Definitions

manufacturing plant

Longbridge plant

The Longbridge plant is an industrial site situated in the Longbridge area of Birmingham, England. Opened in 1905, Longbridge was once the largest manufacturing plant in the world. During the 20th Century the site employed many thousands of people, central to the economy of the local area. Longbridge has produced a wide variety of products, although consistently over time the product has been cars, perhaps most notably the iconic Austin Mini. During the Second World War the main plant produced munitions and tank parts, while the nearby East Works of Austin Aero Ltd at Cofton Hackett produced several marques of aeroplane such as the Short Stirling and the Hawker Hurricane.

Originally founded by an engineer and entrepreneur, the site has been subject to state ownership as well as a variety of private owners. Since 2005 when MG Rover collapsed, part of the site has been demolished to make way for commercial and residential developments. The site is presently largely mothballed and decisions about it future are either yet to be made, or yet to be made public.

Foundation

The factory at Longbridge was founded by Berkshire-born Herbert Austin. He learnt the engineering trade at the Wolseley Car manufacturer, working on tools as well as cars. Whilst at Wolseley, Austin produced an experimental three-wheeled car, and then another in 1896 which was exhibited at the Crystal Palace. This success emboldened him to begin his own business.

Austin undertook numerous exploratory rides around Birmingham in his Wolseley 7.5 h.p.. At Longbridge, seven miles out of the city, on the 4 November 1905, he found a small derelict printing works. He bought it; friends came forward with financial help and the Austin Motor Company was born.

On paper the first Austin was described as a 25-30 h.p. high-class touring car with a four-speed gearbox and a chain-driven transmission. Each car had a material and quality guarantee and the first model was produced at the end of March 1906, at a price of £650.

By 1908, there were 1,000 workers at the factory and a night shift was introduced to help create adequate supply to meet the rising demand for products. In February 1914, the Company was changed to public ownership and the market capitalization was increased to £50,000. All seemed to be set fair and then the situation changed almost overnight.

World War I

The Longbridge plant was part of a significant rapid mobilisation process which took place across Europe on the announcement of World War I. Machines that had been used to build Austin cars were employed to produce munitions, and all the resources of the factory were harnessed to serve the armed forces.

As the demand for weapons and equipment of every kind continued to increase, the factory was expanded. By 1917 it had trebled in size and possessed its own flying ground at Cofton Hackett, south of the main works that was operated by the newly formed Austin Aero Company. The employees, many of whom were women, rose to over 22,000 during the peak years.

Between 1914 and 1918, amongst other things, over 8,000,000 shells were produced along with 650 guns, 2,000 aeroplanes, 2,500 aero engines and 2,000 trucks.

The interwar years

Before the end of the war, plans were announced for concentrating on the production of a 20 h.p. car when peace returned. The engine used for the 20 h.p. model was adapted for an Austin tractor, running on paraffin, which won many agricultural awards between 1919 and 1921. A 13-ton truck was also produced, using the same engine.

For a short time Austin Aero Company's post-war programme also included a range of aeroplanes. The Austin Greyhound 2-seater fighter was one, and the Austin Ball single-seater another. Then there was a single-seater biplane with folding wings, which sold at £500, and a fourth called the Austin Whippet.

After 1921 Austin became interested in smaller vehicles, including a 12-h.p. car and the tiny, and still familiar, Austin 7. In many ways the car was a miniature version, scaled down with the characteristic simplicity of Lord Austin's products.

World War II

On the outbreak of World War II the factory was mobilised again. The manufacturing of cars was largely abandoned and the machines were turned to the production of armour-piercing ammunition for the QF 2-pounder, QF 6-pounder and QF 17-pounder anti-tank guns, steel boxes, jerricans, mines, depth charges and helmets.

Longbridge also produced parts for tanks, while aircraft were produced at the Austin Aero shadow factory at nearby Cofton Hackett. Fairey Battle light bombers, Mercury and Pegasus aero engines were produced, along with the Short Stirling four-engined heavy bomber and Hawker Hurricane fighter. Nearly 3,000 aircraft were built, along with 36,000 suspension units.

Bren guns and mortars were manufactured in West Works, in the area later known as West 4upper.

Trentham buildings, Number 2 paint shop, was still referred to as the Beaufighter line by some people during the 1970s.

The building known as the Flight Shed in Cofton Lane was where bomber wings were removed before the aircraft was subsequently drawn up skids onto the airfield. The skids were still there at the rear of the Flight Shed during the 1980s.

Having such a concentration of wartime production meant that the area was a prime target for bombers. Erdington was made famous for being the very first part of England to be bombed by the Germans, who had presumably been trying to hit Longbridge.

After the war

After the war, Leonard Lord took over as chairman. He laid plans for a rapid expansion, new models, and overseas marketing. In June 1946, the millionth Austin was produced. It was painted in a matt cream and signed by the Chairman and the work-people at a special celebration.

There was a collaboration with Healey.

In 1952 Austin was amalgamated with the Morris Motor Company and became BMC.

Harold Wilson's industrial planners arranged for BMC to be amalgamated into British Leyland in 1968.

Nationalisation

The British Leyland company ran into financial difficulties and was refinanced by the government in 1975. The government thus became the dominant shareholder, but unlike most nationalised industries, British Leyland (later called BL) remained a public company.

Derek Robinson, or "Red Robbo" as he was dubbed by the media, became synonymous with the strikes which crippled production at the Longbridge plant in Birmingham in the 1970s. Between 1978 and 1979, Mr Robinson, convenor at Longbridge, was behind 523 disputes at the then government-owned British Leyland (BL) plant, Britain's largest factory at the time. He was eventually sacked amid intense press attacks. Many of the votes for strikes were cast in Cofton Park opposite Q-Gate.

Expansion work at Longbridge was completed in 1979 to allow a new assembly line for the forthcoming new supermini car, which was launched in 1980 as the Austin Metro (pictured below) and was in production virtually unchanged for 10 years, becoming one of the most popular cars ever to be produced at the plant.

Privatisation and subsequent liquidation

By the 1980s BL had been severely rationalised, and many businesses and other factories within its empire had either been closed or sold off. It had also entered into a collaborative deal with the Japanese giant Honda which gave it a new lease of life.

The Austin Metro, which had been launched in 1980 and ran until 1990 when it was relaunched as an updated model under the Rover marque, was easily the most successful product to be produced at Longbridge in the final quarter of the 20th century.

In 1988 the Longbridge plant, along with the rest of Austin Rover, was sold to British Aerospace, who renamed it as the Rover Group in 1989.

1989 saw the launch of a new Longbridge-built model, the second generation Rover 200 (the original version had been launched in 1984). Pictured below, the 200 Series was sold as a hatchback, coupe and cabriolet, and also formed the basis of the Rover 400 saloon and estate. It was consistently one of the most popular small family cars in Britian throughout its production life, and remains a common sight on British roads more than a decade after its demise. The 200 was replaced by an all-new model in 1995.

In 1994 BMW, fearful of their small size in a progressively globalised car market, bought Rover and the Longbridge plant passed into the hands of BMW. However, BMW shareholders prevailed and in 2000 Rover was sold to the 'Phoenix Consortium' in a management buyout for the princely sum of £10.

At the time many financial commentators claimed that the plant was not modern enough and that the company would surely run out of money within a few years. In April 2005, this happened; the Phoenix Consortium put the MG Rover group into administration, leaving more than 6,000 workers without jobs. Another factor in MG Rover's meltdown was the fact that it had not launched an all-new model since the Rover 75 (pictured below) more than six years earlier. In contrast, the likes of Ford and Vauxhall, and indeed most other Western European mass market carmakers, had replaced virtually all of their model ranges since the late 1990s.

The Nanjing takeover

Chinese automobile corporation Nanjing bought MG Rover three months after it went into receivership and in August 2008 MG TF production began, some three years after the collapse of MG Rover, using only a small part of the old Austin Works, Austin's original South Works. Most of the rest has been demolished and is to be redeveloped for housing and industry, with a new local centre, south of Longbridge Lane.

Nanjing also have plans to launch two new car ranges during 2008 which will be produced at Longbridge and possibly in China. These are the MG 3 and MG 5, respective successors to the MG ZR and MG ZS, and are heavily based on these products. Nanjing has also spoken of its plans to sell cars as Austins at a later date, reviving a marque that was last seen on new cars in 1989 and would be ideal for less sporty models produced alongside the MG range, given that Nanjing never acquired the Rover brand name, and BMW later sold that to the Ford Motor Company to safeguard the Land Rover brand that they had already acquired (Ford sold the Rover brand to Tata Motors along with their Jaguar Land Rover operations).

Fewer than 200 people are currently employed at Longbridge, though NAC has said that this figure will rise during the next couple of years. The current production facilities at Longbridge have the capacity for not more than approximately 1,000 workers to be employed there. More than half the factory site has been sold off and cleared, and the land reclaimed to be put to use by businesses which will hopefully create up to 10,000 jobs in the next few years.

Pictured below is the MG TF LE 500, the first car to be produced at the plant following the Nanjing takeover.

Notes

References

  • Lambert, Z.E. and Wyatt, R.J., (1968). Lord Austin the Man, London:Sidgwick & Jackson.
  • Sharratt, Barney, (2000). Men and Motors of the Austin: The inside story of a century of car making at Longbridge. Sparkford: Haynes Publishing. ISBN 1-85960-671-7.

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