Ford in Europe:  The First Hundred Years



Depression, Protectionism and War in Europe

The problem with the 1928 plan was that it had not foreseen the level of protectionism that would arise in Continental markets during the 1930s as a result of the Depression, nor the hostility that would be directed against Ford, still perceived as an “American” make even though it had been doing business in Europe longer than many indigenous manufacturers.

In France, where a 'Buy French First' campaign had been started in 1931, actively supported by Renault and Citroen, Ford manager Maurice Dollfus pointed out the contribution that Ford made to the French economy: “The motor, the rear axle, the body panels and the wheels are received from abroad; the chassis, front axles, lamps radiators, electrical equipment, dynamos, tyres and the body finishing are French ... 30,000 people depend on the existence of Ford France for their living.”

But it did little good and Ford France tried to boost its image by forming an alliance with the old-established Mathis company of Strasbourg to build V8 cars under the name “Matford”. The venture lasted less than a decade. A new Ford factory was built in the late 1930s south of Paris at Poissy, but it had hardly begun production when World War Two was declared.

Ford Spain’s assembly plant in Barcelona was an early victim of the Civil War. Occupied by pro-Government Loyalists within two weeks of the outbreak of hostilities in 1936, the plant struggled along until Barcelona fell to General Franco’s Nationalist troops in 1939. It never recovered, and was sold to local interests in 1954.

By the late 1930s the plan for an integrated European Ford was in ruins, with both Germany and France building models which had less and less in common with the British products.

Ironically, there was probably more coordination of Ford’s Continental European facilities during the war (when the occupied plants in France, Holland, Belgium and Denmark were controlled by Ford Germany) than there had been in peacetime!

The British company’s contribution to the war effort was remarkable; Dagenham built over 13,000 tracked Universal Carriers, more than 250,000 V8 engines and over 185,000 military vehicles, while a specially-built factory in Manchester manufactured well over 30,000 supercharged 27-litre Rolls-Royce Merlin V12 engines for such famous British warplanes as the Hurricane, Mosquito and Lancaster.

Post War Rebirth

Aided by support from Dagenham, Cologne was quickly back in production after the declaration of peace in 1945, but the divergence in product design which had begun in the 1930s increased during the 1950s and 1960s, to the extent that in many Continental markets the products of Ford Britain and Ford Germany were market rivals.

By now, the Ford Motor Company was headed by the dynamic young Henry Ford II, who had taken over from his grandfather in September 1945, three days after his 28th birthday. Though Ford had been active in world markets virtually from its foundation, the company had no formal coordinating body for its worldwide operations until an International Division was formed in September 1946.

Early in 1948, as soon as he had implemented the necessary reorganisation of Ford of America, young Henry came to inspect his European companies.

The contrast between Britain and Germany was vividly shown during Henry Ford II’s visit. At Dagenham, poised to export 6000 cars to the United States within six months, he drove the plant’s 250,000th postwar vehicle off the line. In Germany it was the 10,000th postwar Ford truck that Mr Ford drove away. Cars had been a luxury the market could not afford.

Cologne launched its first postwar car, the famous “Buckel” (Hunchback) Taunus, during 1948. The aerodynamic 2 door was a significantly shaped hatchback with headlights integrated into the bumper. It continued in production until 1952, when a 1.2-litre Taunus was unveiled.

Meanwhile, Dagenham was planning Europe’s most advanced range of family cars, the four-cylinder Consul and six-cylinder Zephyr. With Ford’s first overhead valve engines, strong monocoque bodyshells and the first-ever application of MacPherson Strut independent front suspension – a system that would become an industry standard – the new cars caused a sensation on their launch at the 1950 London Motor Show.

Ford France, which had followed an independent course after World War Two, building a V8 model called the Vedette which was totally out of tune with France’s austerity regime, ceased production in 1954 and the Poissy factory, which had never achieved its full potential, was sold to the French Simca company.

During the 1950s Britain kept up the momentum with a range of excitingly-styled models - new Consuls and Zephyrs and the 105E Anglia. But Ford Britain and Ford Germany were developing competing model lines over this period, which made little business sense. Although on one occasion at least, this rivalry proved very beneficial.

When Sir Patrick Hennessy the Chairman of Ford Britain discovered that Ford Germany was working on a new front-wheel drive Taunus codenamed “Cardinal”, he ordered his product planners and engineers to develop a new family car to better the rival product. The result of the competing efforts was two winners: the 1962 Cortina, a model line that became an industry legend and the Taunus 12M, which was powered by a new V4 engine and broke new ground for Ford, as it was the company’s first-ever front-wheel drive car.

Towards European Integration

It was, however, increasingly apparent that developing two separate model lines was an unnecessary duplication of effort by Ford’s European companies, and a study group under John Andrews, the California born head of Ford Germany, investigated how a combined Ford organisation might operate within a common European market.

The first joint development programme carried out by Britain and Germany was “Project Redcap”, which produced the highly successful Transit van. Launched in 1965, it quickly became an industry best seller – and has maintained that position ever since.

It also spearheaded the renewal of Ford activities in Turkey, where a special version of the popular van was developed with help from Ford commercial vehicle engineers for production by the Turkish Otosan company. This was part of the Koç Group (which began selling Ford vehicles in 1928) and in which Ford took a 30 per cent shareholding in 1983. Ford Otosan today is a joint venture between Ford and Koc, each with a 41 per cent share.

Now that it was proved that intercompany cooperation could work successfully, in the summer of 1967 Henry Ford II concluded that the time had come to form a “Ford of Europe” organisation and placed John Andrews in charge of it. From then on the two companies worked together on all future model programmes.

The geographical difficulties posed by having separate engineering and development centres located 400 miles apart at Dunton in Britain and Merkenich in Germany were overcome by the establishment of a company airline which acted as the cement to hold the European organisation together. In later years Ford was to pioneer other methods of communication such as video conferencing to link the various components of Ford of Europe.

Ford of Europe not only coordinated the research and engineering programmes for Ford in Europe, but also integrated the manufacturing and purchasing processes across the European operations, realizing significant economies of scale. For 1967, this was a ground breaking development, anticipating the expansion of the European Community and the introduction of the Single Market.

Major Manufacturing expansion

More efficient manufacturing methods saw the phasing out of the local assembly plants in Ford’s smaller European markets in favour of large manufacturing units supplying the national sales companies with complete vehicles.

The 1960s saw the opening of major new plants at Halewood in the UK and Genk in Belgium. Halewood began production of the Anglia in 1962 and Genk started up in 1964, building the Taunus and then the Transit.

Further expansion followed with the opening of Ford Germany's Saarlouis plant in 1970 , now home to the Focus, but at that time producing Escort.

A new transmission plant in Bordeaux was added in 1973 and a new engine plant at Bridgend in Wales in 1980. A large car factory opened up in Valencia in 1976 to serve the increasingly important southern European markets. Its initial product was Ford’s first front wheel drive minicar, the phenomenally successful Fiesta.

For both Bordeaux and Valencia there was an element of homecoming for Ford, as Bordeaux had seen the beginning of Ford car assembly some 60 years earlier, while Ford was returning to manufacture in Spain for the first time since the Civil War.

Another important facility to be added during this decade and a half of major expansion was Ford's principal European proving grounds at Lommel in Belgium. The Lommel facility was established back in 1965 and incorporated a wide variety of test tracks, from a high-speed banked oval circuit where cars can be driven "hands off" at speeds of 200 km/h (125 mph) to a "torture track" of cobble and faithfully-reproduced replicas of Europe's most demanding road surfaces. Lommel also gained the steepest hills in the Low Countries when its "Lommel Alps" test hills were purpose-built in 1970.

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(Article Contents Copyright Ford Motor Company)