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Ford Turns 100, Reflects on History in Germany

As one the most important hubs in the Ford Motor Company's global network, Germany’s flagship plant in Cologne will be celebrating the company's 100th birthday while reviewing its own role in Ford’s last century.

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German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder behind the wheel of the 500,000th Fiesta to be built in Cologne.

The Ford Motor Company celebrates its centennial this year, and this week marks the start of the official celebrations as plants, offices and showrooms all over the world mark the birth of one of the world’s biggest and most famous car manufacturers.

Although the company began its life in the United States in 1903, Henry Ford’s vision was way ahead of his time in terms of expansion. Almost a century before globalization became a buzzword in economics and business, Ford was planning to spread his car empire from Michigan to the four corners of the earth, from the United States, to Europe, Japan and beyond.

From almost the very moment of its birth, the Ford Motor Company had maintained a presence in Europe ever since a London-based sales agency began selling the famous Model T in 1908. But it wasn’t until almost 20 years later that

Ford himself saw the need to establish a solid European network and coordinate the branches that were haphazardly scattered across the continent at the time.

Ford opens Berlin factory in 1925

Tin Lizzy

The Model T Ford.

One of the Ford Motor Company’s most significant developments in Europe during the 1920s was in Germany, already a country with a thriving automotive industry of its own. The first branch of Ford in Germany opened in 1925 in Berlin with vehicle assembly operations commencing the following year. Being a fledgling international company at the time, Ford was pioneering the idea of skilled workers from foreign plants working all over the world, taking their knowledge of the Ford design and mechanics to new markets. It was this plan that led to a non-German speaking Dane, Erhard Vitger, becoming Ford Germany’s first employee at the Ford Werke plant in Berlin.

By the time Henry Ford arrived in Cologne in 1930 to personally lay the foundation stone of the huge site that would become an integral part of Ford Europe and the new home for Ford Werke Germany, the one model sales boom was already flagging. The Model T, only available in black, could not be expected to carry the company forever in the face of developments by other car companies that were producing lighter and smaller vehicles that were subject to lower taxes in Europe.

The Ford Köln rolls out in 1932

Noticing the preference for these new models in European countries, Ford began manufacturing its first vehicle designed specifically with Europe in mind. In 1932, the Model Y rolled off the production line in the company’s European hub in Dagenham, United Kingdom, before being adopted by many of the continent’s plants. The Ford Werke plant in Cologne played an important role in the switch to cars with less than eight horsepower and the renamed “Ford Köln,” the brand under which the Model Y was sold in Germany, became a very popular vehicle across the country.

But towards the end of the 1930s, growing political unrest fuelled by ideas of protectionism and nationalism began affecting the motor industry in Europe. In some cases, Ford branches in European countries became less than happy being controlled by Ford's home office. By the start of World War II, Ford plants in Germany, France and the U.K. were already producing their own separate product lines with less and less communication with the U.S. headquarters.

Hitler in Wien

Adolf Hitler: Ford fan.

It was said at the time that Adolf Hitler was a great admirer of the Ford Company, its production techniques and of its founder. So much so, that Hitler awarded Henry Ford with the Order of the German Eagle, the highest civilian honor in Nazi Germany, in 1938. But the relationship, already soured by the onset of war, deteriorated further during the conflict.

Nazi control during World War II

During the war years, Ford lost communication with and direct operational control over the Ford-Werke in Cologne. Rumors were rife that the controllers of Ford Werke were forcing laborers to manufacturer trucks and light armored vehicles to aid the Nazi war effort. The Allied Military Government returned the plants and assets of Ford-Werke to Ford Motor in 1948, three years after the war ended.

Reports that became available 50 years later acknowledged that Ford’s suspicions of forced and slave labor were right but there followed much discussion and accusation concerning whether or not Ford had profited from the German’s wartime activities. However, an extensive report by the company’s head office in Dearborn, Michigan, released in 2001, showed that the Ford did not materially benefit from the subsidiary's actions during the war. The 144-page report summarized more than 98,000 pages of documents and materials gathered and analyzed from more than 30 archival repositories.

Home of the Fiesta, Focus and Fusion

Ford Autos werden mit Barco Ford verschifft

The Cologne plant itself has also moved on from those dark days. With a modern workforce of over 21,000 from a total of 57 nations, the plant is one of the largest Ford plants in the world. The factory is capable of assembling any model in the European lineup, from the Ka subcompact to the Galaxy van and the plant is the flagship for Europe’s production of the latest Ford Fiesta, Focus and Fusion models. In June, the 500,000th Fiesta rolled off the Cologne production line with German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder behind the wheel.

The company’s involvement in everyday life in Cologne is evident not only through the employment it provides to many workers in the area but also through sponsorship of events, such as the annual Cologne Marathon and local organizations.

With special family days scheduled to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Ford Motor Company across the world, Cologne’s workforce, and the community that supports it, will be looking back at the positive aspects of Ford’s association with German industry and forward to a long and happy relationship.

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