Events : Cowley centenary celebration

Words and photography: Mike Humble and John Dalton


The quaint university City of Oxford and indeed its County is often forgotten when it comes to producing motor cars though its importance still remains as much as ever. Way back in 1913 William Morris founded the motor company that shared his surname and remained fixed to the boots of passenger cars right up until 1982. William Richard Morris, a Worcestershire man by birth expanded his business after designing his first car – the Bullnose Morris after a period repairing cycles and motorbikes into a former Army training college on the outskirts of Oxford in the suburban area of Cowley.

The plant and business grew at an arming rate requiring housing, social amenities and even a new railway station and freight terminal to cope with the demands of the motor trade. At its peak Cowley employed almost 28,000 workers building such diverse items from cars to vans and even De Havilland aircraft for the war effort. For his services to industry in a similar vain to Herbert Austin, Morris was knighted and further honoured by becoming Lord Nuffield. Despite being bitter rivals, Morris Motors Ltd merged with Austin to form BMC in 1952.

Cowley became the main centre for the service operations of BL and Rover with warranty and technical drawing offices responsible for dealer service information and the production of manuals and handbooks through the associated company – Nuffield Press. Just across the road was Unipart’s corporate HQ though UGC is now an independent concern with a portfolio that ranges from parts through to railway logistics. Cowley even produced complete body shells for Rolls Royce right through to the early 1990s via Pressed Steel Fisher – also once part of the BL empire.

Present owner, BMW, hosted an event to celebrate 100 years of Cowley production by showing a range of vehicles that were key to plants survival and success which brings us right up to the present day with current production of the MINI. Despite the troubles and turmoil bestowed upon it through the British Leyland era, Cowley continues to thrive in a depressed market place with around 4800 members of staff working on a site that is a fraction of the size during the Rover Group era.

Key facts

  • The Oxford Plant’s first car was a Bullnose Morris, produced on 28 March 1913.
  • Total car production stands at 11,655,000 and counting.
  • Over 2,250, 000 MINIs built so far.
  • Plant has long history of export success – Morris products accounted for nearly 30 per cent of the UK’s total exports in the mid-1930s not just vehicle exports.
  • 1.7 million new MINIs have been exported since its launch in 2001 to 107 different countries from Chile to China.
  • 20 cars were built each week in 1913 – 4,500 cars per week in 2013.
  • Scores of models under 14 different car brands (MG, Wolseley, Riley, Austin, Austin Healey Sprite, Mini, Princess, Triumph, Rover, Vanden Plas, Sterling, MINI) including one Japanese (Honda) produced at the plant.
  • Almost 500,000 people have worked at the plant over past 100 years – peak employment during the early 1960s when 28,000 people were employed.
  • Today, Plant Oxford employs 3,700 associates.
  • Iron lungs, Tiger Moth aircraft, parachutes, gliders and jerry cans also produced at the plant besides completing 80,000 repairs on Spitfires and Hurricanes.
  • Eight custodians of the plant over past 100 years – the founder, William Morris, owned factory directly and then through Morris Motors until 1952 – he died in 1963)
  • Peak production year was 1967/68 with 326,818 cars.
  • Highest volume production model was the Morris Minor – 1,583,619 vehicles produced.
  • 602,817 Classic Minis were produced at Oxford in 10 years of production.
  • Three Issigonis designed cars achieved sales of over 1,000,000, Morris Minor, Mini and Austin 11/1300.
  • To celebrate 1,000,000 Morris Minors 350 cars were produced with lilac paintwork, white interior trim and badged 1,000,000 Minor, the year 1961
  • Oxford became the first UK car plant to produce 1,000,000 vehicles in 1939.
  • William Morris, later Lord Nuffield, was one of the country’s most generous philanthropists and the Bill Gates of his time donating gifts estimated to be the equivalent of £11 billion at today’s values – he donated iron lungs manufactured at the plant to local hospitals, and founded Nuffield Health, Nuffield Farming Scholarships Trust and Nuffield College at Oxford University.
  • Only three colours were available for the first three years of Oxford built Mini in 1959 – Clipper Blue, Cherry Red and Old English White.
  • The two millionth new MINI was driven off the Oxford production line by Prime Minister David Cameron in August 2011.


Mike Humble


  1. Yep, its a 1.3 LE Coupe in Oyster beige.

    My dad had a very similar car, same interior spec as the 1.8 GT even down to twin tone horns, dash rheostat and tyre sizes.

  2. I recongise one building.. the one on the right, thats where the 800 seats were put together, as I recall the covers were made on one floor, the seat structure on the next. The looms were made in there are well

  3. The picture of the MO Oxfords, and Minors brings back happy memories.
    My uncle had an MO for many years until it blew an engine. As it was worth nothing he “parked it” under the apple tree in his back garden, with the intention of “doing something about it later”.
    About 15 years later, he had a knock on his front door, “How much do you want for the Oxford in your back garden?” After a little bit of horse trading, an extremely keen restorer was taking down uncle’s back garden fence, after parting with more money than uncle paid for it in the first place!

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