Vauxhall died 35 years ago

Before we all get overly excited that another traditional 115 year old UK car manufacturer, founded by Alexander Wilson in 1857, may be at risk to be erased from the history books, let us please be as accurate as possible: there are no additional £135 Mio per week available for the NHS, and Vauxhall, as true car manufacturer, died 35 years ago, in the 1980's. Alexander Wilson started to produce pumps and marine engines in 1857. Not very successful it seems, as the company was bought just 6 years later by Andrew Brown, now producing travelling cranes. Brown named it Vauxhall Iron Works, and started to produce cars in 1903. The whole lot was bought in 1925 by General Motors (GM), the Bedford brand was created, and after the war Vauxhall became a mass-market car manufacturer. But since 1980, Vauxhall products have been largely identical to those of Opel, GM’s German subsidiary, and since then most models were and still are principally engineered in Ruesselsheim, Germany. Vauxhall… R.I.P. Remember Apple? Designed in California, manufactured in China... Today, Vauxhall does not legally exist, its legal name is General Motors UK Limited, which in turn is owned by the German Adam Opel AG. So what is Vauxhall? Well, it’s a brand, a trade name, a graphic, a feeling for many, a good feeling for some, but clearly nothing owned by anybody in the UK in the last 35 years. Important from a human aspect is that there are two car assembly facilities in the UK, in Ellesmere Port (producing the Astra) and in Luton (producing just the Vivaro now, after closure of the Vectra line). Its these 2 factories that are now owned by PSA, together with the badge Vauxhall. They could start building little Peugeot, or bigger Citroen, or just the Astra, and put whatever badge they want on it. In today's globally integrated production world, it does not even matter if the steering is fixed on then left or right sided, they assemble what they are told. Parts are coming from all over the world, and the final assembly happen in one place. And a car has many parts. The ownership of 2 car manufacturing plants in the UK moved from a German/US ownership to French ownership. So what, no big change, the UK should be used to it, the electricity provider EDF is French (Electricite de France), large parts of the iconic London red buses are owned by the French RATP (Regie Autonome des Transports de Paris). It sometimes feels like there is not much British owned industry left in this country, except for the workforce in foreign owned factories.

Rolls Royce - Jaguar - Land Rover, all sold. Production capacity is important, people need work to earn money to be able to be a consumer, but it can be fatal for a region or country if all investment decisions are made abroad, and its even worse if all profits are transferred abroad. And that "abroad" will soon even mean "outside of the EU abroad" is not helping. Its one thing to exit from unwanted rules and treaties, but to exit from foreign ownership is something else. The ugly N word comes to mind: nationalisation? Really? That never worked well. For such a international production structure to work, you need friends in many places, specially if the only thing you bring to the table is a competitive workforce, and maybe, from time to time, a attractive exchange rate. But today, production is more and more mobile, quality control can run on remote. It will be interesting to see how the UK will position its production industry with its manufacturing capacities (Vauxhall and other) in a new world outside of the EU, without owning the product or brand, nor the management, not being the decision maker on future products and investments and with no control on profit allocations.

Holding up 2 fingers to the french boss is maybe not a good idea these days, as they took the bow away.

With the PSA purchase, these 2 plants in UK will have to compete with other assembly locations of PSA in Europe, but with a large volume of the final product being sold in the UK, there are many arguments to keep it here and the consumer happy.

Bigger problems await Opel in Germany, as the new boss is not sitting any more thousands of miles away in a different time zone, but a couple of miles up the road in France. GM's know-how with small cars is non existent, PSA only knows small cars.

Opel is the real loser and will lose its position of "Head of European Operations". Design and engineering will have to be aligned within PSA to optimise synergies, and most technological challenges will be solved in France. I already see trucks full of confidential R&D papers leaving Ruesselsheim for Paris.

Opel's engineering chance is the specialisation in electric cars, expertise and know how collected with the Opel/Vauxhall/GM Ampera over many years. PSA is less advanced in this electric field.

Axel R Thill
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