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The Rise, Fall, and Salvation of the British Motor Industry

Regtransfers Blog - The Rise, Fall, and Salvation of the British Motor Industry

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In the year 1950 the UK provided the world with 52% of global car exports, and truly dominated the international stage. British car firms have enjoyed countless successes, from the pocket rocket Mini Cooper, to the iconic all-terrain Land Rover, and the MI6-approved Aston Martin.

However, since the late Seventies the industry has shifted dramatically in favour of foreign-owned companies and many iconic British brands are now a rarity on our roads. By 2008, the UK had been eclipsed by many of its rivals and was only the 12th biggest producer of cars by volume.

So, what happened?

Using figures from the Department for Transport, our data wizards have delved into the fascinating history of cars on Britain’s roads. Using information about each car brand’s share of newly registered cars, we have mapped out each of the past 116 years. Take a trip down memory lane below, in the vehicle of your choosing:

Mobile users please click here to see the chart.

Car brand countries of origin are as follows:

  • UK- Green
  • France- Blue
  • Germany- Purple
  • Italy- Orange
  • USA- Red
  • South Korea- Pink
  • Japan- Brown
  • Misc. Countries- Yellow
  • Other (Minor Brands/No Data)- Grey

One ‘brand’ dominates the early years, namely ‘Other’, a mishmash of all types of car which were poorly recorded by the Government. Unfortunately, it took until the Sixties before records became sophisticated enough to properly distinguish between specific makes of car consistently.

1900-1931: Setting Off

By 1900, cars were starting to be viewed as less of a technological novelty, and more as a serious method of transport.

When Henry Ford revolutionised the industry with his moving assembly line in 1913, automobiles really took off as a mass-produced alternative to horses. After a slow start, British manufacturers moved to imitate his methods as the industry grew.

The car registrations system was introduced in Britain in 1903 and by 1910, there were approximately 12,000 licensed cars on UK roads. After 1913, Ford established a presence in Manchester and later Dagenham, which was at one point the largest car plant in Europe.

Interestingly, our graph suggests a spike in Dodge vehicles registered in 1917, which would coincide with the arrival of American service persons in the UK during the final chapter of the First World War.

The great depression served as a catalyst for improved efficiency, with only the best brands surviving. Of the 183 motor companies in operation in 1922, only 58 companies survived 1929. Austin and Morris emerged as the UK’s leading manufacturers.  

1932-1952: Picking Up Speed

The middle of the Twentieth Century was largely a time of great success for the British motor industry.

By 1932, the UK had overtaken France to become the largest European car producer, and this development is represented in the dominance of UK companies across the interwar period in our chart. Austin, Morris, Rolls Royce, Riley, and Bentley all played a prominent role on Britain’s roads; though its important to note that their numbers were still small compared to today’s (often congested) roads.  

Civilian car production came to a virtual standstill during the Second World War as factories were converted to aid the war effort with aeroplanes and armoured vehicles. The war may have finished in 1945, but rationing continued. Steel supplies were especially tightly controlled by the British Government. Priority was placed on exports to stimulate economy and in 1947 the Government struck a deal with car manufacturers access to steel was only permitted if 75% of car production was exported. In the space of three short years Britain’s car industry had boomed to dominate the global car export market. To an extent, this impressive achievement was down to the sorry state of Europe’s war-ravaged industrial centres, and the lack of supply to meet booming American demand for cars.

As early as 1952 though, British manufacturers began to feel threatened by increasingly aggressive American automotive expansion. In that year the BMC was formed out of Austin, Morris, MG, Riley and Wolseley, with the intention of aiding increased cooperation to compete with Ford and American-owned Vauxhall. This trend of consolidating challenged British companies would continue throughout the century.  

1953-1980: Stalling

Despite their prior successes, British car companies began to struggle in the middle of the Twentieth Century.

By 1953, a reemergent West Germany had overtaken France for car production, and the UK was usurped in 1956. Desirable models from Volvo, Mercedes, Fiat, and Volkswagen all played an increasingly prominent role in new car sales each year in Britain. By 1970, 10% of new cars on the road in that year were Volkswagens.  

In 1968, Leyland, Triumph, and Rover merged to form BLMC, in a bid to remain competitive. They were beset by labour disputes and production quality issues from the off. British manufacturers were also lagging when it came to innovations; for example the Renault 5 and Volkswagen Golf both beat Britain’s first hatchback, the Vauxhall Chevette, to market by several years.

From 1971-1973, BLMC’s sales declined by an eye-watering 8% in the short space of three years. In 1974, both BLMC and the troubled Chrysler UK (which had recently acquired the British Rootes Group) applied for Government assistance. BLMC was effectively nationalised and Chrysler’s UK operation was later sold onto Peugeot in 1978.

By the end of the Seventies, a new Thatcherite regime promised to clamp down on trade union power, and this in turn resulted in a much sterner negotiation stance to strike action. Unemployment spiked and the car industry was no exception. The 1980 closure of the Triumph factory in Coventry was an especially challenging episode, where thousands lost their jobs.

1981-Today: Changing Gears

All was not lost however. International car manufacturers recognised the UK’s historic ties to the motor industry, and saw the potential for continued production.

In 1986, Nissan opened the first European plant owned by Japanese manufacturers in Sunderland. By 1994, the troubled Rover Group was sold to BMW, who later divided the conglomerate in 2000, passing Land Rover and Jaguar to Ford. The Mini was redesigned and production continued in Oxford. There was further investment into the Mini plant in 2005, creating even more jobs. Ford later sold their brands to Tata in 2008, but production remains in the UK.

Our graph reveals is the scale of the 2008 global recession and its implication on the car industry. There’s a significant shift away from new cars in the ‘premium’ bracket of the market in 2009, compared to previous years of growth. In contrast this clashes with the great depression of 1929, where car brands in the UK do not suffer as much proportionately, because at the time cars were reserved for only the wealthiest, who could afford to purchase and run them. The industry continues to develop as car ownership becomes increasingly prevalent.

Arguably, this shift towards more international brands on our roads has only benefited the consumer. There’s undoubtedly more choice when it comes to all types of car, and this encourages competitive pricing and innovation. As the diversity of cars continues to expand on UK roads, we can’t help but wonder, what’s going to happen next?


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