On 17 May 1929, Edsel Ford – only son of Henry Ford – cut a small strip of turf from the Dagenham marshes. It was a symbolic first step in the construction of a new factory. And, unlike the car that later bore Edsel’s name, Dagenham would go on to be wildly successful.
Today, Dagenham makes and exports around a million diesel engines a year. And a £460 million investment in Ford’s new ‘Panther’ production line, which builds diesels for the Kuga SUV and Transit van, means production will increase still further.
To celebrate the factory’s 90th anniversary, we shared a slice of Blue Oval cake with some of its staff. Here’s the story so far.
Prefect makes a million
Dagenham was a huge operation from the start; the site had its own steel foundry, power station and on-site railway. Construction took two years and vast quantities of concrete – essential to support the foundations on soggy marshland.
The first vehicle off the production line was a Ford AA truck, based on the successor to the legendary Model T. However within less than a decade, Dagenham would become part of the war effort, building engines and armoured vehicles.
Normal service was swiftly resumed once World War Two ended, and the factory built its millionth car – a 10hp Prefect – in 1946. Famously, it was priced at exactly £100.
The factory expanded hugely in the 1950s, producing popular cars such as the Anglia and Zephyr. The all-conquering Cortina was also built in Dagenham from 1962, with the millionth diesel engine following in 1965.
However, it wasn’t all plain sailing. In 1968, Ford’s female sewing machinists went on strike, demanding the same hourly wage as their male colleagues. With no car seat covers being made, car production at Dagenham ground to a halt.
After three weeks, the strike was resolved, the workers’ action leading to the Equal Pay Act of 1970. It also inspired Made in Dagenham, a West-End musical and film starring Sally Hawkins and Bob Hoskins.
The engine of change
By the 1970s, the plant looked dated and more industrial strife (not unique to Ford) was taking its toll. The company decided to build its new Escort in Saarlouis, Germany, while production of the Fiesta was shared with a new site in Valencia, Spain.
Likewise, the 1982 Sierra was jointly produced with the Genk facility in Belgium, and by the 1990s only the Fiesta (and its Mazda 121 cousin) we being made in Dagenham.
The final Fiesta rolled off the line in 2002, leaving Dagenham as purely an engine plant, a role in which – despite large areas of the original site falling into disuse – it has thrived.
Ninety not out
Ford’s new Panther line is a case in point. Here, in this clinically-clean facility, diesel cylinder heads, blocks and crankshafts are CNC-machined from the raw materials. The process is mesmeric, the rate of production staggering.
Yet Dagenham remains a huge part of the community, too. Generations of the same families have worked here, and many employees have spent their entire careers on-site.
Kenneth Blackmore, who cuts the cake, has been building engines at Dagenham for 48 years. “It’s changed a bit during that time,” he tells me.