While Ford Motor Company was founded in the
US and is known throughout the world as an American brand icon, the
company's history in Europe closely parallels its American heritage;
from the arrival of the first Ford cars in Britain in 1903 to the
present day European organization that serves 42 countries across the
Ford has been a world organisation right from the beginning. Within
months of the foundation of Ford Motor Company in Detroit on 16 June
1903, the first two Ford cars to reach Europe were being uncrated in
London, where they went on show at the March 1904 Cordingley Automobile
Show in the Agricultural Hall, Islington.
They caught the eye of a young man named Aubrey Blakiston, who set up a
sales agency, ordered a dozen Model A Fords and took a lease on a
showroom in Long Acre, a London centre of the coachbuilding and motor
Sales were slow – it took a year to sell those twelve cars – but the
agency took on a young “motor expert” named Percival Perry, who was to
play a key role in the establishment of Ford in Europe.
In those early days France – home of Europe’s biggest motor industry –
seemed the best place from which to coordinate European business, and in
fact one of the earliest sales of a Ford automobile was made there early
in 1904. So in 1908 a Paris Branch Company was set up to supervise
European sales, under an American named H.Baker White. The importance of
his appointment was reflected in the size of his salary, a then-colossal
$24,000, equivalent to around $1.5 million in modern terms.
Operations are soon Established
But the powerhouse of Ford’s
early European operations turned out to be Britain, where Percival Perry
had taken over the sales agency and sales were booming following the
launch of the competitively-priced four-cylinder Model N in 1906. In
1909 a British branch company was set up under Perry’s management, and
the strength of the market led to the opening late in October 1911 of
Ford’s first factory outside North America, at Trafford Park,
A couple of years later, assembly started in premises in Bordeaux,
initially run by the leading French agent, but soon taken over by Ford
During the First World War Perry, who had been appointed Assistant
Controller of the UK government's Agricultural Machinery Department,
persuaded Henry Ford to build a tractor plant (the first purpose-built
Ford factory in the Old World) not far from his father’s birthplace at
Cork, Ireland. The first Fordson tractor left the assembly line on 3
July 1919. Uniquely, Ford Ireland was a private venture of the Ford
family until 1920.
Model T drives European
Henry Ford’s vision of the Model T as the
Universal Car gave his company an immense advantage. The Model T was the
first automobile to be conceived as a true 'World' car, and a string of
European plants and national sales companies controlled from Detroit
were established in the early 1920s to support its runaway success.
Apart from minor differences of paint and trim to meet national
preferences, the end product was identical in every market.
The first European assembly plant of this postwar expansion was in
Copenhagen, where Ford Denmark was founded on 25 June 1919. Henry Ford’s
most trusted production associates, William Knudsen and Charles
Sorensen, were both Danes, and it was Knudsen who shaped the expansion
of Ford across Europe in the early 1920s while Sorensen turned down a
proposal for a joint venture in France from the ambitious André Citroën.
Anxious to open a plant to serve southern Europe, Ford proposed building
a new factory at Bordeaux, but the French authorities proved
uncooperative and so an assembly plant was opened in a former wine
bodega in the free zone at Cadiz, Spain.
Assembly continued on a small scale in Bordeaux in a building so
inadequate that completed cars had to be stored down the middle of the
road outside the factory gates. This unsatisfactory state of affairs
continued until 1925, when production was transferred to a factory in
the Paris suburb of Asnières.
One of the most remarkable Ford factories was established in a former
warehouse in Trieste, Northern Italy in 1922. During the 1920s, it had a
75 per cent share of a market covering 36 countries on three continents,
including Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria,
Albania, Georgia and Azerbaijan.
Surprisingly Germany, where the first practical motor car had been
invented in the 1880s, came late in Ford’s European scheme of things,
and the first German Ford company was not established until 1925,
starting assembly in a rented canalside warehouse in Berlin in 1926. The
Berlin operation was set up by Ford Denmark staff from Copenhagen, and
while the chief clerk, who effectively ran the business, could read
German, he was initially unable to speak the language!
Other prewar assembly plants were located in Belgium (Company founded
1922, assembly began the same year), Netherlands(Company founded 1924 -
assembly began 1932); Turkey (Branch founded 1928 - assembly began
1929); Romania (Company founded 1931 - assembly began 1936) and Hungary
(Company founded 1938 - assembly began 1941). Companies with no prewar
assembly facilities were Sweden (Company founded 1924); Egypt (Branch
founded 1926); Finland (Company founded 1926); Portugal (Company founded
1932) and Greece (Company founded 1932).
The first Russian dealer had been appointed in 1907, but it was to be
tractors that brought Ford into prominence in the post revolution era.
Fordson tractors made a great contribution to the economic revival of
Russia after the Revolution, with more than 25,000 Fordsons in use
across the Soviet Union by 1926, transforming Russian agricultural
methods. The Russians regarded the Fordson tractor so highly that they
established a factory in Leningrad to build replicas of it at the rate
of 20 a month.
Life after the Model T
Until late 1927 the European operation
was based on the Model T which, while cheap to buy, was taxed heavily on
engine capacity in European markets, and from being the world’s
best-selling car, Model Ts' sales faltered as other mass-producers
offered smaller, lighter, faster cars which were more attractive to the
general public. The launch of the all-new and thoroughly modern Model A
for 1928 was accompanied by a complete rethink of how Ford did business
Henry Ford had split his European interests after the war into twelve
separate companies, but, as the 1920s developed, he recognized the need
to coordinate these companies to make the European business more
effective – a move that showed great foresight, when set against the way
modern pan European companies are run.
The basis of the strategy was the centralization of Ford’s European
activities in England and the formation of a new company, Ford Motor
Company Limited to serve this purpose. At the heart of the “1928 Plan”
was a new factory - “the Detroit of Europe” - to be built on reclaimed
marshland at Dagenham in the UK, as the hub of Ford’s European
activities. Built at the then immense cost of £5 million, the new
Dagenham plant built its first vehicle, a Model AA truck, on 1 October
But since the inauguration of the plant site in May 1929 the world had
been plunged into depression. Demand for the Model A car, which though
cheap to buy was relatively expensive to tax and run, plummeted. In its
first three months of operation, Dagenham sold just five Model A cars
and the new Ford of Britain company was faced with ruin, kept going only
by sales of commercial vehicles.
Europe’s flagging fortunes were boosted by the introduction of the first
Ford specifically designed for Europe, the 933cc Model Y. Designed
inside five months, the Model Y was shown in prototype form at special
Ford motor shows across Europe, starting with Ford Britain’s one-make
exhibition at the Albert Hall, London, in February 1932. By August it
was in production.
Ten months from drawing board to full production was a remarkable
achievement, but the situation was desperate.
Henry Ford’s vision was amply rewarded. Ford Britain, in deficit in
1932-33, recorded a profit of £1.39 million the next year, with the
Model Y giving Ford 54 per cent of the British market for cars of 8 hp
and under. It was also assembled in Ford factories in Cologne, Paris,
Cork, Copenhagen and Barcelona and the basic design survived until 1959
Almost contemporary with Dagenham was Ford’s new German factory, built
alongside the Rhine in Cologne. However, in the political climate of the
1930s, the Cologne Ford plant found economic life very difficult indeed,
with imports of raw materials such as rubber and copper only permitted
in exchange for dollars
In 1929, Ford US began helping the Russians to build an assembly plant
just outside Nizhni Novgorod. As a prelude, Ford Model A cars and trucks
had been assembled in a small plant in Moscow. The new plant at Nizhni -
which was renamed Gorky in 1932 - opened on New Year's Day 1931. It
struggled from the start and in 1932 produced less than 24,000 Model As
against a production target of 140,000. The Ford contract was terminated
in 1935, but the Russian-built Ford, known as GAZ, continued in
production over the next decade and helped lay the foundation for the
development of the Russian auto industry.