While the West Midlands remains the spiritual home of the increasingly beleaguered British car industry, Dagenham in Essex has been the real powerhouse. Its future now seems in doubt.

How important is Dagenham?
The Ford plant at Dagenham is one of the UK’s largest car factory. It employs nearly 8,000 of the automobile company’s 30,000 British workers. The car assembly line alone is manned by more than 4,500 people.

Where is the plant?
The complex, opened in 1931, occupies a 300-acre site on marshland north of the Thames in east London.

What do they make there?
Dagenham builds the hugely successful Fiesta, using components sent from all over Europe. The first model rolled off the production line in 1977, with more than one million on the road by 1979.

The plant also produces Courier and Combi vans, as well as the Mazda 121, a slightly modified and rebadged Fiesta.

And before the Fiesta?
Dagenham was at the spearhead of Ford’s attempts to corner the British car market.

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The factory made the Model Y, the first four-seat saloon to sell for £100. After the war, Dagenham switched production from Bren Gun Carriers to V8 Pilots.

Ford Pops, Cortinas, Capris and Sierras have been among the more than 10 million cars made there.

What else is the plant famous for?
Dagenham has been no stranger to industrial strife. Walkouts and wildcat strikes halted production in the 1960s and 1970s. A month-long dispute closed the factory in 1969 and cost Ford £40m.

In recent years the threat of strike action has hung over pay negotiations, resulting in two wildcat strikes.

The production line also stopped when it emerged that promotional material showing Dagenham workers had been doctored to remove black employees. The three-hour stoppage cost an estimated £2.8m.

Have there been other racial problems?
The company was criticised for the procedure used to select lorry drivers. Although some 40-45% of Dagenham’s workers are Black or Asian, less than 2% of those in this well paid job were from an ethnic minority.

Last year, Ford bosses had to fly in from the US to answer accusations that not enough was being done to combat racism and bullying in the factory.

Has Dagenham been living on borrowed time?
Of all of Britain’s car plants, it was once thought to have the most secure future, in what is an admittedly cut-throat industry.

Productivity at the complex has been improved, with 62 cars being made per worker in 1997. However, a Dagenham-built Fiesta still spends six hours longer on the production line than one from Germany.

Have there been other problems?
Workers have been criticised for high levels of absenteeism. In 1997, around 100 workers failed to “clock in” for one particular shift.

However, supply problems have also contributed to stoppages. Shortages of engines, and even door locks, have seen production schedules missed.

So they make too few cars?
In 1997, Ford brought in extra shifts to keep up with demand and push output close to 200,000 cars per year. Months later it switched the plant to a four-day week.

Nearly half of Dagenham’s cars are exported. Economic troubles in markets like Brazil and saturation in Europe, left the factory with spare capacity.

At home, consumer concern over high car prices may also have contributed to Ford’s woes.

Was there no warning that Dagenham might close?
Ford has already announced Fiesta production at Dagenham will end in 2001. The current model is not as profitable as it might be, with 3,000 components to assemble, compared to the 1,000 of the Ka.

Some 1,350 job losses were announced earlier this year. Some Dagenham workers were said to be keen to take this voluntary redundancy, perhaps fearing prolonged job insecurity.