As Nissan celebrates 30 years since its official opening on Thursday, Kevin Clark looks at why the North East was such a perfect fit for the car giant and its impact on the region.
Nissan’s arrival on Wearside was the catalyst for a change which would see the North East become a global centre of excellence for the automotive industry.
The region was the perfect location for Nissan - the rapid decline of mining, steel and shipbuilding had left a population steeped in a tradition of heavy industry and boasting skills which could be readily adapted to the needs of the new arrival.
And the sharp rise in the region’s unemployment count as a result of the loss of its traditional industries ensured workers were highly motivated to make a success of the new arrival.
The opening of applications for the first 25 supervisors posts in January 1985 saw more then 200 responses in just two hours and 10,000 applicants chased the 240 shopfloor jobs opened up in September.
Nissan is a huge employer in the city, and the positive influence the company has had on the community in Sunderland and the wider North East region is absolutely phenomenal.Kevin Fitzpatrick
The success of Nissan’s first phase ensured the firm would press ahead with expansion of the plant and sparked a rush of investment by suppliers.
The Nissan plant was soon followed by a host of supply companies such as Calsonic Kansei, Ikeda Hoover and Johnson Controls, most of them based locally in keeping with the firm’s ‘just in time’ production philosophy.
Nissan’s success also demonstrated the potential of the North East for attracting Far East investment and it would be less than a year before production began at Komatsu’s massive new plant in Birtley.
Before Nissan, the UK car industry was centred around the Midlands, and plants such as Ford at Dagenham and British Leyland at Cowley.
Today, the North East is home to more than 240 automotive companies, generating more than £11billion a year in sales, of which more than £5billion a year comes in exports, and accounts for more than a quarter of Europe’s entire electric vehicle production.
The sector directly employs 30,000 people across the region and indirectly supports another 141,000 jobs throughout the UK.
Paul Butler, chief executive of the North East Automotive Alliance (NEAA), said “The NEAA is delighted to recognise the significance of Nissan Sunderland’s 30th anniversary.
“Since opening in 1986, the plant has manufactured over 8.5million cars and has invested a huge £3.7billion into the development and growth of the manufacturing facility.
“The success of the North East automotive sector is unprecedented.
“Today, the region is renowned as a centre of excellence for automotive manufacturing and the supply chain has grown in line with Nissan’s growth.
“The automotive sector now directly employs 30,000 people in the region and is home to 28 tier 1 suppliers, and a further 240 automotive companies.”
North East England Chamber of Commerce director of policy Ross Smith said region and business had been the perfect match: “Nissan has been fantastic for North East England, but equally North East England has been good for Nissan.
“The company’s continued investment in our region is not out of sentiment – it’s because they know they have a world class plant, workforce and supply chain here.
“The cutting edge processes at Nissan have had a knock-on benefit as they have been adopted in part by many other manufacturing businesses here in the North East.
“And with former MD at Washington Trevor Mann now head of overall performance based in Japan, this shows that a global manufacturing giant is also learning from North East England.
“Sunderland is clearly not just a branch plant but an integral part of the Nissan global business.”
*Nissan’s thirty years in Sunderland are being celebrated at an exhibition that opens its doors this week.
A special exhibition charting the history of the plant is being staged at Sunderland Museum.
The show features videos of key moments in the plant’s history, as well as an insight into the future of automotive as envisaged by Nissan.
Kevin Fitzpatrick, Nissan vice president for manufacturing in the UK, said that the exhibition would not only bring back memories for those old enough to remember the plant coming to Sunderland, but would help younger people in the North East to understand the development of the firm since it first arrived in Sunderland, and the impact it has had on the development of the region.
“Nissan is a huge employer in the city, and the positive influence the company has had on the community in Sunderland and the wider North East region is absolutely phenomenal,” he said.
“It’s easy to take our current position for granted, but it has been the result of three decades of hard work, and this exhibition is a great opportunity to reflect on that, and to see the fantastic milestones and people that have made Nissan all that it is today.”
The free exhibition will run until January 2 and is free to attend. It has been delivered with support from MAKE it Sunderland.
Among the key developments featured are Sunderland’s most successful models such as the Nissan Qashqai, the brand’s best-selling crossover, as well as the 100% electric Nissan LEAF, the Nissan Note, Juke and Juke Nismo.
City council leader Coun Paul Watson said: “We are looking forward to showing the people of Sunderland exactly how much the Nissan plant brings to our city and community.
“Almost everyone in the city will know somebody who works at Nissan, a reflection of the scale of the company. There have been a great many highs for the firm over the last three decades, and we are proud to support this exhibition to share the company’s progress, and how it has grown to be a business that supports over 40,000 UK jobs, with one in every three cars in the country being a Nissan.
“The work of our people at this plant has helped to put Sunderland on the map nationally and internationally and that is something we should all be very proud of.”