The Swindon factory closure: how Honda got Europe so wrong

The tale of Honda’s rise and fall in the UK and Europe is a chastening one. At one time, the firm was viewed as a genuine alternative to BMW, led by engineers making cars with cutting-edge petrol engines and sharp design. 

In the 1970s sales success with the Civic in the US was pioneering, while a joint venture with Rover in the 1980s broke new strategic ground. 

So when the Swindon plant opened in 1992 with the capacity to build 150,000 cars a year, just as Europe’s single market was launched, Honda looked set to conquer the continent. 

Yet 27 years on, the relationship with Europe has soured: sales are in the doldrums, with just 150,000 cars shifted last year, and the £2 billion Swindon factory will close in 2021. Civic production will also stop at its Turkish plant, although “business operations” will be maintained. 

So how did it all come to this? 

Honda is famously engineering-led and maintains it “will continue its approach of delivering products of high quality that resonate with its very loyal European customer base”. But not even experts in their field can identify the head of design at Honda, if one exists. Instead, the power in its product development process is vested in an engineer or LPL (large project leader), who is tasked with bringing individual models to market but not under the watchful eye of a head of design empowered to oversee range-wide design discipline. 

Harrow believes there is “still the feel of a company where designers are dressing the engineering”. The company does have a European design studio in Germany, but it has never had the profile of Nissan’s London studio, for example. 

There’s a stark contrast with Kia and Hyundai, too. The Korean brands recruited two senior European designers, Peter Schreyer (formerly of Audi) and Thomas Bürkle (ex-BMW), to run a design studio in Germany to create European-flavour cars. The reward has been hot-selling models such as the Tucson and Santa Fe. 

Employing European designers has brought coherence to the Korean brands’ range – something they didn’t possess when Honda was outselling them 10 to one nearly 30 years ago. “Honda hasn’t appointed an overseas design boss,” says Harrow. “I think that shows a lack of value in design at the top level.” 

The future 

A government-led task force is trying to save as much of Swindon and its infrastructure as possible. It’s the least the 3500-strong workforce deserves. Meanwhile, Honda focuses on an electric future and is targeting 2025 as the date by which all of its new cars will be electrified. 

Gardner says: “This ambition will place Europe at the forefront of the company’s accelerating electrification efforts, and will require major, ongoing investment into the region.” 

Sadly these electrified Hondas will be built in Japan and exported to the UK and Europe. How well they sell here may in part depend on Honda’s ability to learn the lessons and fix the failures of years past.