I was there : Steve Harper’s time at Longbridge

Noted Car Designer Steve Harper began his career at Longbridge as an Austin Apprentice. Here he takes us on a whistle-stop tour of his time served working for the firm…

Prepare for a few laughs on the way!


Steve Harper: The Austin Apprentice

Steve Harper and his Austin Allegro

It was a warm September day in 1974, when I first entered the gates of the North Works and into Herbert Austin’s imported old wooden Canadian Lodge, which was the Apprentice Training School on Longbridge Lane. I had become the third generation of my family to work at ‘The Austin’.

From my great uncle who’d started in the 1930s, to my father in the late 1950s, and with little help from any school careers master, I joined the workforce.

I knew for an early age that I wanted to be a Car Designer. I’d seen the sketches by Harris Mann in Motor magazine, when I was supposed to be doing my mock O Levels. In spite of that, with little knowledge of just how to achieve my dream job, the only visible choice was starting out as an Apprentice. This would give me the chance to learn and work in the factory to understand what happens and experience the whole process.

Getting an apprenticeship

The Technical Apprenticeship in those days was a combination of factory ‘Moves’ and a series of periods at technical college in Bromsgrove to achieve your ONC and HND qualifications in Automotive Engineering.

There were three types of Apprentices: Craft Apprentices, those who would later become Machinists and Fitters. Technical Apprentices, who often went on to areas such as the Drawing Office or Supervisors in technical areas, and the Student Apprentices who started a month later. They had their degrees, going on, they would become Planners and senior management. It was all pre-determined and pretty typical of the us and them kind of arrangement of British industry – your CSEs, your O Levels or your degree decided where you’d end up in the organisation.

The Apprentices even had their own car park and a Recreation room, which actually also had a workshop, where you are allowed and encouraged to fix your own car, rather than take it to a garage. This is all part of Apprentice life.

How it looks to the outside world

Another little detail was your identity. Being an Apprentice, you wore ‘Parrot green’ overalls, with similarly fetching yellow collars. This meant you stood well out against the typical dark blue overalls or the sepia toned ‘cow-gowns’ of most of the workers.

This identity also meant that you were supposed to be allowed to cross the many picket lines that were prevalent in those perilous days of the 1970s. This was never easy but we were expected to go to work rain or shine, hell or high water.

One area where an Apprentice excelled, was the ability to get from one end of the sprawling Longbridge plant, to the other, without getting wet. This proved to be a very useful weekly trip every Friday, to make sure you were able to collect your wage of £17.62, in a small manilla envelope from the Training School.

Getting a work-out

This journey would involve running from the Apprentices’ training building, into the North Works, through the Toolroom, dashing up and over the railway bridge (the only outside diversion) next to the Personnel Department, across into Number 5, along down past my father’s pen.

Through the greasy, oily clatter of the machines, into the Trentham area. Then climb up into the engine transfer lines tunnel, which, by carefully avoiding the belts and chained tracks, took you all the way then to the CAB1 building. Here, you could take the stairs down alongside the body drops, and then walk to the end, to the Rectification Area, where I was stationed for my second move just before the Christmas of that year.

My first move, had been to Cofton Hackett as a gearbox rectifier, which understandably was very busy.

Moving along

My second move, to the CAB buildings was more exciting. We were allowed to work on the track, as the T&P man, which meant that when somebody went off to make a cup of tea or go to the toilet, you were expected to drop in and fill in for him.

This resulted in there being several brown Mini Clubmans of the period, going around with even headlinings that I had fitted. There were also certainly many other parts that are fitted to various cars, however, there did appear to be a plethora of brown Mini Clubmans coming down the lines in those days.

Moving into the Rectification Area after this, I was assigned to general repair on Minis which had come down the line, with ‘end of the line faults’ identified.

Hoisting Minis

Mini Clubman

Now, rather than scramble around on the floor under the cars or have dangerous pits everywhere on the factory floor, there were these chain joists with a big hook on the end.

The simplest way to get underneath a Mini was to attach the hood to the large hole in the front subframe and literally pick the car up into the air, so it stood at jaunty angles or even vertically, balancing on its rear bumper.

When rectified the cars were driven out to a nearby car park, next to the huge multi-story car park that towered above Lowhill Lane. In the likelihood that the parts required were not immediately available, the cars were either pushed or driven outside, into this adjoining car park.

Over time, the cars were parked literally bumper to bumper. If you had to go and retrieve a car it was a tight job to get the car out. You soon learned how to do that: by putting the handbrake on, turning the car on full lock, ‘revving the taters’ off it and dropping the clutch, the result was the car jumping out of the squeeze sideways.

This was a very useful technique, especially as the tarmac underneath was extremely shiny, so very easy to do.

Theory into practice…

However, one Saturday morning at Safeway’s in Harborne, a frustrated little old lady had her Mini trapped in between two large cars and was unable to get it out.

Being a nice guy, I offered her my assistance. I used my well-practiced technique of handbrake on, full lock, drop the clutch at 5000 revs and the car leapt out.

The look of shock and horror on the old lady’s face was something I’ll never forget. Her poor little Mini. She had only probably driven at 25mph and never imagined that you could go that fast or move in that transverse direction. I don’t recall her thanking me for retrieving her car.

I was the snotty kid

As an Apprentice we always had mentors, or some poor soul who was told by the Supervisor that you have to look after ‘this snotty kid’.

The guy in the Rectification Area I worked for had two jobs. He also ran the Post Office in his local village. His wife obviously ran it during the weekdays, but he would contribute to the income at every lunchtime.

At lunchtime, from underneath his work bench, he would pull out three or four boxes containing greeting cards, postage stamps, parcel scales, envelopes and stationery. You name it, you could buy from him. He’d even ‘Frank it’ and take it home in the official silver-grey sack every night.

Longbridge the Mini market…

Further down the benches, another guy obviously had a record shop, as he would pull out all these boxes of albums and singles. You could peruse through them in your free time over lunch. There was, in reality, a veritable mini-market – everybody was selling something or other.

This became even more fantastic at Christmas. That year, the double-bubbled Hydragas units off Allegros, were painted white and decorated to look like a snowman. Trimmings were made out of seat belts, indicator units flashed away. The whole place took on a whole different magical atmosphere at Christmas, with all the parts being used were obviously things from the rectification bins.

This was the unique Longbridge Christmas in the CAB buildings.

Moving to the foundry

Many moves followed including working in the Foundry, where I could be found first thing, cuddling up around the cupulas on those cold winter mornings, as they started at 7:30.

It was a dark dank place, and the only way to get warm surrounded by the dirt and grime of the black casting sand, was to hang around near the big boilers and molten metal fires, as all the men around you, many with fewer fingers than normal, burrowed away in the sand and prepared the castings

Later, I did manage to find a desk from which to work in the Foundry Pattern Shop. Sadly, it was more of a study of how not to work. The bombastic Shop Stewards wouldn’t allow the Apprentices to do any work on the machines, because they were for ‘the proper men – not snotty kids’ who may one day, be their bosses.

Things start to get better

Eventually, the moves got sweeter. I had three months in the Sales and Marketing Department, working for Motor Sport promotions at the time of the ill-fated Welsh Rally TR7 rally car launch.

The old Apprentices’ building was later demolished and the little used Apprentice Sports Fields on the far side of Longbridge Lane, were developed into two brand new Apprentice buildings. One being a pristine set of workshops and the other for Administration.

This building also had the drawing office training room, ideal for those selected Apprentices whose chosen career path was to go into the drawing design areas.

It was run by an old wizened pipe-smoking Engineer called Fred and a young whippersnapper Engineer, Mike George. This is where I finally started to realise how I could become a Car Designer.

Whilst primarily my learning to sketch was done in my spare time, I did occasionally pull out my sketch pad and doodle. Eventually, the eight of us in that year’s draughting cohort were moved up into the huge ADO Drawing Office.

I was given a place working in the Gearbox Design Department – hardly my dream posting – designing such exciting things as the revised synchromesh cone for the E-Series gearbox, a baulking nightmare.

It was during that time that I was ‘discovered’. Well, shall I say, more like caught red-handed. I was seen to be sketching some fantasy car styling, by an irate red-faced Supervisor, when I should have been actually designing a piece of pipe or something equally banal.

Moving into design…

That was by fate, the beginning of my journey into Styling.

It didn’t start well, as he first called the Apprentice Training School to complain to Fred and Mike about me. He soon recognised old Fred, and his temper cooled.

Only then was it found out that, that the angry Supervisor had a friend that worked in the Roundhouse.

In effect, it was his introduction which actually got me finally into the Styling Department.

It had been a long journey, a long way to come from the first days in that old wooden building, to finally be walking into the doors of the Roundhouse and meet Harris Mann, the guy who had penned that first inspirational sketch I’d seen four years before.

Looking back…

As I hit 64 now, those days are now exactly 38 years ago. The buildings are now long since gone, the vast majority of those many faces and characters are all dead and buried.

The multitude of decrepit old coaches don’t leave the central reservation on the Bristol Road, outside ‘K’ Gate, where trams once stopped to ferry the hundreds to their toil. That mad rush to the gates, following the cacophony of pinging Time-Clocking Machines, as the “Bull’ sounded at 5:00pm, doesn’t happen anymore.

They’re all ghosts in a machine that no longer exists. Just dust in the realm of time… History soon to be forgotten, lest for sites like this.

If you were at the coalface and have a tale to share, please do get in touch!

Some interesting inspiration for Steve here,,,

4 Comments

  1. Well done for stealing a march on the other publications/platforms in bringing these interesting memories to light. I’ve always loved these types of stories. There must still be a mountain of information out there to be mined. Keep it coming please.

  2. Funny how times change isn’t it. What I wouldn’t give for that two door Allegro. I would sell the wolfrace wheels once I’d found some 1750hl sports sculpted steels .

  3. I’m 67 now, just a tad older than Steve. His clothes remind me of what I wore in those days as well… Though I didn’t own an Allegro! The last paragraph “Looking back” says it all.

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