Classic Cars

Coventry Transport Museum

Coventry's heritage is so extensive that there isn't room to show it all, says Giles Chapman

With the best will in the world, the 1965 Ferguson R5 estate car is one pug-ugly motor car. Its drab, grey paintwork does it no favours. Nor does the fact that it peers from beneath a mountain of redundant computer monitors and cardboard boxes.

With the best will in the world, the 1965 Ferguson R5 estate car is one pug-ugly motor car. Its drab, grey paintwork does it no favours. Nor does the fact that it peers from beneath a mountain of redundant computer monitors and cardboard boxes.

Here is an historically significant, pioneering British car - the world's first "ordinary" car with four-wheel drive, predating anything from Audi or Subaru by decades - but you would never guess. The Coventry Transport Museum, in the city where the Ferguson was conceived, deems it just too boring to display. Steve Bagley, the curator, senses my incredulity.

"If you put the Ferguson on display, you would have to make a big effort to explain why it's significant," he says, with a suppressed sigh of his own. "We have to be a bit hard-nosed, you know." Eh? A car museum slap-bang in the centre of what was once Britain's very own Motown (in the 1950s, 40 per cent of the 300,000-strong Coventry workforce sweated their guts out in the car industry) denying its residents the chance to admire the family silver. What on earth can they be thinking of?

To give Bagley his due, he has a near-impossible task. Coventry has been home to 136 car and lorry manufacturers (plus 271 bicycle-makers and 111 motorbike marques). Despite the fact that there are only three left today, he has to ensure the displays pay appropriate homage to this local heritage without boring the pants off the average visitor. In the institution's former guise as the British Museum of Road Transport, vehicles such as the Ferguson were presented in serried rows, tightly packed armadas of metal, with a dense essay of eye-rubbingly detailed info perched on a pole in front of each Hillman, Standard, Jaguar and Alvis. Middle-aged men loved it; wives and children slouched along in tow, yearning for the café, the gift shop and - ah! - escape. But after a massive £7.5m, Lottery-funded facelift, a change to full charitable status, a rebranding more fully to reflect the home city and a healthy dose of imagination, the Coventry Transport Museum has been transformed.

At three times the floor-space of the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu, Hampshire, and with an enlightened exhibition policy where touching is tolerated, surely Harry Ferguson's world-beating machine should have its place among the E-types, Heralds and London taxis (yes, Coventry's where they've always been built, guv)?

Unfortunately not. There are already 500 vehicles on display, even before some of the home-built truck collection has been represented. And the Ferguson is just one of some 70 cars that, while worth preserving, are forced into storage.

"There's no reason why we can't include them in special displays," says Bagley. "We're planning a couple at the moment actually: 'Hidden Treasures' and 'Recent Acquisitions'. But the museum has acquired an awful lot of vehicles. With our new focus, if it's not made in Coventry or specific to Coventry, then we have to think twice. We've got a few Austins, an Allegro, for example, but they were made in Birmingham, and will probably be sold off."

Local generosity is an important asset, but it can also have its drawbacks. Many's the time that Bagley has encountered a classic car owner who is shirty because the museum has politely declined to buy his pride and joy. Other owners have interpreted "loaning" their car to the place as a great way to get free garaging. "But we had an old lady come in two years ago, saying she had a very rare Alvis TB14 in her garage, her late husband's," says Bagley. "I almost couldn't believe it but I went round to check and there it was. She gave it to us and she can be sure that it will be looked after".

Even on the morning of my visit, a woman walked in with a bundle of rare Daimler magazines, and she was happy to donate them to the museum's archives for free.

To make your way around the museum methodically is to dip in and out of a vanished roadscape of great British marques. Lanchesters rub hubcaps with Sunbeams; Rileys and Armstrong Siddeleys vie for attention in artfully themed areas; and even locally made cars as seemingly modern as Peugeot 405s and Jaguar XJSs remind you that time has marched on for Coventry.

The industrial decline of the city in the early 1980s, after Triumph's massive Canley factory was closed by British Leyland, is marked by The Specials' single "Ghost Town" as part of an audio-visual lament to the Coventry that once was. And then, all of a sudden, you emerge blinking into the bright lights of the gift shop, where incredibly detailed Morris Minor models cost just £1.99.

"This is the only car museum in Britain in the centre of the city where the cars were actually made," says Bagley. "And if it weren't for the motor car, Coventry wouldn't be the city it is." He says this without a hint of irony, for the place is dominated, blighted even, by its notorious ring road. But he adds that, as long as you make an appointment, he'll be happy to show anyone that Ferguson.

Coventry Transport Museum ( www.transport-museum.com) is open daily from 10am to 5pm, admission free.

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