Back in the mid-twentieth century, Britain’s car industry was booming. The Jaguar XK120 was the fastest car in the world when it went on sale in 1948. MG, Austin-Healey, Jensen and Triumph were making sports cars that were beautiful both to look at and to drive. The BMC (British Motor Corporation) Mini had taken the world by storm with its compact transverse engine design, especially after the Suez Crisis of 1956 that sent oil prices climbing. So, how did it all go so wrong? How did we get to the point where most British marques are now foreign-owned, with 2022 marking a 66-year low for UK car production?

A Self-Destructive Behemoth

British Leyland has a lot to answer for. Born in 1968 as a result of BMC acquiring Pressed Steel three years earlier (a company that made the bodies for almost all other UK car firms), it was a corporate behemoth. Their adverts finished with a list of nine different marques all under the same roof: ‘Austin, MG, Triumph, Mini, Jaguar, Daimler, Princess, Morris, and Rover.’ Unfortunately, this corporate giant was so vast and uncoordinated that it became in many ways the architect of its own downfall. An adversarial culture developed where workers felt loyalty to their own particular sub-brand, and instead of cooperation, there was competition. British Leyland buckled under its own weight, compounded by poisoned industrial relations and shoddy workmanship, with its component parts eventually sold off by the Thatcher administration. When those parts reached the hands of foreign owners, the incentive to keep the bulk of production in the UK was lost — and never recovered.

Bring it Back Home

Today, the automotive landscape is almost unrecognisable. The push towards net zero has led to increasing advocacy for electric vehicles, but the technology and infrastructure are not quite there yet for a full pivot to EV-only motoring. Car batteries are still costly to manufacture and extracting the materials needed to make them is not exactly green. Another issue is Taiwan, which currently produces most of the world’s semiconductor chips needed for navigation systems, infotainment, and airbags. As tensions rise between China and Taiwan, the likelihood of Chinese interference and subsequent disruption to western supply chains is not unreasonable to imagine.

The only way, arguably, that we can ensure the future of our car industry is to return to making more in the UK. We need to invest in finding ways of making components without reliance on foreign suppliers and with minimum impact on the environment. One route is to invest in hydrogen fuel cells, alternative battery technology, and anything that has a realistic chance of making British electric cars cheaper to buy and insulated from global supply chain disruptions.

What we need, is a new British-owned, car company. A company with ambition; a can-do, not a that’ll-do attitude. One that can bring Britain forward, create jobs, create growth, and secure the future of this country as one that leads the charge towards mitigating the effects of climate change — regardless of global shocks and ongoing territorial conflicts. This visionary car firm need not be nationalised, but it should be given government support and ample state funding. Crucially, it must be British-owned to protect British jobs.

EVs for Everyone

If the British public is to be won over by EVs, though, sufficient infrastructure has to exist. Hydrogen fuel cells eliminate time wasted at the service station waiting for your car to charge. Currently, however, the UK only has 15 hydrogen filling stations, of which only one is in Northern Ireland. How can we expect people to buy EVs if they have to go out of their way to fill up on hydrogen, one of the most abundant elements on Earth? There are no two ways about this. If we don’t have the technology in place to liquefy hydrogen at little cost or the fuel cells needed to use it, then those tedious waiting times will only continue and the cost of producing lithium-ion batteries will keep pricing many people out. Whatever the environmental advantages of EVs, they will remain something of a lesser-spotted creature on UK roads unless steps are taken to fix infrastructural gaps.

Another point to consider is making EVs attractive. The British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) has given plenty of cars fame over the years: the Ford Cortina, the Jaguar Mark II, and even the plucky Mini. BTCC cars were pretty similar to the ones people had at home, or ones they could buy from a dealership. They made ordinary cars seem a little more extraordinary which increased their appeal to consumers. A new electric category (the BeTCC) could have the same effect, advertising electric propulsion as something that can be just as much fun as internal combustion, even if it doesn’t have the same incredible soundtrack. After all, with blistering acceleration almost a given, any electric car that handles well should be a joy to drive.

Climate change isn’t going to slow down on its own. We must push hard to cut emissions and make sure that this planet remains habitable for future generations. That means taking bold but pragmatic steps. Investment for the sake of optics won’t change anything. Only investing in things that work will make the difference.

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