Touring Britain's car industry: three days, 1500 miles and 16 car plants

Duff revels in the Bentayga’s ability to shrink big distances across our trip

In 2005, we embarked on an epic tour of the UK’s motor manufacturers. Twelve years later, what’s changed? Mike Duff fires up a Bentley Bentayga for a three-day, 1500-mile blat to 16 top car plants

This isn’t rocket science, but our high-speed tour of Britain’s car factories still owes something to the line uttered by John F Kennedy when he committed the US to the space race: “We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

That’s doubly true when it comes to getting to Sunderland in time for 9am if your starting point, like ours, is Twickenham in South-West London. 

The idea is simple: visit every significant car manufacturing site to put a sense of scale on what remains Blighty’s most dynamic industrial sector. Readers with longer memories might remember that we’ve done something similar before, with a 2005 expedition serving as the partial inspiration for this one, but it has also been made topical by Brexit and all the unanswered questions about what it will mean for our car industry. Whereas the original tour was a marathon, including taking a car from each factory to the next (see ‘All change since 2005’, below), this one is definitely a sprint, given the need to compress a tour of the 16 UK sites that produce more than 100 road-legal cars a year into just three days. 

Day one

For transport on this high-mileage mission, we’ve opted to go straight to the top. The Bentley Bentayga Diesel has been selected on the basis of its Britishness and general niceness as a place to spend time, but also by the fuel range given by its huge 85-litre tank. There’s steady rain throughout our four-hour trip from Autocar HQ to Wearside, but the gauge still reads half full as we arrive. 

Sunderland is a long way from the heart of the British car industry, but the Nissan plant is one of the most productive in Europe. Jaguar Land Rover might produce more vehicles overall, but no other British plant got close to the half-million Nissan Qashqais, Jukes and Infiniti Q30s that Sunderland built last year, along with a smattering of Leafs. A total of 7000 people work here and its importance to the local economy is emphasised by the fact that the entire workforce is being given the freedom of the city two days after our visit, although nobody we speak to seems sure what this will entitle them to do. There’s just one problem, though. Our plan is to photograph the whole production line-up outside each factory, but there’s an absence of available cars here, with only a box-fresh Qashqai waiting to go. “You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to get cars in a car factory,” says plant PR Stuart Boyd, ruefully.

With just three hours to get to Liverpool, we can’t wait around, so snapper Stan Papior and I begin to head south in the warm and slightly wooden embrace of what we soon start to think of as the Bentayga time warp. Radar cruise control is set to a respectable pace and the Bentley’s vastness and shiny frontal aspect do an excellent job of clearing slower-moving traffic from our path on the A1(M). At least it does on the few parts that aren’t 50mph-limited roadworks. We’re sharing the road with a steady stream of car transporters hauling Sunderland’s wares southwards. Crossing the Pennines on the M62, we start to see an equal number of lorries carrying JLR vehicles in the other direction.

Halewood has been transformed since our 2005 visit. Back then, we weren’t allowed inside, after recent cutbacks amid sliding sales of the unloved Jaguar X-Type. But the arrival of the Freelander and then the Range Rover Evoque transformed the plant’s fortunes, with workforce and production volumes having tripled in the past 12 years. The trim and final workshop is a hive of activity as a finished car rolls off the line every 90 seconds. The sound of blaring horns is soon mixed with some choice Scouse invective as our attempts to manoeuvre cars for a photo threatens a tailback. Stopping the line would be unforgivable. Apparently, the leader of Knowsley council started out working here, as did McLaren Automotive boss Mike Flewitt.

The drive to Ellesmere Port, on the other side of the Mersey, is a brief hop. Vauxhall production here has increased since 2005 but the workforce has pretty much halved. There isn’t time to go inside, but I do get the chance to move the factory-fresh Astra that we’ve borrowed for photographs. It has just 13 miles on the odometer when we finish with it. The four-millionth Astra built here was finished a couple of weeks before our visit. Let’s hope that tally gets to carry on climbing. 

The Bentayga has the scent of home in its nostrils as we turn for Crewe, although the cross-country route soon emphasises how overcrowded the UK’s road network has become. We reach Pym’s Lane half an hour behind schedule, with ‘our’ Bentley taken away for a spruce-up so it can be photographed with its sisters. There have been huge changes here in the past 12 years, with a new engineering centre opening across from the main factory. Bentley boss Wolfgang Dürheimer and various other board members hurry across the road as we’re taking pictures, rushing between meetings. For once, our Bentayga doesn’t stand out as a steady stream of its sisters come past on their pre-delivery road test.

Leaving Crewe makes me realise what the diesel-powered Bentayga reminds me of: the old turbocharged Arnage. The triple-boosted diesel might be several generations of technology advanced from that venerable 6.75-litre pushrod V8, but it shares the same basement-up torque and sense of a huge iron fist inside a velvet glove. It’s more refined, too. If there’s a better diesel engine in the world, I’ve yet to experience it. 

Not that the mighty motor can do anything about Crewe’s terrible traffic. As a result, we’re nearly an hour late getting to Toyota’s factory at Burnaston, where a small team have stayed late with the cars. The Avensis we snap has pretty much rolled straight off the line and into our shot.

Day two

The next day starts bright and early outside the Jaguar plant at Castle Bromwich. JLR has closed one of the main gates into the factory so we can line up the complete range, with the XE, XF Sportbrake, XJ, XJ Long Wheelbase and F-Type all needing to be positioned. What the factory can’t run to is a step ladder – working at height, directives come into play – so Papior takes the photo while perched on the Bentayga, to the amusement of the workers helping us position the cars. There’s a running theme here, too. 

Crewe started out making Merlin engines during World War II and many of them came here to be fitted to the Spitfires the factory built. After the war, the site was taken over by Pressed Steel, which made panels for most of the other Midlands plants, with Jaguar taking control in 1977. 

Castle Bromwich feels busy, although Solihull is something else. Nissan might win on volume, but the vast Land Rover plant at Lode Lane is definitely the most impressive plant that we visit in terms of its vast size and huge amount of activity. Business is booming, with £2 billion recently invested in increasing capacity. The final inspection area has representative examples of everything made here, arranged for us in appropriate shades of red, white and blue.

Our departure causes some confusion because we leave via a different gate from the one we entered and a short-sighted security guard suspects that we’re trying to steal one of the factory’s products. He waves us to a stop before realising the Bentley isn’t a blinged-up Range Rover. “Don’t worry,” he shouts in a broad Brummie twang to his mate controlling the barrier. “It’s just some kind of new Jaguar.” Ouch.

Aston Martin’s Gaydon plant is another whistle-stop and I park the Bentayga in the personal parking space of CEO Andy Palmer, risking a diplomatic incident. Aston Martin’s recent return to profitability and the launch of the DB11 have given the company a new sense of confidence; and if we do this exercise again, we’ll have to leave England to take in the new St Athan plant in Wales. Interest is already running high, with an Australian tour group – including a bloke who has been collecting Autocar since 1948 – leaving as we take our group shot. (The Vanquish S that we use for our pictures may be familiar to you as Autocar’s long-term test car.)

However, no car factory is as much of a tourist destination as our next stop. Morgan’s Pickersleigh Road factory in Malvern Link feels as much like a living museum as a car plant, with a steady stream of sightseers walking through the rambling site and past the workshops where the company makes cars in pretty much exactly the same way that it has always done. Although sales of the 3 Wheeler have slipped and the range-topping Aero 8 remains a small part of the pie, the Classic range is still hugely popular and 70% of production is exported.

Two more stops for today take us to our final big-volume car factories, with the run from Malvern to Swindon along the lightly trafficked M5 and A419 giving the Bentayga a chance to properly stretch its legs. Corners and roundabouts leave no doubt about its considerable mass, but it feels agile for something so big, although the ‘sail mode’ that makes it declutch when you lift off means there’s almost no engine braking. I experiment by using the gearbox’s manual mode to lock it into eighth to boost retardation and prove that it will pull cleanly and without any apparent lag from just 1500rpm.

Honda’s Swindon plant feels very zen – a car factory where everybody from the newest production line worker to the boss wears identical white overalls. There’s also a line of differently sized oak trees at the front, planted to mark significant milestones.

The Mini plant in Oxford is just 30 miles away and obviously older, some of it dating pretty much to the foundation under Morris Motors a century ago, but it remains another volume whopper, producing 210,000 cars last year. There are tours here, too, as well as an on-site museum. It also claims to be the only car factory in the world with its own Instagram account.

Day three

The home stretch starts with another long drive, along the almost empty A303, to see Ariel in Somerset. ‘Factory’ is too grand a word for the company’s workshop on the edge of Crewkerne, where a couple of low-rise industrial units have been home to the brand since 2007. Every vehicle is hand-built by an individual worker from parts shipped in. The process takes 150-200 hours for an Atom or Nomad, depending on spec, and slightly less time for the Ace bike. Apart from a small showroom with a couple of cars and some vintage Ariel motorbikes, there are no frills. The brand’s success has been based on knowing its audience, rigid cost control and never overextending itself. There’s still a 14-month waiting list for a new Atom or Nomad.

“I earned £100 a week for the first six years,” says Tom Siebert, son of founder Simon Saunders and the man running operations when we visit. “You don’t do this for the money. It’s not a ticket to a private jet. I’ve got a 2002 Nissan Micra.” 

The hop to Rolls-Royce gives the Bentayga another chance to demonstrate its ability to shrink journeys, routing around Southampton, where we pass the gaping hole in the sky formerly filled by the Ford Transit plant. We’re arriving in Goodwood just a day before the Revival begins and the roads are already full of interesting old cars. Outside the impressive factory, a dozen Phantoms are lined up for a staff walk-around. Back in 2005, the still-new factory was producing just 500 Phantoms a year. Now, there’s a four-car model range and annual sales of 4000. 

Just three factories to go, but fate and a congested motorway network start to conspire against us. By the time we reach McLaren in Woking, we’re running half an hour late. Amanda McLaren, Bruce’s daughter and a company ambassador, is on hand to give a guided tour, but there’s only time for a rushed shot of the firm’s line-up on the causeway that runs around the magnificent McLaren Technical Centre. From previous visits, I know that the neighbouring McLaren Production Centre is closer to an operating theatre than a traditional car plant. If you ever get the opportunity to see it, grab it with both hands. No other car company reflects its brand values so perfectly in its corporate HQ.

The Bentayga is soon heading east again, but the M25 is getting busier and our schedule is slipping further. The contrast between McLaren and Caterham is almost total: there’s a smashed-up Citroën abandoned on the road leading to the Dartford plant, which, apart from signage and the welcome sight of a row of Sevens parked outside, is completely nondescript. But, like Ariel, Caterham knows its customers and has prospered for 44 years by giving them what they want. Employee numbers and total production are both almost identical to 2005’s.

But time isn’t on our side and more traffic gloom suggests we’ll be doing well to reach Lotus in Hethel before sunset. The Bentley does a good job of defusing the rising stress levels, although the sat-nav has started to suffer from a strange glitch that gives the screen a psychedelic pattern. Still, it doesn’t affect the guidance. Fortunately, the traffic tails off as we pass Cambridge, with the recently dualled A11 giving the Bentley a final chance to show its continent-crushing abilities. Light is fading by the time Hethel arrives, but PR manager Alastair Florance has stayed late to let us in.

There’s a strange vibe to the place. The shell of the half-built extension that was started under Dany Bahar’s period in charge of Lotus sits derelict next to the main assembly area. But although Hethel has declined since its heyday, and is still much less busy than it was in 2005, the tide has turned recently  first with an increase in sales and then with the announcement of Geely’s impending takeover. It’s a cautiously optimistic note on which to draw our story to a close.

This is a story of breadth rather than depth, a snapshot of the scale and importance of the car industry in Britain – one that runs from big multinationals to the small-volume specials that make us unique. It’s a heritage that shouldn’t be squandered. Let’s hope we’re able to do something similar in another 12 years. 

What will it be like next time?

The ‘known unknown’ of Brexit makes the prospects for another tour in 12 years’ time hard to call. The optimistic view is that there’s no reason for the big factories to shut; the UK runs several of the world’s most efficient plants, Europe already buys many cars produced outside the European Union and British-manufactured vehicles already contain a significant percentage of parts from outside the bloc. The pessimistic view is too depressing to give serious consideration to yet and it would be a tragedy if Britain was to lose the expertise that has made it a bigger car producer than Italy and snapping at the heels of France.

For smaller and specialist manufacturers, the future looks rosy, though. Aston Martin has committed to opening its new factory at St Athan in Wales, TVR is looking for a manufacturing base and Rolls-Royce, Bentley and McLaren are still planning expansion. And let’s hope the minnows are still around, too. One of the striking things about this trip and our original one is realising how well Ariel and Caterham have protected their businesses by specialising and really knowing their audience. 

What about other manufacturers? 

With only three days set aside for our tour, we had to be fairly brutal with our selection of factories. 

Our minimum requirement of producing 100 road-registered cars last year meant we didn’t visit most of Britain’s smaller sports car makers, with Ariel and Caterham effectively representing the breed. Ginetta and Radical remain successful businesses focused primarily on creating track cars and racers. LEVC in Coventry and the IBC van plant in Luton produce a significant number of vehicles, but we decided that neither taxis nor vans would qualify this time (although they did in 2005).

We haven’t been able to exhaustively list every major automotive supplier, either, but we have included some of the major ones and the various plants that produce engines and other components. 

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders reckons 169,000 people are employed directly in car manufacturing in the UK and this adds £19bn to our economy. 

Where we went and how long it took

Our route was partially dictated by logistical considerations and which factory could receive us when. It might have been possible to tidy it up a bit but not make huge savings. The Bentley’s huge fuel tank needed to be filled just three times. The final score was 29 hours on the road, 1453 miles covered, a 50mph average speed and 31.7mpg overall, according to the Bentayga’s trip computer. 

All change since 2005

Our previous tour in 2005 was done in three parts by three writers. Richard Bremner and Ben Oliver did the first two stints and I got the tail end. Starting in Dartford, I went to Hethel  which was still busy producing the VX220 for General Motors at the time — then Sunderland, TVR in Blackpool, Halewood and Ellesmere Port, Crewe, Burnaston, Noble near Leicester, Aston Martin in Newport Pagnell and, finally, the IBC van plant in Luton. 

Much has changed since then. Production was already suspended at TVR when I visited. Although it restarted briefly afterwards, the factory has since been demolished. Aston Martin no longer makes cars in Newport Pagnell, although the heritage works operation is still busy, and Noble has dropped below our arbitrary 100-a-year threshold. 

Several other factories from our first tour have also disappeared, including MG Rover at Longbridge, Jaguar’s Browns Lane factory, Westfield at Kingswinford, Bristol at Filton, Peugeot at Ryton and two van factories, Ford at Southampton and LDV at Washwood Heath. 

Yet there has been plenty of good news since 2005, too. JLR’s plants are all massively busier than they were 12 years ago and the expansion of luxury brands has been spectacular. Bentley has more than doubled its staff and Rolls-Royce production has risen eightfold, while McLaren has come from a standing start to become one of the world’s leading supercar makers. 

Related stories: 

Bentley Bentayga review 

Lotus Evora review 

Mini Clubman review 



Source: Autocar Online

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