Blog : Ghosts of the past

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – the passage of time can be a cruel mistress, especially for fans of the firm, like us. With MG Rover as we know it falling into administration more than 15 years ago, and eventually being carved up, our contact with the company is becoming rarer by the day.

Ask yourself – when you’re out and about, how often do you see pre-2005 MGs or Rovers on the road? The answer won’t be that often. And that’s a shame, but an inevitable consequence of the passage of time. Equally, those landmarks we associate with the firm are being erased from our landscape – Rover dealer totems are pretty much extinct now, while the factories in which the cars were built are disappearing or unrecognisable now.

However, there are still links if you know where to go. And that’s why, recently, Mike Humble and I found ourselves heading to Lillyhall near Workington to look over one of Eddie Stobart’s depot, now downgraded to a fulfilment centre, to seek out the remnants of the Leyland National bus factory. And boy, did we find them.

Then…

Then…

Now…

Now…

For most people, wandering around these windswept industrial units on a blustery October day on the Cumbrian coast would have been a chore at best. But for Mike Humble and I, it was an emotional reminder of our lost industrial heritage. And a warning from the past – forcing manufacturers into building facilities hundreds of miles away from their traditional bases is not a great idea.

What is most surprising is that so much of the former Leyland factory is still in place – so much so, that where the more recently-applied white paint is flaking away from rotting window panels and ageing skirting boards, you’ll find Leyland Bus corporate-spec blue proudly revealing itself underneath.

Standing by the management block near the entrance of the site, Mike points and comments, ‘that was Barrie Wills‘ office – and just there is where my father used to take me on his regular site visits to the other side of the Pennines. As a kid, I was fascinated by the place, and you’d have seen me spinning my dad’s office chair, while the wind funnelled in from the Solway Firth battered the building…’

Yes, Mike remembers the site when it was in full action, probably at its peak in the early 1980s, when the factory was churning out its run of Nationals at its fastest. Despite what the naysayers might unkindly opine, our Socialist Bus of the 1970s was some kind of success for the area, with around 7000 produced between 1972 and 1985.

I don’t have the same emotional link with Lillyhall as Mike does, but it makes me pine for what we once had, and resulted in me silently mouthing the words, ‘where did it all go wrong?’. Indeed, my 21st century ramblings around many car factories in the UK have mainly been after the silence fell over the places.

Revisiting TVR’s crumbling former factory on Bristol Avenue in my old hometown of Blackpool had the same effect on me in 2010, as it brought back memories of my own childhood visit to the place as a ten-year old car nut. While nosing around the remnants of Plaxton’s site in Scarborough (where I lived for a couple of years before moving to Blackpool) two years ago, sparked long-lost recollections of freshly-painted coaches out for test drives along Seamer Road.

Today, you’ll find remnants of the now long-lost manufacturing all over the country if you look hard enough, and care enough. But few are quite so intact as this one, and I am pleased about that – even if it’s probably more a reflection of the lack of pace of West Cumbria’s regeneration than its owner’s intention to preserve the place.

Having said that, I found myself wondering whether to email Eddie Stobart and see if any of those mouldering office buildings were rentable. Sad, aren’t I?

Keith Adams

33 Comments

  1. I live only a few miles away and I’m old enough to remember the Nationals parked up ready for delivery that were visible when you passed by the plant on the main road. I can also remember seeing the Pacer rail buses derived from the National being transported along the main roads nearby.

    “Where did it all go wrong?” pretty much sums it up for this area though – if you go south of Lilyhall the only sizeable employer is the Sellafield facility, which doesn’t produce power any more and is in the (long-winded) process of being de-commissioned now.

    • Yes Sellafield has become a major industry just knocking down a single site and people will spend their whole careers there doing nothing but that. On one hand that seem to be a sad waste of peoples lives and talents, but on the other hand as you say what else is there for anyone to do in West Cumbria?

  2. Well OK in the 60s and 70s setting up production hundreds of miles from a companies traditional base may have stretched logistics, but surely not in this day and age. If that logic persists then there’s no hope for the Governments levelling up agenda.

    • With the price of energy, the environment international coming laws, logistic costs will become higher and higher. Koreans and Japanese have came nearer to the customers, so are going to do the Chinese speaking about the former Nissan Barcelona plant.
      Or even Nissan with the Micra in France, a failure – who would by a Micra in Europe, even though some countries buy French-made Yaris ?

  3. Reducing the number of car factories is a must in say UE + UK. Probably this place is worth nothing, the reason why. See now the new Boulogne-Billancourt district, apart from historical management building, nothing left, new appartments, new offices, shops, gardens, even a church… In Aulnay’s former Citroen quarter other activities and part of the buildings awaiting destruction for blocks of flats.
    Still the Renault bus activity is running in Annonay under the Iveco badge (was 1st Floirat and Besset before WW2), lorries activities former SAVIEM near Caen, and former Berliet close to Lyon, running under the Renault Trucks brand100% Volvo trucks subsidiary. But less and less busses made in Europe, most of them from Turkey (still BMC b,randed !!) or now even from China.

  4. Going against the grain I know – but has it “all gone wrong”?
    Industries evolve. France, the USA, even Germany host plenty of sites that used to build vehicles but don’t anymore. Like Boulogne-Billancourt – the “French Longbridge”. It built its last vehicle in 1992. Or the (former) Opel plant at Bochum, Germany. Or most of Detroit.
    One could go on a tour of the UK taking in vehicle production plants that didn’t even exist in the 70s – Washington, Burnaston etc, new component plants (JLR Wolverhampton, BMW Hams Hall) or are enjoying a new lease of life, like Solihull.
    I have found myself suggesting to people who mourn the loss of Longbridge and stalk the ruins that driving a few miles to Solihull – to see British built vehicles leaving the plant in impressive quantities, mostly for export – might make them feel better.
    There was recently a sort of “wake” to mark the loss of the famous “multi” car storage park at Longbridge (opened 60 years ago but demolished in 2002) with people saying things along the lines of “We’ll never see its like again”. One could point out that an equally big and much newer multistorey structure now stands at Southampton docks full of British built vehicles for export. But it seems people just don’t want to hear that. And I wonder why ….
    Of course there’s the old chestnut “ownership issue”. But as I’ve often argued, today’s vehicle manufacturing industry delivers almost all the economic benefits that certainly the car manufacturing industry did in the 70s (when 3 of the big 4 were already foreign owned)… In cars at least, the UK managed to balance (or almost balance) the value of imports with exports in recent years. The dreadful automotive trade deficits of the 80s had been banished. That would please the policymakers of the past who helped frame the shape of the current automotive industry.
    Admittedly things look bleak right now, with various recent developments dragging production down, the latest being the semi-conductor shortage. But it’s not yet a wasteland.
    Not everything’s gone right clearly, especially with trucks and buses. But has it all gone wrong?
    An ongoing debate … : )

    • Boulogne-Billancourt – closed in 1992 – and Quai de Javel – closed in 1974 were really misplaced downtown and well replaced by new residential districts shopping mall and gardens. They had been placed there in the twenties when it was only fields, cultivate vegetables. Boulogne was the country-house of the Renault family living in central Paris, young Louis was using the garden’s chalet to build some strange machine.
      After WW2 plants were build so as to be extensible so not that close to towns. See Flins, Maubeuge, Poissy, Douai, Sandouville, Batilly, Rennes la Janais … The only error was probably Aulnay (1974-2014) with the coming Roissy Airport and town extension.

    • Agreed. And the UK still make plenty of buses elsewhere (ADL, Wrights and Optare/Switch) and most relevantly for this site the Leyland Trucks factory is still going strong, one “British Leyland” investment from the 1970s which was a great success

  5. Better get down to the former Honda site at Swindon a bit quick then…There again, if you look at the website articles on Car News China and China Car History, etc, there’s a fair bit of churn in vehicle factories/manufacturers over there as well.

  6. A production run of 7,000 Leyland National’s is mighty impressive. In 1972 I remember Mike Rodd doing a report on the Leyland National bus for Tomorrows World. Today’s world is so different.

    I feel similar nostalgia when it comes to old Shipyard’s and dry docks on the Tyne & Wear rivers. Most have been demolished and filled in now and replaced with riverside housing schemes or University campus’s. As a teenager back in the 70s I never imagined things would turn out like they have.

    Having said that, the former Sunderland Airport has been Nissan’s successful factory for over 30 years and I never imagined that either!

    • Actually, despite those figures sounding impressive, the National missed its target by a considerable amount. The plant was geared up to churn these out like sweets. What was then the National Bus Co effectively had the National forced upon them where the more conservative municipal (local council) operators found it way to advanced for their palates.

      However, if you look at the spec of a typical modern single deck vehicle insofar as air suspension, rear engine, low floors, turbocharging et al…. these frivolities were all pioneered on the Leyland National…. a bus that genuinely shaped the future.

      One well known transport manager of a big municipal operation who’s name eludes me said of the National back in 1971….

      “A wonderful and futuristic answer and solution to a problem that doesn’t exist”

      I visited “Wukkiton” many many times in the early to mid 80s as a pup and can honestly say it was an amazing sight to see Nationals moving from one stage of assembly to the next, all heralded by a barrage of orange beacons and sirens. One of Nottingham’s series two National plodded round the Trent valley for years with one of its specially devised Avdelok rivets fitted by a 12 year old me.

      But my favourite memory…. the corned beef and carrot pie with boiled potatoes peas and gravy in the canteen with a glass of fizzy pop – a tasted sensation for 75p

    • Great memories Mike! I remember a few Leyland Nationals were acquired by Tyneside PTE in the 70s replacing older buses on the private “Economic” bus company’s routes. They didn’t last long though. Most NE Nationals were owned by Northern Bus co.

  7. As a kid growing up in a Ford family, Dagenham was somewhere I knew well. Now there’s hardly left of the old production plant, the PTA went long ago, while the body plant had hang on until recently, while the foundry disappeared back in the 80s.history gone, sad. But that’s the way of the world. One of americas most famous old factories, the Packard factory is now gone.

    • Dagenham might not build cars anymore but (being a “glass half full” kind of guy) I’d point out that in 2003 the new £325 million Dagenham diesel centre was opened with great fanfare. It has produced millions of engines since then, mostly for export. In March 2021 it was announced it will supply the diesel engines for the next generation of Transit vans to be assembled in Turkey (Kocaeli) and also Volkswagen vans which will also be assembled there from 2023. That’s a big export deal. There are already British built engines (from Hams Hall) in a lot of BMWs (not just Minis). Now there will be British built “made in Dagenham” engines in Volkswagens. Few people would have predicted that in the strike-torn ’70s.
      https://media.ford.com/content/fordmedia/feu/gb/en/news/2021/03/16/ford-dagenham-to-provide-advanced-technology-diesel-engines-for-.html

      • I know Chris, my old man worked there for 4 years after the production plant. However, although the plant and the latest contract news have been a success, I know that a friend of the family who left their recently there is a long term worry about the future of the plant. There was a hope that the news about the electric part production would be announced at Dagenham, but the little know transmission plant at Halewood got that instead, which is good news for them.

        • As you rightly remind us – Ford just last week announced a £230 million investment at Halewood. (to convert the transmissions plant that they retained when the main assembly plant was sold to Jaguar Land Rover). That’s inward investment into the UK automotive manufacturing sector.
          All I’m trying to do is counter the opinion (that you can hear in any pub in the land) that “we don’t make anything anymore” and that the entire automotive manufacturing sector has been razed to the ground. When one can make quite a convincing case for the car manufacturing sector at least being as strong in recent years (2016/2017) as it ever has been. If not right now unfortunately.

  8. All this nostalgia remind me of trips taken to visit my mother’s aunt during the seventies. The pain of sitting around whilst the adults chatted would be eased somewhat by the latest issue of “Look-In” magazine, or a comic. The real reason I was happy to tag along though was that en-route we’d pass the Caterpillar plant with the storage area full of life-sized Tonka toys.Over the years the signage changed to GM Terex, and the number of monster trucks and other machinery diminished. I haven’t been that way for many years now but I know that factory is long gone. A look on Google maps reveals the presence of a Terex truck dealership on part of the site, but that’s all. Time passes, things change. T’was ever thus.

  9. I live about 8 miles from this factory and worked here when it became a warehouse for the now defunct Past Times group of shops. I worked in what was the assembly plant and it was like Westminster Abbey, with the high roof and massive floor space, and by 1997 was packed full of mostly imported souvenirs and novelty goods destined for Past Times range of shops. One man I worked with worked at Lillyhall when it was a bus factory and said it was a huge shame the factory closed as it hardly lost a day to industrial action and was producing a popular single decker bus for Voivo. Also some British Rail Pacers were produced at their satellite plant on Workington Docks, which I think is still standing today.
    A big blow to Workington when the bus factory closed in 1992 as it employed 500 workers and ironically was brought to the area to reduce local unemployment in the late sixties, only to become a victim of the early nineties recession. Sad to say Leyland Bus has been joined by High Duty Alloys, whose once huge Lillyhall factory is in ruins, and the area is better known for its car showrooms, college and fitness cente these days.

  10. Where I live in northern New Jersey, USA, I have seen many and old factory or it sites evolve. A short distance from where I live is a huge plant (Curtiss-Wright) which was built to make aircraft engines during WW II. The production of those engines (or rebuilding of them) was gone by the early 1970’s. Most of the space has been subdivided into warehouses, light manufacturing, a maintenance facility for a regional commuter railroad. GM had an assembly plant in Linden, NJ, from the early 1940’s to shut down in the 1990’s. Now it is a site of warehouses and retail shops. Ford had 2 assembly plants in Northern NJ, Mahwah and Edison. Both are long gone (Mahwah in the early 1980’s, Edison, in the mid-1990’s. The Edison location has mostly become a retail store site but the Mahwah site had a interesting twist. After the Mahwah site was closed and torn down, a large hotel, some warehousing space and offices were built. For many years, it was the US offices of Sharp Electronics. They moved out and now the space is the US HQ of Jaguar Land Rover ! JLR had offices and a warehouse for years in a site a short distance away in Mahwah, including when Ford owned it. JLR and the brands that became BL long had offices, distribution and warehouses from the 1950’s in north eastern NJ.

    • @ Leon B USA, it’s good to hear the former factories near you have a new use, as only a small part of the Leyland factory is in use as storage these days and will never return to any kind of automotive industry. Also the High Duty Alloys foundry, which employed 1000 people at its height, is derelict and most of the steelworks in Workington has been turned into housing.

  11. Well, in York we’ve got 33 electric buses from Optare – who are based in Selby. Their factory (because they are part of Ashok Leyland) even has the Leyland logo on the side of it.

  12. Probably the biggest difference between the US and the UK is that there’s a *lot* of fresh greenfield for development in the US. Natural obstacles (waterfront, mountains) don’t inhibit development and usually aren’t essential for transportation or power. It makes economic sense to abandon obsolete US cities in place because nearby greenfield sites can be purchased for less money than the cost of purchasing and demolishing existing facilities. The much lower population density means that existing cities easily can sprawl without bumping into other cities.

    • Someone once told me that the US economy was different to most others as the supply of things like land, labour, etc was almost unlimited.

  13. These sort of articles bring a tear to my eye – I’m in Australia which has lost all its volume manufacturing. Sure, we have some wonderful component manufacturers such as ARB going great guns, but the days of Falcons and Holden Commodores pouring out of factories here are now all over.

    • Just for the record, we haven’t lost all our volume car manufacturing in the UK. Not yet anyway.
      (I know you weren’t suggesting that Pete, but some folk both home and abroad are under that impression).
      UK car production just 5 years ago (1.72 million in 2016) was only slightly below the all-time 1972 peak of 1.92 million – and when the richer product mix and decline of kit (CKD) production of cars is accounted for – it was higher in value terms.
      2020 was very depressed at around 1 million but Covid can take the blame for a lot of that.
      Jaguar Land Rover, Nissan, Toyota, BMW-Mini and Stellantis are the major manufacturers (and it’s nearly all “manufacture” not “assembly” though people resent being told that, perplexingly).
      Today’s Britain hosts quite a few efficient, modern car factories with the lights on, people employed, and brand new cars coming off the line.
      The UK car manufacturing sector is almost totally foreign owned (just as 3 of the big 4 companies were in 1972) but that doesn’t prevent it from delivering almost all the economic benefits a British-owned industry might deliver.
      Though it’s a struggle convincing people of that.
      “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone” as the song goes. And no doubt if we do lose all our car manufacturing, people will start mourning the loss – in the same way you Australians are mourning the loss of your (essentially foreign-owned) car manufacturing industry.
      But we’re not there yet.

    • It’s unfortunate, but it seems that the Australian car industry was only really in existence due to protectionism for many years.

      • Richardpd, true enough we had protection for the Australian industry. But we weren’t Robinson Crusoe there. Studies have shown that every country’s car industry has protection in some form or other, and by some measures Australia was at the lower end. Being at the lower end is perhaps a big part of the reason the manufacturers all pulled out.

      • Richardpd, true enough – Australia did protect its car industry, but we were hardly Robinson Crusoe there. Every country with a mass car industry protects its industry in some form or another, and in fact some studies suggest Australia was at the lower end of the protection scale.

  14. Obviously I feel sorry for the locals who lost their jobs, but in general I can’t say I’m over bothered about Workington, as it’s not as if we’re short of British made buses made elsewhere by Alexander Dennis, Wrights and Optare/Switch.

  15. I sometimes browse an Urban Exploration forum (which I initially found when they ‘explored’ Longbridge). Being of retirement age and from an engineering family I do enjoy seeing inside these old & sadly un-used factories imagining them in their full & working heyday and seeing discarded equipment & machinery that I remember from my youth.

  16. From my earlier career in Industrial Film Production, I spent many years filming in all sorts of factories (light & heavy engineering, Construction machinery, Military, Bearing manufacture, Pharmaceuticals etc.)

    So many of these have closed down and been demolished. Great shame, but Nissan stands out as still surviving and with a bright future – now heading for 40 years.

  17. I see many pre-2005 Land ROVERS on the road all over the world. Indeed I bought mine new in 1998 and still use it as my daily driver.

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