Longbridge plant

The Longbridge plant is an industrial complex situated in the Longbridge area of Birmingham, United Kingdom. It is currently owned by Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC) and is a manufacturing and research and development facility for its MG Motor UK subsidiary.

Opened in 1905, Longbridge was once the largest manufacturing plant in the world. During the 20th century the site employed tens of thousands of people and was central to the economy of the local area. A wide variety of products have been produced at the site, although the core product has been cars, most notably the original two-door 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 types of aeroplane such as the Short Stirling and the Hawker Hurricane.

Originally founded by an engineer and entrepreneur, the site has had a variety of private owners, as well as a period of state ownership. Since the collapse of MG Rover in 2005 part of the site has been redeveloped for commercial and residential usage. The remaining 69 acres of the site are owned by SAIC.

History
Foundation

The original site and factory development was undertaken by Birmingham-based copper plate printers White and Pike Ltd. Looking to consolidate a number of small sites around Birmingham, and diversify into new areas, they choose a series of 20 agricultural fields to the south of the city in Longbridge, on a site bounded by: Lickey Road; Lowhill Lane; the Midland Railway's main Birmingham to Gloucester mainline; and the Halesowen Joint Railway with the Great Western Railway. The purchase also included Cofton Hill, which rose 70 feet (21 m) above its surroundings. Designed by Stark & Rowntree of Glasgow and constructed by James Moffatt & Sons of Camp Hill, the factory was built at a cost of £105,000, opening in the first quarter of 1895. Unfortunately the venture failed, and the site was repossessed by the bank in 1901.

Berkshire-born Herbert Austin 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.

In 1905, while working out his notice at the Wolseley Sheep Shearing & Equipment Supply Co. at Aston, looking to found his own motor car company, Herbert Austin undertook numerous exploratory rides around Birmingham in his Wolseley 7.5 h.p.. On 4 November 1905, he found the derelict printing works, owned by financier E A Olivieri. Friends came forward with financial help, and with additional invoice financing from Frank Kayser of Kayser, Ellison and Company, and Harvey du Cros of the Dunlop Rubber Company, enabled Austin to buy the site and an additional 8 acres (3.2 ha) from Olivieri for £7,500 on the 22nd January 1906.

Austin and his initial workforce of the Austin Motor Company had in actual fact moved into the derelict buildings before this date, as Austin was so focused on showing his new car at the first British Motor Show, to be held in 1905 at Olympia, London. 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 a factory which covered 4 acres (1.6 ha); 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, which allowed the construction of additional workshops and a developed power plant. Up until this point, works power had come from steam engines, but the capital injection allowed the installation of two 4-cylinder vertical gas engines of 200 horsepower (150 kW) each, designed by the Anderson Foundry Co. of Glasgow, coupled to three-phase alternators built by Allmänna Svenska Elektriska Aktiebolaget of Sweden. 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. The area between the existing buildings and the Midland Railway mainline were built on, doubling the amount of covered workspace to over 8 acres (3.2 ha). The expansion also enabled the 1915 construction of Longbridge railway station within the boundaries of the works, allowing the Midland Railway to run workers trains direct from Birmingham New Street.

By 1917 the factory site trebled in size, and possessed its own flying ground at Cofton Hackett, south of the main works, which 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, over 8,000,000 shells were produced along with 650 guns, 2,000 aeroplanes, 2,500 aero engines and 2,000 trucks.

With the need to expand capacity, the company bought Longbridge farm. Located north of the existing site, it became known as Longbridge North works, bounded again by the railways, Bristol Road and Longbridge Lane. After the farm buildings had been demolished and the River Rea placed in a covered culvert, the company began development in June 1916:

  • Machine shop 850ft x 270ft finished by December 1916
  • Forge which became operational in March 1917
  • Mess room seating 4000
  • Administrative blocks
  • Power house, equipped with twelve Lancashire boilers , which powered 3*l500kw turbo generators to supply 386 electric motors
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 4 Upper.

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 the airframes received their final quality check and wings were fitted to Hurricane fighters. Lancaster wings were fitted as the aircraft left the shed. Hurricanes were lifted up the raised airfield on a motorised skid. The skids were still there at the rear of the Flight Shed during the 1980s. Lancaster bombers were transported by road to RAF Elmdon for flight testing.

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.

Austin collaborated with Jensen Motors to manufacture the Austin A40 Sports, an aluminum bodied four passenger convertible — with bodies manufactured by Jensen at their West Bromwich plant and transferred to Longbridge for final assembly. Later Austin collaborated with the Donald Healey Motor Company on the Healey 100.

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 that crippled production at the Longbridge plant in Birmingham in the 1970s. Between 1978 and 1979, Mr Robinson, union 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. The Metro 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 firm 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). 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 Britain 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 Group and the Longbridge plant passed into the hands of BMW. However, BMW shareholders prevailed and in 2000 Rover was sold to the Phoenix Consortium, who renamed it MG Rover Group, in a management buyout for the token 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 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.

Nanjing and SAIC ownership

The Chinese automobile company Nanjing acquired the remaining assets of MG Rover, including the lease to the Longbridge plant, three months after it went into receivership. In August 2008 MG TF production restarted, some three years after the collapse of MG Rover, using only 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.

The current production facilities at Longbridge have the capacity for employing not more than approximately 1,000 workers. 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.

NAC (Nanjing Aoutomotive Corporation) was acquired by Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC) during late 2007 into 2008, resulting in the Longbridge site coming under the ownership of SAIC. The UK engineering function known as SMTC (SAIC Motor Technical Centre) UK was moved from its site in Leamington into the Longbridge during 2008. In 2010 the SMTC UK Technical Centre was unveiled showing the engineering areas and styling studio.

During this time the engineers at Longbridge have worked on the MG 6 which is based on the Roewe 550 to make it ready for UK launch. MG Motors was created as the UK manufacturing company for SAIC and in April 2011 began manufacturing the MG 6 from knocked-down kits that come from the SAIC Lingang Plant China.

References in popular culture

Shortly before MG Rover went into administration in 2005, The Chemical Brothers' video for their single Believe contained scenes filmed inside the Longbridge factory.

Media

2 photos

Building Activity

  • OpenBuildings
    OpenBuildings updated a digital reference
    about 6 years ago via Annotator
  • OpenBuildings
    OpenBuildings updated a digital reference and added a digital reference
    about 6 years ago via OpenBuildings.com