Motor Vehicle Industry

It is naïve to pretend that a short introduction such as this document can do justice to the importance of the motor vehicle industry to the development Warwickshire, Coventry and Solihull. This significance continues to this day, though in reduced and modified form. Coupled with this is the fact that many of the motor vehicle companies – and even particular models – have a considerable amount of literature attached to them, much of which is readily available. So this introduction tries to put the car industry history within a wider context, rather than concentrating on the experience of individual companies.

The 1890s saw the laying of the foundations of Britain’s car industry in Coventry, and although the industry developed elsewhere in the country, Coventry always maintained a very strong presence. Risk-taking entrepreneur Harry J. Lawson purchased the patent rights for production of Daimler engines in the UK and is credited with producing the first motor vehicle in Coventry in an old cotton mill later to be called ‘Motor Mills’. After tentative beginnings in the 1890s, expansion was rapid after the turn of the century, with much of the activity characterised by the expansion of cycle firms into motor cycle and motor car production. Familiar cycle company names such as Humber, Riley, Rover, Swift and Singer added motor cars to their product range, whilst others (e.g. Standard) were formed specifically for motor vehicle production. Some cycle firms moved from cycles to motor cycles (e.g. Rudge-Whitworth), but never embraced the motor car option to any significant degree.

These advances gave Coventry a strong foothold in the motor industry, and it is estimated that at the outbreak of the First World War there were 25 car-producing companies in Coventry, generating one-third of the nation’s car output. It also meant that the cycle, motor-cycle and motor car industries (and their ancillary trades) occupied a highly significant place in the city’s industrial structure and employment composition. This has long been a feature of the Coventry economy – a high proportion of manufacturing employment as a proportion of total employment – a feature not without its difficulties in the post-industrial era.

The inter-war years saw some re-organisation in the industry with certain firms emerging stronger, others falling by the wayside. For example, Hillman and Humber joined forces, and they were soon to be part of the growing Rootes Brothers empire – a development which typified the route the industry was taking. Two well-known names entered the industry – Alvis in 1919 and Triumph in 1923, and expansion of production facilities created factories that were to become well-known landmarks in the city.

Naturally enough, times were hard in the 1929-1932 Slump, but the subsequent 1930s recovery relied in part on the expansion of the so-called ‘new’ industries with motor vehicles were very much part of that story. Demand for cars was encouraged by rising real incomes, a broadening of consumer expectations, together with suburban growth and the demand for houses (with integral garages). Coventry was ideally placed to take advantage of this, and the impact was seen both in the success of the city’s car firms and in the fabric of the city.

War brought major disruption, with much car production diverted to meet the war effort. The bombing of Coventry also caused the loss of much capacity, with some attempts to re-locate to avoid enemy action. The establishment of Rover in Solihull and the move of Maudslay to Great Alne are cases in point. The post-war development of the land rover at Solihull has been a conspicuous success. Component suppliers also took heed, and Sterling Metals (founded in Coventry in 1907) erected a factory in Nuneaton in 1939 to help to ensure the continuation of the supply of castings to the motor, aircraft and textile industries.

All this meant that by 1950, 12 significant producers remained – Alvis, Armstrong-Siddeley, Daimler, Hillman, Humber, Lanchester, Lea-Francis, Singer, Standard, Sunbeam-Talbot, and Triumph. There then follows a long sequence of events that produces mergers, shifts in ownership, foreign involvement, and a rationalisation – often a reduction – in capacity. The 1960s and 1970s brought the closure of many of Coventry’s iconic car companies  e.g. Lea-Francis (1961) Armstrong-Siddeley (1966) Alvis (1967) and the re-organisation of many others. Standard had absorbed Triumph in 1945, but the Triumph name took centre stage, subsequently taken over by Leyland, then British Leyland, then Austin-Rover, with the rights to the Triumph and Standard marques now owned by BMW, and the Standard-Triumph social club being the only surviving remnant of the company in the city. The Rootes Group passed into Chrysler’s hands, which in turn passed to Peugeot Citroen, and their plant at Ryton was the last mass assembly plant in Coventry to close (2007). Specialist parts of Jaguar – now Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) – remain, but not before several changes of ownership through BMW and Ford to Tata, with the design and engineering division still maintained at Whitley. The Land Rover site at Solihull still remains a key component of the company.

Elsewhere in Warwickshire, there has always been strong association with the Coventry motor industry. Important roles have been played by firms in supplying components (e.g. Lockheed brakes, Borg and Beck clutches, Thompson steering joints and AP automatic transmissions, all from the Automotive Products Group, Leamington Spa ) and in producing specialist cars of their own e.g. Donald Healey (Warwick). Component suppliers are, of course, an important part of the story, and local firms could supply anything from basic engine castings through to the final piece of trim for a car.

The combination of globalisation and the de-industrialisation of the UK economy have not served the Warwickshire car industry well, with only the rump of that industry remaining, and much of that in foreign hands.

To end on a positive note, the most recent experience has revealed some hopeful signs for the industry. The JLR and Aston Martin sites at Gaydon, and the new (Electric) London Taxi facility at Ansty, represent important developments. Research and investment in new technology for the automotive industry is supported by a number of specialist organisations, including Warwick University, and operating from the MIRA Technology Park near Nuneaton, Horiba-Mira (formerly the Motor Industry Research Association) is a highly respected engineering and development consultancy. All these contribute to a sense of growing confidence in the area’s ability to meet the challenges of the next stage in the automotive era.

It has been difficult to decide which car company names to include and which to leave out in this briefest of summaries. Readers are encouraged to explore Damien Kimberley’s book on Coventry’s Motorcar Heritage.

Motor Vehicle Industry: further information

AuthorSubjectPublished/More
Kimberley, DCoventry’s Motorcar Heritage. An A-Z Catalogue of all car firms that have existed in Coventry The History Press
Thoms D, and Donnelly TThe Coventry Motor Industry: Birth to Renaissance? (an updated version of the authors’ ‘The Motor Car Industry in Coventry since the 1890s’)Routledge
Victoria County History of Warwickshire Vol 8Section on MOTOR VEHICLES
(Available online)
Available at this link
Grace’s GuideA valuable source of information on individual companiesAvailable at this link
Storey, RAutomotive History Sources in Coventry ArchivesUniversity of Warwick
Modern Records Centre
Long, BThe Marques of CoventryWarwickshire Books
Collins P, and Stratton, MBritish Car Factories from 1896: A complete Historical, Geographical & Technological Survey. Covers the whole of the UKVeloce Publishing
Thorley, NJaguar in Coventry: Building the LegendBreedon Books
Atkinson, KThe Singer StoryVeloce Publishing
David, KAlvis: the story of the Red TriangleGentry Books
Robson, GThe Rover StoryPatrick Stephens
Carverhill, GThe Rootes Story: The making of a Global Automotive EmpireCrowood Press
Hassell, JWhite & Poppe: Engine Manufacturers, CoventryLightmoor Press
Lee, P. and the Nuneaton
local and family history group
A fine collection of information and photographs of Nuneaton’s industries (including Sterling Metals)Available at this link
Wisdom, T H50 Years of Progress: The History Of the Automotive Products Organisation over the Past 50 YearsAutomotive Products
Coventry Museum of Road TransportThe Museum’s collection includes motor cars, commercial vehicles, motor cycles and cycles, many with local connections. Extensive collections of automobilia, books, photographs and a wealth of other archive material is held and conservedVisit
British Motor Museum,
Banbury Road, Gaydon
A collection of over 300 cars from a variety of manufacturers, plus a considerable archive collection, covering documents, photographs and filmsVisit
SitesA list of remaining sites, with some descriptive notes, can be found on the WIAS database under MOTOR VEHICLESAvailable at this link