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Ford Dagenham celebrates 80 years

PUBLISHED: 13:50 31 March 2009 | UPDATED: 09:13 11 August 2010

EIGHTY years ago Edsel Ford, son of the iconic Henry Ford, took a spade and pushed it into the Dagenham soil beneath his feet. It was May 16, 1929 and the foundations of an ambitious new Ford factory were about to be laid on reclaimed marsh land. After th

EIGHTY years ago Edsel Ford, son of the iconic Henry Ford, took a spade and pushed it into the Dagenham soil beneath his feet.

It was May 16, 1929 and the foundations of an ambitious new Ford factory were about to be laid on reclaimed marsh land.

After the First World War Henry Ford had split his European car making activities into twelve different companies. But as the 20s developed, he recognised the need to co-ordinate these companies to make the European businesses more effective.

In 1928 he decided that a central factory was needed, based in England, which would supply and control a chain of eleven European assembly plants.

With its ideal location by the Thames for shipping and its close proximity to London, Dagenham had already been earmarked by Ford as a possible site some years earlier.

But not everyone thought it was the perfect place to build a car plant. The man put in charge of constructing the factory, Sir Percival Perry, was unhappy with the choice.

According to David Burgess-Wise, author of Ford at Dagenham, Perry described Dagenham as 'the worst possible choice, whether from the standpoint of manufacture or that of marketing.'

The terrain was notoriously marshy, partly filled by rubbish tips where London's waste was dumped or burned, and partly by rough grazing where the local children used to play.

Despite Perry's reservations the location was given the green light and a special ceremony was held on the site as the £5 million building project kicked off in the spring of 1929.

The proceedings got off to a bit of a bumpy start when the silver spade Edsel Ford rammed into the ground hit a stone and bent, but it was quickly hammered back into shape, and the celebrations continued as planned.

During the ceremony Edsel's 11-year-old son Henry Ford II was photographed perched on top of the first concrete pile to be driven home on the site.

Burgess-Wise describes the 'round-faced boy in knickerbockers' as 'looking a trifle uneasy among the crowd of civic dignitaries.'

What followed was one of the most ambitious factory constructions ever undertaken by a European manufacturer.

Tens of thousands of tons of earth was moved in a matter of weeks and ten miles of roads as well as railway and bridges were built.

Twenty-two thousand concrete piles were sunk 80ft into the earth by huge steam hammers to stabilise the site, before massive concrete rafts were laid on top of the piles to carry the factory.

Some 17,000 tonnes of steel was used for the two main buildings, and nine million wood blocks were laid to form the floors.

When completed the new factory included its own power station, foundry, coke ovens and gas plant, plus the largest private wharf on the Thames, with a 1,800ft jetty.

Two years after Edsel cut the Dagenham turf the plant's very first vehicle, a 30-cwt truck, rolled off the production line.

But the celebrations this time around were more subdued, for a lot had changed in those two years. A devastating depression had taken hold of the world and the factory only managed to sell five cars during the first four months.

It did, however, shift more than 4,000 trucks, which helped keep the plant afloat.

But when Perry started producing a smaller, budget car in 1932 Ford Dagenham saw a dramatic change. Nearly 33,000 versions of the new model were sold in 1933 and for the next few decades the factory went from strength to strength.

In September 2002 Ford stopped manufacturing cars at the Dagenham plant, continuing only with its production of engines. As Britain's car industry fights to survive the future of the factory appears uncertain.

But whatever happens over the next few years, the factory can always lay claim to having played an important and influential role in Britain's motoring history, which many would no doubt agree is worth celebrating.


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