The birthplace of the British motor industry | Axon's Automotive Anorak

29th March 2024
Gary Axon

For sundry reasons that I won’t bore you with, so far this year I have spent the majority of my time overseas, with next to little time spent back home here in England.


It was therefore very nice to return home for the first time in a while late last week, to attend the funeral of a much-too-young friend, stock up on British essentials such as Marmite and Dandelion and Burdock and visit the Classic Restoration Show at the NEC near Birmingham and be home for Easter.

The Restoration Show was good, but I’d forgotten that it wasn’t on the same enormous scale as November’s main NEC Classic event. Having made plans for my local accommodation ahead of arriving back in the UK, by the second day of the three-day Restoration event, I’d seen all that I needed to see. So waking up to bright sunshine on the last day for the Show, I decided to explore the area local to the NEC and turn the car towards Coventry on a voyage of British automotive discovery.

Last summer I briefly visited this oft-maligned Midlands City to assist in the judging of the second Coventry Concours. The event was set within the atmospheric ruins of the original Coventry Cathedral which was bombed during the Second World War, as was much of this important industrial City in the Blitz. Staged as part of Coventry’s lively annual Motor Fest event, the Concours gathered together a collection of classic cars built in the British ‘motor city.’ Due to my judging duties, however, I didn’t really have much chance to go and explore the city of Three Spires. I made up for it on my ‘spare day’.


With no set route or agenda for the day, I first approached Coventry from the direction of my accommodation and passed through Canley, famously once home to the Standard-Triumph empire between 1903-1979. I set the sat nav for Much Park Street, which was once the main through road to the Great Park and one of Coventry's oldest named streets where the Standard Motor Company was based for 60 years.

This Coventry suburb was heavily bombed in the Blitz of WWII and is now fully rebuilt as a mainly modern post-war commercial area with little sign of Standard’s past presence, although The Standard, a pub in the city centre, does honour the Coventry marque. Canley’s Priory Street close-by housed the related Triumph car factory from 1923 until 1979, with a plaque now marking the spot where it was based, with the controversial New Cathedral and University very close by.

My Canley stop was a distraction from my real quest of finding Drapers Field in Coventry’s Stoke suburb, however, as this was the birthplace of the British Motor car and the location where the City’s (and Britain’s) personal transport industry began through two gentlemen by the names of F.R.Simms and Harry J. Lawson. After attending an exhibition in Bremen, Germany, the entrepreneurial young mechanical engineer Simms acquired the exclusive British rights to the Daimler Motor Syndicate’s revolutionary new single-cylinder internal combustion engine.

Also an engineer, Lawson’s links with Coventry dated back to the bicycle industry, which took over from the City’s previous textile trade with cycle manufacture, which dominated the City before the invention of the motor car. Trading under the Beeston name, Lawson invented what is known today as the chain-driven safety bicycle (in 1874), as well as being heavily involved in another new pioneering business of rubber tyres.

Inspired by Lawson’s experience and fine reputation in helping to establish the cycle and subsequent motor cycle industry, Simms chose Coventry as the location for the manufacture of his new licence-built Daimler-based motorcar. He built the first Daimler car in 1896 (under the British Motor Syndicate Ltd. company). The Prince of Wales even purchased a Coventry-built Daimler in 1900, thus helping to give the new-fangled motor car credibility and desirability.

Ahead of this, Lawson had purchased and imported an American four-wheeled Pennington Victoria in 1895, soon acquiring the manufacturing rights to the car for Britain. Assembly of this and his ‘autocars’ commenced in his large multi-story former textile mill ‘Motor Mills’ factory in Drapers Field, Sandy Lane, Coventry, using a frame made by the then-bicycle-maker Humber.


Lawson soon became Chairman of the British Motor Syndicate Ltd. and founded the Great Horseless Carriage Co. Ltd. with more than 70 patents and the sole purpose of making and selling Britain’s very first petrol-powered vehicle under the Daimler name. Given Daimler’s fine reputation, other motorcar (autocar) makers quickly sprouted in and around Coventry. The celebrated Australian racing cyclist Selwyn F. Edge set up the British Motor Traction Co. in Coventry in 1900 to rival Lawson’s Daimler empire, ultimately acquiring a number of the Lawson-owned patents by 1907.

Ex-Lawson engineering employee Dr. Frederick W. Lanchester also established his rival Lanchester Car Company in the City, a pioneering and prestigious car maker that ultimately was taken over by Daimler in the 1930s. More than a few-dozen would-be motor vehicle manufacturers were also founded in Coventry before the First World War, a handful going on to become household names (such as Hillman, Humber, Rover, Lea-Francis, Raglan, Riley, Duryea, Swift, and so on), but most, predictably, soon fell by the wayside.   

I could find no trace of the once-mighty Motor Mills empire in the Stoke part of Coventry, with only a beautiful historic church now remaining from the Simms/Lawson era. A quick visit however to the recommended Coventry Transport Museum, based in Cox Street in the City Centre, a stone’s throw from the Cathedral, confirmed the enormity of tracing the location of the 125+ car makers that have occupied Coventry since the motor car was first built in the City in the late 19th Century.

The Museum contains a fascinating number of exhibits of vehicles built locally, with engaging examples of Coventry and locally-made Alvis, Daimler, SS/Jaguar, Austin, Lea Francis, Rover, Triumph, Rootes Group (including Sunbeam, Chrysler UK, and Peugeot-Talbot), plus Armstrong Siddeley, Lanchester, Coventry Victor, Standard, BSA, Carbodies, Ferguson and countless others.


Spending far longer than planned with such compelling exhibits in the Transport Museum, I ran out of time to continue my exploration in person of Coventry’s motoring heritage. Browns Lane – home of Jaguar Cars from 1951-2006, with (Sir) William Lyons first relocating from Blackpool to Coventry in 1928 – is now a Taylor Wimpey housing estate.

Jaguar Cars (now JLR) production and engineering facilities are still based around the City, though spread just a little further outside of Coventry at Gaydon, Whitley and Ryton (the latter pair being former Rootes/Chrysler/Peugeot-Talbot facilities). Jaguar Cars laid Coventry’s longest-surviving marque – Daimler – to rest in 2010, under an agreement with Mercedes (Daimler)-Benz about use of the name, after being acquired by Jaguar in 1960.

The historic former Alvis site at Holyhead Road was sadly demolished some years ago, yet the prestige car and military vehicle maker still exists locally en route to Kenilworth. The famous ‘black cab’ taxi maker, once a coachbuilder called Carbodies, but now known as LEVC, remains in Coventry and is thriving with its all-electric taxi cab and light commercial vehicle lines, as are a number of smaller automotive coachbuilding, parts and engineering specialists in the City, which is reassuring.

Having originally had no plans to go on a motoring ‘carcheology’ trail hunt of our once-proud automotive heritage whilst around the Coventry area last weekend, I am now very pleased that I did, as it’s important to see where you’ve come from before you can move forward and make any progress…

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