2021 saw the end of Ford’s 43-year reign as the UK’s leading car brand. It took over the number one spot in 1977 as British Leyland crumbled, and despite occasionally bullish promises from Vauxhall, it was never really threatened by its Luton rival. Indeed, a decade ago, the-then Ford MD said privately, “I have told my team to stop worrying about Vauxhall. It is Volkswagen we need to watch.”
Those words turned out to be prophetic. VW outsold Ford in the early part of 2020, and in 2021 Wolfsburg pulled out a big lead. So how did VW manage to grow its UK presence? Strangely, VW has not actually grown its share at all: in 2011, it took 9.2% of the market and was in third place, and in 2021, it has taken…9.0% of the market and is market leader. VW has a unique position in the UK as a semi-premium brand, enabling it to withstand the rise of the premium brands (Audi, BMW and Mercedes) above it, and the Koreans (Hyundai and Kia) below it. Effectively, it has stood still, while its major rivals from 10 years ago have gone backwards.
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Ford has had no such good fortune, despite some deep strategic thinking. In the early 1990s Ford decided that there was no future in its decades-long tradition of designing cars that were just good enough – when the UK competition had been Austin Allegros and Vauxhall Victors, that was not difficult, of course. Prodded by the legendary Richard Parry-Jones, Ford decided that Asian manufacturers could always undercut Ford on price, so it had to find a new battleground. RPJ, as he was known, developed the concept of turning Ford from engineering also-rans to the global leader in vehicle dynamics. The idea would have seemed preposterous at the launch of the dire 1990 Escort, but the first Mondeo, then the Puma and, most famously, the 1998 Focus, delivered on the promise.
Then Ford tackled the bane of all European volume manufacturers: over-capacity. Unfortunately, this meant the closure of Dagenham, but it did mean that Ford were one of the very few non-premium manufacturers to sell all it could make. As the 2007 Financial Crisis hit, Ford of Europe’s factories were running at full capacity and profit that year doubled to $744 million.