In production : Seneffe

BL Belgium press kit: Celebration of the 500,000th car assembled in Seneffe, 10 May 1977 // Translation by Dimitri Urbain, original material supplied by André Vermeersch

The Seneffe plant is the main British Leyland investment outside the UK. On top of being an assembly plant, Seneffe is now BL’s unique distribution centre for its largest export market, Europe. It’s the only Leyland cars site on mainland Europe. Just like many of its competitors, BL uses Belgium to build cars. Belgium is the first country in the world for car assembly. In 1976, more than a million cars were assembled in Belgium, 89,57% of these being exported elsewhere, mostly to other European countries.

The story of Leyland Industries Belgium started on 10th August 1965. Back then, BMC decided to implement a new marketing strategy focusing on mainland European markets. Even though such a decision came quite late, BMC’s commitment was total. A new company- ‘BMC Belgium”-was created, effectively taking over the Seneffe assembly site that had been created 2 years earlier by the Belgian MG-Morris importer.

Locating the plant in Seneffe was suggested by Belgium’s Industry and Economy Department. The local authorities wanted to create a new industrial area in a triangle of future motorways linking Paris to Brussels; France to Germany and Charleroi (one of the main cities of the ‘black country” about the biggest industrial area in Belgium) to Brussels.

What’s more, there is a 1350T capacity canal close by and excellent railway communications too. On top of all that, the ‘central region” where Seneffe is located had plenty of skilled workers available: the coalmining industry was on its way down as well as a few large companies building railways and heavy equipment.

The first Seneffe factory was built in 1962-63 and at the time of the BMC takeover its production was 12 cars a day or 60 a week (1964 average). Seneffe’s capacity doubled before the end of 1965 with the assembly of Austin cars that were previously sent fully built from the UK. Soon, exports to Holland and France began. That’s how production gradually grew and by 1968 it was already 7,5 more than what it was back in 1965.

In 1968, the merging of British Motor Holdings Limited and Leyland Motor Corporation Limited resulted in changes in Seneffe:

  • Activities were reorganized;
  • A new marketing strategy targeting Europen markets was implemented;
  • Plans were hatched for Seneffe in order to bring its production capacity to 100,000 cars/ year .

Work started in earnest in April 1969. Covered surface increased from 17,521 m2 to 51,705m2. By 13th September 1970, the production equipment was in place and ready for work. Everything went according to what had been planned earlier and, over the next 3 years (1970- 1973), production steadily rose from 28,147 cars to 81,630 cars, no less than 30 times what it was back in 1965! These extension work placed Leyland Industries among the largest car assemblers in Belgium.
Back in 1973, Leyland Industries Belgium ranked as the 5th Belgian cars exporter. For 1974 and 1975, the volume of Belgium-assembled and exported cars went down due to the Kippur war.

Nevertheless, L.I.B. managed to keep its 5th position over the 1973-1976 period. This is even more remarkable knowing that it didn’t take L.I.B. that many years to achieve such a good result. For instance, Ford started building cars in Belgium back in 1922; GM and Citroën in 1924; Renault in 1935 and Volkswagen in 1954. These car makers distribute their cars in the country too. As they wanted to maintain their products’ quality once at dealerships and when cars are sold, it was logical for them to set up distribution and preparation centres along their own factories. British Leyland made the same move and decided to create its own distribution centre close to the Seneffe factory. Before that, British Leyland used to sell its products through franchised distributors in countries like Belgium or Holland or large areas like North East or South West of France, for example.

The creation of subsidiaries like British Leyland France; British Leyland Belgium or British Leyland Netherlands lead to the idea of stocking new cars in one and only place. Seneffe was quite an automatic choice as the cars assembled there are destined for the European markets. That’s why the distribution centre was completed right after the end of the extension of the assembly site, thus saving the need for another site to stock new cars. On top of that, the distribution centre can also be used as a transit stocking place for cars destined to European markets outside the Benelux.

Cars stocked in Seneffe can also be dispatched very quickly and allow BL to reduce waiting time for customers and send the cars where they’re really needed.

The first phase of the distribution centre work was completed in January 1972. Back then, its capacity was already 5,600 cars. However, it was soon enlarged to 8,400 cars, in December 1973. Along these lines, work on a PDI (Pre Delivery Inspection) centre started in June 1974 and went on until April 1975. There, 300 cars a day can be prepped before delivery to the Benelux dealers.

Time showed that there was a real need to expand those presale activities and by the end of 1975, the BL board decided to expand the distribution centre and PDI once again, making them even more ‘European” as they now prepare cars destined for France too. That’s why the P.D.I. received a second paint department, testing equipment as well as all the appropriate tools in order to achieve ever higher quality standards.

The new Distribution Centre Europe is fully operational since the 1st November 1976 and can stock as many as 16,400 cars at anyone time. 500 cars a day can be readied for Benelux countries and France.

Going from strength to strength, in January 1977, the BL board decided to expand Leyland Industries Belgium production capacity once again, setting maximum output at 3,000 cars a week instead of 2,000 previously. The investment will be spread over the 3 following fiscal years (1977- 1978 and 1979). At first 400 million BF (about 10 million € even though I think in today’s money that would be much higher, may be 5 or 6 times that amount) will be dedicated to the expansion of bodyshop, painting; interiors and mechanical departments as well as amenities like canteens and catering facilities, toilets and cloakrooms for the employees. New offices will be built too. The rest of the plant will be upgraded in a second time, representing another investment of no less than 400 million BF.

All these extension works and enlarged facilities over the 1965- 1976 period lead to the creation of many new jobs too. A little more than 3,000 people now work in Seneffe plus about 1,000 more at L.I.B. first and second tier suppliers. As a celebration, the 500,000th car assembled in Seneffe will now be given away to one worker. (Author’s note: No information as to what it was and who won it… I suspect it was a Mini!)

Average weekly car production in Seneffe:
1965: 60 cars
1966: 145 cars
1967: 297 cars
1968: 451 cars
1970: 637 cars
1971: 1150 cars
1972: 1600 cars
1973: 1791 cars

Most important dates for British Leyland activities in Belgium:

1963: work start on the first assembly plant (17,521 m2)
30 April 1964: New factory operating
10th August 1965: BMC takes over the Seneffe plant
December 1968: BL board decides Seneffe’s expansion
1st April 1969: Expansion work starts to get covered surface to 51,705 m2
13th September 1970: New facilities ready with 100,000 car/ year capacity
January 1972: Seneffe Distribution Centre ready, capacity: 5,600 cars (phase 1)
December 1973: Seneffe Distribution Centre expanded, capacity: 8,400 cars (phase 2)
15th April 1975: New P.D.I. centre opened, capacity: 300 cars/ day
1st November 1976: New European distribution centre in Seneffe, capacity: 16,400 cars
+ P.D.I. extension to 500cars/ day
26th January 1977: announcement of a new capacity extension from 2,000 to 3,000 cars/ day
I don’t think Seneffe ever had such a large production capacity… All ended up in tears in 1981…

[Translator’s note: Thanks to André Vermeersch for lending me the press kit. André worked in Seneffe in the logistics Department and told me a few cars ended in the canal as the car park was dangerously close to it!]


Keith Adams
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  1. Sacre Bleu! This is just another reason why we all have so many reasons to be appreciative of ‘notre ami’ Keith and this website. Fantastic.

  2. Looking on Bing Maps the site is still largely in tact, looks a bit worse for wear in places. The BL Roundel’s outline can still be made out in it’s overgrown form.

    If you look on Google Street view you can see that ‘cross’ type sign and just about make out ‘Leyland’.

  3. The bit of the sign that runs parallel with the main road you can still just about make out the original Leyland Industries bit, the part that sticks out has KAB Seating on it, so i assume it is/was a commercial vehicle seat plant at least recently. The signs at the bottom suggest it’s mostly a storage rental place. With industrial units to let.

  4. The site has been “in redevelopment” since the BL factory closure and parts of it rented to various companies : seats ; another that stocked new cars for distribution (as anyway BL had equipped the site with everything needed to do so) I know at some stage Fiat Group had new cars there for Belgium and some of those standed for months, even years, deteriorating on the spot. Effectively, the entrance sign is still fairly intact and can still be read, 30 years later. That area where Seneffe is located was badly hit by the successive industrial recessions and is now about the worst part of the whole of Belgium for unemployment statistics. The region never recovered from the demise of all heavy and steel-related industries. For about 20 years now, logistics companies are establishing stocking sites but these doesn’t need thousands of skilled workers, unfortunately…

  5. Some cars from Seneffe were imported into the UK, giving the ironic situation of proud owners thinking they had bought a British car when it had actually been built in Belgium. Albeit from a lot of British-made parts.

    From memory the distinctive 1500 LE Allegro from the ~1978/9 period was assembled at Seneffe.

  6. In a previous life I was tasked with monitoring the most important BLMH financial problems.

    That parking space is enormous. In the late 1970’s 700 TR7’s got lost in it for 18 months!

  7. Indeed, Seneffe played its part to build cars while the Uk factories were on strike and I was told the cars’ quality of assembly was superior to what was achieved in the UK. However, when the situation deteriorated and workers realised that at least some of them-if not all-were going to be made redundant in a not too distant future, things were less rosy. A former Seneffe worker told me he saw some of his colleagues leave old stuff of food behind doorcards. Just imagine opening the door of one of these cars left for months on a car park!

  8. Seneffe was more productive and produced higher quality products than Longbridge and Cowley, but inevitably was sacrificed.

    Renault recently closed their Belgian factory, again it’s easier to close an overseas plant than a domestic one.

  9. Indeed, yes, Renault closed its Vilvoorde (Brussels) factory way back in 1997 and more recently GM closed its Antwerpen operation too. The Brussels Volkswagen factory nearly got the chop too, the VW group eventually coming back with a bright idea to keep it profitable in the long run : replacing the Seat Toledos, Golfs and Polos with the Audi A1- bigger margins, more efficient and leaner production methods, less workers, youngers ones costing less than older ones… same recipes as everywhere else in labour-intensive industries.

  10. “Renault recently closed their Belgian factory, again it’s easier to close an overseas plant than a domestic one.”

    Well i think it was down to the conditions attached to the government loans they got the other year. They were basically told that if they were getting a load of cash from the French government, they could hardly close and relocate a French plant to say Poland.

  11. Amazing how our EU “friends” all manage to support their respective car industries. Back home………….. well yes probably best to relocate.

  12. Really interesting and nice to see some remnants still exist. Do we know what industrial relations were like at Seneffe (prior to the announcement of its closure)?

  13. Brilliant article as I’ve always been fascinated in the Seneffe story.

    The closure showed that the company cared little about exports and also was a factor in the Metro’s indifferent European market performance.

    As far as mkt share is concerned, does anybody know if the factory translated into a strong Benelux performance?

  14. great photos – those Princesses in the foreground of picture Seneffe_11 are a funny colour. I don’t remember it. What is it?

  15. Actually the road surface in Seneffe adds to the depressed air of the town which commentators on here say is one of the worst unemployment blackspots in Belgium. Just as Birmingham has been hit hard by the demise of the motor industry and other traditional employers, the same can be said of Seneffe.

  16. Nice article. Is there someone who knows if the austin mini mk2 1969 was produced in Cowley and then exported to Seneffe? Or did they already make them in Seneffe?

  17. I can remember reading somewhere long ago that apparently BL managers who were allocated Allegros as their company cars kept trying to get the Belgian built cars as they were much better built than those from Longbridge 🙁

  18. I actually had a mini special from here, bought it from a guy importing them in our village back in 1982 when I was 17. It was my first car, paid, £2600, a mini mayfair at the time was £3600. It had different trim, just as up market, maybe more with a sporty theme, black vynil roof, bronze tint windows, walnut dash, rev counter etc, in denim blue.
    Had a lot of trouble with it, mainly the fact it had been cheaply converted to rhd. It had a badge on the boot said mini special with the special bit in gold, never saw many of them, it had an 1100 engine that wasnt the best, althjough it was A+ did actually do 60mpg.
    Used it for three years whilst I was an apprentice up and down the motorway. Looked after it but it constantly needed attention.
    I didnt realise the operation was so vast, I was aware that they assembled allegros and minis, thats all. This was before Q reg also.

  19. Dimitri and others have contributed to an article on Seneffe in the April 2013 edition of ‘Mini Magazine.’

  20. Apart from British Leyland, Ford and GM had plants in Belgium and as they weren’t nationalised and obliged to source every car from Britain, they topped up production from their plants in Belgium. Indeed the Mark 1 Cavalier was wholly Belgian built until 1977 and some Cortina Mark Vs came from Belgium, with all medium sized Ford cars being built in Belgium after 1989.

  21. I had a Seneffe built Allegro back in the mid-90s. I only found out when it needed new headlamps for the MoT and the ones in my spares shed didn’t fit… Apparently Seneffe cars had Cibie headlamps which, although outwardly the same, had different mounting brackets. I got them in the end from the ever-helpful Les at BL Transverse Car Repairs in South Norwood.

  22. Like @Styve100 rightfully mentions the Mini Special was only made in Seneffe and it was quite a success on the continent.
    The Mini special had different colours, a vinyl roof, tinted windows (which was tres chique for a small car), different upholstery and a dashboard.
    Apart from that it had an 1100 engine and slightly different alloy style hubacaps.
    And indeed, Seneffe used Cibie headlights also for the MIni.

  23. L’ouvrier qui avait gagné la voiture (500.000 eme) s’appelle Christian Michaux et était employé au service entretien equipe de nuit et la voiture qu’il avait reçu était une Allegro 1100 cc.

  24. Very interesting article. I had heard about Seneffe but didn’t realise how large its production capacity was in the early 70s. The MINI special sounded an interesting car for the European market.

    Also as Glenn reminds us, GM manufactured the original MK1 Cavalier’s in Belgium too – including my all time favourite, the GLS Coupe. I think that VW had a Belgian plant making Golf’s until a few years ago(?)

  25. @ Hilton D, Volkswagen had an assembly plant in Brussels that I think now assembles Audi A1s and some Volvos are made in Belgium.
    I think the reason Seneffe was closed was British Leyland’s fortunes in Europe had declined in the seventies, it must have been quite costly to supply kits from Britain and then for them to be assembled in Belgium when BL was in a financial crisis, and also it was far easier for them to close a branch plant abroad than somewhere like Longbridge. Indeed the closure of Seneffe must have caused some relief in British factories as the corporation had threatened to move an entire range of cars to Seneffe since 1977.

  26. For its size Belgium has been quite an important producer of cars. Also the Netherlands produces smaller Volvos in the former DAF factory.
    Indeed at one time several smaller European countries had car factories, Ireland assembled British cars from kits, Finland produced Saab 99s, Norway had a Cortina assembly plant and Portugal made a pick up based on the Ford Cortina.

    • There were regular daily BR car trains which I often worked in the late 1970s moving vehicles to Harwich England via Zeebrugge for export / import from Belgium. The BL train was daily during the week and called the ” Morris Cowley ” . Comprising various models in what appeared to be batch production runs . The Austin Ambassador , then a train of minis and Allegros mixed with Marinas. Another day a train of Triumph TR7s Spitfires and MGBs and Midgets. Another day Sherpa vans . GM were moving a lot of Cavaliers / Opel Kadetts on their own trains too , imported via Belgium. Ford ditto with mostly Cortinas and Capris Granadas.

  27. Very interesting – I spent last night doing some further research.

    It seems hard to believe that this growth, expansion was taking place alongside all the troubles back home and the company’s perilous position.

  28. 25 years ago, I had a 1974 Maxi with a “B” in its commission number. An ex BL man pointed out that it meant that it was built in Belgium and that such cars where indeed better made than British.

    Didn’t Marcos also assemble some cars in Belgium? Or was it the Netherlands?

    • @Olof: i think that Eurotech in Holland built some in 2000, they raced several Marcos LM600 with Cor Euser, a well known dutch racedriver who also raced en prepared the dutch race rover 114 GTi’s…

  29. how times can change …
    ford has pulled the plug for its belgian plant to, only volvo assembles cars here (V40’s).
    its a great informative story tho!

  30. I recall the Seneffe cars having a small white plastic oblong sticker in the engine bay, this bore the BL Roundel and the (approximate) words: ‘Manufactured by Leyland Cars in the UK. Assembled in Belgium’. One car I definitely remember having such a sticker was a Sandglow Mini 850 saloon we sold new in September 1978 and then maintained for several years. The chassis number was XK2S1-3000366B so this confirms a B at the end of a VIN indicates Belgian assembly. Another vehicle from our records is an Allegro 1500LE in Tara Green, registered in May 1978 with the VIN AF4SJN3009530B so also a Seneffe product. Seven further LE’s we handled all ended with a B so it is likely as stated above that all these particularly attractive variants of the ‘inverted bathtub’ came from Belgium. On the same page of our stock book are several Minis and non-LE Allegros with VINs ending with an A meaning Longbridge (Austin) assembly with Maxis, Marinas and Princesses all ending with ‘M’ indicating Cowley (Morris) origin.

  31. Another Belgian car plant that’s toast: Ford’s Genk factory. Another 2000 Belgians on the scrap heap. Mondeo man’s ride now comes from Valencia in Spain.

  32. Very interesting story about Seneffe and now I know where the old Rover SD1 ( 38625) was built which I scrapped a few years ago. I saved the plate (NV Leyland Industries Belgium) but must admit that the build quality (panelwork and paint) seemed to be similar to UK build quality. Most mechanical parts were OK and now help me to keep my 1977 year SD1 running. It is presently the oldest Series 1 on swedish roads.

  33. The quality of the Belgian-made cars was apparently even worse than the uk-made cars, atleast according to an aquantence who used to work for the biggest morris/later BL dealer in the west of Norway.

  34. What date did the Austin Motors Seneffe stop making cars and then close? What dates and what cars did they make in 1964 before British Motors took over.

  35. Are the average weekly figures for Seneffe for a 52 or 47-week year? Trying to match them with Mini production at Seneffe on another page

  36. Thanks to this article and the Austin Maxi Owners Club, I know now that my 1973 Austin Maxi was made in Seneffe. The VIN ends with a B. Definitely a European car ! I love it even more. Thank you Keith for your incredible ressources about British car industry.

  37. Wasn’t it planned for the series 3 Allegro to be built exclusively at Seneffe to allow Longbridge to focus on the upcoming Metro?

  38. Hallo
    I am looking for the date and specification of my Belgium made Austin 1300 GF, anybody here can help me?
    Christian, Austria

  39. The closure of Seneffe also not surprisingly led to Belgiums completely boycotting BL. They sold virtually no cars there in the period 1981/1995 only managing to start selling in reasonable numbers again after the BMW takeover.
    Mimi do rather well there now, and in terms of market share JLR do better in Belgium then any other EU market.

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