Early this year, I spent a week touring car factories in England. For fans of British cars, these are interesting days. British vehicle exports have climbed from a low of 250,000 in 1984 to 1.2 million last year.
Visit the Aston Martin plant in Gaydon, Warwickshire, and you will see a production line that is humming with DB9 sports cars. The new small V-8 Vantage has expanded the Aston Martin lineup to three models. The company plans to build a record 5,000 cars this year. And for the first time in decades, Aston is turning a profit.
At the Bentley plant in Crewe, it's the same story. The stunning Continental GT has a worldwide waiting list. A new Continental GT-based sedan, the Continental Flying Spur, is pushing annual Bentley production to around 6,000 units - another all-time high.
Why UK brands are booming
In Oxford, BMW is expanding the plant to boost production of the Mini to 250,000 to 300,000 a year, from a line originally designed to build 100,000. The next generation of the Mini is due in a year.
All is not bliss among British auto manufacturers. Jaguar is struggling and MG Rover skidded into bankruptcy April 7 after 30 years of decline under British ownership. Rover is roadkill, but the MG nameplate could survive. The company's new owner, China's Nanjing Automobile, has pledged to resume production on a limited basis in England and could resurrect the Austin brand for a series of entry-level cars.
So why are the Mini, Bentley and Aston Martin plants flourishing under foreign ownership? Are there lessons for other automakers?
Here's why Aston, Bentley and Mini are booming: All three factories have new, state-of-the-art production equipment, paid for by the foreign companies that own them. Also, workers in all three plants have been retrained to build cars the modern way, using the best equipment available.
Ford Motor Co., Volkswagen and BMW, the owners of Aston, Bentley and Mini, respectively, have preserved the Britishness of the cars by not tinkering with the unique things that differentiate them from vehicles from other countries. I'm talking about classic, timeless styling and, for Bentley and Aston, handmade wood and leather interiors.
The modern production equipment in the wood and leather shops at the Aston and Bentley plants is less about automating the process and more about reducing waste and improving consistency and quality. American workers also have modern production equipment, and the quality of American cars has never been better.
So, why do American automakers have to bribe buyers with obscene rebates that destroy the value of their brands? I think it mostly comes down to styling and design.
Back in the bad, old British Leyland days of the 1970s and early 1980s, people bought Jaguars and MGs knowing full well that they would be frequent visitors to their dealership's service department. Great styling will help sell even a mediocre car. The Brits are successful now because that classic styling has excellent quality to go with it.
Detroit needs more cars like the Chrysler 300, the new Ford Mustang and the Pontiac Solstice. Those cars are irresistibly good looking.
At one time it was unthinkable to many Britons that foreign companies would someday own the crown jewels of their country's auto industry and that there would no longer be a British-owned volume automaker.
There probably always will be American brands such as Chevrolet and Ford. The only thing not settled - in my mind - is whether someday a foreign automaker will own them.
E-mail Richard Truett at .