and so right for tackling today's environmental concerns.  

6 November 2019
The VW trio are going electric only I gather, and the twingo has just quit, but these are in the UK, is not the twingo still available in the rest of Europe and are the VW trio also still available as well? In other words are these city car culls only in the UK?

6 November 2019

Your examples of what is meant to constitute a 'cull' is pretty misleading:

Twingo: Getting long in the tooth and moving to EV.Seat Mii: One of three identical (and ancient) cars in the market (and the Seat must be the lowest volume of the three)Skoda Citigo: Ditto to all the points above. They announced the EV version 2 months ago!Celerio: Charmless little box & pointless in Europe.Viva: A rebadged GM product which has no place under PSA ownership and I imagine both sides are keen to cut the remaining ties.

Not much of a cull, just a few models at the end of thier lifecycles. In fact, there's an interesting selection of new models coming out in this segment. Great reporting.

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