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Everything you need to know about Ford

Ford cars have dominated UK roads for more than 50 years, but times are changing and what was once Britain’s biggest car maker is changing too.

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The cars of Ford dominated the UK car sales charts for so long that many buyers thought they were buying the products of a British company rather than an American one. 

In a way they were, because Ford of Britain was formed way back in 1909. But the company always had its roots in the Ford Motor Company set up in America by motor industry pioneer, Henry Ford.

The ‘blue oval’ badge of Ford quickly became one of the most recognisable brands of any type. Ford was the dominant manufacturer in the automotive market, with its products – both cars and vans – topping UK best-seller lists for half a century. Vehicles such as the Cortina, Escort, Fiesta and Transit becoming household names. The Ford plant at Dagenham in Essex was the biggest car manufacturing site not just in the UK, but across Europe.

In more recent times, however, the image of Ford in the UK has changed. Ford of Britain was subsumed into Ford of Europe in 1967 and car production in Dagenham stopped in 2002 (although it still makes lots of engines). And after topping the UK sales charts for 48 straight years, Ford finally lost its title in 2021.

The company is now moving into a period of transformation and a slow evolution into electric vehicles.  

So what’s the history of Ford in the UK?

Two years after Henry Ford established his company in the USA in 1901, the first Ford cars arrived in the UK. The Ford Motor Company (England) was established in 1909 and a year later opened an assembly plant in Manchester – Ford’s first factory outside America. By 1919, 40% of cars registered in the UK were Ford products.

A second factory followed in Cork, initially making tractors and later cars. The Manchester plant was extended, but Ford decided it needed better sea access and in 1929 began building a new factory alongside the Thames estuary in Essex at Dagenham. This eventually became the biggest car plant in Europe, stretching across 500 acres. Its first product was the Model Y, a small car that was the first Ford specifically designed for sale outside America and the first £100 car (equivalent today to around £6,000).

After playing a major role in the war effort, building both vehicles and Merlin engines for aircraft, Ford returned to producing cars. In 1946, Dagenham built its millionth vehicle and by 1953, 40,000 people were working directly for Ford of Britain.

New factories followed at Halewood in Liverpool and Swansea in Wales, and throughout the second half of the 20th century Ford grew to dominate the car market with models that became very familiar to even those who didn’t drive cars – the Anglia, Cortina, Escort, Sierra and Fiesta. The Escort and Fiesta, in particular, consistently took best-selling UK car awards, year after year.

It wasn’t all good news, however. Industrial action became a growing issue and in 1968 a three-week strike by female sewing machinists proved to be a landmark dispute. The women made car seat covers and were seeking pay parity with male colleagues – they brought production to a halt across Ford and the dispute was only settled with the intervention of government employment secretary, Barbara Castle. Later the story of the women was immortalised in the film Made in Dagenham.  

Ford got even bigger in 2008 when it took over Jaguar and Land Rover, owning both brands for eight years before selling them and the Halewood factory to Indian giant Tata Motors. By this time, Ford’s car production had moved away from Britain, victims of both high costs and disruption caused by repeated industrial action. 

The Cork plant had already closed in 1984 and Dagenham felt the changes, too. Production of the Sierra large car was transferred to Belgium from 1990, leaving just the Fiesta being made in Essex. In 2002 it was decided to build the new Fiesta only in Spain and the last of almost 11 million vehicles came off the Dagenham line. 

Since then, Dagenham has been turned into an engine production centre, making a million a year. It’s now Ford’s only UK engine plant – a second facility at Bridgend in south Wales opened in 1980, but closed in 2020 as part of a cost-cutting drive.

Ford built its last vehicle in the UK, a Transit van, at Southampton in 2013, 102 years after the first Ford came off a UK production line. Today, to choose a Ford is no more buying British than going for a Volkswagen, Toyota, Renault or many other brands.             

What models does Ford in the UK have and what else is coming?

For more than half a century, Ford made the cars that everybody knew, and since the 1990s the three core models had been the Fiesta, Focus and Mondeo, all three routinely in the UK best-sellers charts. From 2009 to 2020, the Fiesta was Britain’s most popular car for 12 straight years.

Today just one remains – being named Britain’s best-selling car of all time did not prevent the Fiesta being axed in 2022 (though the last stock is still available in early 2024) and Ford dropped the Mondeo in the same year. The Focus survives – for now – and is today available in five-door hatch and estate form with mild-hybrid petrol engines. However, it’s due to be retired next year with no replacement model forthcoming.

Core of the current Ford line-up, and the car that both did for the Fiesta and assumed its UK best-seller status in 2023, is the Puma, a small SUV. Launched in 2019 and reviving a name formerly used on a small coupe in the 1990s, the Puma was recently updated and again uses a mild-hybrid petrol engine, though we are told an electric version is on the way.

The Puma’s bigger sister is the Kuga, an SUV that has been around since 2008. Now in its third generation, it comes in hybrid and plug-in hybrid form. 

Ford’s move towards electrification has been rather slower than many manufacturers. As of early 2024, the only electric model available here in the UK employs one of the blue oval’s most iconic model names. The Mustang Mach-E is not the coupe muscle-car the name suggests (though confusingly you can buy the latest version of that car from dealers) but an electric SUV. One aspect the two Mustangs share is potency, the fastest Mach-E hitting 60mph in under five seconds.     

Ford does say that its range will be fully electric by 2030 and the next EV – on the way later this year – is another SUV, bringing to Europe the Explorer name previously sold in the US. And there are persistent rumours that another classic Ford name, Capri, will be revived at the end of 2024, albeit as yet another SUV rather than a low-slung coupé. 

Ford also used to offer a pair of people-carriers, the S-Max and the Galaxy, much used by luxury taxi firms. The retrenchment of the range has put paid to both (though the S-Max is officially still available), and currently the only MPVs on sale are the (Volkswagen) van-based Tourneo Custom and Tourneo Connect.

One other Ford commercial vehicle merits a mention – the Ranger pick-up has proven a major success, with many sold to retail customers who didn’t particularly need a pick-up but liked the idea of driving the Ranger. 

Current Ford model range

Where can I try a Ford car?

Over the past 70 years, if you went out to buy a new car the first dealership you came across was likely to be selling Fords – with around 400 outlets, the blue oval was the biggest name on the forecourt. 

This is changing, however. In 2020, as part of plans “to build a stronger and more sustainably profitable Ford sales and servicing network for the future in the UK,” Ford announced it would slash dealer numbers virtually in half, closing between 160 and 180 outlets. This programme is still underway, but in most parts of the country you’re still unlikely to be very far from a Ford outlet.  

What makes Ford in the UK different to the rest?

A difficult one this as for so many years a Ford was the ‘safe choice’ – the cars were affordable and so many of them on the roads. New drivers were very likely to find themselves in a used Fiesta or Escort as their first car and for anyone looking to buy the first dealership visited was typically that of either Ford or its prime rival in Britain, Vauxhall.

In recent years that has changed. Hit heavily by the rise to mainstream prominence of former budget brands – such as Kia and Hyundai – and changing desires among the buying public, who increasingly no longer want the same practical-but-not-exactly-exciting cars that everyone else drives, Ford has has to reassess its entire business. 

Being the biggest maker with the most cars on the roads doesn’t being the success it once promised. The resultant transformation of Ford is still going on at the same time as the brand switches to electric, and the Ford that emerges will be a very different operation to the household name of the late 20th century.    

A Ford in the UK fact to impress your friends

Turning Dagenham from a car manufacturing plant to one making engines had one slightly unusual side effect.

So much land became surplus to requirements that there was plenty of space to rehearse the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics in relative secrecy. The rehearsals took place in the spring of that year, in often very poor weather. The opening ceremony, held at a brand-new stadium just ten miles from Dagenham and helmed by Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle, was globally praised as a masterpiece.    

Summary 

Ford in Britain today is very different to even just ten years ago. Then it was the biggest name in cars, the Fiesta anchored at the top of the charts. While the Puma has regained some of that top-seller status, today a slimmed-down Ford offers fewer models and is no longer the most obvious go-to when buying a new car.

Driving a product of the blue oval does remain very popular, but Ford’s biggest test is ahead as we await a swathe of promised new electric models. These will determine just how much future influence Ford has on a market it dominated for more than a century.    

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Andrew Charman
Andrew Charman
Andrew is a road test editor for The Car Expert. He is a member of the Guild of Motoring Writers, and has been testing and writing about new cars for more than 20 years. Today he is well known to senior personnel at the major car manufacturers and attends many new model launches each year.