Fleet News

Guest opinion: times aren't a'changing

STEWART Whyte, Fleet News' columnist and director of the Association of Car Fleet Operators, asks just how much has altered in the UK fleet industry over the past 25 years.

'It's congratulations to Fleet News on its 25th anniversary. As one of those already active in the booming fleet market of 1978, I remember my pleasant surprise that, at last, 'my' industry had a specialist publication all to itself.

And it was not long before I was actively discussing the issues of the day with Don Penny and the Jackson Brothers, who were the original founders.

The fleet market in 1978 was dynamic. It was undergoing a huge expansion, based on a range of tax and other legislative changes. There was the 100% first year allowances issue, the removal of the 'control of hiring order' and, of course, Jim Callaghan's pay freeze, which applied only to cash salary and not to non-cash fringe benefits.

Market place developments had hugely expanded the principles of 'finance leasing', and so the stage was all set to build on the solid base of job-need cars, to produce that UK phenomenon – the perk car.

Across the years, I have met a large number of people who believe the mid-70s was the start of the fleet market. But this is not so. The core fleet market, providing workhorses to field based personnel, and 'posh' cars to the management, had been around decades before. Bear in mind that the British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association, representing the interests of the contract hire and rental industry, was founded in 1967.

Looking at the whole picture, it is easy to draw the conclusion that both everything and nothing has changed. The fleet, and the fleet manager, was generally seen as the poor relation of the business, expected to work miracles with no budget and less authority. Little change there then.

In terms of the specific challenges, there have been many. We have seen the development of diesel cars. I made several contributions to the column-kilometres of coverage of why this would, then wouldn't, then would, then wouldn't take off across the years.

Similarly, we have seen the same arguments in principle, over LPG/dual-fuel vehicles and hybrids. Little change there, either.

One of the most important aspects of fleet management which has changed significantly has been the issue of road safety and driver training. Back in the early days of Fleet News this received only occasional brief comment. Compare that to more recent editions, where – quite rightly – the subject in its many facets dominates.

Another important one-way change has been environmental consideration. There were already concerns over the environmental impact of cars and vans. And as this matter has attracted more attention from Government, tax authorities and, of course, fleet operators themselves, so Fleet News has reported and recorded developments in best practice.

Training for fleet managers has benefited from little flurries of attention, but has never really generated the interest in the fleet industry that it should. If anything, control of fuel costs is less today than was in the late 70s – despite the prevalence of the fuel card and hugely competent IT software.

The numeric mass of the fleet market seems prepared just to accept fuel costs as an inevitable business expense and generally does far too little to seek to manage this significant cost downwards. No change there then.

The vehicles available were monumentally different across the years. Today's product is superior to what was around 25, 20, 15 or even five years ago. It's safer, cleaner and much nicer to drive. It's also significantly more reliable.

And the significant increase in choice (of individual models and the scope that drivers have to pick their own car) across the years is remarkable.

Fleet News has certainly helped to shape the UK fleet industry over its first 25 years. And looking at the enormous range of fleet operations, the questions and the issues and the challenges, I am sure it will continue to serve this role well into the future.'

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