Coventry's Browns Lane set for Car Assembly again?
News that the niche automotive company CPP is taking an exclusive option to buy 23 acres of Browns Lane in Coventry, the former spiritual home of Jaguar, has aroused much media interest. We shouldn't get too carried away, of course: after all, some 1150 jobs were lost back in 2005 when Jaguar pulled out and CPP won't create jobs on that sort of scale.
But the possibility of sports cars being assembled again, albeit in small numbers, at one of the industry's most-historically famous sites, is nevertheless very welcome, as is the possibility of creating some new, high quality jobs in the city.
And the deal has highlighted how a little-known high-quality specialist auto engineering force is emerging in Coventry. Indeed, CPP has grown rapidly in recent years. For over a decade it has been well known in the industry for the production of specialist panels, prototypes and low volume production runs. In fact the name CPP gives it away - Coventry Prototype Panels.
You may not have heard of CPP but you may have heard of some of the products it assembles. Think for example of the Aston Martin One-77 which the firm put together, or one-off Bentleys.
More recently it has acquired the Derby-based off-road racing car firm Bowler, and has been tooling up to assemble the Spyker sports car in Coventry. These may not be well known brands but will be familiar to Top-Gear watchers and Petrol-Heads around the world, and many of the exotic cars produced are exported.
CPP hopes to bring together this collection of related automotive businesses into one place and to expand production. It has hinted at taking Spyker production to around 200 cars next year, creating new jobs in the process.
There are some hurdles still. The firm will submit planning applications later this year to bring together its operations at Browns Lane, and a bid to the regional Growth Fund is thought to be in the offing to get the site redeveloped.
But Browns Lane and Coventry make good sense for the firm. Despite all the plant closures and the thousands of job losses from the 1970s onwards, Coventry still has a rich engineering and skills base in the automotive field. The city's two universities still produce a stream of high qualified engineers and world-class designers, and a cluster of components suppliers remain in the city and wider region. Research and development is alive and kicking in small firms, universities, at JLR and Aston Martin not very far away, as well as at MIRA and Ricardo.
Put all that together and the wider city region still makes an attractive base for smaller high-value producers. And that's exactly what the auto industry now is in Coventry - a mix of small players using skills that have been sustained and applied to high-value niches like taxis (think LTI), low-carbon vehicles (think Microcab and Liberty Electric cars), and sports/racing cars (think CPP).
The industry may no longer employ tens of thousands of workers in the city as in it hey-day, but still makes up an important part of the city's more diverse economic fabric. And the growth of low-carbon technologies offers hope that the industry can develop and grow in the future.
The local car cluster is a good example of what economic geographers call 'Phoenix industries' - small, niche, upscale producers emerging from the ashes of larger mass manufacturing.
And what about CPP and Spyker? Well, ever since stories back in February when CPP announced that it was hoping to acquire the sports car business of Spyker Cars NV, nothing much has happened, as the situation surrounding Saab has stalled things. Yet CPP seem committed to getting the deal done.
As a press release from CPP's boss explained last week: "at present, Spyker remains part of Swedish Automobile NV, meaning that Spyker is therefore CPP's contract manufacturing customer, under an agreement that was signed in November 2010... Since then, we have invested significant sums in the facilities, tooling and skilled craftsmen to build Spyker's flagship C8 Aileron supercar in Coventry and the entire production operation could be switched on within days of an agreement. I sincerely hope that the acquisition can be finalised soon and that we can begin delivering cars to customers."
Meanwhile, CPP has set up a joint venture with the Zagato automotive design studios, with some reports suggesting that an outright takeover is possible. Either way, the move is another element of CPP's strategy of becoming a leading niche automotive group.
The Zagato link-up makes a good fit. As noted, CPP already builds some specialist cars for Aston Martin (such as the One-77), and next on the Aston wish-list is a V12 special, designed no less, by... Zagato.
Bowler, Spyker, Zagato... all run from Browns Lane in Coventry. Now that does sound like an interesting mix.
Professor David Bailey works at Coventry University Business School