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History of the UK car industry

For the last hundred years British car-making capitalists have shown two distinguishing features – greed and stupidity. The motor industry, together with passenger air transport and the computer, is probably the defining technology of the twentieth century. A hundred years ago the engineering capitalists who had the technological know-how to move into this vast potential new market were not that bothered. They were doing very nicely out of arms contracts with the government. Then as now imperialism and militarism crowds out innovation.

In any case they lacked the vision of the likes of Henry Ford (a thoroughly nasty piece of work) who foresaw homes with a car on every drive, and laid plans for mass production accordingly. As early as 1913 his US plant was churning out 200,000 cars a year while the biggest UK producer, Wolseley, was only making 3,000. British motor manufacturers saw themselves as producing a plaything for the rich while Ford wanted to sell the Model T to every well-paid worker and small farmer in the USA.

Ford realised that, to make his cars affordable, he had to produce them on a mass scale. He introduced techniques of mass production (now known as ‘Fordism’) and made sure his car plants were planned to the last detail. Everything possible was done in-house: he didn’t want any nasty surprises. The trouble, for his imitators in Britain, was that this would involve a lot of costly investment. They preferred to rely on outside suppliers for components. Morris, which emerged as the biggest domestic producer, was family owned and did not even raise finance by launching its shares on the Stock Exchange till the mid-1930s. The families that owned these car firms saw them as tickets to buy town and country homes and places in London ‘society’ – rather than factories to be invested in for the future. Their preference for dividends over investment promoted a short term outlook within the firm. Morris did not appoint an experimental engineer till 1949, and spent just 1% of turnover on research.


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Henry Ford: Bringing the Automobile | Ernest Hemingway: Tragic Genius.

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