by Stuart Birch
European Editor, Automotive Engineering
The names are part of automotive history: Alvis, Austin, Austin-Healey, Frazer-Nash, Hillman, Humber, Jensen, Lanchester, Morris, Riley, Singer, Standard, Sunbeam-Talbot, Triumph and
They were just some of the British car companies which, over many years, offered a remarkable choice of products - of shape and size, of power, of economy and of luxury.
But the car industry, perhaps more than any other in the world, is one in which only the fittest have any chance of survival; and now, fitness for car building equates not only to
quality - but to size. Those famous names may no longer adorn the radiator grilles of today's cars, for many of the companies became part of large conglomerates, but the heritage they created is very much the basis of the design successes of the 1990s.
Producing excellent products offering fine value, by good management and dedicated workforces, may not be enough for a company to survive alone long term in the tough economy of the car industry - a hard fact which has had to be understood in many
countries, including the USA.
(right) Rover 400 in a robotic glazing cell at Rover's modern production plant
For many companies in the UK mergers and take-overs became the only route to survival and the result was a metamorphosis from relatively small, individually run businesses, to large
combines. Today, a century after production started in Great Britain, the shape and pattern of its car industry has changed out of all recognition to that of even a couple of decades ago.
A major example of that is Rover Group - direct descendant of the linking of many famous pioneering British car companies - which today is highly successful, with a strong export performance into many markets including Japan. Although it has a choice of badge names, Rover Group uses only Rover, MG and Land Rover/Range Rover for its products now, having abandoned the Austin name in the 1980s. Morris, Riley, Triumph, Wolseley and Austin-Healey are other names which the company no longer uses, although it is just possible that at least one could be resurrected for future Rover models.
Rover's history stretches back to 1877 when J. K. Starley and W. Sutton built penny farthing bicycles and in 1896 they founded the Rover Cycle Company. By 1903 they had built a motor-cycle and in 1904 came the first car. Like many other makes, Rover eventually became part of the giant British Leyland (BL) organisation. Its name has survived, partly because Rover 's products were traditionally the type of cars which the company builds today, with the accent on quality and comfort plus good performance.
Similarly, the name MG - another BL company - is strongly identified with with sports cars, so Rover decided to use it for its new mid-engine sports car which it has called the MGF.
Land Rover's name is synonymous with all that's best in on/off road vehicles. Land Rovers can be found in just about every country in the world and the Range Rover, introduced in1970, established a whole new class for a vehicle which combined comfort and brisk road performance with superb off-road capabilities.
Jaguar, another famous British car company, was founded by the late Sir William Lyons in 1923, originally to build motorcycle sidecars. It is now part of the Ford Motor Company,
but has retained its individual identity and design and engineering flair, a fact demonstrated by the latest XK8 Coupe and Convertible which have enormous export potential. The V8 engine for the car is being built at Ford's plant at Bridgend in Wales but it is very much a Jaguar design.
There are some design similarities between the XK8 and the Aston Martin DB7, a company which is also owned by Ford. Aston Martin's history goes back to just before the outbreak of World War I in 1914, when partners W. Bamford and Lionel Martin produced- for its day - a fast sports car. That tradition for creating cars incorporating individual craftsmanship has continued, despite Aston Martin being part of a giant automotive empire.
Ford has been established in Britain since the early part of the century and Vauxhall has been part of General Motors since1926.
The UK motor industry has many aspects apart from vehicle production and the country has been chosen as a manufacturing base by overseas companies including Nissan and Toyota.
Many British component suppliers also have a long history of design and technical innovation, research, development. Among them is Ricardo. Established by Sir Harry Ricardo more than 80
years ago, it focuses on the design of engines, transmissions, emissions and increased efficiency. Ricardo has clients from across the world who want cars and motorcycles and trucks - with added refinement, lower exhaust, chassis and suspension systems, plus aerodynamics - crucial for reduced fuel economy.
The British motor industry has been through some difficult periods but today its companies, with a direct link back to the earliest days of automotive production, can justly claim to
produce vehicles which in terms of guality and technology are among the best in the world.