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July 20, 2021

SMMT claims UK specialist vehicle sector “most varied in the world”

A UK automaker lobby group has spoken up about a less well known sector.

By Graeme Roberts

The low volume and specialist vehicle sector in the UK is the world’s most diverse, a new report from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) claims.

It said Britain is a world leader producing low volume, high value vehicles such as 250mph hypercars, campervans, limousines, electric taxis, motorhomes, wheelchair accessible vehicles, hearses and high performance, sports and luxury models.

In addition to some of the world’s most famous and desirable car brands, the UK also has undoubted strength in vehicle conversions and is home to Europe’s leading conversion company, the report said.

The “vibrant” sector turned over GBP4bn last year, employing 15,000 people in “highly-skilled, well paid roles” to produce 28,000 vehicles amid the global pandemic.

Most, 87%, were exported, mainly to the EU, US, Asia and Middle East.

The sector spent GBP625m on R&D last year resulting in the UK’s first electric vehicle to be made from recycled carbon fibre and the first British all-electric hypercar.

Such low volume and specialist manufacturers have often pioneered new technology for volume road vehiclessuch as aerodynamic designs, light weighting and safety concepts often honed on the racetrack before being rolled out to mass vehicle production.

A “significant percentage” of the parts and components that go into vehicles made by the sector are sourced locally and the value added by some conversion companies can be GBP15,000 on a single vehicle.

The looming 2030 end of sale of new internal combustion engine cars and vans in the UK and EU poses a sizeable challenge for low volume and specialist brands, given their longer than  average production life cycles, tight profit margins and occasional difficulty in accessing new technology from third parties rather than developing it in-house, the SMMT said.

“The significant cost of this transition, combined with the race to include ever more connectivity in modern vehicles, means that many of the brands in this sector face acute development challenges without the economies of scale – and deeper pockets – that mass market manufacturers would enjoy.

These small producers usually make less than 10,000 vehicles a year each for global markets, yet face the same regulatory frameworks and timescales as the volume players. This is why they need suitable support if they are to prosper on the ‘road to zero’.”

SMMT chief executive Mike Hawes said: “The UK has a world-class automotive sector and the many low volume and specialist manufacturers are among its most valuable assets. The industry is at a critical moment as companies transition at pace to a zero-emission future and we must protect and preserve the diverse nature of these businesses who add to the lustre of the UK industry.

“Fundamental to the competitiveness of the sector is the need to ensure any regulation is appropriate and reflects the unique circumstances of these low volume, high value manufacturers. This is particularly important as we negotiate new trade terms with key overseas markets, many of whom would look on enviously at our strengths in this sector. Furthermore, given the technological transition underway, these companies, like the rest of the industry, need specific support for workforce retraining and reskilling to ensure they are fit for the future.”

Barrier free access to global markets was also crucial for such an export-led sector.

This sector has estimated a “significant proportion” of its workers would need upskilling or reskilling by 2030 as firms switch to electric “so a focus on this area is also absolutely essential”.

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