What, do you imagine, was the most successful British car?
In terms of sheer production numbers, probably the original Mini. But as Ford’s famous 1960 engineering strip-down of the car revealed, it probably didn’t make much in the way of profit.
In terms of being a contemporary best-seller it might have been the Austin-Morris 1100-1300 series, which managed to be the UK’s best-selling car for a decade. It offered most of the fun and modernity of the Mini with family-size space. Pity about the rust.
In terms of sheer cash profit, I’d argue that it’s probably the two Range Rover Sport models. The first-generation car was such a cash-generator it was said to be the single most profitable model in the Ford global family, achieving Porsche-level margins.
The current Sport has also been an amazing success, outselling the Range Rover and managing to achieve very healthy showroom pricing. Successfully replacing what was LR’s second best-selling model in 2020 might be one of the most important things the company does this decade.
But the lesson is that post-1970 cars from the UK industry have generally never sold in large numbers. And certainly not the kind of mass-market numbers achieved by French and German carmakers. Even the well-liked Rover R8 series (200 and 400) shifted barely a million units in at least six years of production. VW might have shifted that in Golfs in less than 24 months.
2020 was a terrible year for car-making but JLR seems to have been hit worse than most with annual sales across all its models falling to under 450,000 units. The days of JLR shooting for a million sales a year are long gone. But, if you look closely at its history, it should be no surprise.
Before Christmas I stumbled across a fascinating Trades Union pamphlet from late 1977. It was addressing the concerns of the planned restructuring of British Leyland.
After collapsing in 1974 (after the fuel crisis and the UK’s entry to the EEC), the sprawling BL enterprise had been propped up by the taxpayer as sales slumped. Although it had the occasional operating profit, it could not remotely finance new models.