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Wednesday, 20 February, 2002, 14:48 GMT
Dagenham's Fiesta farewell
Ford Fiesta production line at Dagenham
Dagenham is due to produce its last Fiestas
Ford's biggest UK car plant at Dagenham is on Wednesday producing its final Fiestas, bringing 71 years of car making at the Essex factory to an end.

Under plans first unveiled in May 2000, the facility will switch to the production of diesel engines for the entire Ford group, underpinned by a 340m investment programme.

You'll be back here [reporting] in 12 months when that engine plant closes down

Ford employee
The move is expected to cost about 1,100 jobs, although many more have also gone in recent years. The diesel engine operation is due to take on an extra 500 staff.

"It is sad that car production is ending after 71 years. But it also marks a new era in that Dagenham is now set to become Ford's global centre of excellence for diesel engine manufacture," said Ford UK chairman Ian McAllister.

But few of the workers BBC News Online spoke with believed that even the engine plant would remain open for long.

"They're giving us a slow poisoning," said Rajinder Kumar-Mehta who is leaving after 24 years.

"You'll be back here [reporting] in 12 months when that engine plant closes down," said another worker who was leaving after more than 35 years with Ford.

Job done

Of the 1,100 workers affected by the job cuts, 250 have been given other jobs at Dagenham, or in other Ford plants.

Most of the rest are believed to have taken early retirement or voluntary redundancy packages.

Ford in 2001
$5bn loss in Oct-Dec
35,000 job cuts
Dumped chief executive
Scion of founding family takes over
"I feel sad and some nostalgia for sure, but also feel some relief that the job is done," said Jeff Body, manager of vehicle operations.

Mr Body will retire in March having begun his career with Ford in 1964, becoming Ford's sixth longest-serving member of staff at Dagenham.

Low morale

Others were less upbeat.

"Ford should have done more to avoid the closure of the Dagenham car production," said one worker by the name of Graham.

Graham, who is not losing his job and has worked at Ford for 26 years, said:

"It really is a sad day, morale is down. Even the people who are staying are really uncertain about the future."

"The atmosphere has deteriorated at Ford over the last four to five years. Before there was camaraderie and a lot of loyalty; it's a shame it wasn't two-ways."

Restructuring target

The changes at Dagenham are part of a restructuring exercise launched two years ago to stem operating losses at Ford's European operations, running at an estimated 700m ($1bn) a year.

Some staff will be kept on as the plant is transformed into a base for engine manufacturing.

"You can't but feel sad for what is happening, but you have to remain competitive and change has to happen," Mike Harvey - who will keep his job as manager of the engine plant - told BBC News Online.

Although Ford's European division is now breaking even, the company reported a $5bn loss worldwide for October-December 2001.

Nasser replaced

The losses, Ford's first for nearly 10 years, came after a year in which the company was dogged by quality control issues, slipping market share, and hefty restructuring costs.

Chief executive Jacques Nasser was also replaced by William Clay Ford Jr, a member of the founding family who was already the carmaker's chairman.

Key Dagenham dates
1929: Ford builds 5m plant at Dagenham.
1931: First vehicle - a Model A Truck - produced on 1 October
1938: First Prefect model produced
1940: Facilities converted to military production
1959: New assembly plant opens, production of Anglia begins
1966: Engine plant opened
1976: Fiesta production begins
1996: 10 millionth vehicle produced
2000: Ford announces end of vehicle production and switch to engine production
Last year, Ford said it would close five plants and axe a total of 35,000 jobs - about 10% of its entire workforce - by the end of this year as part of a plan to revamp its North American operations.

The company has set aside about $4bn to fund the restructuring exercise.

Although productivity at Dagenham has improved in recent years, the site's single production line meant that adapting it to produce the new Fiesta model would have required too much investment.

Manufacturing unions, who bitterly opposed the Dagenham closure plans when they were first unveiled, criticised the shutdown again on Tuesday.

"The closure is as unjustified today as it was when [the decision] was made," said Tony Woodley, national officer of the Transport & General Workers' Union.

The Dagenham plant, which once employed 34,000 workers, was known for poor industrial relations and a high rate of absenteeism.

But the factory, one of Europe's first major car assembly sites, came to be seen as a focal point of the UK car industry.

A total of 11 million cars have rolled off the Dagenham production lines, including iconic models such as the Ford Prefect, Cortina and Sierra.

The BBC's Brian Milligan
"The unions are still furious"
The BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones
"Dagenham has paid the price for Ford's losses in Europe"
The BBC's Russel Hayes
"The end of 70 years of vehicle manufacturing"

See also:

20 Feb 02 | England
'Doors open' as Ford line shuts
17 Jan 02 | Business
Ford hit by $5bn loss
15 Feb 02 | Business
Ford axes Belgian jobs
13 Feb 02 | Wales
Europe quizzes 17m Ford grant
12 Jan 02 | Americas
Ford workers brace for closure
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