My grandfather's career at Longbridge, by Russell Bulgin: CAR magazine, July 1991

Published: 22 September 2015

► An archive gem from CAR+
► Russell Bulgin on his grandfather's job
► Remembering hard graft at Austin

The Austin Motor Company Limited never gave my grandfather £100 to blow on discovering the delights of sheep husbandry. Nobody at Austin ever came up to employee F30369 Warman, FJ, and suggested he contemplated developing 'a skills matrix to do a particular job, from toolmaker to managing director.' Moreover, had anyone dared hint that less than three decades after he retired, the Longbridge factory, where he clocked in every working morning for 49 years, would be making Japanese Honda cars, he would probably have felt a little insulted. Granddad was of the generation that didn't think Pearl Harbour was too terrific an idea. 

My late grandfather spent nearly half-a-century working as a coppersmith at Longbridge. My late grandmother worked there during the first war, as did granddad's sister, Auntie Mabel. My mother worked at Longbridge in the '50s, shuffling paper in the export department. Had my family not moved west from Birmingham when I was at nursery school, l, too, might have ended up as an employee of Rover. 

Then again, I probably wouldn't have been able to fit in any 'skills matrix'. Paul Kirk, managing director of Rover Powertrain, talks the jargon of corporate caring. 'People,' he says, 'are the only asset of a company which appreciate with time.' Kirk is a firm supporter of Rover Learning Business, a programme that aims to help workers at Longbridge towards overall betterment: there's self assessment, a personal development file, constant questioning about where your career is going. And the impetus for this vaguely New Age credo? According to Kirk, surveys show that workers want to contribute more to the company. 'We want to encourage people to develop, rather than just be trained.' 

It wasn't always this way. Sometime in the very early '60s, Frederick Warman was called in to see Sir Leonard Lord, the boss of The Austin Motor Company Limited. Granddad was due to retire. After a sliver of small-talk, the Sir who was also a Lord, popped the question. 'Why don't you serve the extra year to give yourself 50 years with the company?' he asked. 'What's in it for me?' said Warman. 'Well, nothing, actually,' admitted Lord. 'Bugger that,' said Warman, and the subject was dropped. 

For my parents and grandparents Longbridge has been a constant. For my mother and her family, it was 'the Austin'. For me the 378-acre sprawl remains just a name, an increasingly insignificant piece of our everyday history. I have my granddad's gold watch and his jubilee yearbooks, but that is as far as my link with Longbridge goes. Out of nothing more than idle curiosity, I tried to find out if I could do what granddad did. I made the trip to Birmingham. 

There's a curious mix of old and new in the engine division. Side-by-side sit the A-series and the K-series lines. The A-series — the Mini motor — is assembled by hand, men with spanners torquing up parts from trays. The K-series comes together with a whirr and a microchip, components mysteriously matched by computer: the Metro/200/400 engine line represents a £40m investment operated by just 22 people. At one point, a single worker controls 22 stations on the transfer line — and there are no inspectors, simply a reliance on numerate technology and Brummie pride to ensure that engines meet the specified tolerances. 

The question is, of course, does such automation mean that you could use gorillas in place of line operatives? Has mechanisation actually reduced the role of the worker to that of mere button-pusher, incapable of applying deductive logic? Rover says no. 

In the final assembly area for the 200/400-series, Rover is proud of the guys known as the stuff-up crew. Their job is to fit the entire engine, transmission and suspension to the front of the car, and add rear suspension to t'other end in one aerobic flow-chart of arms, legs and air-wrenches. 

There is considerable skill on display here, old-fashioned manual dexterity backed by refined industrial choreography. Nine men working to slot heart, lungs and ligaments into the car: the job takes 32 seconds. At a line-rate of 55-60 cars/hour, they even manage a quick sit-down between stuff-ups. 

The stuff-up suggests that Longbridge still relies on some deep-rooted manual skills. Honda, in Japan, can't do a simultaneous stuff-up — first the front end goes in, then the car shuffles down the line and the rear gubbins are bolted up. The success of the quick-stepping stuff-up crew seems to indicate the combination of physical malleability and mental adroitness still pays dividends on the line, same as it always did. 

On a flying visit, Longbridge looks a pleasant enough place to work. Granted, my knowledge of car factories worldwide is far from encyclopaedic — I've been to Saturn and the Lexus plant in Japan — but no way is Longbridge grimy or Dickensian. It probably was when granddad started working there, less than five years after the ex-printing works opened to fulfil Herbert Austin's vision of mass-market transportation. 

But, as in granddad's day, the car assembly line still rules Longbridge. Currently it begins to roll at 6.00am on a Monday and stops at 6.00pm Friday, three-shifting through the recession: shift changes take place on the fly. There is no lunch break. Workers take 15 minutes' break every two hours - this was decided by the shopfloor as a way of knocking off early for the weekend. There are Saturday morning meetings of working parties to improve the production process. Preventive maintenance and line-trials also take place over the weekend. 

Austin was good to granddad. The graft was hard but he was never out of work: even in the depression of the '30s, as a coppersmith he continued to punch the clock for one day a week at a time when most men were laid off. My mum says that by the '50s when she worked at Austin, promotion was more a matter of who you knew than what you knew. That was one of the reasons why she left. 

But neither my mother nor my granddad were given 100 quid to learn the innermost secrets of what must inevitably end up embalmed in mint sauce come Sunday lunchtime. As part of its campaign to help staff develop, Rover offers a £100 grant— payable on enrolment rather than completion — to any worker who wishes to sample vocational training. And, apparently, a couple of Longbridge men have taken the plunge into off-duty sheep husbandry. Granddad certainly wouldn't have understood that. I'm not entirely sure I do, either.

Bulgin on grandfather's Austin career at Longbridge, July 1991

By Russell Bulgin

Modernist, critic, columnist, contributor 1989-2000