The world is small these days, isn’t it? I’m sitting here typing on an American laptop, wearing a German watch, idly fiddling with a Swiss pen, and picking at some Belgian chocolates. I can travel pretty much anywhere I like within a day, and easily communicate with anyone on the planet at a moment’s notice. In a given day, I consume products from dozens of countries. And over the course of the year, it's hard to think of a corner of the world I haven't interacted with, economically, in some small way.
Global industry reflects this. Parts are designed in one country, fabricated in another, and then bolted together somewhere different. Local markets can be catered to, costs can be managed, efficiencies can be made.
Now, the British car industry is as multinational as they come. Bentley, Rolls-Royce, and MINI are German, for example. Jaguar Land Rover is owned by an Indian company, while Morgan – formerly the last bastion of 100% Britishness – has been bought out by an Italian firm. The idea of a "British car" seems to be in name only. And that, frankly, is a good thing.
Let’s take Aston Martin as an example. Currently it’s owned, in part, by Italian private equity fund Investindustrial, and in part by Mercedes-AMG. Since Investindustrial arrived in 2012, Aston Martin has seen a veritable explosion of product – product that simply couldn’t be made before.
How’s about the German connection then? Well, Aston’s infotainment system is no longer utterly, woefully dreadful, having been replaced by a re-skinned version of Mercedes’ COMAND system. And the 4.0-litre turbocharged V8 that sits in many Aston engine bays comes from AMG. Both of these things detract from the Britishness of the car, but who cares – it saves time, and money, which means more time and money to do better and more interesting things.
The Investindustrial connection with Morgan, which is still in its infancy, shows more immediate growth. Since the Italian money landed, Morgan’s staff is growing at a rapid pace and plans to develop the factory have gained serious steam. The little company from Malvern looks to join the 21st Century (having skipped large parts of the 20th) with some gusto. And, hopefully, fewer wonky bits.
What about the true stalwarts of British luxuriousness, Rolls-Royce and Bentley? Well, both have giant German overlords looming over them. Both benefit from their respective overlords’ engine manufacturing and research departments, which keeps costs down. Both benefit from every little bit of aerodynamic R&D, every tiny bit of learning that goes in to making a door close more softly, or a crash structure more sturdy. Nobody can argue that Bentley or Rolls-Royce would be better off without Volkswagen or BMW.
It works both ways, too. What works in a top flight Roller may not work in a 3-Series, but a version of it can. Engineering trickles down, and what the BMW Group might have developed for Rolls-Royce's four-car, low-volume lineup is made viable by its applications elsewhere in the range.
Jaguar Land Rover has been under Indian ownership for a while, and while things are looking a smidge ropey for the firm at the moment (dieselgate, Brexit, other factors all to blame), the money provided by Tata meant both Jaguar and Land Rover could go after their target audiences with vigour. Would you rather JLR did things the same way they were done in the 70’s? Hand built cars by people who took pride in their work until lunchtime? Yeah, me neither.
In fact, let’s take a look at the motors from the good ‘ol days, shall we? Were they reliable? Well-built? Full of the latest technology? Well… no, no they weren’t. It’s telling that many people of a certain age fondly remember the Ford Cortina and revile the British equivalent.
The benefits that foreign firms have brought to our car industry are enormous. This industry, if it relied on only itself, would likely be in dire trouble, if it was still around at all. Would you rather have nothing, or some help to thrive?
When did the British car industry go global? Does it matter that almost all of it is foreign-owned? Let us know in the comment section below.