EXPORT AND NEVER SAY DIE
Six cars that represented the scope and big ambitions of the British motor industry
Standard’s announcement of its new Vanguard in July 1947 marked a new era for the UK’s car industry. Britain was not a major exporter of cars before the Second World War, but the Vanguard was designed to flow, according to the manufacturer, ‘in ever increasing numbers to the markets of the world’.
In the immediate post-war era, the Government saw automotive exports as a key element in rebuilding the economy, but the challenges facing the British motor industry were vast. Many bombdamaged factories were only just gearing up to civilian production and such was the shortage of raw materials that the Ministry of Supply allocated Britain’s carmakers with steel according to their export sales. By 1947 the motor industry was expected to sell 75 per cent of its output abroad.
More than a million British cars went overseas between 1949 and 1951 – twice that of the USA and double that of France, Italy and Germany combined. The UK’s share of world motor exports was just 15 per cent in 1937, but this figure had risen to 52 per cent by 1950.
Britons wishing to buy a new car in the late 1940s had to wait for years but the UK’s vehicle makers had to balance overseas sales with the demands of the liberalised domestic car market as the 1950s progressed. Furthermore, the motor industry began to face increasing competition across the world, first from a resurgent European motor industry and then from an influx of new Japanese rivals. However, the fascinating book, British Cars
of the Late Sixties estimated that ‘one in ten out of every car in the world was from the UK’ by the end of that decade – a figure that was achieved against considerable odds.
One constant issue facing all carmakers was that of import duties – British vehicles received preferential treatment in Denmark while the prices of foreign cars were vastly inflated in Italy. To circumvent such restrictions, cars were frequently dispatched in completely knocked down (CKD) form, which saved on shipping costs and allowed the vehicle to be assembled as a ‘home product’, using a certain percentage of foreignmade components. The degree of local content varied and assembly sometimes developed into full manufacturing. According to motoring historian (and former CCW editor) Keith Adams, the newly-formed British Leyland had 66 overseas plants and foreign production amounted to 340,000 vehicles per year by 1968.
The 1970s saw a marked decline in overseas sales of British-made cars. Chris Cowin notes in his engrossing book, Export Drive: BMC & British Leyland Cars in Europe and the World 1945-1985, that ‘British car exports to the USA had virtually ceased by 1982, while for the Commonwealth area they had declined to a very low level.’
Yet, this does not detract from the British motor industry’s achievments; if we were to include every car exported from or assembled by the UK this article would start to resemble War and Peace in terms of length, if not literary achievement.
Some models enjoyed a lengthy afterlife, such as the mighty Hindustan Ambassador (née Morris Oxford Series III) and many vehicles were ‘for export only’, from the US-market Triumph TR250 to the Plymouth Cricket, aka the Hillman Avenger.
Carmakers across the world also formed licence agreements with overseas manufacturers, resulting in the Hyundai-built Ford Cortina, Hillman Hunter-based Paykan (which is still in production as a pick-up) and the Nissan-made Austin A40 Somerset and A50 Cambridge.
And so, the half a dozen cars we’ve assembled here are just a few examples of the sheer diversity of the ‘Export or Die’ ethos.