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Sunday 29 March 2009

Buyer’s Market

Car production in the UK is down substantially on the same period last year. Partly we’re not surprised: temporary plant closures have been well signposted, and with a plant closed, there is no production. But what is spooking some is the idea that large numbers of the motoring public can so easily defer – perhaps for a long time – that new car purchase. We had recessions before – why didn’t this happen then?

I saw two MGBs yesterday. So what, you might say. Ah well. This is something exceptional – had I seen two Golfs or Fabias, there would have been no point in the mental note. But seeing products of the 60s and 70s still out and about is unusual, even cars like the MGB with its large following of enthusiasts (aficionados?). And the MGB was more solidly put together than many of its contemporaries.

In those times, you couldn’t defer car replacement for long. The thing would ultimately have fallen apart. The engines didn’t last as long as today, maintenance was progressively more expensive, and bodywork rotted, sometimes seriously and often dangerously. Then there was the concept of “this year’s model”.

True, that idea was something that was honed by the real Mad Men and preached to the target audience in the USA more than in the UK, but the cars there also rotted away, and few lasted more than five years. Those few included the VW Beetle, something celebrated briefly by Woody Allen in his film Sleeper. But regular replacement became an entrenched norm.

Meanwhile, car build quality improved. And it improved not only in the Volkswagen plants. Progressively higher safety standards drove stronger vehicles, and more strength meant more metal. More metal then treated to keep its integrity longer meant less rotting. Engine technology also improved to give better fuel economy and lower maintenance costs – and longer life.
So, by the end of the millennium, routine car replacement was still done, but did not need to be done.

Thus a plethora of new models, or niche variants of models, available to give us more choice, appeal to our vanity, and most of all keep us buying. Then came the downturn, with more and more motorists forced to prioritise their outlays.

If you haven’t got the money, and you aren’t going near the idea of borrowing it, then no end of advertising, flash televisual promotion, or peer pressure will move you. The car can manage another year. Or two. Or more.

Thus the fall in demand. And if the punters aren’t buying, why keep producing?

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