30 years ago: Japanese car giant Nissan arrives in the Northeast



Thirty years ago, the first Nissan Bluebird rolled off the production line at the new Washington plant.

Since then, the auto giant has been an integral part of the region’s economy.

It has provided jobs for thousands of people, generated millions of pounds of local business and has become a source of pride for the industry in the North East.

Nissan’s history in the region began in 1981 when the Japanese automaker decided to establish a base in Europe.

In February 1984, the company and the British government signed an agreement to build an automobile factory in the United Kingdom.

The following month, the pristine 799-acre site in Washington, Tyne and Wear – formerly Sunderland Airfield and formerly RAF Usworth – was chosen. There were several reasons for this.

The area had experienced a period of rapid industrial decline with shipyard closures and the gradual closure of the once booming County Durham coal field. This meant that Nissan had a large, enthusiastic and skilled manufacturing workforce.

Prince Charles and the first car in the production line at the Nissan Washington plant, 1986

The site was close to major ports on the Tyne and Tees, a short drive from Newcastle International Airport and close to major highways.

At the time, Sunderland was a corporate zone and eligible for government funding, with Nissan receiving a total of around £ 100million in grants – though the company was quick to point out that this was on top of a small percentage of its investment in its factory totaling well over £ 1 billion.

One of Nissan’s most controversial demands during the talks was for the plant to be single-union. This was unprecedented in British industry, but in April 1985 an agreement was reached with the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU).

The established company became known as Nissan Motor Manufacturing (UK) Ltd. A groundbreaking ceremony took place in July 1984 and work began on the site in November by building contractor Sir Robert McAlpine.

During this time, key personnel were quickly employed.

Oppama in Japan is Sunderland’s sister factory and it was there that in 1985 the so-called “22 originals” were sent.

These are the 22 supervisors – or “super foremen” – hired to learn how Nissan works and convey the philosophy to the people employed to work on Wearside.

The company laid down the basic rules of production – the standard operation – ensuring that there was only one way to get the job done and thus guaranteeing quality.

In December 1985, McAlpine turned over the completed plant building to Nissan for installation of plant machinery and components, ahead of schedule.

The first phase of plant construction was completed in July 1986 and consisted of a bodywork, painting and final assembly line.

The first Bluebird was produced with parts assembled after being shipped from Japan. It will be produced until 1990 and the first model is now on display at the Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens.

There were over 10,000 applications for the first 240 jobs at the new Nissan Washington plant in 1986.
There were over 10,000 applications for the first 240 jobs at the new Nissan Washington plant in 1986.

The official opening of the factory by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Nissan President Yutaka Kume took place in September 1986.

A recruitment campaign was set up with personnel selected for heavy bodywork work, largely from the mining and shipbuilding industry. Over 10,000 people applied for the first 240 jobs.

While many have left the traditional roles of British industry, what awaited them in Washington was new and unique at this time.

Since then, more than five million vehicles have been built there as Nissan continues to grow stronger.



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