Blog: Graeme RobertsNew life for an old car site

Graeme Roberts | 15 June 2010

A Longbridge-built Austin Cambridge at a 1959 Caravan Club event in Brighton

A Longbridge-built Austin Cambridge at a 1959 Caravan Club event in Brighton

Always a slightly poignant moment for me going up to what was once colloquially known locally as 'The Austin' - now MG Motor UK and formerly Austin of England, British Motor Corporation, British Leyland, etc, etc at Longbridge, on the southern outskirts of Birmingham.

I know all that because, for an enjoyable short while, I took the PR shilling, working for an an associated but independent museum full of mostly British Leyland 'classic' cars and prototypes and a vast archive from which one could, if one wished, obtain such details as how many Austin A40s were produced in 1948. And exported to markets including the US by post-war Austerity Britain workers encouraged by posters saying "The Ships Are Waiting".

It was to Longbridge, with its miles of conveyors, sleek painted bodies silently creeping along underground tunnels to final assembly, and innovative pre-prepared component sets for each car on the final line that companies like Datsun (now Nissan) of Japan came to admire, be amazed and secure licences to build the A40 in Yokohama. You know the rest...

All this is now in the past. Vast areas of the complex formed by one Herbert Austin from a former tin printing plant way back in the day were bulldozed under BMW ownership, much more was sold off and leased off under Phoenix. Today, even the vast body shop across the main road, a robotised marvel when opened about 1980 to build the Mini Metro, and its long, enclosed conveyor over the A38 highway to the paint shops, is but a distant memory, the ground now levelled and ready to receive housing, offices and a shopping 'destination', the fate of many once-proud assembly plants in the west - as new greenfield facilities rise in the east.

Today Longbridge is but a corner of the once-vast site, a mothballed paint shop, busy design and development centre and associated offices, and an assembly hall stitching together semi knocked-down kits shipped in from China.

Yet, though much of the manufacturing - and the skilled, if monotonous, assembly jobs that went with it - is gone from the UK (also RIP Rootes/Chrysler/PSA Linwood and Coventry; British Leyland Speke, Leyland Trucks Bathgate, et al; and I also fear for the famous Vauxhall site at Luton after 2013), the British motor industry is not dead, just smaller and different.

We might no longer make Ford cars here but we still make their diesel engines and petrol ones for BMW; that company's Mini, GM Vauxhall, Jaguar, Land Rover, Toyota, Honda and Nissan all have car assembly plants whose quality is comparable with anywhere abroad. All foreign-owned now, of course, but still providing many local jobs, valuable tax and local community revenue, business for suppliers, training and skills. We're in a global economy and every new assembly job has to be pitched for and won, against tough competition abroad.

Assembly can now be done virtually anywhere. Eastern Europe, China, India, Russia, Thailand. None were on the automaking map when Longbridge, and Detroit, were at their best. What is setting the UK apart is our design and development expertise. Who helped Nanjing move engine production to China and adapt an old Rover car design for local production, using local suppliers? Ricardo Consultants 2010, a British company now absorbed into SAIC's MG Motor UK design centre. Where are many F1 race cars designed, developed and tested? Here. Where are the world renowned MIRA and Millbrook vehicle development centres? Here.

That is the future. Design and develop here. Assemble somewhere else, lower-cost. As an old consumer motoring writer I know used to say: "The only thing certain is change."

None of that brings back the tens of thousands of auto manufacturing jobs lost over here in the last three decades or so. But it has opened up thousands of opportunities for well educated engineers and designers graduating from the likes of Coventry University's acclaimed auto designer's course, one of whom recently styled a 2020 MG for SAIC to show off worldwide.

And there are still many skilled hands left in the business. Witness the flexible, multi-tasking line workers at the volume makers, the leather, wood and aluminium trim magicians at Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover, Bentley and Rolls-Royce.

That at least should give the ghosts of Longbridge something to smile about as the builders hammer away.


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