Inter Automotive – the History
The Paper Mill, often now described as the Intier site, was used for the manufacture of automotive parts from 1962 to 2006. Tony Wilmott gave a talk at the History Group meeting on 26 April, 2017. The talk was very well received by over 70 people in the audience. Tony was asked if he would make available the slides used for the meeting, which are shown below with Tony’s notes annotated.
The Golden Valley in South Gloucestershire is an area that runs southwest from the Cotswolds. On the edge of Dodington Estate high in the hills is Springs Farm, the main official source of the Boyd. At Codrington another spring joins the flow and runs down through the valley gathering water from the surrounding hills until, on reaching Doynton, it becomes quite a significant volume of water, which was enough to power a mill until around 1947. Known as the River Boyd, it runs on to be joined by the Feltham Brook before making it’s way through Wick and Bitton to join the River Avon near the old LMS Bristol to Bath railway line, now a part of the National Cycle Network.
In the village of Bitton stands Golden Valley Mill. There has been a mill on this site since 1702. This was a foundry built for the Bristol Brass Battery and Copper Company. The water from the Boyd was held back in a man-made reservoir to supply the foundry with power. The foundry was later owned by Torrance & Sons and then Stothert & Pitt of Bath. In 1824 the mill was registered in the excise papers of Bath as a Paper Mill under the ownership of George Savage and Thomas Bevan of Park Street Bristol. In 1848 the mill was reported to be making brown wrapping paper when a disastrous fire destroyed the mill.
In 1849 the mill was sold to and rebuilt by a Mr W. Somerville and by 1876 the mill was producing writing and envelope paper. Four hundred people were employed producing 30 tons of paper per week from wood pulp imported from Scandinavia.
In 1875 another fire completely destroyed the mill which was enlarged and rebuilt with a new chimneystack having the date ‘1880’ marked in black bricks near to the top. The stack was originally 220 feet high.
The Sommerville family ran the mill until 1903 when it was sold to Charles King-Smith. During the 1939-45 war the chimney was reduced in height by about 30 feet as it was thought to be providing a “sight” for the German bombers heading for the Bristol Aeroplane Company at Filton, north of Bristol.
The mill continued to make good quality writing paper until it closed in 1961, due to the ballpoint pens’ ability to write on almost any type of paper, coupled with the inability of the machinery to compete with modern equipment. This was a severe blow for the locality as the majority of the villagers and people from the surrounding area lost their jobs.
The King-Smith family ran the mill until the closure.
Prestfibre was started in Reading in 1956 by Miles and David Burroughs and made small wood fibre mouldings for domestic appliances and glove boxes for the motor industry. This wood fibre process was operated under license from Deutsch Fibrit G.M.B.H., based at Luneburg in Northern Germany.
The process involved forcing a wood fibre and water slurry into a shaped perforated mould to give a build up of fibre about 50mm thick. High pressure air was then introduced to drive out as much water as possible, reducing the mould thickness to about 35mm. The fibre mould was transferred to a male form and a hydraulically pressurised rubber bag closed over the mould to squeeze out more water. This resulted in a fibre moulding about 30mm thick which was then squeezed between a pair of hot dies at a closing pressure of up to 100 tonnes, the temperature of the dies being 300oC. After 2 to 3 minutes the result was a strong wood fibre moulding about 2mm thick, similar to, but much stronger than hardboard. The transfer of mouldings between the various stations was originally a manual operation but in later years became fully automated. Originally, a baled wood fibre in sheet-form from Norway or Sweden was used and phenolic resin was added to the slurry to give the moulding added strength. However, when the pulping plant was built in 1978 and locally sourced wood was pulped on site, it was found that using fresh wood (2 to 3 weeks old) could achieve the same strength, using the natural resins in the wood.
In 1962 Miles and David were looking for suitable premises to expand their business, having obtained the contract to supply bucket seat mouldings for the Morris & Austin 1100. The old paper mill seemed the ideal place as it still had some of the pulping machinery and storage tanks in place common to both paper making and wood fibre moulding. The mill was leased from the King- Smiths on a five year term commencing 1st October 1962 with the option to purchase the property after five years or vacate. Work began immediately to install the pulping equipment, large presses and associated hydraulic equipment to produce the wood-fibre moulded bucket seats. The mouldings were produced on four sets of tools, each set comprising one wet moulding set of tools and two hot tools. The mouldings would be trimmed and holes punched in them for fitting the leather cloth cover with the upholstery, the holes also allowed air to escape from the foam cushion when in use. The moulding was then sprayed with a metallic silver paint before being shipped off to the car assembly plants. During the production run 1963 – 1967 well over 1 million seats were produced.
In 1965 Prestfibre Ltd acquired the automotive moulding division of Plessey Ltd at Swindon, (known as Pimfibre), and another company, Preform, from Treforrest in S.Wales. Both plants were moved to Bitton in 1965/6. Specializing in smaller mouldings for the automotive industry, e.g. Glove boxes, heater vents and parts of boot liners, the mouldings were formed by a vacuum process, instead of pressure in the case of the Prestfibre parts. At this time the company name was changed to British Moulded Fibre Ltd.
The newly acquired business was housed in some of the existing buildings adjoining the main part of the mill. Production continued and new products were introduced: – a gear box cover for the Triumph Herald, wheel arch covers for the Hillman Imp, heater nozzles for the Ford Zephyr, baby seats for Britax and door pockets for Jaguar to name but a few. There was also a range of suitcase shells made for Antler, with some cases being completed on site.
Some of the larger mouldings manufactured on the Prestfibre process were shipped to the Reading factory for finishing with a vinyl or leather cloth, as the plant at Bitton was only set up to provide bare, painted or varnished/waterproofed mouldings.
The “Mill” was bought by the Boroughs family in October 1967.
July 1968 was one of the wettest months on record in the South West. On the 10th of July the rain was exceptionally heavy, 6 inches falling in eight hours, when, at around eight o’clock in the evening a roaring noise could be heard in and around the mill and a rush of water cascaded through the doors and windows on the pond side of the mill rapidly rising to a depth of six feet throughout the buildings. The rain-water had apparently been lying in fields further up the valley, hedges and ditches blocked by hay washed off the fields caused the water to hold back when suddenly one hedge gave way under the weight of water and cascaded down releasing water lying in lower fields until the torrent hit the Boyd and the pond at the back of the mill.
The water rapidly rose and the workforce evacuated the premises. There was concern for a number of employees who could not be accounted for, but it was discovered next morning that as the workforce left the mill four or five went down Mill Lane to higher ground on the east side of the village (the White Hart). The majority, living in the Bristol direction had left by going up the mill road to the higher ground on the western side of the village.
Within the factory walls the water reached a depth of eight feet due to the main gates being closed and debris building up and acting as a dam. Water on the outside of the mill reached a depth of five feet and flooded the mill cottages as well as the majority of houses in the lower lying part of the village. Cars were washed off the Central Garage forecourt; the petrol pumps on the forecourt of the Shell garage (now The Bitton Motor Company) were submerged to the base of the Shell light on the top of the pumps. The lights kept flashing on and off throughout the night accompanied by a booming noise like a giant drum, which at daybreak was found to be a large oil tank which had been washed out of the mill when the gates eventually gave way, and was trapped under the arch of the road bridge. The parapet walls of the bridge had been washed away along with the wall that ran alongside the Boyd on the right hand side of the approach road to the mill. The old red telephone box near the bridge stood alone when the waters receded.
This flood obviously had a disastrous effect on the production at the factory. The whole area was covered with a muddy slime that had penetrated electrical systems, machine control cabinets, electric motors, hydraulic systems and compressors etc. A massive clean-up operation was launched. A large oven used for the curing of a waterproofing process for the wood fibre mouldings was the first thing to be put back into operation, with the help of electrical engineers in Bristol. Then everything was systematically dismantled, hosed out with fresh water, put through the oven until it passed the electrical insulation tests and re-installed. Hydraulic systems and compressors were drained, flushed out and refilled with new oil. Limited production, to satisfy customer requirements, were resumed within three days, although return to full production took about four weeks.
A brief departure from the automotive components came in the early 1970’s with the manufacture of a space-age style “Wendy House”. This was marketed under the company name “Burtoy”. It was constructed from four wood-fibre moulded curved shells, clipped together to form a circular structure with a vacuum formed Perspex dome at the top for observation purposes. A wood fibre moulded chair was also produced. A plain painted and an upholstered version being available.
Another non-automotive product was a shell case. This was a fluted cylindrical moulding closed at one end and a four start thread moulded into the other. This cylinder was supplied to the M.O.D. ordinance facility in South Wales and filled with explosive to replace the brass shell case fitted to large calibre guns as fitted to Royal Navy ships. These shell cases removed the need for the gun to discharge the case after the round was fired, as the case burnt and disintegrated, the debris being sucked out of the barrel as the missile left the gun. This enabled the gun to fire more rounds per minute. These cases were manufactured from the early 70’s to the mid 90’s.
Moving products around the mill was always a problem due to the various departments being on different levels. Throughout the ground floor there were around five different levels between the main buildings, whilst even on the first floor there were some three or four levels. Ramps were installed to overcome these differences where possible but to be efficient a total rebuilt of the mill was required. Plans were drawn up and presented to the local council in 1975 but were rejected on the grounds that the buildings were too high and obtrusive. Revised plans using lower buildings were submitted in 1976 resulted in approval, and work to rebuild the mill started in January 1977. A new wood pulping plant and moulding department which had to house large tall machinery was sunk 1 metre below the ground level in order to keep the building within the allowed height. This put the floor of the two areas below the water table which meant that the area was susceptible to flooding and as a result pumps and to be installed to keep the area dry.
The rebuilding involved demolition of all the building surrounding the main part of the mill and levelling the area. The pond at the rear of the mill was dammed at its mid-point, all the fish were caught by stunning them with electric shock and removing to other ponds. The water was then pumped out into the River Boyd; the sludge removed and hardcore installed to form the base of the new buildings. Whilst the hardcore was being laid a number of small springs were found, these were connected together with “French drains” and to this day still run to storm water disposal. The two large portal framed buildings built one each side of the main part of the mill added around 60,000 square feet of floor space. All this work was completed whilst maintaining full production and as electricity, gas and water supplies had to be reconfigured it meant a lot of complex planning and long, long weekends of work for the installation and maintenance crews.
This work was largely completed by 1980 when a contract to make the facia panel for the first Vauxhall Astra (T85) was won. The problem was………there was not enough space to fit in the new line as existing new orders had rapidly filled the new buildings. So the planning machine was brought into operation again and the pond reduced further in size to allow the building of another similar unit ready for the Astra production to start in 1985. The darker blue roof in the above photo identifies the new building. A provision of the planning approval for the additional building was that a similar amount of water had to be provided to replace that which was removed to accommodate the new building. So a new pond was constructed at the northern-most end of the site. Plans were drawn up to pump water from the Boyd to keep the pond topped up but when it was being constructed it started to fill from springs, and to this day the level has rarely dropped more than a few inches.
During the early 80’s the motor industry, which had been fairly buoyant, started to decline and the profits that were funding the rebuilding did not cover the cost of the new building for the new Astra line. As there was a commitment to supply the parts for Vauxhall, the Burrows were forced to get financial help. This came from Marley, the building and flooring Supply Company who at that time were supplying plastic mouldings to the automotive industry. An arrangement was made with Marley and with the financial involvement at Bitton; the name was changed to Marley- BMF.
Marley Automotive Components
1984 saw Marley take a controlling interest in the company, and soon after the name was changed to Marley Automotive Components (MAC), and the Burrows family no longer had any involvement in the business. Marley had automotive component plants in Maidstone & Lenham (Kent) and Redditch under the same name.
During the period 1985 – 1989 door panels for the Ford Escort were made from wood fibre. The panels were produced on a 24 hour 7 day week basis and when production was at its highest 32,000 panels a week were produced. The norm was 26-28,000. The wood fibre panels being porous allowed a plastic sheet to be vacuum formed over the panel, which had been sprayed with an adhesive. This was achieved on a four station three-table rotary machine producing one covered panel every 50 seconds. This was in addition to panels for Saab, Jaguar, Vauxhall, and Rover. The pulping plant was processing 20 tons of logs every 24 hours.
In 1988 the decision was made to follow the plastic route with a product from Italy known as Woodstock, a mixture of wood flour (very fine sawdust) and polypropylene, to make door panels for the replacement Escort. This was not a success as the material was not compatible with the product, and the company lost a lot of money as well as the contract. This setback however did not deter them and the management continued to pursue the plastic route even although wood fibre was still preferred by Saab, General Motors and Rover.
Magna Interior Systems Intier Automotive
In 1996 the decision was taken not to take on any more wood fibre business, concentrate on plastic and close the pulping and moulding sections. At the same time Marley sold the whole of Marley Automotive Components to a Canadian company, Magna.
Magna is a big name in Canada & North America and was fast spreading into Europe buying up many small and not so small automotive supply companies. Magna were persuaded by the management team at Bitton to end the wood fibre process, and concentrate on “the material of the future”…????…??…..Plastic!!
The moulding process finished in 2003. Many thought this was a big mistake, as wood fibre is a sustainable product easily recycled and less costly than the ever-increasing price of oil based plastic. Also the company that supplied the wood for pulping had recently pledged to plant at least two trees for every one that was cut down, which would serve to ensure the continued supply.
The cost of the finished product in wood fibre or plastic was similar as although the plastic was cheaper to process it was more expensive to buy, whereas the wood fibre was cheap to buy but more expensive to process.
Newly installed large injection moulding machines were used to manufacture panels in plastic for the Toyota Evensis. This process was fraught with problems that were new to the staff and coupled with the increasing cost of oil the company started to lose money as well as their reputation. Around this time Rover was sold to the Chinese and all associated plant, tooling and machinery removed to China. To compensate the company looked to the new models being produced by Honda at Swindon………. They wanted all future interior trim to be wood fibre wherever possible!!
The automotive industry was at this time rethinking its strategy on the supply chain and preferred companies to have a supply point close to the assembly line to enable them to call for different variants of panels at short notice.. Satellite premises were secured in places close to assembly lines, but this only increased costs and eventually the decision was made to move all production away from Bitton.
Production ceased in July 2006.
It is interesting to note that the Fibrit plant in Luneburg is still operating and at about three times the volume of the 1980’s.
© Tony Wilmott. April 2015 and July 2017.