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Issue 89 - When Scotland Built Cars

Scotland Magazine Issue 89
October 2016

 

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When Scotland Built Cars

John Hannavy goes in search of Scotland's automotive heritage

Now housing two dozen shopping outlets, the magnificent building on Alexandria’s Main Street has a great history. The building still offers hints of its illustrious past: over the main entrance is a stone car, identifying this not only as the oldest car factory in Britain, but one that was once the biggest in Europe.

Scotland’s motor manufacturing tradition can be traced back to 1784 when a friend of James Watt, Ayrshire-born William Murdoch, demonstrated a steam-powered carriage; but it was the production of the first Arrol-Johnston car in Paisley in the 1890s which really started the Scottish motor industry. In demonstrating the power and speed of the car, Johnston achieved 17mph (27kph), and was promptly fined half a crown for breaking the law – 14mph was the maximum allowed under the newly passed Locomotives on Highways Act!

By 1900 they had been joined in the marketplace by the Argyll – originally built in Bridgeton, Glasgow – and the immediate success of the company led to the construction of the first purpose-built car plant in Scotland at Alexandria.

The opening of the factory, built at the phenomenal cost of over £250,000 for the building alone and the same again to equip it, was widely reported. ‘On Tuesday last,’ wrote a reporter for The Graphic on 30 June 1906, ‘an important event in the industrial annals of the Vale of Leven took place in the formal opening of the new works of Argyll Motors Ltd., at Alexandria. The ceremony was performed by Lord Montagu of Beaulieu in the presence of a large and distinguished company, the invitations numbering over three hundred. The guests were conveyed from Glasgow and the district around Dumbarton by special train running direct into the Argyll Company’s ground, and for the convenience of visitors from London a sleeping saloon train was provided.’ During this opening event, the workforce of over 1,500 all turned out to greet Lord Montagu and, it is said, one of the apprentices was a young man by the name of John Logie Baird. From these humble beginnings Mr Baird went on to become one of Scotland’s greatest scientific minds and is credited as one of the pioneers behind the invention of the mechanical and, later, colour television.

The elegant frontage of the new car factory, built 1905 – 1907 and once covering 24 acres, still stands as a testament to the growth of the motorcar, although Argyll cars were only built there for a few years. The factory needed to build and sell at least 1000 cars per year to make a profit, but by 1910 was achieving less than half that. Unsurprisingly, production ceased in 1913.

The first Argyll cars to come off the Alexandria production line in 1906 cost a phenomenal £550 – over £60,000 or US$79,000 in today’s money. Motoring in those days, it is clear, was the exclusive domain of those with very deep pockets indeed. Indeed, 60 years later the Hillman Imp de Luxe came off the line at Linwood costing £18 less than that! As a result, despite all the early enthusiasm and expectation, cars remained relatively rare sights on most of Scotland’s roads throughout the Edwardian era and even into the years following the Great War.

The Argyll name itself lived on for a few years, but disappeared in 1930; only to reappear in 1976, badged – as a tribute to the original marque – onto a glass-fibre bodied sports car powered by a 3.5 litre turbocharged Rover V8 engine. By the time that car went into production at Lochgilphead in 1983 – with a comparable price tag to that of a Ferrari – it was fitted with a V6 engine more usually found in big Renaults.

The Albion Motor Car Company of Scotstoun, Glasgow, sold their first vehicle in 1900, and sold 60 cars in their first two years, but by 1915 they had moved exclusively into the growing market for commercial vehicles. Albion cars are, therefore, pretty rare.

There were numerous other marques before the end of the Edwardian era – Atholl, Beardmore, Bellhaven, Caledon, Dalhousie, Drummond, Galloway, Harper, Kelvin, Mearns, Scotia, Sentinel and Waverley to name just a few, and at least two builders of electric powered cars had demonstrated their products before 1905.

Sentinel – who built steam lorries – survived in Scotland for just over a decade, moving south from Polmadie, Glasgow, to Shrewsbury in 1915, where they remained until they ceased trading in 1956. Only one working example of a Scottish-built Sentinel steam wagon survives – V3507 from 1914 – now in the Grampian Transport Museum in Alford.

The Proclaimers’ iconic song ‘Letter from America’ (1987) contains the line “Bathgate no more, Linwood no more” – a reference to the sad demise of Scotland’s motor industry when production of the Hillman Imp and its Singer and Sunbeam variants ceased at Linwood, near Paisley, in 1976. Scotland’s long history as a car-manufacturing nation effectively came to an end. The car, and the state-of-the-art factory in which it was built, had been in existence for less than 15 years.

In the 80 years from the first Arrol-Johnston to the last Imp, nearly 50 independent manufacturers had started up businesses making cars or commercial vehicles in Scotland – and most had vanished within a few years, having achieved sales only in the dozens rather than the hundreds or thousands their business plans had envisaged. Although the Linwood factory limped on for another five years, making body shells for a range of cars, the Imp was the last – indeed the only – volume car completely and exclusively built in Scotland.

The Linwood factory was not the only major investment in Scotland’s motor industry in the late 1950s. At around the same time as Rootes were planning Linwood, the British Motor Corporation’s new truck and tractor factory opened at Bathgate and at the peak of production, in the mid 1970s, over 450 vehicles a day were coming off the production line. Only a decade later, in 1986, the plant was closed, and today the site is a housing estate.

But back to the Hillman Imp. It was the first attempt by the Rootes Group to build a small car since before the Second World War, and its development came at a time when the decline in the Clydeside shipbuilding industry meant that unemployment in the area was growing rapidly. Government funding was available to companies willing to create new jobs in Scotland, and Rootes – with no opportunity to expand their Coventry factory – took a huge gamble in building a completely new car manufacturing facility at Linwood.

Designed to be capable of producing 150,000 cars per year, the Linwood factory was part of a brave, if somewhat optimistic, plan to revitalise both the Rootes Group and the Paisley area, and one which would ultimately end in failure. In fact, each Imp was sold at a loss and Rootes achieved less than half of their projected sales during 13 years of production. The one million square foot plant did eventually achieve an output approaching 2,500 cars a week – in 1972 – but by then Hillman Avengers and Hillman Hunters were also sharing the assembly lines, as were several Singer and Sunbeam models, and the Humber Sceptre. The Imp fiasco has been blamed not just for the demise of Linwood, but the financial collapse of the Rootes Group itself, its sale to Chrysler, and even the eventual demise of Chrysler in the UK. Indeed, even Chrysler’s money couldn’t save the project and the Imp was discontinued in 1976.

In order to qualify for government grants, the factory had been built, and the Imp put into production, in what with hindsight was an impossibly short space of time. The car was revolutionary in many respects. Much of its technology was not fully tried and tested, and the challenges of retraining shipyard workers, who needed to operate within the much finer tolerances required to build a small car, had been grossly under-estimated. So had the challenges of dealing with a dozen or so trade unions, with shop stewards more used to wielding power in the shipyards, and in 1964 alone there were over 30 stoppages, many of them trivial, some of them justified, and all of them disruptive when there was a new car to manufacture and good reputation to build.

Then there were the costs involved in transporting parts north from Coventry, and completed cars back south to the Midlands. This added to the problems and, despite the car being very competitively priced, it never really caught on. Because it was seen as a ‘Scottish’ car, it did prove rather more popular north of the border than south!

It was, despite all that, the car of my dreams in the early 1960s – small, cheap, and good- looking in a quirky sort of way. With its lightweight aluminium engine at the back, more space inside than a Mini, and a much bigger boot, the car should have had a lot going for it. However, the Imp was not especially well built and, despite the engine being mounted low to improve the car’s stability, handling was not the car’s strong suit. Indeed, on wet roads with only me in the car, it was best driven with a bag of sand – or some other weight – in the front storage compartment to counter the very light steering! It was not ideal.

Linwood’s workforce grew to more than 8,500 by 1973, making it one of the largest employers in the West of Scotland, but it had dwindled considerably before the factory was eventually abandoned in 1981. The site stood empty for more than 15 years, until it was demolished in the late 1990s. It is now occupied by a retail park, dominated by a huge ASDA supermarket and a cinema!

Imps, Argylls, Arrol-Johnstons, Albions and the only surviving Caledon lorry can all be seen at Glasgow’s wonderful Riverside Museum, on the site of the former Pointhouse shipyard. The Riverside’s collection of Scottish-built cars is extensive and unrivalled. The Myreton Motor Museum in Aberlady has an Arrol- Johnston and a Galloway; there are two early Albions in the British Motor Museum in Gaydon, Warwickshire; and both an Albion lorry and an Argyll car can be seen at the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu in Hampshire.

Thanks to the British Motor Museum, Cotswold Motor Museum, Myreton Motor Museum, the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu and Glasgow Riverside Museum for permitting the photography for this article and to the Grampian Motor Museum for supplying original photographs.

Visitor Information

The Riverside Museum
100 Pointhouse Road, Glasgow, G3 8RS
+44 (0) 1412 872 720

Myreton Motor Museum
Aberlady, East Lothian, EH32 0PZ
+44 (0) 1875 870 288