Birmingham & Black Country

The life of Longbridge: A transition from boom to bust

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Factory workers (right) construct an Austin A40 car in 1948, destined for export to America

Ten years ago mass car production at Longbridge plant in Birmingham came to an end. Before that though the factory, which Herbert Austin set up in 1906, survived World Wars One and Two.

It also fought off post-war economic depression and the emergence of the motor industry abroad. It also recovered from strike action, mergers and take-overs and drops in its share value.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Sir Herbert Austin, First Baron Austin of Longbridge, in his first car (top right). His popular touring car (bottom left) featured at the Olympia Motor Show in 1919

Herbert Austin resigned from his job at car-maker Wolseley in 1905, in order to set up his own firm - the Austin Motor Company.

He had already found a site he wanted for his factory, and in 1906 he bought buildings and land at Longbridge.

He sold 23 cars that year, with a turnover of £4,772.

Image copyright Hulton Archive
Image caption The Austin Motor Company survived the post-WW1 and WW2 years, despite a sharp drop in share value

Also in 1906

  • The Rolls-Royce company was formed
  • The Bakerloo line opened
  • The Ritz Hotel opened
Image copyright William Vanderson
Image caption The body of a 10hp Austin car is lowered onto its chassis, in 1945. During WW2 the company also made helmets, ammunition and jerry cans

In 1908, Austin, along with Frank Kayser of Kayser, Ellison and Company, and Harvey du Cros of the Dunlop Rubber Company formed a private limited liability company. Turnover shot up to £19,744 and 254 cars sold.

At the time, other manufacturers were making six-cylinder engines. Determined to stay with the competition, Austin added two cylinders to his 40hp model.

Image copyright Harry Todd
Image caption Some of Austin A40 models on the production line in 1947 were left-hand drive versions to cater for the North American market

Also in 1908

  • London hosts the Olympic Games for the first time
  • Winston Churchill married
  • Wind in the Willows was published
Image copyright Raymond Kleboe
Image caption The number of workers at Longbridge in World War Two surged to more than 22,000. Austin built accommodation for employees who had trouble travelling to the plant

A smaller, cheaper car went into production in 1909 - the Austin 15. It was unusual in that the driver sat centrally and above the engine. The 15 continued in production until 1919.

By 1910, nearly 1,000 workers were employed at Longbridge and a night shift was introduced.

Image copyright Raymond Kleboe
Image caption Workers were paid good wages and came from across the country

Also in 1910

  • Dr Hawley Crippen convicted of poisoning his wife and sentenced to death
  • King Edward VII died, King George V acceded to the throne
  • Portugal was declared a republic
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Employees in the Austin Motor Works canteen at Longbridge

The advent of World War One saw the company produce munitions, including 8 million shells, 2,000 aircraft and 2,000 trucks and lorries.

The factory expanded and to accommodate workers, Austin established a village for his employees - bungalows with at least seven bedrooms and houses with 12, which were used dormitory-style.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Sir Herbert Austin locks an Austin 7 before shuffling the key with other keys in a pile on the floor. The person who picked out the right key won the car

Also in 1914

  • The Panama Canal officially opened
  • The British premiere of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion was staged
  • The Battle of Mons took place, one of the first confrontations of of WW1
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Austin Chairman L P Lord (right) and stylist R Burzi inspect the model of the latest Austin Seven

Accounts for 1920-21 showed the company suffered in the post-war years. Austin's ordinary shares plunged in value. In an attempt at recovery, the Austin 7 was created.

The new model was exhibited at the 1922 Olympia Motor Show. With a price of £25, many more people were able to afford to buy a car. The factory expanded in 1926 to cover 62 acres.

Also in 1922

  • Good Housekeeping magazine was first published
  • Wimbledon tennis grounds opened
  • Poet Philip Larkin was born

In 1936, Sir Herbert Austin was elevated to the peerage, taking the title of Lord Austin of Longbridge. He died in 1941.

World War Two saw the plant produce more than half a million jerry cans and helmets, as well as suspension units for tanks.

Also in 1941

  • Novelist Virginia Woolf took her own life
  • Japan and Britain declare war on each other
  • Sir Bobby Moore was born

Austin and Morris (Nuffield) Motors merged to form the British Motor Corporation in 1952.

The brainchild of car designer Sir Alec Issigonis, the Morris Mini Minor seized the imagination of the public.

In 1968, the British Motor Company was taken over by Leyland to become the British Leyland Motor Company.

Also in 1968

  • Martin Luther King was assassinated
  • Two-tier postage rates were introduced in the UK
  • Children's writer Enid Blyton died
Image copyright PA
Image caption The Longbridge site once covered 400 acres

The Austin Allegro, with its square steering wheel, was launched in 1971. It became popular despite problems including the fact the boot lid was too small for the boot aperture and windscreens would pop out.

Launched in 1980, the Mini Metro brought the restoration of the Austin name to a British Leyland car.

Also in 1980

  • Film director Alfred Hitchcock died
  • Seb Coe, Alan Wells and Steve Ovett win Olympic gold medals
  • Then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher declares "the lady is not for turning", over economic policies
Image copyright Max Nash
Image caption Staff leave the MG Rover plant in Longbridge after hopes of restarting an engine production line collapsed
Image copyright Matthew Lewis
Image caption In 2007 Nanjing Automobile Corporation opened a new car production line after the last British-owned mass-production car manufacturer went into receivership

In 1986, Austin Rover became known as the Rover Group and the car lost its Austin badge in 1987. The Rover Metro became the Rover 100, which it remained until it ceased production in 1997.

The Rover Group was sold to British Aerospace in 1988, to BMW in 1994, and to the Phoenix Consortium in 2000.

The new company went into administration in 2005. It was announced 6,000 people would be made redundant.

Eventually bought by China's largest vehicle manufacturer, SAIC, a 60-acre site now employs about 400 people, where cars built in China are assembled.

Image copyright Christopher Furlong
Image caption The new MG6 sports fastback began production in 2011. It is part built in China, but the engine, electrics, testing and assembly takes place in Longbridge

Anniversaries source: BBC Archives

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