Expat Magazine

103. Car Industry

By Martinfullard

I was born in 1984, slap bang in the middle of Thatcherism.  I may have missed out on the milk, but I didn’t miss out on the legacy.  Whilst my respect for Thatcher is high (sorry Guardian readers) I can’t help but feel that sometimes I missed out on Britain’s finest years.  Ok, ok, I know that us Brits aren’t the most popular peas in the pod, sorry Scotland, but we are a tremendously proud nation, or at least we used to be.  Before the Big Brothers, the Strictly Come Make an Arse of Yourselves and the Essex way people, we were a proud, manufacturing nation that enjoyed the fruits of two century’s worth of imperial dominance.  Today, we lay broken on the floor.

I’ll be honest; I was born at the wrong time.  I always felt that I should have been launched in the 1940’s.  I carry a tremendous pride about historical Britain, not the invasions or the pillaging, but the engineering prowess and the never-say-die spirit that so genuinely defined us.

103. Car industry

The closest I ever got to owning a British car were the ones that were made in China

I was watching a documentary about Britain’s fallen motoring industry the other night and it hit home the point that I, along with anyone else born from about 1975 onwards, missed out on Britain’s last hurrah.  We were to the development of the automobile as the Japanese were to the punctual train.  We invented the classic car, we put the soul into the motor, we inspired generations.  It was our greatest moment.

Think back to Formula 1 racing in the 1960’s, the big Italian and German manufactures such as Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Mercedes-Benz, they were the big players on their automotive pedestals.  Then along came a bunch of lads from their British sheds; Chapman’s Lotus, Tyrell, Cooper (their garage of which is literally 200 yards from my old house) and BRM… it was a renaissance of innovation that put the big boy’s noses out of joint.  Enzo Ferrari for one was a vehement critic.

Britain’s automotive legacy is astounding.  Lotus, TVR, Jaguar, Jensen, Aston Martin to name but a few, I am so gutted I missed it all.  My dad used to own a Triumph Spitfire which today is an equivalent of the Mazda MX-5.  How jealous am I that all I have to my own car history is an Astra, two Escorts, a Saxo, a 306 and a Focus…the latter I can’t even drive because it’s parked in Surbiton and I live in Al Ain.  No, to me it is all a proud history, a history that I was unable to be a part of.

Today we make nothing.  Just 8% of the UK’s work force is in manufacturing and cars are all outsourced.  Britain is littered with deserted warehouses that only serve as a reminder to those who know about the great nation that we once were.  To others, they are just derelict, soulless Brownfield sites ready to be pulverised into rubble and then redeveloped as a fancy accommodation complex intended for a market that will soon no longer exist.

Is nothing sacred?  Britain’s car industry was poorly managed; accepted.  British Leyland was a constant joke throughout the seventies and the private manufacturers, for all their engineering brilliance, were generally poor businessmen.  But their legacy of some of the finest cars ever built still lives on.  The sense of pride, I feel, is lost amongst people today.  It’s a sorry shame that Kim Karwhatatool and Amy Childs are revered as Gods and the likes of Colin Chapman and Keith Duckworth aren’t even known by distant fact.  I will quite happily sit their listening to an angry Argentinean give me the verbal’s about the Belgrano and the Falklands, or to an American repeatedly make me listen to the misplaced clap-trap that they “saved our ass in World War 2”, hell I will even entertain someone babble on about how Made In Chelsea is the best thing in the entire history of the world, but I cannot tolerate anyone who slags off or doesn’t appreciate our former car industry and what it gave the world.

Ok, forget British Leyland, but the AC Cobra, the Jensen-Healy, the iconic Aston Martin DB5… go on, what have you done?   So what they broke down all the time and were as reliable as a Virgin Train but they had soul, they had character.  They were – are – romantic, beautiful and all possessed a certain je ne sais quoi yet to be found with anything else.

Britain’s car industry is woven into the fabric of the land and that’s why we love it, it’s serves as a reminder to us of a time when we made a difference, a time when we fended for ourselves and that we could be – and were – the best innovators in the world.  The difference is that in those days Britain was flush.  Yes there was the intermittent recession and the occasional Labour government to deal with, but they were just short term nuances.  We had money unlike today, where we have nothing, not even enough to pay for the stamp for the letter we need to send to the IMF apologising for the cock up.  Today we import more than we export and that is a sum that equals loss.  If you don’t make your own stuff then you cannot sustain yourselves.

The UAE, unlike the UK, has money.  It seems a dreadful shame that they are spending it on farmland in Serbia and football clubs in Manchester when they could be hidden away in garages designing their own automotive classics.  We had to conquer the world to get all the money we could, the UAE doesn’t even have to wake up in the morning, the black gold is already under the ground.  My message is don’t waste the opportunity because one day the money will dry up.  And what will you have to show for it?  You can’t sell a Burj Khalifa or a Ferrari World as a collector’s item or take them for a cruise along the French Riviera.

Young Emirati aspiring engineers have a golden opportunity to design and create their own automotive legacy and should not waste the moment.  Stop importing all the Toyotas and Nissans and build your own.  Once the opportunity has passed it won’t come around again.  Us Brits will always have something that defined a golden generation of innovators, something that will always be worth something to someone; the British sports car.

Just don’t be like me and regret not being born 40 years earlier and missing it all…

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