LORD AUSTIN'S OFFICE, LONGBRIDGE.
Herbert Austin founded the Austin Motor Company in the summer of 1905. On 4th November that year he discovered the former White & Pike printing works at Longbridge, situated beside the Bristol Road, the River Rea and the joint Midland and Great Western Railway line from Longbridge to Halesowen.
The Austin Motor Company moved into the Longbridge premises, which had been unoccupied for some four years. Herbert Austin moved his effects into one of the offices, which was to remain his personal office throughout the rest of his working life.
Austin's office was located at the front of the factory, adjacent to the front door, overlooking the main factory entrance of the time (now known as 'K' Gate). Through the office window Austin would have looked down the Bristol Road towards the village of Rubery.
Austin used his office until his death in May 1941. Subsequently Leonard Lord (Lord Lambrey) and Bill Davis both used the office briefly.
In the 1950's, when the Austin Motor Company was part of the British Motor Corporation and Longbridge held the head office, there was money for development. Much of this investment can be seen in the form of the Conference Centre (previously know as the Exhibition Hall), Assembly A (Car Assembly Building 1), the Sales and Marketing building, the Product Development Centre (Designs block), South Engineering Block and International Headquarters.
In order to build the South Engineering Block, the old Showroom had to be demolished. Bill Davis, then a B.M.C. board member, asked Leonard Lord where he should work, as his office was to be relocated. He was told to move into 'The Old Man's' office, which he did for some months until his new office was built.
Bill was the last user of the office. It was on his instruction, when the front of No.1 shop including the Old Man's office, had to be demolished, in the late 1950's, that provision be made in the new South Engineering Block to relocate 'The Office'. It remained until the spring of 2003, when it was incorporated into the Conference Centre, as part of the archive centre.
Sited to the right-hand-side of the Conference facility, it is possible to switch the lights on from the outside and peer through the windows as if you were walking by. Access to the room remains through a door in the museum, which houses a small collection of cars associated with Longbridge.
Austin, MG and Rover cars are represented and include a 1935 Austin 16/6 still fitted with its Austin Hayes automatic transmission (at one time owned by Bob Wyatt the Austin Historian and writer, and kindly donated to the museum by GKN Technology) and a 1959 Austin Se7en (one of the original Mini’s for those baffled by the date).
Once in the office, the period atmosphere is protected in time, indeed as 1930’s photographs prove. The office is comfortable, but not lavish.
Inside the room through the left hand wall is a small door. This used to lead to the most important room in the factory - the Chairman's' throne room (toilet)! Along side this door is a framed drawing of a railway locomotive and carriage, with the words above: 'Most everything worthwhile is born of some dreamers dream'. It was Austin's dream to make motorcars and that belief continues in the cars built here at Longbridge to this day.
The fireplace occupies the centre of this wall. The mantelpiece has a dip towards the right hand end. This was probably caused by Austin leaning on it over many years whilst talking to visitors to his office. In the centre of the mantelpiece is a picture of St. George slaying the dragon. On the shelf above is an Onyx ashtray, a souvenir from the World's first purpose built motor racing track at Brooklands. Austin's son in law, Colonel Arthur Waite, led the Austin Seven racing team against many other manufacturers' products, including MG (ironic because MGs are now built at Longbridge!).
Also of interest on the mantelpiece are two shells, produced by the Austin Motor Company during World War 1. Austin expanded his factory between 1914 and 1918 in order to help supply the military needs of the country during that conflict. In 1913 about 2,000 employees were producing 1,500 commercial and pleasure vehicles a year. In 1918 there were 20,000 employees and the factory had expanded. The North Works had been built the other side of the railway and the West Works on the other side of the Bristol Road.
The South Works, which included the original White and Pike factory, was extended back to the Birmingham-Gloucester railway line. Products leaving the factory during this period included vehicles, armoured cars, ambulances, trucks, generators, searchlights, fighter aircraft and munitions. The most voluminous product manufactured was the 18lb shell of which over 6,500,000 left for the Royal Ordinance factories to be filled with explosives before dispatch to the front.
As soon as the Armistice was signed all Government Contracts were cancelled. This left Austin with 20,000 employees and little work. The Austin 20 was put into production designed for the world market. This fine car suffered the imposition of taxation in the home market based on the bore of the engine whilst ignoring the stroke. This lead to the introduction of long stroke engines unsuitable for the rest of the world and in 1921 Austin was forced to rush the 12 into production.
The sales of these two models did not raise sufficient cash flow to maintain the factory and the administrators were called in to help Austin turn the Company round. Sadly the day came when Austin had to decide if the factory gates should be closed for the last time, or if he should put his alternative plan to the workforce.
One story tells us that in order to make the decision, as any Chairman would, he took a coin from his pocket and tossed it. Heads to stay, tails to close. It landed heads up, so Austin went and spoke to the workforce himself. He explained that the Company finances were not healthy, but that the problems could be overcome. He required help from the workers though. If they were prepared to work for one month without pay, the Austin Motor Company could survive.
Austin appreciated that he could not ask this of the workers without giving something in return and he offered those making the sacrifice, a job for life as long as the Company was there. In the 1970's there were still some of these workers, past retirement age in their 70s, working their 'Job for Life'. That coin, a half crown (two shillings and six pence which is now twelve and a half pence to those who don't remember real money) is mounted in the wooden panelling behind Austin's desk.
Behind the desk, above the famous half crown, is a plaque commemorating Austin exhibiting his cars at a motor show in Turin in 1911. Just six years after opening his factory, Austin was exhibiting his cars across Europe.
Along side the fireplace is a photograph of a white haired gentleman and is signed by the subject 'From your friend, Henry Ford'. Ford would visit his factory at Trafford Park, Manchester, and stay with the Austin's at Lickey Grange, no doubt spending time comparing notes and exchanging ideas.
Below Henry Ford's photograph, there is a period air conditioning unit made by Carrier in the United States. Most visitors to the office, when asked, suggest that it looks like a stereo or a radiogram. With the looks of a fine piece of cabinet making, it is in fact pressed steel painted to great effect.
Below the window opposite the door into the office, on a delightful cabinet, is a clay bust of the 'Old Man' in his latter years. This is the artwork for the bronze bust that has recently been returned to the Conference Centre to stand in the entrance foyer to the museum.
On the Old Man's desk are three inkwells. The one, presented to him by Rudge Whitworth, is made from the wheel nut for a wire wheel. In the red-topped ink well of the other pair is an old fifty pence piece placed there on a visit by Sir Michael Edwardes, when he was the Chairman of British Leyland in the 1970s.
Another bust of Austin is on top of a cabinet to the right of his desk. This bronze bust shows Austin in his younger years.
To the right of the door into the room is a bench where, it is believed, shop stewards sat on visits to the ‘Old Man? Above it is a beautiful barometer and thermometer on an intricately carved mounting. This was presented to Austin by his senior staffs for Christmas in 1933. They clearly thought much of him.
Within the room all the fixtures and fittings are original, from the light in the ceiling to the carpet on the floor. Going out through the doors into the Conference Centre returns visitors to the modern world, leaving behind the history encapsulated in the single room that was Lord Austin of Longbridge.
Tony Osborne. March 2004.
Photographs by permission of the MG Rover Group.
Copyright March 2004. All Rights reserved.