This doesn't just mean companies that you think of as British, like Mini and Jaguar. Both of those automakers are owned by foreign companies, incidentally. Mini and Rolls-Royce are owned by BMW, Jaguar and Land Rover by Tata Motors of India, and Bentley by the VW Group. Many other automakers produce cars in the UK for sale within that country and also export to the EU. Tariffs could damage the profits of each of these companies, and perhaps cause them to shift manufacturing out of the UK, significantly damaging the country's resurgent manufacturing industry.
Autonews Europe dug up some interesting numbers on that last point. Nissan, the country's second-largest auto producer, builds 475k or so cars in the UK but the vast majority are sent abroad. Toyota built 190k cars last year in Britain, of which 75 percent went to the EU and just 10 percent were sold in the country.
Investors are skittish at the news. The value of the pound sterling has plummeted by 8 percent as of this writing, at one point yesterday reaching levels not seen since 1985. Shares at Tata Motors, which counts Jaguar and Land Rover as bright jewels in its portfolio, were off by nearly 12 percent according to Autonews Europe.
So what happens next? No one's terribly sure, although the feeling seems to be that the jilted EU will impost tariffs of up to 10 percent on UK exports. It's likely that the UK will reciprocate, and thus it'll be more expensive to buy a European-made car in the UK. Both situations will likely negatively affect the country, as both production of new cars and sales to UK consumers will both fall. Evercore Automotive Research figures the combined damage will be roughly $9b in lost profits to automakers, and an as-of-yet unquantified impact on auto production jobs.
Perhaps the EU's leaders in Brussels will be in a better mood in two years, and the process won't devolve into a trade war. In the immediate wake of the Brexit vote, though, the mood is grim, the EU leadership is angry, and investors are spooked. We won't know for sure what the real fallout will be for the automotive sector until a deal is negotiated, and until then investors will reflexively shy away from uncertainty. Certainly no automaker is likely to pour any resources, like building a new factory or increasing production output at a UK plant, until the terms are hashed out.
If there's a bright side, now might be the perfect time to import that classic British car you've always wanted. Small comfort, sure, but worth a mention.