With justifiable pride GM's UK arm trumpeted its success in April: 'Vauxhall storms to the top of the charts!' headlined its news release. In that month it seized 14.9 per cent of the British new-car market, against 13.8 per cent for Ford, the only other company with a double-digit share of UK auto sales. Vauxhall's market share was up from 11.5 per cent in the same month in 2004, while Ford's was down from 15.5 per cent. This was good going for Vauxhall in a month that was down 4.0 per cent from last year's April, writes Karl Ludvigsen.

When I was with Ford of Europe I often said that the one job I wouldn't want to have would be chairman of Ford of Britain when it lost market leadership. Ford's Number One status in the British market has iconic status in the Corporation. It's the sole major market where it holds first place. In July 1974 Ford outsold BL for the first time and went on to grab Number One status in Britain with an attractive and rational range of high-value automobiles. Now that leadership is menaced by a revitalised Vauxhall.

It's not over yet for 2005, of course. Through its first four months Ford had 14.76 per cent of the market against 13.58 percent for Vauxhall. The latter's volume is up slightly in a market that's down 6.6 per cent from last year's, while Ford's volume is down by more than 9 per cent. Alarm bells are ringing at Ford's Warley headquarters, where they're only too well aware that at this rate Vauxhall could grab the lead for the year. Responsibility for this debacle would be shared between Roger Putnam, who has chaired Ford UK since March 2002 and leaves at mid-year, and Stephen Odell, who then takes over a seat that's going to be one of Ford's hottest. I don't envy the hapless Odell, who moves in from the presidency of Mazda Motors Europe.

Much will depend on how well the market takes to Ford's new Focus, lacklustre in looks though capable on the road. It's still Britain's best-seller, with 55,993 year-to-date against 40,004 for the Astra, but in April volumes of the two were uncomfortably close. Also Corsa is holding a strong third place while Fiesta seems to be flagging. Mondeo leads Vectra for the year so far, through neither was in the UK's top ten sellers in April. Menwhile feisty foreigners like Mégane, Clio and Golf are grabbing market share, exploiting the gap left by the failure of MG Rover.

After having topped the UK market more than 30 years ago, Ford never seemed to have a clear idea of what to do with its leadership in Britain. I recall Ford UK's Sam Toy saying, 'I know they'll never love us, but I hope they'll respect us.' That was a fair assessment of the way Ford was regarded through the 1980s, at least until it lost that respect with its bloated and boring 1991 Escort — a final gift to Ford of Europe by the recently deceased Alex Trotman — and bizarre 1995 Scorpio, a contribution by the departing Jac Nasser. These aberrations had many questioning the way Ford was being managed in Europe.

Lack of consistency was shockingly obvious. Rapid management turnover was one reason for this. Early in 1991 I was called in by Ford's agency, Ogilvy & Mather, to assist in framing the urgent overhaul of the company's public-facing activities that was being demanded by Ford of Europe's incumbents, Lyn Halstead and Lou Lataif. They were dismayed that the British press and public seemed to be down on Ford and its products to an unprecedented degree. This was winter and they wanted people to like Ford better by springtime!

When I reviewed the research information that Ford had on public attitudes, I said, 'This is where I came in!' Exactly ten years earlier I'd taken part in our internal discussions at Ford of Europe to frame a shakeup of our products and their presentation. We were well aware that the Japanese in particular were menacing our traditional 'Value for Money' positioning of Ford products. On the technology front both VW and Renault were taking the lead in improved fuel economy and high-tech power trains. Based on market research, we were told, 'Ford produces average cars for average drivers with average aspirations.' Not exactly a compelling reputation.

The mountain that was Ford of Europe Marketing laboured and came forth with the proposal that our new goal should be to be perceived as 'A dependable manufacturer of efficient and exciting vehicles.' I thought this was pretty vapid, but at least it was a goal to which we could all sign up. Personally I was happy because the 'exciting' part needed the motor-sports programmes that I was running at the time. But what became of this simple objective? To what extent did Ford's products later in the 1980s reflect its principles? Very little, thanks to the management churning that's so beloved of the multinationals. Thus Ford was back to the proverbial square one a decade later, having failed to meet this objective or, indeed, even to remember that it once had it.

Something else has changed in the meantime. We used to say that Britain was the wrong place for the Ford of Europe headquarters, because it bred complacency. On British roads we'd look around and see Fords everywhere. The headquarters should be in Germany, we said, where we'd be motivated to improve on our much smaller share and our toughest competitors would be all around us. Now, of course, Ford of Europe is managed from Cologne. It doesn't seem to be helping in the way we thought it might.

The other big change is more obvious: Fords are no longer made in Britain. This historic die was cast several years ago by Nick Scheele and David Thursfield as part of their review of Ford's need for capacity reduction in Europe. While all Fords are now imports, Astras are still produced at Ellesmere Port in northern England (Merseyside). Does this make a difference to the way the respective brands are viewed in Britain? I don't see how it could fail to have a bearing on the inexorable rise and rise of Vauxhall in Britain.

Back in 1991, what did I say that Ford should be doing to win its publics around? To have an impact by spring? I said that this could only be achieved by the use of a well-known spokesperson in Ford's advertising, someone trusted and respected in Britain. This was needed, I said, 'to give the campaign a "talked-about" potential and "huggable" impact.' I even suggested that 'we could find an actor with strong physical resemblance to the original Henry Ford and "bring back Henry" to talk about the cars his company is building today and the ways in which they make life better — just as Fords always have.'

They didn't do it, of course. But soon thereafter Vauxhall unveiled a new campaign starring Nigel Hawthorne and Tom Conti in amusing and memorable story lines that played up the positive features of the company's products. What was much too radical for stuffy Ford was just the ticket for feisty Vauxhall. I see them as virtually unstoppable in their rise to the top of Britain's market.

- Karl Ludvigsen

Karl Ludvigsen is an award-winning author, historian and consultant who has worked in senior positions for GM, Fiat and Ford. In the 1980s and 1990s he ran the London-based motor-industry management consultancy, Ludvigsen Associates. He is currently an independent consultant and the author of more than three dozen books about cars and the motor industry, including Creating the Customer-Driven Car Company.