Rover crisis: Byers pledges to save Longbridge

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT yesterday made it clear that BMW would be offered aid from the taxpayer to keep Rover's giant Longbridge plant open.

Stephen Byers, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, said that it was no secret that ministers had been discussing possible support to keep the plant open and build a new model at Longbridge.

Nevertheless, ministers and unions agree that the survival of the plant has never been more uncertain than now.

If the works does shut it would not just mean the disappearance of another piece of Britain's industrial landscape. It would represent the end of an era: in motoring, industrial relations, and manufacturing.

A vast and sprawling complex concealing 12 miles of road, nine miles of railway and an immense subterranean network of tunnels, Longbridge has always been more than just a factory. It is a way of life, a small town in its own right providing a livelihood for 30,000 car workers at its peak.

It was a symbol of Britain's post-war industrial prowess and it became the battleground on which left and right fought for the hearts and minds of the working man during the epic union struggles of the 1970s.

Books have been devoted to the sociology of Longbridge - the birthplace of the affluent working class. It was Longbridge man who begat Mondeo man. Now BMW man looks ready to decree that there is no place in the modern car industry for Longbridge.

The end of car production there would blow a great big hole in the West Midlands economy. Some 50,000 jobs are dependent on the plant. Every day some 500 suppliers deliver components into the site with a total annual value of pounds 1.5bn.

But the end of Longbridge would also tear a huge piece out of the fabric of our motoring history. The Austin Seven, the Big Seven and the Cambridge models of the inter-war years, the Mini, and the Austin 1100, the car which became the UK's best seller for most of the 1960s, were all produced there. Together with its sister plant at Cowley in Oxford, Longbridge once accounted for one in every three cars sold in Britain.

Car sales figures for last month, show that Rover's share of the market shrank to less than 5 per cent.

The plant's origins date back to1905. Riding around Birmingham on his bicycle in search of somewhere to start making cars, Herbert Austin came across the disused White and Pike printing works. Situated next to the Midland Railway's main Birmingham to Gloucester and Halesowen branch lines, it was an ideal location for bringing parts in and taking finished cars out.

He bought the site for pounds 7,750 and began production two years later. In its first year Longbridge produced just 23 cars. But by 1910 the workforce had reached 1,000 and Austin had added a night shift.

The advent of war in 1914 turned Longbridge into an aircraft and munitions factory. By 1918 it had produced more than 2,000 aeroplanes, including the famous SE5a fighter, 8 million shells, 650 guns and 500 armoured cars.

The inter-war years saw the return to car production and the introduction of the Austin Seven and Cambridge models. By 1930 Longbridge was producing 1,000 cars a week.

The outbreak of the Second World War saw a return to military production and by 1945 Longbridge had produced 3,000 aircraft including Hurricanes, Stirling and Lancaster bombers. A year after the war ended Longbridge celebrated the production of its millionth car, an Austin 16f.

In 1952, Austin merged with the Nuffield organisation and Longbridge became the headquarters of the British Motor Corporation. Under an agreement with Donald Healey, Longbridge began production of the Austin Healey 100 sports car in 1953 to be followed six years later by the Mini.

In 1964 production reached an all-time peak of 345,245 vehicles. Since then, however, it has been more or less downhill for Longbridge.

It developed a reputation for industrial unrest. Sir Michael Edwardes came within an ace of closing the plant in the late 1970s after a succession of long and bruising encounters with trade union militants, led by Red Robbo - Derek Robinson. Mrs Thatcher would have engineered its closure a decade later had her attempt to sell Austin Rover to Ford succeeded.

Periodically, a new dawn would appear to break for Longbridge but they always turned out to be false. In 1980 Longbridge began production of the Metro at the new west works. The facility was bristling with so much new technology that it doubled Britain's population of welding robots.

But the arrival of the Japanese transplant factories in the 1980s, starting with Nissan, showed the British motor industry what an efficient car plant really looked like. In 1997, Nissan's Sunderland plant was the most productive in Europe with an output of 98 cars per man. Longbridge ranked twenty- fifth alongside Skoda with a production rate of 33 cars per man.

It is that one chilling statistic as much as anything that may well do for Longbridge.