News : Celebrating Cowley’s centenary

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Morris Bullnose

The MINI factory at Cowley will lead the celebrations of a centenary of car-making in Oxford, on 28 March 2013 – 100 years to the day when the first Bullnose Morris Oxford was built by William Morris, a few hundred metres from where the modern plant stands today. Twenty cars were built each week at the start, but the business grew rapidly and over the century 11.65 million cars were produced. Today, Cowley employs 3700 associates who manufacture up to 900 MINIs every day, and has contributed over 2.25 million MINIs to the total tally. Major investment is currently under way at the plant to create new facilities for the next generation MINI.

Over the decades that followed the emergence of the Bullnose Morris Oxford in 1913, came cars from a wide range of famous British brands – and one Japanese – including MG, Wolseley, Riley, Austin, Austin Healey, Mini, Vanden Plas, Princess, Triumph, Rover, Sterling and Honda, besides founding marque Morris – and MINI. The Pressed Steel Company, part of the Cowley operation,  also built bodyshells for Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Jaguar, MG, Standard-Triumph, Ford and Hillman, as well as tooling dies for Alfa Romeo. At various stages in its history it has also built Tiger Moth aircraft, ambulances, military trucks, jerry cans,  components for Horsa gliders, parachutes and iron lungs.

The plant has produced an array of famous cars, including the Bullnose Morris, the Morris Minor, the Mini, Rover 800 and today’s MINI. It also produced Hondas for a short period in the ‘80s, as well as the Morris Marina, the startling ’70s wedge that was the Princess and in the Austin Maestro one of the world’s earliest ‘talking’ cars.

There have been eight custodians of the Cowley factory over the past 100 years, beginning with founder William Morris who owned the factory both directly and through Morris Motors until 1952, when Morris merged with arch-rival Austin to form the British Motor Corporation. Morris himself, by this time known as Lord Nuffield, was chairman for six months before retiring. He died in 1963. During the early ‘60s the plant had as many as 28,000 employees producing an extraordinary variety of models.

In 1966 BMC created British Motor Holdings after merging with Jaguar, and in 1968 that group was merged with the Leyland Motors to form the British Leyland Motor Corporation. The company was bailed out by the government in 1974, with the group undergoing several re-namings until it became the Rover Group in 1986. Boss Graham Day was charged with privatising the company for the Thatcher government, which was completed in 1988 with the sale to British Aerospace for £150m. They in turn would sell the Group, which included Land Rover, to BMW in 1994 for £800m.

BMW Group invested heavily in Rover, deciding early on that a replacement for the Rover 600/800 and Mini would be a priority. But considerable headwinds, including an unfavourable exchange rate and falling sales lead to BMW selling both Rover and Land Rover in 2000, while retaining the Mini brand, Cowley, the associated Swindon pressings factory and the new Hams Hall engine plant that was preparing for production.

Today, Cowley is flourishing with the manufacture of the MINI Hatchback, Convertible, Clubman, Clubvan, Roadster and Coupé. It is currently undergoing a major investment that includes the installation of 1000 new robots for both a new body shop and the existing facility in readiness for the next generation of MINI. This represents the lion’s share of a £750m investment programme, announced in the last year, which also sees the significant upgrading and installation of new facilities at the company’s Hams Hall engine plant and the Swindon body pressings factory.

The Oxford plant has generated many billions of pounds for the nation, as well as considerable wealth for many other countries around the world during its 100 years, providing direct employment for hundreds of thousands of employees and tens of thousands more through indirect jobs. The plant has a long history of export success from the 1930s onwards, Morris products accounting for nearly 30 percent of the nation’s total exports by the mid 1930s. In 1950, the plant produced its 100,000th overseas model – a Morris Minor – and by 1962 BMC was shipping 320,000 examples of its annual production of 850,000 vehicles to over 170 countries, Oxford contributing a major part of that total. BMC was the UK’s biggest exporter in the early ‘60s, just as Morris had been in the ‘30s.

Cowley has contributed to the industrial activities of a surprising number of far-flung countries too, by producing tens of thousands of cars for export in CKD (Completely Knocked Down) kit form for assembly in overseas factories. Countries that have built cars from kits include Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Cuba, East Africa, Ghana, Holland, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Malaya, Mexico, Nigeria, Spain, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Trinidad, Turkey, Uganda, Uruguay and many others. By 1967 CKD cars formed 40 percent of BMC’s exports, the kits assembled in 21 plants around the world. Morris Oxfords, Minors, MGAs, Minis, Morris 1100s and commercial vehicles were among the many models built in these distant factories. Cowley’s export record is equally impressive today, no less than 1.7 million MINIs having been exported to over 100 countries since 2001.

The plant has also had a positive and remarkable impact beyond car production, too. Founder William Morris, later Lord Nuffield, was one of the country’s most generous philanthropists. He manufactured iron lungs at Cowley to donate to hospitals, while Nuffield Health, Nuffield Farming Scholarships Trust and Nuffield College, Oxford University, were all founded by Morris, whose philanthropic gifts are estimated to be the equivalent of £11 billion at today’s values. The Nuffield Health organisation flourishes to this day, as do Nuffield College and many other Nuffield-founded philanthropic enterprises.

During World War II the plant played a role, building military equipment that included Tiger Moth aircraft. Parachutes, jerry cans and aircraft sub-assemblies were also manufactured in large numbers. Cowley also carried out over 80,000 repairs on damaged Spitfire and Hurricane aircraft.

Cowley has employed a number of motor industry luminaries, besides founder William Morris, including Sir Alec Issigonis, who designed the Morris Minor and the Mini that were built there, Leonard Lord, who would go on to run the British Motor Corporation, Eric Lord, who ran the plant when it reached a production peak of 6000 cars a week during the ‘60s, and plant director Sir George Turnbull, who went onto help Hyundai become a manufacturer of own-design cars rather than licence-built models during the 1970s. A number of senior figures in the motor industry and in BMW Group today are former Cowley employees, including Herbert Diess, a previous MINI Plant Oxford director and now a member of the BMW AG board of management responsible for development.

Today, Plant Oxford forms the central element of BMW Group’s UK production network, which includes the Hams Hall engine factory in Birmingham and the Swindon pressings plant, formerly a part of Pressed Steel. The network faces a bright future as the next generation MINI family enters production over the coming years amid a trend of rising sales and exports.

The Cars
Many famous cars have been produced at Cowley, several of them revolutionary. Here are some highlights

‘Bullnose’ Morris Oxford 1913-26
William Morris’s first car, actually named the Morris Oxford but known as the Bullnose because of its distinctive, rounded radiator cowling in brass. A bold series of price cuts saw Morris becoming the UK’s biggest selling marque by 1924.

Morris Minor 1928-32
A small, affordable car whose price Morris eventually cut to £100, ensuring considerable popularity. Together with the baby Austin Seven, it made the motor car significantly more attainable in Britain.

Morris Eight 1935-48
A big pre-war and post-war hit, this barrel-bodied Morris developed through several iterations and remained a common sight right into the ‘60s.

Morris Minor

Morris Minor 1948-71
A major step ahead in handling, steering, braking and roominess, the Alec Issigonis-designed Minor was a huge success. The Minor was the first British car to sell over a million, a milestone celebrated with a limited run of Minor Millions painted in a dubious shade of lilac. It was sold as a saloon, a semi-timbered Traveller estate, a convertible, a van and a pick-up.

Morris Oxford III 1956-58
The ‘50s Oxford was a family car staple of the Morris range, besides continuing with the model name that had started Morris off. An unremarkable car, except that it was the basis of India’s once hugely-popular Hindustan Ambassador, Morris shipping all the Oxford III tooling to the company in 1957. The Ambassador – or Amby, as it is fondly known – remains in small-scale production today.

BMC Mini 1959-68
The revolutionary Mini was another creation from Alec Issigonis, its transverse, front-wheel drive powertrain and space-efficient packaging redefining small car design. Go-kart handling soon inspired the sportier Coopers and giant-slaying, headline-making competition performances. Classless, fashionable, much-loved and widely exported, it introduced a word to the English language and became Britain’s most famous and most produced car with a total production volume of 5,505,874 vehicles. Cowley manufactured it for 10 years from 1959, its counterpart Longbridge, Birmingham factory remaining the chief UK source until its demise in 2000.

BMC 1100/1300 1962-74
The second front-drive Issigonis model, essentially an enlarged Mini with Pininfarina styling and Hydrolastic fluid suspension. The most advanced small family car on sale at the time, it sold even faster than the Mini to become Britain’s best-seller for 10 years. Launched as a Morris, it was also sold as an Austin, MG, Riley, Vanden Plas and a Wolseley, and was offered in two-door, four-door and estate bodystyles.

Austin Healey Sprite/MG Midget 1966
The vast majority of Sprites Midgets were built at MG’s factory in Abingdon, but in 1966 some were also built at Cowley. Arranging this was easier than it sounds, a substantial part of the car already manufactured there by Pressed Steel. The Mk 1 Sprite – aka Frogeye – was a tiny, affordable sports car largely confected from off-the-shelf BMC parts, and to great effect despite its low power. A 1961 facelift produced more conventional styling – and an opening boot – and the near-identical MG Midget version.

ado28cowley_01

Morris Marina 1971-80
The Ford Cortina-bashing Marina was a top five best-seller for years despite its simple mechanicals, and a mainstay of the plant through the 1970s. Unusual for offering a coupe version that was cheaper than the saloon, it was replaced by the lightly restyled Ital in 1980, this car destined to be the last Morris. Like the Minor it replaced, the Marina achieved sales of over one million.

Cowley

Rover 800 1986-’99/Honda Legend 1986-8
These executive cars were unusual for being the progeny of an engineering collaboration between Rover and Honda, the two sharing inner bodywork, suspensions and some drivetrains while presenting unique body and interior designs. Cowley not only built the Rover 800 but for a short period, the sister Honda Legend model too. The 800 was also part of a major export initiative to the US in the mid ‘80s, under the Sterling brand name. This much deeper collaboration furthered a fruitful period in which Japanese just-in-time and continuous improvement techniques were introduced to the plant, eventually leading to significant gains in vehicle build quality.

Rover 75 1999-2000
The first and only Rover wholly developed under BMW ownership, the elegantly styled 75 saw a wholesale improvement in both quality and dynamic standards for the brand following on from the leaps made by the Rover 600 under Honda’s guidance. Production transferred to Longbridge, Birmingham, after BMW sold Rover in 2000 and ended prematurely in 2005, although variations of the model live on in China as Roewes and MGs.

MINI 2001

MINI 2001-06
The all-new MINI recalibrated the Mini as a larger, vastly more sophisticated premium supermini in an evolution that defined a new market, just as the original car did. Widely praised for styling that honoured its predecessor with contemporary and hugely appealing flair, it also won plaudits for its handling, imaginative interior design and build quality. The MINI also introduced personalisation on a scale never before seen in a small car, firing the gun on a trend now widely copied. It exceeded its sales targets from the start – unlike the classic Mini – and was joined by a Convertible in 2002.

MINI 2006 to date
Extensively redesigned for 2006, the second-generation MINI provided more interior room, increased aluminium content, to reduce weight, and highly advanced new petrol engines manufactured at BMW Group’s Hams Hall plant in Birmingham. It was also one of the earliest models to receive engine start-stop technology. The range has grown extensively to include the Clubman estate, with its radical door configuration, the sporty two-seat Coupé and Roadster, the Clubvan and the Convertible.

MINI 2006

Further reading

Cowley timeline

Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...

Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

Latest posts by Keith Adams (see all)

50 Comments

  1. @The_Saint_ST1 : I think I car as a modern dolomite would be a great machine. that is proably what the MG6 is supposed to be. but I think the BMW318 is probably closer. So if Jaguar came up with a RWD 318 beater, it would be that – Dolomite 🙂 alex

  2. How about re-introduce the SD1 as the Retro Rover. But this time with decent build quality and updated with modern engines/ safety features. Nice idea which of course would never happen….

  3. I like how Maestro and Montego were airbrushed from history in the timeline 😉 The pair could hardly be regarded as ‘highlights’ unless you’re talking bonded in windscreens and bokan plastic bumpers…

  4. Yes, I’m fed up with hearing about “B**” here, it’s as bad as bloody Autocar. You’re all obsessed with them I think 😉

  5. MG Rover were a going concern before those clowns took over, it’s a dirty word and must be treated as such.

  6. Its good to see the plant flourishing again. My first job was with ARG Service at Cowley – good memories. There was a plinth in reception with a Rover 800 fascia displayed – the better mark 1 version with the original dials. In 1986 redundancies were already kicking in with the Graham Day changes and ‘Roverization’ process. Hope the mark 3 Mini is a success and hope they go ahead with the Riley version. I understand China likes saloons so a new elf is not as crazy as it sounds. I would buy one. We do need a Triumph Dolomite and Spitfire though. An affordable sports car and a sporting hatch/saloon using the new front drive 1 series platform. Come on BMW the US would love it and our much needed exports would be up. Buy the new assembly hall you built from SAIC for the mini that is now unused and deliver engines from Hams Hall. They could get prodcution up to 500,000 then.

  7. Never knew a few Spridgets were built at Cowley, must have been expensive to set up an additional production line…

    Cowley/Oxford is full now, so there won’t be additional models rolling down the line.

  8. @Brian Gunn:

    “I like how Maestro and Montego were airbrushed from history in the timeline”

    So was mention of the Rover 600, the MGR V8 and Rover SD1 (1982 – 1986).

    In this MINI UK Ltd issued press release, it states: “The first and only Rover wholly developed under BMW ownership, the elegantly styled 75 saw a wholesale improvement in both quality and dynamic standards for the brand”.

    Clearly the authors of this press release did not know about the Rover 600 Series or even the Longbridge-built R8 200 Series, before unleashing this latter comment relating to quality.

  9. Its true that the Cowley Works (BMW Plant Oxford) is almost at capacity. However, BMW announced in October 2012 that the former Nedcar (Mitsubishi) plant in Born, Holland would start making the third generation of the modern MINI in the second half of 2014-but did not state which models would be made there. At that point MINI’s would be produced at three locations: Graz, Austria (home of the Countryman and Paceman), Cowley and Born.

  10. @David3500

    It’s not a full timeline! There’s a better one linked at the end of the story.

    And if you think the R8 and SK1 are as thoroughly-engineered (not reliable, though) as the 75, then you’re deluded.

  11. Naughty of them airbrushing out the M cars, and SD1, and although they weren’t great cars, there would be no Cowley today without them. Doesn’t surprise me though to be honest

  12. @Keith Adams:

    “And if you think the R8 and SK1 are as thoroughly-engineered (not reliable, though) as the 75, then you’re deluded.”

    No I do not think this!!!!! However, the relevance to the ‘improved quality standards’ aspect in the press release seems to imply that the Rover 75 kick-started it. It did not consider the significat improvements the 600 Series offered in this area over the 800 Series or the Maestro and Montego. That was the point of my comment!

  13. BMW Spokesperson:

    “Later in 2013 we will celebrate the 100th year of production at Cowley by presenting the exclusive MINI ‘Cowley’ and ‘Oxford’ special editions. Based on the Cooper; the limited models are restricted to only 10000000 vehicles each in celebration of the iconic Morris Minor 1000000000- [ed- is that the correct number of zeros?].

    Both models feature a badge positioned on the centre console that depicts the iconic Morris bull (finished in hand-enameled chrome). Add to this the vintage BMC ‘rosette’ situated proudly on the front grill and the inexplicably thick sheepskin carpets which surely must cost £5-6,000 alone. You can own this piece of British automotive history for just £39,995 and £39,999 respectively.” [Ed- we should do a Hindustan version too: I hear those chaps are really quite wealthy nowadays…]

  14. Before anyone has a go about my previous post- I’m a new Bini Clubman owner, and an enthusiastic one at that. (Actually, that’s not going to help is it…?)

  15. In defence of the ‘M’ cars, they were not as bad popular pub bar chatterers will tell you. My own Maestro ’83 1.6 ‘R’ series engined car did 100,000 miles without problems, followed by a Maestro Vanden Plas and a superb cruising and handling black MG Maestro 2.0 Efi that showed more than one Golf GTi a clean pair of heels!

    Likewise, a colleague’s Montego 1.6 estate did good reliable service over a considerable mileage and helped get our business started (he was a service engineer), bless it.

  16. 900 a day – blimey! The government should probably be doing more to help BMW expand the Cowley site. I would be interested in learning more about the current Pressed Steel (Fisher) operation – like Hams Hall it can be overlooked.

  17. Interestingly, out of the Herbert Austin / Lord Nuffield power struggle after the birth of BMC, it looks as though Lord Nuffield may have nudged ahead in the heritage stakes- at least his old plant still has volume production, compared with Longbridge’s ’boutique’ output! 😀

  18. I expect that BMW investment in Oxford will taper off from now on. In view of the uncertainty whether the UK will remain in the EU, BMW will at best have to hedge their bets. The same also applies to Nissan and Sunderland. Whatever the rights and wrongs of UK membership of the UK, businesses have to consider the objective situation. I would not consider that Nissan or BMW would close down their operations in the UK, but I would expect there to be no further investment from now on and probably a slow withdrawal. If I were an institutional investor in BMW, I would be asking a lot of questions right now.

  19. I have to admit I struggled to reconcile the words ‘Plant Oxford’ being used in the same sentence when talking about previous employees, such as William Morris and Sir Alec Issigonis. I realise it’s a BMW/MINI press release, but anyone with less knowledge of the history of the place might think it has ALWAYS been called this.

    It’s a shame that BAe bulldozed most of the old car plant. It has certainly left no room to physically expand the factory running the risk of some production going abroad through necessity.

  20. David 3500
    The point of the press release wasn’t to list EVERY car produced there, but a series of the most successful/important ones or else it would have been 3 times as long. And R8 was never produced at Cowley!

  21. @maestrowoff:

    “The point of the press release wasn’t to list EVERY car produced there, but a series of the most successful/important ones or else it would have been 3 times as long. And R8 was never produced at Cowley!”

    If you re-read my comment you will find it says “Longbridge-built R8 200 Series”, which was in relation to a product raising the quality perception of the Rover marque before the arrival of the Rover 75.

    For the record, the Rover 600 Series was actually a very successful one given it was built for less than six years and limited to just one bodystyle. The same for the Maestro and Montego which were collectively offered in four different bodystyles, while mentioning the MGR V8 was highlighting that Cowley could also hand-build low volume sports cars alongside modern, highly automated production models such as the 600 and 800 Series. Together this shows the diversity of the types of vehicles, and their differences in production techniques being handled by Cowley. It shows how skillful and diverse the workforce at Canley were at that time (and still are).

  22. Last sentence should read as: “It shows how skillful and diverse the workforce at Coweley were at that time (and still are).”

    Apologies for the error (I will put the Triumph Dolomite Sprint article I have next to me away!)

  23. Re 14: Actually, a quarter of the old Cowley site is a retail park….Tesco, Next, some cheap shoe place. What was Morris North and South works has stood mainly derilict since the late 90’s. The BMW site occupies what the PSF plant….and a lot of that has been demolished. All the design enggineering and tool design was shipped out to Munich years ago. “Plant Oxford” is little more than a cheap labour zone.

  24. David

    It’s hard to see the Maestro and Montego as highlights of Cowley’s history, being neither technologically significant not good sellers, the Rover 600 while lovely to look at wasn’t a strong seller, and was very Honda under the skin, the MG RV8 was a low production niche car.

    And yes, while I agree that the press release exagerates the improvement in quality brought in with the R75, it’s not completely untrue.

  25. I think the Princess has aged very well indeed,it really could have been fine car with better development.

  26. A typical sound bite BMW press release.
    It ignores the quality improvements made when the SD1 moved from Solihull, the massive investment Honda made in the new plant for the 800/Legend production, bringing it up to Honda standards which now underpins BMW’s Plant Oxford, and as others have said it ignores the 600 series, the car which was the wake up call to B** that Rover were a competitor that ultimately had to be assimilated and destroyed.
    And if the Cowley 75s were so good, why are the Longbridge cars considered to be better built… Just asking?

  27. @35 Keith Adams

    I think, like other companies, MINI employe agency staff to cover peaks in demand to ramp up production. You will no doubt recall they scored a bit of. PR own goal when they laid off a batch of them on Christmas Eve a couple of years ago. Unfortunately there can be an undeserved label applied to agency and part-time staff as a ‘cheap’ workforce regardless of the industry they are employed in. MINI/BMW are no different to other companies in how they use agency staff, but are probably more liable to criticism, especially on sites like this. I have no doubt that everyone who works at Cowley is proud of what they do.

  28. I regularly pass Courthouse Green (was Morris diesel engines – now a Sainsburys), Ryton (was Rootes – now flattened), Coventry Stoke (was Humber – now housing), Newport Pagnell (Aston Martin – mostly flattened) and the former Wolseley/LDV plant in Birmingham (empty). I’m fed up with empty or demolished factories, and congratulate the workforce and management at Cowley for keeping it going for 100 years. Whether I would buy the product is immaterial – it’s jobs for UK workers and suppliers, and a substantial economic boost for the city of Oxford.

  29. Paul and Ken, thanks for the positive comments, I’ve posted on another thread that I’ve had 30 years at Cowley long may it continue. Lord Minty, under Rover I never had any job security, every soundbite helps my job! If it was left to you and your fellow moaners I and 4000 others would be trying to find work in the retail park!
    Duncan – after the north and south works shut the Rover 800 transferred to “A” building in the PSF site when it became the R17 (facelifted XX.) The system was built to accept Odin the SUV that eventually became the Freelander.
    Keith – This fantastic site is getting very tiresome of late, as Mike says some good news stories may not be worth posting!

  30. Will do Keith, let me know how I can add to the Maestro / Montego story. Unbeliveable that the tooling is still being used!

  31. I own a Cowley 75.. and from looking round it and the later cars.. I don’t think the longbridge cars are better built at all.. certainly no worse, but no better either I think that was just a myth sent round after the move. I belvie there were some improvements to the car itslef that went in at this time, but that would make sence as they had the line apaart

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