Fond farewell to a motoring way of life

Moving on: Benny Johnson from Leyland's Albion Automotive is looking for work as a result of the company closing down
Moving on: Benny Johnson from Leyland's Albion Automotive is looking for work as a result of the company closing down

It was the end of a generation when a long-established Leyland firm closed its doors with the loss of 46 jobs.

Albion Automotive, on Centurion Way in Farington, made axles for Leyland Trucks, but the work is being outsourced to Brazil to cut costs. For members of staff, that meant redundancy notices starting on January 1 and a search for new jobs. Reporter KAY TAYLOR spoke to dad-of-three Benny Johnson, about his working memories and challenges ahead.

THE end of 2010 brought the curtain down on one of the region’s best known manufacturers, with the demise of Albion Automotive.

The firm’s fortunes were heavily linked to those of Leyland Motors, and for generations, being connected with Leyland Motors wasn’t just a job – it was a lifestyle.

The company’s factories and buildings were scattered all over the town, on Hough Lane, King Street, Olympian Way and Centurion Way.

There was a sports and a social club, and to think that the Farington Works would be the future site of Morrisons, or that North Works would become the indoor market was just unimaginable.

There were huge Christmas parties which whole families attended, and friendly competition was evident on the company’s annual sports days.

So when it was announced that Albion Automotive, which provided axles for Leyland Trucks, would close its doors, it came as a major blow for the town and its people.

Benny Johnson, 49, was just 16 years-old when he followed in his dad’s footsteps, to get an apprenticeship with the firm, in the summer of 1977.

Back then, during the halcyon days of the town’s then-thriving automotive industry, the company took on 150 apprentices each year, and all were guaranteed a job at the end of their four years’ training.

During that time, Benny worked at all four sites; North Works, South Works, Centurion Way in Farington and the Spurrier site, which included the Fab shop and the Crankshaft Facility, before choosing a career in foundry maintenance at Farington.

He said: “When you became an apprentice, you were treated like a man. You worked with people twice your age, but you were doing the same job and getting the same wage.

“We used to make a whole truck from scratch. Everything was made in Leyland, and people around the world knew the name, but they didn’t realise there was actually a little town called Leyland.”

Every worker was made to feel apart of the motor industry ‘family’ by becoming a member of the Leyland Motors Social and Athletic Club, which cost them 10p a week.

The firm also hosted an annual sports day, which saw hundreds of families gather to watch the departmental teams compete in events such as cricket and tennis.

Benny remembers: “We were all given vouchers for free ice-creams and hot-dogs, and I was in the tug-of-war in the Farington Foundry team one year.

“We were fighting for a case of beer, but we lost out to the Leyland Trucks boys in the final, so we only won half a case.

“We sat on the grass and drank it all there and then. It was a really good day.”

Benny, who grew up in Wade Hall and now lives in Lostock Hall with his wife Wendy, also recalls the popularity of the Leyland Festivals.

“The streets were packed,” he said. “The rows were about 10 people deep on either side, and the procession must have lasted about 30 to 40 minutes.

“They had pram races where men would dress up as babies and stop off at various pubs along the way; it was really good fun.”

Cubs, scouts, brownies and guides spent the following day cleaning the streets of litter, and by Monday it was spotless again.

Another fond memory which sticks in Benny’s mind was the day the influential Road Runner wagon was launched.

He said: “It came out of the ground with smoke and sparks, and everyone was invited to watch the show.

“I think it was about 17 years ago, and it was really impressive.”

Now, Benny is faced with the gruelling task of finding a new job in 2011 – after 34 years in the industry.

Ironically the town is currently undergoing a regeneration scheme from South Ribble Borough Council, with the theme Made in Leyland to celebrate its manufacturing past.

A new gateway and a bronze statue of a traditional Leyland Motors’ worker is to be erected outside the market on Hough Lane, which used to be the entrance to the North Works site.

A Centurion tank, which was made during the war on Centurion Way, will be placed near the roundabout where Flensburg Way meets Penwortham Way, while the Leyland Wheel, a wheel from a vehicle made in one of the town’s factories, is now prominent at the bottom of Chapel Brow. The iconic Leyland Clock has also been refurbished and relocated, with the slogan ‘Leyland Motors for all time’.

Benny said: “It’s as though it’s already being portrayed as a memory. Like we’re already gone. For what it represents, it might as well be a war memorial.

“I do think the scheme is a good idea, because I know what it stands for, but I don’t think the younger generations will know what the symbols mean.

“It’s like the statue of a foundry man outside Morrisons; people might just think he represents an old Morrisons’ worker.

“If the council really wants to promote Leyland, they should bring the festival back – it’s deeply missed by Leylanders.”

Benny’s last working day was on December 16, and he said that the atmosphere wasn’t filled with the usual laughter and banter.

“It was a very sad day, and very quiet,” he said. “There were about 10 of us working the night shift, and we all chipped in and ordered an Indian takeaway.

“We sat in the canteen and chatted about what could have been, and what we’re going to do next, before saying our last goodbyes.

“The closure isn’t anybody’s fault, and I think some of us will keep in touch. We might even end up working together again, you never know.”

As a thank you to the workers for their dedication over the years, the company treated everyone to a day at Haydock races in November, where they enjoyed a full English breakfast at a nearby pub and put bets on the horses.

Benny said: “Everyone was actually really upbeat that day. We had a good laugh.

“It was like a proper leaving do, and gave us all a bit of closure.”

Benny and his colleagues will now have to enter a world of work that they’ve never known before, after working in the same job for all of their lives.

He said: “When I was at school, I never thought to myself, ‘What am I going to do when I leave?’ I knew I’d follow in my dad’s footsteps because that’s what everyone did in those days. Now, I’m having to look for a job and write a CV, which I’ve never done before.”

He added; “I have mixed feeling about leaving. In a way I’m glad it’s finally happened, because the closing-down process has been dragging on for about 18 months, and everyone’s been losing the incentive to work.

“But it’s also really sad. It was a good job, it was right on my doorstep, I knew everyone there and it was good money.

“I left school, worked at Leyland Motors, and now I’m redundant.”

Speaking about what he’ll miss most about the job, Benny said the familiarity, stability, and camaraderie.

“I grew up in Leyland,” he said. “I worked in Leyland and shopped in Leyland.

“Now, I may have to look further afield.”