Automotive manufacturing in the UK is recovering after the market downturn of 18 months ago. To think of Britain in 2011 as a post-industrial nation would be inaccurate, as the country’s thriving car manufacturing industry proves.
According to the UK’s Society of Motor Manufacturers and traders (SMMT), turnover in the automotive sector last year totaled some £40bn, while over £1bn was invested in R&D. Automotive exports totaled £25bn over the last five years, the SMMT notes. Further, over 700,000 jobs are said to be dependent on the industry, which in 2010 accounted for in excess of 10% of all UK exports.
Following a steep dip in sales volumes during the latter half of 2008 and into 2009, the UK market for new cars recovered some of its losses in the twelve months up to the end 2010. New car registrations rose by some 36,000 vehicles last year to 2.03 million, up 1.8% from 2009 – although that total was the second-lowest of the past decade. The SMMT attributes more than 100,000 of all registrations to the success of a national scrappage scheme.
Things might have improved from the dark days of late 2008, but the new car market is yet to show any convincing signs of strong growth. Registrations fell again in January this year, with most analysts blaming the knock-on effects of the expired scrappage scheme and high levels of unemployment, coupled with a 2.5% January increase in the national consumption tax to 20%.
The domestic new car market might still be troubled, but vehicle manufacturing is now firmly back on an expansionary path, as Paul Everitt, Chief Executive of the SMMT points out. “UK vehicle production is leading the manufacturing recovery with output in 2010 up 27.8%. Car production rose 27% over the year and 10.6% in December, while commercial vehicles enjoyed a steeper recovery, rising 35.7% over the year and 19.4% in the month,” he reports.
Besides car and van production, the UK is also a major regional manufacturer of petrol and diesel engines, with production at Toyota’s Deeside facility now including petrol-electric hybrid powertrains. In 2010, total UK engine output rose 16.2% to 2.39 million units, but slipped 1.4% in December. Last year, 72.1% of all engines produced in the UK were sent abroad, bolstering export-led manufacturing growth. Petrol engines accounted for 58.3% of total production, as the export share rose to 41.7%.
Leading the recent recovery in UK vehicle manufacturing is the country’s largest manufacturer, Nissan. The Japanese automaker’s Sunderland plant, located in the northeast of England, built a record 423,262 vehicles in 2010 with 81% of all vehicles exported. The facility, which started building the Nissan Bluebird saloon in 1986, has been expanded many times since. Today, it builds the Note, Qashqai and Juke models, with the Leaf electric car due to be added from 2013. The Leaf ’s laminated compact lithium-ion battery packs will also be assembled on-site; a new facility is presently under construction close to the main assembly plant.
Sunderland added a third shift to the Qashqai line in May 2010, boosting annual production of Qashqai and Qashqai+2 models to 271,188, up from 198,841 in 2009 and 224,989 in 2008. The Juke entered production in August, and a total of 44,622 Jukes were made in 2010. Between January and July, Sunderland made 54,580 Micras, before production of the model was transferred to India last summer after 18 years. Production of the Note, which shares Line 2 with the Juke, rose from 50,880 in 2009 to 52,872 last year.
The start-up of Auris Hybrid production at the Toyota Manufacturing UK (TMUK) Burnaston plant in Derbyshire in 2010 presented a unique challenge. Not only was this the first facility to build the model, but the car has 400 unique parts compared to other Auris models, so new tools and extra training for employees were required. Also, production had to be incorporated into an assembly line that was already building the Auris hatchback, as well as the larger Avensis saloon and wagon.
Liz McKenzie, TMUK’s Assistant General Manager Manufacturing (Planning), explains: “Our process design had to take into account the fact it takes around 11 minutes longer to make a hybrid than a standard Auris. To avoid this causing a bottleneck in production, they had to develop some unique processes where certain team members spend longer working on the hybrid model on the assembly line, and do not work on the regular Auris and Avensis models.”
The paintshop also underwent a series of changes in order to enable application of the unique white pearlescent paint which had not been used at Burnaston until the arrival of the hybrid version. The line process also had to be updated, in order to ensure the correct set of parts was sent to the teams on the production line, while there were new processes also for the press and weld shops due to the unique floor panels required to accommodate the battery for the hybrid system’s energy storage.
The decision to build a hybrid version of the Auris in Derbyshire also meant new investments in Toyota’s Deeside engine plant which, like Burnaston, began operations in 1992. This facility, located in North Wales, is Toyota’s only European facility to make petrol-electric powertrains. New processes were introduced and test areas redesigned to meet the requirements of the 1.8-litre VVT-i engines that Deeside has been supplying to Burnaston since May 2010. In particular, the hybrid engine requires a large number of bespoke components, such as a special flywheel and lowfriction pistons.
Toyota is yet to reveal any plans for extra hybrid models or powertrains for its UK operations, though Deeside would logically be the most likely source of engines for the Yaris Hybrid model, due to enter production at Toyota’s Valenciennes plant in France in 2012. As for the larger Avensis model, its lifecycle is due to end around 2013, so the replacement model should again be Burnaston-built. A new Auris, meanwhile, seems set to appear around late 2012.
Honda set up car manufacturing operations in the UK in 1992, the same year as Toyota. Now its Swindon plant, west of London, builds the Jazz (Fit), Civic hatchbacks and the CR-V crossover, with the employee headcount standing at 3,400 and investments to date totaling £1.38bn ($2.26bn).
The company had a difficult time over the recession, taking the decision to shut the plant for four months from early 2009. The downtime was used productively, Honda insists, with the testing of new tools and assembly methods taking place ahead of the October 2009 addition of the Jazz to the plant’s assembly lines. Honda also installed a new B Line press whilst Swindon was idle, as well as new robot cells in weld line 1.
Swindon should soon start to see rising production volumes after experiencing a tough 2010. A new generation of the Civic is due to be revealed later in 2011, as is the replacement for the CR-V. Depending on the success of the recently introduced Jazz Hybrid, Honda might also consider the plant as a contender for that model’s scheduled successor, which should arrive around 2013. Currently, the Jazz Hybrid is made only at Suzuka in Japan.
Powertrain operations are carried out in Swindon and at the Hams Hall plant. Not all Mini models are made in the UK, however, as due to capacity constraints and the need for an all-wheel drive powertrain assembly operation, the Countryman model is outsourced to Magna Steyr in Graz, Austria. Magna will also build the forthcoming Mini Paceman, the three-door version of the Countryman.
Cowley, which exports some 80% of its production, has an annual capacity of 260,000 cars a year, and currently builds the Mini hatchback, convertible and Clubman (wagon). Two new variants, a coupe and a roadster, are due to be added later in late 2011 and early 2012 respectively. The build for each will be added to an existing line.
BMW looks set to make further investments at its UK production plant during 2012, as a replacement for today’s hatchback, convertible and Clubman range is due in 2013.
These cars will shift onto a brand new front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive UKL1 architecture, which BMW has revealed will also be adaptable to hybrid applications. Cowley could also be building plug-in cars in the future, should BMW decide to launch a successor to the experimental Mini-E of which 500 units were made over 2009 and 2010.
JLR operates three vehicle-manufacturing plants in England: Castle Bromwich, Solihull and Halewood. Jaguar’s XF and XJ saloons, along with the XK coupe and convertible, are made at Castle Bromwich, while Land Rover’s larger 4x4s, the Defender, Discovery/LR4, Range Rover Sport and Range Rover are all built in nearby Solihull.
The second-generation Range Rover Sport (late 2012) and the closely related fourth-generation Range Rover (late 2011/early 2012), look set to share a new aluminium architecture. Among other engines, V6 diesel-electric and petrol-electric series hybrid powertrains are believed to be under development. A plug-in Range Rover is expected to follow in 2015. Today’s Ford-sourced 4.4-litre V8 turbodiesel is also expected to be offered in North America in the next generation model (presently this engine is not available in that region). Solihull will be the build location for both these new models.
A former Ford factory in England’s north-west, Halewood, makes Land Rover’s smaller Freelander/LR2, with the new Range Rover Evoque, a front- and all-wheel drive model series due to be added later in 2011. Halewood was also once the build location for the discontinued Jaguar X-TYPE and it is believed that the model’s eventual replacement, the X760 project, will also be made there. It is said that this new model series, reportedly due for launch in 2014, will consist of a saloon rival for the segment-leading Audi A4, as well as a compact crossover in the style of the Audi Q5.
General Motors’ only car manufacturing plant in the UK is Ellesmere Port, which employs 2,100 workers. The facility, in northwest England, was constructed in 1962 and has built six generations of the Vauxhall Astra, incuding Opel and Holden versions. The plant, which has an annual capacity of 187,000 units, began manufacturing the latest model in 2009, adding a third shift for the Sports Tourer (wagon) in October 2010.
As well as remaining the lead plant for Astra production, Ellesmere Port is likely to be the location for European build of the forthcoming Opel and Vauxhall Ampera, a variant of the Chevrolet Volt. The first cars are due to be built alongside the Volt at Detroit-Hamtramck in Michigan from late 2011, but a switch to UK build is reportedly due to take place in 2013 or 2014.
The other GM facility in England is Vauxhall Motors’ van plant, located close by the division’s headquarters in Luton, north of London. Annual capacity at the 378,000m² facility is 67,000 vehicles. As well as making the Vauxhall and Opel Vivaro vans, Luton’s 1,300 employees also build the nearidentical Renault Trafic and Nissan Primastar. Replacements for all these models are due in 2013, with Renault having announced in September 2010 that it would again collaborate with Opel to replace the Vivaro and Trafic.
The future of the Luton plant is presently unclear, as Vauxhall is yet to make any formal announcement over possible new products for the site. The Renault Trafic van is also built at a Nissan plant in Barcelona, while in May 2010, a French government minister stated that the Trafic replacement would be built at Renault’s Sandouville plant rather than at GM’s Luton plant.
Bentley has close to 4,000 people working at its Crewe headquarters. As well as being the Volkswagen-controlled firm’s manufacturing base, Bentley’s design, R&D and engineering operations are also based there. The company strongly believes that its combination of fine craftsmanship (using skills that have been handed down over generations) with cutting-edge technology and engineering make it unique in the UK, something that archrival Rolls-Royce might dispute. Nonetheless, the company’s success is not in doubt. Bentley Motors exports over £500m worth of goods every year to its main markets of the US, China and South America.
The company’s newest model, the recently launched Continental GT, is powered by a 423kW (567bhp) version of the Volkswagen Group’s 6.0-litre W12 engine. A 4.0-litre V8 engine, a brand new motor for the Group, will follow from late 2011. Bentley says its engineers have designed the smaller engine, which it will build at Crewe. A replacement for the Continental GTC (convertible) should follow in August or September.
Bentley launched production of its latest-generation Mulsanne flagship saloon in the second quarter of 2010. A newly-constructed body facility at the Crewe plant is dedicated to production of this huge car. The company’s advanced body assembly technology, such as superforming of the aluminium front wings, complements the more traditional, highly-skilled metalworking processes such as hand-brazing of steel joints.
Hand-crafting the interior of the Mulsanne represents a major part of the build process. The use of wood and leather hides in the car has not only been significantly increased compared to the former model, but the testing methods for durability remain unconventional. For each car, the hide is tested over 20,000 times by a team of people of varying height and weight (rather than the robots used by other manufacturers) to provide the most authentic, realworld assessment possible. Meanwhile, the stainless steel brightware on the dashboard and elsewhere in the interior receives an intensive 10-hour finishing process to offer a near-perfect gleam, according to the company.
The processes employed by Bentley to ensure high quality interiors are not just the result of seemingly endless hand-finishing, however. The company continues to invest in a special R&D operation at its Crewe plant, where new materials and assembly methods are explored.
“Much of our work takes place behind the scenes,” explains John Minshull, Head of the Bentley Laboratory at Crewe. “However, this development and scientific testing work is a key part of the Mulsanne story, as it provides our craftsmen and women with the best quality materials. And it is the combination of their creativity and our research which makes the Mulsanne interior so special.”
Thanks to the addition of the Ghost saloon, Rolls-Royce enjoyed record sales of 2,711 cars in 2010, compared to only 1,002 in 2009 and more than double the number for 2008, the previous record year. The company’s top markets are the US, UK and China, followed by the UAE and Japan.
All production of Rolls-Royce cars is at the Goodwood plant in the south-east of England, but the Ghost, which sits between the BMW 7 Series and the Phantom in terms of pricing, has its body manufactured in Germany by BMW.
While Rolls-Royce typically builds many components in-house or discreetly works with BMW-derived systems and assemblies - engines delivered by BMW have Rolls- Royce badging added after being reworked - tier supplier Wabco is credited with providing components and systems for the Ghost’s innovative air suspension.
Next up for Rolls-Royce should be the extension of the Ghost range, with the addition of coupe and convertible bodystyles. A new Phantom should then be launched in either 2012 or 2013 as well as a possible EV model, following the debut of the 102EX plug-in concept at the recent Geneva motor show.
While no longer a manufacturer of cars, Ford of Britain still has a major engine building operation at Dagenham, in east London, as well as a long-established light commercial plant at Southampton. The existing Transit van series, the only vehicle made at Southampton, will soon be eleven years old and so is up for replacement within the next 12-24 months.
Ford Otosan in Turkey is another regional build location for the Transit (and smaller TransitConnect), making many wonder if the UK plant might miss out on the replacement series. Ford insists that the plant has a future, however. Currently, Southampton runs at 125 jobs/hour on a single shift and will, Ford says, move to production of chassis cabs once the present generation of panel vans reaches the end of its lifecycle.
Aston Martin sold a record 5,000 cars as recently as 2008 but it will take until possibly 2012 for the Gaydon-based firm to reach similar levels. Apart from the Rapide saloon, which is outsourced to Magna Steyr in Austria, Aston Martin makes all of its models at the Gaydon works. These include the V8 and V12 Vantage, the DB9, the DBS, the limited edition One-77 and what is undoubtedly the most unusual car in the company’s history, the new Cygnet.
This small four-seater city runabout is shipped in CKD from Toyota’s Takaoka plant in Japan, before being modified with hand-made Aston Martin parts at Gaydon. The interior of what started life as a Toyota iQ is totally retrimmed, while there are bespoke aluminium exterior parts.
Another small manufacturer in the UK is MG Cars, which has a CKD assembly operation for the MG 6 saloon and fastback models located in what remains of the former MG Rover plant at Longbridge, near Birmingham. The old MG R paintshop remains but lays dormant as painted panels, engines, gearboxes and all other modules are shipped in from the Yizheng plant in China’s Jiangsu province where the car is built. According to SAIC, the Shanghai-based parent of the MG brand, Longbridge has an annual capacity of 5,000 cars.
If Longbridge pays claim to being one of the UK’s oldest production plants, a smaller, highly-advanced operation in the country’s south-east will soon be its newest. McLaren Cars’ second factory is currently being finished at the firm’s headquarters in Woking. The car it will build, the MP4-12C, goes on sale globally from June. This rival for the Ferrari 458 Italia has a carbonfibre chassis, while the car’s body panels are a mixture of aluminium and SMC (plastic).
The Ricardo and McLaren-developed engine is a biturbo 3.8-litre V8 that produces a claimed 592bhp, while the gearbox is a Graziano seven-speed dual clutch arrangement. Another tier supplier, Carbo Tech, will manufacture the McLaren-designed carbon chassis (the MonoCell) for the MP4-12C and other McLaren Automotive road cars for a period of eight years from 2011. The MonoCell will be made in Austria at Carbo Tech’s Salzburg plant at the rate of up to 4,000 tubs a year between this year and 2019.
What makes the MP4-12C’s build programme especially interesting is that the vehicle is being made at the company’s original plant where the F1 and Mercedes-Benz SLR were each once hand-assembled, before the model shifts to the new, adjacent plant from May. McLaren Cars hopes to sell some 1,000 units of the model annually. Two further models are expected to be built at the new facility from 2013 and 2014.
As investments in new plants for advanced technology supercars as well as battery-EVs, hybrids, luxury sedans, upscale 4x4s and regular mass-market models shows, the UK’s automotive manufacturing industry is very much back in expansionary mode.