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Uncovering Ford Dagenham’s Best Kept Secret

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Photo 16-04-2015 16 12 30Bacon and eggs, tea and biscuits, Ford and Dagenham. Some combinations are quite simply British through and through, uniquely synonymous with this green and pleasant land. So, after devouring its early morning fry-up and fishing the soggy digestive remains from the last dregs of its cuppa, Inside Lane belted up and hit the road on route to quite possibly Britain’s most emblematic motoring mecca; the world famous Ford plant at Dagenham.

The mission; locate a top secret warehouse somewhere within the vast labyrinth of towering wind turbines, immense power stations and gigantic steel assembly plants that make up the sprawling 475-acre Ford complex that employed some 40,000 workers in its prime.

Photo 16-04-2015 09 17 00These days, however, things are a little different. Driving through the automated factory gates, Inside Lane is met with an unerringly quiet and tranquil scene. Gone is the hustle and bustle of the assembly line that would have consumed this place back in the mid-20th century, the glory days of British automotive manufacturing. Also conspicuous by their absence are the unmistakable industrial sounds and smells, replaced by the gentle whirring of wind turbines and, somewhat unexpectedly, the occasional squawk of geese patrolling the empty forecourts like modern day shop foremen.

Car production may have ended here in 2002 but the 3200 or so workers that remain continue Dagenham’s proud 84-year engine manufacturing tradition, with almost 1,000,000 diesel units flying off the production line each year destined for brand-new Ford models built all over the world. Today, however, Inside Lane will be delving into Ford’s past rather than its present. We have been invited along for a very special tour through over 80 years of motoring history at Dagenham’s Ford Heritage Centre. This collection is not open to the public and so we were very privileged to attend.Photo 16-04-2015 16 07 50

Unlike other exclusive car collections that Inside Lane has had the pleasure of visiting in the past, the Ford Heritage Centre is no space-age, glass-panelled battle bunker of technology. The building is in fact as old as the plant itself and once home to Ford’s pre-delivery inspection arm way back in Dagenham’s formative years. By the looks of this inconspicuous, rustic old warehouse, not a lot has changed since.

Inside, however, the reason why Inside Lane slithered out of bed at 5.00am became abundantly clear. The warehouse is a veritable Aladdin’s cave of Ford history, much of it totally unique and utterly irreplaceable. From the one of the earliest British-made Model Ts all the way to the mighty Focus RS 500, virtually the entire Ford timeline is laid out in physical form before our our very eyes.P4160764

We are met at the sliding steel doors by the Heritage Centre’s crack team of Ford fanatics. Surprisingly,  the group charged with keeping this collection in pristine condition is not so much a small army of technicians and curators, but rather a triumphant trio.

The two men tasked with keeping each of these classics in optimum health are Ivan and Colin. Long-time Ford devotees, the pair live and breathe the Blue Oval and together possess an encyclopaedic knowledge of the mechanics of these machines, from the very earliest examples right up until their present day descendants. Chatting as they reassemble the twin-turbos on the Ford-Cosworth EC V8 engine that powered Michael Schumacher’s Benetton to victory in the 1994 Formula One world championship, you get the sense that Ivan and Colin treat these cars these cars more like siblings, Fords that they have grown up working on and continue to do so to this day.

Photo 16-04-2015 16 08 17Their colleague, Paul, introduces himself as the coordinator of this vast cavern of treasures. As the largest collection of its type anywhere in Europe, the classics on display here in Dagenham are understandably in high demand, be it from dealerships across the country, motor museums, or even advertising agencies and film companies. That is where Paul comes in. A kind of classic car librarian, his life is spent fielding the many reservations and requests received from across the globe from those keen to borrow cars from the Dagenham collection. For Paul, this juggling act is sometimes hard to keep up, especially when a certain car is wanted by three different suitors in three different countries at the same time. Nevertheless, he wouldn’t have it any other way and talks with an enthusiasm that suggests that working with such a prestigious array of machines more than makes up for the little irksome aspects of the job.

IMAG0005And who could blame him. Our eyes are drawn this way and that, first to a line-up of spotless Model Ts. The oldest cars in the collection, these models predate even the opening of the Dagenham plant itself. However, Ford production was going on in the Britain as early as 1911, at the company’s original UK manufacturing headquarters in Manchester and four of those examples now take pride of place in the Dagenham collection.

P4160784The car that first cemented Ford’s iconic tie with Dagenham was in fact not a car at all. The Model AA pickup, together with its passenger counterpart, is considered Ford’s second big global success story, flourishing in markets across the world from 1927. The Soviet Union churned out nearly 1,000,000 of these workhorses in all until well after World War Two, however the British also took a shine to Ford’s original multipurpose truck. As such, the Model AA pickup was the first vehicle off the production line here at Dagenham in October 1931 and that very vehicle is one of the centrepieces of the Heritage Centre collection.

P4160797The model AA is however, not necessarily the van that we all associate with Ford. That honour goes, of course, to the Transit. What is considered as somewhat of a British institution actually started life in 1950s Germany as the little-known Taunus, one of which Inside Lane is shown complete with original paintwork. Since its official debut in 1965, the Transit van has undergone several aesthetic revamps; however the original generation platform, including the facelifted 1978 version, remained in production for a marathon 21 years. Whilst taking a closer look at the Mk II model with its distinctive sliding driver and passenger doors, Inside Lane can’t help thinking back to the 70s and 80s when this van, highly practical and adaptable yet with the agility and performance of most family cars, played an integral role in the everyday lives of many, from tradesman and bus drivers to roadies and even criminals. Entering its fifth generation, the Ford Transit remains to this day Europe’s best selling light commercial vehicle, a title it has held for the past 40 years.

Ford’s global success lies not only on the road but also on the race tracks and rally stages of the world. Nestling conspicuously under its dust sheets is the unmistakable form of the 2005 Ford GT, with its mighty 5.4 litre V8 engine. Its ancestor, the car from which it took its name and inspiration, Ford’s legendary GT40, is also part of the Heritage collection. However, as Paul tells us, the sheer value of the four-time LeMans winning icon, one of which recently sold in America for $11 million,  means that Dagenham’s pair of GT40s are stored safely away from prying eyes under lock and key.

P4160803Not that Inside Lane found Dagenham’s motor racing cupboard to be bare; far from it. Many goliaths of the rallying world wore the famous Blue Oval and most of these sit proudly in the Ford Heritage Centre. A lesser-known precursor of golden moments to come, Ford made its first big statement in rallying when, at the 1953 instalment of the prestigious Monte Carlo Rally, Dutchman Maurice Gatsonides piloted a Zephyr Six to an historic victory. In today’s world of heavily modified and aero-conscious rally cars, the simplicity of the Zephyr is striking. Save a smattering of extra dials, an upgraded version of the standard 68bhp 2.2 litre 6 cylinder engine and the addition of harness-style seatbelts, to the untrained eye there is little to define this car as rallying royalty. Bred in an era before the advent of gaping air intakes, turbochargers and colossal wings, the history of this Monte Carlo winner is fascinating, if tinged with a little sadness. The actual victorious car sadly no longer exists. Having shot to fame in Monte Carlo in 53’, Gatsonides, regarded by many as the first professional rally driver, was at the wheel once more a year later on the Wiesbaden Rally. Comfortably ahead, the Dutchmen had allowed his navigator to take over for a stint when suddenly the pair was rammed by an errant truck driver. The Dutchman was uninjured; however the collision spelt the end for the iconic Zephyr. Severely damaged, it was never repaired and eventually broken up for parts. Years later, its jumbled remains were retrieved and, together with a new body shell, reassembled to create the car that sits in the Ford Heritage Centre today.

P4160762It would be another 41 years before the Blue Oval would reign supreme once more at Monte, the most famous rally of them all. In 1994, Frenchman François Delecour delivered an emotional victory aboard the now-iconic Escort RS Cosworth. During its six years of service from 1993 to 1998, the RS Cosworth won a further seven events and memorably also spawned the swaggering road-legal variant. Surely the most evocative Ford of the modern era, the RS Cosworth adorned bedroom walls all over the country and is instantly recognisable thanks to its swashbuckling ‘whale-tail’ and the roar and hiss of its turbocharged 2.0 litre 227bhp engine. Read about our experience with the Escort Cosworth HERE.

IMAG0037The Escort is one of the true survivors of the motoring world. In constant production for 36 years from 1968 it was the UK’s second bestselling car for three consecutive decades. Years before the RS Cosworth, Ford launched the revered Escort Mk I Mexico RS. Powered by Ford’s 86bhp 1.6 litre ‘crossflow’ engine, this ever popular bundle of fun paid homage to the incredible feats of Finnish rally master Hannu Mikkola.  In 1970, Mikkola was responsible for quite possibly Ford motorsport’s finest hour when he swept to victory on the gruelling 16,000 mile London-Mexico rally in an Escort. At the Heritage Centre, Inside Lane is given the honour of getting up close to that very car, number 18, its rally plate still bearing the gravel-inflicted scars of that epic journey some 45 years ago. However, for Ford, Mikkola and the Escort Mexico, the story doesn’t end there. Exactly 25 years later, the Finn returned to the wheel of an Escort, a recreation of his original steed, to take on the very same intercontinental marathon. Same car, same route; same result. Mikkola’s miraculous achievements have since entered rallying folk law, as have the cars. Witnessing these two history makers stood to attention side-by-side at the Dagenham Heritage Centre truly is stirring stuff.

Photo 16-04-2015 16 11 37The RS moniker has been synonymous with performance Fords for decades. Further along the line-up of rallying heroes, Inside Lane gets up close and personal with perhaps the most fearsome beast ever to wear the RS badge. It roared in to life only fleetingly, during the fateful – and final – 1986 Group B rally season; it is, of course, the awe-inspiring Ford RS200. Of the trio of examples housed at the Heritage Centre, only one is at home today. Even without the rally-spec headlamp cluster and yawning ‘Micky Mouse ear’ air intakes, it is still quite a sight to behold. Just 200 road versions of these Group B warriors were produced meaning few were ever lucky enough to experience the unadulterated thrills of the RS200’s mid-mounted 250bhp 1.8 litre Cosworth engine. Couple this power, hiked to 420bhp in rally trim, to the featherweight fiberglass bodywork construction and the RS200 was one of the most awesome forces of nature ever produced by Ford. Ultimately though, the its supreme performance led to its demise; and that of Group B. At the 1986 edition of rally Portugal, an RS200 was involved in an horrific crash, when Joaquin Santos lost control and ploughed into fans, killing three and injuring many more. It was the death knell for rallying’s most untamed era and meant that a specially developed and even more unhinged RS200 variant, the Evolution, never got to tackle a stage in anger. At 600bhp and boasting a then-world record 0-60mph time of 3.1seconds, the RS200 Evo was quite simply too fast to rally.

P4160761Inside Lane’s time at the Ford Heritage Centre is sadly coming to an end but before we hit the road, there is just time to get burning question off our chests; given the choice, which one of the many gems in this treasure trove would each of our trio or Ford fanatics drive home in? Colin opts for the Lotus Cortina, the fruit of Ford collaboration with the British sports car brand and undeniably an icon of its day. Paul is swayed by a beautiful Ford Consul Mk II convertible whilst Ivan instantly plumps for Mikkola’s London-Mexico conquering Escort Mexico.

P4160769As we say our goodbyes and plot a course for home, Inside Lane’s mind turns to the fiendish conundrum of picking its own favourite. After some serious head-scratching and an admission of “we’ll take all of them” as being a wholly unsuitable answer, we finally settle on a solution. The car of choice is a 1982 grey Ford Cortina, registration GHK 1Y. Not a lighting fast racer, nor a record-breaking rally hero. Pretty unremarkable, you may think. However, Cortina Mk V number GHK 1Y is in fact the last of its kind to roll of the production line at Dagenham. The last of 3,155,161. Arguably Britain’s best-loved car of all time, the Cortina kept an army of workers in a job and a nation of drivers happy for two decades. It also gave the town of Dagenham its proudest lasting legacy; as Britain’s Detroit.

The hum of the plants and workshops at Dagenham may now have died down, but at the Ford Heritage Centre, the Blue Oval’s past glories will live on forever.Photo 16-04-2015 14 04 09

3 COMMENTS

  1. Reading all this I am wondering why this is not open to the public, or to have a ford museum and open it to the public. When I think of the ford cars myself and family have owned I would be the first through the doors to see all the changes in styles over the years. I recently visited the British motor museum at junction 12 on the M40 and it was a great visit with unlimited returns within 1 year. I was feeling rather sad as I was under the impression it was a British motor museum when in fact it was really British Leyland with a few others added. Despite the fact there was only 1 Ford Cortina it was a great day out. I think Ford should be doing the same or better as they were always the biggest car maker in my eyes. I am sure that something could be done to include more Fords from the past to be seen by ALL of the British public. Please do not let all those cars go to the big scrapheap in the sky, let the public see them before it is too late.

  2. I believe this should be done too, it’s our heritage too – not just Dagenhams Ford! As a museaum, this would help with the up-keep of looking after the the vehicles and paying the necessary staff to do this, and charge a simple fee. I for one would love to go and look round, history on four wheels
    Davey – Co Durham

  3. I think too that there should be a time when the public could come and see these wonderful cars
    I no for a fact my son would be first through the door, he has had many fords and loves them. Come on ford open your doors to us fanatics.

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