Editorial: A turnaround and a dead end

In the late 1980s, I spent a few days on the road with a Heinz salesman. He drove his beans, baby food and sandwich spread samples around independent chemists and small supermarkets south of Manchester, but one of the places he was not allowed to enter was Sainsbury's. By then, purchasing was done centrally. This was a blow, because for him his local Sainsbury's was a cathedral and the object of his wide-eyed devotion.

by Matthew Gwyther, mt editor
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I remember him telling me that Sainsbury's shoppers were not customers but disciples. Well, quite a few have lost the faith since then and Sainsbury's has hit harder times, having been knocked rudely on to the hard shoulder by the Tesco and Wal-Mart juggernauts. The new high priest of the Sainsbury checkout is Justin King, and to his credit there are small signs of a turnaround in the grocer's fortunes. But he has a way to go.

No turnaround, however, at Longbridge. A magazine such as MT cannot allow the passing of Rover without comment. It was the rump of what was once the third-largest car producer in the world. I've been looking back over MT's coverage of the car industry in this country over the past 40 years and it makes one wince and turn away - like watching a slow-motion pile-up on the M6.

A mighty 5,000-worder from 1973 was headed 'British Cars - What's Wrong?' This piece revealed that the four major British car makers of the time made a £47 million profit on a turnover of £2.6 billion. A 1.75% margin meant that the wheels were well on the way to coming off the Allegro even then. I wrote a piece eight years ago, when BMW was in there struggling to turn Rover around, and I had an uneasy sense then that calamity was not far away. Now it is the end of the line.

There are many who have long ceased caring about the withering of our manufacturing base in the UK, and others who point to companies such as Honda, Peugeot and Toyota, which make reasonable money turning out their vehicles here. But the world's car industry is a very ugly place at the moment and the truth is that in the current climate, and even in more clement times, Rover didn't stand a chance. Its cars were largely antiquated dogs that aroused mirth and even pity if you were seen driving around in one. Survival as a volume car producer wouldn't have been possible even if it had turned out twice as many vehicles.

So what are UK car patriots left with? A scowl at the Phoenix Four - who would do well to lie low for a while; a sense of compassion for those at Longbridge and elsewhere who have worked hard for Rover's survival; and envious feeling at the rip-roaring success of the remodelled Mini, with all the profit finding its way back to Germany.

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