Around the World : BMC in Rhodesia

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Michael James tells the brief story of BMC in Rhodesia. It’s the first time this forgotten outpost of British Motor Corporation has been highlighted on AROnline.


British Motor Corporation: car production and sales in Rhodesia

From the mid-1950s the British Motor Corporation’s management was implementing expansion plans across the spectrum of its operations from new models, new factories to exciting advanced engineering projects such as the revolutionary front-wheel drive Mini and Austin/Morris 1100 range. Times were optimistic and the rebuilding of the country, economy and psyche of the nation were improving after the struggle of the war-time years.

It was in this optimism of the time that BMC started looking overseas for suitable investments and, as the decade drew to an end, one area that the management took an increasing interest in as a possible growth territory for the company was the Rhodesian Federation.

It is not a simple task to explain to those unfamiliar with Rhodesia, its history, the general British withdrawal from Africa and indeed the withdrawal from all the former Empire; but a brief overview is necessary for the narrative here.

Setting the scene: Rhodesia in the 1950s

The colony of Southern Rhodesia and the British Protectorate territories of Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland were combined in 1953 to become the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (also sometimes known as the Central African Federation). This federation was considered as a prime candidate for independence from the United Kingdom and with it an export market for BMC vehicles to the former colonies.

During the period 1950-60 a huge amount of national infrastructure projects were undertaken in Rhodesia, such as the large Kariba Dam on the Zambezi River which supplies hydro electrical energy to the country. As a result of these projects, the road network that, prior to the war was unfavourable to everything but the most robust machinery, had been considerably improved and updated. Indeed, contemporary images of Salisbury could be mistaken for a modern British equivalent town, albeit with better weather and more exotic flora.

Image of Moffat Street, Salisbury Rhodesia 1957
Image of Moffat Street, Salisbury Rhodesia 1957

These highway advancements made the region more suitable to British and other European developed cars and subsequently, after the growing number of exports to the region, in 1958 BMC decided to establish a facility at Umtali, Southern Rhodesia that would assemble Completely Knocked Down (CKD) vehicles dispatched from factories in England.

Building cars in Rhodesia: the challenges

The locally assembled vehicles were not identical to their British equivalents as about 20% of locally manufactured parts were included; evidence from surviving cars from the period suggests that this local content included all consumable items such as tyres, batteries and exhausts systems, as well as locally-manufactured glass (presumably from South Africa).

Some small-size pressings were stamped locally which included seat frames, radiators etc. More obvious was the local production of all the vehicles’ upholstery – these interiors were tailored to be more suited to the Bulawayo sun than Birmingham’s rain and make the surviving vehicles interesting oddities when comparing them to the mass-produced home market manufactured survivors of today.

On 8 October 1960, the first car came off the assembly line of the newly-built BMC Rhodesia Umtali plant which covered a substantial 39 acres. Boldly, BMC with one eye on expansion, had included a further 30 acres to allow for the anticipated growth in the operation. Unfortunately, due to the events that followed in 1965, those plans were never realised, and indeed the land is still seemingly undeveloped as of 2018.

BMC car production begins in 1960

Interestingly, for the period, logistics were well planned as the factory was connected and integrated with the Rhodesian railway system. The CKD kits were shipped from the various UK facilities via Southampton to the Mozambique port of Beira and onward by rail to the land-locked Federation of Rhodesia, Umtali being the first city over the border from Mozambique on the railway route.

Analysis of sales figures shows that the Rhodesian market for passenger vehicles for the period grew from about 7000 cars in 1954 to over 13,000 in 1963, similarly commercial vehicles sales grew from 2669 in 1954 to a high of 3930 in 1959 before dipping back to 2981 in 1963. The local vehicle market expanded (figures including motor cycles and tractors) from 10,431 in 1954 to 18,231 sales in 1963.

In Rhodesia, BMC was considered to be a local producer and in a good place to dominate the market. This was to become the start of an exciting time for this far-flung BMC outpost, even as on 14 July 1961 a ‘domestic’ rival in the form of Ford of Canada began producing vehicles in Willowvale district in the capital of Salisbury where that organisation began assembling British CKD sourced products such as Anglias and Zephyrs alongside larger Ford commercial vehicles.

Steady progress through the 1960s

During the period 1960 to 1965 BMC Rhodesia made steady progress assembling BMC products including the Austin Mini, Cambridge, Westminster, 1100, Morris Oxford, Morris Minor and, from 1963, BMC-branded Mini Mokes. Records are not fully known but some research has found that, for example, 400 BMC Mokes were assembled in the period 1963-67 and that 50 of these were used by the local Police service with some others being used by the military.

RAAF Moke being unloaded from a DC3 aircraft.
RAAF Moke being unloaded from a DC3 aircraft

However, all was not well for the Federation as internal political tensions led to it being officially dissolved on the last day of 1963. In early 1964, Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland became independent nations under the names Zambia and Malawi, respectively and for BMC Rhodesia a small but important market had become more challenging as these were now ‘export’ markets and no longer free from tariffs and taxes.

BMC Umtali increased production and was on target to become profitable organisation until Armistice Day 1965, when Prime Minister Ian Smith announced Southern Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) from the United Kingdom and renamed the country Rhodesia in the process.

This declaration would not only have a massive effect on the nation and the people of Rhodesia but also on the Umtali plant, which was dependent on British products and support.

How independence affected BMC’s plans

The British Government deemed UDI and the independent Rhodesia as illegitimate and refused to recognize the state as did most of the international community. Ultimately, the British Government and then the UN issued sanctions against the state of Rhodesia; problems with import/exports quickly become an issue and eventually petrol rationing was introduced as ultimately the economy began to suffer a recession.

Back at BMC Umtali and Ford Willowvale production slowed considerably in 1966 and, by mid-1967, production was a shadow of 1965’s output. BMC Rhodesia had prudently stockpiled a quantity of CKD kits early in 1965 (BMC believed that tensions would blow over quickly and not escalate), but both the Umtali plant and its one-time Ford competitor over in the capital city of Salisbury closed in late 1967 owing to the complete exhaustion of all the stockpiled supplies within their respective organisations.

Eventually, the Rhodesian Government took control of the companies and facilities of the two indigenous vehicle producers. Unfortunately, the local supporting suppliers also faced an uncertain future and most eventually closed down due to the worsening situation.

BMC in Rhodesia – 28,000 vehicles produced

During the seven years of direct British Motor Corporation control, a total of about 28,000 vehicles are thought to have been assembled by BMC Rhodesia; BMC’s breakeven point was 4000 units annually and the company did achieve that figure even with nearly two years of limited production after UDI. Needless to say the investment in plant, facilities and product costs were sadly never recovered and did, in some small part, contribute to BMC’s financial position, thus prompting the company’s merger with Leyland Motors the following year.

BMC in Rhodesia: Salisbury Rhodesia early 1960s, locally supplied Austin Westminster Police car
Salisbury Rhodesia early 1960s, locally supplied Austin Westminster Police car

In 1969, the Rhodesian Government took control of the industry and renamed BMC Rhodesia as Quest Motors and Ford Willowvale as Willowvale Motor Industries (WMI). The new organisations began using their plants to assemble products from companies less concerned with complying with UN sanctions. Both plants commenced assembling models such as the Renault 4, Mazda B1600, Peugeot 303/404/504 as well as various Datsun/Nissan and Toyota models for the local market.

In 1979, Rhodesia finally succumbed to international pressure and returned briefly to British control as the colony was again renamed Southern Rhodesia. However, elections were held in 1980 and the country gained full independence as the Republic of Zimbabwe.

Back in British hands – briefly

British Leyland Ltd briefly took back control of Quest Motors of Umtali (which is now named Mutare) from the government of Zimbabwe in late 1980 before ownership changed again and the BMC’s orphaned outpost was officially no more.

Quest Motors continues to this day as an assembler of CKD kits, most notably of BMW cars for the local Zimbabwe market. However, after further changes in ownership – this time to the Chinese Foton Truck manufacturing concern, the plant is unfortunately suffering again.

As of 2018, Zimbabwe’s economic issues are making its business increasingly difficult to sustain as cheap imports of used right-hand-drive cars from as far as Japan, Thailand and the UK have made the assembly and sale of new cars cost prohibitive.

Car production in Zimbabwe today

It is stated on Quest’s corporate website that the company has assembled 170,000 vehicles in its 58 years of existence. The company has seen the high point of expansion between 1960-65 to the low point of closure 1967-69 and then the dizzy heights of 1997 when Quest reportedly assembled a record 9000 vehicles before unfortunately scaling back down to a reported under 1000 units per year in 2016-17.

The former Ford plant also continues as a Government majority-owned business, which was for a time renamed Willowvale Mazda Motor Industries (WMMI) and also faces the same challenging business conditions as Quest Motors.

WMMI collapsed in 2015 after suffering a number of corruption scandals in the late 1980s only to reopen in 2017 as Willowvale Motor Industries (WMI) again and is now partnered with the Chinese company Beijing Automobile International Corporation (BAIC) which is incidentally the owner of Foton Trucks (the owner of Quest Motors).

WMI assembled only 490 vehicles in 2017 followed by only a planned 940 units for 2018 and, with growing economic and currency issues hampering the company’s survival, 2019 may be a difficult year for WMI. The futures of the former BMC Umtali (Mutare) and Ford Willowvale plants are not assured, but both have shown great resilience over the last five-plus decades and may yet recover to thrive again.

7 Comments

  1. @Graham Wall – Funny I almost put those details in the article… as I understand it Long Bridge Road was the original entry point for the railway yard/road dispatch which snaked round the (now almost abandoned yard) to join up with the main road (Chimanimani Road). Cowley Place was the site of the housing estate created for BMC managers.

    The old Ford plant at Willowdale is located on… Dagenham Road, which runs into Barking Road with Tilbury road at the far end of the plant, a little piece of Essex all those miles from home!

  2. I was in Umtali last year and the site is basically shuttered. I even saw an old 1100 on the roads. However the weather helps.
    Zimbabwe is a tragedy

  3. Does anyone know if production records still exist? I have a car which I assume was built here and would love to find out some history…..

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