Even though they were surrounded by some of the biggest names in the industry, British auto firms turned a lot of heads at the 2014 Automotive Engineers Exposition, held at the Pacifico convention centre in Yokohama over three days from May 21.
No fewer than 17 companies and organisations showcased their skills and knowhow in a section of the event dedicated to British excellence in road vehicles, demonstrating just what the UK has to offer in what is a competitive and constantly evolving sector.
More than 1.5 million passenger cars and 2.5 million engines were built in the UK in 2013 and the automotive sector is worth a total of £11.2 billion to the British economy every year. The fact that more than half of the cars built in the UK were constructed by Japanese companies underlines the close collaboration that exists between the two nations in the auto sector – but it is also refreshing to see that British firms are attempting things that their counterparts here would not even dream of trying.
“I have had a number of people come up to me, from some of the big Japanese manufacturers, and say they could never do what we do,” said Simon Saunders, founder of the Ariel Motor Company Ltd, standing alongside an example of his stunning Ariel Atom.
“We have sold around 40 of these in Japan already so they know the car and our name, but Japanese firms produce in vast numbers,” he said. “There is not another country in the world that produces such high-quality cars in such low volumes.”
For Ariel, and other small-scale manufacturers such as Caterham, Morgan and the slightly larger Lotus, it is all about providing high quality and performance in limited packages.
“We do what the big boys can’t or won’t even try,” said Saunders, pointing out that the Atom is hand-welded and each car is constructed in tandem with the buyer.
Equipped with a 2-litre Honda engine, the Atom will go from standing still to 60 mph in 2.7 seconds – prompting “Top Gear” presenter Jeremy Clarkson to remark “I have never, ever driven anything that accelerates so fast.”
Ariel Motor Co. was taking part in its first Automotive Engineers Expo, which was marking its 13th year, in part to “fly the flag” for British technology, Saunders said, as the government continues to invest in new technologies. More than GBP180 million is being ploughed into the Low Carbon Vehicle Initiative and a further GBP1 billion is to be invested in the Advanced Propulsion Centre over the next 10 years.
“There is a lot of technology and some very clever people in the auto sector in the UK and the government is giving good support for these projects,” said Saunders. “And I really think there has been a resurgence of interest in British cars among Japanese consumers.
“These things are cyclical, but a great deal of attention is being paid because much of what we do is hand made, the cars are bespoke and they’re each completely individual.
“And coming to an event like this is hugely important to enable us to show just what the UK can do.”
The local unit of Nottingham-based Romax Technology was also exhibiting at the event, with Yasuhiko Murata, sales operations manager, saying that the firm’s specialist skills in the areas of gears and drive-train are much in demand in Japan.
“It is important for us to attend shows like this because while many car makers may know our name, we must still make the effort to have face-to-face meetings with others in the industry,” Murata said. “In this market, that is vital because it gives them confidence in our company.”
Another of the British exhibitors was Cosworth Group Holdings Ltd., a name long-associated with the motor sports and racing sector. A regular in Japan for more than a decade, Thomas Buckler, director of marketing, said the reaction had been “really positive, right from the start of the show.”
“The people we have spoken with and the opportunities we have been able to get out of attending this show make it well worth the effort to come to Japan,” he said.
“It is obviously important to take part in events like this elsewhere, but having the chance to meet potential customers face-to-face is probably more highly appreciated in Japan,” he said. “And these expos are not about the hard sell; it’s more about meeting the right people, building those relationships and, in time, delivering products and services.”
Cosworth was highlighting its cutting-edge electronics components at the show, including its Alive Drive system, which is fitted aboard a vehicle and collects video and other data to enable a driver to improve his or her performance behind the wheel.
“Our pedigree is recognised and it always serves as a door-opener here in Japan, but being here and being able to meet the right people in person makes a big difference,” he added.
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Article by Julian Ryall, July 2014