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How Southampton became 'home' to the Ford Transit van

Matt Treacy
BBC Hampshire & Isle of Wight

Archive footage of the first Ford Transit produced at the Swaythling factory, in 1972

Southampton has been known as 'home of the Transit' since construction of the van began in the early 1970s.

Over the last 45 years, the Transit has become of one of the most successful commercial vehicles ever made, and the brand has become the generic term for a van.

The site in Swaythling currently occupied by Ford is steeped in the region's engineering heritage. During World War II the same factory was used to make parts for the Spitfire aircraft.

The world's six millionth Transit has just been produced at the Swaythling plant. Last month Ford confirmed to the BBC that production of the van at Southampton would continue into 2012.

Engineering history

There has been a factory on the site in Swaythling, in the north of Southampton, since the 1930s.

1939 - Factory opened as a Cunliffe-Owen aircraft parts factory
1940 - First of the Luftwaffe bombing raids to target the factory
1953 - Factory bought by Ford
1965 - Ford starts making the Transit Van
1972 - Full assembly of Transit moved to Southampton
1983 - Factory is separated from Southampton Airport by the building of the M27
2009 - Ford halves production at Southampton and reduced the workforce to just over 500
2010 - The six millionth transit is made

John Powell works for Ford and has researched the history of the site.

He explained: "The factory was built for a company called Cunliffe-Owen and they were aircraft component manufacturers."

The opening of the Cunliffe-Owen factory was written about in an edition of Flight Magazine published on 2 February 1939.

It described how the mayor of Southampton at the time was pleased the factory was built: "...he felt that the factory was a worthy addition to the very progressive City of Southampton."

With the onset of World War II later that year, one of the key roles for the factory soon became making vital components for the Spitfire.

A prototype of the legendary fighter had made its maiden flight from nearby Eastleigh Airfield three years earlier.

Being a key part of the British war effort soon made it an enemy target. John Powell said: "In September 1940 this place was bombed. The Germans recognised it was quite an important factory."

Between 1949-1951 the factory was acquired in two stages by Briggs Motor Bodies, a company that supplied Ford with bodies for their vehicles. In the spring of 1953 Ford took over Briggs and inherited their factories, including the 630,000 sq ft Southampton plant.

The factory built bodies for medium weight vans and heavy trucks for Ford up until the mid-1960s.

Transit vans

In 1965 when Ford introduced the Transit van it cost £542, and £3.5 million worth of vans were sold in the first year.

The Ford factory, Swathling

At the time the bodies of the van were made in Southampton before being shipped up to their assembly plant in Langley, Berkshire. However, in 1972 the Swaythling site received a £5m investment for an expansion to make the entire Transit van.

The very first complete Transit van made in Southampton was handed over to the mayor to be used for a charity.

John Kendall, Editor of Van Fleet World magazine, says that the Transit is one of Ford's most important products.

He said: "It's been the best selling commercial vehicle for the last 45 years in this country, so it has a certain pivotal importance for Ford."

City life

However, since the factory was built on a green field site, many other buildings have sprung up around the site.

Southampton plant
The factory covers 630,000 sq ft

John Kendall explained: "It's constrained by geography. You've got the M27 on one side of the factory, a railway on the other, you've got Southampton airport nearby and a graveyard as well."

Steve Banner, Contributing Editor to What Van? Magazine says that this has forced workers to adopt a unique set-up.

He said: "The paint plant has been built upwards rather than outwards, so you have quite a complicated conveyer belt arrangement which take vehicles that have been prepared for painting, and then been painted, up several stories, and back down several stories."

Dr Peter Wells is the co-director of the Centre for Automotive Industry Research at Cardiff Univerisity. He says that the Ford factory used to be very productive.

He said: "It's fair to say that its heyday was probably in the 90s when the Transit was very much a dominant product in the market, and the Ford company generally was still doing very well in the UK market."

He also said it's an important part of the city: "It's been part and parcel of the fabric of society and the economy in the Southampton region for many, many years."

Enduring popularity

At its height in the mid-1970s to 1980s the Southampton Ford Factory employed up to 4,500 workers from the local area. In more recent years a succession of recessions, globalisation and mechanisation have reduced the workforce.

Most recently the workforce was halved to just over 500 workers as the global credit crunch affected worldwide sales of the Transit.

Steve Banner, Contributing Editor to What Van? Magazine says the Southampton factory continues to hold a unique place in the comapany's British operation.

He said: "Southampton is now the only Ford factory in the UK which actually assembles vehicles. The only place where you'll actually see Ford-badged vehicles roll off the assembly line in the UK is Southampton.

"Why has Southampton survived? Well… Transit is market leader in the UK, in its sector, by a country-mile."

What happens when labour moves abroad?
30 Mar 10 |  Hampshire
UK Transit production extended
31 Mar 10 |  Hampshire
Car giant Ford to cut 850 workers
05 Feb 09 |  Hampshire
Transit production "under review"
10 Jul 08 |  Hampshire

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