Ford started selling vehicles in the UK in 1903 and opened its first dealership in 1910. Production began at an assembly plant in an old tram factory in Trafford Park, Manchester, which was opened in 1911 employing 60 people to make the
Model T and the company was re-registered as Henry Ford & Son, Ltd. Following halcyon days of mass production in the 1950s and 1960s at its giant Dagenham plant in Essex in the south-east of the country - in its heyday the largest
car plant in Europe - full vehicle production has been moved to other parts of Europe and some Fords come to the UK from as far afield as India.
Today Ford of Britain operates three major manufacturing sites in the UK, in Bridgend (petrol engine production), Dagenham (diesel engine production) and Halewood (transmissions). It also operates a large research and development facility
in Dunton in Essex; this employs more than 3,000 engineers. While all complete Fords are imported, Ford has been the UK's biggest-selling car and commercial vehicle brand for 34 and 45 consecutive years respectively.
Managing high-volume engine making in the region and importing and marketing the biggest brand in the UK is a considerable task, as Andy Barratt, Chairman and Managing Director of Ford of Britain, told Automotive Purchasing and Supply
Chain recently. I ask him about the carmaker's efforts to reclaim the B-car segment with its sub-Fiesta models: Ka and Ka+. "In our B-segment offering, we have Fiesta that really dominates the segment; it has 26-30% of the segment
already. Then, at the entry level, we knew we needed a smaller vehicle to compete with the superminis from Europe and Japan. The previous Ka was fairly successful but it wasn't a five-door and not really a full four-seater car, more
of an occasional four-seater. So the new Ka and Ka+ address these previous shortcomings. The challenge for us is to make sure that we don't cannibalise Fiesta sales, and we have not so far. I think the two new cars really sit in harmony
with the Ford range and the market's demands."
The OEM's Ecosport model is a lesson in global manufacturing agility: originally built in Brazil by Ford Brazil since 2003, a second generation concept model was launched in 2012 and was also assembled in new factories in India, Thailand
and Russia. A series of mild revisions in 2015 improved the Indian-built Ecosport's dynamics but the major refresh has come in 2018. Part of this has included moving production to Romania, which Ford has said will help to reduce lead
times for European customers. The plant in Craiova formerly built the B-Max. There’s also a revised chassis, greater scope for personalisation and improved technology such as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, a reversing camera and cruise
control. I ask Barratt what the product lifecycle for the small SUV is likely to be, an important factor for global and local suppliers who have committed to following its peripatetic production footprint. "We have just refreshed the
EcoSport and it is the fastest-selling new car launch that we have had for a while. Coming as it does from Craiova in Romania as opposed to India in the past gives us a much shorter supply chain with a much leaner distribution of the
finished vehicle. Customer reaction has been very good; the car has 'European' quality and refinement now and it can come with a diesel engine and a 4WD option that will come in the next few months. I think it could be a real winner
for us." The EcoSport is still being built in India and the Craiova plant was already a modern and well-equipped facility so Ford could 'import' engineers from India to help with the retooling of the Romanian plant, no great structural
changes were required to accommodate the SUV. The plant is now up to capacity and Barratt says that this is adequate at present. "The plant is on a two-shift cycle at the moment and this is enough but we can ramp things up if we need
Ford has a history of acquiring Italian design houses, in 1972, De Tomaso decided to offload Vignale to Ford, along with Ghia – another coachbuilder it had acquired. The Ghia badge went on to adorn plenty of range-toppers in Ford’s line-up over the years that followed, but Vignale was largely ignored. The revival of the 65-year-old Carrozzeria Alfredo Vignale name for luxurious versions of the Ford Mondeo (and other upper-segment Fords) is an attempt to create a premium image and upgraded customer service, in order to rival prestige brands.
Ford showcased the Mondeo Vignale as a concept in 2013 at the Frankfurt Motor Show, and the company took another 18 months to finalise how it would transfer the luxury saloon into production. The Mondeo finally reached showrooms in spring 2015 in four-door and estate guises.
The carmaker pointed to the success of its top-spec Titanium and Titanium X models (which occupy 50% of Mondeo sales) as justification for the move, and in 2016, it estimated that Vignale versions would appeal to between 10 and 15% of its Mondeo customer base. I ask Barratt what the current mix of Vignale model sales is and where he sees it going. "Vignale has taken a much bigger slice of the Mondeo and S-Max sales than we might have expected and we have now launched it on Kuga and on Fiesta. These moves are aimed at people downsizing from large cars, people who still want luxury features. I am really excited with what Vignale is doing for our sales, from Mondeo and S-Max down to Fiesta. It allows us to compete with the 'premiums'.
Ford has had great success with its people carriers or MPVs/minivans, beginning with sharing the Galaxy platform with VW's Sharan and SEAT's Alhambra, at the AutoEuropa plant in Palmela, Portugal. With the introduction of the S-Max a few years ago, I ask Barratt what the company's plans for this segment are in Europe and is it achieving the economies of scale on Galaxy production since it has 'gone it alone' without sharing a platform, and a plant, with the other two OEMs. "Galaxy comes out of our mega-plant in Valencia, a facility that is fully utilised and highly flexible. This allows us to shift production between various products; Kuga and others, so I am happy with that supply chain. The MPV segment has been shrinking as people move into SUV purchases more and more but there are still significant customers, private hire (taxi/limousine) fleets like Addison Lee in London who swear by the Galaxy for its space and durability.
"There is a distinct lifestyle choice between Galaxy and S-Max, families tend to run an S-Max more often than a Galaxy as dad does not always want to be seen in an MPV. The two work well together and give us coverage right across the MPV segment."
With the flexibility of plants such as Cologne and Valencia, with their up-to-date production lines, I ask Barratt if Ford is building mainly to order or still building for stock. "We always build to dealer order, we never build speculative runs of vehicles to our own specifications. Some orders are pre-sold, indeed our sold order content of new build has never been higher. We are seeing this because it seems more customers want to wait for the vehicle with their choice of options, colour and trim. The remaining stock orders that the dealers choose generally don't sit in the showroom for very long, usually 60 days maximum. Our dealer network uses all the intelligence they gather from orders to specify their showroom vehicles." I ask Barratt if he has any problems with large-scale storage of unsold/over-supplied vehicles, parked on docks or airfields or similar. "We have one vehicle holding centre in Flushing (Vlissingen), in Belgium which is empty most of the time. Of course with the twice-yearly vehicle new registration plates issued in the UK we do get a build-up of vehicles to satisfy the sudden high demand in March and August." I ask Barratt what improvements he would like to see, if any, to his finished vehicle chain. "We use external contractors (LSPs) who are long-established partners, particularly in the shipping of vehicles. The last mile of delivery to dealers is by our own truck fleet which I think is the third largest truck fleet in the UK. Our own employees do the final delivery and that works really well. Those guys and girls have great relationships with us and with the dealer network. One must always remember that however great one's product is, people buy people and Ford in the UK has a wonderful heritage, a strong and faithful workforce and a very loyal customer base."