Early last century, amidst the green meadows to the south of the dreaming spires of Oxford City, there was a village called Temple Cowley.
In one corner of this village there was a large, dilapidated building that had once been a military college but was left empty for 20 years, until…
1912 to 1919
William Richard Morris, a 36 year-old garage owner and former champion racing cyclist, decided to continue his progression from building cycles and motorcycles, then selling cars, to become a car manufacturer himself. WRM Motors of Oxford was registered in August 1912. Morris was Managing Director, the Earl of Macclesfield, holding £4000 of preference shares, took the title of President. The company took over the former college at Temple Cowley and started converting it into a car factory. Production began here with a staff of 12, including Morris and his father.
The first car, a two-seater Morris Oxford, was produced in March 1913, had a 1017 cc engine, and was priced at £175. The distinctive rounded shape of the radiator led to the affectionate nickname of ‘Bullnose’ – which was applied to Morris cars until ‘flat radiators’ became the fashion for 1927. Morris had shrewdly studied the mass-production techniques behind the success of the Model T Ford and decided to go a step further – by farming out the manufacture of most of the components to specialist suppliers. Bodies, engines, axles and chassis frames all came from outside. This meant that he was initially concerned only with design and assembly, reducing the start-up investment and risk.
In 1913, a total of 393 cars were built.
Frustrated by the initial reluctance of British suppliers to meet his ambitious demands in terms of quality, volume and price, Morris sailed to America and negotiated a supply of 1.5 litre engines from the Continental Motor Manufacturing company of Minneapolis. While in America, he gained vital experience of American production methods, as well as arranging the supply of many other components. Barely had production got under way with the new American components than the Great War broke out, cutting demand for cars and hampering transatlantic shipping. A further blow was the imposition of the protectionist McKenna import duty of 33%, which wiped out the cost savings on the US-produced parts.
1915 saw the announcement of the new 4-seater Morris Cowley, with the 1.5 litre Continental unit and priced at £194. However, most of the work at Cowley was concentrated on munitions production, including hand grenades, Howitzer bomb cases and mine sinkers. Car production was limited to 320 in 1915, 697 in 1916 and 126 in 1917.
Making munitions in large quantities introduced Cowley to the principles of precision tooling for complete interchangeability and the concept of flowline production. This knowledge was to help transform the business after the war. Following the Armistice, Morris found that Continental had decided to stop production of the 1.5 litre engine, so he bought back the design rights and persuaded the Coventry branch of the French munitions maker, Hotchkiss, to build the engine for him.
There was a brief post-war boom and the ‘old College’ got busy meeting demand for Oxfords and Cowleys, in car, coupe and van versions. But the boom soon turned to slump.
1920 to 1929
Morris was an early example of the phrase ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going” because, in the terrible depression of 1921, no less than 81 British car firms went to the wall, yet Cowley production went up 50%. Morris achieved this by exploiting his new, efficient production techniques to cut the prices of the cars – (in February the four-seater was reduced by a massive £100, to £425), with further cuts before the October Motor Show.
The market response to this was so positive that the first expansion of the factory took place. On former allotments across the road from the College, the new ‘B’ block was erected in 1921-22. Other blocks, of what now became Cowley North Works, lettered ‘C’ to ‘K’ rapidly followed, so that by 1926, the factory covered over 42 acres.During this time Cowley became Britain’s and, indeed, Europe’s biggest car-making plant. Production rose from just under 7000 cars in 1922 to nearly 33,000 in 1924, when Morris first overtook Ford. With the exception only of 1933/34, Cowley held UK production leadership from 1924 to the outbreak of war in 1939.
State-of-the- art manufacturing facilities enabled Morris to keep trimming his prices while raising quality – for example, new paint spraying and oven drying plant allowed chassis and body finishing to be done to a higher standard, in hours instead of weeks.
In the mid-1920s, Morris began to buy up his major suppliers, often because they couldn’t keep pace with his growing production. He bought the Hotchkiss engine business and the Hollick and Pratt bodybuilder, both in Coventry. In addition he bought the axle maker E.G. Wrigley in Birmingham. In 1926, outbidding Austin, he acquired the bankrupt Wolseley company from Vickers; in the same year he also bought the SU Carburettor company .The ‘Bullnose’ cars, (shortly to become ‘flatnose’) reached their peak of success in 1926, when they accounted for a staggering 41% of British car production. Morris Motors went public in mid-summer.
Another, very significant development in 1926 was that a new factory was started on the far side of the North Works, for a new enterprise called the Pressed Steel Company. This was a joint venture between Morris, the American body manufacturer Edward Budd and the American J.Henry Schroder bank. Morris had seen the engineering and production efficiency advantages of all-steel bodies on a trip to the USA in 1925 and wasted no time in establishing the new technology on his doorstep. Once the teething problems caused by a lack of suitable pressing-quality steel had been overcome in 1927, the new enterprise rapidly prospered. It was the first large-scale, heavy industrial plant in Oxford and had 63 power presses stamping out panels by 1930. Much pioneering work was done here in the development of spot-welding to largely replace body panel welding by oxy-acetylene torches.
Back in the Cowley North Works, expansion continued, with Blocks ‘L’ to ‘P’ being added, bringing the factory’s covered area up to over 81 acres by 1930.
Ever since Austin had launched his epoch-making ‘Seven’ in 1922, the ‘baby car’ market had developed strongly and Morris made his response in 1928 with the diminutive Morris Minor. This featured a Wolseley-produced overhead camshaft 847cc engine.
Morris became a baronet in 1929.
1930 to 1939
By the early 1930s, the Morris business had become a little unwieldy. A more complex range of cars now included larger six-cylinder models in the 16, 20 and 25 hp brackets and the Minor didn’t enjoy the kind of success that the later bearer of this name was to achieve. Assembly-line technology had left the early 20s style Cowley facility behind, so Sir William didn’t have the margins to counter the effects of the ‘Wall Street crash’ depression by price cuts this time. Salvation came in the form of Leonard Lord, a brilliant ex-Hotchkiss, ex-Wolseley production engineer. From 1933, Lord re-organised the North Works, with new moving assembly lines, new types of conveyor systems and more efficient plant layouts. As an example of his revolutionary changes, the ‘G’, ‘K’ and ‘N’ blocks were combined into one huge enclosed space, half a mile long, in which all body finishing, trimming and mounting could be carried out. (The ‘GKN Block’ title of the combined building was nothing to do with the famous company of that name!)
A new Export Department was built in 1933, comprising 50,000 sq ft of accommodation alongside five sidings of the GWR Morris Cowley railway station. This looked after all Morris, Wolseley, MG and Morris Commercial export activity, with India, Burma and Ceylon as the main overseas markets then.
Leonard Lord, a pragmatic businessman as well as production genius, pushed through the important new Morris 8hp design, launched in 1935, which bore more than a passing resemblance to Ford’s very successful 1932-37 Y-type 8 hp. However, the 8hp was even more successful than the Ford, with 218,000 produced in three years, compared with under 158,000 in 5 years for the Dagenham car. Although the Pressed Steel business at Cowley began by supplying bodies to Morris, it steadily gained other UK customers, including Hillman/Humber and Standard – and, in the early 30s, it began to supply another Coventry-based car firm by the name of Rover…
Unheralded in 1936, but of great historical significance, was the arrival of a young Alec Issigonis at Cowley. He had just designed an independent front suspension for Humber and he began work on new suspension designs for Morris.
Sir William became Lord Nuffield in 1934 and a Viscount in 1938, the year that he acquired the Riley company of Coventry. Another major technological step was taken in 1938, with the launch of the Morris 10/4, the company’s first chassisless, or integral construction car. A new version of the 8hp was launched in 1938, know as the Series E, which used quite daring styling – a ‘waterfall’ grille and faired-in headlamps – on the established 8hp chassis.
In 1937/38, with another war clearly on the way, two new buildings, to Government specification, were put up south of the Garsington Road, opposite the North Works ‘L’ and ‘P’ blocks. These new ‘R’ and ‘S’ blocks formed the nucleus of Cowley South works and were built with high roofs and large sliding hangar doors to accommodate aircraft. Behind, a grass airfield was soon to be created, complete with control tower.
In 1939, Cowley became the first British factory to reach a million vehicle production total (Austin had to wait until after the war, in 1946, to achieve this at Longbridge). However, there wasn’t much time to celebrate this milestone because, in September 1939, Cowley was once again turned over to urgent war work.
1940 to 1949
Lord Nuffield had been appointed Director of Aircraft Maintenance, in charge of all repair work for the RAF. In the new Cowley South Works was the workshop of the the No 1 CRU – (Civilian Repair Unit). Also based at Cowley was the No.50 Maintenance Unit, which had the task of recovering any damaged aircraft from anywhere in the UK and bringing it to Cowley for either repair or recycling in the No 1 Metal and Produce Recovery Depot, or MPRD, again at Cowley.
During the tense weeks of the Battle of Britain, Hurricanes and Spitfires that sustained battle damage sometimes landed at Cowley for ‘while you wait’ repairs, then flew straight back into battle.
Over 150 fighters were put back into the air during this crucial period – without them, ‘the few’ would certainly have been too few! By the end of hostilities, 80,000 aircraft from all theatres of war had been repaired at the CRU and enough metal ingots to produce thousands of new aircraft were reclaimed from the unrepairable wrecks by the Cowley MPRD smelter.
Cowley also made a huge range of other contributions to the war effort, including production, (on Britain’s first aircraft assembly flow-line) of 3200 Tiger Moth trainers, assembly and overhaul of Merlin engines for Beaufighters and Lancaster bombers as well as construction of airframe sections for a variety of other aircraft. The Morris and Pressed Steel design offices produced thousands of drawings for the wartime aircraft industry.
For war at sea and on the ground, Cowley produced torpedos, mines, tanks, military trucks, armoured cars, ambulances and thousands of other kinds of items as they were required, from petrol cans to parachutes. Amongst the hundreds of women workers who took the place of Cowley men drafted into the services was one Sarah Churchill – the PM’s daughter, no less, who worked on the shell casing flow-line in the North Works ‘P’-block.
Much of the research and development on water-proofing engines and military equipment for the D Day landings was carried out at Cowley. The Morris Motors group was renamed the Nuffield Organisation in May 1940. Managed from the Cowley HQ by Lord Nuffield as Chairman and Miles Thomas as Vice-Chairman and MD, this grew during the war from 12 factories employing 20,000 people to a total of 63 factories under its direct or indirect control and 30,000 employees.
Alec Issigonis put his ingenuity to good use during the war years, working on innovative special military equipment, including amphibious vehicles. However, even in the nightmare conditions of war, as soon as there was reasonable confidence that the allies would eventually prevail, thoughts turned to post war cars. Issigonis, encouraged by Miles Thomas, began work on a new small car, codenamed ‘Mosquito’.
By the end of the war, the brilliant basic design had been proven by a running prototype, but there was a battle with Lord Nuffield, who didn’t like what he called the ‘poached egg’ style. He was happy to resurrect the 8hp Series E, along with the 1938 unitary body 10hp.
The immediate post-war period was marked by severe austerity, with shortages of materials and fuel, and Government pressure to export as many products as possible to offset a crippling dollar debt. Cowley did its best with the two pre-war designs while tooling up for an entirely new range of Morris and Wolseley cars.
1948 saw the eventual launch of the result of the Mosquito programme – the much-loved Morris Minor. Looking like a scaled-up Minor was the new 1948 Morris Oxford and long-nosed versions of the Oxford shell were used for the Wolseley 4/50 and 6/80.
There was also a Morris Six model, effectively a budget version of the 6/80. As part of a rationalisation exercise, all Wolseley car production was moved to Cowley in 1949.
In the same year, five new assembly lines were laid down in the big GKN block in Cowley North Works, which were to be worked hard through the next decade.
By 1949, Cowley, largely through efforts made to build up sales in Australia, was contributing to Britain’s achievement of becoming the world’s biggest exporter of cars – a position held until 1956.
At the Pressed Steel Company (still an independent entity) a very prestigious order was obtained – it began making bodyshells for the Bentley MkVI (1946) and Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn (1949). All standard Rolls-Royce and Bentley shells were to be built here from 1946 to 1997.
1950 to 1959
Cowley’s factory area was expanded in 1950-1 by the building of the new ‘Q’ and ‘T’ blocks in South Works, first used for stores and CKD operations respectively. Later in the 1950s the new South Works ‘E’ block, (the last major construction on any of the Morris sites), was built to provide a new rotodip priming facility, paint shop and body store. The total South Works factory acreage was now 47.
In 1952, the two great rivals, Austin and Morris, merged to form the British Motor Corporation.With Leonard Lord, (who had stormed out of Cowley in 1936 when Morris had refused his demand for due reward), heading up the dominant Austin by this time, the omens were not good for Cowley. There was no doubt that the investment focus for BMC was at Longbridge over the next decade or so, but nevertheless, Cowley continued to play a major role in the business.
It was building the top selling car of the entire group, the Morris Minor, which acquired the famous Austin A-Series engine from late 1952 onwards. Very quickly, Austin’s A, B and C-Series engines displaced the old Nuffield equivalents as components were rationalised.
A huge variety of other products was built here during the 1950s. In addition to the Issigonis-designed Series II/III/ IV Morris Oxford/Cowley range (still in production today in India as the Hindustan Ambassador), Cowley built many Wolseleys, such as the attractive, Gerald Palmer-designed 4/44, 15/50 and 6/90 models, and the related Riley Pathfinder/2.6 models. Large ‘executive’ cars became a bit of a Cowley speciality, in fact – the rare 1955-1958 Morris Isis was made here, as were the handsome, Farina-styled Wolseley 6/99 and Vanden Plas 3 litre models from 1959.
The ultimate BMC ‘badge-engineered’or rationalised range didn’t arrive until 1959, in the form of the 1.5 litre ‘Farina’ family cars. Cowley built all but the early Austin saloon versions, which meant the Morris Oxford V, the Wolseley 15/60, the Riley 4/68 and the MG Magnette MkIII.
Nobody realised it then, but one of the most significant cars ever to be built at Cowley also emerged in 1959 – it bore the badge Morris Mini-Minor and it was in ‘competition’ with the Longbridge-built version, known as the Austin Se7en. The ‘Mini’ bit of the Morris name is the one that the worldwide public took to their hearts…
Pressed Steel were kept busy during the 1950s – now that chassisless construction was the norm, demand for complete bodyshells grew rapidly and Cowley was making them for most of the UK car companies and some overseas too. Ideally, Pressed Steel would have expanded its Cowley factory very substantially. A well-meaning but ultimately damaging Government policy in this era prevented large companies from expanding their existing factories – the idea was that they should build new factories in areas of unemployment. This is why Pressed Steel had to set up its new Swindon Plant in 1955/56, in order to cope with bulging orderbooks. Notable developments in the Cowley body production plant during the 1950s included the second stage in the Rolls-Royce contract, commencing the 1955 Silver Cloud and Bentley S1 bodyshell build.
1960 to 1969
Another big celebration in 1961 – Cowley notched up another UK ‘first’ when the Morris Minor became the first British car to achieve a million units. The 371 special Lilac-coloured ‘Minor Million’commemorative cars were probably the first ‘special editions’ too. Despite being a fairly old-fashioned car by now, the Minor had yet another decade to run.
Also in 1961, the mid-range Farina saloons (and estates) got the new 1622cc engine and longer wheelbases – names changed to Oxford VI, Wolseley 16/60, Riley 4/72, MG Magnette Mk IV. Similarly, the 3-litre six cylinder ‘Farinas’ also gained extra power and wheelbase – becoming the Wolseley 6/110 and the Vanden Plas 3 litre MkII.
Mini production continued in parallel with that at Longbridge, which meant that the Morris versions of the Mini-Cooper appeared on the Cowley assembly lines in 1961, to be followed by the Cooper S models in 1963. When the BMC Competitions Department, based nearby at the Abingdon MG plant, started to prepare their giant-killing Mini rally cars, they used Cowley-built Mini Coopers.
The most commercially successful of the Issigonis cars appeared in 1962, as the Morris 1100. This sophisticated and elegant ‘supermini’ (although that description hadn’t been invented then), carrying all the BMC badges, was to outsell the Ford Cortina in Britain for most of its 12 year run. Cowley shared 1100/1300 production with Longbridge in a complex, often-changing pattern, but built the majority of the range in the later years.
Viscount Nuffield died in 1963, leaving as his legacy not only a major portion of the UK motor industry, but also a substantial philanthropic contribution to the field of medicine, still remembered in today’s Nuffield Hospitals.
Cowley’s links with Rolls-Royce led to an unusual development in 1964. The Vanden Plas 3 litre was replaced by the 4 litre R, which had a Rolls-Royce engine and a restyled version of the ‘big Farina’ bodyshell. The concept was to provide a prestige car at just beneath a £2000 tax band for company car purchase.
In 1965, BMC took a step that reverberated around the industry – it finally took over the Pressed Steel Company, at that time Britain’s largest independent body supplier. Although Pressed Steel continued to supply many of BMC’s rivals for several years afterwards, these customers were obviously concerned about this move!
A major advantage for BMC was that the entire Cowley site could at last be integrated and a new conveyor bridge was soon built over the Oxford by-pass to feed bodyshells directly from the PSC ‘A’ block into the North Works. This conveyor was extended in 1969 to link up with the ‘E’ block in Cowley’s South Works. The complete Cowley complex now added up to 210 acres.
One of the assets acquired with PSC was an important lead in the use of Computer-Aided Design (CAD). CAD had already been established in advanced aircraft and ship design, so Pressed Steel collaborated with a Norwegian shipbuilding company from 1964, and became the first company in Europe to apply CAD to car body design and tooling manufacture.
For 1966, the Austin Westminster A110 was moved from Longbridge to Cowley, so that the complete large Austin/Wolseley/Vanden Plas range was logically centralised.
1968 saw the biggest merger yet in a decade of UK motor industry consolidation – the Leyland Motor Corporation, which already included Standard Triumph, Rover and Alvis, combined with British Motor Holdings, which had been formed when BMC and Jaguar got together in 1966.to form BLMC. This did, at least, mean that many of Pressed Steel’s ‘non-BMC’ customers were now ‘in-house’!
Replacing all the ‘big Farina’ cars during 1967/8 on Cowley’s large car production line was the Austin 3 litre, which used some of the cabin structure of the BMC 1800, but with rear drive and longer bonnet and tail. Although supremely comfortable, it didn’t really fit into the new corporate family that included Rover and Triumph and so was phased out by 1971.
During these momentous times, work was pushing ahead in the Pressed Steel plant and ‘across the road’to accommodate the production of the Austin Maxi. Half of the PSC ‘A’ block was cleared for this and the roof raised by 10 ft to allow overhead body storage conveyors. The versatile Maxi, Britain’s first 5-door hatchback and the first family car with a 5-speed gearbox, was launched in 1969.
1970 to 1979
Following hard on the heels of the Maxi, (the last of the Issigonis BMC designs to be introduced onto the Cowley production lines), came the Morris Marina. Deliberately designed to be simple and conventional so as to appeal to the fleet buyers who were accustomed to the equally simple Ford Cortina, the Marina involved a £45 million investment at Cowley. Developed and productionised very quickly, the Marina was launched in 1971, with Saloon and Coupe models soon joined by an Estate car in 1972. Although not regarded with the same affection as the Minor, (which was phased out of production in 1970/71), the Marina nevertheless went on to become the second exclusively-Cowley built car to sell over a million.
Hardly had the dust settled from launching the Marina when work commenced in Cowley’s Body and Assembly plants to bring in a new upper-range car to replace the old BMC 1800/2200 models, which had mostly been made at Longbridge. The new car, was initially launched as the 18-22 Series, in March 1975, in Austin, Morris and Wolseley versions. However, the reorganisation of the company to form Leyland Cars meant that by September 1975, the ‘Wedge’ styled car was to be renamed as Princess and the Wolseley marque was ‘put on ice’ where it has remained ever since.
The 1970s were tumultuous in terms of industrial unrest and political intervention. In 1977, the then plain Mr. Michael Edwardes was made Chairman of British Leyland, soon to be renamed BL, and the radical strategies he introduced were soon to bring big changes at Cowley.
1980 to 1989
Recognising that the car side of BL needed an accelerated new product programme well beyond its then-available resources, a co-operative arrangement was agreed with the Japanese Honda company to produce joint models. To gain experience and provide a fast start, a licence-built version of the Honda Ballade, bearing the Triumph Acclaim name, was put into production at Cowley in 1981. This was a very successful project, establishing that a UK car plant could produce Japanese quality standards and providing a solid platform for further successful joint projects with Honda.
1982 saw a strengthening of Cowley’s traditional role as a producer of large cars; the Princess was substantially re-engineered as the 5-door hatchback Austin Ambassador and production of the Rover SD1 range of executive hatchback models was transferred from Solihull to Cowley. This allowed a useful gain in manufacturing efficiency, as the Rover bodyshell could now be produced and painted alongside the assembly plant, which hadn’t been possible at Solihull.
In effect, the Triumph Acclaim had provided breathing-space for the introduction of the next major project at Cowley, which was the new Austin mid-range family of models, based on a common engineering platform. First came the Maestro 5-door hatchback in 1983, then the Montego saloon/estate range in 1984. These two models soon became the major breadwinners for what was now called the Austin Rover Group, selling strongly across Europe and other markets.
The next of the Honda/Rover joint projects for Cowley was coded ‘XX’ and was revealed in 1986 as the Rover 800 saloon range. This was far and away the most sophisticated car built up until that time at Cowley, with advanced 4-valve per cylinder engines and complex electronics. It introduced some new manufacturing techniques, such as the ‘dodo’ or ‘doors off/doors on’ system. This involves first building and painting the bodyshell with doors fitted, then removing them at the start of final assembly. The doors can then be more easily sub-assembled, fitting glass, electric lifts, locks, handles and trim, while access to the cabin is much enhanced on the car assembly line. Completed doors are re-fitted at the end of the line. Similarly, major sub-assemblies such as the fascia are completed off-line before being installed as complete and tested units. Such techniques improve working conditions and product quality and have since become standard practice throughout Rover.
Cowley also built the Honda Legend version of this joint design, for sale in the UK market.
With the saloon 800 successfully launched, in 1987 there followed the Fastback 800 range, which echoed the sleek hatchback shape of the former SD1 Rovers. In the UK and some other markets, the Fastback soon became the dominant seller of the two body styles.
1990 to 1998
Towards the end of 1991, a major facelift programme, coded R17, was carried out on the Rover 800 range. This included, in response to customer research, a modern version of the traditional Rover grille, as well as substantial engineering and quality improvements. Sales of the new 800 climbed rapidly, keeping Cowley North Works busy and taking the car to the top of the UK executive sector in 1992.
At the March 1992 Geneva Show, the stylish Rover 800 2-door Coupe was revealed. Its sumptuous leather-lined cabin, referred to by some observers as a ‘junior Bentley interior’ showed that Cowley craftsmen and women hadn’t lost that coachbuilder touch.
Another example of bespoke car building at Cowley came with the MG R V8 project. Shown at the 1992 NEC Motor Show, and produced from 1993-1995, this nostalgic commemoration of the MGB sports car was hand built by a specially formed team. Some 2000 were built, most being sold to Japanese enthusiasts.
In the Spring of 1993, the third Cowley Rover/Honda joint car was launched as the Rover 600. Widely regarded as one of Rover’s most successful styling exercises, the elegant 600 also demonstrated exceptional levels of build quality, setting an internal benchmark for all subsequent Rover Group projects.
By now designated as the Rover Group’s Large Car plant, Cowley was considerably larger than it needed to be to build comparatively low-volume products by modern manufacturing techniques. The decision was therefore taken to centralise all Rover 600 and 800 manufacture on the largest, 122 acre section of the complex, the former Body Plant, (which had grown up from the original 1926 Pressed Steel factory).
It was in this efficiently-integrated modern plant that work began in the mid 1990s to produce the exciting new R40 range…
Originally written by Ian Elliott.
- I was there : Austin Maestro launch advert, January 1983 - 3 March 2023
- The cars : Rover Metro/100 suspension details - 4 September 2022
- I was there : Selling the Rover SD1’s rear suspension - 29 August 2022