'Thousands of parts for millions of cars. Unipart.’ If you’re of a certain age you may remember this advert and its catchy jingle, and many other surprisingly memorable TV ads from this car parts supplier.
It was born in the 1970s out of British Leyland, in an era when selling car parts the public was a bigger business than it is today.
Why? Because cars needed servicing far more often – every 3000 miles in some cases – because they went wrong more frequently and because millions of us serviced and repaired our own cars at home. They were easier to fix, and older cars were often worth more in real terms than they are today.
But last week came the news that Unipart Automotive had gone into receivership. If it doesn’t get rescued 1500 jobs will be lost, and 200 branches closed. The Unipart name won’t disappear, though, because there is also the Unipart Group, which grew out of the same business to become a big logistics, supply chain and manufacturing company.
Among others, it provides McLaren with 650S fuel rails and logistics services, has a rail manufacturing division and consults to the government. That side of the business became so dominant that the Group sold off Unipart Automotive in 2011.
Unipart was founded within British Leyland in 1974 by John Egan, as a brand name to envelop spare parts for all of British Leyland’s ranges, from Austin Morris to Jaguar, Rover and Triumph. Egan famously went on to rescue Jaguar a few years later. The brand was initially similar to Ford’s Motorcraft and Chrysler UK’s Mopar operations, each of them supplying parts for the parent company’s cars.
But Unipart’s moment of genius came when it began supplying parts not only for British Leyland models but rival makes too, prompting a series of TV ads designed to ram the point home.
Hence ‘Thousands of parts for millions of cars’ (annoyingly, I have the jingle on the brain) and the risky but brilliant ‘The answer is yes. Now what’s the question?, lines which briefly entered the language. And the risk? That your local Unipart centre wouldn’t actually have a lower front suspension ball-joint for your Matra-Simca Bagheera.
Personalities were harnessed too. Spurs and Arsenal goalkeeper Pat Jennings shamelessly donned a giant oil filter to save engine-threatening particles from scoring goals. And Niki Lauda was seen driving his Range Rover to work, his 4x4 using the same engine oil as his Unipart-sponsored McLaren F1 racer. But that was another era.
Lately Unipart Automotive has reportedly struggled to compete against Euro Car Parts and other rivals, and may not be rescued. But at least something much bigger has grown out of the original car parts business.