Second World War brought motor industry to Burnley

Part of the newly-built Michelin factory in Burnley
Part of the newly-built Michelin factory in Burnley
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It must be the impatience which comes with age, but I get pretty annoyed when journalists do not put their reports into context.

I am not commenting on the work of my friends and colleagues at the Burnley Express but, at this moment in time, one particular journalist who writes for The Independent. In the Business section recently Sean O’Grady wrote a piece entitled “Britain’s motor traders report best year for new car sales in a decade”.

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, one of the least successful commercial organisations in my experience, reported some 2,476,435 new cars “hit the roads”, as he put it, last year, the best since 2004, and the fourth best year on record. He added there had been a 9.4% rise on 2013 and the figures represented “a decisive recovery from the depths of the recession, with about one million more new cars finding owners than in the period after the banking crash”.

All this might seem to be good news until we consider what it all means. The first point to make is also raised by Mr O’Grady. He tells us 86% of the UK car market is accounted for by imports. In other words, according to the SMMT, 2,129,734 cars were imported. Mine was one of them, an MG3 with parts made in China, but at least my car was assembled in England, at Longbridge, in fact.

In Britain we make about 1.5 million cars a year, the highest figure, according to Mr O’Grady, since 1972. Of these around 80% are exported. The figures in this case work out as follows: the number of British cars exported comes to 1,200,000 leaving a deficit of 929,734 cars. Not such good news after all, I think you will agree.

Then we come to the subject of ownership. All of the so-called British firms are in German, American, Japanese or Chinese hands. No car made in Britain can truly be called a British vehicle. Perhaps the most British car, including the MG3 I bought about four months ago, is the Vauxhall Astra which is made in Ellesmere Port, Merseyside, but the Vauxhall company, originally a British firm taking its name from the part of London where it was originally located, has been owned for over 80 years by General Motors of the USA and is now run as a subsidiary of that maker’s European operation, Opel.

If you think Rolls-Royce and Bentley are British, think again – they are owned by BMW and Volkswagen of Germany. Even Jaguar, one of the quintessentially British firms, is owned by a former textile machinery maker and engineer, Tata of India. The same fate has also fallen to Land Rover.

As can be seen, Mr O’Grady’s “good news story” fails to put things into context but, worse than that, it is, in one crucial aspect, inaccurate. I have researched the decline of the British Motor Industry for a forthcoming book and have found that, as recently as 2000, we were making as many as 1.81 million cars a year, a figure which declined to 1.39m in 2010, which was two years after the onset of the recession. In that year (2008) Britain had produced 1.65 million cars.

If we go into a little more depth, we find German car production was at 5.52 million in 2000 but, even though there was a worldwide recession, the figures for Germany went up to 5.9 million in 2010. In other words, the German motor industry was three times bigger than the British industry in 2000 and, 10 years later, had grown to four times the size of the British industry.

There is another point I would like to make and, to do this, we have to look at post-war production figures for Britain and Germany. At one time – in the years just after the Second World War - over 74% of all the cars made in Europe were manufactured in Britain but, by 1950, the respective figures for Britain and Germany were 785,000 (Britain) and 219,000 (Germany). A decade later Germany had caught Britain up and had marginally overtaken us, the figures were 1.8 million and 1.82 million respectively.

Just about the peak year for British car production was 1970 when 2.1 million cars were made in this country. By that time Germany was making 3.52 million cars. In 1990 Britain made 1.56 million cars while Germany’s figure rose to 4.66 million cars.

So far as I am concerned, the SMMT has nothing to shout about and neither has Mr O’Grady. The British motor industry has been something of a disaster area for at least 40 years. But it is worse because, at the same time, we have lost the motor cycle industry, together with the British firms which made light and heavy commercial vehicles, buses and coaches. Even this gets worse because Britain has also lost, in large measure, the motor accessory and tyre-making industries.

It is here Burnley comes into the story.

Our town is not noted for its involvement in various sectors of the motor industry, and those who have written about the history of industry in Burnley have, largely, omitted it from their researches. However, Burnley has had a number of vehicle builders their story can be traced to the middle of the 19th Century.

One of them, John Knape’s, actually made buses and a small number of cars. Others, like Knape’s made horse drawn vehicles, but unlike Knape’s, did not make the transition to motorised vehicles. It was the Second World War which brought the motor industry to Burnley. The Lucas factories were originally involved in the production, and testing, of parts for the aircraft industry and many of you will remember the local firm of Burnley Aircraft Products, which I think was part of Universal Boilers which made washing machines, mobile cement delivery lorries and other specialist equipment for large vehicles.

Of course, Lucas’s manufactured car parts in Burnley, particularly at their Heasandford site, and we know Michelin’s made tyres (for large vehicles) at their Bancroft Road factory. Both of these production units were not large enough to survive for very long and the same can be said for a host of other companies in the sub-region. They have almost all gone – firms in Colne, Accrington and Blackburn - taking with them thousands of jobs many of which, for our part of the country, were relatively highly paid.

Mind you, the Lucas jobs were not paid highly enough for many of the local people who worked there. Remember the “Parity” campaign of the later 1970s when Burnley’s Lucas workers claimed they should be paid as much as their colleagues in the Midlands?

Looking back, I can appreciate the case being made. In fact I knew, quite well, one of the local trade union leaders and had many discussions with him. Of course, we disagreed, my point being it was better to keep the jobs we had than put them at risk at a time when manufacturing industry was beginning to move abroad and, as we have seen, production figures for cars were falling.

What Sean O’Grady of The Independent should have been writing about is why the German motor industry has been so much more successful than ours and what we can learn, even now, from their experience. He could also have looked at the “white goods” industry, as it was once called. By this I mean the manufacture of washing machines, cookers and fridges, all of which have been made in Burnley, in the relatively recent past, but none of which are made here now.

The failure of the British motor and accessory industries constitute one of the most important events in our post war history. This is reflected in a host of other manufacturing industries and what has happened has resulted in a massive blow to the “balance of payments”. Remember that phrase? It was something Harold Wilson talked about incessantly but about which he, and successive governments, did almost nothing to rectify. It will come back to haunt us, even if it is not haunting the economy now.

When I wrote about a similar subject some months ago I was contacted by a number of people thinking I was criticising Burnley managers of companies that no longer have a presence in Burnley.

This was not my intention.

They did their jobs in Burnley pretty well.

Those who deserve criticism are the head office executives of a number of companies with Burnley connections, the London bankers who, unlike their German counterparts, do not understand industry and successive governments who have failed almost everyone except the Financiers of the Square Mile, the only truly protected industry in these islands.