For decades, British tourists have been jumping aboard cheap flights and jetting off to sunny Spain in search of warmer weather. But in September 1985, SEAT organised its very own exchange trip and sent some cars back across the English Channel. Thirty years later, Volkswagen’s Spanish arm is enjoying healthy sales and an expanding range of models. Join us, as we celebrate 30 years of SEAT cars in the UK.
Of course, SEAT’s history didn’t begin in 1985. For the birth of Sociedad Española de Automóviles de Turismo – thankfully abbreviated to SEAT – you have to wind the clock all the way back to the 9th May 1950. For two years, the Spanish government had been trying to establish a national car maker with the help of some private investors. But after a series of failed attempts, an agreement was signed between the public Instituto Nacional de Industria (INI), seven large banks, and Fiat. The Italian car giant took a seven per cent share in the business, but crucially would offer technical assistance and a licence to build its models in Spain.
To this end, a factory was established in Barcelona’s Zona Franca, deep in the heart of Spain’s car manufacturing hub. With Ford and General Motors already operating in the region, SEAT could call upon a rich pool of resources, including a healthy supply of skilled labour. This springboard allowed SEAT to hit the ground running and, in November 1953, the first car rolled off the production line. The SEAT 1400 was a rebranded Fiat 1400, a car that had been on sale since 1950, and a workforce of 925 helped to deliver five cars a day. Tentative steps for a brand that would grow up in the land of the flamenco. But if the SEAT 1400 was a foxtrot, the car that arrived next must have been a veritable samba.
SEAT 600: Spainís peoplesí car
If you were asked to name five peoples’ cars, how would you respond? Germany had the Volkswagen Beetle, Britain the Mini, Citroën had the 2CV and the Renault 4, while Italy had the diminutive Fiat 500. For Spain it was the SEAT 600, again, a licensed version of the Fiat of the same name. Until the SEAT 600 arrived in 1957, Spain moved about on two wheels or four legs, and there were just 3.1 vehicles per 1,000 people.
The SEAT 600 was the first car for many Spaniards and a taste of freedom and independence. By the time the ‘seiscientos’ bowed out in 1973, 800,000 had found homes. The 600 wasn’t SEAT’s first car, but it was the most important. Fiat’s strict licensing agreement prohibited SEAT from selling the 600 outside of its home market, but the Spanish found a number of tiny loopholes in the agreement. One of these allowed SEAT to sell 150 cars in Colombia, effectively making the 600 its first export model. A more relaxed agreement eventually allowed SEAT to explore other markets, helping the 600 to become an unlikely best-seller in Finland.
Other Fiat-based cars soon followed and by 1971, SEAT was established as Spain’s largest industrial company. Perhaps more impressive is the fact that, around the same time, approximately half of the 2.4 million cars on the roads of Spain wore a SEAT badge. The 127, SEAT’s first front-wheel drive car, arrived in 1972, but of greater significance was the opening of the Martorell Technical Centre in 1975. The new centre allowed for the development of experimental models, which included the SEAT 133, itself based on the SEAT 850. In truth, the car wasn’t all that good, but it was the company’s first original design. Tentative steps towards an independent future, but SEAT was still heavily reliant on Fiat models, namely the 128, 131 and Ritmo (Strada in the UK). Worse still, the 1978 balance sheet showed a loss of 10.4 million pesetas, while SEAT was hit by a double-whammy of the lifting of import restraints and government policies that favoured foreign companies. SEAT reacted by seeking to reduce Fiat’s stake in the company, while relaxing the constraints that were hampering its growth.
The 1980s: growing pains
All of these factors meant that SEAT didn’t exactly march into the 1980s. Its homeland marketshare had decreased by a whopping 26 per cent, the workforce had been slashed, and losses totalled close to 23.7 million pesetas in 1982. Fiat sold its shares for one peseta and committed to buy 400,000 vehicles over the following five years. Under the agreement, Fiat would sell SEAT cars through its own dealer network, with SEAT also free to explore lucrative export markets.
Free from the shackles, SEAT approached things with renewed vigour. Three new cars were developed in as many years and a new policy seemed as much about waving goodbye to its Italian ancestry as it did about its Spanish roots. The Ronda, Malaga, Marbella and Ibiza were no longer just the names of holiday destinations. The Ronda was the first SEAT to be officially exported, while the Marbella was a re-engineered Fiat Panda that had to do without Fiat’s really-rather-good FIRE engine.
But it was the soon-to-be launched Ibiza and a fledging relationship with the Volkswagen Group that would represent the second coming of SEAT. Signing an agreement to allow for Audi and Volkswagen models to be sold through SEAT dealerships, as well as the production of certain Volkswagen cars in Spain, SEAT effectively laid the groundwork for new German parentage. Indeed, in 1986, Volkswagen acquired a 51 per cent stake in SEAT, later increasing it to 75 per cent. Meanwhile, SEAT was in the midst of developing its most important model to-date and the car that would provide the backbone of future success.
SEATís star car: the Ibiza
SEAT assembled an all-star cast for its first truly domestic car. Legendary car designer Giorgetto Giugiaro penned the chisel-jawed design, Karmann handled the productionisation, and Porsche lent a hand with some of the engines. Many will remember the early Ibiza emblazoned with ‘System Porsche’ decals. It made its debut at the 1984 Paris Motor Show and featured a range of petrol and diesel engines. Sure, it was based on the Ronda, itself a development of the Fiat Strada, but it felt like an entirely new car. It helped to get SEAT back into the black, which was enough to convince Volkswagen to take a 99.9 per cent stake in the firm.
Growing in confidence, SEAT launched the Toledo at the 1991 Barcelona Motor Show, staying in the city to become the official partner of the 1992 Olympic Games. A year later, the huge Martorell production plant was opened by King Juan Carlos of Spain and Dr Ferdinand Piëch, the then chairman of the Volkswagen Group. By the time the second Ibiza debuted in 1993, the first generation car had shifted more than 1.34 million units. Next came the Alhambra, the first SEAT to be built outside of Spain, with the baby Arosa arriving in 1997. In both cases, SEAT made use of cost-effective platform sharing, a process that would form the backbone of success across the Volkswagen Group.
1985: SEAT arrives in the UK
In the midst of all this, SEAT had arrived in the UK. Neatly tied in with the launch of the first generation Ibiza, SEAT UK opened its doors for business in September 1985. At the time, SEATs were imported by multi-millionaire Tiny Rowland and his huge Lonrho empire. Things started slowly for the Spaniards, with a – perhaps appropriate – tiny 24 registrations completed in the first month, and 405 for the first year. In 1986, British buyers began to take to the pretty, if basic, Ibiza and sales approached the 6,000 mark. By the end of the decade, SEAT could call upon 130 dealers, and Volkswagen bought out Lonrho as the UK importer. Thanks, in part, to the second generation Ibiza and the Alhambra, sales soon exceeded 20,000 a year. In 1995, SEAT UK moved to its present home in Milton Keynes.
More generally, SEAT continued to evolve. By the end of the millennium, the company had invested 200 billion pesetas in research and development and was in the midst of a complete range overhaul. The important Leon was launched in 1999, and would soon spawn the hottest products the brand had ever unleashed. FR and Cupra badged cars became firm favourites throughout the 1990s, 2000s and beyond, and even spawned diesel versions which are incredibly popular amongst enthusiasts.
Of greater significance, certainly so far as Diesel Car is concerned, is the formidable SEAT Leon TDI driven by Jason Plato in the 2007 British Touring Car Championship (BTCC). Plato held off the challenge of Matt Neal and Tom Onslow-Cole in a pair of Vauxhalls, to take victory at Donington Park, becoming the first-ever diesel-powered BTCC winner in the process.
Right now, SEAT appears to be stronger than ever. UK sales rose by 18 per cent to 53,512 in 2014 and from humble beginnings, the Ibiza has grown to become one of the world’s favourite superminis. Last year, worldwide sales passed the five million mark, of which 3.5 million had been exported to 75 countries across the globe. Today, 700 SEAT Ibiza cars leave the Martorell plant every day.
And SEAT has recently won a contract to supply the Italian police with a fleet of Leons, with a potential to deliver up to 4,000 cars across the next three years. This seems a far cry from the days when SEAT was rebadging Fiats under licence and feeling hamstrung by the constraints of the Italian partnership. The Spanish supplying cars to Italians isn’t quite the same as selling sand to the Arabs, but it’s one in the eye for the Italian car industry, especially as they had helped set the firm up.
Today, the original Martorell Technical Centre is celebrating its 40th birthday, 80 per cent of SEAT models are exported and the company employs 14,000 people at three production centres. All that’s left is for SEAT to surpass 400,000 annual sales for the first time, beating the 2014 record of 390,500. Feliz cumpleaños, SEAT UK.