The drive to automotive
In keeping with GKN’s history of innovation and re-invention, the 1960s witnessed a hugely significant move into the automotive industry – which would lead to today’s position at the forefront of the automotive components industry.
In 1966, Raymond Brookes – who had become chairman of GKN the previous year – completed the takeover of the Birfield automotive components group. Birfield’s main business was propshafts, but within its portfolio were two companies making constant velocity joints (CVJs): Hardy Spicer in the UK, and Uni-Cardan, based in West Germany but with interests in France and Italy.
CVJs were revolutionising the motor industry, enabling the new generation of front-wheel drive cars – including the iconic Mini. As a result, GKN’s automotive business emerged for the first time as a major force in the group, accounting for approximately one-third of sales by the end of the 1960s.
But most of these sales were to the UK motor industry, which limped into the 1970s, bedevilled by strikes and falling competitiveness. The years 1973/74 were a nightmare, with the first oil price shock quadrupling oil prices while a three-day working week was introduced in Britain to save power when the miners went on strike.
As GKN’s UK businesses struggled, Uni-Cardan – in which the group took majority control in 1971 – kept the company afloat. Nevertheless, in 1980 the group made the first loss in its history.
GKN fought through the downturn, laying down foundations for fresh growth: opening plants in the US, expanding in Europe and, crucially, forging close links with all of Japan’s leading vehicle makers.
A wave of global investments followed: in Brazil, Mexico, India, Australia, South Africa, Japan, Thailand, South Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan and, in 1989, China – as the driveline business created a global network and cemented its market leadership.