IN THE future, I remember a top motor mogul once saying, there will be just two car companies. Or, to be exact, two car companies, and Morgan still fighting its way through a ten-year backlog of orders for the Plus 4.
How things have changed. Morgan’s infamous ten-year waiting list is now – thanks at least partly to the help of Sir John Harvey Jones – more like six months, and it’s owned by a group of Italian investors, making rather more cutting-edge models like the new Plus 6. If all that can happen in a decade or two to a tiny company making 1930s throwbacks in the Malvern Hills, then it must be a tiny tremor compared to the earthquakes happening elsewhere in the car industry.
The latest one you might have read about is PSA, the French conglomerate that for decades has run Peugeot and Citroen, and owners of Vauxhall for the last two years, agreeing to a merger with Fiat, which itself has already merged with Chrysler. To me at least, it’s a bit of a head-scratcher.
Suppose you’re in the market for a five-door hatchback of the Golf/Focus ilk in a few years’ time. This new mega-conglomerate will, in theory, be able to sell you a Vauxhall Astra, a Peugeot 308, a Citroen C4 Cactus, a Fiat Bravo, an Alfa Romeo Giulietta and possibly some sort of small Chrysler. All of which will either have to be sufficiently different to stand out – and less profitable as a result – or so closely related that they’ll all end up with birth defects and Haemophilia. If interbreeding doesn’t work for dogs or royal families, I doubt it’ll work on family hatchbacks either.
VW’s managed it because the three basic spinoffs of its Golf – Skoda’s Octavia, SEAT’s Leon and Audi’s A3 – are all very different cars that appeal to three different sets of people. I spent 400 miles with a diesel Octavia SE Estate last weekend and it was superb, comfortably chomping through the motorway network in a quiet no-nonsense manner, but I know that however accomplished it is, it’ll never steal a single sale from Audi A3 devotees or from Golf GTI hedonists.
To pull off the same trick with six or seven big companies already competing for the same middle ground’s going to be very tricky indeed. Get it right and I don’t think the chaps at Ellesmere Port would mind building a Peugeot GTi or a small Alfa alongside their Astras, but get it wrong and it’ll be the Austin/Wolseley/MG/Morris/Vanden Plas 1100 all over again.
One brilliant car, in other words, but made by a messy mix of companies that’ll all eventually end in tears. Meanwhile, at Morgan…