The story of the Cowley factory actually begins back in 1912 when William Morris bought the site that would eventually become Plant Oxford.
By 1913 the factory was producing its first car, the ‘bullnose’ Oxford, named in honour of the car’s home city. Over the coming years, the plant expanded rapidly and became a key employer in the area.
During World War II, with car production on hold, Cowley supported Britain’s war effort, building RAF training craft and processing metal recovered from crashed and damaged aircraft.
It was after the war however, that the plant really began to cement its place at the heart of the UK motor industry.
The Morris Minor entered production just three years after the end of the war and in 1952, Morris became part of the British Motor Corporation.
Becoming part of BMC meant that the plant would eventually produce a much broader range of cars, including Austins and Rovers.
When BMC became British Leyland in 1968, Cowley had grown to cover 288,934 square metres, employed 8,700 people and could produce 7,500 vehicles a week, which, between 1959 and 1968 included the original Mini. During the 60s, Cowley was home to the company’s ‘Service Division’, carrying over 20 million parts for every model built at the time.
As the 60s gave way to the 70s the Morris Minor was replaced by the Marina and the next ten years would be a continual struggle for the Oxford factory. The 70s were a dark period for the plant, the Marina was dogged by quality issues and labour relations with the management reached an all-time low, with frequent strikes and stoppages.
The last Morris to leave Cowley was the Ital, which moved to Longbridge in 1982. The factory also built the final Triumph, producing the Honda Ballade based Acclaim until 1984. Rover production also came to Cowley in the 1980s, first with the SD1 and then in 1986 with its Honda-derived replacement, the 800 Series.
Through rationalisation and production improvements, Cowley’s size contracted over the years and in 1994 fell under the control of the BMW Group when Rover was sold to the German company.
BMW invested heavily in the plant, spending some £280 million modernising the factory, ramping up for the launch of arguably Rover’s most important car for decades, the Rover 75.
As history records, the marriage of BMW and Rover was not a happy one and in 2000, BMW sold the company to the ill-fated Phoenix Four for £10, and the Rover 75 production lines moved to Longbridge in Birmingham, with the planned new MINI lines coming to Oxford, seeing the MINI make a spiritual return to Cowley.
The MINI’s arrival in Oxford was a turning point for the plant and since 2001, it hasn’t looked back. Rebranded as ‘Plant Oxford’, today the factory is part of what’s known as ‘the MINI triangle’ working in conjunction with body pressings from Swindon and engine production in Birmingham at Hams Hall.
Plant Oxford produces the Mini Hatch, Convertible, Clubman, Clubvan, Roadster and Coupé with a workforce of 3,700. Such is the range of options available on the MINI that it’s virtually impossible for two identical MINIs to leave the factory in the same production year.
The MINI’s incredible success means investment from parent BMW continues too, with the German company pledging in 2011 to plough another £500 million into the site.
With the latest incarnation of the MINI due soon in the factory’s 100th year, the future of the plant looks rosy for a lot of years to come.