History of Longbridge

The Longbridge site is one of Britain’s largest car factories and has one of the most complex and fascinating histories. Unlike the vast majority of Britain’s factories, Longbridge has survived many turbulent years, experiencing many major successes and milestones, but is now playing an increasingly significant and innovative role in the UK manufacturing industry. 

Before 1894, the original Longbridge site was purely agricultural with only one house, called ‘The Wonders’, situated in the area of today’s Car Assembly Building (CAB) 1. 

On March 19,1894, building began of a factory for a Birmingham printing company, White and Pike Ltd. The factory was for a new venture - making and printing tin boxes. By around 1901, however, the business was abandoned. 

Herbert Austin’s youngest daughter, Zeta Lambert, suggests that Austin and all three of the staff of the Austin Motor Company explored the area around Birmingham on November 4, 1905 in his Wolseley 7.5 hp. With a picnic basket strapped to the car, they discovered the disused but well located and modern White and Pike Printing Works. Declaring to himself that it would be the perfect location for a vehicle factory, his staff moved in later that week and Austin became its owner on January 22, 1906. 

In February 1906, the first chassis was road tested, going on to become the first complete car, a Austin Endcliffe 25/30 hp Phaeton estate with four speed gear-box and chain drive rear axle, two months later. A celebratory luncheon was held on April 26, to mark the occasion. In its first year, Longbridge had produced 23 cars and by the end of 1907, 120. 

Austin’s vision for his company was high right from the start. Four 100 hp cars were developed for the 1908 French Grand Prix. They featured 9.7 litre, six cylinder engines. Two of these became the only British cars to finish the race in 15th and 16th positions. Only one of these vehicles survived to become a star exhibit at the Heritage Motor Centre, at Gaydon. 

In 1914, the Austin company became publicly listed for the first time. In the same year, the Great War broke out in August and Longbridge converted its production from vehicles to war armaments. Eight million shells, 650 guns, nearly 500 armoured cars, ambulances and pumping equipment were all produced at the Longbridge plant throughout the First World War years. 

By 1917, the Longbridge site had trebled in size. A new munitions plant as well as an aircraft flying ground were added. During this busy time, civilian aircraft with folding wings, the Austin ‘Whippet’, were produced. It had a choice of three or five cylinder Anzani radial engines. 

In recognition of Longbridge’s contribution to the war effort, Herbert Austin was knighted in 1917. 

In 1926, extensions to the factory brought the plant size up to 62 acres. By this time, Longbridge had become a ‘self contained’ manufacturing plant, with its own foundry, forge, press shops, power station and paint plants, in addition to engine, bodyshell and final assembly facilities. But even at this time, internal works transport at Longbridge still used a number of wagons drawn by shire horses, accommodated in the factory stables! 

Prior to the massive expansion of the factory in the late 1930’s, part of the spare land at Longbridge was utilised as a farm. Longbridge built tractors were demonstrated to potential customers alongside the Austin cars. These were also built under licence in France by Societe Anonyne Austin in Lioncourt. 

In 1930, weekly production at the Longbridge plant reached a record 1,000 units and the workers required to produce each car had been reduced from 55 to ten. 

Four years later, there were 44 separate models of Austin vehicles available, based on nine types of chassis. When combined with colour and option choices, this gave a total of 333 distinct permutations for customers to choose from. 

In 1936 Sir Herbert Austin became Lord Austin of Longbridge in recognition of his support for the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, where his friend, Lord Rutherford, succeeded in splitting the atom. During this year, Lord Austin became Chairman of the Government shadow factory scheme to build aircraft and aero engines. 

By this time, Austin was seen as one of the predominant British motor car manufacturers. Proving this, the company launched new two and five tonne trucks, followed by new 8 hp,10 hp and 12hp models. 

Barely had the new 12 hp been launched when war was declared and once more Longbridge was converted to military production. Some 36,000 ‘war effort’ vehicles from 8 hp utility estates to four wheel drive military trucks and ambulances were built at Longbridge. 100,000 suspension and drive gear units for Churchill Tanks were developed, 2.5 million ammunition boxes created, over 1.25 million piercing shells produced and around half a million steel helmets manufactured. 

Building of the first shadow factory (now East Works) had commenced in Longbridge in 1936. The factory began with a contract to produce 900 Fairey Battle aircraft over three years. By the end of the war, Longbridge had produced nearly 3,000 aircraft including Hurricanes, Stirling and Lancaster Bombers. Many of these were flown directly from the flying ground on site, but the Stirling and Lancaster Bombers were taken to the airfield at Elmdon for final assembly and ‘flying off’. 

Following a daytime raid on Longbridge, Lord Austin attended the funeral of those killed. While there, he caught double pneumonia from which he never recovered. He died on May 23, 1941. 

Leonard Lord became chairman and managing director in November 1945 to lead the great post-war export drive. By 1946, the millionth Longbridge car had been produced and two years later the total export earnings at Longbridge products had reached over £30 million for that year. 

In 1952, Austin merged with the Nuffield Organisation and Longbridge became the headquarters of the new British Motor Corporation (BMC). Agreement was reached with Donald Healey to produce the Austin Healey 100 sports car at Longbridge. 

1953 marked the second millionth Longbridge car produced. Two years on, the company celebrated 50 years at Longbridge and Leonard Lord lay the foundation stone for the new sales block and exhibition hall. 

Leonard planned the 1950’s to be an exciting decade at Longbridge and indeed it was. The A series engine increased in size from 803 cc to 948 cc for the new A35 and Minor 1000 models. Following this, the modern motor car, the Mini, was launched on August 26, 1959. As BMC had been formed by the merger of the Austin and Morris companies, the Mini was originally launched in two versions – the Austin Se7en and the Morris Mini-Minor. The Mini was the most prolific Longbridge product, with over five million being produced. 

In 1966, the British Motor Corporation and Jaguar merged to form British Motor Holdings (BMH).  The following year, Leyland Motor Corporation increased its car business by acquiring the Rover company.  

In 1968, a grand alliance of Britain’s motor industry was created when the BMC merged with Leyland Motor Corporation to become the British Leyland Motor Corporation (BLMC). Within the BLMC hierarchy, Rover was eventually merged with Triumph and (and for a time Jaguar) as a maker of upmarket specialist cars. 

The P5 model was discontinued in 1973 without a successor – an even larger and more luxurious P8 prototype remained still-born, reputedly as it was thought to be too close competition for the Jaguar XJ6. Similarly, the mid-engined P6BS sports car did not go into production. The next new Rover car was the SD1 of 1976, which like the P6 before it took Car of the Year title. 

Meanwhile, the parent company British Leyland encountered financial difficulties that led in 1975 to the effective nationalisation of the company. A programme of drastic restructuring was initiated by Michael Edwardes who became chairman in 1977. He initiated the link with the Japanese Honda company with selected Honda cars being built under licence – an example was the first Rover small car for many years, the first 200 series of 1984 which was also the first front-wheel drive Rover car. A programme of joint development was then started for a new executive car, project XX which was introduced as the first Rover 800 in 1986. 

Originally laid out to produce the 1980 Metro three-door bodyshell, the modern Longbridge body plant was adapted to include production of the shells for the Rover 200 and its Honda Ballade sister model. In 1989, the ‘R8’ style Rover 200 (five and then also three-door) and Rover 400 (four door), plus Honda Concerto bodyshells brought further variety. 

In 1986, Sir Graham Day was appointed as chairman of British Leyland (BL). He quickly renamed the company Rover Group and began a programme of moving the company and its products upmarket, away from mass-produced cars. In his role, Sir Graham set about completing a privatisation programme which saw many of British Leyland’s subsidiaries (including Jaguar) being sold. In 1988, this was finally accomplished with the sale of Rover Group to British Aerospace. 

During the 1980’s, the MG versions of the Metro, Maestro and the Montego were produced. These models were very successful, but were progressively phased out as derivative offerings were rationalised. 

After six years in the ownership of British Aerospace, in early 1994, the Rover Group was taken over by the German carmaker, BMW. Under the new owner, Rover began to fulfil its potential and in 1995 saw the launch of two important models – first the Rover 400, a medium sized car available in saloon and five door versions and then the Rover 200, a three or five door hatchback with a youthful appeal. Both featured versions of the well established K series engine and also Rover’s newly acclaimed L series diesel engine. 

The 1994/1995 period was unique for the magnitude and complexity of the work that was to be achieved on three new model ranges at the Longbridge factory. Three models were grouped together under the ‘Portfolio’ banner – Rover 400 (HHR), Rover 200 (R3) and the new MGF (PR3) sports car. 

The outgoing 200 and 400 (R8) mainstream models had shared a common platform and manufacturing facilities, whereas the replacements were entirely distinct ranges covering a much wider span of the medium car market and required separate bodyshells and final assembly facilities. In addition, the MGF was a completely new entry to the market with no predecessor on a Longbridge production line. 

In order to achieve the Portfolio Projects, the new Rover 400 (HHR) bodyshells in five and four door versions had to be phased in on an updated R8 bodyshell facility, while maintaining production of the Rover 200. By the time the new models were in production, virtually half of all the existing machinery in the 70,000 sq. metre building had been relocated without any loss of regular output. 

The Rover 200/400 models plus the Rover 100 and Mini were assembled in CAB 1 while CAB 2 was refurbished for niche model assembly – including the MGF, continuing specialist derivatives of the R8, the Coupé, the Cabriolet and Estate. 

At the same time, the Total Quality Programme was implemented. This involved training the entire workforce, more than 30,000 people, in the philosophies and tools of total quality. The exercise was crucial in creating an environment for change, setting the widespread use of quality tools and processes. 

An investment of more than £40 million went into upgrading and adapting the former R8 main line bodyshell production facilities to produce the new Rover 400 shells in five and four door form. The 400 body framing was 130 metres long and used 120 robots to produce one body-shell every 60 seconds. Of the total 4,343 spot-welds in a five-door 400 shell, 3,640 were carried out at Longbridge, the rest being incorporated into bought-in bodywork sub-assemblies. 

Rover built an entirely new body framing line for the Rover 200. Sixty one robots and the latest welding technology were used to produce the Rover 200’s shell. A sophisticated new weld timing controlling device on the robots ensured all welds on the car body-shells were carried out correctly. In addition, all welders were self-monitoring with external readings of performance quickly able to identify any fall in weld standards. A five-door Rover 200 body shell incorporated some 3,020 spot-welds of which 2,677 were carried out at Longbridge. 

One of the major supporting projects within the Portfolio programme was the rebuilding and re-equipping of Longbridge’s Medium Car Paint Shop. The objective was to give the new Rover 200 series and MGF world-class standards of corrosion protection and cosmetic finish with minimum environmental impact. As an additional bonus, the Mini and Rover 100 bodyshells were also painted in the new facility. The new paint shop covered an area equivalent to 2.5 football pitches and incorporated 1,350 tonnes of steelwork and enough concrete to lay a mile of motorway. Its conveyor system was 6.5 miles in length. 

Costing £45 million, the new paint shop took two years to build and required a particularly intricate and careful plan of execution. This involved phased demolition and construction activities while continuing full production and product quality. 

Beginning in 1993, the first phase involved the demolition of the redundant No. 4 paint shop and the building of a new colour line, paint mix facility and an inspection/rectification area. Then in August 1994, the old No. 3 colour line was demolished and new pre-treatment and electrocoat and surfacer liners were installed. By February 1995, the brand new facility was fully operational. 

Another long-term infrastructure development implemented at Longbridge included the building and commissioning of a brand new energy centre to replace the steam and power generation capacity of the old North and West Works boiler-houses. 

Using the most advanced modern combined heat and power (CHP) technology, the new Longbridge energy centre substantially improved the plant energy efficiency, saving around £1 million a year. This efficiency gain, along with improved emission control, helped to minimise the environmental impact of manufacturing. It is estimated that carbon dioxide emissions from the Boiler Plant have been cut by 70 per cent through a direct reduction of 200,000 tonnes per year on site, plus 29,000 tonnes indirect reduction of power station emissions because of reduced mains electricity consumption. Nitrous oxides have been estimated to have been reduced by 30 per cent (40 tonnes), Sulphur Dioxide by 99 per cent (500 tonnes) and particulates also by 99 per cent (60 tonnes). 

Focusing on a different kind of efficiency, a new 200,000 sq. ft production components distribution centre was opened in mid-1993. Located adjacent to the Longbridge East Works, this centre is now playing its full role in providing ‘just in time’ supply of components to Longbridge assembly lines. 

Following six years under the ownership of BMW, on March 16, 2000, BMW announced fundamental ‘reorganisation plans’ that split the company  and resulted in the sale of the key constituent parts of the group. 

Once the BMW Group announced plans to split the company, it concluded that Mini would stay within the BMW Group and be produced at Oxford, rather than at Longbridge as originally planned. Production of the ‘Classic Mini’ came to an end on October 4, 2000, after three final versions were produced – the Se7en, the Cooper and the Cooper Sport. 

Following the creation of MG Rover Group Ltd, immediate steps had to be taken to protect the continuity of the Rover 75 supply during the changeover period. Transfer and re-commissioning of the extensive and complex bodyshell production equipment from Oxford to Longbridge took place as the company moved to one manufacturing site. 

Although there was no contingency plan for building an executive car at Longbridge, there was the possibility of running the Rover 45 and 25 together on the one system to free up the introduction of the Rover 75. 

The transfer of the Rover 75 became a major engineering, logistics and associate training exercise. 

Manufacturing engineers developed detailed plans to support the introduction of the Rover 75 on a dedicated system at Longbridge. Key Rover 75 unique process equipment had to be transferred from Oxford to the Longbridge plant, including glazing, DC tooling, automated stick-on door seals and on-line hand held jigs and fixtures. 

The Rover 45 moved to the Medium Car Paint Shop and work started on the preparation of the Large Car Paint Shop for the arrival of the Rover 75. In anticipation of the Rover 75 relocation, the Large Car Paint Shop received a revamp including a new wax injection booth, re-pitching of conveyors, innovative electromagnet arrangement, a material conditioning area, machine programming and a new overhead conveyor slinging system. 

Extensive construction work also took place within CAB 1 to facilitate the mixed build of Rover 25 and 45 onto system one.Although some aspects of the body construction and process equipment were new, many of the basic principles were familiar. The framing formed the backbone of the lay-out for the new Rover 75. 

In establishing the Rover 75 trim and assembly at Longbridge, several changes were made to the build process to suit the new location and meet the new requirements of MG Rover in terms of cost control and efficiency. Longbridge employees wanted to develop the philosophy they had established when working with Honda, ‘Right First Time’, a more efficient and lower cost route that developed better quality. 

Over 400 employees underwent a nine-week training programme and a ‘pilot production’ facility in the Longbridge Methods Build Department was used for intensive five-day ‘hands-on’ training modules. The training programme included a full strip-down and re-build of a Rover 75 to ensure each associate was familiar with the advanced components, processes and tools used to build the cars. The new production lines featured the ‘Andon’ system, which allowed associates to stop the operation in order to resolve a problem before it developed. This system created the discipline for effective problem resolution. 

Due to the commitment and planning carried out by the MG Rover Group team at Longbridge, the transfer of the £400 million technology facility from BMW Oxford to Longbridge was completed on time, within budget and to exact quality standards. 

The new company, MG Rover Group Limited, predominantly situated at Longbridge, is now an independent, medium sized, British company that produces cars under the Rover and MG brands. The company started life with a debt free balance sheet and a strong revenue stream, which included car sales, parts, accessories and vehicle financing. 

At present, the facility at Longbridge is currently producing the Rover 25, 45 and 75 models plus MGF, the top selling UK roadster. In 2001, the plant will additionally build the Rover 75 Tourer model and a range of three new MG Sports saloons.  In total the plant will, from mid-year 2001, produce eight different models.