As part of our Rover SD1 at 40 special, here’s the lowdown on the impressive Solihull factory erected to build the brand new car. The article is taken from the British Leyland Mirror, 30 June 1976.
The new Solihull paint plant and assembly hall are the product of the biggest single development project undertaken by the British motor industry for 40 years. Together, they represent a total investment of £31 million by British Leyland.
The scale of the project is massive, but so is the sales potential of the Rover 3500 and only the production capacity provided by the new facility will enable the potential to be met, at home and abroad. But the new factory is more than just one of the most capably planned and potentially efficient car manufacturing facilities in Europe.
It is a place where men and women will spend at least eight working hours a day and it is a project which has consumed a vast area of land, about 100 acres beside a precious green belt. Such an incursion of industrial might towards an area of natural beauty produced a predictable response from local residents. But from the outset British Leyland realised its responsibility towards its employees and neighbours.
The result of this socially responsible thinking is a building which is the most pleasant in which to work of all the company’s plants throughout the UK. The company’s awareness of its responsibility towards its neighbours came through in its willingness to listen to the case made by Solihull’s residents and local conservationists.
As a result of consultations with these local interests early plans for a two-storey assembly hall with production lines upstairs and the inflow of components on the ground floor were quickly put to one side when it was realised just how great an impact the building would have on the locality. With careful design, a long, low building could be just as satisfactory but much less obvious, so a low outline, single-storey assembly hall was designed instead and built in a man-made valley created by scooping out more than one million tons of earth which were then used to provide carefully contoured and moulded embankments along the boundary of the site which faces the nearby Damsonwood housing estate.
And working with top landscape architect Professor Weddes of Sheffield University, Leyland’s Engineers placed their twenty-one acres of car parks and marshalling areas simply between the new hills and the factory. But unless the factory could be shown to be vital to British Leyland and to the economy at both a national and a regional level the Government, whose blessing for a project of this size was essential, would never have allowed it to go ahead.
The story of the new facility is closely linked with the development of the SD1 project, the codename for the car which was to become the Rover 3500. It, too, is vital. From the outset, when it was first known as P10, it was developed as the successor to the successful P6, codename of the successful 2000 series, and Leyland’s new generation executive car.
The so-called executive market is one of the most profitable and, if Leyland Cars is to survive in its present form, then a healthy presence in this sector is essential. That means the right car at the right volume. Customers who cannot buy the car they want because of long delays in delivery will go elsewhere, which usually means the products of one of Europe’s other specialist manufacturers. It was for that reason British Leyland committed itself to building a brand new manufacturing facility at Solihull.
It was originally intended to extend North Block, the paint and assembly facility built for the P6, to produce its successor. This was a proposal which did present certain problems. P6 manufacture uses a different method where painted body panels and flared to the basic body framework. The assembly lines and the paint shop at North Block had therefore been designed to accommodate this specialised method of build.
If P10 had gone into North Block it would have needed a new paint plant in any case for the existing plant could only handle the P6 panels, not complete bodies used in the method of construction chosen for the P10. But as development work continued on the new model and market research began to show that the car had a sales potential far greater than the model it was to replace, British Leyland’s senior management began to think in terms of a brand new facility.
Decisions were soon taken on the volumes necessary to meet the car’s potential which meant that North Block would have been unable to cope. So, in November 1972, the formal decision was taken at board level to build a new paint plant and assembly hall. Ron Philips, SD1 Project Director, was at that time Solihull Plant Director, Cars, and one of the British Leyland management team involved in the thinking which lead to the decision to go ahead with the new facility.
He said: ‘We had two alternatives. The cheaper scheme would have provided for a similar volume in a limited production area, North Works, purpose built for the P6. The alternative was a higher production rate, high enough to satisfy this cars sales potential. That could only be achieved with proper facilities – that’s why we decided to go into a new building.
‘We have to remember that Rover on its own could never have attempted an investment on this scale. It is only because we are part of British Leyland that we have the resources to go for the volume which will enable us to meet demand and increase our market share.’
The man made responsible for the concept of the new Solihull complex was Leonard Elwood, now Leyland Cars Manager, Construction Engineering but at that time Divisional Manager, Planning, for the newly-created Specialist Car Division of which Rover was a part.
Solihull was always the obvious choice as the scene of this investment. Its great feature was its potential for development with 64 acres already owned by British Leyland.
However, the local residents had always expected the land to be used for housing development. When they learned from the local authority that Leyland was planning a massive industrial expansion into this area of land they were horrified.
Said Leonard Elwood: ‘These sixty-four acres were designated ‘white land’. To build there we needed a change of use authority and, because of the scale of the project, this could only be given by central government. Solihull, then and now, constitutes the keystone of a new, regional development, situated in an area bordered by Solihull, Bedworth, Leamington Spa and Warwick. At the moment approximately one million people live in this area. By the year 2000 that figure will have risen to two million.
‘There is obviously a need here, social and economic, for more employment and more industry. Our new facility helps fulfil that need. In fact, if it had not been for the requirements of the Regional Development Plan, I doubt if the Government would have allowed us to go ahead at Solihull. We received our Industrial Development Certificate from central government in early 1973 and town planning approval by Solihull local authority early that same year.’
It has to be remembered that Solihull is a residential town. With the exception of the Rover plant, there is very little industry within the town boundaries. As Rover’s business expanded so had the burden it placed on Solihull. The old plant had only one exit into Lode Lane which meant that all goods traffic was directed through the residential areas of the town. Another massive expansion with the increase in heavy traffic which would result would have proved intolerable.
So, from the very outset, Leyland was determined that the new plant would place no further burdens on the town. Rather, it would use the new development to lessen the load on the towns road system.
Added Leonard Elwood: ‘From our point of view, Solihull is ideally placed on the road network which starts the east and west of the Birmingham conurbation. However, the demands of the existing factory were greater than the ability of the local road system to cope.
I realised that we had to improve the access to the plant from Lode Lane. The new dual carriageway there was completed 12 months ago. That access will , ultimately, only be used for administrative traffic and some employees cars when the link between Damson Lane, where the new access come out, and the A45 is completed in 1978.
‘Goods traffic will then use this new access which takes it away from suburban Solihull out on to the A45 Birmingham – Coventry trunk road. Our determination to obscure the assembly hall from view is well known, we wanted to preserve the area.’
While the broad outlines of the plant and its relation to the surrounding area were being finalised work on the paint plant and the assembly hall were well advanced. The original terms of reference for the new paint plant stated that it should produce as good a finish as that on the P6 if not better. P6 was regarded as a minimum standard.
Next step was to consider, precisely, what paint process should be adopted. Initial thinking favoured the thermoplastic re-flow process. It had many advantages over more conventional methods. These included a more reflective, smoother finish and ease of rectification during production. A three-man team was sent to Detroit, home of the United States motor industry, to study the process in use there by the three major American manufacturers, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. Reg Harris, former planning manager at Solihull and now retired, was one of that team.
‘We came back convinced that the thermoplastic process would give us the best finish, particularly at the volumes we wanted.’
Carrier was chosen from the field of five firms tendering to provide the paint plant technology. Like Leyland Cars, Carrier believed that the new plant should be constructed on three levels, a radical departure from what had normally gone before – then proceeded to prove that it could be done without compromising, in any way, the plant’s efficiency or its ability to achieve the highest standard.
In a normal paint plant the spray facilities where most of the personnel are located, and the ovens are on the same floor. This does cause temperature problems which can make the working area uncomfortably hot. By situating the marshalling areas for the bodies on the ground floor, the spraying area on the first floor and the ovens on the top floor, the middle level is kept reasonably free of plant and machinery and, as the heat rises away from the ovens, it is maintained at a comfortable temperature.
Compared with the paint plant the assembly hall is comparatively conventional and straightforward in design and layout. Its main feature is the three, raised 1400 feet-long assembly tracks. The basic essential of any assembly area is that the lines must be kept moving. That is partly achieved by ensuring an adequate supply of materials.
So, in the new assembly hall at Solihull the bulk storage areas are along the outside edge of the building with the supplies of components located opposite these sections of the track where they are required. Further storage areas are provided under the tracks with selective, essential supplies situated alongside the track itself.
Raised tracks enable work to be carried out on the cars from either above or below and they provide good communications across the 500 feet-wide building. As in the paint plant, a great deal of thought has been channelled into improving the working environment in the assembly hall.
The overhead glazing has been arranged to keep the interior bright but never to allow it to become overheated by the sun’s rays beating down on it. Amenity blocks are placed around the building providing toilet facilities, rest areas, vending machines for food and drink and microwave ovens.
Down to the last detail Solihull has been designed as a plant which can give Leyland the volumes it needs to increase its share of the UK car market and make valuable inroads abroad. Alex Mackie, Plant Director, told the Mirror: ‘It is very exciting to have this latest facility on my plant. Solihull now has enormous potential and a great opportunity. We have the latest plant in Europe and, in the new Rover, one of the motor industry’s finest models.’
From Body In White To a Finished Car
The new paint plant is the largest and most technically advanced ever to be commissioned in the United Kingdom. The object was to obtain the best possible paint finish with maximum corrosion resistance. Bodyshells arrive six at a time from Castle Bromwich body plant on specially built, double-deck transporters and are automatically drawn into the plant on one of six parallel two tier lines. They are marshalled by computer before the first stage of degreasing and preparation for painting and then move on to the first floor processing lines.
Basic body protection comes from the phosphate coating applied in a process involving alkali and phosphate spraying and five separate hot and cold rinses. As bodies emerge from the phosphating tunnel they are hot aired dried and then cooled just enough to bring them to exactly the right temperature for the 40,000 gallon electrodip primer painting bath. The electrodip process electronically deposits the exact 0.0005 inch thickness of primer required on all external paint surfaces of the body.
The bodies emerge from this tank at an angle of 30 degrees to drain off correctly and pass through ultra fine filtered rinses and a de-mineralised water spray rinse. An air knife blows them dry and clears anything else left on the surface. Then they move to the second floor, where they are baked in a 420 feet oven for 15 minutes at 360 degrees F and return to the first floor for crack sealing.
Transferred to an overhead conveyor, they are coated with a mastic underbody protection. The surfacer coat, which provides a suitable surface for a final coat of paint, is applied in booths in which the automatic spraying heads are sealed against contamination. The surfacer is greatly smoothed by machine and by hand in a 30 feet long wet sanding deck. Spot surfacing is applied if necessary then the coat is baked. Inspection and rectification follow and the bodies are marshalled on a three line body storage area while matching colour batches are built up to avoid to many colour changes at the spray guns.
There is another inspection and the bodies move into a 210 feet booth for colour painting by four automatic machines with hand-operated stations in between. Four acrylic coats go on – wet on wet – and leave a paint thickness of 0.0025 inches. Once again the bodies return to the top floor and pass through a 400 feet part-curing oven at 180 degrees F for five minutes. Then they pass through a further inspection, reworked as necessary and stoved at 255 degrees F for ten minutes. A further inspection is followed by correction of minor blemishes and the body is baked at 180 degrees F for two minutes.
The final and visually most important stage comes when the bodies return finally to the top floor, where they pass through a 630 feet oven and undergo 310 degrees F for a minimum of 25 minutes. The thermoplastic paint flows and smooths itself, with no need for extensive cutting back and polishing to the glass like finish characteristic of this process. The bodies cool naturally, are inspected yet again and then pass down to the ground floor storage area.
From the paint plant the bodies move across a covered bridge to the assembly hall on a completely flat-bed roller container. They are allocated to the three 1400 feet long assembly lines, each with seventy assembly stations. And, to maintain quality at the required level, inspection points are at every 10th place.
The lines are elevated eight feet above the floor to give room for under car work to be carried on and to give additional line side storage, together with space for transverse tunnels for the pallet trucks which distribute components from the major storage areas of the buildings.
At the end of the line, the bodies are lifted by an overhead conveyer and cross to the return leg of the lines. Here they are lowered onto the engine, transmission and axle underbodies which have been built up on their own production area and are fed into the main production line at the right spot. Most components are supplied fully finished from their manufacturers, but there is some final work to be completed on the trimming and cars.
At the end of the line the cars are driven over a grid – a section of flooring which settles the suspension – and go into the sequence of wheel aligning, followed by rolling road checks of brake, engine and gearbox performance.
Carefully computed percentages of all cars are given fuller checks and there are extensive rectification areas to permit any further work to be carried out without obstructing general production flow. Finally, there is a meticulous valeting operation, with teams of specialists going through every car finally to prepare them for the most exacting purchaser.
The modern luxury car is a complex product. It is equipped with a wide range of fittings and equipment to ensure the comfort and safety of the occupants, from seat belts to door warning lights, from heated rear windows to radios. For the new Rover alone some 700 suppliers from outside British Leyland were used. Without a totally foolproof method of controlling the flow of components at the right time and at the right place, it would be impossible to maintain smooth production. In the new plant, a sophisticated, computer controlled system is in use to control the flow.
Each car is identified long before the bare bodyshell arrives at the plant, and the appropriate equipment is programmed to arrive at the correct point on the production line at the exact moment the matching car gets to it. There is a continuous process of re-assessment and re-scheduling taking into account such factors as the stocks of components in hand and the priority of orders.