Power Plants: Liverpool’s Hot Metal

A feature on Merseyside’s automotive industry for The City Tribune (see Issuu below).

Look carefully and you may notice that some cars are more common than others in Liverpool. A flash of sleek bonnet here, a recognisable grille there — even the low-slung growl of Liverpool’s very own supercar. The automotive industry continues to flock to Liverpool and, in return, the city has taken the respective cars — the Range Rover Evoque and Land Rover Freelander 2, the Vauxhall Astra and the BAC Mono — to its heart.

The luxury crossover SUV (with some styling supposedly supplied by Victoria Beckham) is manufactured just a few miles south of the city centre at Halewood and Jaguar Land Rover are so proud of the association with Liverpool that the international launch was held in the city; an old underground railway tunnel reactivated for the worlds journalists to try out the car’s four-wheel drive. Halewood is churning out Evoques as fast as it’s able to — more than 200,000 were built in its first 24 months of production — and the resulting demand keeps the plant working 24 hours a day, employing 4,500 people; a workforce that has trebled since the Evoque hit the production lines.

Land Rover Evoque under construction at Halewood

The plant’s impact on the area isn’t confined to Halewood, however, with a supply chain and auxiliary plants cropping up around Merseyside. In 2012 a further 300 jobs were announced for a new logistics centre in Ellesmere Port to handle the additional parts for the increased volume. JLR says that it has placed £3bn worth of supply contracts since 2011, just for the production of Evoque, with many going to companies on Merseyside. Richard Else, Halewood’s Operations director says the plant is one of the most flexible, advanced automotive manufacturing facilities in Europe, but admits that JLR underestimated demand for Evoque, which necessitated a move to three shifts over 24 hours, every day. As a result a new Evoque heads off the production line every 82 seconds. Things weren’t always so rosy.

Back in 2008 previous owners Ford decided they’d had enough of Jaguar Land Rover — along with Aston Martin and Volvo, the US giant shed its Premier Auto Division, putting the future of Jaguar Land Rover in doubt. Dial back 30 years and the Liverpool’s car plants were synonymous with bolshy unions, shoddy work and industrial disharmony.

The Halewood plant employs over 4,500 people.

What’s changed? New owners Tata,having successfully ridden out the after math of their purchase — supposedly overvalued — in 2008 went about creating a product that was relevant to a modern audience, updating Jaguar and Land Rover products without losing their inherent appeal. In addition to the Evoque’s ‘styling by Beckham’ tag it boasts levels of personalisation previously unheard-of in volume cars and is packed with clever technology, including a lenticular screen that shows different images to driver and passenger.

Tata’s global reach, particularly in developing markets, has also helped JLR push into Brazil, India and especially China where growth is strong and margins fat. Halewood exports 80% of its cars to all corners of the globe. It may be made in Liverpool, but the Evoque is a global car.

James Batchelor, Editor of Car Dealer Magazine, says the Merseyside region is well-placed to emerge from the recession in pole position. “Arguably Nissan’s Sunderland plant grabs the headlines more, as does Mini’s Plant Oxford and Honda in Swindon, but Merseyside has a thriving automotive heritage — and it’s only set to get better if the indicators are right. It’s at the heart the North West’s success in this arena. More than that it’s home to Jaguar Land Rover and Vauxhall — two plants that are performing well and have great futures ahead of them.

In the case of the former, Jaguar Land Rover’s plant at Halewood is constantly being upgraded — both in terms of technology and manpower — to meet global demand for its desirable products, while Vauxhall’s Ellesmere Port facility recently won the contract to build its next Astra – and that’s no small feat.”

1 Land Rover Evoque rolls off the production line every 82 seconds.

Vauxhall & Us

General Motors’ Ellesmere Port is just over the Mersey and upstream a few miles. The Vauxhall plant proudly calls itself ‘The Home of the Astra’ — Vauxhall’s small family car that has become synonymous with the Wirral peninsula. The Astra, designed by Brit Mark Adams, is one of Europe’s best-selling models — using the Opel badge on the continent — and the all-new model will built at Ellesmere Port from 2015.

With a parent company undergoing radical restructuring and uncertainty over the health of the volume market in Europe, doubts were cast on the future of the plant at the start of the decade. However, with a business case that “made itself”, according to Business Secretary Vince Cable, and Ellesmere Port recognised for its productivity and quality, the plant’s future was assured with an investment of £125m and a commitment to continue building the Astra on Merseyside into the 2020s.

Vauxhall says that almost 4,000 jobs have been created directly and in the supply chain as a result of the news — with at least 25% of parts sourced locally — on top of 2,000 existing workers at Ellesmere Port.

When construction of the new Astra begins the plant will move to a three-shift pattern producing a minimum of 160,000 vehicles each year. It’s another example of the region’s success in the automotive sector — with Toyota’s Deeside engine plant and Bentley’s headquarters in nearby Crewe there’s a network of satellite companies in the area that supply the OEMs with parts and skills.

The UK is a genuine world force when it comes to pioneering innovation and engineering

The local supply chain was a significant reason for Ian and Neill Briggs bringing their supercar — the BAC Mono — to Liverpool. The Briggs Automotive Company (BAC) was born out of the brothers’ design studio (with an impressive client list that includes Bentley,Ford and Porsche) but a mutual love of fast cars and track days led them to designing and building their own one-seater. It’s no coincidence that the Briggs brothers chose Liverpool as the birthplace of the Mono.

BAC Mono, designed and manufactured in Liverpool

“One of the challenges we have is that we can’t afford automation,” says Ian. “We needed guys from the automotive or aerospace industries or very highly-skilled technicians. But due to the amount of car industry in the Merseyside area we were able to recruit from the supply chains around here.”

With new car sales hitting a 10-year high in March 2014 and the sector’s exports worth over £30bn, all of Merseyside’s automotive companies are well-placed to take advantage of the long-awaited economic upturn. Autocar editor Chas Hallett says the domestic automotive industry is in its best shape for over 30 years.

“The British car industry was on its knees in 1982, when we were only building 887,000 cars a year. This was down to a combination of a desperate lack of top-flight engineers, the legacy of a lack of training following WWII, and the crippling divisions in British society of the time. It has taken nearly 30 years but the industry is now in the best shape it’s ever been and is a vitally important part of the country’s wider economy.”

Power Plant Image 4

Hallett believes the strategies employed at Ellesmere Port and Halewood show how British car factories can prevail, even in difficult times. “Better management, planning, design and engineering have all contributed to the buoyant state we are in now… the UK is now a genuine world force when it comes to pioneering innovation and engineering.”

What remains today of the British car industry is inevitably foreign-owned. But Brits still design many world-beating cars. And they make many of them too. It’s tempting to draw a parallel between these new cars — stylish and award-winning — with a Liverpool also unrecognisable from 30 years ago.

Time was, people in Liverpool had a reputation for their skills in stealing cars. Nowadays they’re renowned for their skills in making them — and they are some of the best, most individual and sought-after cars in the world.

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