History of the UK Motor Industry

History of the UK Motor IndustryThe UK automotive industry has been at the forefront of the sector for decades, and has created some of the most iconic cars in the world including Land Rover, Aston Martin, Bentley and Mini. Other leading UK brands over the years have included Daimler, Jaguar, Lagonda, Lotus, McLaren, Morgan and Rolls-Royce. The UK is also major base for some of Europe and the world's most recognised brands including Honda, Nissan, Toyota and Vauxhall.

Origins of the UK Automotive Industry

The UK automotive industry traces its roots to the end of the nineteenth century. In 1885, Gottlieb Daimler patented a design for a new petrol-based engine. At the same time, he befriended London-based engineer Frederick Simms who acquired the British rights for the engine design and associated patents. In 1893, Simms formed the Daimler Motor Syndicate Limited. While the nascent UK automotive industry found its footing, the Locomotive Acts of the nineteenth century impeded growth due to restrictions on the use of cars on public roads. These restrictions were eventually eased in 1896.

Early British vehicles were based on the designs developed in Germany and France. The first all-British four-wheel car emerged in 1900 with a vehicle designed and built by Herbert Austin. In 1901, Austin launched Birmingham-based Wolseley Motors Limited. The company remained the UK's biggest car producer until 1913 when Henry Ford opened a new plant in Manchester. Other major players included Rover and Humber, both of which were based in Coventry. By 1922, 183 motor companies were operating in the UK.

Like the First World War when car production virtually halted, the Great Depression had a major impact on the automotive industry. Just 58 motor companies were making cars by 1929. The largest producers included Morris and Austin, followed by motorcycle and car manufacturer Singer. In 1932, the UK emerged as the largest car producer in Europe. On the eve of the Second World War, Austin, Ford, Morris, Rootes, Standard and Vauxhall were among the top producers in the country. The War also saw production shift to commercial and military vehicles, as well as aircraft related production at automotive plants.

Growth and Decline

By 1944, 90 percent of motor vehicle production was controlled by BMC, Ford, Rootes, Standard-Triumph and Vauxhall. Smaller producers provided niche vehicles, including Rover and Jaguar. In 1955, the United Kingdom had emerged as the second largest car manufacturer. It had also become the world's largest exporter of cars. As German, Japanese and American production grew as economies recovered from the Second World War, the UK's status as a major manufacturer declined largely due to higher unit costs when compared to production in other countries.

The 1950s and 1960s saw the beginning of a major consolidation of UK production and a steady decline in the UK's position in car manufacturing. In 1952, the Nuffield Organisation merged with Austin to launch the British Motor Corporation (BMC). The Nuffield Organisation has been formed in 1938 with the merger of Morris Motors, MGS, Wolseley and Riley. At its founding, BMC controlled 40 percent of the UK market. MC and Jaguar merged in 1966 to form British Motor Holdings (BMH), while Leyland-Triumph purchased Rover in 1967 and Chrysler UK acquired Rootes in 1967. By 1968, the British Leyland Motor Corporation (BLMC) was formed from the merger of Leyland-Triumph-Rover and BMH.

Recent Developments

Despite efforts to recover with new vehicle designs, BLMC's dominance in the UK market diminished during the 1970s. At the same time, the UK continued to fall as a top car producer and was the sixth biggest manufacturer by 1974. By the end of the decade, newly formed British Leyland was the only major stand-alone UK car maker. Other UK operations from Ford, Peugeot-Talbot (which had been formed after Chrysler UK sold its UK operation to Peugeot) and Vauxhall has become increasingly integrated with parent companies in other European countries.

Since the 1980s, the automotive industry has seen major shifts, further consolidation and an increase in foreign car makers operating in the UK. British Leyland was renamed to the Rover Group in 1986 while foreign car makers continued to make inroads in the UK, including Citroen, Fiat, Renault, Peugeot, Volvo and Volkswagen. Also in 1986, Nissan established its first production plant in Europe in Sunderland. Toyota followed suit in 1992 with a site near Derby.

In recent years, major UK brands have been acquired by international car makers, including the purchase of Mini and Rolls-Royce by Germany's BMW, the acquisition of Bentley by Volkswagen, and Ford's acquisition of Aston Martin and Jaguar. More recently, Jaguar and Land Rover was taken over by Tata Motors of India, while MG was purchased by China's SAIC Motor Corporation. Today, the automotive sector is known as a major exporter with approximately 70 percent of all vehicles made in the UK exported to other countries. The sector has also become known for creating world renowned premium brands and sports cars.