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Letter From The UK: The French Are Coming

Letter from the UK

A very long time ago, the French tried to horn in on the North American continent but we, the British, saw them off only to be unceremoniously kicked out ourselves. Honestly, King George III wasn’t such a bad chap once you got to know him. Obviously, at the time, he was considered to be as mad as a box of frogs but it turns out he suffered from Porphyria, a terrible recurrent illness that accounted for his kaleidoscope of changing views.


Thriving Factories & Prosperous Futures

History shows that even without our help, America managed to get an automobile industry started, culminating, among others, in an organization called General Motors.

Meanwhile, back in Britain, we had our own flourishing car factories redolent with famous names. One of these names was Vauxhall. Founded in 1857 as an industrial manufacturer, the company started making cars in 1903. It is thus one of the oldest car makers in the UK and still ranks high in sales. In short, it is a British success story.

When I say British, I mean of course, American. The company was acquired by GM decades ago. Nevermind, the cars are still made on these septic isles and models like the Astra and Corsa have been consistently on the bestsellers lists. The future looked bright.

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Vauxhall Astra. Photo: Vauxhall.

Storm Clouds

But all was not well. In fact, the General Motors’ European arm (including the German Opel brand) has been hemorrhaging money for years. The game was up. It was time to sell. Therefore, the big automotive news from Europe this spring has been the takeover of General Motors loss-making Vauxhall/Opel division by the PSA Group.

This does not, incidentally, mean that Europe has seen the last of GM. In fact, the American company will retain a presence within the continent, confirming they will remain in the European premium market with Cadillac and Chevrolet performance cars, which is good news for sports car enthusiasts.

The PSA Group is French. Yes, a mere three hundred years later and they’re back again, getting a foothold in someone else’s territory. As of now the Vauxhall name has a new owner. This has made waves throughout the industry and the future for this venerable and vulnerable British brand remains to be seen.

Too Far From Comfort

As an American owned company it made logistical sense to maintain full factory production of Euro-spec vehicles in the UK. The French, however, are just over twenty miles away across the English Channel. Stand on the White Cliffs of Dover and you can smell the cooking. This close proximity may well put British factories and jobs at risk as the French already have under-utilized facilities of their own.

This has been of such concern that our new Iron Lady, Prime Minister May, had cause to summon the PSA boss Carlos Tavares to question his motives. He has allegedly guaranteed UK production until “at least” the end of the decade.

Big deal. That’s only three years away.

Vauxhall Ellesmere Port - Astra Sports Tourer Production 2016
Astra Sports Tourer models on the assembly line at Vauxhall’s Ellesmere Port facility. Photo: Vauxhall.

Old Expressions, New Concerns

Also, with Great Britain now committed to leaving the European Union in two years time (we resign formally on March 29th), if we don’t agree on some sort of free trade deal of the type that we currently enjoy, then British-made cars could well become noncompetitive in the Euro market. The big concern is jobs in the same way that jobs have suffered in the recent past in the U.S. car industry.

From this side of The Pond, it seems automotive America might well be in resurgence. There’s a rather uncomplimentary old adage that says, “where America leads, Britain follows.” In this instance, let’s hope that is the case.

Geoff Maxted is a motoring writer, photographer, and author of our Letter From The UK series. Follow his work on Twitter: @DriveWrite