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UEL honours designer of UK's favourite car

UEL students graduation

Dennis Roberts, the body designer of the iconic Ford Cortina, was recognised for his contribution to the British motor industry when he was awarded honorary doctorate by the University of East London (UEL) at a graduation ceremony at the O2 Arena on Thursday, 19 November. 

One of Britain’s all-time favourite cars, the Ford Cortina topped the sales charts in the 1960s, selling one million in its first four years and taking the title of Britain’s best-selling car for ten of the 20 years it was on sale.

Mr Roberts’ link to UEL began long before it was a university. After World War II he studied at the South East Essex Technical College, which would later evolve into the UEL.

He said, “I left school with very little and got a job in a small engineering company, which convinced me that I needed to get letters after my name.”  

After landing a job at Bristol Aircraft Ltd and training as an aeronautical engineer, Mr Roberts returned to the South East Essex Technical College.

This time he worked as an evening class lecturer, teaching body design and the theory of structure to employees from Briggs Motor Bodies – the company who at that time designed all the car bodies for Ford.

When, at the start of the Sixties, the aircraft industry began to decline, he joined Briggs working in their structure department.

It was because of his knowledge of both aircraft and automobile design that he was given the job of designing the body for Ford’s new model.

He said, “It was quite difficult as I was the most junior and the lowest paid in the office. But I was telling very senior engineers which parts of their design I did or didn’t want, and of course there was a lot of resentment.”

The car hit the showrooms in 1962 and the rest is motoring history, though Mr Roberts received no official recognition at the time.

He said, “There was no pay rise. I wasn’t promoted or even complimented for my work, and no-one at any level of management ever bothered to say thanks.

“I knew that the work I had done was key to its success. But the problem was that nobody else understood the magnitude of what had been done. All that they knew was they had a car that was lighter and more reliable.”

Despite the lack of acknowledgment, Mr Roberts does at least have the consolation of knowing that he played a key part in the history of the British motor industry.