We all know hi-tech robots build cars, but you can’t just plug them into a three-pin socket in the factory wall and expect them to work their magic. They need power – and lots of it. But when we heard about what’s beating at the heart of MG Rover’s Longbridge factory, we had to get a closer look. No, your eyes aren’t deceiving you. It’s a jet engine, and it’s identical to the ones strapped to the wings of the RAF’s giant Hercules transport planes!
This awesome powerplant, built by American firm Allison and installed 10 years ago, is on full throttle in the battle to save the struggling Midlands car manufacturer. Housed in a huge green steel box deep in the bowels of the Birmingham site, you need earplugs to go anywhere near it – we know, because we’ve been there.
The engine is essential to the site’s £7.5 million Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plant, and it’s waste gases are burned in a boiler which helps meet the factory’s demand for heating – everything from the paintshop to the radiators in the boardroom. It also fires a generator that provides up to 10 per cent of the electricity Longbridge consumes.
And there’s one man who knows more about it than any other; as site operations services manager, Tony Osbourne’s job is to keep everything running smoothly. But there’s more; he’s also a walking encyclopaedia of the site, and that’s why he seemed like the ideal person to take us on a guided tour. But we didn’t just want to have a look at the secret stuff. Why? Because Longbridge is about to celebrate it’s 100th birthday.
Tony is immensely proud of the CHP. Tapping a tickling dial in the control room, he told us: “Everytime that meter clocks, I have saved the company a few more pence. CHP replaced the old coal-fired boilers, and this is still the only gas turbine generator installed at a UK car factory. It means we have both reduced emissions and generate, on average, up to 10 per cent of our own electricity. That saves us roughly £600,000 annually, and we have some power-hungry facilities here, I can tell you – the paintshop especially.”
Tony is an expert in running a car factory. He started as an apprentice at Longbridge in 1972, and MG Rover bosses are in awe of his knowledge of the place and the models it has produced. That’s why, dwarfed by the boilers in the huge CHP plant, there stands a vintage Austin Seven. This was the car that put Longbridge on the map, and the company chairman John Towers has entrusted Tony to get it into tip-top running order. It will be part of MG Rover’s centenary celebrations.
There has been a factory on this site since 1894 – when a Birmingham firm set up shop to make printed tins – but by 1905 it was disused. Herbert Austin, a former chief engineer with Wolseley, was anxious to establish his own car company, and the modern yet idle Longbridge factory was ideal. That’s partly because it was so far away from the industrial centre of Birmingham, where airborne soot particles made a perfect paint finish virtually impossible!
He bought the place for £7,750, bargaining the liquidator down from £10,000. In November 1905, things started to happen, and within weeks he’d formed the Austin Motor Company. By the end of the following year, 26 cars had been built, and the rest they say, is history.
Our next port of call was just as amazing as the CHP – how many modern car plants boast their own air-raid shelters? Longbridge was a target for the Germans in World War II as it made Hurricane fighter planes and Lancaster bombers, but Austin was prepared for the attacks. It had space for 10,000 people built into the hillside behind the factory. Some shelters were later used as part of a 16 mile underground parts conveyor belt network, but today they’re abandoned. Tony took us to the bricked-up front of one of the tunnels where the terrified employees sheltered from the bombs. Just looking at it was a sobering thought.
Nearby is evidence of German destruction of a different kind. Several rubble-strewn acres are all that’s left of Longbridge’s old seat-making building. It was demolished by BMW to make way for a paintshop that would have helped Longbridge make the new MINI. But when BMW sold Rover and MG in 2000 – and kept MINI fir itself – the Phoenix Consortium, which bought the plant for a token £10, cancelled all construction. “BMW did a lot of damage before it abandoned us.” said Tony.
Herbert Austin controlled his empire from a small, first-floor wood-panelled office near the entrance to the factory. He was renowned for working there seven days a week, but the building had to be bulldozed to make way for what is now the South Engineering Block.
Sadly Austin died in 1941, but loyal executives moved his office in it’s entirety into the new building, even down to it’s carpets and light fittings. Despite British Leyland’s mid-Seventies bids to destroy the past, the office survived, and in 2003 it was dismantled and transferred to a new position inside MG Rover’s conference centre. It has been perfectly re-assembled to represent the room as Austin left it in his last working days.
Visitors can see the office from a gallery, but Auto Express was given unique access. I got to sit in Austin’s very own padded chair behind an enormous oak desk, and even pick up his personal Bakelite telephone. It was the very spot where the venerable tycoon gave the go-ahead to all-time greats such as the Austin seven, and signed off designs for cars like the 1938 Austin 12, a restored version of which is Tony Osbourne’s pride and joy.
The office is crammed with Austin’s personal effects, and the panelled door that would have led to Herbert Austin’s personal lavatory is still in place, even if the toilet is long gone! Fixed to the wood walls behind Austin’s desk is an old coin; it’s a reminder that Longbridge’s current fight for survival is nothing new.
The half-crown (the equivalent of 12.5p today) is said to be the one that Austin tossed to decide whether to shut Longbridge in the early Twenties when his company was facing bankruptcy. Heads said to keep going – and heads it landed. Austin asked his workforce to work for a month on no pay in return for “a job for life”, and Longbridge bounced back. “Some people were still working those jobs in the Seventies when they were well into their seventies, ” laughed Tony.
Longbridge has one more secret that most people don’t know about – but it’s not actually on the giant site. A stone’s throw to the north is an estate of neat and identical little wooden bungalows on quiet, leafy avenues. Passers-by would perhaps never realise this is what remains of ‘Austin Village’, created in 1917 by Herbert himself to house key workers. They were built from cedar wood kits imported from the USA, and today they are carefully preserved by their proud owners. Something which, despite all it’s troubles, could also be said of Longbridge itself.