This was the day General Motors came to the end of the road. I once asked a Sudanese politician to name the thing that in his eyes proved a nation was a nation. He didn't hesitate: 'The ability to make cars.' Britain was a nation because it made Jaguars. Germany was a nation because of Volkswagen. America ran the world because of General Motors. Italy made Fiats and France made Peugeots, Japan made Toyotas, and even the Russians, struggling along the highway towards modernity, had the easily underestimated Lada. Was making cars once an indicator of national self-sufficiency? Is it still? Rover, Morris, Austin, Triumph, Vauxhall, Aston Martin, Rolls-Royce, Mini, Land Rover: when we hear the names of these firms, we think of the cars they made, and of cars driven by parents or grandparents, sisters or old boyfriends. But we also think of the places in Britain where the cars were built, places that map out a productive nation. Say 'Rover' and people will, depending on their age, think of Coventry, Solihull, Cowley or Longbridge. Say 'Vauxhall' and they will think of Luton; say 'Hillman Imp' and they think of Linwood. When people consider their own lives and how well they have done, or are doing, they may well think of the cars they have owned, the notion of aspiration having a lot to do with what you drive; and if that is the case, then the almost permanent decline of the car industry in Britain must be fairly closely entangled with our sense of who we are. The cars that are built here now are mainly built by foreign companies - Jaguar and Land Rover are owned by Tata Motors of India, BMW owns Mini and Rolls-Royce, Volkswagen owns Bentley, while the MG is owned by Nanjing Automobile Group of China - which might be one of the things that explains a degree of loose wiring in the English nationalist brain.
LRB 11 June 2009 | PDF Download