Birmingham Industry

Austin Rover – Longbridge

Austin Rover works Q Gate

Austin Rover works Q Gate

One of the giants, if not THE giant, of Birmingham industry was that of Austin Rover (under its many guises). It can virtually be guaranteed that anyone like me, growing up in South Birmingham, knew countless people employed at the sprawling factory and, in many cases, had generations of relatives who had worked there. For this reason alone, the ‘sudden’ closure of the works in August 2005 was a rather emotional time and revelations as to the business dealings of the then owners Phoenix, whether accurate or mere conjecture, left a bad taste in the mouth. However, for the purposes of this site it is not possible to provide a full account of the rich history of the company and debate its many ups and downs, so below I will provide a potted history and a brief tour around the remaining buildings, many of which have now been demolished.

In 1905 Herbert Austin bought a derelict printing works at Longbridge (White & Pike Printing) and proceeded to construct what became, at its peak, a car plant employing 22,000 people on a 460 acre site!

In 1914 the company was nationalised and the factory had turned its attention to the war effort and produced over 8,000,000 shells, among other armourments, and had almost trebled in size. The works returned to vehicle production following the war – including the Austin 7 – but soon was swept-up in World War II. Unlike World War I, the second world war introduced aerial warfare and the works duly turned part of its production to supplying the demand for aircraft producing, among others, the Fairey Battle and Stirling bombers at a purpose built site – the Aero – off Cofton Hackett.

During the post-war years, the Austin Motor Company metamorphosed into a myriad of organisations – in 1956 it merged with the Morris Motor Company to become BMC (British Motor Corporation) and in 1968 it became British Leyland and was again nationalised in 1975 under this name. For those who remember, the 1970s were a particularly turbulent time at the works politically and econimically. During the 1980s the Metro was launched and a flagship robotised production plant built. However, the now-named Rover Group, was struggling to keep afloat and government subsidy for ailing public enterprises was not a politically favoured option and the company was sold to British Aerospace in 1988.

In 1994, BMW bought the company – a move which it can be argued largely put the final nail in the Austin coffin – didn’t appear to have much interest in investment, developing new models etc and rather left the company to fall apart, finally being saved from closure by the Phoenix Consortium, a somewhat underfunded management buyout.

Then, as if to mark the 100th anniversary of the factory, amid collapsed Chinese takeover talks and huge pension deficits, the factory closed putting 6000 workers out of a job and untold ancilliary workers and those in the supply industries. To make matters worse, the Chinese Nanjing Automobile (Group) Corporation bought the company following its collapse, asset stripped the works and moved the lot to China. To add further insult to injury, part of the MG brand was touted to the USA who are planning to go into production and, as far as I can tell, market what were our own cars, via the Chinese, back to us!

As for the works itself, it has largely been demolished and replaced by the the usual business park, retail park etc . . . with some small car production returning (up to 600 jobs!) under Nanjing.

Below are a series of images taken shortly after closure of the factory – see also the Austin Rover – Longbridge Demolition post for images of the factory’s eventual demise.

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