The British motor industry was born thanks to the work of two Germans; Gottlieb Wilhelm Daimler and his partner Wilhelm Maybach, who set out to build efficient high-speed engines which were meant for propelling vehicles. One of their major inventions was a carburettor system which enabled the use of a throttle; in other words the speed of the engine could be manually adjusted, almost instantaneously. At last an engine that was truly suitable for powering the new 'horseless carriages' was available!
An imaginative British businessman called Frederick Richard Simms bought the rights to sell these engines in the United Kingdom, first of all for use in ships and boats, and he floated a company called the Daimler Motor Syndicate. Soon afterwards he sold out to a sales oriented (and highly colourful) industrialist called Harry John Lawson. Lawson proceeded to buy up all kinds of patents for car related products, in the meanwhile acquiring a reputation for being something of a dishonest shark. He did in fact get sentenced to 1 year's hard labour in a fraud case; a particular crime which bedevilled the motor industry for a long time to come.
The great British public were highly sceptical of the first motorised vehicles at first; they considered them to be highly dangerous which of course they were. Braking systems were rudimentary, steering was to say the least and they hadthe a reputation for catching fire or even exploding at inopportune moments. The government stepped in to protect the populace from such a potentially lethal threat by bringing out the Red Flag Act. This laid down that every vehicle had to have two occupants with a third person walking in front, waving a red flag; and no statistics exist of the number of these unfortunate employees who were mown down by the unpredictable vehicles behind them! Speed was limited to 2 mph in towns, but a dizzying four mph was allowed out in the country. This was obviously very sensible since, as everyone knew, a speed of more than 20 mph would invariably result in serious injury to the occupants as a result of the powerful slipstream that such a meteoric velocity would create.
This did not go down terribly well with car owners or manufacturers and the act was repealed in 1896. The first London to Brighton run was organised the same year to celebrate it.
By the end of the 19th century the majority of people in Britain had still never even clapped eyes on a car. Engineering companies were not terribly interested in building them, at a time when there was a ready market for ships and armaments.a The field was left to smaller enthusiastic engineers to feed the growing market, but the vast majority of these, although their engineering skills may have been considerable, were not good business people. The majority went bankrupt very quickly. Cars were still only purchased by the very rich.
Three wheeled cyclecars were brought out to fill the demand for transport amongst the less than wealthy; these had a degree of success owing to their affordability but prior to World War I, when Ford in America were selling around 200,000 cars a year, the biggest motor manufacturer in Britain, Wolseley, were making just 3000.
Ford built a factory at Trafford Park in Manchester to assemble his Model T; but competition was starting to rise. William Morris, who cut his teeth building bicycles, began assembling cars using bought – in components and after gaining some very lucrative contracts for armaments during World War I the company emerged after the war financially strong and with a skilled workforce. At the same time an import tax of a whopping 33 percent hit Ford hard. Morris made the most of this; numerous other British companies jumped on the bandwagon, most of which went out of business very quickly (some before they had even sold a single vehicle)!
By 1921 the boom had come to an end. The stock market collapse destroyed confidence, raw materials shot up in price, rebellious employees disrupted production, a credit squeeze made it more difficult to sell the vehicles, and a horsepower tax was brought in. Only the strongest companies could survive, including Morris, Singer and Austin.The last mentioned company brought out one of the most innovative and successful cars ever; the highly affordable Austin Seven which single handedly destroyed the cyclecar market. Much of the profit that was made from this car came not from building it but licensing overseas manufacturers to create their own! Whilst this in the short-term was highly profitable for Morris it sowed the seeds for the foreign competition which would eventually see off the British car industry.
However, although ultimately the majority of successful UK car manufacturers were destined to either go out of business or fall into foreign hands a lot of absolutely superb and desirable vehicles were yet to be manufactured in this country; and just a few of the more groundbreaking cars are listed here.