Three friends head out of deepest South Yorkshire to see how the Midland’s made cars in 2009.
On the 18th January 2008, Tata Motors purchased two illustrious British car brands from Ford, in the process establishing Jaguar Land Rover, aka JLR . Your author, along with many of our readership will no doubt remember the motoring magazines introducing this new Jaguar dawn, fresh with Indian money. At the time of our trip to the West Bromwich plant, the factory produced both XF and XJ models, considered by the press to be something of a relaunch for the Leaping Cat’s fortunes and capable of bloodying their German rivals’ noses.
Our November dawn was leaden, with heavy traffic heading south. As memory serves, we paid nothing for the privilege of the tour. Having registered our names sometime earlier, we were ticked off in school register fashion and like good school children wore our high visibility jackets and protective goggles without question. Informed the plant could be noisy, no ear defenders were proffered but we were told to remain within the obvious safety confines a yellow floor marker or line offered.
Herded into a minibus, we toured the vast facility to the press shop. Our esteemed guide was a former employee with decades of service. His strong Birmingham area accent was difficult to construe above the Transit’s engine note, not boding well for actual factory conditions. Upon entering the building, he attempted to keep everyone close, but inevitably some group members wandered or, as in our case, lingered, mesmerised by the functions observed. I was captivated by bonnets being pressed; the ballet comprising of perfectly choreographed robots working alongside ear defended humans. Being for the XJ model, the metal form was large but of course nothing in comparison to the factory’s scale encompassing a bewildering layout.
Managing to drag my feet forward, I hurried back to the group, desperate to ask how such a place is planned out. Our guide’s answer was a shrug followed by, “A don’t know, mate. I worked on the line not how to build it!”
Slightly deflated we continued on, skilfully avoiding the ever present forklift trucks, under-floor guided trolleys and gawping at machinery through Perspex and safety grilles. Dozens of simultaneous procedures occurred but no discernible car as yet seen. Along the line, humans could occasionally be observed. This might sound silly, but we were in that person’s workspace; who likes being watched at work? These people endure almost endless factory tours from public, corporate and even the odd rival manufacturer which must assist in building a natural defence mechanism against such invasions. However we did receive the odd hello, smile and nod, although of course many were deep in concentration.
Around another corner, we happened across an actual drama. A chap wearing a safety hat and corporate clothing wore the look of a concerned parent. Clutching his clipboard for dear life, this managerial type called over several junior members, dressed in sartorial Jaguar green. Hurried paperwork checking, pointing and rolled eyes were but just feet away from us but we had no way of understanding their concern. A computer error? Or an absent minded human “dropping a bollock” as our guide demurely hinted at?
Hastening on, more glum faced managers were witnessed aside an XF boot lid refusing to close properly. I remember seeing mallets fly and trained eyes check the results but any curses were swept away with the general factory aura. Away from the press shop a slightly above average hum was omnipresent. The ninety minute tour ended all too rapidly as we passed many completed vehicles awaiting transport to who knows where.
No tour worth its salt ends without a shop. Some party members keen on obtaining that key ring or T-shirt but we three has somewhere else to be – the Malvern Hills. Tarrying for repast somewhere midway, our journey continued onto Pickersleigh Road, home of Morgan.
From the 21st century technology of JLR, stepping into the Morgan factory was a trip back in time. Brick built buildings, dust, aromas of paint and metalworking, antediluvian tools along with a proliferation of humans. Not that the factory hadn’t embraced technology. Power tools have made certain tasks easier but their use of reliable if old fashioned kit helps with the overwhelming air of pride and experience.
Measurements were calculated using pencil and paper (often the bodywork) and steel rulers. A chisel accompanied hammer, files and clamps adorned benches and semi-assembled cars. Whereas at Castle Bromwich, the No Smoking signs were as important as the televised production figures, here in Worcestershire one almost expected tobacco fumes to be present.
The workforce was a mix of obviously ingrained experience with callow but enthusiastic youth; surely a perfect blend to sustain the very nature that prevails at Morgan. Comparing noise levels, if Jaguar was controlled hustle, Morgan parried with relative peace until the saws and hammers were aired. One might refer to such an engineering hub as genteel. For all their inputs, the results are justifiably impressive. Stylistically, Morgan may not be your cup of tea but management and sales were obviously performing to high degrees to keep the staff happily employed.
Whilst Jaguar sold every car made yet still lost millions, Morgan were (and remain) the polar opposite. Building penny numbers of vehicles per week for an altogether different clientele, Morgan, then still run by Henry Ferguson Stanley Morgan’s grandson, Charles, was both profitable and “Driven by Heart.” 2008 saw their centenary along with capturing Manufacturer of the Year gong, yet Charles was ousted some five years later; informed his business plan of developing a Chinese market and a return to racing from Malvern “did not fit with the philosophy of current management.” It would appear Charles’ exit has not damaged the brand name, gaining strength if anything with successful three wheeler sales and a (slight) modernisation of the Plus line.
The tour lasted a good two hours with no histrionics or problems observed. Staff were happy explaining their roles and we left for the long journey home impressed and conversing over the differences between the two sites. An extremely positive day.
I was so taken by Morgan that I hired a 06 plate Roadster for my fortieth birthday direct from the factory – 8 hours for £160. The growl of the engine on start up or throttle blip was addictive. I can still see the chap’s face explaining to me the hatchback facility – where the lowered hood hinges up for stowage – without irony. Also, the bloodied left knuckles from gear changes; the palm being the key to stemming the flow. The weather was balmy, the surrounding roads taken steadily before opening the taps for a run to Aberystwyth for fish and chips by the sea.
Admiring glances, thumbs up and waves from passers by were all happily taken. The blast back to the factory saw my partner enjoying almost nothing of the high speed return, my grin like Cheshire. Such cars are not for those seeking conversation or, being honest, comfort. The smooth roads and late summer weather made the experience wonderful. In such a machine, rain or pockmarked tarmac didn’t bear thinking about. The car was on rails.
Quite the exit to one’s thirties but owning such a machine was never a consideration on price alone. An XJ, then? They have become affordable now but perhaps best leave such things to memory. Very pleasant ones.
 A colloquial English term for making a mistake of great proportion.
9 thoughts on “A Game Of Two Halves”
Good morning Andrew. What an extraordinary contrast between two factories ostensibly doing the same thing. That said, the mallet wielding at Jaguar was an unwelcome reminder of the approximate standards of assembly that once prevailed in the mass-market British motor industry. Your guide, rather than making a joke of it, should have been mortified that such a practice was witnessed by the visitors.
I envy anyone who has driven a Morgan.
When my wife gave up her agency at the end of 2019, we planned a trip across the British Isles for the following year. We had purchased a befitting vehicle especially for this trip, a Rover 75. Besides the many historical sites (car-related or not), visiting the Morgan factory was also on our list. Then came the pandemic with all its restrictions and we abandoned the itinerary. A decision I regret to this day.
As our Sprint turns 45 this year, we are planning our own personal Giro d’Italia in a few weeks, and will visit his birthplace in Pomigliano d’Arco on this trip. But I don’t think I’m interested in how – and above all which – vehicles are built there.
Fred: If you have a mind to write about your Sud Sprint’s journey home, I’d be very happy to run it here on DTW…
I will get back to you after I have found the words that go together.
Great article Andrew. As I read the bits about mallet wielding and shoulder shrugging at JLR I thought, wow some things never change.
Really do worry about the future of Jaguar too. Land Rover will be ok but the cat is definitely endangered. Hoping they can sort something out and quickly.
A 2023 factory tour at the Morgan works (now under Italian ownership) will reveal considerable change – but not, thank goodness, in the ethos and, therefore, atmosphere of the place. You will now find cutting edge technology alongside traditional hand-tool craftsmanship – I heartily recommend a return visit, Andrew. And Fred – I do hope you can find an excuse to visit the UK and Malvern in particular. A good Rover 75 is easily found….
JTC, I can assure you, the UK is still a high priority on our travel list.
On my earlier – unfortunately far too few and at the time far too short for professional reasons – visits, I always had the impression that God made one or two sketches and tried out ideas in the first five days in Europe and other parts of this world, only to complete his masterpiece on a few islands between the North Sea and the Atlantic on the sixth day.
(I know there are critics who say that between then and now he lost sight of this area from time to time and paid too little attention to it. But you know what, I’ve met plenty of unpleasant people in my long life, but a Brit was never one of them).
What startled me a little is the fact that Morgan now has an Italian owner. Not that I dislike the Italians, no quite the opposite, our household is actually one of the stronghold of the Italian diaspora in this bland Lower Saxony. But Morgan and an Italian investment fund, well I don’t know….
Just shows how completely wrong Digby Jones was all those years ago. What Morgan achieved is almost unheard of in UK industry, healthy stability. The majority of businesses view anything but significant growth as a disaster despite the fact that such a dynamic is eventually doomed to failure. The lesson; listen to consultants but remember your core values and don’t be afraid to dump poor advice.
I think it was Sir John Harvey-Jones?
BBC Troubleshooter programme.