As Nissan celebrates 30 years on Wearside, we look at how the deal was done

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher opens the Nissan car plant  in Sunderland on September 8, 1986.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher opens the Nissan car plant in Sunderland on September 8, 1986.
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Nissan’s Sunderland plant celebrates its 30th anniversary this week.

In the first of a series of articles this week to mark the occasion, we look at how the car plant was secured for Wearside.

Pictured after the ground-breaking ceremony are, from left, Coun George Elliott, Mayor of Sunderland; Toshiaki Tsuchiya, director of the Nissan Motor Corporation; Professor Grigor McClelland, chairman of Washington Development Corporation, and Coun Archie Potts, chairman of Tyne and Wear County Council.

Pictured after the ground-breaking ceremony are, from left, Coun George Elliott, Mayor of Sunderland; Toshiaki Tsuchiya, director of the Nissan Motor Corporation; Professor Grigor McClelland, chairman of Washington Development Corporation, and Coun Archie Potts, chairman of Tyne and Wear County Council.

Monday, September 8, 1986, the day Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher opened the plant, was the culmination of more than five years of rumour, bargaining and diplomatic manoeuvring at the highest level.

It was in January 1981 that rumours first surfaced that Nissan was in talks with the Government about setting up a plant in Britain.

The news sparked a bidding war between various parts of the country which had been hit hard by the loss of traditional heavy industry.

Tyne and Wear County Council announced it had earmarked four possible sites for a factory, including Sunderland Airport, formerly RAF Usworth.

“Our preparatory work has been extremely thorough and we are confident our quality will match that of our Japanese sister factory.”

Sunderland’s hopes seemed to have ended almost before they had begun just a month later, when a Japanese newspaper reported the firm favoured a move to Wales and was looking at sites in Newport or Cardiff.

Nissan moved swiftly to quash the rumours, however, and a delegation arrived in the UK in March 1981 to scout eight possible locations across the country.

The group visited Usworth in the middle of an April snowstorm and also toured Washington – but then the trail went cold.

It would be November before any further concrete development, with the announcement a second 14-strong team would be inspecting the Sunderland site.

The negotiating team from Tyne and Wear County Council, Sunderland Borough Council, and Washington Development Corporation , which won the Nissan plant for Wearside.

The negotiating team from Tyne and Wear County Council, Sunderland Borough Council, and Washington Development Corporation , which won the Nissan plant for Wearside.

That visit was followed by the arrival of a three-man delegation in February 1982 to open discussions with senior government officials.

Progress at national level may have been slow, but Sunderland Borough Council was determined to make its case, and in March 1982, leader Coun Charles Slater announced the authority had set aside money from the sale of council houses to be used for land acquisition should Nissan come to Wearside.

Hopes of bringing the firm to the UK seemed to have been dashed in the summer, with Japanese newspaper reports suggesting the company had given up on its dream of European expansion and quoting a senior executive as saying: “There is a strong opinion within our company that the project is risky.”

Nissan’s UK adviser Lord Marsh rubbished the claims but just days later, the company announced it was putting any decision on hold as a result of global economic uncertainty.

There seemed to be confusion with Nissan itself, however, with Tyne and Wear County Council leader Coun Michael Campbell receiving a letter shortly after the announcement which stated the plan was still to push ahead and confirming Sunderland was a front runner.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher met with executives in Japan in September 1982 in a bid to persuade them to press on with the proposals, but it would be June 1983 before any further development, with Nissan promising a decision before the end of the year.

The announcement was then pushed back to back to January and New Year came without any news, but on February 1, 1984, Nissan finally signed an agreement to develop a plant in Britain.

The race between the regions to secure the plant was now firmly on.

A Nissan team was back on Wearside before the end of the month and by early March, the Echo was announcing Wearside as favourite.

The company released a final shortlist of three, which saw Sunderland going up against Immingham on Humberside and Shotton in South Wales, and executives returned to Wearside on March 13 to visit the site and hold talks at the headquarters of the Washington Development Corporation.

It was 8am on Friday, March 30, when Lord Marsh rang Ed Robson, of the joint team set up by the borough and county councils and development corporation, confirming Sunderland had been successful.

The firm was to build a small plant, employing just 500 people and producing a mere 24,000 cars a year.

But if the first phase was successful, phase two could see worker numbers rise to 3,000.

Sunderland South MP Gordon Bagier said: “I am absolutely delighted. It can only be good for the region but it is a challenge as well to make a success of this initial venture so we can look forward to Nissan extending its operations and providing even more jobs,” while Coun Slater described the news as ‘the biggest shot in the arm the town of Sunderland has had.’

Nissan president Takashi Ishihara visited Sunderland on Wednesday, November 7, 1984, for the stone-laying ceremony which saw the dream of a Wearside car factory begin to become a reality.

When recruitment began, the response from a region still reeling from the decline of the pits and shipyards was staggering.

The opening of applications for the first 25 supervisors posts in January 1985 prompted more then 200 responses in just two hours and 10,000 applicants chased the 240 shopfloor jobs offered in September.

Almost 300 workers moved into the £50million factory on January 6, 1986, and the first Nissan Bluebird rolled off the assembly line seven months later.

“Our preparatory work has been extremely thorough and we are confident our quality will match that of our Japanese sister factory,” a Nissan spokesman said.

After the successful launch of the Bluebird, initials doubts over the viability of the project receded and the company approved Phase Two, which saw a further £560million invested and a further 1,500 people hired.

Nissan was here to stay.