British Brands Abroad – an alternative view

Rob Kirkbride shares his views on why “Made in the UK” matters to him...

"My first experience with British engineering and manufacturing began as a teenager with my father’s white MG Midget 1500, which he expertly “Americanized” with a Glass Pack muffler that didn’t properly growl until the RPMs were redlined and the poor 65 horsepower engine was literally at its breaking point. More often than not, that sad little car — a Lilliput among Detroit behemoths — was broken down by the side of the road after I used its throaty roar to terrorize the beachgoers in Clearwater, Florida. Let’s face it: The MG was engineered for fun, not for function. Yet there was something lovable about that little car. It was a young tinkerer’s dream; a machine that was so sweet when it was running and so sorry when it was broken down. I was smitten with it.

It was the mid-1980s and Great Britain was still an exotic, foreign place to a poor kid growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I was too young to experience Beatlemania, but it seemed every music group I listened to was from England. It would take me decades and a few trips to Great Britain to figure out where Morrissey was talking about when I listened to him sing about “panic on the streets of Carlisle, Dublin, Dundee, Humberside” and trains heaving on to “Euston.” I would spin my vinyl on an old Garrard 401 turntable hooked up through Spendor speakers, though I had no idea that both companies have British roots. I still use the Garrard, but the Spendor speakers are gone now, lost in the shift to digital and big, booming bass. I wish I had them back.

Don’t let independent American’s fool you. Most of us are Anglophiles and we have a deep fondness and respect for all things British. Though we would never bend a knee, we are oddly interested in the Royal Family, which is perhaps why we are cultivating our own “royal” families like the Clintons and the Bushes, though they are just as dysfunctional.

When we see a “Made in Britain” label, we automatically think quality, smart design and a worldliness that we haven’t earned yet in the United States, despite our own manufacturing prowess. British goods are generally more expensive here, but thought to be worth the extra greenbacks by discerning buyers. Show most any American the iconic Burberry check and they understand its quality and value. It’s been 50 years since James Bond drove his Aston Martin DB5 onto the silver screen and American men are still lusting after it (and still wishing we were cool enough to hang out with the women he did).

When it comes to quality, British and Americans want the same thing: a robustly built product that looks good and won’t let us down. We don’t need French frills. The sterility of German products turn us off. American brands like Red Wing shoes and Carhartt coats and Shinola watches fit the bill. They are genuine articles, built by hard working people. That is why British quality appeals to American buyers as well. There are differences. Every American is born with the belief that we can reach the top if we work hard enough for it. For all the obvious faults with American society, it is still a place where we have the chance to do just that. We work tirelessly, we innovate, we are natural entrepreneurs.

There is definitely a difference between products made by British companies and those made by American firms, though it is slight enough not to scare away the American buying public. British products are European, but not continental. And while many American buyers turn up our noses at “Made in China,” the same is not true of “Made in the UK.” There is a deep kinship that makes buying British OK as an American, an act that is almost patriotic compared to the Asian alternatives. At one end of the spectrum, the most flag-waving, country music-listening, pickup truck-driving, gun-toting Yankee Doodle Dandy would buy a British made product. Maybe it is because ya’ll speak “American” (don’t laugh, I’ve heard a few of my doltish countrymen say that). Interestingly, at the other end of the spectrum, U.K. products also appeal to the design-conscious, snooty, black-wearing New Yorker."