April 1960: Vauxhall Motors’ Luton plant

3 min read

April 1960 saw The Engineer publish a report of a visit to what is now the UK’s oldest surviving car brand, namely Vauxhall Motors.

The company’s first model, produced in 1903, was a five-horsepower single-cylinder vehicle steered using a tiller, with two forward gears and no reverse gear. Seventy of these vehicles were produced before modifications were introduced that provided wheel steering and a reverse gear.

The company moved to Luton in 1905 and by February 1959 the two-millionth car to be built at the Bedfordshire plant came off the production line. According to Luton Today, this production milestone was a cause for celebration and local MP Dr Charles Hill joined management and staff in honouring the occasion.


The purpose of The Engineer’s visit was lower key, concentrating as it did on two new extensions at Vauxhall’s engineering department in the form of a dynamometer building and a component test facility.

“The new engine test building, which has been designed for extension to include eventually a chassis dynamometer and a vehicle cold room, uses exclusively electric dynamometers supplied from motor/generator sets, and tests simulating exactly the load-speed relationship of road running are conducted under automatic control,” our reporter noted. “We observed an experimental Bedford 300 cubic inch oil engine with an AiResearch turbocharger running on a 6000rpm G.E.C. dynamometer with Emery hydraulic torque sensing; the supercharger speed was monitored by an inductive pick-off detecting the passage of a permanent magnet on the impeller and passing the pulses to a Berkeley timer with direct digital readout.”

According to the report, the new building also included a fuel injection equipment bay and a temperature-controlled room for carburettor airbox testing. The continuous flow rig can be seen above on the opposite page.


“The long-term stability of streamline metering orifices is valuable, as there is no positive displacement rig against which to calibrate them,” said The Engineer.

The testing of components demands a great variety of rigs, our reporter observed, including one which subjected a seat cushion to the effect of ‘two passengers continuously squirming vigorously’.

The picture shown left on the opposite page shows (nearest to the reporter’s camera) a truck steering box being run backwards and forwards through its travel against the resistance of a power steering ram.

“Beyond this is an impact test machine, and beyond that a rig on which car steering linkages were being cycled against spring forces to establish the life of the nipple-lubricated ball joints,” said The Engineer. “Further away is a stroking machine, on which a truck fuel tank is being slammed violently backwards and forwards to simulate the stresses set up when, for instance, coupling up a semi-trailer. Nearby are two machines which test road wheels by pressing two wheels, complete with tyres, together and rotating them, the tyres being cooled by a water spray.”

A large proportion of the workload was devoted to the testing of electrical equipment and some of the more life-like looking tests were those of windscreen wipers, which were set to wipe screens wetted only occasionally in order ‘to impose the dry-screen overload condition so dangerous to electric wiper motors.’


The bottom right-hand side of the opposite page shows a battery of stop-light switches being cycled by cams; and beyond them ignition-starter switches that were under test.

“在板凳上是一对油箱被罗cked to and fro to impose irregular movement on the contents gauge floats while water is pumped from one to the other and back,” said The Engineer. “Cigar-lighters are tested on a five-minute operating cycle, and on the boards in the background batches of traffic signal flashing relays are running.”

Our reporter continued: “Equivalent to the automatically controlled dynamometer simulating road journeys is a test for engine starting systems which imposes the full cranking torque on the starter motor.”

The Luton plant, which once had a peak workforce of 36,000, no longer produces cars. Instead, the company switched to another of its success stories in the form of vans. The plant is the only light commercial vehicle factory in the country and in 2021 it had the capacity to produce around 100,000 vans per year.

Further afield, Vauxhall’s Ellesmere Port plant in Cheshire has been producing cars since 1963 and currently produces the Astra Hatchback and Sports Tourer models. Vauxhall is owned by Stellantis and this year Ellesmere Port will become the first Stellantis plant to produce a battery-electric model for commercial and passenger use.