Throughout the 20th century, Birmingham was a bustling hub of industry, of all different kinds. Longbridge, an area in south-west Birmingham, is a prime example of a place with deep roots in industry, playing a vital role in the rise and success of local car-manufacturing, but also witnessing the collapse of the industry – which undoubtedly affected the entire local population surrounding the Longbridge plant. While there is not much left of the Longbridge plant today, the history of the area is still a history that should be shared and celebrated.
First opening in 1905, expansion of the Longbridge plant was rapid. By 1908 the factory stretched over around 4 acres and employed 1000 workers. By 1919 however, the plant had expanded to over 10 times its pre-war size (the Villa Park pitch could fit into it 227 times!) and possessed its own flying ground in Cofton Hackett. In its non-wartime peak, around 27,000 people were employed.
A key factor in this speedy expansion was the plants involvement in wartime munitions production, beginning at the outbreak of World War One, where car manufacturing was temporarily ceased, and all production went towards the war effort. Between 1914-18, the factory at Longbridge produced over 8 million shells, 650 guns, 2000 trucks and 2500 aero engines. During World War Two, over 3000 aircraft were also produced at Longbridge – including the famous Hawker Hurricane, which won around 60% of air victories in the Battle of Britain. We have our very own Hurricane at Thinktank if you’d like to visit!
To keep up with the quickly growing workforce, designer and builder of the Austin Motor Company, Herbert Austin, established the Austin Village, housing 2000 workers near to the plant. Austin Village has since been recognised for its heritage status, receiving funding from the National Lottery’s Heritage Fund, to celebrate the village’s centenary in 2017 and historical significance in the local community.
Life for the workers at the Longbridge plant was not always harmonious however, with the area becoming synonymous with the ‘Red Robbo’ strikes in the late 1970s. Union convenor Derek Robinson fought for the rights of car factory workers in the area, and was involved in over 500 walk-outs of the British Leyland works in Longbridge, costing an estimated £200 million in lost production. Eventually, in 1979, Robinson was sacked amid fierce press attacks. In 2000 he famously said to a group of MPs “I can sleep sound at night because I never betrayed the workers I was elected to represent.”
The Longbridge plant itself produced more than 14 million cars, including the 1980 ‘Austin Metro’, a supermini which became one of the most popular cars ever to be produced at the plant, and the 1989 Rover 200 – one of the most popular small family cars sold in Britain both during its production life, and after production ceased. Our original Mini at Thinktank was in fact, the 67th Mini to be built, in 1959! Over 5 million of these were produced at Longbridge.
In the 1990s, much of the works had either been closed or sold off, to the likes of Phoenix Consortium, who renamed it MG Rover Group. Only years later however, in 2005, MG Rover had gone into administration, leaving over 6,000 workers without jobs. Having been brought up in Longbridge myself with parents who worked at the plant, I have seen the massive affect this had on the entire local community, with thousands of households feeling the impact of the plant closures.
As of 2016, all production in Longbridge had completely ceased, with cars being imported into the UK instead. A massive redevelopment programme over the land has been undertaken, with an estimated 1450 new houses being built, and a huge retail area being created, offering around 10,000 jobs. In November 2019, the last surviving assembly buildings were due to be demolished.
Ultimately, the car manufacturing works in Longbridge touched every area of community life, evident by the tribute Genie of Industry statue, created by John McKenna, on display near Longbridge train station today.