France's first foreign car
"There has always been an affinity between Ford and France," says French consultant Robert Sicot, former head of communications at Ford of Europe. "Perhaps it comes from the Ford's Irish blood. The Irish and the French tend to hit it off well together."
Ford has been in France continuously since 1907 when importer Henri Depasse started selling Ford cars on the avenue des Champs Elysees in Paris. The cars came in knockdown form from Detroit via Le Havre and were assembled in a western Paris workshop. Later Ford moved assembly to Bordeaux.
Depasse sold 100 cars the first year, a mere taste of Ford's 114,077 French sales last year. The brand's peak was in 1992 with 191,630 sales.
But as a non-French automaker, Ford has had to fight to be accepted by France. It suffered huge import duties, hostile local competitors and government interference. Ford also had to grapple with unreliable sea shipments, short-lived alliances and local needs at odds with its home markets. The Model T may have been a legendary hit in the USA, but Europeans found it too big.
French car import duties, for instance, fell from 70 percent to 45 percent in 1919. But they rose again in the 1930s under pressure from what is now the Comite des Constructeurs Francais d'Automobiles, the French carmakers' association. Even today,
Ford does not belong to CCFA.
That's ironic because Ford hugely influenced French carmaking. Both Louis Renault and Andre Citroen toured Ford's River Rouge plant near Detroit, and eventually adopted Ford mass-production techniques. Andre Citroen, short of cash, even proposed an alliance to Henry Ford in 1919. It was declined.
The local resistance came despite Ford's contributions to the French war effort during World War I, when it delivered 3,400 vehicles. After the war, Ford moved to Bordeaux in 1919 with the Sainte-Croix assembly plant. The management objective then was to import all parts if possible.
In the 1920s, Ford built a larger plant at Asnieres near Paris, with a daily capacity of 250 cars. The Ford policy on local content had shifted to sourcing most parts in France.
Later Ford built an even larger plant in Poissy along the Seine, based on a Ford logistics principle, "trains stop, rivers don't."
Ford's life in Poissy was lively from the start. Opened just before World War II, the plant first built trucks for the French army, then for the German occupiers, and was thus bombed by the British Royal Air Force. After WWII, an interventionist French government allocated vehicle segments between carmakers. Newly-nationalized Renault and Simca-Panhard got small cars, Peugeot medium and Citroen large. Ford got the luxury segment - in a country devastated by five years of war.
So Ford built its Vedette in three versions: sedan, coupe and cabriolet. But quality was poor, and the car's appeal waned while Ford and local suppliers publicly debated parts quality and vehicle design.
The company turned to production of commercial trucks with a thrifty Hercules diesel engine. But a 1952 recession and a reduced tax break on diesel fuel blunted Ford's effort.
Hit by repeated strikes, Ford in 1954 finally halted production in France and sold the Poissy plant to Simca.
It took nearly 20 years for Ford to venture again into production in France. In 1973 Ford decided to build transmissions near Bordeaux.
Now Ford employs 3,500 near Bordeaux. Ford Aquitaine Industries builds automatic transmissions, mostly for North America. Getrag Ford Transmissions, a 50-50 joint venture with Germany's Getrag, builds manual gearboxes for Europe.
One of every five Ford vehicles worldwide has a Bordeaux transmission.