26 June 2017 | 10 °C

Inside The East London Car Factory You Thought Had Closed

Inside The East London Car Factory You Thought Had Closed

Beneath the well-stained corrugated ceiling, erected by the Ford company in 1929, robots arms tighten valves on the new EcoBlue engines. The 'Panther' plant as it's known (all the plants here are named after big cats) is an apt metaphor for Ford Dagenham. It's a household name slicked in heritage, but many are surprised to hear it's still up and running; even more so that it's at the forefront of engine technology.

Ford Dagenham reeled off its final car — a cherry red Fiesta — in February 2002. The headlines at the time, understandably, bemoaned the end of an era, the demise of British industry. But like its own 49 acre complex, perched on the marshlands of east London, Ford Dagenham has miraculously stayed afloat. Now, as it pulls away from a shaky start to the new millennium, it employs over 2,000 people, and is once again building on the reputation of that famous blue and silver badge.

Dagenham's debut — the Model AA truck — was driven off the production line at 1.16pm on 1 October 1931, by Ford's general manager. Truth be told, it didn't prove overly popular with the British public — certainly not as much as the Model Y that followed, which went down a storm (the thrifty £100 price tag no doubt an incentive). All companies have their ups and downs, but Ford's have perhaps been more pronounced than most.

When war came to the East End, one employee explains to us on the factory floor, Dagenham and its cousin plant in Cologne continued to talk shop, as they respectively rolled out armoured tanks whose cannons would point at each other's soldiers.

Ford's most up to date plant functions under an original 1920s roof
Factory machinists inspired a film, musical... and new pay legislation

There there were the the sewing machinist's strikes of 1968 — a chapter made famous in the film, and then musical, Made in Dagenham. The Equal Pay Act was passed just two years later. How many other companies have been the backdrop for such a human interest story?

With all these robots plugged in these days, you wouldn't have thought that Ford would have many humans to worry about. A glance at the Panther production line — and the number of high-vis tabards working on it — says otherwise. The robots are not taking over, they're simply lending a hand. "The dexterity of the human hand is difficult to beat," explains Craig Black, Panther's production manager.

Manual work will always be vital to Ford, say those who head the production lines

Black leads us along the assembly line; the walk from one end to the other — a cacophony of drilling, blasting, twirling and something that slides back and forth overhead like one of those paper cutters they used to have in schools — is over a mile long.

Panther is essentially its own toy town — little crossings prompt you to look out for carts darting around; there are littler crossings on the actual conveyor belt, lest you get your shins run-in by a passing engine while taking a shortcut. Eventually these EcoBlue engines will be heard purring on roads across the world, fitted into the latest Transit vans.

The Panther plant is over a mile long if you follow it from start to finish
Craig Black leads us through the Panther production plant

The engines aren't just built here; since 2003, they're designed in Dagenham too. "The real advantage for us here is being close to the manufacturing facilities, keeping the two teams together," explains Nick Pollard, chief program engineer for EcoBlue diesel.

Pollard's team's open plan offices look out over the juxtaposed view of the roaring A13, and a pond inhabited by geese. It's another apt visual metaphor for Ford, which is careful to do everything from reusing rainwater, to overseeing three onsite wind turbines, which generate 11.4m kilowatt hours of energy every year. Mention to anyone around here that diesel is 'dirty', and you're likely to get a dirty look back.

Nick Pollard with one of the emissions-cutting engines he helped design

Of course, cutting down the emissions of these diesel engines is the big aim for Pollard and his team (we also meet Sam Watton, whose sole job it is to cut noise emission). Thanks to the car posters and calendars stuck over desks and the model cars perched on top, these design suites have the air of a teenager's bedroom. It is quite something to think the engines being mocked up here in Dagenham will be made next door, shuttled down to the docks by Ford's own railway, and shipped to the continent to be fitted into vehicles. They'll end up in four wheelers in South Africa, Transit vans in Turkey, trucks in the USA, city get-abouts across Europe.

Some will end up back where they started, only this time, as a finished product.

"A cross between a cutting edge design suite and a teenager's bedroom"
A 3D printout of a Ford engine

Dagenham now makes 750,000 engines per year. 300 more employees are expected to join the Panther plant alone by the end of 2017 — ratcheting up the number of engines further. The mood is that a second golden era is here (to some extent at least). Those who've stuck it out will never forget the darker days.

"That was an awful time, says Mark Chappell, production team manager at Ford's Tiger plant. "We were losing work, we were losing engines. We didn't have any newer engines that were coming into the plant. It was a horrible time to be at work.

"We probably had a year, two years of the early 2000s where we didn't know if we were going to have a job or not."

Henry Ford stands outside the Panther production line. His son, Edsel, cut the first sod of reclaimed marshland here on 17 May 1929

Such memories are shared with his friend, and head of the neighbouring Lion Assembly, Lee Mears. Both started out at Ford as apprentices and saw the empire crumble around them.

Surely then, they must be skeptical about all this automation on the factory floor? Not so. Chappell's production line turns out 1,800 engines a day — something that'd be impossible without cutting edge technology. But as well as being able to deal with fiddly parts, workers also offer a kind of flexibility, the kind that means they can switch task — or even production line — at the drop of a hat.   

"There's been a massive turnaround in 20 years, huge." Lee Mears (left) and Mark Chappell
The Lion assembly line

And if these could own one Ford, what would it be? "Mustang. That's the jewel in our crown. That or the RS Focus," grins Chappell. "Money no object?," chips in Mears, "The GT super car. If not, the Mustang."

The conversation reminds us that one thing seems to be lacking from Ford's enormous complex: cars. In fact, you just need to know where to look.

A Ford Zephyr police van, which previously looked in much worse shape

That last cherry red Ford Fiesta to roll off the production line in 2002 is still on site; it's kept under plastic sheeting in a drafty depot secreted in a corner of the complex. Here, Ivan Bartholomeusz and Paul Wilson tend just over 100 very special Fords, among them early Transit vans, 1970s Mexico Escorts, the first ever RS (it was driven straight off the production line from Germany all the way to Dagenham), and a brace of Model Ts.

Model Ts, it turns out, are the Penny Blacks of the car world; not as rare or expensive as you'd think.  "People say to me 'how much are Model Ts worth?'" says Wilson, "Well they're only worth about £13,000, because there are still so many of them around.

"There are several places in the country, you can phone them up and they've got the parts in stock!" Parts for some far more modern cars, ironically, have to be specially tooled — something that costs a small fortune.

A Ford Model T, under wraps in the heritage centre
Ivan Bartholomeusz and Paul Wilson chat in their 'office'

This is one of the few places at Ford where you can breathe in that rich aroma of oil and petrol, inhale and appreciate the legacy. If the engineers' offices are the teen's bedroom, then this is the retiree's garage. Indeed, both Bartholomeusz and Wilson are Ford retirees, soon dragged back into the fold.

It's is not a place for the cars to hang up their tyres, either; they're constantly at large (in fact the vintage Fiesta is fresh back from shooting at an advert... for the new Fiesta). "We've had 16 vehicles returned this morning," Wilson tells us. Back in the depot, the cars are buffed and preened, treated like film stars, ready for their next starring role.

And while all those robots and turbines and conveyor belts and engineer's brains whirr away outside, it's here that you remember what it's really all about.

Last Updated 19 June 2017