The Würm: Good news doesn’t travel fast!

In the first part of a new section, our inside man – The Würm  looks at the sad state of affairs that is media coverage (or the lack of it) with the British Motor Industry…

Happier times at "The Austin" - A Mini nears completion at Longbridge.
Happier times at “The Austin” – A Mini nears completion at Longbridge.

It was always challenging working at “The Austin”, as many people still called it locally.  It hadn’t built anything with an Austin badge since 1987, but the epithet stuck; it was either the aforementioned, British Leyland or The Rover – Old tradidtions and habits die hard for us Brummies.

The Press, as usual, were always sniffing around and digging for the very worst in what we did in the factory where the Birmingham and Bromsgrove Council territories met at the B31 postcode area – rarely the greater good that went on there. In the late 70’s The Honda Motor Co following their trawl around the world of motor manufacturers, had settled upon Longbridge as the seat of they believed and witnessed to be – some of the greatest automotive thinking and innovation they had ever seen. I would like to add at this point that these were Honda’s observations… not mine.  They chose to link up with Longbridge.

Honda chose BL and Longbridge on the grounds of engineering capability and expertise.
Honda chose BL and Longbridge on the grounds of engineering capability and expertise.

Lets take the Mini as an example. Despite its many oddities of design and manufacture – and trust me there were many, became a firm favourite of rich and famous as well as less well-heeled and ordinary, like my Father. It has deservedly so – become a classic of its time now milked for all it’s marque is worth by a truly brilliant German marketing machine. The factory’s cars, commercials and other products were exported the world over in the days when “BOG” standard meant British or German – implying an equivalence of technology or quality rather than today’s perception of a dull cheap entry level vehicle with basic trim.

Towards the end of the factory’s existence, enormous and often ignored progress was made in the realms of industrial relations that the prejudiced media would have had the greatest trouble in believing what they could have seen. Most of it has gone on criminally unreported as a result and this does not give credit to the thousands of ordinary working people toiling away there. The evidence is all lost and gone under the new housing estate sprawled across what was once “The Aero Factory”, created with a higher roof at one side to accommodate the tail-fins of aircraft assembled therein.

A short story then to illustrate the point…

As was and still is – the drive for efficiencies, the ever-present dead hands of the Accountants deemed that we needed to shed some labour down to a fictitious magic number, which, when reached, might just guarantee the future of the plant. The locked and loaded target of the bean-counters was the Logistics function and their aim was to reduce manpower at any cost. It was thus suggested that a contractor could come in and do the easy bit of merely moving parts from the stores to the line. They would also run the stores. After all, it’s only parts arriving and being put on shelves… isn’t it?

Bean-counters are great… aren’t they folks? They sit at desks, make up great ideas and then throw them over the fence to the poor old operational departments, who then have to face and deal with the consequences of whatever ridiculous concept has just been dropped upon them. Often as not, the architects simply sit at their desks and know nothing of the pain or destruction they have just caused. Dolphins wouldn’t do that, which just goes to show how much smarter than humans they really are. Come to think of it now… I do recall a completed supply and logistics job application form passing my nose from a certain Mr Flipper – a retired actor with a passion for swimming in his spare time.

Anyway joking aside, the local Trade Union by now understood what the company was trying to do and began to wonder if they might play a part, namely by being allowed to tender alongside the outside contractors for the work. As Management we saw no reason why not – most of us knew what really went on day-to-day in the decks and stores of the plant. All folk who toiled at the “coal face” were well aware of the skills and knowledge of the current workforce and how they daily went beyond their contracted duties to see a good job done. What then came to be was an “unofficial link” between Union and Management – the former supplying the detail and the latter supplying the format and “wordsmithing” to write-up the proposal in the accepted manner.

Following BMWs departure from Longbridge - Some truly impressive production and logistical changes took place.
Following BMWs departure from Longbridge – Some truly impressive production and logistical changes took place – Good news that few people seemed interested in.

The end result was that we “lost heads” – IE: they were transferred to another function and we met the required head-count figure, that factory continued in its own efficient way and the threat of green labour coming along messing up the smooth operation was avoided. Everybody happy… Targets met… Job done if you like. Sadly, it never even made a line in the National press let alone the regional Radio or T.V news – BBC Midlands Today. Why is that that I hear you mutter? well… there was way too much factual good news in the story – or am I just an old cynic? One thing I am certain of is that in today’s world of tweeting, chirping, interwebbing and so on, only bad news seems to travel fast these days – a heartbreaking fact of life.

But there we have it my friends, there are many such stories from many of the thousands of people working at “The Austin”, but I often ponder about who would want to listen now? But if you have read this far, thanks very much.

The Würm



  1. I worked in the trade for many years mainly with trucks but some good friends were working with British Leyland or Austin Rover at both Cowley and Longbridge.

    As part of a small group of cynical engineers, we were invited on a works tour of Longbridge some time in the mid 1980s. The West Works blew our socks off and I can see and smell the orange beacons and argon in my minds eye.

    Not enough sites around that tell stories of this ilk and this story was enjoyable and saddening in equal measures.

    Who killed the British Motor industry? Each and every one of us I think.

  2. Fascinating & incredible to hear of this huge improvement in industrial relations at BL, after all this was not too long after the anarchic days of Red Robbo. All to rare, sadly, even today.

    Every credit to those on both sides of the negotiating table for working together in that way, and as the feature notes, a massive shame for UK Limited that this co-operation did not get widespread recognition to counter the traditional polarised view of management v. unions.

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