Ford today ended British car production as the final Fiesta, made obsolete by an all-new European-built model waiting in the wings, trundled off the Dagenham assembly line to little official fanfare and considerable bile from union members.

Once Ford’s biggest and older UK car plant, Dagenham built such famous names as the Anglia, Prefect, Zephyr and Cortina over 71 years and 11m units.

Although Ford will say otherwise, officially, public outcry was so loud when plans to close Dagenham were outlined in May 2000, the factory was given far greater prominence as a centre of diesel engine production for the entire Ford group, in a GBP340m investment programme, than originally planned.

Additional community-sweetening comes in the form of a multi-million pound “centre for engineering excellence” which has been described as as the UK’s first “seamless” university.

Funded by a Ford-public sector partnership, the centre will train apprentices, carry out post-graduate research and offer business management training. Just like the car factory used to.

Canning Dagenham car assembly means Ford is axing about 1,100 workers, the latest in a long line of departees from a site often troubled by industrial action over the decades. Diesel engine building will require an extra 500 staff with the net transfer rate put by one source at around 250.

But few workers BBC News Online spoke to believed that even the new engine plant would remain open for long.

“They’re giving us a slow poisoning,” Rajinder Kuma-Nehta who is leaving after 24 years, told the website.

Most of those facing the sack are understood to have taken early retirement or voluntary redundancy.

“It’s really a sad day, morale is down. Even the people who are staying are really uncertain about the future,” another employee, staying on to build diesels, told BBC News Online.

“The atmosphere has deteriorated at Ford over the last four to five years. Before there was a lot of camaraderie and loyalty; it’s a shame it wasn’t two-ways,” the employee added.

The website said the changes at Dagenham are part of a restructuring exercise launched two years ago to stem operating losses at Ford’s European operations, running at an estimated £700m ($US 1billion) a year. Another source said Ford Europe is now breaking even.

But Ford has still reported a $US5 billion loss worldwide for October-December 2001.

Dagenham productivity improved in recent years but Ford maintained its single production line would have cost too much to adapt for the new Fiesta, the BBC said. Ironically, recent productivity gains brought production of the final car foward by several weeks.

Dagenham’s closure also marks the end of British Mazda production as the factory was the source of a slightly restyled, low-volume 121-badged Fiesta for the Japanese firm. Mazda’s new Valencia-built Demio, which shares its platform with the latest Fiesta, enters production this spring.