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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 May 2007, 14:34 GMT 15:34 UK
Longbridge revs up for brighter future
By Gavin Stamp
Business Reporter, BBC News, Longbridge

The first MG TF pre-production sports car from the re-commissioned Longbridge production line.
Much fanfare has surrounded the reopening of Longbridge
As the covers come off three MG sports cars to the backdrop of deafening classical music, it is hard not to agree this is a historic day for Longbridge.

Just over two years since the MG Rover plant closed with the loss of 6,000 jobs, one of the symbols of British industry is officially open for business again, albeit in a much reduced state.

A parade of historic MG cars - the oldest dating back to 1925 - alongside contemporary versions warms the hearts of the MG enthusiasts present as much as it does the officials of Nanjing Automobile, the Chinese firm which now owns Longbridge.

"It is good for everybody that they are back again," says Barry Sidery-Smith, who owns and races MGs.

"We look forward to seeing them back on the road."

'Symbolic triumph'

Encapsulated by its marketing slogan, A New Journey, there is much talk of rebirth and exciting times ahead for MG under its new ownership.

Today is a day of celebration and optimism
Mike Whitby
Birmingham City Council leader

Indeed, the revival of Longbridge is a remarkable story.

Although it currently only employs 130 staff ahead of the launch of its first cars later this year, the factory's formal reopening is a symbolic triumph for the city of Birmingham after the dark days of 2005.

"We were told Longbridge had no future as a manufacturing site," says Mike Whitby, leader of Birmingham City Council.

"Today is a day of celebration and optimism."

'Retain style'

Longbridge's revival is also a significant step forward for Nanjing, China's oldest car company, which had to answer some difficult questions after buying Longbridge and other assets from the collapsed MG Rover in July 2005.

It moved in double-quick time to set up a production facility in China, finished in March, leading to claims that it was merely stripping the business of its UK heritage.

But Nanjing is keen to stress that Longbridge firmly remains the "spiritual home" of the MG brand and the centre of efforts to give it a new global appeal.

Longbridge Operation Director James Lin (meets MG production staff
Nanjing has made no promises over job creation

"Longbridge has an irreplaceable role in the MG project," says Nanjing chief executive Yu Jian Wei, passionately referring to the MG as the "pride of the British people and symbol of industry".

"We want to retain the original style and flavour of the MG and achieve the same high quality that the MG brand is known for."

Under its plan, in which the company has already invested 250m, Nanjing will run twin manufacturing operations in the UK and China.

All UK and European manufacturing operations will be based in the Midlands, as will other key functions such as research & development, marketing and recruitment.

We need to look at sales and on that basis, we will be able to decide when volume production will resume
Nanjing Automobile

But Nanjing was not prepared to give any firm commitments on future jobs or production levels.

This is likely bound to disappoint unions, which have long maintained that the firm must be held to a pledge that it will ultimately create 1,000 jobs at Longbridge.

"As sales of products and our scale grows, there will be more job opportunities," says one senior Nanjing executive, adding that new MG models are already in development.

'Huge potential'

But the firm is cautious about growing the business too fast, saying any further expansion will all depend on demand for the models it starts selling later this year.

"We need to look at sales and on that basis, we will be able to decide when volume production will resume. It is something to be decided by the market. It is not just something we can just wish."

But for many people, the prospect of Longbridge's production lines rolling again will be enough to sustain their belief in the future of the MG business and car production here.

"We are encouraged by what we have heard and reassured about the future of MG," says Anthony Binnington, an enthusiast of the marque.

"I think there is a huge potential market for the brand."

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