Essay : The Ford factor
One of the influential factors in the BMC>MGR story was the success of its main rival, the American-owned UK division of Ford. Back in 1959 Ford UK was managed by Sir Patrick Hennessey, an Irishman who had been a prisoner of the Germans during the First World War.
Ford then only had one main UK car factory, Dagenham in Essex. In the Autumn of 1959, Ford launched its new small car, the distinctive Anglia. The Anglia also had a new power unit, the 997cc Kent engine, which survived the passage of time into the Ka. The Anglia was costed to the last penny in the Ford tradition, and the basic standard version retailed at £589 in September 1959. The Mini, therefore, came as a shock to the men at Dagenham. Not only was the car technically more advanced than anything on the road its basic price of £496 undercut the Anglia by £93, a difference of 15 per cent. Ford resolved to find out how BMC did it.
A team which included future worldwide Ford boss Alex Trotman took apart a Mini and costed every single component. Ford came to the conclusion that the Mini cost about as much to make as the Anglia on which Ford were making roughly £50 profit – in other words, the Mini cost around £539 to manufacture, while it was being sold at £496! Ford even informed BMC of their discovery, but not surprisingly BMC probably suspected Dagenham of skullduggery and declined to raise the retail price of the Mini. Ford could then relax; they would content themselves with selling the Anglia at a profit, while BMC manufactured themselves into oblivion. When Anglia production ceased in November 1967, some 1,288,956 had been made compared to 1,663,539 Minis in the same period.
Ford’s next major car was the Cortina. This was the brainchild of Ford UK’s product planner Terry Beckett, and its success was to lead to chairmanship of Ford UK, a knighthood and chairmanship of the CBI. Sir Terence Beckett would say this of the Cortina: ‘The Cortina came in under cost and, most significantly, we did it in record time. I believe we took just 21 months from full-size clay style to Job 1, which was then an all time record for the industry…
‘We decided we needed a bigger body shell and we also needed more wheel movement. We decided that we would provide a proper boot – in a way we overdid that, but it was perfect for a rep who wanted to take samples, and it was perfect for the family motorist.’
The Cortina was aimed at the expanding fleet market, it was designed to be reliable and cheap to run and was sold at a low price, but still enough to make a profit. Ford had astutely researched the car market and produced a product fleet buyers wanted. Fleet buyers were not interested in advanced cars if they were going to be unreliable and spend most of their time in garages being repaired.
For the rest of the 1960s the Cortina battled it out with the BMC 1100/1300 for sales supremacy. In 1966 the re-styled MkII appeared and, in 1970, the larger MkIII. The MkIII correctly anticipated the demand for larger cars and was itself superseded by the MkIV in 1976. A revised version known as the Cortina ’80 or MkV appeared in 1980 before assembly ended in July 1982 after 4,279,079 Cortinas of all types had been made.
FORD CORTINA PRODUCTION
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The Cortina in all its guises was offered with a wide variety of engines and trim to suit all conceivable tastes. This contrasts with BMC who originally offered the Mini with only the 850 engine, the ADO16 with an 1100 engine, ADO17 Landcrab with the 1800 engine and the Maxi with the 1500 engine.
As the 1960s progressed, BMC cast envious eyes towards Ford’s impressive profits as their own finances dwindled. This came to a head when in 1965 BMC’s new Managing Director Joe Edwards poached product planner and stylist Roy Haynes from Ford. It was Haynes who had been involved in the development of the MK2 Cortina. Ford’s model range was based on four basic platforms, whereas BMC’s consisted of no less than 26 platforms!
Haynes did produce a product plan for BMC reducing its range to five platforms, but the number of redundancies required in order to see through his plan was unpalatable to senior management. The success of the Cortina prompted BLMC to embark on its own fleet car, the Morris Marina. BLMC underestimated Ford’s willingness to haggle with fleet buyers and, as a result, lost out in the sales war against ‘the Big C’.
In 1968 Ford replaced the Anglia with the rear-wheel-drive Escort built at the new Halewood plant on Merseyside. The Escort recieved a sales boost from its awesome motorsport success. Ford had obtained from BMC, via Castrol, the services of Stuart Turner to mastermind its motorsport programme. The Escort made its rally debut in March 1968 and went on to become one of the greatest rally cars of all time.
Another area where Ford were masters was product placement: macho characters in TV and films drove Fords. The best example being The Professionals, where CI5 boss, Cowley drover a Granada, while action heroes, Bodie and Doyle drove an assortment of Capris and Escort RS2000s. BL cars were usually depicted as being driven by socially inadequate characters like Basil Fawlty (ADO16), Hyacinth and Richard Bucket (Rover 213), Terry and June (Princess) and Alan Partridge (Rover 800) – even the good old Mini ended up as the transportation of the most inadequate of inadequate characters, Mr Bean!
In 1976 Ford at last deemed it was the right time to produce a front-wheel-drive supermini: the Fiesta. Earlier cars such as the Fiat 127 and Renault 5 showed there was demand for a supermini-sized car, and now Ford took advantage of it. Austin’s miniMetro briefly challenged the Fiesta in the early 1980s, but the revised MkII Fiesta of 1983 soon regained the sales advantage.
The front-wheel-drive MkIII Escort appeared in 1980 and was an immediate hit. Productivity at Halewood was initially dire compared to Ford’s German factory. This resulted in some very public critisism of the Merseyside plant from the then Ford UK Chairman, Sam Toy, during 1981. It was Ford’s concept of concentrating on fleet buyers that lead to its success: many in the company worked on the assumption that private buyers, seeing so many Fords on the road and being in ignorance of the company car market, would assume that was because Fords produced great cars. By the early 1980s, Ford had a 33 per cent share of the UK market, though by now some of this was taken up by EU imports. BL’s share was less than 20 per cent, though it hoped to improve it with the forthcoming Maestro and Montego.
In 1982, Ford hit trouble when they launched the Sierra to replace the Cortina. General Motors’ UK arm, Vauxhall, decided to strike. Vauxhall’s J-car, the highly competent Cavalier MkII (above) was a Sierra rival and, to be brutally honest, was a better car. A sales war broke out with the two American-owned giants using their US profits to subsidise their cars in an effort to buy market share. Vauxhall emphasised that the Sierra was still rear-wheel-drive and had dodgy styling, whilst the Cavalier was a modern front-wheel-drive car.
The real loser in this clash of the titans was cash strapped Austin Rover. The Maestro/Montego range, whatever the merits of the cars, simply could not make headway in this economic climate and ARG actually lost second place in the UK market to Vauxhall. This resulted in the defeat of Sir Michael Edwardes’ plan for BL. Maestro/Montego were supposed to generate the profits to fund a next generation of cars. The Thatcher Government lost patience with BL over its inability to turn a profit and a management purge followed.
In 1989, we saw a completely new Ford Fiesta, but also the excellent Rover R8 200, which unlike other advanced Longbridge products sold in large numbers. Ford responded in 1990 with the MkIV Escort, which was considered simply inadequate by critics. The MkIV Escort was Ford’s equivalent of the Austin Allegro; it simply wasn’t good enough, looking like a re-skin of the 1980 MkIII, when an all-new car was needed. Perhaps this was the turning point, as buyers turned towards other brands and Ford’s UK share declined to 18 per cent in 2003. Ford decided to up their game and showed what they could really do with the outstanding Mondeo in 1993 and Focus in 1998.
However, that wasn’t enough. Ford had become victims of their own success, the public saw them as downmarket reps cars. The arrival of Japanese firms manufacturing in the UK gave buyers a wider choice of locally-built products. They could support British industry without buying unreliable Austins, Dagenham dustbins and insipid Vauxhalls.
Ford then tried to counter the decline in popularity of the marque by buying out prestige manufacturers such as Land Rover, Jaguar and Aston Martin. After losing as staggering £892 million in 2001, Ford acted and ceased car production at Dagenham – this, combined with the decision to produce Jaguars at Halewood, means that all new Fords on the road are now as foreign as Alfa Romeo, BMW and Renault etc.