Period dramas would lose much of their appeal without appropriate props and settings. And where the action takes place at the beginning of the twentieth century we expect to be thrilled by the sight of vehicles of the period.
Although Scottish engineering made a name for itself in ships and locomotives and other heavy engineering projects, it has always fascinated me that Scotland was in at the birth of motor vehicles.
Little now remains of a car industry in Scotland, yet at the beginning of the 20th century three companies – Argyll, Albion and Arrol-Johnston made their names as car manufacturers. Of Arrol-Johnson I know little. It operated from 1896 to 1931 and produced the first automobile manufactured in Britain. The company is also said to have designed a vehicle to travel on ice and snow for Ernest Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition to the South Pole.
On my recent visit to Biggar my husband and I came across the Albion Museum. Why here, I wondered, later to discover that the town, which also hosts the Albion archive, was where Thomas Blackwood Murray, the co-founder of Albion who had previously worked with Arrol-Johnson, originally lived and where he built and tested the first Albion car.
The motto of the company which was established in Glasgow in 1899, was Sure As The Sunrise. This gave rise to the sunrise logo which for many years featured on radiators and badges of models.
Having gone through various Leyland and Leyland-DAF guises, in 1998 Albion Automotive was taken over by the American Axle & Manufacturing Company of Detroit.
This wonderful sign at the Albion Museum, presumably placed to indicate passing places on single track roads, can be dated to between the founding of the Scottish Automobile Club in 1898 to promote ‘automobilism’ in Scotland, and its morphing into the Royal Scottish Automobile Club sometime before 1909.
Argyll Motors I had come across some years ago when I lived near the works built in Alexandria, just north of Glasgow. The company came into being when in 1899 the Scottish Manufacturing Co. was taken over and renamed. Its work of tool making, car repairing and the assembly of French cars – De Dions, Renaults and Darracqs – was within a few months supplemented by the production of the first Argyll car.
By 1904, with production running around 20 to 25 cars a week, an architecturally impressive new factory was built at Alexandria. It boasted a red sandstone frontage, a magnificently carved entrance, and an Italian marble staircase based on one in the Paris Opera House. At the height of its production 1500 workers turned out sixty cars per week, the highest production rate in Europe at the time, only surpassed by that of the Ford Motor Company of America.
After increasing costs forced the company into liquidation in 1909, it was reconstituted and struggled on until 1914 when it eventually closed. During its existence some 3000 vehicles were produced – Voiturettes to prestigious limousines, as well as fire engines, taxicabs, sports cars and racing cars for Brooklands, the motor racing circuit in Surrey built to test cars travelling above the blanket 20 mph (32 km/h) speed limit imposed on public roads in Britain by the 1903 Motor Car Act.
So next time I watch a period drama, I’ll be paying special attention to the cars.