The Rise and Fall of the UK Motor Industry

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Following World War II, the UK motor industry was a powerhouse in the world of automobiles. They were ranked as the second largest manufacturer and first largest exporter on the planet. Since then, the UK has dropped significantly in those rankings. They currently rank as 17th for manufacturing. So how did the UK gain such a large foothold in the world of automobile manufacturing and, more importantly, how did they lose it?

Beginnings of the UK Motor Industry

The UK motor industry first got its start in 1885 when engineer Gottlieb Daimler came up with a new design for a petrol-based engine. Daimler’s friend, English engineer Frederick Simms, gained the rights to Daimler’s patent and used it to found Daimler Motor Syndicate Limited. Though the company was ambitious in its automobile aspirations, traffic laws of the time limited the amount of motorized vehicles allowed on the roads. This made it incredibly difficult for the new company to see any serious growth.

Despite Daimler Motor Syndicate Limited being founded in 1885, the world didn’t see the first completely British designed car until 1900. Up until that point, automobile manufacturers in the UK were drawing heavy inspiration from the cars produced in France and Germany. That changed when Herbert Austin designed and built his very own before going on to create Wolseley Motors Limited a year later. They were the top automobile manufacturer in the country up until 1913 and inspired so many others that by 1922 there were 183 motor companies based in the UK.

Unfortunately, the Great Depression took a large toll on the automobile industry and by 1929 the number of motor companies in the UK had plummeted to just 58. It wasn’t until World War II broke out that UK motor industry started to climb its way back to the top.

The Rise of an Empire

At the onset of the second World War, Ford, Austin, Rootes, Morris, Vauxhall, and Standard were all big players in the automobile industry. For the next decade, many companies like these shifted their manufacturing focus to military vehicles and parts to aid in the war effort. This proved to be a smart decision as by 1944, BMC, Vauxhall, Standard-Triumph, Rootes, and Ford were responsible for 90 percent of all vehicle manufacturing.

A large part of the UK’s continued success in the motor industry in the years following was due to the destruction cause by the war. Japan and much of Europe had been ravaged by combat and were in no shape to mass produce vehicles. Britain began manufacturing cars not just for themselves, but for countries around the world. By 1950, they had become an automobile exporting juggernaut, responsible for over half the vehicles exported in the entire world.

During these years, the UK produced some of the most coveted vehicles the world has ever known. Among the many offerings was the 1949 Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn, the 1949 Austin A90 Atlantic, the 1948 Jaguar Mark V, the Aston Martin DB1, the Triumph Roadster, and many others.

However, as the economies in other countries recovered from WWII, the importance of UK manufactured vehicles began to wither.

The Downfall

Though the UK gained a significant headstart immediately after the war, it wasn’t too long before other nations started to catch up. By the mid-1950s, the U.S., Japan, and other European countries had managed to get their own automobile industries up and running. They finally had some competition on their hands.

To make matters worse for the UK, other nations had developed manufacturing processes that didn’t require nearly as much labor or financing. The price of a UK vehicle compared to those produced in other countries was much higher and sales began to fall off. By 1956, Germany had overtaken the UK in production.

Around this same time, a major automobile manufacturing consolidation took place in the UK. It started in 1952 when Austin merged with the Nuffield Organisation, which had already merged MGS, Morris, Riley, and Wolseley. Together they became the British Motor Corporation (BMC). Then, in 1966, BMC merged with Jaguar to become British Motor Holdings (BMH) as Leyland-Triumph acquired Rover and Chrysler UK bought Rootes. In 1968, a merger brought them all together to form the British Leyland Motor Corporation (BLMC).

Together, BLMC hoped it could recapture the UK’s former glory by introducing new vehicle designs. Unfortunately, this was not the case and the UK motor industry continued its decline throughout the 70s. By the time the 80s arrived, BLMC was the last authentic UK car manufacturer, with much of their competition like Chrysler UK and Vauxhall now being owned by companies in other European nations.

A Move to the Modern Era

In the time since, the UK motor industry has seen even more changes take place. British Leyland renamed itself to the Rover Group in 1986 and more and more foreign manufacturers have taken up some form of residence in the UK. Fiat, Citroen, Renault, Nissan, Toyota, Peugeot, Volvo, and Volkswagen have all gained a presence.

It’s also important to note that in recent years, many of the UK’s most well-renowned brands have been sold off to foreign manufacturers. Germany’s BMW now owns both Mini and Rolls-Royce, Volkswagen owns Bentley, and both Aston Martin and Jaguar have been acquired by Ford.

Today, the UK has reclaimed some of its notoriety as an exporter with 70 percent of all their vehicles being shipped around the globe. However, only time will tell whether or not the UK will ever be one of the top manufacturers again.

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