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The best of 'other' British

There’s an intriguing line in the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders’ (SMMT) regular press bulletins.

Close to the bottom of the tables detailing new car registrations in the UK, showing each marque’s market share for the month and comparing that with the previous year, are the words ‘Other British’.

On the face of it, this seems dismissive treatment of our indigenous motor manufacturing industry, one that last year accounted for 1,351 sales, particularly when considering that out of the 45 marques deemed worthy of an entry by name rather than buried in a collective box on the SMMT list, only two are actually British-owned. And they are MG and Rover, a separate entry for each brand.

Presumably, if the SAIC deal had gone through, in bulk – as in the dreams of the Phoenix Four – MG and Rover would have been guaranteed a place in the main listings, vying for kudos in the monthly machinations of the mainstream.

Should, however, MG and other historic Rover sub-brands such as Riley, Wolseley, Austin and Morris be dispersed to cottage industry enthusiasts rather than automotive manufacturing capitalists (provided it is ever established who actually owns the rights to these badges), the Other British folder beckons. And it won’t, apparently, matter whether or not they are under British ownership.

Eagle-eyed statisticians may have spotted something else about the SMMT’s monthly listings of late. No mention of that Great British/German institution, Rolls-Royce.

#AM_ART_SPLIT# Guess where that’s gone. Yes, Other British. It’s been there since mid-2003, choosing to publicize its sales results to the world at large on an annual basis rather than suffer the full glare of monthly ups and downs. Last year it sold 792 Phantoms globally, and the Chichester-based manufacturer doesn’t specify how many went to UK-domiciled buyers. What it is prepared to say is that London is one of the top four sales points, along with Beverley Hills.

It’s in mixed company in Other British, where nearly all of the Others are actually British: Morgan, Caterham, Noble, Bristol, Westfield and so on (see the SMMT’s full list of Other British marques. If you can spare the time, check out their websites and note how many of the two-seater sportscars bear an uncanny resemblance to the Lotus/Caterham Seven). They may use components and technology cherry-picked from the world car assembly market, but the vast majority of the people who own and run these companies are Brits.

Among the classics, the fantastics, the futurists and the occasional amphibian, there are the Fred in the Shed kit and caboodlers. And along with low volume (some very low), they have something else in common other than notional nationality: shyness. They choose to be here.

As a spokesman for the SMMT says following a request to divulge annual sales for five selected Other British brands since 2000: “It’s a nebulous segment. Some tend to be reticent about figures, which means we can’t help you. Our hands are tied.”

Even high profile companies such as Morgan and Caterham are reluctant to release this information, as previous AM features on these two marques illustrate. Both have annual sales in the high hundreds rather than thousands, but both prefer to skirt round the issue with terms like ‘consolidation’ and ‘steady growth’.

Let’s see how attitudes change if the Morgan Aero 8 and the Caterham CSR take off in the States, as they deserve to.

It’s understandable why Rolls-Royce elected to join the anonymous ranks. It may emerge when, or if, sales match those of its rival Bentley, which chooses to stay out in the open with other relatively low volume manufacturers such as Lotus.

Other British, it seems, is a private club in which its members can maintain an air of mystery and carry on their businesses with the minimum of fuss and media interference, emerging into the glare of publicity only if they choose to do so.

On the rare occasions they leave the security of obscurity, most are, in varying degrees of modesty, doing very nicely (TVR excepted: £11m loss in 2004).

#AM_ART_SPLIT# Carmaking in the UK

Aston Martin Under Ford PAG control, but in a new factory in Oxfordshire. Making the DBs and Vantages elsewhere would be unthinkable, just not British.

Bentley Volkswagen owns the brand, but it elected to keep assembly of the historic marque in Crewe. It’s turning out some excellent products now.

Ford The only Blue Oval built in the UK is the Transit van range in Southampton, although there are key engine plants at Dagenham and Bridgend.

Honda Once a Triumph/Rover partner, then a Longbridge suitor, now quietly and efficiently producing Civics and CR-Vs in Swindon.

Jaguar Ford-owned, but its entire range is still made in the Midlands and Liverpool… just. The US carmaker has been hinting at major job cuts in Europe, which could affect plants in Solihull and Castle Bromwich, Coventry, Gaydon, Halewood and Dagenham.

Land Rover That’s Ford, again. And its threats to cut jobs in the UK applies equally to the 4x4 brand.

Lotus Owned by Malaysian carmaker Proton. Although Elise production will continue in Hethel, Norfolk, for the immediate future, the all-new Esprit supercar will almost certainly be constructed abroad. Malaysia is the favourite site for a factory rather than Proton joint ownership plants in Italy and China.

Mini Plant Oxford, birthplace of the Rover 75, is where Germany’s BMW will keep its baby and other spin-offs for the next five years.

Nissan Its plant may consistently be the most productive in Europe, but it faces immense pressure from other group factories across the world, notably Renault’s. The company regularly lobbies for UK Government backing and continues to produce Micra ‘up north’ alongside Almera and Primera. The latter two may be dropped when the potentially more profitable P32L small car and Tone compact MPV come on line in 2006-07.

Peugeot Not the most restful of plants in the UK, and another which faces serious competition from PSA’s spread of factories, but the 206 is still built at Ryton, Coventry.

Rolls-Royce BMW’s enormous Phantom is put together in Sussex, next to the Goodwood racing circuit. The assembly plant is state-of-the-art and wasn’t cheap, so Rolls is likely to keep one wing in Blighty for quite a while.

Toyota Five-door Corollas are built here for the Japanese brand, as are Avensis hatchbacks, saloons and estates. The latter might not be going down a volume storm with UK buyers, but they sell well elsewhere in Europe and former Eastern Bloc states.

TVR Purists feared the worst when Blackpool’s carmaking rock was bought by the Russian billionaire Nikolai Smolenski as a 24th birthday present. But the firm has announced plans to churn out 2,000 cars per year in the UK, despite just announcing that it lost £11m in 2004.

Vauxhall A shadow of its UK manufacturing past, the GM brand now produces just the five-door Astra at Ellesmere Port and the Vivaro van range in Luton.

#AM_ART_SPLIT# Enthusiasm and service: key priorities

The general rule of sales in the Other British community is that buyers do business direct with the manufacturer or its regional centres rather than through an appointed dealer.

Morgan is one of the rare exceptions to the rule, served by a loyal and long standing network of privately-owned sales and maintenance specialists in Britain as well as agents dotted around the world.

Charles Morgan, grandson of the founder and now chairman of the company, has regularly stressed the importance of continuity with the garages that have been involved with Morgan since its three-wheeler days. But it also encourages direct enquiries.

TVR, too, has a handful of appointed dealers – last summer it decided to reduce its 18-strong network by six and reappoint newcomers to help strengthen its control of sales and marketing. At about the same time, Noble dumped its entire network.

One of the few niche dealers in the UK working on lines that would be familiar to, say, a BMW or Audi dealer (posh premises, key location, all the trappings of an automotive corporation) is Nick Whale Holdings. It operates the Porsche Centre in Solihull and Nick Whale Sportscars in Bromsgrove. The latter is a rare entity in that it holds Morgan and Lotus franchises under the same roof.

Not surprisingly, the name behind the group is an enthusiast as well as an astute businessman. Chairman and chief executive Nick Whale’s experience in the motor industry goes back more than 25 years and includes a passion for motor sport in all its forms.

His early days were spent competing in hill climbs and sprints, through countless production saloon and historic rallying. In 2004 he was appointed as a director of the sport’s governing body in the UK, the MSA.

He expects similar enthusiasm from his 60 employees, and recruits staff as much on their sales and aftersales acumen as on their love for sports cars and the sports car community. In short, Whale’s people may wear sharp suits, but they’re prepared to whip off the jacket, loosen the tie and hang out with the customers on a Saturday and Sunday.

Nick Whale Sportscars dealer principal David Noon lives the NWS mission statement. He’s been in the sportscar market since 1987, dealing with marques such as Porsche, Ferrari, Lotus, Morgan and BMW.

Asked by AM to sum up the difference between a successful niche/sportscar dealer and a mainstream automotive retailer, Noon says: “Customer service is paramount to gaining long term business. Our challenge is to continue offering a personal touch while developing our business and, of course, making it fun for all concerned – customers and staff alike. I could rabbit on for hours about this.”

It was at this point in the conversation, unfortunately, where the rabbit came to an abrupt end. “Is this an interview?” he asked. “You’d be better off talking to Nick Whale.”

We tried, and failed, as we have for the last two years or so, to get a direct interview with the man who embodies the spirit – and the reticence – of the Other British.

#AM_ART_SPLIT# Why niche dealers appeal to bikers

As reported in AM July 1, some key motorcycle manufacturers are courting car dealers to take on their franchises. Tim Maccabee, managing director of Ducati UK, is one of them. Interestingly, he believes retailers who specialize in low volume, niche cars may be better at understanding bike customers and, therefore, at selling motorcycles.

“Our selection process looks at the obvious criteria: business acumen, location, premises, funding and so on. But I also ask myself whether I could see that applicant hanging out with the customers at the dealership on a Saturday and a Sunday.

“These customers may not be there to buy anything, but simply to chat to other like-minded people about what they love. That’s one of the fundamental differences between mainstream cars and bikes.”

Maccabee, who was with Ford in the UK for 13 years in a number of sales and marketing roles before joining Ducati, adds: “A brand like Caterham probably gets as close to motorcycling as a car can get. Their customers will get just as fired up about the product as a bike enthusiast, and I’m pretty sure the people who sell them and service them are equally passionate.”

The affinity between Ducatis and Caterhams conjures up an interesting prospect: Valentino Rossi versus Michael Schumacher, the former on his MotoGP Yamaha, the latter in a 260bhp Cosworth-engined Caterham CSR. That would be more entertaining than a US Formula One Grand Prix.

#AM_ART_SPLIT# The British who’s who:

Ascari: n/a
Breckland Technology:
Dare: n/a
Dutton: n/a
Formula 27:
Gardner Douglas:
Gibbs Technologies:
MK Engineering:
NNI: n/a
Robin Hood:
Stuart Taylor:
Source: SMMT

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