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Ambassador parent’s cradle turns 100

Production of the Morris Oxford at Cowley

London, March 28: The automobile factory in Oxford’s Cowley, which gave Uttarpara the assembly line for manufacturing Morris Oxfords and Calcutta its Ambassador taxi, was today celebrating 100 years of car making.

Over the past century, more than 11 million vehicles have been made in Cowley but it all began when an enterprising Englishman, William Morris (later Lord Nuffield), set up an automobile factory on the site of the old Oxford Military College and built his first car, the “Bullnose” Morris Oxford.

“To the day it came off the assembly line on March 28, 1913,” enthused a spokesperson.

By the 1950s, the factory was making Morris Oxfords. In 1958, the assembly line for the Series III was shifted to Uttarpara (there being no Bengal politician to put a stop to such a venture). Since then, Hindustan Motors has been making Ambassadors, though the models have been modernised with passing time.

Today, the plant in Cowley makes various versions of the Mini.

Called the Mini Plant Oxford, the factory has been owned since 1994 by Germany’s BMW. It employs 3,700 people and builds up to 900 cars every day. At one time in the 1960s, Cowley employed as many as 28,000 people.

Sending the employees his best wishes on the plant’s 100th birthday, David Cameron said: “The government is working closely with the automotive industry so that it continues to compete and thrive in the global race, and the success of Mini around the world stands as a fine example of British manufacturing at its best.”

The Prime Minister added: “The substantial contribution which the Oxford plant has made to the local area and the British economy over the last 100 years is something we should be proud of.”

The milestone was also celebrated by transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin who opened an exhibition at Cowley featuring its history of car making.

Cowley — a small district of Oxford — became a world-famous factory, turning out such iconic models as the MG, the Wolseley, the Riley, the Austin, the Mini — and, of course, the ever-dependable Morris Oxford.

William Morris owned the factory directly and then through Morris Motors until 1952 when Morris merged with rival Austin to form the British Motor Corporation (BMC). BMC became British Motor Holdings in 1967 after merging with Jaguar and in 1968 the company merged with the Leyland Truck Company to form British Leyland Motor Corporation.

Troubled times followed its nationalisation in the mid-70s, with the UK motor industry suffering damaging strikes and large corporate losses. The company eventually became the Rover Group in 1986 and was sold to British Aerospace in 1988, with BMW taking over in 1994.

If the plant went to Calcutta, the Ambassador has also come to London. A London businessman, Tobias Moss, who admits coming across the Calcutta taxi when he was on the hippy trail in his youth in India, runs “Karma Kars” with two colourfully decorated Ambassadors. His imported cars, six at one stage, are used for Indian weddings and religious festivals and by celebrities for special occasions.

Moss said: “In the past few years besides weddings, our cars have been in the videos for (singers) Keane and Lilly Allen. We’ve been booked by Selfridges, Monsoon/Accessorize and have driven many a celebrity including Sienna Miller, Sadie Frost, Kate Moss, Jason Donovan and the Jaggers. One of our cars was used in Coronation Street for Dev and Sunita’s wedding!”

The Karma Kars are serviced by Richard Monk who runs a one-man garage in Surrey and probably knows more about Ambassadors than anyone in the UK.

“It has the longest production run of car — and it is still a good car as far as I am concerned,” Monk told The Telegraph. “I look after 15 Ambassadors — I have two of my own. Most people get in touch with me because I have done a lot of work on them over the years. In the country I would say there would be around 30 Ambassadors.”

“Morris Motors sent out kits in about 1956 to Calcutta, which were based on the Series II Morris Oxford which was built between 1954 and 1956 in this country,” Monk went on. “That was called the Landmaster. In 1958, Hindustan Motors received all the tooling to manufacture the Series III Oxford from scratch so they could do the whole lot themselves; presses to press out body panels, everything was shipped over to India.”

“The car they make now is still based on the 1958 Morris Oxford Series III,” he said. “It now has a modern engine — the current ones have got disc brakes, power steering and electronics, everything a modern car has.”

The Ambassador is good for Calcutta roads, in his opinion. “Because of the high ground clearance and the robust build quality, it is the ideal car. When they first started making the Ambassador, anyone could repair it and if you did break down you were back on the road in a matter of minutes.”

Monk reckons some 300 Morris Oxfords have survived in Britain.

“I have had a Morris Oxford since I was 18,” Monk said proudly. “I am 52 now and it has been my daily car. I have got three or four of them. And the two Ambassadors. My daily car is a 1954 Morris Oxford. I work on modern cars for a living but I have no desire to own one. I like working on the Ambassador because it is a basic car you can strip down and rebuild. Anyone can do it. There is not another car built now that you can abuse like the ones in Calcutta and get away with it. You can always get home in an Ambassador.”

“I went to Calcutta 10 years ago it was absolutely brilliant,” recalled Monk. “We used Ambassadors a lot while we were there. We did try and get into the factory in Uttarpara I would have liked to have had a look at the production line but they would not let us in.”