British Leyland’s reorganization of output and the system of payment at Austin-Morris Cowley has proved so successful that instructions have now been given to speed up similar far reaching changes at Austin-Morris Longbridge, near Birmingham, the group’s biggest car plant.
No official costs are available for the Longbridge improvements but they are reliably put at more than the £60m spent at Cowley on re-equipping and integrating the former Morris assembly plant and the adjoining Pressed Steel Fisher body plant. The Cowley cost included tooling for the Morris Marina. Longbridge is similarly being prepared for new models beginning with the replacement for the best selling 1100/1300 front-wheel drive range.
This is expected to be launched in 1973. The only outward sign of the extensive work underway at Longbridge is a huge conveyor being built over the main road which separates the body building plant in West Works from the final assembly lines in South Works. An identical conveyor links body and assembly at Cowley. The successful Cowley pattern is being followed in other ways too. A gate line system of body shell assembly which has immensely simplified Marina construction is being installed. Pressings and sub-assemblies from Birmingham.
Swindon and south Wales will still have to be transported to the new body line but they can be dovetailed into each other and carried at a fraction of the present cost of moving hundreds of thousands of complete body shells. Work is well advanced on a new body preparation and paint plant which is being built at Longbridge on the site of the old Trentham No 1 paint shop. When this is completed Trentham No 2 will be demolished.
A £7m gearbox works has already replaced the old Flight Shed , reminder of Longbridge’s role as an aircraft factory. The new works is producing gearboxes for Austin-Morris and Triumph and the intention is that it will become the chief gearbox centre for all British Leyland cars. The rationalization of Austin-Morris,the heart of the old BMC operation, is now beginning to fall into shape. All 1100/1300 final assembly has been concentrated at Longbridge in recent months.
This permits Cowley to increase production of the Marina and Maxi while Longbridge produces Mini, 1100, 1300 and 1800 models. The plan is clearly to convert 24 widely scattered plants into three complexes based on Cowley, Longbridge and Swindon. The Swindon body plant is the group’s principal press shop supplying Longbridge and Cowley with panels. The plant also assembles bodies for MG Abingdon and some specialist cars. Running parallel with plant re-organization is the vital change over from the strike prone piece-work system to a flat day rate. The changeover has met with remarkable success at Cowley, but the unions insist that when Mr George Turnbull, managing director of Austin-Morris attempts a similar move at Longbridge, probably the most tightly organized stronghold of piecework in the country, he will be driven off with a bloody nose.
Until recently all the indications were that factory floor support was 100 per cent behind Longbridge shop stewards’ refusal to accept a flat day rate. In the past few weeks, however, there have been reports of a split developing between stewards and rank and file members. When stewards refused a management request for them to pass on the results of the first eight months of working the new system at Cowley, the men themselves made discreet inquiries, and the answers surprised them.
They found that average pay at Cowley had risen from £25-02 a week to £46 a week and that man hours lost through strikes had fallen from 895,000 to 9,000.