RECENTLY, I was asked to deliver a speech about the British motor industry to a group of Italian automotive engineers. The Italians wanted to learn more about carmakers in the UK.
Yes, I was surprised by the request. What could other car-producing nations possibly learn from the British auto industry? In fact, let's be fair. What British auto industry?
The situation in the UK just seems to get worse. Some of the old stories are even resurfacing, what with rumors that European carmakers with plants in both the UK and the continent are working overtime to fix poor quality cars built in Britain.
This sounds like a flashback from 20 years ago. European automakers were supposed to have closed the once notorious quality gap between their German and British plants long ago.
Okay, let's really be fair. There is still a pretty significant British auto industry. Besides the local operations of General Motors and Ford and its Premier Automotive Group brands, BMW, Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Peugeot and MG Rover are building cars in Britain.
But that wasn't what my Italian engineering hosts were interested in hearing about. They wanted to know more about the homegrown carmakers that operate almost invisibly in Britain, selling cars by the tens of tens.
Several of these niche manufacturers (actually they target sub-segments of parts of niches) are thriving. They are quietly preserving some great names in motoring history. In fact, never has an auto-producing nation preserved so many brands for so few buyers.
We're not just talking about Britain's Big Three - TVR, Bristol and Morgan - but also AC Cars, Ginetta and Caterham. Even Lotus is part of this group. Jensen once was and may be again.
You simply don't see this phenomenon in other countries. Indeed, the British example could be a model for nations stuck with only giant automakers.
It's always a struggle for these little organisms. But they are a fascinating microcosm of the larger auto industry. They have a strong entrepreneurial streak and are run by car enthusiasts whose only purpose in life is to satisfy their customers.
These small companies develop a strain of creativity rarely seen in big auto groups. They offer engineers and managers a chance to exercise a special kind of imagination and inspiration.
MG Rover is being forced to go this route. The former Rover Group is exhibiting the do-more-with-less approach long used by the very small British companies.
The increasing consolidation of the auto industry creates a need for these miniature brands. It makes independence and distinctiveness more valuable. Something dies in a small carmaker when it becomes part of a big group.
It's a little like the American beer industry. Twenty years ago the USA had only a handful of huge brewers that each controlled a number of brands - all notable for their blandness. But with the beginning of microbrewers that all changed, suddenly giving Americans some great beers to chose from.
The boutique car companies are actually helped by the big manufacturers' cost-cutting platform strategies. Car buyers are becoming accustomed to a fragmented market. That will lead to still more niches.
But the small makers face tremendous cost challenges, mainly from escalating regulatory standards. Design, of course, is the great equalizer. Terrific styling is worth thousands of euros per unit. It can nullify huge cost disadvantages. Still, these small guys need to come together. They need to form a coalition, a means of cooperating and finding ways to share costs, while remaining fully independent. This might level the playing field a wee bit.
Why not an independent automakers' association that would help form distribution channels, lower component costs, share motor show expenses and jointly buy engineering services?
These companies also need strong, committed leaders such as Peter Wheeler of TVR, Tony Crook of Bristol and Charles Morgan of Morgan. Recently, we lost someone who exemplified the spirit that exists in the British car industry - Victor Gauntlett, who died last month. Gauntlett acquired Aston Martin in 1981 and nurtured the struggling company for several years, saving it from collapse until Ford took over.
The small British carmakers that have survived are basically in business to have fun. That was Victor Gauntlett's philosophy. They aren't much interested in growing and they don't want to go global unless there is legitimate global demand. They also don't want to sell out unless that is the only way to survive.
We need more of these kinds of companies, not fewer.