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James Baggott: Vauxhall taking the number one spot? Aldred must be joking

Time 7:30 am, October 24, 2013

Screen shot 2013-10-24 at 09.39.20PUMPED up on what I can only assume was motor show press day adrenaline and bravado, Vauxhall’s chairman and MD Duncan Aldred (pictured below) proudly boasted to a national newspaper that his firm would ‘overtake Ford by 2016’.

Yes, you read that right. Vauxhall, purveyor of the insipid Insignia and awful Astra, would, in only a matter of years, snatch the number one crown from the Blue Oval’s grasp — something it hasn’t managed to do in decades.

‘I expect us to be number one,’ he continued. ‘I have very high hopes for the Vauxhall brand in the UK.’

Very high hopes? Seriously? As understatements go, that is a Burger King-sized Whopper. Unless the Luton contingent has got some very big tricks up its sleeves — and by big tricks I mean a whole new range of cars that are actually worth buying — then I can only see those few words coming back to haunt Vauxhall’s top boss.

I rang the SMMT to find out when was the last time Vauxhall beat Ford in the annual sales figures. You know the answer? Never. Not once has the manufacturer usurped Ford’s top spot in the charts. SMMT’s number-crunchers went back over the past 40 years of stats for me — to 1972 when the organisation started using a system which recorded registrations by brands — and found that Vauxhall has never been the number one seller.

The closest it ever got to this position was back in the heady car sales days of 2007. Then — with the Focus battling the Astra, and Corsa taking on the Fiesta — the difference between them was ‘just’ 17,661 cars. Last year it was more than double that, with 49,662 cars between the first- and second-placed enemies.

I rang Ford to ask them what they thought of the Vauxhall boss’s bold claims, and they weren’t particularly concerned. ‘Ford has been the market leader in the UK for more than 35 years — over 40 years for CVs — and we’ve done it through having the best possible product range, by prioritising customer service and having excellent representation via our dealer partners. We welcome competition but we have confidence in this formula.’ So has Vauxhall lost the plot? That’s quite a question, I know, but it’s one that I find it is not just me asking these days. I’ve been talking to a few of the top bosses running Vauxhall franchises across the country recently, and it transpires they’re as concerned as I am.

‘I’ve been talking to top bosses running Vauxhall franchises and they’re as concerned as I am’

So what’s got them grumbling? Well, behind closed doors, the retailers I spoke to were concerned the current products simply aren’t hitting the mark, and they’re also worried there is no way they can win the race in the sales charts. Publicly, the manufacturer’s dealer network is giving Vauxhall a kicking too — the maker dropped 10 places in our Car Dealer Power survey this year to 22, just seven places off the bottom of the table, and a staggering 16 places behind Ford, who narrowly missed out on a podium finish. The marque was lambasted for poor return on investment, while forward planning, brand awareness and marketing were all knocked too. Makes grim reading, doesn’t it?

And it’s not just the trade that isn’t impressed. There are few consumer magazines that would recommend a Vauxhall over their Ford-badged equivalent. Fiesta v Corsa? No question. Ford wins that. Focus v Astra? Another blue corner win. Insignia v Mondeo? Even now, with the Mondeo in desperate need of a revamp (coming next year) most buyers would be better off with the Ford than the recently-refreshed Insignia.

And it’s hardly worth mentioning the woeful Mokka or poorly-targeted and disappointing-to-drive Adam. What Car? said that of all the versions it’s driven, the Adam is ‘just too uncomfortable to recommend’. Hardly going to tempt premium buyers into swapping the ‘sure-fire hit’ (again, What Car?’s words, not ours) Audi A1 for the Vauxhall badge is it?

Boss Aldred told me at the Paris Motor Show, a little over a year ago, that he was pulling the brand away from unprofitable fleet sales and focusing on retail (a dealer-pleaser) instead. ‘We are moving away from grabbing market share at all costs — we won’t target fleet sales just to grow registrations,’ he said.

Seems strange that there’s been a sudden change of heart. With its current model line-up, the only way I can see Vauxhall toppling Ford is to push its products into the fleet sector again. It has to be. Can you see a punter spending their own cash on a current Vauxhall model over anything else out there? I can’t and, it appears, neither can many of the marque’s own dealers. Doesn’t bode well for the number one spot, does it?

What do you think? Tweet me @CarDealerEd and let me know. I’d be interested to hear your views.

James Baggott's avatar

James is the founder and editor-in-chief of Car Dealer Magazine, and CEO of parent company Baize Group. James has been a motoring journalist for more than 20 years writing about cars and the car industry.

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