A production team from the ITV Wales programme Vanished Wales visited Caerbont Automotive Instruments to review the history of the old SMITHS and Lucas business at the plant in Ystradgynlais, South Wales.

Vanished Wales follows various journeys across Wales, revealing lost landmarks and industries and reviews the history and heritage that has disappeared from the nation.

The History

After the Second World War, SMITHS Industries Ltd set up the Anglo-Celtic Watch Company in Glanrhyd near Ystradgynlais.  From the plant the company exported around 30 million watches globally and, locally, the plant was known as ‘The Tick Tock’.

By 1965 the SMITHS business had become increasingly diluted and the name ‘Smiths Industries’ was adopted to reflect the wider range of operations and products.  The clock and watch business had now declined and SMITHS ceased to be the direct supplier of motor equipment to many European car manufacturers.  However, SMITHS branded instruments were featuring in many popular UK-produced cars and motorcycles including MG, Mini, Triumph and even Rolls-Royce.  Changes in legislation and vehicle specification further increased the demand for instrumentation such as tachometers.

The difficult economic times of the late 1970s hit SMITHS and the fall in demand resulted in a restriction of the motor vehicle component business.  This led to the sale of the automotive instrumentation business to Lucas SEI in 1984 and the growth of the workforce to over 2000 people.

In 1989 Lucas transferred the instrumentation business to the Caerbont facility in neighbouring Abercrave, but retained manufacture of the wiring and harness business at Ystradgynlais.

This continued until 1991, when Lucas decided to withdraw from the instrumentation market to concentrate solely on wiring and harness manufacture.  The business was sold to German company Mannesmann VDO AG, managed by the parent UK company VDO Birmingham.  In 1993, the independent Caerbont Automotive Instruments (CAI) acquired the business.

The Ystradgynlais business continued to evolve until 1999 when the Lucas SEI owners decided to switch manufacturing of the wiring and harness business to a new factory in Poland.  This resulted in the closure of the Lucas SEI plant with the loss of over 750 jobs.

Caerbont Automotive Instruments (CAI) continued to thrive and grow from the manufacturing facility in Abercrave.  CAI not only specialised in supplying replacement gauges for classic cars, but developed new gauges for a wide range of automotive, marine, and industrial projects.  The business ownership transferring to present Managing Director, Gavin Roberts, in 2011.

Welsh Manufacturing Legacy

The Vanished Wales team took the opportunity to film and interview current and past employees who reminisced about their working days at the Ystradgynlais site including Christine Rogers, who is now Production Manager at CAI , Angela Jones , Janice Jones, and retired ex-employee of SMITHS and CAI, Malcolm Mallows.  It is incredible to consider that some of the instruments for older classic cars still manufactured at CAI’s Abercrave site were first built in the Ystradglylais plant.  The episode is due to air in early 2023.

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