Plant Oxford located in Cowley, southeast Oxford, England, is owned by BMW (UK) Manufacturing Limited (a subsidiary of BMW), and is the central assembly facility for the Mini range of cars. The plant forms the Mini production triangle along with Plant Hams Hall where engines are manufactured and Plant Swindon where body pressings and sub-assemblies are built.
The Cowley site had three manufacturing plants, separated by the eastern Oxford Ring Road and B480 road. The present site of Plant Oxford was the car body manufacturing business of the Pressed Steel Company, later known as Pressed Steel Fisher, which was founded 1926. The car south and north assembly plants originally Morris Motors plants, later part of Austin Rover Group and lastly as the Rover Group. The whole site was reorganized in the 1990s and now only the original Pressed Steel Coompany portion of the factory still remains.
In 1912, William Morris bought the former Oxford Military College in Cowley. Moving his company into the new site, from 1914 onwards Morris pioneered Henry Ford-style mass production in the UK, by building what became affectionately known as "the old tin shed." To facilitate more efficient production, the Great Western Railway opened Morris Cowley railway station to serve the thousands of workers commuting to the factory. In 1933, they built a railway goods yard beside the Wycombe Railway to bring supplies into the factory, and take completed vehicles away. This railway yard still exists today and serves the current vehicle-manufacturing plant, though the railway to High Wycombe has long been lifted.
As Cowley expanded into a huge industrial centre, it attracted workers during the Great Depression looking for work. This resulted in the need for new housing, including from the 1920s Florence Park, built mainly by private landlords. Like many contemporary industrialists of the time, Morris wanted to provide for the whole life of its workers, and so developed the Morris Motors Athletic & Social Club on Crescent Road, which still exists today.
World War II
Approached in 1935 by the Air Ministry about the factory's ability to change to aircraft industry production, additional capacity was built into the factory through the shadow factory plan from 1937. During World War II the factory produced the de Havilland Tiger Moth training aeroplane. Also developed on site was the No 1 Metal and Produce Recovery Depot run by the Civilian Repair Organisation, to handle crashed or damaged aircraft, and even the processing of wreckage from enemy Luftwaffe aircraft. Artist Paul Nash was inspired to paint Totes Meer based on sketches he made of the recovery depot.
Despite successive company mergers and name changes, "Morris's" is still often used as the name of the car factory to this day, a brief timeline of the plant's history is as follows:
- 1952, Morris Motors merges with the Austin Motor Company to form the British Motor Corporation (BMC)
- 1966 BMC merges with Jaguar to create British Motor Holdings (BMH)
- 1968 BMH merges with Leyland Motors to become British Leyland (BL), "Austin-Morris" becomes the name for the mass-market car manufacturing division of BL.
- 1982 After much restructuring following its bankruptcy and nationalisation in 1975, BL renames its mass market car manufacturing subsidiary Austin Rover. Morris Ital production moves to Longbridge, marking the end of Morris badged cars at Cowley.
- 1986 BL is re-privatized and renamed the Rover Group, the Austin Rover brand is dropped and becomes Rover Cars.
- 1994 The Rover Group is taken over by BMW.
- 2000 BMW breaks up the Rover Group, but retains the Cowley assembly plant for MINI production and renames it Plant Oxford.
By the early 1970s, over 20,000 people worked in Cowley at the vast British Leyland and Pressed Steel Fisher plants. After re-organisation, PSF became part of the reorganised Austin Rover, while parts Unipart was floated off in a management buyout, but still has its global headquarters next to the Morris plant. Like the rest of the company at this point, industrial action was high as successive management teams tried unsuccessfully to drive through reform of the British Motor manufacturing industry. The local workers became well known for not accepting wage cuts, union-busting, with national trade union militants including local Alan Thornett.
Much rationalization took place at the plant in the early 1980s, as BL restructured its manufacturing operations in the light of the Ryder Report. Production of the Austin Maxi ended in 1980 to make way for the Honda-based Triumph Acclaim, whilst production of the Princess range was scaled back to make room for the Rover SD1 the following year following the closure of the car production lines at Solihull. All future large Rovers would therefore be built at Cowley until the BMW sell-off in 2000.
The Morris marque was abandoned in 1984, when production of the Longbridge-built Morris Ital finished; it had been transferred there from Cowley in September 1982, two years after its launch. The transfer of the Ital from Cowley was to make way for the Austin Maestro and Montego, which were launched in March 1983 and April 1984 respectively, continued in production until December 1994, though production was gradually cut back after 1989 following the launch of the Longbridge-built Rover 200 and 400 series models.
In 1992, British Aerospace sold the entire site to property group Arlington Securities, itself later sold to the Australian property company Macquarie Goodman, now the Goodman Group and most of the old site was demolished.
Owner of Rover Group, British Aerospace, agreed a partnership with Honda, with Honda taking a 20% stake in the company, in return for joint-development of the new Rover 600 and 800, both produced at Cowley. The 800 Series had been launched in mid 1986 and facelifted at the start of 1992; a year before the launch of the 600 Series.
Despite 1989 seeing a then record of more than 2,300,000 new cars being sold in the United Kingdom, falling demand for the 800 Series resulted in 1,800 job cuts at Cowley being announced in October of that year.
On 31 January 1994, BAe announced sale of its 80% majority share of Rover Group to BMW. On 21 February, Honda announced it was selling its 20% share of Rover Group, resulting in problems in Rover's supply chain which was highly reliant on Honda. BMW invested heavily in Rover, and particularly the Cowley plant, which became the production centre for the new Rover 75 in late 1998.
- Morris Motors/BMC/British Leyland/Austin Rover/Rover Group
- Morris Oxford bullnose (1913-1916, 1919-1926)
- Morris Cowley bullnose (1915-1920, 1919-1926)
- Morris Oxford flatnose (1926-1930)
- Morris Cowley flatnose (1926-1931)
- Morris Oxford Empire models (1926-1929)
- Morris Six (1927-1929)
- Morris Minor (1928-1934)
- Morris Oxford Six (1929-1935)
- Morris Isis (1929-1935)
- Morris Major (1930-1933)
- Morris Cowley Twelve (1931-1934)
- Morris Ten (1932-1935, 1935-1937, 1937-1948)
- Morris Twelve (1934-1935, 1935-1937, 1937-1948)
- Morris Cowley Six (1934-1935)
- Morris 8 (1935-1938, 1938-1948)
- Morris Fourteen Six (1935-1939)
- Morris Fifteen Six (1935-1939)
- Morris Big Six (1935-1939)
- Morris Minor (1948–71)
- Morris Six MS (1948-1953)
- Morris Oxford MO (1948-1954)
- Morris Cowley vans and pickups (1950-1956, 1956-1962)
- Morris Cowley (1954-1959)
- Morris Oxford series II (1954-1956)
- Morris Isis (1955-1958)
- Morris Oxford series III (1956-1959)
- Morris Oxford Farina (1959-1971)
- Mini (1959–68)
- Morris 1100 (1962-1974) and variants
- Austin Maxi (1969–81)
- Morris Marina (1971–80)
- 18–22 series/Princess (1975–81)
- Morris Ital (1980–82)
- Triumph Acclaim (1981–84)
- Austin Ambassador (1982–84)
- Rover SD1 (1982–86)
- Austin Maestro (1983–94)
- Austin Montego (1984–94)
- Rover 800-series (1986–99)
- Rover 600-series (1993–99)
- Rover 75 (1999–2000)
- Pressed Steel Fisher (car bodies only)
- (pressings only)
- Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn
- Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud
- Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow
- Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit
- (complete finished bodies)
- many others
- Honda Legend (1986-1988)
Plant Oxford today
BMW agreed to redevelop the entire Cowley plant site with the Goodman Group, demolishing much of the factory, to create a new factory called Plant Oxford. The residual parts of the former Morris Motors site were placed into a redevelopment project called the Oxford Business Park, which now houses offices of numerous companies including: European headquarters of Harley-Davidson Motorcycles; the global headquarters of international aid charity Oxfam; Wiley-Blackwell; Royal Mail; HM Revenue and Customs; and a large David Lloyd fitness centre.
Plant Oxford now produces the new Mini, built by BMW since May 2001. It is the largest industrial employer in Oxfordshire. In February 2009, 850 jobs cuts at the site were announced, resulting in union bosses being pelted with food by angry agency staff who felt that the union had failed to do enough to try and save their jobs.
Group tours of the plant are offered and should be booked in advance.
Production volumes of all Mini models produced at Plant Oxford. This excludes production numbers of the Mini Countryman, which is manufactured in Austria. Staff numbers includes "temporary" staff.
Until 2009 on Watlington Road, opposite the factory, stood Johnson's Café. Founded decades before by Len Johnson, until its final day its interior was decorated with bold murals of early speedway stars. Len Johnson's son Joe Johnson was an international motocross star in the 1960s, until he settled down to take over the family café. The café remained in the family to the end under Len's grandson Bob Johnson. The cafe suffered an armed robbery on 16 January 2008, and closed in 2009. The building is now occupied by Oxford Spin & Fitness centre.
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