For decades, one car ruled British roads: the Ford Fiesta. The compact five-seater provided a cheap and reliable transport option to millions of families, selling more than any other model since its launch in the UK in 1977. For most of that time, nearly all UK Fiestas came from one location: the Ford factory in Dagenham, East London.
When the factory opened in 1931, cars were large, ornate machines, beyond most people’s budgets. But Ford Dagenham was one reason why that changed: it was the largest car plant in Europe, producing tens of thousands of vehicles a year by the end of the decade and employing 40,000 workers by 1943. Over seven decades, iconic models including the Cortina, Capri and Sierra were all made at Dagenham. The site even became a milestone in the UK women’s liberation movement, when in 1968 Ford sewing machinists went on strike to fight for pay parity with their male colleagues – popularised in the 2010 film Made in Dagenham.
By the time the last Ford Fiesta rolled off the production line in 2002, the plant had produced 11 million vehicles. However, it was no longer competitive with modern facilities in Germany and Spain. Ford transformed the factory to become its global centre for the production of diesel engines. The site remains London’s largest factory, and has produced some 50 million engines to date.
Now though, there is a new threat to Ford Dagenham. The company, like every other major car brand, has committed to decarbonise its production line to meet government plans to outlaw internal combustion engines for cars and vans — the UK is aiming for 2030, EU countries by 2035. The pledge could spell the end of Ford Dagenham, unless a new facility is developed to build electric cars.
“Dagenham will keep producing diesel engines for Ford as long as there is demand around the world,” says Des Quinn from the Unite Union, which represents Ford Dagenham workers. “But the concern is that this demand is only going to keep falling. And we don’t want Dagenham to wither and die on the vine”.
In the short-term, Ford plans to concentrate more on fossil fuel engine production at the Dagenham site. But this economic opportunity could prove to be a poisoned chalice longer-term, if the site misses out on electric investment. Unite is in conversation with Ford about new opportunities, but it is hard to find a solution that will keep all 2,275 workers employed. “One option could be a new battery plant”, says Quinn. “But this is unlikely, as these tend to go near car production plants, which Ford no longer has in this country.”
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In March, Ford announced the launch of seven new electric car models in Europe by 2024 and $2bn worth of investment for these to be developed at its production site in Cologne in Germany. No new investment was announced for Dagenham, which has now not produced Ford cars for 20 years.
Manufacturers everywhere are under immense commercial pressure as they grapple with a global shortage of semiconductors, supply chain disruptions because of Covid and the war in Ukraine, and uncertain economic headwinds. The challenge of net zero is also profound. A recent study from the NGO Influence Map found that only two of the world’s 12 top automakers - Tesla and Mercedes-Benz - are planning to make enough electric vehicles by 2030 to keep in step with Paris Agreement climate goals.
There are also commercial difficulties specific to the UK. “The uncertainty of Brexit hanging over the industry between the 2016 referendum and the 2020 deal going through on Christmas Eve made the UK a really hard place to invest in,” says Mike Hawes, the CEO of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), which represents UK auto manufacturers. UK car production has halved since 2016. Having once been the world's second biggest car manufacturer, it has now fallen out of the top 15.
The government has taken some steps to encourage companies like Ford to stay in the UK. In 2013, for example, it set up the Advanced Propulsion Centre to facilitate UK-based research and development into low-carbon technologies. Ford has collaborated with the centre on seven research projects and received funding to transform a second smaller plant in Merseyside into an electric car parts factory by 2024. But no such deal was been announced for Dagenham.
Other UK car manufacturers have committed to electrify UK production, including Toyota, whose Burnaston plant produces nearly 90 per cent hybrid vehicles, and Nissan, which is developing a £1bn electric car hub at its Sunderland plant. Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), the UK’s largest manufacturer by volume, is set to only produce electric Jaguars by 2025, with Land Rovers following suit by 2035. However, recent reports suggest that Coventry-based JLR may build a range of new EVs in Slovakia because of a lack of battery manufacturing capacity in the UK.
For now, Ford is betting on a slow transition to electric vans — a spokesman for the company said he believes “the majority" of van sales will still be diesel at the turn of the decade. But sheer belief will not be enough to stymie the transition if countries are serious about meeting ambitious emissions reduction pledges, and the price of new technologies continues to fall. Electric vans are already cheaper to run than their diesel counterparts on a lifetime basis.
Dagenham has got "its own jetty on the River Thames, which makes it great for exports; a great industrial relations record; it’s a nice place in the world to live; and it’s got a history that Ford is rightly proud of, ” says Unite's Quinn. But these attributes alone won't be enough to secure the factory's future in a carbon-constrained world.
[See also: Why the godfather of the electric car is betting on public transport]