July 2016

I am John Baker and have been a volunteer in the BMIHT Archive Department for over two years. My main job has been sorting out the large amount of documents relating to Longbridge. Why Longbridge? Simply, as Longbridge is where I spent most of my working life.

I served my apprenticeship at ‘The Austin’ from 1958 to 1963. Even though the company was called BMC at that time, apprentices still used the original company name. I left in 1966 for the retail side of the industry, becoming a Service Manager. In 1972 I re-joined my old department, now part of British Leyland, in the Press Garage at Longbridge. That October, the department was transferred to Redditch, where a fleet of cars and vans were maintained and updated with the latest modifications and then loaned out to the Press for evaluation. Naturally, we were called into action at a most important moment in the company’s history, the launch of the Austin Metro in 1980. Not only was it of crucial importance for this car to succeed, it was also the first car in Britain to be built using robot technology. As such, a brand new building was constructed at Longbridge to house it, which was to be opened by Prince Charles himself.

This plaque marked the official opening of the Austin Metro production line in 1980. It was donated to the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust by St Modwen in 2006.

Why This Document?

I have chosen this Plaque as my Document of the Month because for me it tells a story.

Working in the Press Garage I was part of a team tasked to prepare a fleet of Austin Metros for the launch. A total of 25 cars for the Press fleet were received from Production in batches, in a mixture of various colours and specifications. They were checked over, then several members of the team, including myself, worked nights from 10 pm to 7 am, to put mileage on the various cars under the cover of darkness. Over two nights this operation put around 200 miles on the clock. At the end of the second night we delivered the cars to Gaydon test track, so that their test drivers could increase the mileage to 1000 in the daytime. This continued until all the fleet had been run-in. The company then rented another Redditch factory unit to store the cars, ready for the Press to try them out before ‘D-Day’.

The actual Press launch took place in London. By ‘Press’ I mean various car magazines and newspapers from the UK and main European countries. Following a presentation journalists were paired up and given a route, and could then pick a car to drive to the lunch stop at Broughton Castle in Banbury, Oxfordshire. After lunch journalists then changed models and chose their own route to London. This was repeated for three weeks.

You may well remember the TV commercial,  ‘Austin Metro, a Great British Car’, filmed many weeks before the launch date (https://youtu.be/ZAA6tw3m_58). The first part of the filming was done on a section of the Bromsgrove to Redditch bypass, which the Police had closed off at 6.00 am.  The second scene of the film, where I drove the red car, shows cars coming straight at the camera. The producer later said the cameraman was certain that we would hit the film car! We only did two takes for the single file and formation sequences. The producer was so impressed with our driving skills that he requested our manager to allow us to drive for the final dramatic Dover cliff-top scene but this was rejected. 

Prince Charles after unveiling the plaque in what would become known as ‘New West Works’. On the far left is the Chairman of Rover Group, Michael Edwardes. On the right, the Managing Director of Austin Morris, Harold Musgrove.

We thought this was the end of our role until, on 9 October 1980, I was surprised to receive a letter from Harold J Musgrove, who at that time was head of the Austin Morris Division of British Leyland:

‘On Wednesday, 22 October 1980, His Royal Highness, The Prince of Wales is going to perform the Official Opening of the Austin Metro Facilities at Longbridge. You are invited to join His Royal Highness, The Prince of Wales for lunch, which will be held in the Exhibition Hall at 12.30 pm for 1.00 pm.’

A further letter advised how to address members of the Royal Party:

‘For His Royal Highness, The Prince of Wales:- On the first occasion you speak to him, you address him as “Your Royal Highness” and thereafter as “Sir”.’   

Prince Charles duly attended Longbridge and unveiled this plaque to commemorate the occasion. This was the final launch of a new model from Press Cars at Redditch, as plans were afoot to set up a new Press Cars department at Canley, Coventry, to look after Austin/Morris and Rover/Triumph Press Cars. As I lived in Cofton Hackett and did not wish to transfer to Canley, on 20 April 1981 I walked across Cofton Park in the snow, to start back at Longbridge in the Chassis Experimental Department in Lowhill Lane. In 1985 my last move was to the Buck Shop in the Old Styling Studio, working on the new models being developed with Honda. In 1998 I began work on the new Mini being developed this time under the ownership of BMW until 1999 when I retired.

If you are interested in Longbridge and its history , visit John Baker’s website www.austinmemories.com which is dedicated to stories about the factory, its personalities (including founder Lord Austin) and its products.

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