By Richard Lofthouse

Mini

Last summer I wrote a piece in Oxford Today about the extraordinary gulf that separates car manufacturing in Oxford from the University around it. Just 5 percent of Oxford graduates go into manufacturing, and even fewer (I ventured) have ever been beyond the ring road to marvel at the rapidly growing BMW MINI plant in Cowley.

So it was with real enthusiasm that I attended the centenary bash held at the plant on March 28th, one hundred years to the day since William Morris produced his first Bullnose on the same site.

BMW are in the middle of investing another £750m into Plant Oxford, as it’s known, and current production of 300,000 cars a year means that since 2001 the company has churned out 2.2m MINIs, compared to “just” 600,000 of the original, classic Mini, production of which began in 1959. In fact 80 percent of current production is exported, contributing tangibly to the UK’s trade balance.

Coffee in hand, stood in a darkened exhibition space as the speeches began, my first impression was just what a fantastic effort BMW has made to celebrate the heritage of British car making. There’s an array of Morris products all around me, including the 1947 ‘poached egg’ Morris Minor, and it all feels exactly like a museum of a past too easily forgotten.

In front of UK Secretary of State for Transport, the Rt Hon Patrick McLoughlin, BMW’s Oxford boss Frank Bachmann confirmed BMW’s continued commitment to the UK. Then, McLoughlin stood up and confirmed the UK government’s desire to work with BMW.

How nice, I thought, that everything has become so tidy, so polite. No one heckled; there were no union interruptions, and those among us who stood were free to help ourselves to coffee and pastries even as the big wigs delivered their words.

As a Tory miner, and the son and grandson of miners, McLoughlin should know how amazing this all is. Amazing that cars are still made in Cowley at all, following years of bitter industrial unrest, industrial contraction and bad macro-economics that began in the early seventies and continued unabated until BMW bought Rover Group in 1994.

Yet I couldn’t help but wonder whether the UK’s manufacturing glass, discounting some German help, is really half-empty.

Mini factory

In 1968, before all the trouble began, British Leyland was the 4th largest company in the world. That’s hard to digest. The whole of the UK car industry in 2013 — which includes other stalwarts Nissan (Sunderland), Honda (Swindon) and Jaguar-Land Rover under Indian, Tata ownership — currently produces around 1.1m vehicles a year. This has been, rightly, lauded as something of a turnaround. Yet Chinese giant Shanghai Automotive Corp, usually known by the acronym SAIC, on its own produces well over 4m cars a year, and is on target to be churning out 7m by 2017.

In other words, Britain’s share of global car making was within relatively recent living memory one of global pre-eminence. Now it’s a bit-part actor despite taking a disproportionate share of value, with both luxury and high-tech niches prominent amongst its portfolio (think Formula One, Bentley, Jaguar, and the sort).

Once the speeches dried up we ate a peripatetic lunch, as one does, with little bowls of hot food compensating for another freezing cold spring day. Then we went outside to be buzzed by a Tigermoth biplane – briefly made at Cowley when Britain was re-arming itself in the 1930s. Amidst gentle snow flurries and the odd shiver, I found it much easier to identify with Morris himself, a race-winning cyclist who started off repairing bicycles in his bedroom, than I did to understand the meaning of Britain’s late-twentieth century industrial past.

I wonder if for all the continuing glamour of four wheels, we’re not slightly headed in the other direction. Scared to death that someone else is going to own urban transport, almost every car maker has come up with a bicycle to take account of the ‘last mile’ which, having parked the big metal beast into a park and ride, many of us increasingly face. The only nice one I’ve seen so far is MINI’s folding bicycle in lime green. Apart from the colour, it works: a properly engineered piece of kit that manages to fit in a MINI boot. And that’s quite a feat.