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Letter From The UK: A Car of Our Own

Letter from the UK

“This is Meg. Meg is our car.” This statement appeared on a Twitter feed near to me, accompanied by a photograph of a five-year-old Ford Focus. Meg is very clean and takes pride of place in their driveway. Meg, it is clear, is as much a part of the family as the dog or a difficult child. To be fair to Meg and her family, I personally have a bit of an issue with assigning gender and human attributes to machinery. My late Mother-in-Law (who was, against type, a very nice woman) insisted on calling her car “Lulu” on the basis that the licence plate kind of looked a bit like that.

Crushes & Complexities

There’s nothing new about this: Hark back to earlier days to hear British car enthusiasts – usually men wearing cravats – referring to their classic car as “her” or even “the old girl,” a sobriquet otherwise used solely as a replacement for “the wife.” Fortunately, this practice has been driven out of use by the complex assignment of gender these days. My own car, which I bought new for cash, is going on six-years-old (note that I refuse to use the word “birthday”). At best, it gets called “the Citroen,” otherwise it is “the car.” I have no plans to change it because it does all that I require and does it well, not because I love it like a brother.

It seems to me that we use the internet as an alternative universe. We can do and say things that would make us look silly out in the “real world” where we actually reside. Thus, in a way, the real world becomes another universe of itself and not just the place that we live in. It’s strange how we exist in this parallel way.

These days, and we got this idea from the USA by the way, we use our special internet universe to possess new cars we are unlikely ever to call our own. We do this by means of the Personal Contract Purchase or PCP. It seems like a neat idea but, as some people are finding out, it isn’t always as clear cut as it seems. Lose your job through no fault of your own and see what happens. You may have been there already.

A vintage E-Type might qualify for the title of “old girl” or any other equivalent label. Earlier this year, Jaguar Classic debuted its first “Reborn” Jaguar E-Type at the Techno-Classica Essen show. Photo: Jaguar Land Rover.

Downward Spiral

Looking at all the new or nearly new vehicles on Britain’s roads today, you would think we are a robust and economically sound nation. Indeed, the figures show the UK has seen modest economic growth this year, but as far as the motor industry is concerned, appearances can be deceptive. Sales are slowing. The car market has been over-trading lately, riding on the wave of financial innovations like PCP.

In fact, UK car manufacturing fell in September, with year-on-year output declining minus 4.1 percent, according to recent statistics by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. 6,500 fewer cars rolled off production lines than in the same month of 2016, in line with slower growth across European Union markets, but it was substantial double-digit losses here in our internal market which has driven the overall decline. Domestic demand in the month dropped, contributing to an overall year-to-date production decrease of minus 2.2 percent. This rather indicates the PCP market skews the outlook.

metalworking cnc milling machine PUZ9EWA

Warning Signs

Here I quote the UK’s Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders head honcho, Mike Hawes, verbatim:

“With UK car manufacturing falling for a fifth month this year, it’s clear that declining consumer and business confidence is affecting domestic demand and hence production volumes. Uncertainty regarding the national air quality plans also didn’t help the domestic market for diesel cars, despite the fact that these new vehicles will face no extra charges or restrictions across the UK. Brexit is the greatest challenge of our time and yet we still don’t have any clarity on what our future relationship with our biggest trading partner will look like, nor detail of the transitional deal being sought. Leaving the EU with no deal would be the worst outcome for our sector so we urge government to deliver on its commitments and safeguard the competitiveness of the industry.”

Right now at least, “No Deal” seems the likeliest outcome. We’ll see.

Vauxhall Luton Vivaro Production 300747
Vauxhall’s Luton Plant manufactures the Vivaro, a multi-use commercial van. According to Vauxhall, the Luton Plant produced 60,820 Vivaros in 2015. Currently, the plant employs about 1,200 people. Photo: Vauxhall.

A Car of Our Own

So this in turn suggests the PCP bubble could burst. The deals are getting, on the face of it, better, and ways of shifting cars from the showroom more inventive. Can it last? The car market is a transient thing and very much governed by the disposable income of the population, and the prospects for a secure job environment are looking increasingly shaky.

Are we reaching the stage where nobody will ever have a car like Meg to call their own? Or are we going to go the other way and keep the cars we really do own for longer? That’s my plan. “The Citroen” stays with me until one of us breaks down. Meanwhile, I am resisting the temptation of being over-familiar and calling it “Claudette.” The family prefers the more alliterative Maxine. “This is Maxine. We own Maxine outright.”

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