It is 10 years since Ford’s Halewood plant was an example of everything wrong with the British car industry, but even three years ago it compared badly with Ford’s plants on continental Europe in terms of productivity and quality. Just one year ago, it was threatened with closure by the end of the decade.
But this week’s welcome news of Jaguar’s plans to build its new compact saloon at this very plant should not come as too much of a surprise, even in the light of the plant’s past.
Even 12 months ago, despite the axe hanging over Halewood, major gains in productivity and quality had already been achieved that put the plant ahead of Ford’s model plant at Saarlouis, Germany. What’s more, the Halewood car workers have taken on more flexible working arrangements that will prepare them for the launch of an all-new model.
The transformation of a plant building high-volume unpretentious family cars into one making prestige vehicles is not as ambitious as it seems. BMW, don’t forget, builds close to 400,000 units of its popular 3 Series saloon each year, making that car the third highest volume car in Europe, behind the Volkswagen Golf and the Opel/Vauxhall Astra. Given the right brand image, which Jaguar undoubtedly has, a mass-produced car can still seem exclusive.
If Jaguar does build the X400 in volumes as high as 250,000 per year as some analysts forecast, this will be excellent news for UK component suppliers though the benefits will probably be weighted in favour of the strongest firms. Current Jaguar suppliers, and the bigger component companies supplying Ford globally will be well placed to win orders from the new plant. That will mean that smaller producers wanting a piece of the Jaguar action will need to start wooing tier-one suppliers.