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Luton’s historical relationship with car manufacturing and vehicles

07/11/2018

Luton is famed for its many years of vehicle and car production right here in our town. There was a large Vauxhall Motors factory here and production began in 1905 and lasted until 2002.

Commercial vehicles are still manufactured here, and Vauxhall Motors Head Office is still based in the town. Vauxhall Motors is a British car manufacturer, which is a fully owned subsidiary of the German manufacturer, Opel, which in turn is owned by Groupe PSA of France, the parent company of Citroen, DS and Peugeot. Whilst Vauxhall and Opel models are very closely modelled, the Vauxhall brand is exclusive to the U.K.

The history of Vauxhall

The company that led to Vauxhall was founded in 1857 under the name Alex Wilson and Company. Alex Wilson was a pump and marine engine manufacturer who had big dreams about development and his portfolio.

Six years later in 1863 the company was bought by Andrew Betts Brown.  He renamed it Vauxhall Iron Works and they began making cranes. By 1903 cars started to be manufactured.

The name Vauxhall has a strange origin, which many historians might enjoy. Fulk le Breant was granted land by King John and it was Breant’s house by the River Thames in London that became known as Fulk's Hall, which was changed to Fawkes Hall, then Foxhall and finally Vauxhall.

Car manufacturing

Vauxhall Motors connection to Luton began in 1905 when Vauxhall Iron Works wanted to expand. Luton offered a cheap power supply with neighbouring Luton Electricity Works and it also had a lot of surrounding land that made it very desirable.  The company became known as Vauxhall Motors in 1907.

In 1916, the then company chairman, Mr Leslie Walton, explained that even more land had been purchased for further expansion of the company. He said: “We hope to increase its output very considerably this year, for the benefit of the country as well as the company.”

During the First World War the whole of Vauxhall car output was being supplied to the war office and the Luton factory produced more than 1,500 D-Type models as staff cars. And it was in one of these cars that King George V visited the battlefields at Vimy Ridge in July 1917.

Following the end of the war the lack of demand for premium type vehicles meant that Vauxhall Motors struggled to make a consistent profit and in 1925 the company was acquired by American automobile manufacturer General Motors. Over the next 5 years the company direction moved more towards producing lower cost but still premium vehicles in an effort to appeal to a wider market.

During the Second World War, the production of cars was suspended in Luton as Vauxhall turned their attention to work on the new Churchill tank.  Less than a year in them making, more than 5600 tanks were built, alongside 250,000 lorries towards the war effort.

Post WW2 to present

Vauxhall started out as a luxury car brand, but after World War 2, it turned its attention to the mass-market. Famously produced cars include; the Vauxhall Viva, a small family car in 1963, and the larger Vauxhall Victor, and the infamous Chevette and Cavalier of 1975. 

In December 2000, Vauxhall announced that car production in Luton would cease in 2002, and the last cars to roll out of the forecourt were a Vauxhall Vectra, along with its closely matched companion, the Zafira. 

Production continues today at Ellesmere Port in Cheshire; a plant that originally opened in 1962 making components to supply to the production lines in Luton, before car production began there also in 1964.  There are still a number of different cars currently in production including the Corsa, Astra and Insignia; and in line with the current popularity of more versatile vehicles they have the Mokka, Crossland X and Grandland X.

It is clear to see why Luton loves a car. Vauxhall has remained a precedent here, and car shows will always be around. If you are a local who loves cars, check out the ‘Luton Festival of Transport', or the ‘South Bedfordshire Classic Vehicle Show’ next year.