Chevrolet In The UK

General Motors started its expansion programme into Europe after the First World War. Trucks were its priority as the cars that were built for, and very suited to, American needs were penalised by the import duties and horse power tax then applying in the UK market. Smaller engines with smaller bore cylinders and less of them were more the norm in the UK - the Chevrolet was heavily penalised at 22hp.

Buick had been selling cars in the UK from 1909 and despite being expensive, carved a prestige niche, appealing to the more affluent.

Commercial vehicles were seen in a very different light as not only was the taxation issue different, it was related to weight, the vehicles presented a ‘value for money’ package being of lightweight construction yet rugged design and above all, at a low cost. The decision was made to bring Chevrolet to the UK and assemble the product at General Motors Ltd’s London premises in Hendon from early 1923. Charles John Bartlett, a former accounting clerk with GM, was placed in charge of the new assembly plant at Hendon - he went on to become Managing Director of Vauxhall Motors Ltd in 1930.

One interesting anecdote was that GM was very interested in purchasing a European manufacturer (it had considered buying Citroen in 1919 but backed out when the French government intervened). In 1925 it began negotiations with the Austin Motor Company of Longbridge, Birmingham. After seven weeks, no agreement was reached even though Austin was keen with a manufacturing plant needing investment and suffering from a weak management team.

General Motors did not give up on its desire to purchase another manufacturer and next in its firing line was Vauxhall Motors Ltd. Vauxhall was producing only around 1500 cars per year (against Austin at 12,000 in 1924) but its models were sold at a higher price. Seen as a cheap experiment in ‘overseas manufacturing’, the deal was struck in October 1925 for £650,000.

The Hendon Chevrolet

Although the 10 cwt had been successful in the UK, the 1-ton truck market was dominated by Ford. General Motors recognised this and decided to assemble a 1-ton Chevrolet truck at Hendon to avoid paying import duty on a complete vehicle. The first new Chevrolet 1-ton truck to be built in the UK left the Hendon plant in early 1923 and the first sale went to C Jenkin, Landscape Gardener of Warleigh Road, Brighton in June 1923.

Chassis parts were assembled in Canada and assembled into complete vehicles at the factory in The Hyde, on the Edgware Road in north London using a range of bodies supplied by local manufacturers. The use of American practices - standardised manufacture of components and jigs and fixtures - meant that unskilled labour could be utilised, a proud boast in 1924. In 1925, two vehicle types became standard, the 10cwt and the 1-ton produced by just 100 people including the supporting staff. The factory continued to expand, becoming a main competitor for Ford and challenging Morris Commercial for supremacy in the 1-ton sector. By 1928, the Hendon factory was producing 10 cwt chassis and a range of body types on 20-25cwt chassis on four production lines. Further expansion required more capacity and the production was transferred to a new factory in Luton in 1929/30. This new factory was acquired with the Vauxhall purchase in 1925. Hendon continued to be used for modifications and special projects and all GM test work. The move to Luton, coupled to the introduction of the LQ range with its six-cylinder engine - the famous Stove-bolt Six - proved to be a time for reflection on the whole future of the UK operation.

Chevrolets built at Vauxhall were never branded such. They were ‘Manufactured at the Luton Works of General Motors Ltd’. Chevrolet went on to build a wide variety of very successful body types, including a huge number of buses and coaches, for a number of years alongside the commercial vehicle range from Bedford which were ‘made by Vauxhall Motors Ltd’. An interesting point was that the Bedford was by no means a badge-engineered Chevrolet. There were significant differences in construction although from the point of view of looks, the product was similar.

Bedford and Chevrolet ran alongside, even in 1931 the stand at the Commercial Motor Show jointly publicised both ranges. By 1933, Bedford stood alone at the Commercial Show and became the General Motors leading commercial vehicle brand in the UK.

Since truck production ceased, to date, Chevrolet product has only sold in relatively small numbers in the UK with predominantly US product being imported via specialists mainly for enthusiasts. With the launch of Chevrolet UK, mainstream car product is available in volume for the first time, with full manufacturer support across the UK market.

Published 18 February 2005 Melanie Carter

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