A FRIEND recently referred to Southampton as Motown because of the many mosaics – and, in a way, the city could be classed as a “Motown” of sorts.

The original Motown was Detroit, USA and stood for Motor Town. However she set me thinking about Southampton’s involvement with the motor industry and particularly the early days of motoring when the epithet of “Motown” might well have become appropriate for the City.

Southampton is linked with the Ford Motor Company through the manufacture of the Transit van but the links go much further back than that.

Ford’s very first British dealership was established in 1910 in Southampton when FA Hendy, of York Buildings, sold the Model T motor car.

A year later, Ford opened a factory in Manchester but soon needed more space to grow ideally located on the coast with easy access to European markets and the USA where they could manufacture their Model T car.

Daily Echo:

Their eyes settled on Southampton and in 1916, with the full support of Harbour Board, they purchased land at Millbrook with river frontage.

The matter was then put on hold because of the Great War.

A model of the proposed factory was produced and the Council looked forward to increased rate revenue, improved employment opportunities and greater prosperity for the town.

It was not to be though, for the Company had not realised there were foreshore rights involved with the land covering 21 acres of mudflats which the landholders were willing to sell to Ford at £200 per acre. Ford was adamant that they would not pay.

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The project reached an impasse, with result that the land was purchased by the council from Fords and an Isolation Hospital built on part of the site.

The matter was reopened again in 1922 when Sidney Kimber met Mr Gould, the Managing Director of Ford in Britain, at the South Western Hotel and took the matter back to the Council. Gould was still keen on the move to Southampton saying Ford had plans pending but could not understand why Southampton was prepared to let them go elsewhere. Gould explained that Ford wished to locate their entire manufacturing and distribution operations in Southampton as the port better matched their plans than any other site.

Despite the interjection of the Rotarians, Councillors Kimber and Pugh, who was a solicitor, the project ground to a halt once more and Ford walked away locating their factory at Dagenham in East London instead.

Ford was to return to Southampton again in 1953 when they took over Brookes Motor Bodies based on the site of the former Cunliffe Owen aircraft factory at Swaythling.


Brookes had been making body panels for Ford vehicles since 1949.

Ford switched production to making van and truck bodies with the Transit van bodies being transported to Langley near Windsor for assembly.

In 1972 Ford invested £5 million at the Swaythling factory and, from then on, the Transit was made at the site.

Production reached its peak in the 1980s when 4,500 people were employed but by then the site had become too small for expansion and by 2002 production had been scaled back and then stopped in 2011.

The factory was closed in 2013 and production switched to Turkey.

By 2017 the site had been cleared.

At the same time as the Ford Transit was being built another manufacturer was also building vehicles in Southampton.

John Gordon and Jim Keeble worked together to design a motor car with a glass fibre body, a 5.4 litre V8 Chevrolet engine and an innovative array of four five-inch headlamps.

The Gordon-Keeble car was reputed to be able to reach 70 mph in first gear with a top speed in excess of 140 mph.

The car was initially produced at Eastleigh Airport but in 1965 production was moved to Sholing.

The company was unfortunately hit by supply problems which affected their cash flow and they produced their final production car in 1966 by which time just 99 cars had been made.

A 100th vehicle was privately constructed from spares in 1967 and today 90 of the iconic cars still exist and are avidly sought by collectors who will happily pay more than £100,000 for a good example.