It is a curious anomaly — or perhaps the reason for this newfound collective success — that Britain's major indigenous carmakers are now all run by German CEOs. From booming Land Rover to baronial Bentley, from regal Rolls-Royce to rejuvenated Jaguar, from multiplying Mini to artistic Aston Martin: these companies are headed by Germans. (Rolls, Bentley and Mini are also owned by German companies; Jaguar Land Rover is part of India's Tata Group — which instantly hired a German boss when it took the reins.)
Not so many years ago, Britain's home-grown carmakers were in a frightful pickle. While Japan's and Germany's carmakers were building a future, ours were merely making history. Jaguar and Mini were rarely profitable, despite some sparklingly innovative cars. Bentley and Aston Martin were no strangers to bankruptcy. Rolls-Royce and Land Rover were sometimes profitable, often not. And we all know what happened to Rover, Triumph, Austin, Morris, Wolseley, Humber and the rest.
The German bosses who have overseen this 21st-century regeneration are mostly engineers schooled in the long-term collaborative thinking that has distinguished Germany's industrialists, the progeny of a country that celebrates manufacturing and engineering and puts progress ahead of short-term profit (or parsimony).
Mindful of all this, I ventured north, to the UK motor industry's most historic factory, Bentley's Crewe headquarters. Back when Britain was celebrating its Finest Hour, Crewe was making aero engines for Spitfires, Hurricanes and Avro Lancasters. Now it makes hand-crafted Bentley cars. Local artisans stitch supple leather, cut and polish valuable wood veneers, lovingly paint those (mostly German-manufactured) bodies, and also hand assemble numerous components varying from walnut-veneer picnic tables to Champagne bottle coolers. And it works — sales have grown 52 per cent in the past two years.
Bentley's management is dominated by Germans but one of the few Englishmen to sit at the top table, sales and marketing director Kevin Rose, says the Germans have also learnt from the Brits. He cites the improving quality of the leather and wood on cars made by the Volkswagen Group (owner of Bentley, as well as Audi, Bugatti and Lamborghini).
Of all these revivified British carmakers, Bentley celebrates its heritage the hardest, and its cars have the closest lineage to their romantic forebears. The factory is peppered with old sepia-tinted photos of racing Bentleys from the 20s and 30s, and of their drivers (a group of likely lads called 'The Bentley Boys', who drove hard, partied furiously and enjoyed numerous racing successes).
The latest Bentleys are, in many ways, modern iterations of those marvellously imposing old Bentleys. The latest, the Continental GT Speed, is big, beautifully built, has a monstrously powerful 12-cylinder engine and yet has all the quietness and good manners you'd expect from a high-speed British sporting car. It's as fast as most Ferraris yet about as unfussed as your favourite leather armchair.
The German bosses, says Kevin Rose, really understand and admire these great old British car companies. They invest in the brand and think long term. Look at the sales results, or drive a Continental GT Speed, and it's hard to disagree.
Gavin Green is a motoring journalist and consultant.
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