A good little runner - 20 years of Nissan

Today marks 20 years of production at Sunderland's Nissan factory. Business writer KEVIN CLARK looks back at one of the most significant moments in Wearside's industrial heritage.

THE hard work had just started.

On July 8, 1986, the first Nissan Bluebird rolled off the production line at the newly-built car plant in Washington.

It was the culmination of five years' work behind the scenes that convinced the Japanese car giant Wearside was the place to base its European operations.

In the first 12 months the 470 staff had a production target to build 24,000 new Bluebirds.

Back then, Wearside's traditional big employers – coal, steel, shipbuilding – were dead or dying and the new ones – light industry, call centres – were undreamed of.

It is hard to imagine now a newspaper such as the Echo running a campaign called War for Work, or regular pages of advice to help families on the breadline stretch their money until dole day.

But that was the reality of life on Wearside 20 years ago – and the reason why Nissan was greeted with open arms when it committed to the Sunderland Airport site.

Twenty years on, the plant's workforce is recognised as the most efficient in the world when it comes to mass-producing cars.

Now Nissan is the city's biggest employer – its 4,200 workers produce four different models and build 310,000 units a year.

In December a 4x4 car based on the Qashqai concept car will become the 10th new model to be launched on Wearside since production began – an average of one new model every two years.

Models currently rolling off the production line include Micras, C+Cs, Notes, Almeras and Primeras

Total production at the plant could hit 400,000 units by the end of 2007.

Today, Nissan is served by a complex supply chain, which itself employs thousands of people across Wearside. Last week saw the latest addition, with the opening of Tacle UK plant in Rainton Bridge, which will supply seats for the Qashqai.

It is a far cry from the early days of the Sunderland plant, when Bluebirds were shipped over in wooden crates from Japan and simply assembled in Sunderland.

The first Bluebird saloon is still in Sunderland – it is on show at the city museum and Winter Gardens and still on display in the Time Machine exhibit.

Juliet Horsley, curator of Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens, added: "We are proud to have the first Nissan produced at the Sunderland plant on show at the museum. It represents an important part of the city's industrial heritage and also makes an unusual exhibit which our visitors enjoy."

THREE workers on Nissan's production line on day one, and who are still there now, remember 20 years of making our cars.

Engineering Manager Steve Clare joined Nissan in 1985 as a maintenance technician: "The main transfer line was called the Liger Line after the two national animals of the UK and Japan (lion and tiger)," he recalled.

"There have been lots of changes since then. For example, in 1986 the body shop only operated 20 robots – these days the automation level in that shop is over 80 per cent with around 700 robots."

John Pigg, a Team Leader in Material Handling, added: "My job on the first Bluebirds was to break open the crates they arrived in and lay out all the parts ready for production.

"The plant has developed massively since then – I can remember the local farmer coming in and cutting hay in a field where our body and press shops are now."

In the last 20 years, more than 4.3million cars have been produced for 55 markets around the world, including Japan. And the factory now represents more than 2.3billion of investment.

Trevor Mann, Vice-President for Manufacturing, UK, said: "I joined the plant myself in 1985 as a team leader in final assembly.

"All of the first intake of supervisors and managers were flown to Japan for three months to learn how to build cars according to the Nissan Production Way.

"What impressed me most was that the group who established the plant were not all from the car industry. But one thing they all had in common, which I think can still be said of all Sunderland plant employees today, was motivation, skill and a 'can-do' attitude.

"Since the first Bluebird came off the line 20 years ago, we have introduced two shifts, new products and new processes. All of these were highly challenging and I believe a less able workforce could have failed.

"But a major strength of this plant is that we have always delivered what we say we will, and that is still as true today as it was in 1986."