Country of origin Vs country of manufacture
German cars, Korean cars, Australian cars. You know what they are. Or do you? Is a car’s spiritual home the same as its actual country of manufacture? And which of those two matters more?
LAST MONTH was a stupendously sad one for anyone employed in Australian manufacturing. The final Falcon rolled off the line in Broadmeadow. With it, Ford car-making in Australia died. Within days, Elizabeth built its very last Cruze. In a year from now, the Commodore ends its stint there.
From then on, no Holden or Ford will be, in a literal sense, Australian. But will you still think of them as the home team?
As a Pom, these questions sure resonate with me.
Once upon a time, Ford of Britain had its own independent range of locally designed and built cars. The Cortina was as much a part of our culture and industrial landscape as the Falcon was of yours. The final Ford made here was the Fiesta, and the car production line at our Dagenham plant stopped in 2002. The last Ford van made in Britain was in 2013.
At least GM still builds cars in my country, including a large number of Astras. (Although as it happens the ones to be sold in Oz will come from a sister plant in Poland.) But most of the GMs sold in Britain – where they wear the Vauxhall badge instead of Opel – are made in other European countries.
Yet here’s the thing. If you stopped anyone on a British street and asked them to name the British car companies, they might cite Vauxhall. But I’d bet the first name to pass their lips would actually be Ford. Yes, that’s the same Ford that hasn’t built a car here for nearly a decade and a half.
But who made the most cars in Britain last year? Nissan. A staggering 475,000 of them. The majority of Nissans sold in Britain are made in Britain. Same goes for Honda, whose sole European car plant stands on British soil. Same for Toyota. Yet most Brits think of all of them as Japanese cars.
And I honestly think Honda and Toyota and Nissan are quite happy that the public continues under that misapprehension. Because ‘Japanese’ in the car world is almost a synonym for ‘reliable’ and ‘convenient’. Oh, all three manufacturers want to be seen as good corporate citizens and employers when they talk to Governments and the people local to the plants. And they want to stress to auto journalists that their vehicles were tuned with British and European taste in mind. But on a wider stage, this subconscious Japanese-ness suits them just fine.
So if you’re short of a pub game next time you gather with your car-literate mates, get them to name the actual nationality of these cars. Easy ones to start with: the BMW X5 and Mercedes-Benz GLE crossovers. That’s right, they’re built in America, in South Carolina and Alabama. OK let’s ramp it up a bit. The all-American Jeep Renegade? Made in three places, none of them very apple pie: Serbia, Brazil and China. Renault’s French take on the crossover, the new Koleos? That one’s made only in South Korea and China. The car that’s set to become Audi’s global best-selling model, the new Q5? It’s Mexican. No front-engined Fiat 500 has ever been built in Italy. Depending on where they’re sold they’re made in Poland or Mexico. I could go on.
But the question is, how much does the place of manufacture matter? Most carmakers choose their build sites on the simple basis of what lets them sell to customers most competitively. And over time those things change, what with currency fluctuations and changes in global tariffs. Those matters that have lately become very pertinent and uncertain following the votes by Britons to pull out of the EU and by Americans to put the protectionist Donald Trump into the White House.
But what doesn’t change, or what shouldn’t in a well-managed car brand, is the spiritual home. Despite their increasingly global manufacturing footprint, the German premium brands do almost all their design and development work in Germany. Their customers want a car that looks and feels that way.
Same for BMW’s “British” brands, Mini and Rolls-Royce. They’re engineered in Germany but built in England, and they’re meant to feel true to what Mini and Rolls were in the old days when they were truly 100 percent Union-Jack. Their English accent is stressed in their marketing. Peter Schwarzenbauer, who’s in charge of both brands at BMW board level, once told me, “In communication, it’s quite important. It’s the same with luxury and fashion brands. You need a geographical attachment.”
And only with premium nameplates. Michael van der Sande, Marketing Director of Renault, maker of the Korean Koleos, told me: “At Renault we’re very French and proud of it. It’s a hedonistic approach to life. _L’art de vivre_. Our cars are human, optimistic, fun.”
Volvo makes very Swedish cars, even though it’s owned by a Chinese conglomerate and builds a whole lot of cars there, and is opening a US plant. UK boss Jon Wakefield said, “Our values are openness and safety. We are intrinsically Swedish. It’s what makes us special.”
So a car’s nationality has a whole lot more to do with the motherlode of its design and branding than it does with the location of the factory. That’s why we Brits still think of Ford as the local player. It’s a company that speaks to us in a Pommie accent. But crucially, it also builds cars that don’t feel foreign to us.
That’s the colossal challenge facing the next Commodore if the Oz public is to take it to their hearts. Not that it’s built in Germany. But that it’s a European-designed front-drive rebadged Opel Insignia. Is a Holden badge enough to make that, y’know, Australian?