Earlier this year, for Autocar, I toured Coventry in the company of Damien Kimberley, an authority on the city’s motoring history. Together we recorded the locations of long-dead car manufacturers great and small. It was a fascinating day but one tinged with regret that the city no longer justifies its once-proud moniker, the Detroit of Europe.
The story prompted Ian Flynn, inward investment manager at Invest in Warwickshire, to get in touch. Flynn is automotive, advanced engineering and manufacturing lead at this organisation that encourages enterprise in the region. His message was simple: “While many will be unaware of the detail of the past, equally there’s much happening here now that’s unknown to most people. Come and see for yourself.”
In fact, barely a week goes by that Autocar doesn’t spotlight some aspect of the region’s automotive scene, but here was an excuse to contrast Coventry then with Coventry now. However, for this return visit, rather than sprint around the city simply recording the locations of the dozens of key automotive companies, as we did before, we arranged to meet some of the principal players who are key to its future, starting with Councillor Jim O’Boyle…
City Council - Jim O'Boyle, cabinet member for jobs and regeneration
“We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and we can’t mess it up,” says Jim O’Boyle.
The city’s council cabinet member fixes me with a stare that challenges me to disagree. It’s easy to see why he rose to be TGWU works convenor at Peugeot’s Ryton plant until its closure and, with his production line background, why he has the ear of Coventry’s automotive leaders and entrepreneurs.
“I don’t want the next generation to experience what I did,” he says. “The internal combustion engine is coming to an end, and Coventry must be at the forefront in the move to electrification. We have to get into mass-production and start selling to the world once again. That’s why we want to build a gigafactory on the site of Coventry Airport that will build EV batteries from scratch. It could mean 4000 high-quality jobs – and if you make the batteries, you can make the cars.
“Coventry has plenty of small and medium-sized enterprises in the automotive sector, providing 90% of the city’s jobs. Many operate from what look like sheds, but inside they’re doing amazing things. We have to unleash their potential.”
Vital Auto - James Molloy, director and co-founder
Working out of a small business unit, rather than a shed, Vital Auto is nevertheless exactly the kind of SME O’Boyle is referring to. James Molloy, Rich Toal and Andy Shaw, its founders and directors, are doing amazing things, too.
Like many of the best businesses, it was founded in a garage – Molloy’s, to be precise – in 2015. Shaw, a former designer at Toyota in Japan, and Molloy and Toal, both prototype engineers, wanted to create an automotive design studio for designers and engineers to collaborate. Their first commission was the Nio EP9 electric supercar, on which they were design development partners.