Port Elizabeth of Yore: Welfit Oddy leads the Pack to the Future

Welfit Oddy represents the second wave of economic development of Port Elizabeth. Whereas the first wave was predicated upon agricultural products, the next wave broadly encompassed engineering of which the vehicle industry was a substantial component.

Main picture: Welfit Oddy’s premises from 1946 to 1944-Plants #1,2 & 3

Tracing a family history back to the Normans

 During my youth in the 1960s, the name Welfit Oddy remained, in spite of much thought, unfathomable and hence endlessly opaque. What did Welfit mean? Did it imply that they produced clothing using improved patterns hence well fitting. It was only later in the 70s that I realised that it must relate to vehicles because of the name Oddy’s Bodies being used.

Welfit Oddy’s premises from 1892 to 1920

Little did I realise that the origin of both names, Welfit and Oddy, existed for centuries with the name Welfit be traced as far back in history as the conquest of Great Britain by the Normans in 1066. Although used as a Christian name today, the name “Welfit” is believed to have arisen due to the invading Normans giving the Oddy family this name because of their ability to produce well-fitting horse shoes. That implied in essence that I was partly correct in my assumption except that it related to horses.

Surnames became necessary when governments introduced personal taxation which in England was sometimes known as Poll Tax. Throughout the centuries, surnames continued to evolve often leading to astonishing variants of the original spelling of which Oddy was one. The spelling of Oddy in its modern form was first recorded during the time of Oliver Cromwell when it was recorded that Oddys were shoeing horses for Cromwell’s Roundheads in 1646.

Welfit Oddy’s premises from 1920 to 1929

Business in the 1800s

During the 1800s, the Oddys were wagon builders, foresters and undertakers. In 1835 Welfit Oddy whose great grandson would become managing director of the company, moved from the old firm of Oddy of Tong and started a new firm in Baildon, Yorkshire, eponymously called Welfit Oddy.

In 1892, Welfit Oddy and his brother John Holmes Oddy, but known as Jack, emigrated to South Africa and established a partnership in Port Elizabeth. From 1892 until 1922 the company made slow but steady progress. In those days the company’s main line of work was the manufacture of wagons, Cape carts and delivery vans. As well they were engaged in black smithing and iron work. Amongst their customers were many well-known local names such as Harris and Harrower, Imperial Cold Storage, Mosenthal & Co, Castle Brewery amongst others.

Welfit Oddy’s premises from 1929 to 1946

A new era 

If history is a guide, only those entities that proactively seek new markets, adopt new processes and scan the environment for innovative products survive into the future. This is especially true of family owned businesses which typically do not survive into the third generation. Welfit Oddy was different in that they viewed the establishment of assembly plants in Port Elizabeth of the Ford Motor Company in 1923 and General Motors during the following year as the harbinger of the future and embraced them. In her book “Garrison Town” Ramon Leigh conceded that Welfit Oddy owed these two companies at debt of gratitude as it was their demand for additional and improved production, more modern designs and improved quality in the manufacture of all types of vehicle bodies that compelled Welfit Oddy to embrace these high standards demanded.

Welfit Oddy’s premises in 1900s

If history is a guide, Welfit Oddy merely adapted their existing products to serve in a mechanically powered vehicle as opposed to an animal drawn one. Hence in 1925 the firm built the first motor body which was fitted to a German-made Kritz chassis. This motor body emulated that of the rudimentary old wagon body design consisting of a platform onto which garden seats were fitted when it was tasked to act as a passenger vehicle.

About this time an advance was made in the painting of the vehicle bodies. Previously this was a highly skilled trade in which the timber or woodwork on the wagons was hand painted and hand varnished. This was replaced with a lower skilled job of spray-painting or “duco-ing” as it was then referred to.

In 1926 Welfit Oddy received its first order from the Ford Motor Company. According to Leith, this was for three wooden open cabs and five wooden bodies. In 1927 it was the turn of General Motors to place an order for motor vehicle bodies. Even though Leith does not openly state it but from the types of orders received by Welfit Oddy these were probably unique one-off specials as the normal vehicles were imported in kit form comprising all the components required for assembly in South Africa.

Welfit Oddy’s premises from 1946 to 1944-Plant #4

Change of the guard         

When Welfit Oddy died in 1923, John Inglis Oddy became a full partner in the company with Jack Oddy. Ideas concerning mechanical contraptions were gaining traction in the business and as a consequence in 1928 the first Mifflinburg hand-operated tipping gear was installed. Between the years 1921 and 1928, extra premises in Frederick Street were occupied and a paint shop was built in Attree Street. With increased demand for the company’s products, additional production area was required. To this end, premises were erected in Albany Road in 1929 which during the years to 1945 were extended on three sides.

A hydraulic hoist for tipping bodies was introduced in 1932. These devices were primarily used for road building but given the fact that labour was so cheap, it was a laborious process to convince the customer to purchase what was then considered a costly hydraulic hoist. As labour costs rose, sales improved becoming a profitable line of business.

Welfit Oddy’s premises from 1946 to 1944-Plant #5

With the creation of Iscor in 1934, iron and steel would be produced locally in Vanderbijlpark in the Transvaal. During 1935 Welfit Oddy made their first purchase of steel sections and plates. Later when sheets were manufactured, Welfit Oddy would source their requirements from Iscor. Units manufactured from steel steadily replaced those constructed of wood or other composite materials especially in tipping bodies used in road-building. This resulted in the first purchase of a press brake in 1937. Further purchases of plant were made with the purchase of an arc welding plant in 1929. Once in operation, it was the second such plant operating in Port Elizabeth. Today these machines can be counted in their hundreds on Welfit Oddy’s premises.

Welfit Oddy’s premises from 1946 to 1944-Plant #6

In recognition of the need to formally develop the requisite skills inhouse to meet the requirements of a rapidly automated workshop, the first two apprentices were employed in terms of the Master and Servants Agreement in 1930/1931. These two individuals were CD Evans and AJ Muirhead who would later be promoted to Director of Production and Director of Sales respectively.

Making their presence felt

At this stage, the national profile of the company left a lot to be desired. The primary reason for this was the fact that they were producing components for a vehicle as opposed to the vehicle itself. To rectify this situation, in the early 1930s the Company inaugurated the famous blue and silver “Oddy’s Bodies” double diamond trade mark.

In recovering from the great depression of 1931, the business grew rapidly and prospered. Further developments on the site eventually resulted in all three sides of the first building being built upon which constricted and hindered production. In 1946, the company bit the bullet and relocated to larger premises in Paterson Road. Also giving the industry an impetus was the recent introduction by the Government of the National Road Scheme.

Up until this juncture, the company had operated as a partnership but this restricted the company’s development and its ability to finance expansion. In 1936 the partnership between John I Oddy and Jack Oddy was registered as a private company. The years 1932 to 1938 can be acclaimed to be years of rapid progress due to large purchases of motor bodies and trailers of all types by government departments particularly for the execution of the National Roads Scheme.

The war years

With war clouds looming in Europe, vehicles and transportation equipment was internationally in short supply and could no longer be purchased overseas. In order to meet the orders issued by the Director General of War Supplies, innovative solutions had to be found and were found. For its part in meeting the requirements of the defence force, Welfit Oddy received letters of appreciation from the highest military sources for its efforts between 1940 and 1942. 

Many members of the staff applied for permission to proceed on active service but due to the necessity of maintaining the production of war supplies, the Government refuses permission and the men were awarded keyman status. After the conclusion of the Abyssinian campaign, many were then permitted to proceed on active service.

Activities were depressed during the years 1942 to 1944 primarily due to conditions prevailing during WW2. Nonetheless by 1944 the need had arisen for additional land. When the first lot in Paterson Road was purchased, the building erected on this site was totally inadequate to meet the continued demand for the company’s products. Accordingly, from time to time more land was purchased and additional buildings were erected. Eventually the buildings occupied some 12.5 acres [50586.25 m^2 while additional premises were leased from time to time.

By the 1950s the company manufactured a comprehensive range of vehicle bodies which included dump bodies, general purpose bodies, refuse collectors, tankers, ambulances, panel vans, pickups, explosive carrying bodies, caravans, trailers of all types as well as custom-built bodies.

It was not only the range of bodies produced which was extensive but the company also investigated the use of various raw materials more suited to the use to which the vehicle would be used. As an exemplar, in 1957 the company introduced an aluminium alloy as an optional material as it ticked the box as regards the properties related to bendability, weldability, corrosive resistance and hygienic properties.

So as to reduce its reliance on the importation of tools and dies required for the large range of machines in use, a decision was taken in 1953 a decision was taken to establish an associated company to undertake their manufacture. This company bore the name Welfit Engineering Limited.

In 1952, Welfit Oddy Holdings Ltd was floated on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. In a show of faith, this offer was oversubscribed.

Welfit Oddy’s premises today

Changes are afoot

In 1982, the current plant is opened at Perseverance, Port Elizabeth. This presaged a fundamental change in the business when the first Tank Container is manufactured in 1986. In 2000, Burg Industries B.V. takes over the majority shareholding of Welfit Oddy. The final but monumental change occurred in 2007 when Buhold Industries B.V. is established as the majority shareholding company of Welfit Oddy, as the non-Intermodal divisions of Burg Industries are sold off and still trade under the name of Burg. This was a bold move which has paid dividends.

  Revised mission statement

Welfit Oddy specializes in the design, manufacture and sale of tank containers, bulk liquid shipping containers and transport containers for the international chemical and food grade logistics market.

A Short overview of Welfit Oddy’s history

YEAR            EVENT

1894               Brothers Welfit Oddy and John Holmes Oddy form a partnership  trading under the name “Welfit Oddy” as farriers & wagon builders in Port Elizabeth.

1926               Welfit Oddy starts to manufacture vehicle bodies for the Ford Motor Company.

1936                Formation of the private company “Welfit Oddy (Pty) Limited”.

1952                Opening of a new plant in Paterson Road, Port Elizabeth.

1982               Opening of the current plant at Perseverance, Port Elizabeth.

1986               The first Tank Container is manufactured.

2000               Burg Industries B.V. take over the majority shareholding of Welfit Oddy.

2007                Buhold Industries B.V. is established as the majority shareholding company of Welfit Oddy, as the non-Intermodal divisions of Burg Industries are sold off and still trade under the name of Burg.


Port Elizabeth: From a Border Garrison Town to a Modern and Industrial City edited by Ramon Lewis Leigh (1966, Felstar Publishers, Johannesburg)

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