Birmingham Post, 25th September, 2009
Industrial Editor John Cranage looks back at the proud history of the Castle Bromwich site.
Spitfire and Jaguar – two of the most evocative names in British engineering history – and the common factor is that the World War Two fighter and the current generation of Jaguar cars have been built on the same site at Castle Bromwich.
Sadly, though, some 70 years of manufacturing legend would end if Jaguar Land Rover – as now seems likely – ultimately decides to close its Castle Bromwich assembly plant,
The story began in 1938 when a site in east Birmingham was chosen for a factory to build the new Spitfire, one of the most advanced aircraft of its day, and take pressure off the smaller Supermarine works near Southampton.
The 345-acre factory complex was the biggest of its kind in Britain and Lord Nuffield, the founder of the Morris car company, was put in charge. It was built on land bordered by Fort Dunlop and the old Castle Bromwich airfield on the opposite side of the Chester Road.
The factory ultimately turned out nearly 12,000 Spitfires – plus more than 300 Lancaster bombers. But things got off to a bad start. Not only was the factory built behind schedule and over budget, Lord Nuffield quickly found that building Spitfires was a lot more complicated that knocking out motor cars. In its early days the factory became chaotic and suffered from poor industrial relations.
The delays and problems are now believed to have resulted in fewer front line fighter squadrons being equipped with Spitfires in time for the Battle of Britain than expected; which is why, some historians claim, the outcome was far less certain than it might otherwise have been. It took the arrival of the dynamic newspaper tycoon Lord Beaverbrook – who effectively sacked the ineffectual Nuffield – to get production up to required levels.
The plant has been a centre of car production ever since, under the ownership first of British Leyland then Jaguar. In its time, it has produced Mini sub-frames and bodies for Rovers and Jaguars and painted Triumph TR7 sports car bodies. BL had planned to shut Castle Bromwich in 1980 but then pulled off one of the biggest U-turns in industrial history by pumping in some £100 million to modernise its facilities.
It (Castle Bromwich) is crucial to the success of a revitalised Jaguar business.” Bibiana Boeria, then Managing Director of Jaguar Cars Limited, speaking in 2005
Under Jaguar’s ownership, the plant was regarded as being under-utilised but by 1989 it was being used to assemble the Jaguar S Type, the predecessor to today’s highly successful XF. In 2005 Jaguar’s then owner, Ford, announced that car building was to end at Browns Lane in Coventry after 50 years and production consolidated at Castle Bromwich.
A massive redevelopment of the Birmingham site was needed to accommodate the XJ and XK lines. The project saw 2,500 workers from 120 contractors working round the clock and saw the removal of more than 9,000 cubic yards of soil – the size of a Channel ferry – being dug out and removed. Amazingly, the first cars came off the new tracks only six weeks after Browns Lane built its last car.
In 2005, the then Jaguar Managing Director, Bibiana Boeria, said of Castle Bromwich: “It is crucial to the success of a revitalised Jaguar business.”
Four years on, the Automotive Industry is going through a crippling recession. And with three assembly plants now an expensive luxury for JLR, it looks as if Castle Bromwich will join Longbridge as a proud but defunct part of Birmingham’s manufacturing tradition.
[Source: Birmingham Post]
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