Opinion : Good news doesn’t travel fast in the British media

Mini 1989 advert

It was always challenging working at ‘the Austin’, as many people still called it locally. It hadn’t built anything with an Austin badge for decades, but the epithet stuck – it was either that or ‘British Leyland’. Some folk never move on.

The Press, as usual, was always looking for the worst in what we did in the factory where Birmingham and Bromsgrove Council territories met, rarely the good that went on there. In the late 1970s, Honda, following its trawl around the world of motor manufacturers, had settled upon Longbridge as the seat of some of the greatest automotive thinking and innovation it had seen. Their observations, not mine. They chose to link with Longbridge.

The Mini for example, despite its many oddities of design and manufacture, became a firm favourite of rich and famous, as well as less well-heeled and ordinary, like my father. It has become a classic of its time, now milked for all its marque is worth by a brilliant German marketing machine. The factory’s cars, trucks and other products were exported the world over in the days when BOG standard meant ‘British or German’, implying an equivalence of technology or quality.

The media’s take on the end of Longbridge

Towards the end of the factory’s existence, such enormous progress was made in the realms of industrial relations that the prejudiced media would have had the greatest trouble in believing what they could have seen.

Most of it has gone on unreported as a result and this does not give credit to the thousands of ordinary working people toiling away there.

The evidence is all lost and gone under the new housing estate sprawled across what was once ‘the Aero Factory’, created with a higher roof at one side to accommodate the tailfins of aircraft assembled therein.

A take on Longbridge’s efficiencies

A short story, then to illustrate the point. As was and still is the drive for so-called efficiencies, the ever-present dead hand of the Accountants deemed that we needed to shed some labour down to a fictitious magic number, which, when reached, might just guarantee the future of the plant.

The chosen target of the bean-counters was the Logistics function. The aim was to reduce manpower at any cost. It was suggested that a contractor could come in and do the easy bit of merely moving parts from the stores to the line.  They would also run the stores.  After all, it’s only parts arriving and being put on shelves, isn’t it?

Bean-counters are great – they sit at desks, make up great ideas and then throw them over the fence to operational departments who have to face the consequences of whatever ridiculous concept has just been dropped on them, while the architects sit at their desks and know nothing of the pain or destruction they have just caused. Dolphins wouldn’t do that, which just goes to show how much smarter than humans they are.

A fine conclusion – but who reports it?

Anyway, the local Trade Union understood what the Company was trying to do and began to wonder if they might play a part, by being allowed to tender alongside the outside contractors for the work.

As Management, we saw no reason why not, as many of us knew what really went on day-to-day in the decks and stores of the plant and were well aware of the skills and knowledge of the current workforce and how they daily went beyond their contracted duties to see a good job done. What then transpired was an unofficial link between Union and Management, the former supplying the detail and the latter supplying the format and ‘wordsmithing’ to write up the proposal in the accepted manner.

The result was that we lost heads’, i.e., they were transferred to another function, and we met the required head-count figure, that factory continued in its own efficient way and the threat of green labour coming along messing up the smooth operation was avoided. Everybody happy. Targets met. Can’t see that being a subject for BBC Midlands Today – too much factual good news in the story.

There are many such stories from many of the thousands of people working at the plant, but who would want to listen now? If you have read this far, you obviously do… so thank you very much!

Dr. Ian S Pogson CEng FIET


  1. Union militancy peaked at British Leyland with the ill-fated 12-week strike at Speke in 1978, which saw the factory closed down, and thereafter, the amount of disruption plummeted as unions realised the company wasn’t a bottomless pit of money and needed to be profitable to survive. The unions working with management in this article was probably a taste of what would come in the Eighties as the unions moved on from class warfare to working with management to help British Leyland survive.

    • Glenn, excellent point. I worked at Halewood under JLR, a plant which was still fulll of Scouse “comedians” and some really great ones too. A visit was always fun with many really helpful people on the track. It did produce some excellent Ford products, and later the JLR ones, but again poor management allowed standards to slip.
      I would recommend Lance Cole’s “BL – From Triumph to tragedy”for a sad, but good read.

  2. Whereas what we see now on the railways, is a demand for more money in an industry whose income from passenger fares has been knocked for six by the pandemic; but has been heavily subsidized by the government to ensure its survival for (hopefully) better days ahead. I would like to make some leisure trips by rail but can’t be bothered working out when they will be running a normal service, or any service.

    Strikes always reduce customer demand or move it to competitors – I remember a road test of a VW K70 in the AA DRIVE magazine, where they interviewed an AA member owner to get his opinion of the car. He said he wanted a Triumph 2000 but would have to wait 3 months for delivery; so, he bought a VW instead, with near-instant delivery (the K70 was not a popular model). There is, however, logic in the strikers’ attitudes: if the company is going to go bust, you want to maximize your redundancy compensation.

    On a related topic, I worked at Lucas Girling in Pontypool from 1985 to 1990; we built some prototype brake servos for Ford Mondeos, which were basically Rover 800 servos with a different input rod. Somebody in the factory sabotaged them, apparently because they thought they would be better off on the dole if the factory went bust. A selfish approach.

    To answer Ian more directly, this story probably never hit the press because it wasn’t a story that Marketing wanted to tell.

    • Cheers, Ken for another viewpoint from a great supplier. Sabotage is weird, but then so are folk. It is interesting talking to train staff about the reasons for strike action and you realise that many are still on BR contracts…. Time for HR to repair the BR mess! I personally believe that most strikes are doomed and a poor way of achieving aims. I managed never to strike in 40 years, despite some fairly poxy salary rises but we were well paid to start off with.

    • I agree with that. The railway unions have a point that managers and private train operators shouldn’t be profiting from a loss making industry. That however doesn’t justify their demands.

      Railways lose money, which means labour costs have to go down not up. The RMT will tell you that not every railway worker gets the outrageous pay of train drivers and they’re right. Even taking that into account, the railways pay far more than other comparable industries.

      It is not realistic for the RMT to expect the taxpayer to fund pay increases every year. That simply isn’t going to happen, voters and politicians will prioritise the NHS, education, police and defence ahead of a railway system most of them don’t use. If more taxpayer’s money is spent on the railways, taxpayers will rightly expect to either see cheaper fares or a better service.

      They won’t agree to extra subsidies just pay staff more money, while being offered the same crap service and high fares we see today.

  3. @ Ken Strachan, the railways are one of the few industries( public sector excluded) where the unions are still very powerful and where nearly every worker is in a union. In the past, this has led to rail workers, who were once badly paid, seeing above inflation pay rises over the years and offering them far more protection at work than someone in a sector like retail. However, the rail unions have failed to realise passenger numbers are down by a quarter due to people working from home and the industry has to modernise to survive. Should the leisure market move away, or commuters decide to drive or use the bus, then the railways will be in serious trouble.

    • Agreed. The 1955 national rail strike (before my time!) was a reaction to the Modernization Plan – a huge investment but likely to lead to job losses. People found other ways to move freight and people and never came back.

  4. The idea of the union becoming a subcontractor is great in the short term, but how would they manage the inevitable need to control wages and headcount when the realities of bring an employer set in ? It would no doubt end in total chaos.

    • That & clueless management more importantly the Far Eastern countries industrialising.

      Even the Americans who have their unions under an iron fist managed to destroy many of their industries though the last two reasons, though mostly due to greed rather cluelessness management-wise.

    • Jeff. Not entirely true, but certainly if you read Lance Cole’s excellent book British Leyland: From Triumph to Tragedy. Petrol, Politics and Power, there is much evidence for Kremlin-backed/paid unionists wrecking not just the car industry. The management were in many ways equally to blame. A whole level of middlemen who were hired because they were “hard nuts” and could fix problems, but they were the ones who created them in the first place! I know, I saw it.

  5. Some union men, like the hard left Alan Thornett at Cowley, had little interest in a successful British Leyland. To them, the workers were pawns in a game to bring down capitalism, and no doubt some were paid by Moscow to instigate strikes. Also when Derek Robinson was dismissed in 1979, most workers were glad to see the back of him and concentrate on making cars and not having their pay reduced by industrial action.

    • Exactly, some Corbynistas still think this way, oblivious to the fact that it just sents politics the opposite way to the way they want it to go.

    • Which other notable subversive post-war union men in the UK could be said to have preferred a controlled demolition or general destruction of British industry as it were?

      Dick Etheridge during his time at Longbridge observed the atmosphere and how things began to deteriorate by 1959 after a pretty optimistic 2 years, with there being considerable nostalgia concerning Joe Edwards and many expressing the view that the company would have been in a better position regarding labour relations, model policy and rationalisation of the Morris factories had he still been there after 1956.

  6. Sorry I don’t have time for this blame the media non-sense. What were they suppose to do? Ignore the build quality problems, the waiting lists for cars created by endless strikes and pretend that the Morris Marina was a world beater?

    The car this article refers to at the top of the page, sums up the problem with the British car industry. Oh we love the story of the Issigonis, the brilliant individual who ignored convention to build a world beater. Except that is just as big a myth as anything in the British press about BL.

    In reality the mini was initially a flop because in one car Britain of the late 50’s nobody wanted such a small car as their only car. It was riddled with fault when it was launched, including a leaky floor which meant many early vehicles had to be rectified. Some faults were never fixed, such as the daft position of the electrics facing into the weather.

    Worse, it was never very profitable, if it made a profit at all. The attitude of management was boring old costs would be sorted out by volume, so why bother to do the sums? The result of that is it soldiered on long after it should have been replaced because it didn’t make enough money to fund such a replacement.

    The reality is, the British motor industry was a badly run basket case and even without a hostile press, it was likely to get into trouble.

    • @bartlebe, not just the British car industry, Italy had some real automotive junk in the seventies and eighties that hurt their car industry. Anyone recall the terrible rust issues with Lancia that almost killed them outside Italy and the company ended up selling an upmarket supermini to Italians that was made in Poland? Fiat and Alfa again had serious issuesd with tinworm and quality on their cars that hit sales and Fiat only really survives now because of the %00, with its other models fading into oblivion, while Alfa Romeo sells its cars in penny numbers outside Italy.

  7. Regarding the etymology of the phrase “bog standard” no-one seems to be really sure where this came from. However, if it was a reference to “British or German” standard, then it’s hardly a compliment, as ‘bog standard’ refers to something that is routine or unexceptional!

  8. Well it’s the wrong time to argue that it wasn’t the unions who ruined BL, because they have risen again since Covid and are trying to do the same again to various industries in the hope of causing a general strike and bringing down a weak government.

    I also don’t but the Honda tie up with BL story either. I think that the real story is that it was BL who went looking around the world for someone. First it was Renault, then GM via Vauxhall and then Chrysler, and eventually it was Honda. I think Honda was interested not because of the super talents of BL, but because of the access it have them to a market that otherwise was subject to a quota. Honda produced mainly cheap little cars for the domestic and US market and motorcycles, whereas BL has a much wider range of sizes, plus luxury cars with Jaguar, and trucks, so there wasn’t much direct competition between the two firms.

    And if Honda really believed that there was so much amazing talent at BL, then why were the BL cars heavily based on Hondas rather than the other way around? Who produced the duplicate tooling for the Ballade, which was the 1st product of the tie-up, which became the Triumph Acclaim? Honda.

    • So nothing to do with a cost of living crisis then while the government is allowing an elite band of billionaires to line their pockets?

      You’re mostly right about Honda though!

  9. If anything, Honda seem to have gone backwards in recent years, the Civic’s styling becoming weirder and weirder since the 2005 model, the car neither fitting into the C or D category, and Honda charging top dollar for it. While it was regrettable the factory at Swindon had to close after producing some excellent cars in the nineties and noughties, the Civic wasn’t selling and it became cheaper to import the car from Japan.

  10. I agree… I was happier with the Civic (HHR design) and model range back in the 90s. The later models lost their appeal for me. Also, The current Civic looks bigger than my 1996 Accord saloon!

  11. @ Hilton D, Honda in the nineties was one big success story in this country. The 1995 Civic was pure class and far removed from the weird looking original car, while the workers in Swindon were producing cars that were completely reliable and highly desirable. Also the Accord, which was related to the Rover 600, was another car that was desgined to pound the motorways effortlessly and without the worry of a breakdown, even if you did 30,000 miles a year.

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