Though the BBC promised to examine “Germany’s economic power and the automobile industry at the heart of it”, host Dominic Sandbrook instead focused almost entirely on the decline of the British motor industry. There was very little about the roots of German success: the design of their cars; engineering precision; workforce craftsmanship; long-term capital investment; apprenticeships and employee benefits; intelligent industrial relations; and a readiness to experiment and learn from mistakes.
The show too quickly skimmed over 1950-70, during which German industry was transformed. Perhaps if it hadn’t been billed as part of BBC2’s Germany Season – creating an expectation that it would examine German history, rather than our own – then it wouldn’t have been so disappointing. To be fair, Sandbrook did manage to persuade some influential German business figures to speak to him, including the chief executive of Volkswagen. But far more time was given to British commentators, including chin-stroking design critic Stephen Bayley, who irritatingly told us that it’s not in the British psyche to build cars, and that for Germans motorways are a spiritual experience.
If you want to depress yourself, and currently know absolutely nothing about the decline of the British car industry, then by all means watch this documentary. But if you have any interest in why Germany now has such a strong, adaptable automotive sector, prepare to be disappointed; I watched this show from beginning to end and am still, sadly, no wiser than I was before.