Customers Pay the Price for Ford’s Abandoned British Factories
By Andy Bannister
Recent news that, in the teeth of the deepest national recession since the 1930s, Ford is raising prices in the United Kingdom – its biggest European market – exposes the short-sightedness of the company’s decision to pull the plug on local car production.
When I was a kid growing up here in England, most people assumed Ford was a British-owned company, and the simple reason for this was that all its line-up were proudly made in the UK, principally at the company’s giant Dagenham and Halewood plants.
Today, however, Ford cars sold in Britain all come from abroad, principally from Germany, Belgium and Spain – countries which are in the Euro currency zone.
With the decline of the British pound against the Euro – down around 30% since 2007 – this means that imported Ford cars have become increasingly unprofitable for the firm, hence the latest 2.7% price hike, on top of a string of other small raises.
It does seem shocking that the company can take for granted its year-on-year position as market leader whilst contributing relatively far less to the national economy than most of its multi-national rivals. GM, Honda, Toyota and Nissan all have a significant car manufacturing presence in Britain.
It’s true Ford still builds the popular Transit panel van (not to be confused with the smaller Turkish-made Transit Connect, recently launched in the US) at Southampton, on England’s south coast, but this plant is also under threat of closure, to the dismay of its loyal workforce.
Ford apologists will no doubt point to the company’s British engine and transmission plants and design facilities as evidence of its continued commitment to the UK, but making parts of a car is little substitute for manufacturing the whole item.
Ford did, of course, used to own British brands Jaguar, Land Rover and Aston Martin, but these have now all gone to other owners.
In its heyday, Ford of Britain was a veritable industrial titan, a vast producer of British-designed, British-built vehicles exported to the four corners of the globe. They ranged from small, low-priced saloons to the heaviest trucks.
The British arm was by far the most successful of the three national Ford manufacturing companies which survived in Europe after World War 2. Each for a time had its own unique, locally-made range and were effectively deadly rivals – an ultimately illogical situation.
Ford France soon fell by the wayside, selling out to Simca in the late 1950s, with the French firm inheriting the Vedette design that was simply too large for most European tastes. Meanwhile, Ford of Germany was doing nicely enough with its range of Taunus models.
It was the British Ford company which was the innovator, developing a range of differently-sized cars which bridged the yawning gap in tastes between Europe and America at this time. It deployed startling Detroit-influenced styling on models which were nevertheless for the most part a huge hit, bringing much-needed glamour to a smoggy post-war world.
Among the fondly-remembered seminal Ford of Britain designs are the 1960s Anglia, with its reverse-slope rear window, and generations of a mid-range model called the Cortina, which became the ultimate British sales success, an aspirational car par excellence.
Ford understood the psyche of the average buyer, many of whom were salesmen who worked for large national companies. They wanted style, equipment and a range of trim levels like L, XL, GXL, GT, which helped owners advance up the all-important company pecking order.
Some sneered at the “Dagenham Dustbins” because they were mechanically simple and built to strict cost controls – unlike the more sophisticated products of the British Motor Corporation – but Ford of Britain couldn’t care less about these detractors. When the sales figures and earnings came out each year it was they who had the last laugh.
By contrast, BMC’s Mini and Morris 1100 were technically brilliant but often unreliable and hopelessly unprofitable.
Ford introduced UK buyers to coupés like the first Consul Capri, and big US-style saloons like the Consul, Zephyr and Zodiac, which were renewed every four years or so and loaded with the latest styling gimmicks such as fins, lavish chrome and wrap-round windows.
When Ford’s British and German arms set aside their rivalry in the 1960s, the modern success story that is Ford of Europe was born.
The first Transit van became a continent-wide success, and the British-designed Anglia replacement, the Escort, went into production in Germany too.
Other models like a new pan-European Capri and Granada, followed, while the staple Cortina and Taunus lines gradually came together, and Ford entered the small front-wheel drive market in 1977 with the new Fiesta, built in a brand new factory in Spain.
Under Ford of Europe, British car production gradually dwindled away, mirroring the sad decline of the country’s manufacturing base. When UK Ford automobile production ended in February 2002, it was the first time in 90 years that Ford cars had not been made in Britain.
The current economic crisis has highlighted the folly of the UK’s excessively service-based economy and its dependence on sectors like banking, which have been particularly hard-hit.
In previous financial crises the mantra of the day was “export or die”, but the example of Ford in Britain shows how globalisation has allowed the mismatch of production and sales between different currency areas to arise, to the detriment of national economies.
A common sight outside British Nissan dealers just now are examples of the company’s little Micra, built in the North East of England, emblazoned with the union flag. Quite where Ford will be if local buyers begin to ask more frequently about where an individual product is made is a question they might like to ponder.
Ford’s bean-counters must be kicking themselves as well. With the depreciation in value of the pound sterling, British-built Fiestas and Focuses exported to the Eurozone countries would be making them stacks of cash – which is what all this is about, at the end of the day.
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