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From Swansea sorrow to Swindon success

publication date: Feb 27, 2015
 | 
author/source: Dave Moss

 

 

Steve Glover's shot of a 1930 Morris Oxford by Dave Moss 

 

This remarkable story begins at Cowley outside Oxford, where the Pressed Steel Company was established in 1926.

 

It brought together the resources and expertise of the American Edward G Budd Manufacturing company, a Merchant Bank, and British automotive entrepreneur William Morris - whose own car factory was then, literally, just across the road. 

Budd had worked with the Hupp Motor Car Co to build the 1912 Hupmobile type 32, America's first steel-bodied production car, but  his company's expertise didn't come to Europe until 1925 - when body pressings were manufactured under licence in France by Andre Citroen, for his B10 and B12 models.

The first British Pressed Steel product was a Morris Cowley, but steel supply problems and variable product quality hampered the company's progress, and behind the scenes the relationship between Morris and Budd deteriorated, with Morris withdrawing from the venture in 1931. By the mid 1930's majority shareholder Budd Manufacturing was intent on carving a major niche in the US railway rolling stock market, running up losses later reported in the American press as exceeding $4m.

 

Evocative advert from the eraBudd's Pressed Steel shareholding was duly offloaded, and bought by British interests early in 1936 - just as Britain's populist car makers were contemplating a future for  all-steel rather than coachbuilt bodywork. The newly independent company spotted untapped business potential, and began growing quickly. By 1937 its clients included Ford, Lanchester, Hillman, Humber, Standard, Rover, Daimler and Morris.  

Earlier, in 1933, when things didn't look quite so rosy, Pressed Steel had decided to  diversify into the making of Britain's earliest refrigerators - branded 'Prestcold.' Though the automotive business ultimately flourished, refrigerator production was developed - despite troublesome early products and prices starting initially at a hefty 21 guineas (£22.05) - deterring most pre-war British households. Yet post-war perseverance saw Prestcold become a familiar name in British kitchens - and its commercial refrigeration equipment also became successful. 

Pressed Steel's automotive business entered another rapid growth period in the post-war years, helped by BMC's audacious takeover of Fisher and Ludlow, its principal rival, in 1953. This left several competing car makers scrambling for body supplies, allowing Pressed Steel, then still Cowley-based, to unveil big expansion plans. The 1950's Government policy required major new factories to be sited in its strategic development areas, and a site was chosen at Stratton St Margaret, outside Swindon. Earthworks began in 1954, and, somewhat remarkably, the first body panels emerged in December 1955. The site was doubled in size in 1958, and continued to grow in subsequent years, producing - amongst many others -  bodyshells for BMC's million-selling 1100 and 1300 models. 

Despite the new Swindon facility, space limitations at Cowley saw domestic refrigerator manufacture relocated to a new 650,000sq ft Board of Trade factory at Crymlyn Burrows near Swansea docks, where production began in March 1960. Eighteen months later, amid much controversy, Prestcold signed a major reciprocal agreement involving refrigerator sales by - and washing machine manufacture for - the controversial and colourful entrepreneur John Bloom's then fast-expanding pile-it-high-and-direct-sell-it-cheap Rolls Razor empire. It proved a fatal mistake: on May 31st 1964, the agreement was unceremoniously terminated, with Prestcold announcing immediate closure of its Swansea factory and the ending of all domestic refrigerator manufacture.

Inside six weeks Rolls Razor entered voluntary liquidation - reportedly owing Prestcold almost half a million pounds. The John Bloom debacle, with tentacles reaching to the upper echelons of society and government - and embracing everything from pirate radio to Formula 1 - was absolute dynamite in its day, and even 50 years on intrigue remains: the official report into the Rolls Razor collapse is not due to be made public until 2046.

Prestcold's then Managing Director, J R Edwards, told the press Swansea manufacture was never profitable, retail refrigerator prices had halved in four years - and Rolls Razor couldn't shift Prestcold refrigerators as easily as washing machines. He stated the factory was equipped to produce 10,000 machines weekly, but never exceeded 5,700 - and in 1964 it was just 4000.

Neither the significant accumulated operating losses or the difficult labour relations which plagued the company's Swansea existence were mentioned. 1,450 workers lost their jobs with the closure, though Ford took on the factory in April 1965, and worker numbers subsequently soared. 

 

Ford and subsequently the Visteon plant SwanseaFord manufactured car axle and transmission components there before it transferred the site to its stand-alone parts operation, Visteon, in 2000 in a controversial deal which led to industrial protests over Ford pensions and which was resolved only in 2014 in the employees favour.

 

Visteon struggled and sold out to Linamar in 2008, but the Canadian company pulled out of the UK in the aftermath of the recession in 2010. It is now home, in part, to a film studio.

By 1965, Pressed Steel's expanding Swindon automotive plant had eclipsed the town's historic railway works as the area's biggest employer... and then, BMC bought the company. Its facilities were integrated with existing Fisher-Ludlow operations to form a new 'Pressed Steel Fisher' subsidiary, which passed through BLMC, BL and ultimately Rover Group ownership -  and was bought by BMW in 1994. 

The Prestcold refrigeration operation also joined BMC, though domestic refrigeration involvement finally ended in 1971, when its jointly owned British Food Freezers business entered liquidation. The commercial operation remained profitable despite BL's parlous financial situation, and was privatised out of BL Special Products division in 1981, ultimately fading into history after 1984.

On selling its Rover assets in 1999, BMW retained ownership of both former Pressed Steel facilities, where it has since invested heavily. The Swindon plant today covers over 4.3 million sq ft, (1.6 million sq m) and qualifies amongst the world's largest such operations, producing MINI pressings in high volumes. The MINI itself is built at what is now known as BMW plant Oxford, which ironically - some might say fittingly - stands on the very site at Cowley where the Pressed Steel story first began in 1926. 

 

References:

 

Pressed Steel Wikipedia entry:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pressed_Steel_Company

 

Pressed Steel Graces Guide entry:  http://www.gracesguide.co.uk/Pressed_Steel_Co

 

Prestcold Wikipedia entry:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prestcold

 

An overview of the Rolls Razor story:

http://www.stephenbloomfield.co.uk/page25/page21/styled-30/index.htm

 

John Bloom's Wikipedia entry

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Bloom_(businessman)

 

Rolls Razor origins and story - Wikipedia entry

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rolls_Razor

 

Publications and books: 

Official Report: The British Motor Corporation Ltd. and the Pressed Steel Company Ltd. A report on the merger. 25 January 1966, The Monopolies Commission, HMSO.

Feature: "Bloom at the Top". Time Magazine. 13 October 1961. 

Feature: "Trouble in Never-Never Land". Time Magazine. 24 July 1964. 

Book: It's no sin to make a profit, John Bloom, London, W H Allen , 1971 ISBN 0-491-00076-6

Book: Selling the Sixties: The Pirates and Pop Music Radio by Robert Chapman, 1992. No ISBN available..

Book: The Anatomy of Britain Today. Anthony Sampson. London, 1985. Hodder and Stoughton.  ISBN 0-3400-0199-2

Book: No Angel: The secret life of Bernie Ecclestone. Tom Bower. 2010. ISBN 978-0571-25035-8




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