Trafford Park, Manchester

A hundred years ago this month (March) Henry Ford’s man in Britain wanted to lease a Manchester tramcar factory. Henry was not convinced. He may have thought history bunk but knew his geography and it didn’t make sense to assemble Model Ts 40 miles inland. Their components from Detroit were cheapest by ship. Henry knew Manchester wasn’t on-Sea.

Bristol-born Percival Lea Dewhurst Perry had taken over the American Motor Car Agency of Long Acre, London in 1905 and knew a good thing when he saw one. He had unpacked the first Model Bs from wooden crates at Vauxhall Bridge Wharf on the Thames. Perry’s ocean-going ships would bring vanadium steel frames and engines from America. They would bypass Liverpool by the Manchester Ship Canal and unload straight into the old tram factory, to make brand new Model Ts.

Perry’s agency partner of 1905, Aubrey Blakiston had been worried too. They had been selling only one car a month, so Blakiston resigned in 1907, leaving Perry to sell the Model N (above); a bargain at £120. Perry poshed them up with landaulette bodywork and sold 50 from the new Perry, Thornton and Schreiber. It had seven employees and moved to Westminster Bridge Road for the launch of Model T in October 1908. Eight were sent over for the Olympia Motor Show.

Now Perry needed help with the tram factory. He went to Detroit and asked Henry Ford for support. It didn’t amount to much at first. Yet Henry knew exports were essential for his vision of cars by the thousand. Almost as soon as he had started making them he was sending them across the Detroit River where Ford Canada held the concession for the Dominion, in effect the great Edwardian British Empire. Henry convinced Ford Canada’s proprietor, Gordon McGregor, to waive its rights to the United Kingdom. McGregor agreed: “The rest of the Empire is enough for me,” and Perry returned, reassured.

Ford company secretary James Couzens had an idea. If Perry wanted to build cars in Britain he needed a bigger organisation. So, in March 1911 Ford Motor Company (England) Ltd began selling Fords from 55-59 Shaftesbury Avenue. Then, as now, Ford had designed a car for the world.

1912 Model T Town Car

Henry had stipulated his European factories should be next the sea, to be supplied by the shipload. His line across the Atlantic made landfall in Ireland, from where his father had emigrated in 1847. The tramcar factory won the race, although by the 1920s Ford was building tractors on the quayside at Cork.

Manchester was fourth largest port in Britain. Only London, Liverpool and Hull did more trade. Canny Mancunians finished their Ship Canal in 1894 because it was costing almost as much to bring goods and raw materials from Liverpool, as it had to ship them across the Atlantic. Canal managers built factories at Manchester docks. Ford’s had belonged to the British Electric Car Company (BECC), which made tramcars for everywhere from Ayr to Egypt, until a rival bought the company and closed it down. The buildings on the corner of Westinghouse Road and First Avenue were empty until Percival Perry came to set up Henry Ford’s first factory outside America.

Its neighbour on the canal side was a crane manufacturer, Frederick Henry Royce. Born, like Henry Ford, in 1863 he too went into cars.

Trafford Park had its own railway siding and by 1914 Ford sent Model T cars, vans, lorries, ambulances and buses in covered wagons to 1000 dealers. Perry thought Manchester, “The best geographical and economic centre for our business,” and workers welcomed Ford. Its 10d to 1s 3d (4p to 6.25p) an hour were the best rates in the industrial north. Prosperous pre-First World War Britain became Ford’s second biggest market after the US. Ford was more stable and consistent than the indigenous motor industry and by the time the 250,000th was shown at the Empire Exhibition, Wembley it was not just assembled in Britain. King George V and Queen Mary visited the stand that advertised British Cars made of British Parts by British Labour.

Ford became integrated so completely into industrial and manufacturing life that it was often regarded, sometimes even in Detroit, as British.

The Ford in Britain Centenary File, now on sale, £27.50.