The news this morning from the Chinese-owned MG brand that car production at Longbridge was finally over came some 110 years after the first car emerged from Herbert Austin’s converted printworks.
Truth is, Longbridge’s underused production lines haven’t only just fallen silent. That probably happened some months ago, when Chinese owners SAIC pulled the MG 6 from sale.
The best estimate is that MG didn’t manage to make even the modest 3000 a year of the big hatchback that it had planned for. The MG 3 supermini is already shipped in from overseas, as will be the new MG GS small SUV, which is made near Shanghai.
The company says only 25 production people will be made redundant, and it will be retaining 400 engineers at the SAIC Technical Centre, which is also located on the Longbridge site and is responsible for much of MG’s engineering and styling. MG’s sales and marketing staff will also stay at the Longbridge site.
However, for older Brits, the final demise of Longbridge will be something of a historic landmark. Back in the strife-torn 1960s and 1970s, Longbridge was the main stage for the monumental battle between the Unions and the UK Government.
TV cameras were regularly positioned outside the iconic Longbridge ‘Q’ Gate and at Cofton park opposite, where the union members and the trade union leaders held the ‘show of hands’ that presaged the latest walkout. Characters such as the strike-happy union boss Derek Robinson - ‘Red Robbo’ as he was known to the newspapers - became as famous as any politician or celebrity.
Production at Longbridge first came to a halt in 2005, when the MG Rover consortium crashed into bankruptcy some five years after it bought the site and the Rover and MG badges from BMW for a symbolic tenner.
The sprawling industrial area remained mothballed after the factory facilities acquired by Chinese company SAIC via its takover of carmaker Nanjing. Much of the original Longbridge was sold off and knocked down, when it still bore evidence of its vital role in World War II of building everything from munitions to Stirling and Lancaster heavy bomber aircraft.
I got inside Longbridge in 2006 as part of a private visit by bankers. We walked into the deserted assembly hall built for Mini production under BMW ownership. The offices at the paint line were just as the MG Rover managers had left them in 2005. SAIC restarted production - in truth re-assembling knocked-down kits from China - in 2011.
Despite being Britain’s most famous - and infamous - car plant, Longbridge was never a world-beater. Annual output peaked at around 380,000 units in the 1960s. Compare that to today’s Nissan plant in Sunderland, which hit 500,000 units in 2014 and with around 20 percent of the staff at Longbridge back then.
Still, 116 years of near-continuous car production is over. One of those 25 line workers is a historic figure in the history of car-making: the last of one of the automotive world’s longest production line lineages.