Essay : Longbridge Tunnel – Goodbye to a local icon
INGRAINED on the Longbridge skyline was the controversial conveyor tunnel – a monument to the expansion of this vast car making facility in more optimistic times.
However, it is no more, and RICHARD PORTER marks its passing by saluting its past, and putting right one or two urban myths…
The time tunnel – 1971-2006
ON Sunday, 6 August, 2006, one of the most iconic pieces of British car making history passed away. Fans of unattractive industrial architecture weep into your oil stained hankies because the Longbridge tunnel is dead.
The tunnel, more correctly called the Conveyor Bridge, was built in the early 1970s to shuttle naked car bodies from the West Works on one side of the Bristol Road to the Car Assembly Buildings on the other. It was an ugly, functional piece of grey box work erected to stop the elements from attacking unprotected bodyshells as they made their way to final assembly. But despite its unglamorous function, the tunnel became a strange kind of icon for car making in South Birmingham.
It loomed at motorists coming down the A38, a piece of grimy industry proudly straddling the public thoroughfare. The main road bisecting the site suddenly felt like a bloody inconvenience, getting in the way of the more important business of making cars.
The tunnel even had its own urban legend which said that, on completing its construction, Longbridge staff suddenly realised that it was too narrow to accommodate shells for the Austin 1800 Landcrab which instead had to be carried to the South Works on trucks, getting mucky and wet in the process. The story originally came from an interview with a former Longbridge worker which a researcher from Jeremy Clarkson’s Car Years series conducted in a local pub. The bloke relayed the tale with some conviction, possibly through a haze of Ansells, and it was duly fed into the finished programme as a fine example of British Leyland ineptitude. Truth is, by the time the tunnel came on stream the Landcrab had been in production for several years and its shells were indeed moved around by less weather proof means simply because the tunnel didn’t even exist.
But the story isn’t completely baseless. The Conveyor Bridge was completed to coincide with the introduction of the Allegro and a more reliable ex-BL source has admitted that even the more compact shells for that car took some manhandling to get them around the tunnel’s tighter bends. Not that you’d think it because to the untrained eye the whole thing looks pretty wide. Or at least, it did look pretty wide. Then, in the early hours of an August Sunday the final deep cuts were made into its grey skin and, with the Bristol Road closed to traffic, a 1000 tonne crane lifted away the first sections of what was once part of the longest car assembly line in Europe.
Since then the rest of the tunnel has been slowly dismembered, leaving only the stout metal legs on which it stood. They’ll be gone soon and almost all trace of the tunnel will be erased. As industrial icons go it wasn’t exactly Battersea Power Station or the Hoover Building but somehow the Longbridge skyline looks bare without it.
Richard Porter is responsible for the Sniff Petrol website.