Keith Adams takes you on a whistle-stop tour of Longbridge – a factory that dominated the British car industry in one way or another from its inception to ultimate closure.
It’s not all about cars – the people behind the place are what define its memories today.
Longbridge: a century of carmaking…
Stroll along the perimeter fence that once surrounded the Car Assembly Buildings at Longbridge, and it’s hard to believe that the place once teemed with life and echoed to the sound of car production. At its peak, more than 300,000 cars a year were built here.
The Longbridge plant was more than just a car factory, though – for many thousands of Brummies, it was the centre of a community, and one that instilled enough pride in its workers for them to call it ‘The Austin’.
In April 2005, the place fell silent, and the hopes and dreams of the remaining 6500 MG Rover workers still employed there went with it. Great swathes of the sprawling factory have been redeveloped into a new role more befitting of the leafy South Birmingham suburb. Never again will hundreds of thousands of cars roll off the line here.
From small beginnings
Rewind to November 1905, and you can be sure that Herbert Austin, an Engineer who made his name working for Wolseley, cared. When he found a small derelict printing works to build cars that bore his name, little could he have suspected that, during the next century, it would be the home to some of the world’s most innovative and interesting cars – and, for a brief period, also produced a rather impressive number of aeroplanes for the War effort.
The first Austin was a 25-30hp high-class touring car with a four-speed gearbox and a chain driven transmission – making it marginally less innovative than a 1982 Metro City X. These Austins soon caught on and, within three years, the unassuming factory in Longbridge – The Austin – was employing nearly 1000 workers, and was already becoming an integral part of the local community.
In the lead up to World War I, the company was well on its way to becoming a household name – at least in motoring circles. Had it not been for that minor squabble in Europe, The Austin’s excellence in mass production might have taken longer to mature. The Austin’s production lines were turned to the manufacture of weapons – so the next time someone claims their Austin Allegro goes like a bomb, you can wink knowingly.
During the war years, more than 8,000,000 shells were produced along with 650 guns, 2000 aeroplanes, 2500 aero engines and 2000 trucks.
At the time Herbert Austin was busy building a community surrounding the factory, and communal homes went up to house the factory’s growing complement of workers. Migrants from War-torn Europe were welcomed to Longbridge, and were rapidly trained and housed – Birmingham was quickly becoming Britain’s ‘Motor City’.
After the war, The Austin moved back into to car production, but the 20hp wasn’t the success Herbert had anticipated, and the company hit hard times. Not for want of trying, though – in those years, Longbridge kicked off a brief flirtation with aeroplane production, and products with glorious names such as the Greyhound, the Ball and the Whippet… They weren’t unmitigated successes, but were far from being the company’s final attempt at ‘planes.
In 1921, Herbert’s ambitions for a car to mobilise the masses were realised with the introduction of the Seven. Truly the Mini of its day – it was small, perfectly formed and cheap to run. It was also the definitive retro classic of its day, and plenty of specialists turned their hands to transforming it into a sporting special. Top of the list was Alec Issigonis – a principal player later in the Longbridge story.
The Seven was a major success, and the foundations of Longbridge’s subsequent success were built upon it – so, by the time of the outbreak of World War II, it was a much larger operation. Longbridge produced parts for tanks, while the shadow factory at nearby Cofton Hackett was home to teh production of bombers, aero engines – and, most famously, the Lancaster heavy bomber.
Expansion and the merger marked the post-War years with former rival, Morris in 1952. The resultant marriage wasn’t without its pitfalls, and a climate of mutual mistrust – for many – marked the beginning of the end of Longbridge as a force to be reckoned with. Not that you’d have known at the time – production was booming, and the factory was subjected to almost constant expansion to meet demand.
Every nook and cranny of the factory found itself in use – even down to the mysterious WW2 tunnels, which were used for the storage of anything from discarded tools to pre-production prototype cars.
Front-drive to the future
The next great Longbridge-built small car was rolled-out in 1959. The Issigonis-designed Mini was a masterpiece of design and engineering, and brought front wheel drive fun to the masses. It was soon joined by the larger BMC 1100/1300 range – and, throughout the 1960s, BMC was responsible for producing two of the best-selling cars in UK.
The 1960s were the golden age of Longbridge, and well over 200,000 cars a year being churned out – but poor pricing meant that very little profits were being returned. The outcome was inevitable – the truck manufacturer, Leyland Motors (which had bought Rover and Triumph by 1966) swooped in and took over BMC, a merger brokered by Prime Minister Harold Wilson.
The matter of replacing the Mini and 1100 was then down to ex-Triumph Engineers and Planners, and the result wasn’t a total success. The Austin Allegro replaced the best-selling 1100 and the Mini stayed exactly how it was until 2000…
On to the 1970s
It’s impossible to talk about the 1970s and Longbridge without mentioning strikes, strife, Government ownership and ‘Red Robbo’, but the situation really was that grim. The once great factory was brought to its knees by union-sanctioned strikes, and the ongoing situation drastically affected car sales, just when Longbridge needed to generate serious profits. Many people say the Allegro failed because it was no good – and, in the main, that’s true. However, reduced output from the strife-torn factory meant few customers actually found out for themselves…
The year of 1979 saw the arrival of Honda, and a joint venture between BL and the forward-thinking Japanese carmaker resulted in the Triumph Acclaim (built at Cowley) and Rover 200. The optimistic launch of the Austin Metro confirmed that there was still a place in the hearts of the British public – success duly followed. The Japanese moved to Longbridge in 1984, and the truth emerged – the factory’s workers were more than capable of screwing together a high-quality car given the correct tools.
There was a brief renaissance in the early 1990s following the British Aerospace buy-out of the freshly renamed Rover Group. For a few sweet years, it seemed as though everyone wanted a Rover 200 on their driveway, and Longbridge was once again flat out. The revival was short-lived and a declining market share and sagging image marked BMWGroup’s ownership between 1994 and 2000 – as the cars were re-positioned to appeal to more ‘senior’ drivers.
Longbridge: a slow death…
BMW Group pulled out in 2000 and took the MINI and Land Rover marques with it – leaving Rover and Longbridge to live out its days building the 25, 45 and 75 ranges. The MG TF roadster and ‘Zed’ cars injected a flash of flair, but their popularity wasn’t enough to stem the rot at Longbridge – and so, in 2005, the company went into Administration as a result of falling sales. The remaining 6500 workers at the plant were sent home – and told to rebuild their lives.
Later in 2005, the remaining assets of MG Rover were sold for £50m to Nanjing Automotive, and the future for this once great factory lay in the hands of a Chinese company which never truly grasped the enormity of Longbridge’s history. The rest as they say, was history…
Longbridge: The Highs
It’s hard to imagine the effect the launch of the Mini had on the automotive establishment. Its creator, Alec Issigonis, managed to cram four seats and engine and four wheels into a package just over ten feet long. It was off-the-scale advanced and drove fantastically – and a legend in its own lifetime thanks to its string of Monte Carlo Rally victories.
Britain’s best-selling car of the 1960s proved that we weren’t always interested in boring repmobiles. It looked good thanks to Farina styling, but rot was a major problem in later years.
In 1989, this was motoring’s hottest property, and today the the R8 commands plenty of respect as a capable and interesting modern classic. Classy, compact and technologically advanced…
Longbridge: The Lows
Strikes, strikes and more strikes – Longbridge seemed to be on the news more often than Anna Ford. Unions and the management couldn’t agree on anything and strikes were called for the most tenuous reasons. In the end it was so bad, even the workers got bored of the situation…
Britain’s favourite pudding-shaped classic car it might be, but the Allegro was a serious embarrassment for the company. It sold poorly from the start and got worse as time went on – despite that, we’d still love that quartic steering wheel. Whacky for whacky’s sake…
The year it all went horribly wrong. After years of decline and regrouping, there was nothing left to sell, and the company went into Administration. A century’s proud history came to a sad, silent end – and the scraps were sold to the Chinese company Nanjing for a pittance. Scant reward for all those redundant workers…
I was there: Tony Osborne
Tony Osborne, worked at Longbridge from 1972-2005
Talking to anyone who served time at ‘The Austin’ it’s obvious that they still feel protective about the place even today. Tony Osborne remained at the plant until July 2005, when received his redundancy notice through the post on the same day he was due to start his new job.
‘We all knew it was going to happen eventually, but when the end came quickly, we still weren’t expecting it,’ Tony recalled. ‘The most painful thing was hearing from the DTI Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, that the Administrators had moved in. Especially as they hadn’t at the time…’
It was a sad end to a long career. ‘I started my apprenticeship in 1972 and, once I had passed my exams, I went full time. When I started at Longbridge, the place was amazing – we built so many cars and felt we were the best in the world. Everything from Austin A55 vans to Landcrabs came out of Longbridge, and times were good,” Tony remembered.
‘…Except the Allegro – Donald Stokes’ baby,” he added sadly.
‘The atmosphere of the place was electric, and there were many ups and downs. There were two sorts of people at Longbridge. The majority worked like mad to make it work, putting in the hours – often unpaid. There were also those who just turned up to take the money. When the end came, it was the people working their socks off who were making it happen,’ he said.
The strikes of the 1970s were a downside. ‘I was young then, but I don’t think the majority of the brothers wanted to go on strike. Red Robbo seemed to vote the brothers out regardless of how many hands went up against the strike proposal, and we often thought he would talk to the company and say one thing, then tell the brothers something else.’
In the end, Tony’s defensiveness for the place still remains as strong today as it ever did. ‘I was very proud to work at Longbridge – and you must remember that we did tremendous things. We made some great cars, but as well as that, not many people know that we were the only car plant in the UK that had a gas turbine – combined heat and power generator,’ he said. ‘We were thinking about the environment, even back then…’
Thanks to Tony Osborne of the Austin Ex-Apprentices Association