The American Invasion
(14 March 2012)
During my leisure moments over the past few weeks I've been reading one of the many books I inherited from my late father. Edited by Richard Hough and published in 1965, it's called the Motor Car Lover's Companion, and what a galaxy of motoring-related literary treats lies therein.
I've known about and occasionally dipped into this book since my schooldays, so some of the contributions are old favourites. One of these is that wonderful piece of verse called Motor Bus, written partly in English and partly in Latin by the Public Orator of Oxford University Alfred Denis Godley, which begins:
What is this that roareth thus?
Can it be a Motor Bus?
Yes, the smell and hideous hum
Indicat Motorem Bum!
and concludes, spectacularly:
Domine, defende nos
Contra hos Motores Bos!
I've also been familiar for years with On Running A Royce, Laurence Pomeroy's 1962 account of his first year's ownership of a 1950 Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith. I remember - or think I remember - Dad telling me he thought this was the finest motoring article he had ever read, and you can get an idea of Pomeroy's style from this quite wonderful sentence: "I have often (truthfully) said that certain cars could be driven 400 miles in a day without physical exhaustion, but the Royce is the only one I know in which I can start in the morning physically exhausted (from causes into which we need not enter) and finish the day's run wholly revived."
This time round, I've concentrated on reading parts of the Companion that I had previously glossed over, and found such delights as Henry Sturmey's report on his drive from John o'Groats to Land's End - in 1897 - and an extract from the diary of Mary, Lady Monkswell referring to a dinner at which her fellow guests included Sir Hugh Locke-King, founder of the Brooklands race circuit, and his wife, Dame Ethel:
"They have been building this awful motor track and are so hated by their neighbours, many of whose houses they have simply ruined, that hardly anyone will speak to them . . . A more unenjoyable place to come to on a hot Sunday afternoon I cannot imagine."
None of this, as you'll have realised by now, has anything to do with the American invasion referred to in the headline. Let us turn, then, to page 179 of the Companion to find the text of an address to the Coventry Engineering Society made, on 14 January 1910, by the British, though Australian-born, businessman, racing driver and record breaker Selwyn Francis Edge.
The subject of the address was The American Automobile In 1910. Edge, who had recently been to the US, reported on the very different motoring conditions on the far side of the Atlantic, some of them making it possible for far more cars to be built and sold there than in any European country. One was that American drivers were on average much younger than their British counterparts, simply because they made more money at an earlier age.
Another - and it's difficult to conceive of such a thing being written today - was that the still novel automobile "has made farming possible for a man with an intelligent mind who requires the mental stimulus that mixing with his fellow men gives, as he is enabled to live on his farm during the week, and for weekends with the aid of his motor car he can get into touch with the civilization of the town."
For these and other reasons, an American factory might have a vastly greater rate of production than a European one. Edge refers to "the colossal outputs which we hear of working up to 20,000 cars per annum from one factory". Sixteen days before Edge rose to speak in Coventry, engine designer Charles Yale Knight, in an address to the Chicago Motor Club which is also included in the Companion, doubted that any manufacturer in Europe was building more than 2000 in a single year.
Edge realised that the American manufacturers were dealing with an already enormous and rapidly expanding home demand which would take some time to meet, but in a manner which was surely designed to focus the attention of audience he warned that "I cannot help thinking there is a very serious menace growing up in America against the motor trade of this country, which would particularly affect the city of Coventry". This "menace" would take the form of the Americans deciding, once they had matched their supply to their home country's demand, to sell part of their output in the UK - perhaps even for no immediate profit - as a means of reducing their unit costs.
He didn't mention the Japanese, and it would probably not have occurred to him to do so. The first Japanese car to go on sale was the Daihatsu Compagno (pictured in Berlina 800 form), and that was in the mid-1960s, when Edge was a quarter-century dead. And, as things turned out, he wasn't quite right about the Americans. The US market developed quite differently from any of the European ones, so that cars which later proved to be wildly popular in the States were almost unknown to the British motorist.
Today, by far the most successful manufacturers in this country are Ford and Vauxhall, and there's no reason for any non-enthusiast to believe that they are not British. But of course they aren't, or at least not to a noticeably greater extent than Honda, Nissan or Toyota, all of which build cars here. The companies which create the Fords and Vauxhall in our showrooms and on our roads are largely German (for now, anyway) and are themselves subsidiaries of American parent organisations.
Edge did not foresee this, and nor did he predict that Ford's initial big push into the UK market would be achieved not by exporting the Model T (though that did happen in the early days) but by setting up a factory to build it here instead.
Still, as an attempt at fortune-telling in the very early and convulsively changeable days of the motor industry, Edge's Coventry address was very impressive. I like to think that subsequent events would have satisfied him for that reason, though there can be no doubt that he would have been appalled by the state of the British car business a century and more after he expressed such concern for its well-being.