In this paper a critical examination is made of the alleged change in the branch-plant economy. It is claimed that a new type of branch plant is emerging, with more progressive implications for local economic development. This argument is reviewed with reference to in situ restructuring in existing brownfield plants in the automobile industry. Empirical evidence is examined from 'Motor Co.' and 'Car Co.' (pseudonyms) in Riverside, across several dimensions of change: role and autonomy; labour process; labour - management relations; labour-market strategies; supplier linkages; and local economic development implications. It is argued that changes in branch plants and their implications for local economies can be understood by addressing the interrelations between structure, agency, and contingency. Evidence of change from Motor Co. and Car Co. in Riverside suggest some heightening of plant responsibility, the limited upgrading of functions, and the introduction of new techniques. The changes are partial, revealing the overlap of new and old practices, and the benefits for local economic development appear limited.