IT’S been a fixture in Southampton for almost six decades.
Now staff at the city’s Ford factory can look forward to a bright future after several years of uncertainty.
The Daily Echo can reveal that bosses have guaranteed that the 500 men and women working at the plant in Wide Lane, Swaythling, will continue making short and medium wheelbase and Tourneo minibus versions of the iconic Transit vans for another two years, until 2013.
After that, when production of those vans is consolidated in Turkey, Southampton will continue as the European centre for chassis-cab Transits, the base units for all kinds of conversions including box vans and motorhomes, with production ramped up to 35,000 units a year.
The latest news is in contrast to the gloom of three years ago this week when the Daily Echo revealed that the plan then was to run down and axe van production at Southampton when the next model came out, due last year.
But then in the global downturn and slashed sales the move was put on ice – but half the 1,100 staff – a quarter of the workforce in the labour intensive 1970s and 1990s – were made redundant as the factory moved to a single shift operation.
Ironically downsizing in the transport industry has brought a boost, with many truck operators switching to vans for deliveries, partly brought on by London’s Low Emissions Zone but also swelled by Internet sales order deliveries.
This shift is likely to be increased by new driving licence regulations for younger drivers requiring an extra driving test for vehicles over 3.5 tonnes.
Now Ford spokesman Dan Jones has confirmed to the Daily Echo that production of the current Ford Transit model at Southampton will continue until 2013.
He said: “Our chassis cab investment intent is unchanged with a multi-million pound investment plan for Southampton as the lead plant for chassis cab variants of the next model Ford Transit – seeing vehicles exported from the plant to all European markets apart from Turkey.
“Employment at the plant is expected to continue at least at current levels to support chassis cab production.
“Production of current model Ford Transit will continue at Southampton until the plant becomes the primary source for future chassis cab models.
“Opportunities for diversification are also being pursued at the Southampton plant to further improve the business case for Transit chassis cab production.
“This includes investment in special vehicle operations facilities that could bring into the Southampton plant the capability to build specialist Transit bodies such as floats, tippers, box vans and express delivery vehicles.”
The current range’s life has been extended by a new greener range, with lower engine emissions to meet European laws with the bonus of more power, better economy and lower taxes. It goes on sale on September 26.
The success of the Transit is unrivalled.
It has been a brand leader from the start, for 46 years, with more than two million sold in the UK, 6.3m worldwide. Over half the Southampton plant’s 28,700-unit annual output is exported through the city’s docks.
Ford’s commercial vehicles director Steve Clary told the Daily Echo: “The Southampton-built front-wheel drive van is Ford’s number three best seller, beaten only by Fiesta and Focus car models.
“And in the past year its market share has grown from 36 to 39 per cent – its sales are greater than the combined totals of its two closest rivals, which is no mean achievement for any product.”
Staff at the Southampton factory yesterday enjoyed a celebration as part of Ford’s centenary events, workers treated to a barbecue lunch and display of some the rarest Transits brought by members of the Transit Owners Club.
The Swaythling plant opened in 1953 to assemble trucks, with Transit assembly starting in 1972.