Analysis: ‘British’ cars matter more than ever for the UK post-Brexit

Just how British is the UK car industry? That question is crucial as we leave the European Union (EU) and set up our own trade deals globally, because every country will ask the same thing: exactly what makes that Land Rover, Nissan or Mini British?

First off, this isn’t a question of ownership. The fact that the owner of Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), Tata, is Indian or Toyota is Japanese makes not a jot of difference to whether the cars they make in the UK should be regarded as British or not.

No, the question is more fundamental: how much of a car’s value in terms of its parts content is British, rather than imported from abroad?

This is key not just to whether countries will allow tariff-free imports of that car (under so-called rules of origin) but also, much more importantly, it’s key to the health of the British automotive industry as we begin life outside the EU.

The more British our cars, the easier their entry into other countries and the more investment and revenue is generated here. Each car contains around 30,000 pieces; the greater proportion of those pieces that are made here, the healthier our industry.

So, how British are our cars? We approached all of the major companies that build cars in the UK and… none would tell us. But there are other ways of finding out. The Society of Motor Manufacturers (SMMT) and Traders circulated a figure in 2017 that, on average, 44% of a UK-built car was British. It quoted the same figure today, and that sounds pretty good.

After all, JLR, Nissan, Honda, Toyota and BMW – the top five car makers operating in the UK – build engines here as well. Add up the parts sourced from our 2400 component suppliers and you have a pretty healthy figure, if nothing like the 80-90% British content figure that the industry was hitting back in the 1970s.

However, that doesn’t tell the whole story. The 44% figure quoted by the SMMT assumed that every British-sourced part that went into the car was itself 100% British. But the parts suppliers are like the car makers in this global industry: they source bits from everywhere.

So, what’s the true figure? That question was put to SMMT boss Mike Hawes at a 2017 parliamentary committee meeting that was tasked with understanding the impact on the car industry of our leaving the EU. “Somewhere between 20% and 25%,” he answered.

Hawes pointed out this was a long way from the 55-60% local content threshold that most countries require under rules of origin. That means UK-built cars could be disqualified from tariff-free entry by any countries the UK is now signing free-trade deals with. They will ask: ‘if your British car is really only a quarter British, who exactly is this deal helping?’.

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We can import the raw materials and add enough value that the batteries will be seen as British. It’s easy to imagine; we invented lithium ion batteries, after all.

Herron likens the race to develop new and improved lithium ion formulations to the one to create a Covid-19 vaccine. Then it’s a long four-year slog to develop it for automotive use.

The government needs to steer the direction of travel for batteries post-Brexit to help make it happen. “We lost control of making cars, trains, aeroplanes and motorbikes,” said Herron. “What do we want to do as a nation? Do we want to be generators of brilliant stuff then lose interest in it? Or do we want to do what Germany and Italy are doing: develop new things, be recognised for it and create wealth from it?”

Top UK-built cars in 2019

Nissan Qashqai, 257,851

Mini Hatchback, 178,657

Toyota Corolla, 148,106

Honda Civic, 108,876

Range Rover Sport, 77,665

Top UK car makers in 2019

Jaguar Land Rover, 385,197

Nissan, 346,535

Mini, 221,928

Toyota, 148,106

Honda, 108,876

Nick Gibbs