Chief Executive of Nanjing Automobile Corporation, Yu Jian Wei symbolically reopened a Longbridge assembly line on Tuesday while describing the plant as “the spiritual home of the UK motor industry”.
Herbert Austin, the one who created the first proper all-British car in 1900, started the factory five years later. The plant was first built on the site of an abandoned printing works. As a proof of how patient and perseverance he was when building the plant, he worked in the abandoned works’ front office and lived within sight of the plant for the next 36 years. It was too late by the time that the final barrel-scraping attempted to keep Longbridge as a British-owned carmaker failed two years ago.
Nonetheless, its fortunes reflected the hopes, triumphs and mistakes of the industry. It once helped Britain to be the leading car exporter in the world. But it left the UK as the only giant European economy without a significant local motor manufacturer.
In 1921, Austin was insolvent. As a way of coping up the plant, he kept the factory running by making a deal its employees: they would be offered lifetime jobs if they worked for a month without compensation.
Thinking that the deal would be a burden, Austin received largely positive effects. He made Longbridge the independent British version of Ford after making some deal of sale with General Motors. Then new British Ford version then had lower costs and this was done through shaking out a small range of attractive cars in a single plant at low prices to gain economies of scale.
This practical motor manufacturer died during the Second World War and he was viewed to have succeeded.
However, power and influence was given in war time “joint production committees” to encourage war outputs by involving workers from the different sectors of the economy. After a generation, it was found out that the shop stewards’ movement was to provoke negative work traits such as non-cooperation, disruption, and constant labor arguments. In effect, Austin declined.
Austin and the BMC, merger of Austin with its rival in highest authority Morris, were run by Leonard Lord - the displacing, hard-driving, unsympathetic production man.
Instead of leaving their money to charity, the wealth and investments of Austin and the wealthier William Morris had been left in trust for employees.
But this was not the end of the decline of the living standards of the people during that time. Several disputes were triggered by the 1941 Coventry Tool Room Agreement that laid down pay differentials for the next 30 years. Britain had no hold in postwar export markets. And the government, very much in need of dollars, mandated an export quota of 75 percent and so UK buyers needed to wait months and even years. The whole emphasis was on maximizing output from scarce capacity, regardless of quality, ‘let alone’ planning, design and engineering. When Lord showed the Duke of Edinburgh the company’s models, the latter frankly said that he was not sure if those were ready for foreign competitions. Four years later, the mini was developed but lost money because making it cheaply was too complicated. Due Lord’s lack of target goals and the ineffectuality of George Harriman, his follower and successor, left the companies which were about to be eaten by big rivals such as the French, German and Japanese.
In 1952, the two ineffective leaders had no idea how to merge Austin and Morris into a stronger British Motor Corporation.
Keeping production and marketing costs up, dissipating cash flow and not sufficiently feeding the investment, design and quality engineering, the BMC had five car brands. The merged British Leyland (BL) had nine car brands when Harold Wilson intimidated the Leyland truck and bus group into taking over the wallowing hulk in 1968.
All the hopes of competing in the international market had drastically gone already. BL’s many potential victors included the Mini, Jaguar, MG and Triumph sports cars, wagons and bus businesses that includes Triumph oxygen sensor and Land Rove. But despite the bloated group less than a decade later was bailed out by the government, those enterprises still ran out of resources and eventually sacrificed just to keep the Longbridge dream going.
The plant and the entire Midlands were selected as the battleground for the revolutionary Left from 1968 and 1976. This eventually spread the implication of eternal conflict between management and workers.
Based on the Communist Party records, it had 20 shop stewards convening together at Longbridge under Derek Robinson, who was made brutal as Red Robbo.
One-sixth of the potential output was condemned through strikes when Sir Michael Edwardes in 1977 was brought in to save the termination of the group. Longbridge had a tremendous decline that it had lost its market by the time the militants ended their rule. This happened despite the denying of three more owners.
Longbridge could have survived, had it not been the 1952 merger of inefficiency. Many of the UK industry might have survived without the Leyland merger.
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Zeke Gervis has a degree in Human Resource Management. He is an F1 fanatic and is a collector of racing memorabilias. At present, he enjoys working at a consulting firm in Iowa.