80 years of Ford at Dagenham

The 475-acre complex on the Thames, which majors in diesel engine design and manufacture after car production stopped in February 2002, was inaugurated when company founder Henry Ford's son, Edsel, used a silver spade to dig into the marsh that the company had bought five years earlier for £167,700. About 22,000 concrete piles had to be sunk 80 feet into the ground to support the resulting factory.

Dagenham took 28 months to build, from Edsel Ford digging the first turf to its first vehicle, a Model AA truck, rolling off the production line in October 1931. Special trains moved 2,000 Ford employees and their families to their new Dagenham homes from Trafford Park, Manchester – the company's first UK plant.

Both the Model AA and another pre-Second World War star, the Model Y, are in Ford's Dagenham-based heritage collection. The Model Y was the lowest priced saloon ever made, with the Popular model introduced in 1935 being the first and only £100 car.

After the war Dagenham reverted to vehicle and engine production. The Consul and Zephyr ranges were shown at the 1950 motor show, leading to the expansion of the plant by 50 per cent to accommodate the resulting demand.

By 1966 the original riverside building was dedicated to engine manufacturing, covering a 1.1- to 2.4-litre range. Within 20 years Ford Dagenham had secured its position as the company's only dedicated diesel engine facility globally. A second engine plant was commissioned at the turn of the century and was opened by Tony Blair in 2003.

Today the site employs 4,000 people in engine, stamping and transport operations. Ford develops and assembles diesel engines fitted to 28 Ford, Jaguar, Land Rover and Peugeot-Citroën models. Four-cylinder 1.4-, 1.6-, 1.8-, 2.0-, 2.2- and 2.4-litre diesels are produced alongside 2.7- and 3.0-litre V6 units and a 3.6-litre V8.

Did You Know?

  • Land speed record-breaker Sir Malcolm Campbell was a director of Ford.
  • Maurice Buckmaster, an expert linguist, took time out of his Ford career to become a war hero with the Special Operations Executive in France, before returning to Dagenham as PR boss.
  • Maurice Gatsonides, inventor of the Gatso speed camera, won the 1953 Monte Carlo rally in a Dagenham-built Zephyr 6.
  • In 1955 a young student called Alex Trotman took his first tentative steps at Dagenham starting a career that would see him become Ford Motor Company's first foreign-born chairman and CEO.
  • Dagenham's 10 millionth car and Ford's 250 millionth worldwide, a Fiesta, was driven off the line at Dagenham in 1996 by retired boxing champion and local resident Frank Bruno.
  • The Dagenham Diesel Centre was opened in 2003 by then Prime Minister Tony Blair. It is entirely powered by two wind turbines, with a third on order.
  • An early pioneer of recycling, Henry Ford fuelled Dagenham's power station by burning London's waste – 2,000 tons per week until 1939.
  • Although an urban industrial site, Dagenham has its fair share of wildlife with over 50 different species of birdlife making their home there.
  • From 1933 to 2003 a Ford ferry transported workers from south London to Dagenham to save them the time and cost of crossing the Thames at Dartford or Blackwall.
  • Frog Island was named after its use as a prisoner camp during the Napoleonic wars.
  • Despite the factory rooftops being camouflaged to look like fields, 200 bombs fell on the Dagenham estate during the second world war.
  • In 1942 Dagenham Foundry workers raised £7,500 to buy a Spitfire – equivalent to over £250,000 at today's prices.
  • The initial site measured just 295 acres, around 150 football pitches. Today Ford Dagenham covers 475 acres. Nine million wooden blocks formed the factory floor.
  • Dagenham's employment peaked in 1953 when 40,000 worked on site. At the same time, the floor space peaked at four million square feet.
  • In 71 years Dagenham built 10,980,368 cars, trucks and tractors.
  • Dagenham has produced more than 37,000,000 engines.
  • Dagenham Tooling and Stamping produce 145,000 panels every day.
  • Dagenham's Tiger engine (1.4 & 1.6) is used by Ford, Mazda and Volvo.
  • The Dagenham-made Lynx engine (1.8) powers the UK's best selling car, the Focus, and is adaptable for marine use.
  • Before Ford acquired the Dagenham site it was part of Britain's first flying ground for experiments with early planes.
  • The Ford machinists strike of 1968 started at Dagenham and paved the way for the Equal Pay Act 1970 – a story currently being made into a major feature film called "We Want Sex".
  • Car bodies used to 'stroked' with ostrich feathers to remove static electricity before painting.
  • Since 1972 only four cars, two of which were built at Dagenham, have topped the UK sales charts. They are all Fords: Dagenham's Fiesta and Cortina plus the Escort and Focus.