Saturday 8 July is the 20th anniversary of Nissan's Sunderland Plant in north-east England producing its first car.

The white Bluebird saloon was driven off the line on Tuesday 8 July 1986 and was donated to the Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens, where it can be seen on display in the 'Time Machine' exhibit.

Like most Japanese automakers ramping up a new plant overseas, Nissan UK began with a proven model already in production in Japan, just-auto understands it was called the Stanza there.

In that first year, 470 staff had a production target of 24,000 units of the model line badged Bluebird for the UK and Europe.

Twenty years later, more than 4,200 employees produce around 310,000 Micras, Micra C+Cs (coupe-cabriolet), Notes, Almeras and Primeras each year in a plant that has become well known for its high productivity and generally good labour relations.

This December, a four-wheel drive car based on the Qashqai concept will become the 10th new model to be launched on Wearside since cars began rolling off the line.

This model could boost Sunderland's total annual volume to around 400,000 units by the end of 2007.

This is a long way from the early days when the fledgling plant assembled Bluebirds that were shipped in component form in wooden crates from Japan.

Engineering manager, Steve Clare, who joined Nissan in 1985 as a maintenance technician said: "The main transfer line was called the 'Liger Line' after the two national animals of the UK and Japan (lion and tiger).

"There have been lots of changes since then, for example in 1986 the body shop only operated 20 robots - these days the automation level is over 80% with around 700 robots."

John Pigg, a team leader in material handling, added: "My job on the first Bluebirds was to break open the crates they arrived in and lay out all the parts ready for production.

"The plant has developed massively since then - I can remember a local farmer coming in and cutting hay in a field where our body and press shops are now."

In the 20 years that Sunderland has been operational, more than 4.3m cars have been produced for 55 markets around the world, including Japan. And the factory now represents over £2.3 billion of investment.

Trevor Mann, vice president for manufacturing, UK, recalled: "I joined the plant myself in 1985 as a team leader in final assembly. All of the first intake of supervisors and managers were flown to Japan for three months to learn how to build cars according to the 'Nissan Production Way'.

"What impressed me most was that the group who established the plant were not all from the car industry. But one thing they all had in common, which I think can still be said of all Sunderland plant employees today, was motivation, skill and a 'can-do' attitude.

"Since the first Bluebird came off the line 20 years ago, we have introduced two shifts, new products and new processes. All of these were highly challenging and I believe a less able workforce could have failed. But a major strength of this plant is that we have always delivered what we say we will, and that is still as true today as it was in 1986."

Juliet Horsley, curator of Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens, said: "We are proud to have the first Nissan produced at the Sunderland plant on show at the museum. It represents an important part of the city's industrial heritage and also makes an unusual exhibit which our visitors enjoy."

Landmark UK-produced vehicles can also be found in Coventry's museum of road transport and the Heritage Motor Centre at Gaydon in Warwickshire.

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