News : Nissan celebrates 25 years in the UK

Nissan Sunderland Plant is today marking the 25th anniversary of its official opening on September 8, 1986. Lady Thatcher, the then-Prime Minister travelled to the North East to perform the ceremony and to paint the second eye on a traditional Japanese ‘daruma’ doll to confirm the successful opening of the plant. This followed the painting of the first eye by Prince Charles and Princess Diana during a visit to Nissan’s Zama Plant in Japan.

In the 25 years since, Nissan Sunderland Plant has rewritten the record books for UK car production, with volumes increasing from 5,139 Bluebirds in that first year to 423,262 cars in 2010 – which was the first time ever that a UK car plant had made more than 400,000 vehicles in one year.

Nissan has now manufactured more than 6.2 million vehicles and 12 different models at Sunderland, including Bluebird, Primera, Micra, Almera, Note, Qashqai and Juke. ‘I celebrate this milestone with the Nissan Sunderland Plant and commend the significant achievements of the plant and its employees over the past 25 years,’ said Carlos Ghosn, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Nissan Motor Co.

‘As the UK’s largest car plant, biggest car exporter, and soon battery plant – with battery production for the Nissan LEAF planned for next year – Sunderland is a beacon of Nissan’s exemplary leadership in manufacture, management and technology, which define a global car company in the 21st century.’

To mark this milestone, a ceremony will be held at the plant in Washington in which a time capsule will be buried on the site – recreating the ceremony held when construction of the plant began. The new time capsule updates the artefacts placed inside the original, including a model Qashqai, a telephone directory, newspapers from today, a Sunderland AFC shirt and items donated by regional partners such as the North East Chamber of Commerce, the CBI, Sunderland Council and Gateshead College.

Of the 430 people who were employed at the plant on September 8, 1986, 133 remain employed at Sunderland Plant, and today’s ceremony will be performed by two of those original members of staff: Nissan’s Senior Vice President for Manufacturing in Europe, Trevor Mann, and Nissan’s Vice President for Manufacturing in the UK, Kevin Fitzpatrick.

This 25th anniversary year has been a special one for Nissan in the UK. As well as celebrating a record year for production, staff produced their six millionth car in January, shortly before the first shipment of the 100% electric Nissan LEAF arrived in the UK in February. In June Nissan’s Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn visited the UK to announce that the next generation of the Nissan Qashqai would be designed, engineered and manufactured in the UK, just as the Qashqai became the fastest UK-made car to reach one million units.

Staff are now gearing up for production starting at the company’s new lithium-ion battery plant in the New Year, ahead of Nissan LEAF production beginning at Sunderland in 2013. Production of the new Qashqai will take Nissan’s total investment in its UK manufacturing base to £3.3 billion.


Keith Adams


  1. A great British success story, here in the North East. Been part of the landscape for as long as anyone can remember now, and the most important employer in the region. There was a real scramble to get the investment before they decided on Washington, with all sorts of incentives being offered from South Wales and South Humberside before Nissan decided to come here. They did once threaten not to continue the investment, shortly after Renault bought-in and they were considering building the last Micra in France. Big investment since though, and apparently secure for a few years yet.

  2. Not sure what you’re asking Mike? Yes their factory is between Sunderland and Washington, pretty much joins the two together i think!

  3. Splitting hairs I think boys, The Airbus plant in Broughton is actually in Wales but is always known as Broughton, nr Chester as it helps fix it geographically in peoples minds despite being five miles away in a different country.

    Sunderland/Washington/Usworth who cares? All that matters is 6+ million vehicles built in a UK plant by Brits, the bulk of which are sold overseas, bringing cash into pay packets in this country – long may it continue!

    I may be wrong but I think Britain is a NET exporter of cars now, turning raw materials into £s, that’s what we want!

  4. The success of Japanese, German and now Indian owned car manufacturing in the UK makes you wonder – if we can get it so right under their management, what went so wrong with ours – obviously the workforce can do the job right, the design team can design great cars and the market is there worldwide to buy the resulting product – Ahh! There lies the rub (as always) – the product! Unfortunately, or rather perhaps, BL needed to get it completely wrong to enable Tata, BMW, Nissan, Toyota and Honda to get it completely right. A harsh lesson for our indigenous car industry, an object lesson in how not to do it for everyone else (except BMW, who simply asset-stripped!) 😀

  5. I have worked on several Nissan projects with them over the years. Even though they came here under the dreaded Mrs. T they have been a great force for good in the UK motor industry. It isn’t only production at Washington, the technical centre at Cranfield has been established a long time and has wide breath of capability.
    This is the model MG Motor should be looking to in the coming years.
    Remember the success of Honda and Toyota here too

  6. well done to all at nissan.shame the top brass dont drive home made cars.home sec theresa may turns up at number 10 in a audi met police have got shogun and hyundai patrol cars.the list goes on it makes me sick.

  7. I studied at Wearside College (YTS) which at the time helped in Training for Nissan, (now a housing estate) we actually had the 1st Nissan off the production line, Bluebird ZX Turbo in white exactly like the one above, It had no chassis nos etc to confirm this but it was generally well known knowledge at the time as it was a pre production item, whilst the one in Sunderland Museum is actually No2, but for hear sake is classed no1.

    We also had a pre launch Primera for over a year before it went on sale, left hooker if I remember correctly? However both cars were cut up and thrown in a skip, along with the many other cars that were sadly trashed.

    I also remember one of our lecturers stateing that the Nissan Factory layout (original part) was identical a Ford plant possibly Dagenham? (Allegedly) As the man in charge was a double agent still on the pay roll, He got a villa in Spain for his work !

    Mike, AndrewP is correct, the Factory is built on the former Sunderland Airport, The Aircraft Museum is to the North of the Plant where the new Leaf is/will be built.

    Incidentally sometimes the Media called Nissan a Geordie Factory, Geordies are Black n White and live/support Newcastle, Mackems are from Sunderland, Washington can be cut in half with Geordies on one side and the Mackems on the other and putting it politely they F”cking hate each other !

  8. As several have mentioned, if Nissan/Honda/Toyota can make it work, how is it that British Leyland (or whatever they were called that week) couldn’t make it work?

    As well as the quality (perceived, or lack of) of the cars which were produced, the other big problem was industrial relations.

    How many strikes and stoppages have there ever been at Nissan/Honda/Toyota. Did they solve the problem, or is it just that the workforce now has different attitudes?

    If Leyland/Jaguar/Rover etc had not suffered from endless disruptions, would they have stood a better chance of survival?

  9. Nissan calls its plant ‘Nissan Sunderland’, which is what I stuck with in the story aside from one italicised reference to Washington. I suppose these misnamings aren’t rare – look at MG Birmingham and BMW Oxford. Sigh.


  10. Proof the British workforce can compete with the best in the world, given competent management.

    Proof also of the short-sighted stupidity of Thatchernomics. Instead of funding AR for long-term sucess, they invested our money in a competitor, who ended up being taken over by… guess who? The French state-owned car co.

    If anyone thinks BL was a dead duck, Renault’s 1980s losses made BL’s look like peanuts.

  11. Great news for UK manufacturing. I actually have a bit of a soft spot for Nissans, having owned a Primera and an Almera in previous years. The Primera, in particular, was a real dark horse. Don’t think I’ve had a car that handled so sweetly before or since.
    Personally, I think there’s no excuse for not buying these cars. People turned away from British-built BL/Rover because the quality wasn’t there or the product didn’t measure up and bought from abroad instead. No one can rightly claim that about Sunderland-built Nissans. I was disappointed recently to see the Quashqai in ninth place in the UK top ten selling cars list. I think it deserves to do better. Still, no doubting it’s a success story.

  12. I had a 98 Primera from new and ram it for 70,000 miles in a little over 2.5 years. Cracking car to drive, a real dark horse as you say.

  13. Nice piece Keith. Nissan is an integral part of the UK economy. I’m very much a supporter of the UK car industry and companies like Nissan. I did a blog recently on Nissan’s status in this regard:
    I also have quite a few stats on UK sales and production. If you are looking, please ask and I may even be able to help in some way.

  14. The Bluebird was bulletproof and the Primera mk1 was a fantastic underrated car.

    Shame they don’t sell it anymore, killed off when it shared the mk2 Laguna’s reliability. Cherry Europe anyone?
    The Navara D22 of 2004 also had infamous reliability issues.
    Everyone is obsessed with these Qashqow SUVs now.

    GTR and 350z are nice coupes but a little expensive.

    I can remember the halcyon days of the 100sx, 200zx, 300zx, Bluebird, Maxima, Sunny

  15. Will M –
    “I can remember the halcyon days of the 100sx, 200zx, 300zx, Bluebird, Maxima, Sunny”

    Sign of the times?!!. Usually on this site there are people getting nostalgic about Riley and Triumph and Rover and MG. Now we have the first case of someone getting nostalgic about Datsun !

  16. Tremendous news. I see from an Srticle in Car that they have made over 1 million Qashqais which is pretty remarkable as it was a bit unusual when it first came out. A friend of mine had a very nasty smash in one (bloke who hit him was eating a curry!) and he walked out with no problems.

    Juke seems to be getting popular by me. Odd thing, but who cares? It’s keeping British people in a job.

  17. Auntie Ian – September 8, 2011

    Proof also of the short-sighted stupidity of Thatchernomics. Instead of funding AR for long-term sucess, they invested our money in a competitor, who ended up being taken over by… guess who? The French state-owned car co.
    A bit harsh, there’s no guarantee that AR would have used the money better than Nissan (plus Toyota and Honda) anyway. The annual output of Nissan UK is now virtually the same as the old ARG. Anyway the whole BMW sell off, Phoenix 4 and sad ending came under Labour…

  18. Thatchernomics was all about the price of something and the value of nothing. She didn’t believe in supporting what she called lameduck industries and famously claimed we didn’t need manufacturing when we had the finance industry in this country. Look where that got us! But political reality meant she had to cough up for BL/AR, just like the previous Labour government, and she did. Even with considerable investment AR still couldn’t make a go of it. She wanted to sell AR to Nissan but knew it would cause too much upset, so British Aerospace was strongarmed into buying it at a knockdown price. They could have made a real go of it but weren’t interested and sold it onto BMW for a fat profit. The rest we know about.
    But congratulations to Nissan who prove that you can do volume manufacturing here – provided you’re making the cars people want to buy.

  19. @Richard – it might not be fashionable to say out loud, but Thatcher was right! Why pour (our) money down the bottomless pit of BL when you get a more significant ROI in terms of job security and high employment by giving it to a “foreign” company. Nissan/Toyota/Honda have proved the Brits can build good cars and build them well.

    BL and it forebears suffered with arrogant management, self-serving dealers, bolshie & disinterested workforce, ill-informed political masters & their attempts at social engineering and poor products. A total waste of money!

  20. fully agree with that statement keithb. Put it against a backdrop of a poor country struggling after the war for decades, and weak political will with ridiculously high taxes, where the best management went abroad, then you have a super cocktail for disaster…

  21. A big part of it is probably Nissan’s attitude to trade unions. I think the whole Nissan plant has one union, rather than dozens. I can’t remember which one.
    Where say BL and Ford etc had different unions depending on what tasks you did. So if say your job was to make wiring harnesses then you had to join an electricians union, if you made seats you had to join a union that did furnishing or something, if you operated a spot welded then you joined an engineering union.
    The problem with that was, if you had some lazy b*****d making wiring harnesses for example and you sacked him, then the electricians union would go on strike, if there were only 50 people in the union then you didn’t need many votes to call a strike. The rest of the staff would still turn up to work, but they couldn’t build cars because you need wiring harnesses. The following week another union would go on strike even though the electricians were back, and so it went on. Where as with one union, serious issues can still be addressed, but because it needs more than half the plant to vote for a strike they don’t walk out for every little thing.

    Did Renault buy Nissan? I thought it was actually a partnership (unusual in the business world!), Renaults were generally poorly made and unrelible, but quite stylish. Where as Nissan’s were generally pretty dull (Primera anybody?) but reliable and well made. These days we have reliable well screwed together Renaults and Trendy (though not always pretty) Nissan’s. My understanding of the Renault -Nissan Alliance is they joined forces to learn from each other and joint develop everything but they still retain separate head offices and share holdings.

  22. At the time of building Nissan at Sunderland Airport site, my former company produced corporate Video Programme’s for them.

    The initial one was titled “Nissan Bluebird – Built in Britain” and included construction scenes, management & employee interviews,installing the lines, test track shots and the fist trial car off the line (white Bluebird 1.8 Turbo ZX) and Job 1 car (a white 2.0SGX).

    We also included the opening ceremony. Production of that and other Nissan videos filled a big part of my life then. I got the honour of “appearing” in the programme driving a couple of Bluebird’s around Kielder Forest and open roads. How those 25 years passed so quickly!

    Later, we made video’s about staff relocation to Nissan’s Design Centre at Cranfield and various Recruitment programmes. Now every day & night I see transporters carrying Qasquai’s, Juke’s etc to the Tyne Dock shipping terminal.

    Like it or not, Nissan have become a replacement for shipbuilding & mining up here and are to be commended for their achievement.

  23. There are several Bluebirds still around here, proving that they were tough cars. An uncle had an E plate base model 1.6 LS saloon, and everything was electric. Sunroof, 4 windows, mirrors, aerial, power steering, and it was huge inside. It was bomb proof, and he was well chuffed that it was built in Sunderland. He always had a bit of a soft spot for British made tin. It’s also giving lots of people in an unemployment blackspot hopes for the future. Here is to another 25 years of Mackams meckin em!

  24. @Dennis – The single union was a big advantage. I was at technical college with lads that worked at the local steel works, they used to take sleeping bags in on the nightshift FFS, they knew they had the backing of a union in a state-run industry and were loving every minute of it! Thatcher was very brave to take on the unions as well as shake down inefficient businesses. It was simple really, good companies prospered, bad ones failed – simples.

    BTW I left in school in 1980 and was a “victim” of Thatcher, massive unemployment and no hope. “Victim” my arse! I went to tech and made something of myself with no financial help from state or family. Sorry, rant over!

  25. Blair & Co? I agree Mike C, another bunch of short-sighted Thatcherites,they gave away more strategic assets than Thatcher ever dared.

    Renault was a money pit, Fiat still is. Nissan was in trouble prior to the Renault “merger”.

    Take any other car-making nation and think about the assistance they get from the state, whether it’s punitive import duty(as inflicted on British cars by Europe, even after we joined the EU – thanks, Mr.Heath!), protective laws (VW & co.) or peculiar legislation as in Sweden, where it wasn’t worth the cost of making imports compliant.

    Then there’s the Japanese, who were happy to pay high taxes on their Japanese cars in order to subsidise exports.

    No other nation is willing to roll over and die they way the British have. Thatcher and her goons closed the yards on the Wear as part of an EU deal to keep German yards open, nothing to do with shoddy work or lack of orders or buyers.

    And we should all stop and wonder how the Germans manage with such strong unions? Quite simply, the way was paved for the likes of Derek Robinson to take advantage for their own political ends by decades of “them and us” management.

    The bottom line is, a work force is only as good as the managers who employ them.

    But I agree,it maynot be ideal, but its great to see Nissan UK flourishing! Though so sad that our industrial history seems to have been etched in stone via the jauniced bleatings of the Daily Mail and other such snooty chip wrappers.

  26. I owned one of the last Almeras made at Sunderland, a bit of a patriotic buy for me and ironically bought from a former British Leyland dealer who moved over to Nissan just as Rover went bust. The irony certainly wasn’t lost on me, but surely this was a sign of the times as Nissan in Britain seem to go from strength to strength while Rover floundered. However, I will admit the Nissan was as dull as dishwater to drive, had an interior that looked like it was created in the seventies and my sister’s Rover 45 was a far nicer place to sit in. Yet it was reliable, economical and cheap to maintain, the main things that matter to most drivers.

  27. I Suppose the real irony comes from the agreement Nissan had with the Austin Motor Company. Pre-War they used to build their own version of Austin 7’s under licence (much like BMW’s Dixie).
    Post war they ran a similar licencing program, with Austin Somersets. What’s laughable though is they set up their own Engine Production plant in Japan to build B and A series engines. The plant was far more high-tech than Longbridge and ultimately built better engines. Nissan also developed the Austin designs, using them as a basis for their future engines, so in 2000 when the mini ceased production it was powered by an iron 8 overhead valve pushrod 1275cc engine with a siamesed cylinder head. Whereas the 2000 Nissan Micra was powered by an Aluminium DOHC 16 valve 1275cc engine – a distant relative of the Austin A-Series.
    BL wasted resources developing a still born A-Series replacement in the 1970’s, Nissan already had one!

  28. Years ago my mum had a 1974 Datsun 100A 2 door saloon, which had many standard features a BL owner would have to pay extra for, such as a heated rear window, and a radio. In all the years we had it, it never broke down, and one year dads SD1 broke down the day before our camping holiday, so we loaded up the Datsun with all the gear. It coped well, and even still would crack 80 fully loaded with the 4 person tent, all the camping gear, me, my older bro, mum & dad. Try doing that with an allegro

  29. @KeithB

    Whilst I don’t necessarily believe Mrs T was right all the time, I happen to agree with her then (and you now) that in BL’s case there had come a time when enough was enough. Shed loads of public money had disappeared into the company and it still limped along. What it needed was sharper, stonger management that would take decisive action to arrest the decline, but it only ever got that in short doses (Michael Edwardes for example). “If only…” are probably the two most common words used in the forums on here, as in “if only BL had done this” etc. We say this in hindsight but many rival companies in the 70s, 80s and 90s did actually manage to make better decisions than BL/AR managements ever did and so their companies prospered while dear old Rover eventually went the way of all things.

    As regards Nissan, I remember driving a Bluebird back in the 80s and was staggered at just how well built (and equipped) it was in comparison to the Montego and Sierra. Dull it may have been but it was one of those cars that built Nissan’s reputation in this country amongst hordes of private buyers. The Mk 1 Primera was the best car in its class when it was released but failed to make any real impact thanks to a dispute between the importer (Octav Botner) and Nissan Motor Manufacturing which restricted the numbers on sale in the UK.

    The Nissan-Renault alliance: Renault has a 33% share in Nissan but the real driving force at the top of the company is Nissan’s Carlos Ghosn.

  30. However Carlos Ghosn, was at Renault before they allied themselves with Nissan. He is now the CEO of Nissan and has the same role at Renault. Not really sure you can say he’s “Nissan’s” any more than he is “Renault’s”. I believe Nissan also own a 15% share of Renault. So it’s a little like Buying your mate a pint, then he buys you one in return.

  31. @Dennis

    I take your point about Ghosn. I just remember him at the time of the alliance talking about what Nissan would bring to Renault. I feel though he’s the kind of senior manager that Rover could have done with. He’s pretty tough, takes on vested interests (and normally wins) and seems to have some sense of where he’s going. Don’t the French call him “le costcutter”?

    Actually the alliance is not unlike the Rover/Honda relationship in the 80s and 90s. Honda had a chunk of Rover and Rover had a piece of Honda UK.

  32. Whats with all this ‘Sunderland Airport’ nonsense? The factory is in Washington and is built on the old Usworth Aerodrome site, which ulimately came under the old County Durham council. So what its next to the Sunderland boarder? Its also next to the South Tyneside boarder and just along a tiny bit further is the Gateshead boarder. The factory is in Washington and sadly, the power-crazed and corrupt from usless Sunderland Council seem intent on cashing in on its success while we Washington let them. Bloody Mackems, they’ll pinch ‘owt

  33. First car I ever owned was a Nissan 1400. I had it for more than 8 years before I had to sell to get a bigger car that the kids could fit in too. I miss that car.

  34. One of the key features in Nissan’s success must be to have avoided the West Midlands, where many car workers seemed to think that they could “get a job down the road” if anything went wrong. I remember reading at the time that Nissan came to the UK, that workers in Sunderland were very glad to have a job, after the collapse of mining, steel, and shipbuilding.
    The Cranfield operation was located next to the University, but has attracted workers from many locations in the UK and overseas.

  35. Cool too Nissan and Honda here. We loused it up with industrial strife and strange engineering (either unreliable or completely over-ambitious). Will keep quiet about those lovely Bluebirds they made though. Yummy!

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