Here in America, it’s easy to forget that people once sincerely feared that “import cars”—specifically cheap, well-built, reliable cars from Japan—would put the U.S. auto industry out of business. That’s hard to believe today where companies like Ford and Toyota compete on an equal footing, but in the United Kingdom, the rise of Japanese cars coincided with the slow and painful decline of the British auto industry.
British car production peaked around 1972 with 1.92 million cars built domestically. Just three years after that, British Leyland needed a massive government bailout, but that didn’t stem the industry’s labor strikes, factory shutdowns, loss of market share and eventual near-collapse in the years to come.
This video, recently posted to Leo Khan’s YouTube page, takes place right when everything started to unravel. And it shows the beginning of another problem for the British car industry: foreign competition, specifically from Nissan’s Datsun brand.
What you’re about to see is a fascinating look at a small English town that’s starting to see Japanese cars on its roads for the first time, and how its residents reacted to it—often in ugly and xenophobic ways.
It’s not clear to me what program this clip is from, or exactly when it takes place, although one of our UK readers may be able to tell me. (Update: As a reader points out, it’s from BBC Midweek in 1972.)
It starts with a 13-year-old boy in a rural village counting the cars he spots (he’s like Shmee150 in the 1970s but without a YouTube page, basically) and noticing the increasing number of Datsuns on his local roads. By then, one in every four cars sold in the area was Japanese, “an inscrutable Oriental toe in the door of the British motor industry,” the narrator says.
The anti-Japanese sentiment is in full force here, with the Second World War still fresh in the minds of many people. But the dealers admitted their Datsuns were profitable, and even the townspeople recognized British manufacturing feels like it’s on the outs. Clearly they were worried about Datsun and the other Japanese manufacturers displacing Austin, Morris, MG and the other homemade cars.
Today we all know how it went down after that. Nissan is one of the biggest and most prominent foreign automakers in Britain, and most of the British brands the people in this video knew and loved don’t even exist anymore.
But British manufacturing is in a stronger position than it’s been in decades, with automakers like Jaguar Land Rover and Mini growing local production to impressive levels—even if they are owned by foreign companies now.
Now they just have Brexit to deal with, and we’ll see how that goes.
Hat tip to r/cars