FIFTY years ago, a car was launched that changed the world.That car was the Datsun 240Z and its impact on the global car market was huge.
It combined the attributes of classic British sports cars and American ‘pony’ cars in one stylish, inexpensive and fun-to-drive package, and in one fell swoop started to wipe out other manufacturers’ imports.
The impact was felt hard in the UK, where export sales were the key to profitability for domestic manufacturers, and was also a shock toAmerica’s ‘Big Three’ (Ford, GM and Chrysler), who accepted the British cars asa niche, but were instantly dismissive of the fledgling Japanese manufacturers.
For years, though, Japan had been quietly watching, learning and copying the design, engineering and marketing approach of western manufacturers. It’s astonishing to think today that Japan’s car industry was -not that long ago - one of the smallest in the world, but it was. The threat from the east was dismissed by arrogant western companies until the likes ofDatsun, Toyota and Honda arrived with products that were stylish, well-engineered and ultimately far more reliable than their European orAmerican counterparts.
For buyers who had no truck with patriotism, the Japanese cars were attractive. After all, why would you buy an ancient MGB or an unreliable Chevy Corvair when, for the same money, you could get a car with all the looks and performance of a Mustang and the promise it would start and run like clockwork, day-in, day-out.
Yet despite the warning signs, some of the biggest manufacturers in the West are on the brink of allowing history to repeat itself, this time with China.
Go to any international auto show, and you’ll see Chinese people with tape measures and cameras crawling all over the latest models.There’s a reason for this - they’re the engineers, looking at how they can not only echo what European, Japanese and US manufacturers have been doing, but also better it.
When Chinese-made cars first started to get noticed, we laughed. Oh how we laughed.
With daft names like Land Wind and Great Wall, and obscure facsimiles of cars that weren’t all that good in the first place, such as Chery’s take-off of the Daewoo Matiz, they were never seen as a threat to the west.
But China’s car market is one that has developed and matured more rapidly than any other in history, and carmakers ought to have ignored this at their peril. After all, demand from Chinese consumers for high-end luxury cars worked beautifully for Jaguar Land Rover, GM, BMW andMercedes-Benz at first.
It didn’t take long for the domestic firms to catch-on, though. China’s big five - SAIC, Geely, DongFeng, BYD and FAW - rapidly upped their game, investing in technology, skills and senior management to accelerate their growth.
Geely bought Volvo, along with LTI (now LEVC), which manufactures the iconic London Taxi. SAIC, meanwhile, got into bed withVolkswagen and GM on a number of joint ventures, while it continued to establish its own brand in Europe using the logo and engineering assets of the failed MG. While the UK media may be reporting doom and gloom following recent job losses at the MG HQ, the truth is that the brand is on a roll, with newSUVs, its first EV and the fastest growing dealer network in Europe. Not even acynic can ignore plain facts.
BYD, meanwhile, put its eggs into Europe’s commercial vehicle basket. Its electric drivetrains now power over half of Europe’s electric buses, and it has recently announced its first tie-up in the USA.
These deals aren’t small-fry - they’re big, corporate contracts that underscore China’s status as a superpower.
China currently has the biggest electric vehicle market in the world, worth US $18 billion a year. That’s a lot of money, and given the continued evolution of other car markets towards electric power, the export growth potential is huge.
But big as the global vehicle market is, its volume is still finite. In terms of sales, for every winner, there’ll be a loser. And that means that as China continues to both expand and export, there are carmakers elsewhere in the world that will miss out.
The ones that haven’t seen it coming are the ones that will be hit the hardest - and there will be casualties…