LIKE A HORSELESS CARRIAGE

The earliest motor car wasn't so much a car, more a landau with the horse removed. A hundred years ago five such models gathered at the first Motor Show in Tunbridge Wells. Jonathan Sale looks back
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The Independent Culture
This year the British motor industry - or what's left of it - is doing the ton. It celebrates its first - and possibly last - century with, among other four-wheeled festivities, next weekend's vast gathering of classic cars at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham. Other survivors from motoring's long history will be burning rubber in a careful kind of way at the Staffordshire Classic Car Show at Shugborough, Staffordshire, and the Classic Hill Climb at Scarborough, Yorkshire.

Later in May, elderly vehicles will take part in the Cathedrals Tour, a four-wheeled pilgrimage which culminates at Wells, Somerset; the cathedral there is also the base for the Mendips Vintage & Classic Tour. The London- Brighton Run will clock up its centenary in November.

Year Zero for our motor manufacture is taken to be 1896, when Frederick Simms, the man credited with coining the words "motor car" and "petrol", set up Daimler in Britain, under licence from the German parent company. In 1960 British Daimler was bought by Jaguar, which in turn has been swallowed by Ford; the rallies of classic cars provide more sightings of genuine British cars than the M25 during the rush hour.

Motoring is in fact rather more than 100 years old. Britain's first motor show, or "Horseless Carriage Exhibition", took place in the autumn of 1895. Instead of the 600 cars expected on this year's London-Brighton run, five vehicles, including a fire engine, rolled up at the Agricultural Show Ground in Tunbridge Wells. While one of the vehicles seen at the 1995 Motor Show, the Thrust SSC, can break the sound barrier, the horseless carriages in 1895 could break the speed limit only because it then stood at 4mph.

"We would today call it a display," explains Malcom Jeal, Veteran Car Club historian, "rather than a show of cars on stands. They drove the vehicles round the field and then had a run up the road - at more than 4mph, but the police didn't mind."

This was England's answer to the Paris motor show held in the Champs Elysees during December 1894; entitled Exposition Internationale de Velocipedie et de Locomotion Automobile, it worked out at practically one word in the title for each of the nine vehicles.

Why did Tunbridge Wells find itself the home of state-of-the-art motoring? The answer is that its mayor, Sir David Salomons, was a wealthy polymath who used his fortune in the service of technology. The grounds of Broomhill, his nearby estate, contained a private observatory. His electric lighting installation cost over pounds 10,000. The owner of elegant horse-carriages, he hoped that the new horseless variety would free the poor creatures from the drudgery of having to pull people over the public highways.

"I am deeply interested in our English manufacturers producing a carriage which shall eclipse all others," he is quoted as saying in The Sketch, a copy of which magazine survives in the Tunbridge Wells Museum. He must be revolving in his grave now. Ironically, the car which he himself exhibited was produced by Messrs Peugeot of Paris.

Like most 1895 vehicles, the pounds 270 model was designed after the fashion of the means of transport it was replacing; it resembled a horse-drawn carriage from which the horse had been removed. Early in that century, Jane Austen's heroines would not have looked out of place in this morocco- leather-finished automobile, except that they would not have had to put up with the primitive petrol engine thudding away out of sight at the back. With its detachable hood, it would count today as a convertible but was described then as a "vis-a-vis", which meant that its occupants faced each other: the two passengers at the front travelled backwards and Salomons, steering from a slightly raised seat at the rear of the vehicle, peered between them at the road ahead.

This was, apparently, a much safer arrangement than it sounds and the three-and-a-quarter horsepower engine gave an average speed of a modest 8mph; even with the driver's welly hard down, the maximum was only 15mph. There was petrol in the tank for up to 200 miles - not that anyone would have casually undertaken so ambitious a journey.

It was only three months since the Hon Evelyn Ellis made the first drive of any length in Britain; accompanied by Frederick Simms, he made a 56- mile trek from Hampshire to Buckinghamshire. The actual vehicle he drove was also in the Tunbridge Wells show, according to Malcolm Jeal (though the motoring correspondent of The Sketch did not mention this feat of endurance). Now in the Science Museum, it was a Panhard et Levassor left- hand-drive model with, like most of the five vehicles on display, a Daimler engine made under licence.

Ellis, the first Englishman to pass the driving test (he took it in Paris 40 years before it was introduced here) was also the owner of another exhibit, the fire engine. Lacking as it did any ladders, it was really a mobile pump and better suited to watering the croquet lawn than fighting any major conflagrations.

The other two exhibits were not cars at all. The motorised tricycle, made by Count de Dion and Georges Bouton, carried sufficient fuel for a six-hour run and could touch 14mph with the wind behind - on the level. Up hills, though, the rider had to puff away at the pedals.

The final exhibit was a "steam horse", a sort of tiny railway engine without the rails. It was attached to a landau (a four-wheeled, horse- drawn carriage) which it pulled like a tug with a liner. "It gave forth a good deal of steam and smoke at times, snorted noisily, and dropped burning cinders," observed The Sketch.

The idea of a plug-on car to upgrade a carriage never caught on. Motor shows, however, did. Later that year the Stanley Cycle Show included Ellis's Panhard and four other motor vehicles of one sort or another; it was held under cover, in the Agricultural Hall, London. In May 1896 the first trade show took place at the Imperial Institute, also in London; proudly entitled "the International Horseless Carriage Exhibition", it featured ten different makes of cars and motorcycles. By the turn of the century there were at least three annual shows in the London area alone.

Sir David Salomons proved a trendsetter once again in setting up the Self Propelled Traffic Association, a group of motoring enthusiasts dedicated to the scrapping of the 4mph speed limit (2mph in towns) and the red flag which had to be carried by a man walking in front of every automobile. After their inaugural meeting in December 1895, the self-propelled folk lobbied hard, sending out 56,000 campaigning letters - without the benefit of word processors to churn them out automatically.

It worked. In November 1896 the oddly named Locomotives on Highways Act (alias the Red Flag Act) was shunted into a siding and the limit raised to a soaraway 14mph. They promptly celebrated by holding the first London- Brighton run, which began with a ceremonial tearing up of the red flag. The Association then cruised gently to a halt and soon amalgamated with the Automobile Club of Great Britain, newly formed by Frederick Simms, which later was born again as the Royal Automobile Club or RAC.

The Automobile Association had its jump-start in 1905, evolving from one of the cycle patrols set up to warn turn-of-the-century tearaways of police speed traps. Charles Jarrott, a Panhard importer, organised a team of crack pedallers but later channelled his energies into rather more legal activities, becoming the leading light of the AA's first committee.

The pioneer motorists needed all the back-up they could get. Around the time of the first motor show, a Mr Koosen of Southsea had problems starting his brand-new motor. Following the instruction manual - in fact, a short letter from the manufacturers - he rotated the flywheel. The engine failed to roar into life. He summoned local engineers but none could locate the fault. After ten days of immobility, someone suggested that there was supposed to be a magic liquid you poured into the tank ... could it be petrol?

Sir David Salomon's far-sightedness went beyond the mere mechanics under the bonnet. He was the patron not just of motor shows but also of electric- powered vehicles. He regretted that the existing batteries were too heavy and too weak.

"However," he explained, "I am making experiments, and hope before long to overcome these difficulties, and to place an electric carriage on the road that will prove completely efficient." Motoring at the end of the nineteenth century would thus experience "a bloodless revolution", he declared. Unfortunately, at the end of the twentieth century we are still waiting.

DRIVING INTO THE PAST

Classic and Sportscar Show, the National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham, May 4-6, 9.30am-6pm. Staffordshire Classic Car and Transport Show, Shugborough Hall, Milford, near Stafford, May 5-6, from 9.30am. Car & Motorcycle Classic Hill Climb at Oliver's Mount, Scarborough, Yorkshire, May 5-6; practice 10am, racing 1pm. Cathedrals Tour assembles 10am, May 11 outside Exeter, Salisbury, Guildford and Coventry cathedrals. Cars reach Wells Cathedral, Somerset from 3.30pm. Mendips Vintage & Classic Tour starts 10am, Wells marketplace, May 19, returning to the Bishop's Palace from 2.30pm. Veteran Car Club of Great Britain, 15 High Street, Ashwell, Herts SG7 5NL

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