Specialist car manufacturers pinpoint obstacles to growth

Standardisation of international vehicle registration requirements, promotion of innovation and government assistance on skills provision topped the wish list of specialist UK-based car manufacturers at an event hosted by SMMT last night.

The panel discussion session was held to mark the launch of a new report from SMMT which highlights the important role specialist automotive manufacturers play in the UK – disproportionate to the relatively low volumes they produce.

The report, Specialist Car Manufacturing: A uniquely British success story, highlights that this segment of the UK automotive sector has a turnover of £2.5bn and exports around 70% of what it produces. Production volumes for the segment sit at around 25,000 cars a year.

Representing the UK specialist automotive sector last night were Roger Green, marketing manager at Radical Sportscars, Antony Sheriff, MD of McLaren Automotive,and Michael van der Sande, chief commercial officer of Aston Martin. The panel debate and question time was chaired by Harry Metcalfe, editor of evo magazine.

Pinpointing what is required to allow low volume, luxury car manufacturers in the UK to grow all the panellists agreed that multiple international standards for vehicle registration were a costly burden. Other specialist car manufacturers in the audience, including Morgan Motor Company and Dare UK, run by the same family which founded Ginetta, agreed with this view.

The speakers called for a move to harmonise international requirements and to ease market entry. Antony Sherriff said: “Clearly with the volumes we produce it is important that we can sell our cars into every market in the world”.

Since McLaren Automotive began production just over a year ago it has spread sales into 22 countries through 38 dealerships. But the MD said that multiple registration processes are still slowing the company down.

While all panellists praised the quality of their supply chain partners in the UK, the freedom to innovate quickly and cost effectively, in partnership with preferred suppliers, was raised as a critical factor to the ongoing success of British specialist automotive manufacturing.

Process innovation to allow the exploitation of carbon fibre was found to be particularly important. McLaren claims it is now producing the first car to have a complete carbon fibre chassis while Aston Martin will be producing the entire body of its new Vanquish model from carbon fibre – also a first, it claims.

While McLaren has chosen an Austrian partner for its carbon fibre chassis, Mr van der Sande confirmed that the panels for the Vanquish, which will start production at the end of this year, will be sourced from the Isle of Wight.

Mr Sheriff said McLaren’s decision to source in Euroupe was driven by the fact that UK-based firms with the appropriate capabilities were largely aerospace suppliers, “with commercial aspirations more akin to selling to governments that to a company like us – in other words they weren’t competitive.”

Mr van der Sande praised the Regional Growth Fund as a means for accelerating innovation in specialist automotive manufacturing. “It helps us to invest more quickly in new ideas,” he said.

Finding skilled engineers to work in specialist car manufacturing was raised as a challenge but a comprehensive review of the initiatives being pushed forward by government, sector skills councils and trade bodies by SMMT chief executive, Paul Everitt, showed that positive action is being taken to address current and future skills gaps in the industry.

Mr Everitt mentioned the See Inside Manufacturing campaign as a particular success, alongside the Talent Retention Solution, Semta apprenticeships and the new Semta Advanced Skills Accreditation Scheme.

Speaking to attendees after the panel discussion session, in a brief appearance at SMMT, Business Minister Mark Prisk also asserted that See Inside Manufacturing, a BIS initiative, was making a meaningful impact.

Mr Prisk said the around 4,500 school children visited a factory in June this year thanks to the scheme. He also said he was delighted to find several instances of visitors from last year’s initiative now being enrolled on apprenticeship schemes at participating companies.