Dagenham was a significant shift
The sea-accessible site provided _for a self-sufficient factory where iron ore could be transformed into finished cars, much the same as Ford's state-of-the-art River Rouge plant near its world headquarters in Michigan.
In a world in which most auto production was still craftsman-oriented, the carmaker's innovative vertical integration and manufacturing capabilities made its lead European plant a powerful agent of change. At one point, Dagenham shipped huge numbers of stampings to other Ford factories in Europe.
But the process from plant conception in 1925 to car production took six years and cost Ford £5 million.
Dagenham's "Fordville" replaced the company's first European manufacturing operation at Trafford Park, Manchester, England. Increasing competition in the 1920s had highlighted the limitations of the 5.5-acre canal-side site.
The new London site on the Thames, chosen by Henry Ford's son-in-law, Ernest C. Kanzler, was crucially helped by government housing which 25,000 families could rent.
Ford was advised to partner with pioneering UK automotive luminary, Herbert Austin, in the new factory. Instead, he lured former Ford UK Chairman Sir Percival Perry out of retirement in 1928. Perry then recruited as his general manager and eventual successor, A. Rowland Smith, a former apprentice of UK motor firm Humber, who had worked for Ford in Calcutta and for the Standard Motor Co.
Despite some insecurity in Wall Street, Ford of Britain was refloated, with investors happily furnishing £7 million capital. On May 17, 1929, using a silver spade that bent and had to be hammered straight again, Edsel Ford broke ground for construction to begin.
In October came the Wall Street Crash, and as the USA market collapsed, Ford's overseas investments took on new significance.
One journalist described the Dagenham project as "an example of heroic pluck - a lighthouse of hope in a storm-tossed sea of industry [which] lifts the beckoning hand of faith in a time when many men are losing courage."
Dagenham was also daring for a US company. Dagenham's planned capacity of 1,500 vehicles a day was to supply Europe at the likely cost of Detroit jobs.
Finally, production at Trafford Park stopped on a Friday with the 301,980th vehicle, a Model T van. Trains took more than 2,000 employees and families from Manchester to Dagenham over the weekend. Other trains carried machinery to be bolted on to prepared footings.
Then, on Monday October 1, 1931, the Dagenham plant started production. First out was an AA truck.
But only five vehicles were built the rest of that year, mainly because market demand was abysmal. To beat the stalled economy of the Depression and the UK horsepower tax, Ford of Britain needed more than a fine new plant. It needed a new small car.
Without it, Perry warned, insolvency threatened.
Ford world headquarters in Dearborn responded immediately. Within 10 months the 8hp Model Y was in production. But it didn't balance the 1932 books, which showed a loss of £681,000. Ford of Britain struggled through 1933 as the Model Y grew to account for 60 percent of Dagenham's output.
Ford Holland had to help cash flow with a £1 million loan, but the year ended with nearly 34,000 vehicles built and a profit of £388,170. The Model Y sold for £120, reduced to £100 in a price war with domestic carmakers, particularly Morris.
By the time Ford of Britain's Model Y was replaced in 1937 by the Eight, 157,660 units had left Dagenham production lines, and Ford's factory on the marsh was proving to be everything the company had ever hoped. Dagenham turned out nearly 78,000 vehicles that year, an annual total that would not be seen again until 1949.
You can reach Ian Morton at firstname.lastname@example.org.