With the world situation changing at such a rapid pace at present, over the last few weeks the majority of global vehicle manufacturers have temporarily suspended car production to help contain the spread of the COVID-19 Coronavirus, protect their workforce, and also respond to the understandably sharp decline in worldwide new car demand and sales.
World War II, when car production last hit pause – Axon’s Automotive Anorak
Reviewing the most recent full-month new car sales data from February 2020, European demand was down seven per cent (the UK being three per cent down) for the month, with the USA’s car registrations also dropping by three per cent and China declining by an alarming 82 per cent last month. The sales falls for March and the coming months look set to be even higher, with the EU and USA already down by around 60 per cent half way through the month.
The British motor industry (including Formula 1 teams and other motor racing specialists) has stepped forward to start making ventilators for medical care emergency ward use, with giant Chinese vehicle maker BYD already producing millions of face masks every day since early March (with FCA now joining in) in place of its usual cars, trucks and buses. These are indeed exceptional times that we are all experiencing currently, with a dramatic economic impact on the automotive sector, plus many other industries, as well as the health and peace-of-mind of ourselves and our families, friends and colleagues.
Although this time around there is no visible enemy, the current challenges for the global motor industry are something the sector has faced before, albeit not quite at the same level or pandemic circumstances as today. During World War I (WWI), for example, with an industry still in its infancy, many vehicle marques disappeared during the 1914-18 hostilities, never to return.
By the time the Second World War (WWII) broke out on September 2nd 1939, the global motor industry was considerably larger and economically more established and essential. In Europe during WWII no private cars, commercial trucks or automotive parts were made for personal use, with fuel strictly rationed and non-essential car owners’ vehicles decommissioned and put away in storage.
During WWII, many British car makers turned their production facilities and personnel over to helping the war effort by making tanks (Vauxhall), aircraft and aero engines (Austin, Ford, etc.), weaponry (Daimler, etc.) and so on, with the Rootes Group, Morris, Ford, Austin et al also building cars and trucks strictly for military use only. Germany had Mercedes-Benz, VW/KdF, Opel and others building armoury in its attempts to demoralise and destroy Great Britain and its Allies.
With the USA joining WWII late, American new vehicle production continued unabated right up until early 1942, when all private car sales, plus the delivery of automobiles to customers who had previously contracted them, were frozen by the US Government's Office of Production Management, as had been the case in the UK some years earlier.
The outbreak of WWII saw the rapid demise of a number of European passenger car marques, such as Horch and Adler in Germany and Berliet and Mathis in France, with other victims like Audi, Hispano Suiza and Atalanta also killed off in 1939, only to be revived with mixed success in later years.
Other WWII car casualties include the original Citroën 2CV, which was all set for launch at the 33rd Paris Salon in late September 1939; a Show that never took place due to the outbreak of war just days earlier. Citroën hide all if its initial-production and prototype 2CVs away in barns and farmyards, spread across France, to stop the invading Nazis discovering the cars and stealing the model’s clever engineering for themselves.
An revised 2CV (with two head lamps!) was developed in secret during WWII and reintroduced to huge acclaim and sales success (with an initial six-year waiting list) in 1948. Renault’s 4CV was also developed in secret during the War, as was the Alec Issigonis Morris Minor, originally intended to be launched with a narrower body as the Mosquito.
Across The Pond, as soon as American private vehicle production had ceased by February 1942, car production plants were frantically converting to military-only manufacture of arms, munitions, tanks, trucks and aircraft, with Willys, Ford and Bantam churning out thousands of ‘war hero’ Jeep 4x4s. By December 1942, Detroit had become the USA’s ‘Arsenal of Democracy’ and didn't resume civilian vehicle production until the war ended in 1945.
In the UK, immediately post-war, steel was only available to businesses that exported at least 75 per cent of their production by 1947. This, coupled with the inevitably limited competition from Continental Europe, and with demand for new vehicles in America and Australia being greater than the American auto industry alone could supply, resulted in British vehicle exports reaching record levels and the UK becoming the world's largest motor vehicle exporter.
In 1937 the UK provided 15 per cent of world vehicle exports. By 1950, 75 per cent of British passenger car production and 60 per cent of its commercial vehicles were sold overseas, the UK providing a whooping 52 per cent of the world's exported vehicles overall.
The post-war revival of the British motor industry, as well as the dramatic growth of the German and Japanese vehicle producers in the 1960s and ‘70s, makes for an optimistic outlook for the Industry’s future post-COVID-19. The likely downturn in the global economy once the effects of the Coronavirus have diminished is likely to see some changes being made within the automotive sector in my view, however.
As the battered economies of countries the world over begin to recover from the devasting impacts of COVID-19 in the coming months, past history has shown us that consumer demand for new cars might lean more towards smaller, more economical and environmentally considerate affordable ‘low cost’ cars, rather than the unnecessarily large, costly, and mostly pointless, luxury SUVs and crossovers that new car buyers seem to have been conditioned towards in recent years.
After WWII and the 1950s Suez Crisis, countless affordable economy cars sprouted up across the Planet, especially in war-ravaged Germany, France, Italy and Japan, as well as the UK and USA. Numerous economy microcars and bubble cars appeared, such as the ghastly BMW Isetta, Messerschmitt, AC Petite, the American Crosley and so on. In 1959 BMC’s influential Mini thankfully banishing most of these horrors to the history books, with the compact Issigonis masterpiece shaping the smaller economy cars we drive forever more.
As we all become more conscious of our tighter budgets and tougher economic pressure post-COVID-19, future demand for more affordable and eco-friendly new cars like the planned electric Fiat Centoventi, Citroën Ami and Dacia Urban City car are liable to increase as interest in more conspicuous, expensive machines like the Audi Q7 or Cadillac Escalade declines (one hopes!).
Until such brighter times months ahead, remember to adhere to the Government’s sound advice to stay home, avoid social contact, unnecessary travel and self-isolate if you or any members of your household feel unwell. Stay safe, stay healthy and stay inside.
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