History of the Longbridge Factory.
THE STORY OF LONGBRIDGE
The Longbridge factory, which began car production over 100 years ago, is about to open a new chapter in its illustrious career as the Nanjing Automobile Corporation prepares to restart the production of MGs there.
The story of Longbridge begins with its founder, Herbert Austin, the son of a Yorkshire farm bailiff. In 1883 at the age of 17 he went to Australia to begin his career as an engineer. After a number of jobs he joined the Wolseley Sheep Shearing Machine Company to help them overcome manufacturing quality problems. He advised them to set up a facility in Britain and in 1893 returned to England as manager of a new factory in Birmingham. He took the opportunity to experiment with what was then a recent invention – the ‘horseless carriage’ otherwise known as the motor car. After building two prototypes he was able to persuade Wolseley to add a motor vehicle to their product range.
By 1905 Austin was tired of working for other people and decided to set up on his own. He quickly found an empty factory at Longbridge outside Birmingham, built as a tin printing Works by a firm called White & Pike in 1894. The district was largely agricultural but though it was 7 miles from the city centre the location had the advantage of extensive existing workshops, clean air which was thought to benefit the paintwork, water from the River Rea, and excellent road and rail connections. In April 1906 he tested the first Austin car, a 25/30 hp with rudimentary bodywork. Success followed and in 1914 the Austin Motor Company became a public limited liability company with working capital of £250,000.
The same year, World War One broke out and British industry was turned over to wartime production. New workshops were built to make shells, aircraft and military vehicles and a hill was flattened to provide a Flying Ground where aeroplanes could be tested. The workforce mushroomed from 2,500 in 1914 to 22,000 by 1917. Austin was given a knighthood for his contribution to the war effort, When peace returned production was concentrated on one model of car, the large Austin Twenty. Though well engineered, it did not sell well and the expanded facilities also created bigger overheads. By 1921 the Company was in financial difficulty. Receivers were appointed and Austin lost sole control of his company and became Chairman of a Board of Directors.
Fortunately the reconstruction plan was successful. The product range was widened and the Austin Seven was introduced in 1922. This little car helped to move motor cars away from being the plaything of the wealthy and brought affordable motoring to the middle classes, enabling the company to secure 37% of the British market by 1929. The 1933 share issue was oversubscribed eight times and in 1936 Herbert Austin became Lord Austin. Longbridge was now a dominant force in the British motor industry. Its greatest rival was Morris Motors founded by William Morris (Lord Nuffield) and based at Cowley near Oxford. To stay ahead in 1938 Austin recruited Leonard Lord, the architect of Cowley’s modernisation, to do the same for Longbridge.
Another war was on the horizon. In 1936 Austin became Chairman of a shadow factory scheme set up by the government. At Longbridge, a Flight Shed was built, distinctive for its interior space and impressive roof structure. Close by was a new Aero Factory which would become known as East Works. A series of tunnels was also prepared to provide shelter from air raids and a safe place to relocate manufacturing operations in case of heavy bombing. Though he played a leading role in preparations for the war, Lord Austin did not survive long into it, dying of a heart attack in 1941 when thought to be making reasonable progress after a long bout of illness. Once again Longbridge made a wide variety of war products from aeroplanes and military vehicles to jerricans and steel helmets.
The post-war range of cars was of necessity based on the 1939 models with minor modifications. In 1946 the landmark ‘millionth Austin’, a top-of-the-range Sixteen, was celebrated with due ceremony, signed by the people who made it and retained for exhibition. The first new design was the Sheerline of 1947 which introduced the ‘Flying A’ bonnet mascot that characterised Austins of this period. Britain’s post war recovery was slow and the motor industry suffered from fuel and materials shortages. The government urged a policy of ‘export or die’ because foreign currency was desperately needed to rebuild the shattered economy. Further site developments were needed to accommodate this. In 1948 a new Administration Block was built which, in the Cold War era, was rapidly christened the ‘Kremlin’. It was joined in 1951 by a new Car Assembly Building which would later be known as CAB 1.
In 1952 increasing competition from abroad prompted former rivals Austin and Morris to join forces as the British Motor Corporation (BMC). Shortly afterwards, in 1953, the second millionth car was produced. Leonard Lord was now Chairman and he decided on a two-pronged approach to product development. He began a collaboration with the Italian design house of Pininfarina to provide a new style for a range of cars with conventional engineering. At the same time chief engineer Alec Issigonis, who already had the Morris Minor to his name, joined the company to work on advanced engineering concepts. The result, in 1959, was the launch of the famous Mini. Rubber suspension, a transverse engine, tiny road wheels and front wheel drive were combined into a car only ten feet long with space for four adults. Like the Austin Seven it widened the range of car ownership and in time became a national icon. The car stayed in production for 41 years with a final total of 5.4 million. Issigonis went on to design the 1100 and 1800 and these three cars dominated Longbridge production in the 1960s.
Site development also continued. Production and design facilities were greatly extended, reinforcing Longbridge’s position as headquarters of the country’s biggest car making operation. The highest production figure ever recorded was in 1964-65 when 345,245 vehicles were made. But the British car industry was not as healthy as it seemed. In 1966 BMC joined with Jaguar Cars and Pressed Steel to create British Motor Holdings. Two years later it merged again with the Leyland Motor Corporation (which included Standard, Triumph and Rover) to create the British Leyland Motor Corporation (BL). BL’s first design was the Morrris Marina of 1971. Assembled at Cowley, the engines and gearboxes were manufactured at Longbridge. Two years later the Austin Allegro, developed and built at Longbridge, replaced the 1100. Neither car was able to let BL recover its dominant place in the British marketplace. BL was struggling as Ford became stronger and imports grew in volume, including the rapidly improving products of Japan. At the same time the company’s image deteriorated. ‘British Leyland’ became a byword for strikes and poor quality.
As the company’s fortunes plummeted, the Labour government decided to rescue it by taking a majority shareholding in 1975. Efforts were focussed on solving industrial relations problems and replacing old products. The Austin Metro was launched in October 1980, the first new model to come out of Longbridge for 7 years. A modern body facility was built to install the robot technology which was needed to build it. In 1982 an MG Metro version was produced, the first MG to come out of Longbridge (MG was one of the Morris brands). In 1979 BL also entered into a collaborative deal with the Japanese Honda company. The first product from the partnership to be produced at Longbridge was the Rover 200 launched in 1984. BL changed its name to Rover Group in 1986 and chose to focus on the Rover and MG brands in an effort to restore the company’s tarnished image. Other badges gradually disappeared. Austin, the marque proudly associated with Longbridge since its inception, was dropped during 1987.
1979 was also the year the Conservatives returned to government with a policy of denationalisation. They allowed the development of the lightweight aluminium K-series engine to proceed at Longbridge, a vital part of future strategy. Then, in 1988, the government sold its shareholding in Rover Group to British Aerospace. The Honda collaboration continued and in 1989 a new Rover 200 was launched, the first model to use the K-series engine. In 1994 British Aerospace sold Rover Group on to BMW and Honda decided to end its association with the company. BMW set about designing its own Rover products. The Rover 75, introduced in 1998 and built at Cowley was aimed at the top end of the market. A new small car to be launched under the ‘MINI’ brand was being developed for Longbridge.
In 2000, however, BMW made a sudden decision break up Rover Group. Cowley was retained and the MINI was transferred there. Longbridge was sold to the Phoenix Consortium for a nominal £10 and a new company known as MG Rover Group was set up. The Rover 75 assembly line was transferred to Longbridge. The Rover 25 and 45 and the MGF completed the product range. The MGF was later replaced by the MG TF and MG badges were successfully applied to Rover models as well. But a new medium sized model was needed to replace the ageing Honda-based Rover 45. MG Rover searched hard for a collaborator but in 2005 the company’s problems became insuperable and in April it went into administration.
In July 2005 the administrators announced that the company’s assets had been purchased by the Nanjing Automobile Corporation (NAC), China’s oldest vehicle manufacturer. Happily this means that the MG brand, and its home at Longbridge, have a bright future. NAC have taken a long lease on the central part of the site and invested £250 million in the MG brand. 2007 will see the start of production of MG cars both in China and the UK. For Longbridge this will mean that MG TFs will soon be rolling off the assembly lines once again, to be followed by a new generation of cars bearing the historic MG brand.
Gillian Bardsley, BMIHT Archivist