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!]