February the 12th 2015 was the fateful day I managed to get over Birmingham’s equivalent of the Berlin Wall, the golden opportunity to get a glimpse of whats actually happening in the factory that many thought shut for good in the dark days of 2005: yup, I was on my way to Longbridge. I left for the ten pound Megabus from my lowly Mancunian student digs at 5am hoping to get to Birmingham New Street with time to spare (and before the McDonalds breakfast menu closed!). I left very tired and full of fear: this factory is the Holy Grail to me, an old home to an impressive automotive empire and a symbol of the classic British ‘can-do’ attitude we had in the first half of the last century. In more recent memory however, it became a symbol of how we got it all wrong and became home to the equally classic British ‘that’ll do’ attitude. I feared many years of neglect and low funds would have left Longbridge in a poor state and when added to my poor perception of the new Chinese owned operation, I was ready for a massive disappointment. Once the inner city train arrived at Longbridge Station I was pleased, however, to see that the factory still towered over the town. Like some magnificent beast it still stands tall over all that surrounds it, but I imagine now for some locals it’s more a bitter symbol of a more prosperous time for the area. At least the regeneration of the old North and West Works looks pleasant enough despite (to me) being deeply sacrilegious.
“The view that almost took my breath away”
Walking up the hill towards Lowhill Lane, the magnitude of the day really hit home, as sadly did the magnitude of the demolition following the end of the Rover days. Much of the land has now been reclaimed by retail and corporate projects and a humongous Sainsbury’s! However as I move further away from the old West Works I finally get closer to the third of the facility that remains (and that’s still a big chunk) and the butterflies got bigger as soon as I hit the abrupt edge of the old South-Works which refuses to die.
I arrive at the gates 15 minutes early and I get to take it all in, this is my second time outside these gates but the last time I was very much staying at the outside with my old Mini. It was back in 2009 for the 50th anniversary of the old car, and back then there was more than just an air of uncertainty over the plant, the new Nanjing operation was still soldiering on with the then 14 year old (and even more arthritic when looking at the ancient metro underpinnings) TF. It seemed more of the same old Rover attitude of selling cars that were well past their sell-by-date and anticipation of it all falling through again was high in my mind. At least now on my returning pilgrimage, I knew the cars were new irregardless of their origin or status in the market and I would get a proper insight into the plans and the inner workings of the operation. Plus, if what I saw didn’t fill me with hope for the factory at least I got to see something special to me. Here I am looking grumpy as per usual, but under all that hair I’m excited, I swear!
The tour began in the Sales Centre and I get to have a proper look at the 3 and the 6 that MG now produce: the 3 looks particularly fresh in the flesh and while dynamically I don’t really know how the car would stack up against a similar Fiesta or Corsa, I thought at least the Supermini would stand out from the crowd; I mean what are the odds of seeing another on your travels? I had a brief sit behind the wheel and it all felt refreshingly well put together with everything placed just right to me. Some of the materials aren’t there yet but its a nice enough place to be, there’s surely a market for the car. The 6 is the older of the two and I never realized that it’s actually quite small, it’s not really a Mondeo rival in the size stakes, more half-way on from the Focus but on the inside it’s relatively massive (which took me back to my Tardis-like classic Mini). However, this car has a properly big boot! The need in me to be a little different from the rest of the pack was starting to be really taken by the 6, I notice I’m not the only one to be taken by the car when I spot some press reviews stating how the chassis is set up just right for a spirited drive and how their own design diesel (not just a borrowed Peugeot unit!) makes sense in the car (the 1.8 petrol has not been so widely liked). I start to get a warm feeling that I might actually be pleasantly surprised by the brand here.
Once I got acquainted with the cars, I met one of the most enthusiastic people I’ve ever had the pleasure of speaking to: Doug Wallace, who I didn’t feel was giving me (or the group) the standard sales job, which helped calm my nerves. In his introduction before taking us around the plant, he gave an interesting talk over the past and future of the facility and MG itself. He was refreshingly honest about the challenge ahead and there was no embarrassment over what was going on here, no wool was pulled over my eyes and Longbridge’s part in the plan was not overstated. The facts are the plant now has 400 workers and only about 100 of them are on the production lines 2 days a week (all workers are still full time however, helping with other aspects of keeping the Birmingham arm running), production is now batch (CKD) with the assembly work done here in the UK for our home market cars and soon the rest of Europe’s. He also stated while Sportscars are very much still in the minds of MG, all cars are built to a bottom line and before any work starts on a car, the team must be convinced the notoriously unpredictable market is ready for a new roadster. Many people would have been disappointed by what was being said, but what I took from the talk was that the Chinese wanted the plant to work and this plan is working but also, more importantly, the remaining 300 or so workers are engineers and designers meaning the actual interesting and important brunt of the development work is done in the UK at this now 110 year old plant. The amount of investment in research and development is not to be sniffed at, but more on that later.
History is Important
While keen to talk over the ‘here and now’ of MG, the heritage of the marque is why many people in China are going mad for the MG’s and Reowe’s and why keeping the British factor in the mix is so important. We start the tour in the old conference centre which obviously only gets used on visits (as it’s so damn cold!), but nestled behind the walls is what feels like the soul of Longbridge’s great past. The first thing we see is a replica of Herbert Austin’s office, a great man with a bold vision that started this whole ‘production at Longbridge’ thing off. It was nice to know that despite this being an MG operation now, he’s still very much on the mind of the company. Impressively, his famous coin that saved the factory in the first dark days still hangs above the door, I just hope its never used for the same purpose again!
While the important man was mentioned, it would have been rude not to see the important cars behind the marques and factory. So where better to start than the Minis that never left home?
This is a 1959 Austin Seven, from the very first year of production of possibly the most important car of all time and one that’s of course synonymous with Longbridge, being in production here for 40 years. Interestingly, for comparison, two 90’s showcars from the 1997 Frankfurt Motor Show are also nestled in the heritage collection.
The curiously named Mini Hotrod and Mini Limo here come from the darker BMW days that threatened to kill the factory. While they are part of a sadder side of the history, they are still interesting cars in the Mini story. The Hotrod has a 16v Jack knight head and racing kit (you might remember Clarkson being terrified by its 160hp back in the nineties) but just look at the Limo’s electric seats, surely they could have softened the bouncy ball ride somewhat! Also, placed in the collection was a Jensen bodied and Abingdon built Healey 3 Litre which while not an immediate part of Longbridge’s history, showed the reach of the old BMC empire. Some Landmark production figure cars were also there for good measure. I really wouldnt have minded taking any of these cars home but it’s far too easy to get trapped in the history and look back through ‘rose tinted spectacles’, this is about MG and Longbridge now not then, and I was itching to see the factory in action.
It’s kind of bizarre that in its past, Longbridge was such a prolific maker of knock-down kits to be assembled later on in all corners of the world. The shoe is now on the other foot, with them waiting for the Chinese bodies and parts to arrive, but perhaps that’s what Longbridge needed when competition got fierce: times change and you need to adapt,or you die in the cut-throat world of business and the ‘Phoenix plan’ of just toughing it out was obviously not the right fit for Birmingham at all. That isn’t to say that work here is easy or small in the grand scheme of things, it’s not that a car arrives from China built waiting for a Gear knob here and a Union Jack there to be fitted in the famous Cab 1. These cars are legally classed as British made, and for good reason too! It’s a proper job here and walking through the doors to the assembly floor, it’s plain to see it’s still a busy little place.
But before I make it that far, I see a bizarre looking sofa in the walkway to the line, the whole place has a strange quirky vibe which I really dig: it feels like a home as well as a factory. I imagine this sofa has many an interesting tale of skiving workers from the past however.
This isn’t the first time I’ve seen a working car factory, I was lucky enough to go around the Jaguar Castle Bromwhich plant about ten years ago and while worlds apart, I get a sense that this is the right scale for Longbridge now. There’s been many points where production was nowhere near capacity, giving the factory a lot of dead weight. Sometimes it’s good to trim a plant (in both meanings of the word) to allow survival and allow the plant to flower and bloom. I quickly get lost in the history again though when I hear the radio playing some 60’s Beatles as the cars move along the line, it made me think how many times and how many different models were made to the music here. The place felt very much alive and it was nice to see the factory proud (it’s rare to be allowed to photograph such sensitive areas), you get a feeling that the people making the cars are having a good time, doing it with lots of waves here and there. It felt like for the first time in a long while, the jobs were not being taken for granted and that everyone understood the part they play in making the venture work. Management disputes are hopefully a distant memory of the old way now.
A real treat was offered when one car made it to the end of the line and was put through its paces on a Dyno, it was odd to think that this car was at the end of its birth cycle and was almost ready to be picked up by one excited owner somewhere. From the outside, this plant is now pretty unassuming and it wouldn’t surprise me if many just thought it was a large showroom now, but let me tell you behind the fence some real action is taking place at Longbridge!
A nice nod to the alliance between the British and Chinese team that make it all possible
My time in the cab is over and I’m happy with what i’m seeing, it doesn’t seem the ‘bodge’ job that some would have you believe, and on the way out I get to have a look at a lovely RV8.
The real brunt of the work
While production is a big part of MG’s story with Longbridge, I think the real important part is the design and research work done here, with investments by parent company Saic being thrown all over the place. While I wasnt allowed to photograph any of the technical centre, I can however say it was buzzing with concepts and full of people. While obviously much of the information was extremely sensitive, they were happy to show the process they put into the designs of components and cars while showing off the state-of-the-art 3D printers and allowing us to get close to concept cars. Also, I got an insight into the world of bench-marking, this is standard practice now in production business. Basically, bench-marking is where you pull apart a rival company’s product to see how it’s put together to try and improve your design based around this. Curiously, the car chosen to be taken down to its component parts was not a simple Ford or Hyundai but an Audi A3, which really shows the ambition of the team. While you may be giggling now, don’t forget it was only 15 years ago when Kia were making the Pride and now they are the manufacturer to watch. I’m a particular fan of the new SUV, which I am told will be hitting the UK market around about next year.
Some real work is taking place at MG, and I know we’ve all been burnt before and it’s easy to make a few jokes and throw a few stones, but I really don’t think they’re far away from the real breakthrough here. I don’t want to attack a company that is so focused on it’s goals, and also don’t forget they’re a massive player in the largest growing market in the world. Plus, for all you anti-Chinese snobs out there, don’t forget what happened with the Japanese and (more recently) Korean car companies, it’s not really much of a stretch of the imagination that this economic powerhouse of a country will soon be making the cars you drive everyday. I’m just glad that this new movement is being led by a group so passionate about a British company and one that holds our interests at heart. Also, doing some background reading, I’m pleased to say the Mg dealer network is really picking up momentum, taking many of the old Chevrolet dealers which have now left the UK. I would say don’t discount the brand on hearsay and take a look for yourself: you might be pleasantly surprised. I entered Longbridge fearful for its future but I left in no doubt that this is a Factory that refuses to give in and much like the black night from Monty Python, its past is but merely a scratch.
If you don’t believe me, just take a little look at what some of the press had to say: