As the Longbridge car plant prepares for its centenary, Giles Chapman finds out what made it great

Once upon a time, a bright, young man decided to open his very own car factory. He vowed to "motorise the masses" while also creating "one huge machine in which cars are produced from start to finish".

Once upon a time, a bright, young man decided to open his very own car factory. He vowed to "motorise the masses" while also creating "one huge machine in which cars are produced from start to finish".

Henry Ford? No, actually. The hero of this tale is Herbert Austin, British to his marrow, and the result of his dream was the Longbridge plant that celebrates its centenary this year. There will be a massive party at the plant on the weekend of 9-10 July; 22 Austin enthusiasts' clubs plan the biggest-ever rally of Longbridge-built vehicles in Cofton Park, right outside the factory's southern gates, 10 miles south of Birmingham, city centre. And why not? After all, Longbridge's traditional rivals, Ford's Dagenham factory and Vauxhall's Luton plant, will never see their 100th birthdays because they've both stopped making cars. The production lines are still rolling at Longbridge. Well, for now, anyway.

The Westminster community, however, is unlikely to be breaking out the light ale to celebrate. To politicians, Longbridge is an industrial headache, lurching from one viability crisis to another and hanging, in an unnervingly damascene manner, over the heads of local MPs. If there's a cycle for Longbridge's woes then it has a knack of reaching its low point around election time. The Phoenix Consortium, a group of businessmen who saved Longbridge from closure four years ago, is seeking to secure Chinese backing from the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation to keep the old place going, but the final decision - if negative and revealed before Tony Blair names polling day - could wreak political havoc because 5,000 workers, plus thousands more who supply and service Longbridge, stand to lose their jobs.

All of which would be very depressing, because Longbridge still has so much potential as a car-making centre that simply closing it, razing it, and building executive homes in its place would be an act of industrial slash-and-burn. True, there is the extraordinary vista of wasteland actually within the factory perimeter; several rubble-strewn acres at Longbridge are a sad reminder of plans for building new facilities to make the new Mini - plans abandoned when BMW deserted Rover in 2000. Other parts of the sprawling factory betray their late 19th century origins, with peeling paint and patched-up architecture providing an incongruous setting for the hi-tech business of car-making today. Nevertheless, Herbert's "huge machine" still pumps out a new car every few minutes, and Longbridge is rare today in having body, engine and gearbox manufacture in the same complex. You can't take a bulldozer to this amazing place, surely?

It would certainly be unthinkable to Tony Osborne, the site operations services manager at Longbridge. He keeps the plant running efficiently, and in particular the Combined Heat & Power (CHP) plant that slakes the factory's thirst for energy and heating; it's the only CHP at a UK car plant and, besides cutting emissions, it also generates up to 10 per cent of Longbridge's electricity requirement. Tony, however, an apprentice at Longbridge in 1972, is also a walking encyclopedia on the factory's heritage. MG Rover bosses are awed by his knowledge of the place and its products. That's why, dwarfed by the boilers in the warm, humming CHP plant, there stands a vintage Austin Seven that the MG Rover chairman John Towers has entrusted to Tony to get into tip-top running order for the centenary weekend.

"At one time, Longbridge made every single thing for its cars apart from glass and wheels", Tony says, "and Herbert Austin worked a seven-day week here. He was only 40 when he started the factory, after having become chief engineer at Wolseley, but even then the workers called him the 'Old Man'. He was a serious man, didn't approve of drinking or smoking, but the workforce certainly respected him".

Austin chanced upon the empty Longbridge site in September 1905. Built to make printed tins in 1894 in a venture that subsequently went bust, it was perfect for car-making, especially because of its rural location far away from the Black Country region to the north-west of Birmingham; the sooty atmosphere there would have made a glossy, paint finish on car bodies hard to achieve. However, workers would face a tram ride and a five-mile walk to get there from the city centre.

The asking price was £10,000 but Austin clinched the unwanted factory for £7,750, taking possession in November 1905. Within weeks he'd formed the Austin Motor Company and by the end of 1906 he'd built 26 cars.

His nerve centre was a first-floor, wood-panelled office at the entrance to the factory. That building was flattened to make way for what is now the South Engineering Block, yet Austin's office - in the manner of Winston Churchill's various war-time lairs - was preserved in its entirety in the new building in 1957, even down to its carpets and light fittings. In the 1970s, British Leyland tried to eradicate all traces of the founder, yet the office once again survived thanks to cunning, loyal employees, and in 2003 it was dismantled and transferred to a new position inside MG Rover's conference centre. It's been perfectly re-assembled to represent the room exactly as Herbert Austin knew it at his death in 1941. Visitors can see the room through a viewing gallery. There is Austin's swivelling, office chair behind his large oak desk, his personal telephone and primitive air-conditioning unit, even the panelled door that once led on to that must-have of every self-respecting tycoon - the private lavatory.

Longbridge saw steady prosperity before the First World War but meteoric growth during the conflict as Whitehall bankrolled its expansion to produce aircraft, tanks and ammunition. The upshot was a payroll of 20,000 by 1918 but a sudden disappearance of demand, added to which few could afford Austin's large, stately cars. Herbert Austin is said to have tossed a coin to decide his factory's fate. If it was heads for press on, that's the side it landed on. Austin then begged his workforce to toil for one month for no pay in return for a "job for life". Fixed to the wood panelling behind his desk is that very half-crown.

Offering lifelong employment is a double-edged sword few managers would wave in the face of employees now. Likewise, Herbert Austin's next big decision - to introduce the Austin Seven - would also prove a mixed blessing for Longbridge. It was certainly the ideal product for the time, a cheap and thrifty "real car in miniature" that could seat four. Yet mainly because of its low sale price, it was hard to turn a profit on. The Seven made the small family car Longbridge's stock-in-trade, leading to the 1951 Austin A30, the revolutionary 1959 Mini and the 1980 Metro, but it also sealed the factory's fate as a facility that could barely make ends meet for any subsequent proprietor, notwithstanding a record output of 377,000 cars in 1965.

Herbert Austin was a stern figure. He believed workers needed a firm hand. The Austin Motor Company merged with the Nuffield Organisation, (makers of Morris, MG, Wolseley and Riley) in 1952 to form the British Motor Corporation, but Herbert Austin's successors including Leonard Lord, George Harriman and Donald Stokes proved even less adept at keeping the precarious Longbridge ship afloat. In retrospect, they all seem dictatorial and detached from various crucial aspects of the business, and with the formation of British Leyland in 1968 the Longbridge plant was caught up in the turmoil of a politically-created conglomerate that entirely lost its way. The dismal Austin Allegro was emblematic of the problems Longbridge suffered in the 1970s, as was Derek "Red Robbo" Robinson, the militant union leader who - thanks to appalling management - brought British Leyland to its knees. In fact, the arrival of Michael Edwardes in 1977 arguably gave Longbridge its first leader with a true belief in the involvement of every employee in a common goal: making good cars that produce happy customers and decent profits. A reasonable enough goal, you may think, but it took guts to do it, and while Longbridge was a beneficiary of his plans, other parts of British Leyland saw swingeing cuts so "The Austin" nucleus could survive. That was 25 years ago.

Longbridge is battered by its long history and spooked by future uncertainty, but it's holding on in there. Outside its gates, Longbridge has a secret; an estate of neat and identical little wooden bungalows on quiet, leafy avenues. This is the "Austin Village", created in 1917 by Herbert Austin in paternalistic mood to house key workers. They were built from cedar wood kits imported from the USA and, today, are carefully preserved by their proud owners. Something which could also be said of Longbridge itself, despite the lack of a fairytale ending just yet.

Full details of the Longbridge centenary celebrations are at www.austinmotor.co.uk.

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