It was 1980. I had just completed my Engineering degree in ‘Combined Engineering Studies’. Lavatory graffiti wags proclaimed over the toilet roll dispensers: ‘CES degrees – please take one!’ It was a quite general course, with fluids, mechanics, engines, material handling, electrics, etc. So the argument could be that we ended up being Jacks and the odd Gills of all trades. Sadly, out of 100 or so students, a mere four were female. Bad times for Engineering…
I had interviews with both Austin Rover and Land Rover, but the only factory trip I managed was Longbridge. Land Rover stuck to a local hotel and several sessions with senior bods. To say Longbridge was a shock to the system was an understatement, said by people who think it’s a long way to the Moon.
It was still producing Minis (proper ones, with rusty bodies and horrible steering wheels, ancient engines and only four gears). Our site visit took in the Design Block, atop ‘Heart-attack hill’, as being Graduates, we were expected to be white collar Johnnies, in RAF-speak. These were the early days of CAD and AR were really pushing the boundaries. I suspect that in Japan, Honda was already ahead…
Just how many people?
The sight that met us in the Design Block was one of utter confusion (in my mind, at least). What were all these people doing? I must admit that the same question sprung into my tiny brain in much later years (mid-1990s) when there was still a huge Transmissions Engineering team, yet PG1 was borrowed from Honda, R65 was borrowed, but heavily modified from Peugeot, the CVT was by ZF and A-Series was ancient history, yet still going.
We hadn’t designed a new transmission since Adam was trying to look behind Eve’s fig-leaf. There was lots of Application Engineering I suppose, and the ‘Polar’ transmission proposal would have been a revolutionary 4×4 gearbox. Oh, yes and the Shitty Rover was to be in dire need of a bit of cog-swapping attention. Well, a lot, then. I recall one of the ‘Trannies’ suggesting that ‘it was the worst car ever to bear the Rover name. Yes.’
Still, there were lots of bodies. Back to 1980, but more of the 1990s another time.
Just how big is this place?
In 1980, I had worked in a steam engine shed/workshop as an enthusiast, so noise and heavy bits were familiar, but the atmosphere of a factory was one I had little experience of. We had as students, visited an aluminium foundry, so that experience prepared me a bit.
However, the vastness of Longbridge and No. 5 Machine Shop were to prove an eye-poppingly strange experience. Although the book had yet to be written, it was probably as much of a culture shock as the Restaurant at the End of the Universe was for Arthur Dent, in the writings of the much-lamented Douglas Adams.
Wisely, we were not shown next door in the Trim Shop, where innocent men entered and exited as non-virgins or simply traumatised. Often with blackened dangly bits, too. Allegedly…
Handbuilt by Robots
The shop had a huge sign outside proclaiming the this was an autonomous or flexible machining centre or something akin. Inside was… A Robot. Not Roberts, as ‘Not the 9 O’Clock News‘ were to parody the Fiat Strada advert (and do look it up, followed by the NTNON ‘Granny’s Mini Metro’ – hilarious!) Hey, come back! You are supposed to be reading this, not being sucked into the black hole that is YouTube!
We were all impressed by The Robot. It wasn’t until much later that I realised that all it did was to turn over the cylinder heads for M- and later, T-Series. That’s it. (I was later, in 1995 and onwards to be part of the Longbridge Manufacturing Engineering team for Powertrain. We reduced the process steps in head machining from 64 to 16 or so. There were some talented Engineers there, once given the room to engineer).
Back inside The Centre, we were all agog. Towering above us was what looked like an aquarium built by Ercol, G-Plan or Stag. It leaned and loomed over the gathered Graduates. Varnished hardwood and big panes of glass contained a few white-coated Technicians, with clipboards and 1980s hair-dos.
Back in the room
This was explained to be the Control Room. Also explained was the fact that the facility was designed to machine the cylinder heads in a true ‘lights out’ environment. Again, it wasn’t until later that I realised that the best lighting in No.5 shop was in that corner!
Moving in a balletic performance that could have been choreographed by Benny Hill, were several AGVs (Automatic Guided Vehicles), which moved parts and fixtures from machine to machine. I was impressed; it was all so new and FMS, or Flexible Manufacturing Systems, were all the rage and here was a prospective employer using that same technology.
I recall very little else that day, but I am sure that we must have seen other parts of that gigantic, sprawling site. In later years, I was to measure how big it was by walking from Cofton Hackett R65 to the head-shunt at West Works, the journey taking a full 40 minutes – and I walk quickly.
At its height, 25,000 people toiled there, many becoming great friends in later life. There were a few malingerers to be sure, but it was easy to hide in such a vast plant. All now gone… I learnt so much in my time there from some fabulously talented and indeed dedicated people.
Dr Ian S Pogson CEng FIET
If you were at the coalface and have a tale to share, please do get in touch!
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