A century of car-making in Oxford
8th March 2013
The MINI Plant will lead the celebrations of a centenary of car-making in Oxford, on 28 March 2013 – 100 years to the day when the first “Bullnose” Morris Oxford was built by William Morris, a few hundred metres from where the modern plant stands today. Twenty cars were built each week at the start, but the business grew rapidly and over the century 11.65 million cars were produced. Today, Plant Oxford employs 3,700 associates who manufacture up to 900 MINIs every day, and has contributed over 2.25 million MINIs to the total tally. Major investment is currently under way at the plant to create new facilities for the next generation MINI.
Over the decades that followed the emergence of the Bullnose Morris Oxford in 1913, came cars from a wide range of famous British brands – and one Japanese - including MG, Wolseley, Riley, Austin, Austin Healey, Mini, Vanden Plas, Princess, Triumph, Rover, Sterling and Honda, besides founding marque Morris - and MINI. The Pressed Steel Company, part of the Cowley operation, also built bodyshells for Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Jaguar, MG, Standard-Triumph, Ford and Hillman, as well as tooling dies for Alfa Romeo. At various stages in its history it has also built Tiger Moth aircraft, ambulances, military trucks, jerry cans, components for Horsa gliders, parachutes and iron lungs.
The plant has produced an array of famous cars, including the Bullnose Morris, the Morris Minor, the Mini, India’s Hindustan Ambassador and today’s MINI. It also produced Hondas for a short period in the ‘80s, as well as some slightly notorious models including the much-derided (though far from unsuccessful) Morris Marina, the startling ’70s wedge that was the Princess and in the Austin Maestro one of the world’s earliest ‘talking’ cars.
There have been eight custodians of Plant Oxford over the past 100 years, beginning with founder William Morris who owned the factory both directly and through Morris Motors until 1952, when Morris merged with arch-rival Austin to form the British Motor Corporation. Morris himself, by this time known as Lord Nuffield, was chairman for six months before retiring. He died in 1963. During the early ‘60s the plant had as many as 28,000 employees producing an extraordinary variety of models.
In 1967 BMC became British Motor Holdings after merging with Jaguar, and the following year that group was merged with the Leyland truck company (which also included Triumph and Rover) to form the British Leyland Motor Corporation. Nationalisation followed in 1974, the group undergoing several renamings until it became the Rover Group in 1986. Boss Graham Day was charged with privatising the company for the Thatcher government, which was completed in 1988 with the sale to British Aerospace. They in turn would sell the Group, which included Land Rover, to BMW in 1994.
BMW Group invested heavily in Rover, deciding early on that a replacement for the Mini would be a priority. But considerable headwinds, including an unfavourable exchange rate and falling sales lead to BMW selling both Rover and Land Rover in 2000, while retaining the Mini brand, Plant Oxford, the associated Swindon pressings factory and the new Hams Hall engine plant that was preparing for production.
Today, Plant Oxford is flourishing with the manufacture of the MINI Hatchback, Convertible, Clubman, Clubvan, Roadster and Coupé. It is currently undergoing a major investment that includes the installation of 1,000 new robots for both a new body shop and the existing facility in readiness for the next generation of MINI. This represents the lion’s share of a £750m investment programme, announced in the last year, which also sees the significant upgrading and installation of new facilities at the company’s Hams Hall engine plant and the Swindon body pressings factory.
The Oxford plant has generated many billions of pounds for the nation, as well as considerable wealth for many other countries around the world during its 100 years, providing direct employment for hundreds of thousands of employees and tens of thousands more through indirect jobs. The plant has a long history of export success from the 1930s onwards, Morris products accounting for nearly 30 percent of the nation’s total exports by the mid 1930s. In 1950, the plant produced its 100,000th overseas model – a Morris Minor – and by 1962 BMC was shipping 320,000 examples of its annual production of 850,000 vehicles to over 170 countries, Oxford contributing a major part of that total. BMC was the UK’s biggest exporter in the early ‘60s, just as Morris had been in the ‘30s.
Plant Oxford has contributed to the industrial activities of a surprising number of far-flung countries too, by producing tens of thousands of cars for export in CKD (Completely Knocked Down) kit form for assembly in overseas factories. Countries that have built cars from kits include Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Cuba, East Africa, Ghana, Holland, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Malaya, Mexico, Nigeria, Spain, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Trinidad, Turkey, Uganda, Uruguay and many others. By 1967 CKD cars formed 40 percent of BMC’s exports, the kits assembled in 21 plants around the world. Morris Oxfords, Minors, MGAs, Minis, Morris 1100s and commercial vehicles were among the many models built in these distant factories. Plant Oxford’s export record is equally impressive today, no less than 1.7 million MINIs having been exported to over 100 countries since 2001.
The plant has also had a positive and remarkable impact beyond car production, too. Founder William Morris, later Lord Nuffield, was one of the country’s most generous philanthropists. He manufactured iron lungs at Cowley to donate to hospitals, while Nuffield Health, Nuffield Farming Scholarships Trust and Nuffield College, Oxford University, were all founded by Morris, whose philanthropic gifts are estimated to be the equivalent of £11 billion at today’s values. The Nuffield Health organisation flourishes to this day, as do Nuffield College and many other Nuffield-founded philanthropic enterprises.
During World War II the plant played a role, building military equipment that included Tiger Moth aircraft. Parachutes, jerry cans and aircraft sub-assemblies were also manufactured in large numbers. Cowley also carried out over 80,000 repairs on damaged Spitfire and Hurricane aircraft.
Plant Oxford has employed a number of motor industry luminaries, besides founder William Morris, including Sir Alec Issigonis, who designed the Morris Minor and the Mini that were built there, Leonard Lord, who would go on to run the British Motor Corporation, Eric Lord, who ran the plant when it reached a production peak of 6,000 cars a week during the ‘60s, and plant director Sir George Turnbull, who went onto help Hyundai become a manufacturer of own-design cars rather than licence-built models during the 1970s. A number of senior figures in the motor industry and in BMW Group today are former Plant Oxford employees, including Herbert Diess, a previous MINI Plant Oxford director and now a member of the BMW AG board of management responsible for development.
Today, Plant Oxford forms the central element of BMW Group’s UK production network, which includes the Hams Hall engine factory in Birmingham and the Swindon pressings plant, formerly a part of Pressed Steel. The network faces a bright future as the next generation MINI family enters production over the coming years amid a trend of rising sales and exports.