In March global automotive giant Ford took back full control of its Merseyside transmission factory and plant manager Andy Roche says new jobs are already being created at the site. Tony McDonough reports
Ford’s transmission plant at Halewood is set to play a key role in the electrification of the automotive industry on Merseyside with new jobs already being created at the site.
Opened by Ford in 1963 as a car assembly plant, the factory and its 700 workers were offered a huge vote of confidence by the global carmaker at the beginning of March when it announced it was taking back full control of the operation.
Plant manager Andy Roche, who started his career as a Ford apprentice at Halewood in 1979, says the car industry is “critical” to the Merseyside economy. He added: “The automotive industry means a lot to people here. They would queue from the Pier Head to the factory gate if we advertised jobs at the plant.”
From the 1960s to the 1990s, the factory saw iconic Ford models such as the Escort, Capri and Orion roll off the production line. But in 1997, Ford said production of the Focus, the replacement for the Escort, would shift to Spain and Germany.
Workers at Halewood switched to making transmissions for multiple Ford models. At that time Ford was also the owner of the Jaguar and Land Rover brands. They were sold to India’s Tata Motors in 2008 in a deal worth more than £1bn.
The main Halewood car assembly plant became part of the new Tata-owned Jaguar Land Rover business. But, under the agreement, Ford retained ownership of the transmission factory and operated it on a 50/50 basis with Getrag, now known as Magna PT.
In recent years, the workforce produced transmissions for both passenger and commercial vehicles across Europe, for Ford and for Volvo. It produces transmission for Ford Transit vans exported to Turkey and Uruguay.
However, Governments across Europe are pushing heavily on automotive manufacturers to make the switch from petrol and diesel vehicles to hybrid and full electric. The UK Government is leading the way on this. New vehicles using traditional fuels will be phased out by 2030. All new vehicles will have to be fully zero emissions ‘at the tailpipe’ by 2035.
Andy acknowledges this is a challenge for the Halewood factory which at the moment is equipped to produce transmissions for vehicles driven by internal combustion engines.
He explained: “Because Governments are now racing towards electrification it means manual transmissions are time-limited. So we know we have to diversify into something different. We are now in the process of putting together a business case to Ford to show them what that could look like.
“As well as producing transmissions for passenger vehicles for Ford and Volvo across Europe, we also supply them for the Ford Transit. Commercial vehicles have a bit longer to comply so we may still have eight or nine years of production for that.
“But that push for hybrid and full electric for passenger vehicles is strong and all automotive manufacturers will have to have a strategy for the switchover. Our business case to Ford will say we are ready and willing to make that transformation and that this plant is the place to invest to achieve that.”
This latest deal that sees Ford retain full control means the iconic blue Ford sign, for so long part of the fabric of the Halewood industrial landscape, will be displayed proudly once again. For Andy, the significance of the move cannot be underestimated.
One the day the agreement was announced he said the factory was “at the top of its game both in terms of cost, quality and delivery” adding he was confident it heralded a new era of growth.
“This factory has been here since 1963,” he said. “I left school in Halewood and started here as a Ford apprentice in 1979. Over the years I have run factories in other parts of Europe and now I am back here I see this latest deal as being of huge significance for the factory and for Merseyside’s car industry.
“It is critical to the local economy that we have a strong automotive sector here. We value our workers. We offer high value jobs and we train and pay people well. I am sure with the right business case we can create more jobs.”
That process has already begun. In the weeks following the full takeover, Ford has sanctioned the hiring of six new people. Andy added: “That might not sound like a big number but these are high value roles and that fact Ford has given the go-ahead is, I think, a real positive.
“For Ford to make the investment they have and take back full control of this plant is a serious statement of intent by the business. It tells us that we are an integral part of their plans for years to come.”