The story of the factory that refuses to Die
Recently I managed to get the opportunity to go inside some very famous (and perhaps infamous) buildings that have fascinated me for as long as I can remember. As a follower of classic British motoring and the very proud past owner of an old mini its been hard to not be taken in by all the magic and tragedy that surrounds the Longbridge car plant. I was worried about the trip , with the past forty years or so of strikes, financial issues , multiple unsuccessful takeovers , dormancy and massive destruction I believed it would be a depressing shell of a once great powerhouse. I was thinking that this was probably the last chance to see any of it so I gritted my teeth. I also had a perceived view on the new mg plan, thinking the plant was just open to keep the company technically British to the eyes of Chinese Reowe customers , just a cheat on the heritage to please shanghai businessmen. Luckily my worries were unfounded and left the famous q gate on Lowhill lane a happy man , but more on that later.
The evolution of a superpower (1895-present)
Farmland to printworks 1895
Longbridge as a factory dates back to 1895 when copper printing concern White and Pike set out plans to diversify into new and exciting industries (well more exciting than copper printing anyway), they decided to consolidate the factories littered all over Birmingham by spending almost £12 million on one gigantic facility. They settled on the small agricultural town of Longbridge, which is all it was back then. The company swiftly moved into cycle parts production, general printing and other odd jobs W and P could find, but alas viable projects were not easy to come by however and 6 years after the gates opened, Longbridge had to close for the very First time, but luckily for the factory this would not happen again for a whole hundred years.
Herbert Austin was a talented engineer with a real passion for the automobile, in the start of the 20th century Herbert had an heated argument over engine layout with the Woleley brothers with whom he created a fair few motorcars. He decided he needed absolute control over the cars produced, where there would be no compromises and they way to do that was to start up on his own. In 1905 Herbert registered the Austin motor company, and in November that year purchased the old printing works (after already using the abandoned lot to gear up for the London motor show). He found the abandoned factory while bombing around Birmingham districts in his old Wolseley and it was perfect, and history was made, Longbridge was bought for the unbelievable price of £800,000 which was a whole 15th of the original construction cost 10 years prior.
It wasnt long after Herbert moved in that Longbridge started its long career as a car producer, the models continuously evolved with the big 25/30 (above) being replaced with the 40hp and the small 15/20 became the 18/24 within a year. The south works of the original site were impressive but it was still not quite big enough for Austin’s operations and ambitions. Constant development of the plant was required as orders for the cars were high, and Austin had many high class customers (Including Royalty) so it was a busy place. But it wasn’t until 1914 when world war broke out that real changes started to be made. As such a large manufacturing power it was obvious Austin’s works would be chosen for the war effort. But due to the cars being made from aluminium which could be panel beaten on a work bench there was no metal press on site, and as the site would be used for complex production of the important armored cars and planes to win the war one would be needed ASAP. During the war productivity at the factory was immense, but the caveat was it left the factory with an issue that would rear its ugly head many times in its story. In 1918 it was obvious the site became too large just to go back to cars like it was making pre war , the orders wouldn’t even come close to filling the site.
To try and fill the factory after the war, Austin branched out into tractor manufacture and continued to make trucks, they also decided to run a one model policy thereby consolidating the car operation in an attempt to make the larger factory work. It wasn’t quite enough however,the situation worsened when license plane production of ww1 designs wound up in 1920. Herbert had an impossible decision to make, would he carry on making a go of production at Longbridge risking further financial ruin or would he close the gates for good (sound familiar?). Legend has it that the fate of the factory was left to a simple coin toss! the coin luckily landed heads and he convinced his loyal workforce to go one month without pay to try and get some capital back (imagine if it landed tails? , would the mini have ever revolutionized the motoring world?). Anyway it wasn’t too long till it was realized that production could be boosted if they could make the car accessible to more people. In 1921 the horsepower tax was introduced in Great Britain and it was decided if it was possible to make a usable car which could work with low power and therefore a lower amount of tax the problems the factory was facing could be solved. The Board of Austin were completely apposed to the idea of such a car, Austins back then were upmarket and some saw a car of the people as brand suicide, others saw the development of a new model as an extremely expensive risk . Herbert played with the idea with young draftsman Stanley Edge at his home in secret. 3 prototypes were made with Herbert paying the brunt of the development and in 1922 the car was finally announced as the seven. While slow to get off the ground the Seven effectively destroyed the cycle car industry and allowed Austin to boost and replace the rest of it’s product range.
Longbridge circa 1929
The seven remained popular and in production at Longbridge till war broke out again in 1939, and once again the workforce had to move into military production. Highlights from the war effort include licensed production of the Lancaster bomber and Hawker Hurricane, making the now famous (and sadly destroyed) flight shed built 2 years prior a necessity. Herbert Austin sadly died on the 23rd of may 1941 not able to see where the amazing empire he started finally led.
Here comes Bmc
Once the war was won , a successor needed to be named, Leonard Lord was a big name at main rival Morris for sometime, but due to constant arguments with William Morris (similar temperament to austin?) he left to Cowley for Longbridge just prior to the war breaking out, and in 1946 Leonard was finally named chairman of the company. After the war which went on for so long Austin finally got to properly release the new 16 which was ready for 1939, this was the first Austin motor car to have an overhead valve and looked far more modern for the time in both looks and performance specification. The car was popular and became the basis for the Taxi cabs of the time, the early post war Austins were much larger in size and engine capacity than the seven that saved the company seeing Austin return to their early roots. The cars were popular and in 1951 the famous and still standing CAB 1 assembly line was built allowing even greater production potential.
In 1952 after more successes at Longbridge, Austin took care of an agreed takeover of the Nuffield association (Morris) which led to the creation of the famous British motor corporation, while Morris cars continued to be produced at cowley in essence many of the vehicles were badge engineered products that were originally designed in Longbridge’s drawing rooms. Bmc was a well respected organisation and were at the time the fourth largest car producer in the world . Throughout the 50’s many interesting cars came out of the gates but nothing that would have the lasting history of what came in 1959.
With the aquisition of sporting brand mg and work with Donald Healey, Bmc were creating some great sports-cars, but late into the 50’s the suez oil crisis happened and the markets were looking for more sensible and economical cars. Bubble cars were all the rage at the time and Leonard Lord famously told famed Morris minor engineer Alec Issigonis to drive them off the street by creating a proper little car. The Mini was Perhaps the most important car launch of all time and became a mainstay of the Longbridge assembly line surviving all the way into the new millennium. The car was a rousing success, loved by the press for its surprisingly capable handling and cheeky good looks it really struck a chord with the swinging sixties. The car kept Longbridge producing in Large numbers, a whole quarter of a million mini’s were made (Shared with cowley) in 1964, so it was then for good reason it Launched as the Austin Seven, as the car definitely shared a few traits in the market as the original.
The car not only boosted production for the plant , but also how the plant worked. Prior to the Mini Longbridge had solely produced rear-wheel drive cars, with an engine mated longitudinally from the grill infront of a gearbox sending power to the rear wheels via a differential. To maximize available space the engine was placed transversely (placed parallel to the grille) and to make that work the engine had to be placed on top of the gearbox which now drove the front wheels. This layout would prove popular for future products such as the equally popular Austin 1100/1300. Bmc expanded even further in 1965 by taking control of Pressed Steel , who supplied many bodies to many of Bmc’s rivals and due to pressure and fear within Jaguar cars in 1966, William Lyons decided to sell the company on to Bmc. The company was getting too large and soon came into problems with too many marques to look after with no plan’s to replace some of the aging models.
Too big for its boots
Leyland motor corporation began in 1962 after the acquisition of Standard-Triumph and later Rover in 1967 , this left the uk with 3 major umbrella auto groups; Bmc, Leyland and Rootes. By 1967 Rootes were under American auto giant Chrystler’s control. Vauxhall were already under Gm ownership and Ford was always american , political fears at the time were worsened when Bmc (well now British motor Holdings) started to have problems , it was decided by the political powers that Lord stokes of Leyland motors who were doing very well should meet with Lord with many unsubtle hints towards a collaboration. This was an odd strategy as many of Bmc’s issues came from too many in house cars competing with themselves and not enough capital to create replacements.
The start of a Monster
So begins what most people remember about Longbridge, and why the idea of buying British leaves a nasty taste in the mouths of many. British Leyland motor corporation or as it became British Leyland were synonymous with naff car designs, poor workmanship and Strikes! Poor decisions were made and an irreversible reputation was made, constant disputes with management and the workforce meant the Leyland era was one of many unpleasant memory’s. Due to its preferable size and great position for logistics Longbridge was always the darling of the partnership meaning it gained most of the development money from the merger. In preparation for the allegro one famous landmark was created , to improve efficiency of the works a conveyor bridge was built over the a38 connecting the body shop of the west works to the assembly plant in the south works, while the cars soon outgrew the bridge it was an impressive site and further symbolised the plants control of the town.
However main development under BL came just before their most important model launch in years , a car to follow in the footsteps of both the seven and the mini. The car to take on the world, the Metro was a gamble that was desperately needed to save the Factory, with perceived production so high, serious alterations to the west works were required. New land was bought and landscaped just behind the west works, the new site was referred to as either the ‘New west works’ or the ‘Metro works’ by the workers and was one of the largest developments at the plant to date.
Towards the end of the metro’s development, Honda joined into an agreement with BL to allow Leyland use of their models for entry into the UK in return. You see to try and protect the British car industry there were many limitations on imported cars , one way around this was to produce cars within the Uk hence why so many Japanese company’s have factory’s in the Uk. It must be noted that Longbridge survived from Honda royalty production till second closure in 2005, the first car of the long alliance was of course the Triumph Acclaim , but the second car which was also based on the Ballade (albeit the newer model) was the 200 which was the start of rover production at Longbridge (BL became Austin Rover, and later just Rover). As well as the Rover , the actual Uk ballade production line was placed at Longbridge , with their famous Swindon facility only acting as quality control, such a bizarre leap of faith from a company with a reputation for supreme quality. The next generation 200 series followed the same formula with the concerto also built alongside in Longbridge.
In 1994 Bmw took control of Rovers operations, and the last of the real developments to Longbridge would place, it was shocking to the German bosses that cars like the Maestro and Montego were still in production and that the company were under-utilizing the best brand in the possession which was the Mini. Great infrastructure changes which initially appeared for the better were put in place however many show clues to the German brands hidden agenda. The replacement for the Mini was put high on the agenda for the group, the development of the R50 started much like the original mini at the factory and to get the facility up to scratch a new body press was proposed , as was Cab 2 and a new paint shop.
But signs of cold feet from Bmw were evident when only Cab 2 and the paint shop were produced , with the new body press finding home at the Land Rover Solihull plant and much of BMW’s interest had moved to the old Morris plant at Cowley and the old pressed steel facility in Swindon. Rovers and therefore Longbridge’s survival was really based on 3 new car launches; the Mini , the 75 and the new Range Rover. Of course we all know what happened next in may of the new millennium, Bmw pulled apart the rover empire selling all of Land Rovers interests at solihull and Gaydon to Ford, with Bmw holding onto the newly engineered Mini with Cowley. All the new owners in Pheonix were left with was the 75 (which was already undermined by Bmw as it was Launched). The Factory was left in tatters with all but the 75 dating back to pre 94 designs (mostly requiring royalties to Honda), with no real development money in the kitty the factory had to rely on classic Bmc badge engineering tactics by refacing the range as Mg’s which worked for a bit but in 2005 Longbridge closed as we knew it for the last time in 2005 with production at a standstill and a late trade deal with the Chinese.
Dormancy and ultimately Destruction
As you can see from the pic’s above , the factory was fully working and fighting until it breathed its seemingly last breaths in 2005. The Chinese buyers of Mg, Nanjing sadly decided much of the factory was now surplus to their requirements and in 2006 Demolition of much of the site began.
The amount of demolition that occurred at Longbridge is evident when looking at modern satellite images;Really only the Cab’s and half the south works remain, the site is barely a third of its original mass,but as I will go on to explain in part two all is not lost for the famed facility which I hope has a long future ahead of it as long as its still got some of the legendary fight left in it.
Most everything worthwhile is born of some dreamers dream – Herbert Austin