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 United Kingdom.
I was surprised by the request. What could other car-producing nations possibly learn from the British auto industry? What British auto industry?
The situation in the United Kingdom seems to get worse. Some old stories are even resurfacing, with rumors that European carmakers with plants in the United Kingdom 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.
Let's be fair. There still is a significant British auto industry. Besides the local operations of General Motors and Ford Motor Co. 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. 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 subsegments 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 the group. Jensen once was and may be again.
You 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 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 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 joins a big group.
The boutique car companies are 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 automakers face tremendous cost challenges, mainly from escalating regulatory standards. Design 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 form a coalition, a means of cooperating and finding ways to share costs, while remaining independent. This might level the playing field a wee bit.
Why not create 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. We lost someone who exemplified the spirit that exists in the British car industry - Victor Gauntlett, who died in April. Gauntlett acquired Aston Martin in 1981 and nurtured the company for several years, saving it from collapse until Ford took over.
The surviving small British carmakers are basically in business to have fun. That was 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.
You can e-mail Richard Johnson at [email protected]