TBT: Ford Sets up Shop in ‘Detroit of South Africa’

Nov 02, 2023

While Ford of South Africa celebrates its centennial in the coming weeks, Ford Motor Company has actually been doing business in the country since the company was just two years old. Thinking globally, company founder Henry Ford in 1905 appointed a local company to distribute and sell Ford vehicles in Port Elizabeth – a city which would later come to be known as the “Detroit of South Africa,” after serving as home to Ford operations for several decades. 

With sales of the Model T taking off, the “Universal Car’s” popularity lived up to the moniker, as it became the most popular vehicle in South Africa, too. This led to the decision to assemble the Model T locally, and Ford Motor Company of South Africa was established in November 1923 as a subsidiary of Ford of Canada. The cars were assembled from knocked-down kits, a collection of parts required to assemble a product, which were imported from Canada. The process was performed in a converted old wool store in Port Elizabeth (now Gqeberha). The factory was Ford’s 16th assembly plant located outside of the U.S. and Canada. 

Ford was the first global vehicle manufacturer to establish operations in South Africa, and the company also introduced the first assembly line there when assembly operations in Port Elizabeth began in January 1924. Ford produced 1,446 vehicles, Model Ts, in the first year. By the end of 1925, more than 18,000 Fords were registered in the country – nearly three times the amount from the next competitor.

A state of constant expansion

By the late 1920s, Ford encountered what would become a recurring theme – it needed more space to accommodate its operations in South Africa. With production of the Model A, Ford relocated its assembly operations in 1930 to a new factory. After multiple expansions, another factory was added in 1939.

Like its American counterparts, Ford of South Africa redirected its production efforts to aid the allied campaign in World War II. More than 250 employees left to fight in armed services, but production continued, as more than half of the 60,000 vehicles produced between 1939 and 1945 went to the

Union Defense Force. Ford also supported the South African Air Force, repairing wings for training aircraft, before postwar production resumed in June 1946, a transition slowed by a lag in resumption in the U.S. and other regions. 

Another new plant was needed by 1947, and the Neave Industrial Township facility was opened in October 1948. It would go on to produce memorable Fords such as the Fairlane, Escort, Granada and Capri. Employees there also assembled trucks and tractors, all of which were sold locally and exported to Sub-Saharan Africa. 

Ford became the first company in South Africa to manufacture engines locally for passenger cars and trucks when it opened a dedicated engine manufacturing facility, the Struandale Engine Plant. It was officially opened by Henry Ford II in May 1964. Another significant addition came later in the decade with the construction of a purpose-designed Product Development and Engineering facility in 1968. A proving grounds had come two years earlier. The product development center gave engineers there the resources to create products unique to South Africa such as various iterations of a Cortina pickup (also known as a “bakkie”).

Engine plant gets a new neighbor  

The Struandale Assembly Plant, situated adjacent to the engine facility, was constructed in 1973, specifically designated for Cortina production, which would continue until 1983 when more than 300,000 units had been sold in the country.

Ford Motor Company of South Africa produced its one-millionth vehicle in 1976, but political upheaval of the 1980s led Ford to pull back from the country, and its local manufacturing, distribution and sales operations were turned over to the South African Motor Corporation in 1985. Ford returned to South Africa in 1994, though, as the country transitioned to democracy under Nelson Mandela. Production of the Ford Fiesta began at the Silverton Assembly Plant in 1997.

Ford Motor Company of Southern Africa was established in 2000, as the Ford Ranger was introduced to the market. More than 100,000 Rangers were sold in South Africa by 2011 and Ford doubled down on the pickup, focusing its product portfolio solely on Ranger production for global exports. Local manufacturing of the Everest SUV was added in 2016 and the company’s first Ranger Raptor would come later.

The Silverton Plant underwent a complete overhaul in 2021 to accommodate the next-generation Ford Ranger. The project included the construction of stamping plant, as well as a new body shop and a chassis plant. Ford marked its three millionth vehicle produced in 2013. In August 2023, the Struandale plant produced its four millionth engine to date, a history that includes 11 different engine types.

Ford’s upcoming centennial in South Africa gave added significance to the recent Heritage Day, an annual celebration where Ford employees are encouraged to wear traditional attire, because the company has played an integral role in the lives of so many people in the country. Ford’s long-standing investments in the country have cultivated a relationship with the community similar to what we see in the company’s backyard, all thanks to Ford and the soaring popularity of the Model T a century ago.

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