Port Elizabeth of Yore: Ford Motor Company

Ford had a long association with Port Elizabeth until its relocation to Mamelodi, Pretoria after Ford’s disinvestment from South Africa during 1985. From its humble origins in its first factory located in an ex-woolstore in Grahamstown Road in November 1923, it was subsequently relocated to Harrower Road and then to Neave Township.

Main picture: This was the first factory of Ford Motor Company in Port Elizabeth

Henry Ford’s car manufacturing company, eponymously called Ford Motor Company, was established in 1903 in Detroit USA. Port Elizabeth was selected as the site of their plant in South Africa due to it having a harbour. The plant was not a manufacturing plant but rather an assembly plant whereby all the components of a vehicle was shipped in a wooden crates. Interestingly, many of these containers were used to construct several of the original homes in Schoenmakerskop.

In February 1924 Ford’s plant in Grahamstown Road, an ex-wool warehouse, produced its first Model T, which was also the first car assenbled in South Africa. Ten cars a day were initially being assembled. In 1924 almost 1500 Model T’s were assembled by a staff of less than 70 workers.

In January 1928, The Pioneer Motor Co opened a Ford Service Station in Baakens Buildings, North Union Street. This facility was later relocated to North End.

Salvage operation on the Western Knight

On the 8th April 1929, the American steamer “Western Knight”, 5,779 tons, went aground near Chelsea Point in a dense fog. She carried a full cargo, including crates of Ford cars, but all the cargo was salvaged through the skill and ingenuity of C.H.F. van Delden. The ship soon broke in half and disintegrated over the years, but a piece can still be seen on the rocks.

Larger premises

In October 1930 a new factory which was designed by Siemerink and Walker was opened in Harrower Road . Production continued to increase and in 1940 a total of 23,550 units were produced of which 18,349 were trucks for the South African Defence Force.

Ford Motor Car Assembly Factory in Harrower Road

With the increase in sales volumes and the requirement to comply with local content requirements, a new plant was constructed in Neave Township at a cost of £ 1,000,000. This plant was opened by Field Marshal Smuts in October 1948. By 1960, the production payroll complement totalled 1,300 employees and the administrative staff comprised an additional 380 staff.

The Administration Block which was opened in 1954

Disinvestment

Pressure from anti-apartheid forces on international companies operating in South Africa to disinvest had been accumulating for a decade . These companies responded by implementing the Sullivan Code of Employment Practices which prohibited the discrimination against persons who were not white.

With pressure not abating from left-wing elements who regarded these concessions and measures as insufficient, Ford of Canada, the parent of Ford South Africa, elected to disinvest. In this process, the Ford vehicle manufacturing plant in Port Elizabeth was closed in December 1985. Manufacturing continued in Silverton under the auspices of Samcor which produced both Ford and Mazda vehicles.

The Ford Neave plant with the Livingstone hospital in the background

Ford still has a presence in Port Elizabeth in the form of the Struandale Engine Plant, with an annual production capacity of 250,000 machined component kits, comprised of engine heads, blocks and crankshafts for the Duratorq TDCi engine. Approximately 75,000 of these are used for local engine assembly to power the Ford Ranger built at the Silverton Assembly Plant. The remaining 175,000 component sets are for export to Ford engine assembly plants in Thailand and Argentina


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