Noted Car Designer Steve Harper began his career at Longbridge as an Austin Apprentice. Here he takes us over to Bristol Road in order to remind us what lunchtimes used to be like…
How times have changed…
Steve Harper: Chips ‘n’ gravy
Lunchtimes were always a bit of a treat at Longbridge. Well, I say that, but that depended upon which side of the wall you fell. By the wall, that was literally the case in the Main canteen, on the corner of Bristol Road, opposite ‘K’ Gate.
Here, there was a huge hall of clattering knives and forks, capable of easily seating 400 or 500 people, which opened its doors to all from 12.00pm to 1.30pm. This building also became a venue for evening cabaret, works announcements, and even had a social club on the ground level below.
Up a wide flight of well-trodden concrete steps, you had the ‘Works Main Canteen’ which featured a forest of simple Formica tables, and uncomfortable metal legged chairs. People, most in greasy overalls, queued in front of a big dispensing counter at the far end, which was not unlike an Army Mess Hall or at your old school dinners.
The universal soundtrack
The sound of mass munching was only broken occasionally, when some unfortunate soul dropped a tray or plate. The cacophony of jeers and cat-calls ran out as loud as on a Saturday afternoon at the Holte End. However, if you were staff, then you went through a single discrete door in the middle of an 8ft high wall, which separated the three quarters against one quarter of the canteen.
By contrast, in there, you were served by waitresses in smart black dresses and white pinnies with little white hats. There were clean glass jugs on each table, with fresh water, and four neatly placed Duralex glasses and cutlery, set out like a posh Sunday lunch. It was a waitress service, with a printed menu, rather than having to queue for your dinner.
Simply put, that classic industrial us and them was as evident at lunch, as for most other things in the factory.
The class system in action
The difference was that, on one side you had the grubby blue overalls, ‘toe-tector’ boots and cow-gowns, and on the other side you had people in their office wear: the best that Foster Brothers or Man at C&A or Marks and Spencer could offer. Flared corduroy trousers, plaid jackets and, if you were lucky a Ben Sherman shirt, with a jazzy kipper tie.
There was a second canteen at the bottom end of the CAB Buildings, and this was a slightly different affair. Once again there were two separate sections for staff and the workers. In this case the kitchen was in the middle, so the two areas of the building were separated from each other by a common kitchen serving the same food, along counters either side of the steaming kitchens.
Basically, the two canteens were fairly identical, however on the staff side, you paid a penny more for your dinner, and for that you had a few pot plants and a Lyons Maid fridge full of Zooms, Fabs and Cornish Mivvis.
Both sides featured the unwelcome fly-bys of an established family of sparrows which chirped away up in the rafters. It was not uncommon to hear someone’s cry of ‘feckin sparras’ when one had pooped on their head or in their food.
The food, as it was, was a fairly standard English fayre of meat, fish, pie or other things with vegetables. Well, you could call them vegetables, as it was usually a congealed dollop of something dished out by a fag smoking crone, that resembled cabbage, carrots or peas. Though there was never anything as exotic as broccoli or, God forbid, a SALAD. This was the 1970s, back in the days when people believed that spaghetti grew on trees.
Then, along the counter, as you dragged your aluminium tray along, unlike school, there were always chips. Wow a choice, you could have boiled, mash or chips and, to follow that, next in line there were jugs of thick ol’ gravy.
Now, gravy on chips, that’s a luxury…
Finally, there was the pudding section, with such treats as apple crumble, rhubarb pie and custard or classics like spotted dick. Many years later, when I was working in the Styling Department, we discovered that there was a ‘super canteen’. This was housed in the Main Building by the ‘Q’ Gate factory entrance.
This was an amazing building with an imposing semi-circular façade and the ‘Austin’ name proudly above the doors, flanked either side by the Royal Appointment heralds. Inside the entrance, it was filled with scale models from the notable cars modelled in brass, in neatly arranged glass cabinets.
It was the domain for the senior management, so this ‘Restaurant’ had tablecloths and unmistakably a chef. He stood at the side of the Hall, with his pristine white overalls and tall fluted hat, adding an air of uniqueness to the proceedings.
We had the opportunity to be there on an evening, on a couple of occasions, especially if we were working a ‘ghoster’, an all-night shift, in the Studio, to prepare the clay models for a major review. Then the chef would stay behind, to prepare an evening meal, which was usually a fry up: bacon, eggs, sausages, beans, black pudding, etc.
This was a different world to a clatter of the Works Main canteen, this was refined luxury, this was definitely us and them.