Keith Adams recalls the fateful day, 10 years ago, that MG Rover went into administration.
‘It’s over. They’ve called in the receivers.’
A simple text message from my friend and colleague, Mike Duff… At that moment, it really did feel like my world had collapsed around me. Far from being in Birmingham to share my grief with the workers at Longbridge, I had been strolling around the Techno-Classica motor show in Essen with BMC/Leyland-loving friend and long-time faithful Contributor, Alexander Boucke.
I was there working on a show report for Classic Car Weekly, but the moment that text message came in, I wanted to be near a computer – I wanted to mainline the news coverage, feel closer to the death of the car company I’d felt so close to for so long. I wanted to be among my friends, my community. My mind was not on smiling classic car fans and their highly polished prize cars. No, it was in Birmingham.
I say that because, for much of MG Rover’s life, www.austin-rover.co.uk had been there, relaying events, tracking its past, and putting some sense and perspective to the BMC>Rover soap opera to that point. And since the end of 2003, we’d been tracking and distilling the news for the site’s faithful readership. And because of this, I felt extraordinarily close to the company – perhaps because, through my constant pulse taking, I could feel the patient dying. Even if I was in denial.
My own links with the company formerly known as British Leyland are pretty tenuous, really. I’d worked for BT Centrica as an onsite engineer at Longbridge, Gaydon and Solihull during 1999-’00, and beyond owning a number of its finest products (the pinnacle was either an SD1 at 18-years old, or the Metro 1.3HLS I had at 20 and in which I had brought my new-born son home), my interest was merely as a car enthusiast who’d been following the company’s fortunes for as long as I could remember.
And being a lover of the underdog, I’d been rooting for BL for as long as I can remember, and met each new product launch with the hope and expectation of a six year old opening his presents on Christmas morning. The Maestro and Montego – I rooted for those, and as soon as I could drive, I put a Rattan Beige example of the former, outside my house. The same with the Rover 800 – and that was a little later. But excitement was followed by disappointment, usually.
Until, that is, the launch of the Rover 200/400 in 1989, when Rover finally got it right. The car was a class-leader, and all was right with the world. Until they fluffed its replacement, then the company fell into a 1990s morass under the stewardship of BMW. Not that the Germans were responsible for MG Rover being left where it was on that fateful day 10 years ago. Oh no, there were many more reasons than poorly-judged ownership for the ultimate self-destruction of MG Rover – the Government, management, the product…
On that day, I wanted to blame someone, anyone for the failure of ‘my’ carmaker, though. But I knew that I had to coolly, calmly report the events as they unfolded, and I think that the need to produce the story for the website helped me get through it. As did the support of the community, which eventually rallied together to take part in the first Pride of Longbridge event, the weekend after the closure. That was a heartwarming gesture of support, not defiance.
The real victims of MG Rover’s destruction 10 years ago, though, were the workers of Longbridge and their families. Those who lost their jobs, forced onto the dole, and who, a decade on, have yet to see any form of meaningful compensation. But despite the bad news for Longbridge, the British car industry has recovered and prospered. Jaguar Land Rover, the rump of what’s left of the BL Empire, is worth billions, and is building cars the world wants. And I guess that’s something we should all be very proud of. And the rest of the UK industry is going from strength to strength.
Thinking back to that fateful day still hurts, and I hope you won’t mind me shedding a quiet tear of sorrow today. But tempered with relief that there’s a booming car industry in the vacuum left by the exit of MG Rover. Even if it’s not in Longbridge.
- If you want a rundown of the month from hell, where better than to relive it on www.austin-rover.co.uk as it recorded it back then. I won some plaudits for my coverage at the time – I wonder, today, whether such an account would be written in such a way, or would it just be a social media stream? Anyway, enjoy…
Here’s how I reported on the devastating day’s events from the relative comfort of
my bolt-hole in Germany, on 8 April 2005.
Longbridge: 100 years of car manufacturing came to an end at 11.00am last Friday, when the Longbridge production line came to a halt. At 10.45am today, the Department of Trade and Industry announced that SAIC would not be returning to the negotiating table and, at 10.52am, the end was confirmed: PwC would not be asking for further money from the Government, announcing 5000 redundancies.
After the longest week of its 100 year history, Rover finally came to an end today, following an announcement by SAIC that it would not be returning to the negotiating table. The news came as a terrible blow, and although it was not unexpected, the swiftness of the announcement follwing the government’s pledge to continue its funding of negotiations with PwC, to the tune of £25m.
When PwC announced to the press it was over, it was described as a terrible day for the company – because SAIC has not come back, PwC would not be going back to the Government for any more money, and this was confirmed an hour later by the DTI, which also added that it would be issuing 5000 redundancy letters over the weekend. The 1000-or-so workers left, were either in the administrative sector of the company, or were line workers retained to build the last of the uncompleted cars in the factory.
Ian Powell, one of the joint administrators said: ‘We have received a copy letter from SAIC early this morning which communicates to the DTI that they are not willing to acquire either the whole or part of the business on a going concern basis. In light of this important development we have concluded that there is no realistic prospect of obtaining sufficient further finance to retain the workforce while the position with other parties is explored. As we indicated earlier in the week significant redundancies will now be effected.’
Tony Lomas, joint administrator and partner, added: ‘We have worked closely with the unions, Government, employees and directors to understand the position and the options for the business. It was apparent that very significant funding would be required to sustain the business as a going concern and that a sale of the complete business would be extremely complex and would take a long time to conclude. In addition to exploring the interests of SAIC we have received a number of other enquiries. In our view, none of these is capable of resulting in a sale of the complete business. During the course of this week we have made every effort to establish SAIC’s intentions. We have had regular contact with SAIC’s advisers and had established direct contact with the company. SAIC has now stated its intentions and unfortunately does not wish to acquire the business.’
Ian Powell continued: ‘We are extremely disappointed that SAIC has decided not to progress discussions to acquire the business. We are very conscious of the impact this news will have on the employees, their families and the businesses dependent on MG Rover Group. Regarding the employees and their families, this is obviously devastating news. There was some hope regards the SAIC situation – and that hope has gone on for a long, long period of time prior to the administration. With their certainty we felt we no alternative but to to take the decisions we have taken and communicate them as quickly as possible to the employees…’
Workers too stunned to go home linger around Q-Gate. One said: ‘Five years ago, we welcomed John Towers with open arms and a glass of champagne – I don’t know what to think of him now.’
John Towers spoke to the press and maintained his strategy had been the correct one: ‘I don’t feel guilty about the process we’ve been through – wind the clock back and I would do exactly the same.’
Tony Blair and Gordon Brown halted election campaigning to go up to Birmingham, and immediately announced that the Government would be providing a £150m support package, which would be used to help redundant workers, and the areas hardest hit by the closure. Tony Blair was appearing on a Radio 2 ‘phone-in when the announcement was made and, when asked by a Longbridge worker, Phillip Hanks, why Labour couldn’t help more, by re-nationalising the company, he said: ‘There’s no point me giving you false hope when I can’t – I can’t, myself, save the company…’
Blair went on to say: ‘We will put together a big package for the employees – and we’re doing everything we can help people, particularly in the short term with regard to paying their bills. Everyone will be getting a personal adviser to help with retraining…’ The Government obviously feels the West Midlands economy is strong enough to absorb the 6000 job losses.
Tony Woodley, the General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, said: ‘This is devastating news – our worst fears have been realised. It is the darkest day – ever – in the history of the British car industry.’
So, without a bail out, and no money, that leaves the factory to be slowly wound down. A sad and desperate end to a long history…
John Towers: ‘We feel absolutely devastated, but our feelings are nothing compared to the thousands of people we employed and their families.’