Coventry's Motor Industry, Warwickshire

PUBLISHED: 23:46 07 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:09 20 February 2013

Rover

Rover

The British motor industry was born in Coventry and the area is still at the heart of the nation's motor industry. The great names in car-making - Jaguar, Rover, Triumph, Riley, Healey, Armstrong Siddeley, and more - all come from here.

The British motor industry was born in Coventry and the area is still at the heart of the nation's motor industry. The great names in car-making - Jaguar, Rover, Triumph, Riley, Healey, Armstrong Siddeley, and more - all come from here.
Stephen Laing, curator of the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust, takes us on a tour of the county's motoring history.

On the face of it Coventry and neighbouring rural Warwickshire seem an unlikely setting for one of Britain's most successful industries. At the centre of the country we are far away from the coastal ports and areas of established heavy engineering as they were.

During the 1800s Coventry was a flourishing centre in watchmaking and, in turn, the sewing machine industry. As the 19th century drew to a close the latest invention in personal transport, the cycle, came along and Coventry's skilled workforce found itself suitably positioned to take on its development. Soon the city became a world leader in the cycle industry, many thousands of its residents employed in cycle production.

The first car

Although Germany was the birthplace of the world's first motor car, inventiveness quickly crossed the Channel and, in Coventry, motorising the cycle was a natural progression. With plenty of technical skill in place, the fledgling motor industry just needed business acumen. That came in the form of one Harry Lawson, a flamboyant entrepreneur who had made his fortune in the city's cycle industry. He had what might be called a creative approach to encouraging investment in the several companies he formed with the prospect of making motor cars!

Lawson acquired a factory from the Coventry Cotton Spinning and Weaving Company and installed his new car firms. An imposing four storey building, close to what is now the canal basin, it took the grand title 'The Motor Mills'. In 1896, the first Coventry Daimler car emerged - Britain's motor industry was born.

Riley

William Riley came from a successful weaving family and in years to come the Riley name become synonymous with successful sports and racing cars. Riley's new factory was established in the north of the city, at Durbar Avenue in Foleshill. Fortunes changed as the Second World War approached; the factory had become outdated and the company had to be rescued by William Morris. Although production moved away from the Midlands, the Riley name and its motto (as old as the industry, as modern as the hour) survived until 1969.

Rover

Morris himself focused car manufacture in his native Oxford. He had interests in Coventry, however, having acquired engine supplier Hotchkiss and established engine factories in Stoke and Courthouse Green. Not far away, the Rover company's Helen Street factory stood, producing the well-made, middle market sports saloons and tourers. Rover had been established by J. K. Starley and his business partner William Sutton. Originally one of Coventry's leading cycles makers, Rover had one of the largest factories in Coventry - the Meteor Works right in the heart of the city, on the site where the Indoor Market now stands. Like Riley, Rover's fortunes would change with the War but more of that later.

Armstrong Siddeley

At the opposite corner of the city centre, in area known as Parkside and now home to Coventry's University, another area of motor trade grew up. The most successful was Armstrong Siddeley -the result of the amalgamation of motoring pioneer, John Davenport Siddeley's company and engineering giant Armstrong Whitworth. With models such as Typhoon and Hurricane, the car evoked Armstrong's aircraft origins. Siddeley himself was to become Lord Kenilworth and responsible for leaving Kenilworth Castle to the residents of the town.

Humber and Hillman

A little to the south of the city, Humber established its motor operation. Another successful cycle company its light car, the Humberette, made in the early 1900s was probably Britain's first mass-produced car. In 1907, Hillman would become Humber's next door neighbour. William Hillman, another cycling magnate, owned a large house, Abingdon House in Aldermoor Lane. The grounds were the natural place for a car factory. In time, the companies became not only geographically connected but merged as businesses in 1928. Both were part of the Rootes empire owned by two brothers who had been car salesmen. Rootes would also eventually swallow another Coventry firm, Singer and the Black Country manufacturer Sunbeam.

Rootes

International conflict brought a rash of building work. The new 'shadow' factories, mirroring the work of established military hardware builders, were erected so the motor industry could build planes, tanks and munitions for the war effort. Rootes not only added to its Humber Road factory but a new facility was built a few miles away at Ryton. After the war this became the main focus of its production - who can forget model names like Snipe, Minx and Gazelle that sprung from this factory?

Peugeot Talbot

By the late 60s, prospects were not so rosy. US giant Chrysler took the reins and an old name was revived - Talbot. After an inauspicious decade of ownership, Chrysler sold to Peugeot and Coventry became the home of the French manufacturer's smaller models for nearly three decades. As evidence of Rootes' great factory complex has recently been demolished, a trip into Coventry from the south east and along the Humber Road will give some idea of the open land that would have greeted visitors in the late 1800s.

Land Rover

Wartime would also alter the course of Rover's history. Its shadow factory on the edge of Warwickshire at Solihull would become its main home in the late 40s. The Coventry factories had been heavily bombed and so manufacture moved wholesale to Solihull in just a few years. Perhaps its most famous product was the 'go-anywhere' Land Rover, originally perceived as post-war stop gap model. Sixty years on, it is still Solihull's most famous product but we should not forget the thousands of stately Rover cars that were also built, the models that whisked Prime Minsters to Number 10.

Triumph

To the west another of the early car makers, Standard, established its new factory at Canley in 1916 on an area of farmland, its city centre site being too small. Its headquarters building, Ivy Cottage, was a landmark on the A45 Fletchampstead Highway. Perhaps a less well-known make, Standard rescued ailing Triumph cars - by now separate from the motorcycle business - in 1945 and by the 1960s the former name had been dropped. Triumph, was well known for its range of sport cars, rivals to MG, including Bergerac's favourite drive, the Roadster. Rationalisation within British Leyland and Rover Group led to the factory's final closure in the 1990s, the site now occupied by a retail and industry park.

Alvis and the London Taxi

Also in this part of town were two very specialised concerns that both began in 1919, on the Holyhead Road. One was Alvis, a sports car manufacturer, whose red triangle logo was a familiar sign on the road to Birmingham. Alvis was the first company to mass produce a front-wheel-drive car, although that was almost its undoing. After the war it diversified into making armoured vehicles, the sports car business eventually becoming another casualty of British Leyland.

The other manufacturer was Carbodies, one of several coachbuilding firms that emerged to service the fast growing car industry. It was after the war that it made a real mark, following a tie up with Austin to make a new taxi. The later FX4 model, introduced in 1959, set the iconic shape for London's black cab. Perhaps one of Coventry's best kept secrets, modern taxis still emerge from the same factory, the company now called London Taxis International, the last remaining volume motor car producer in the city.

Jaguar

A few miles further outside the city is Jaguar's Browns Lane plant. William Lyons had arrived in Coventry in the 1920s but moved to a new factory in the post-War era. It was from Browns Lane that Jaguar gave birth to the legendary C-type and D-type racing cars, as well as the sensational E-type roadster. Lyons added the nearby Daimler company and its Radford works to his portfolio in 1960. Manufacturing of cars at Browns Lane ceased a few years ago - the majority moving to Castle Bromwich, once on the very western fringes of Warwickshire and home to the Spitfire - but the plant remains the home of Jaguar's highly skilled wood and veneer making centre.

Car parts in Leamington

Moving away from Coventry, Leamington also has a rich motoring heritage. Although there were two very short-lived motor car producers, Crowden and Invicta, before the First World War, Leamington became known for a thriving component industry. The biggest was Automotive Products, in the Tachbrook area of the town. Beginning with the Lockheed brake company and Bork and Beck clutches, AP was a major employer and even the local football club, once the factory team, acquired the nickname 'The Brakes'. In the centre of the town, Flavels foundry, which made parts for stoves and ovens, was acquired by Ford in the late 1930s for its work for the War effort and later producing small castings, such as brake discs. Until 2007 the factory clock and thermometer were a familiar sight to drivers entering the town from the South. Across Leamington, Ricardo's engineering research facility is a longstanding example of UK specialism in automotive design and technology.

Healey

In adjacent Warwick, one name dominates. Donald Healey moved from Triumph to set up his own business in 1945. Producing sports cars he set up factory in an old aircraft hangar in The Cape. A deal with the British Motor Corporation led to the advent of the famous Austin Healey cars - first the 100, then the 3000 and the endearing small car, the 'frog-eye' Sprite. Although they carried the Healey name, the cars were made at BMC's factories in Birmingham and Abingdon.

And today . . .

A drive further south into rural Warwickshire reveals one of the fastest expanding areas of automotive activities. British Leyland had taken on the site of the former airbase at Gaydon, once home to the V-bombers, as its test track in 1978. Today, the much developed site is the focus of Land Rover and Jaguar's research and development. Next door, Aston Martin builds its exotic sports cars, evoking the spirit of Britain's best known secret service agent. And a little further down the road, a visit to the Heritage Motor Centre will help you appreciate how important the region is to the motor industry and remind you of some of the great British motor cars that were made in Coventry and Warwickshire, an area home to more than 100 car companies and employers of thousands of people.

www.heritage-motor-centre.co.uk

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