Ford in Europe:  The First Hundred Years



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 European continent.

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 trade.

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.

Manufacturing 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, Manchester.

A couple of years later, assembly started in premises in Bordeaux, initially run by the leading French agent, but soon taken over by Ford Motor Company.

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 Expansion

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 in Europe.

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 1931.

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 in Britain.

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.

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