A chance conversation with a fellow journalist on the recent launch of the new VW Touareg (see page 46 of the upcoming May issue CAR) somehow led to me being asked where I was born and, as a result, my explaining the significance that the place once held in the motor industry. (It’s surprising what you get to talk about whilst “hurrying up and waiting” at airport terminals!)
The place in question is Coventry, England, which for many years was the hub of Britain’s motor industry, as well as the cycle and motorcycle industries. I was born less than a mile from the Alvis factory, about three miles from Jaguar’s Browns Lane facility and, prior to emigrating to SA, lived even closer to what was then Rootes’ production plant in Ryton-on-Dunsmore.
Unsurprisingly, the demise of the British motor industry – remember when SA-born Michael Edwardes took over British Leyland in 1977 and went on to restructure the company to the point of collapse? – brought about a coincident slump in the Midlands city’s significance and consequent prosperity, but I was heartened to learn that supercar maker Spyker has relocated its manufacturing business to Coventry and by now the first cars should have rolled off the production line.
“So what?” you may well ask. According to MICMA (Made in Coventry Motoring Association), since Garrad & Blumfield started business in 1894 there have been 110 car manufacturers that have based all or part of their operations in the City of Coventry (the cathedrals, old and new, are landmarks), making Spyker the “cricketing Nelson” 111th company. Some of the more significant ‘old’ names are Allard, Alvis, Armstrong-Siddeley, BMC, Calcott, Daimler, Hillman, Humber, Lanchester, Lea-Francis, Riley, Rover, Singer, Standard, Sunbeam-Talbot, Swallow/SS/Jaguar and Triumph. More recently, Chrysler and Peugeot-Talbot (courtesy of a Rootes Group takeover) settled in the city.
Surprisingly perhaps, though, only seven commercial vehicle manufacturers are recorded on MICMA’s list, which includes Commer, Karrier and Maudsley, along with 10 military vehicle makers, of which Alvis is the most famous. As an aside, because of its industrial stature, the city was Britain’s most severely blitzed area during WW2.
Of course, component manufacturers and suppliers were established to complement the manufacturing side, and some 83 coachbuilders have been resident in the city. When the call for custom bodywork died away, some coachbuilders survived by making small volume bodies for out-of-town manufacturers, producing bodies for the likes of Aston Martin, Bentley and Rolls-Royce. The famous Coventry-Climax company is one of 38 engine builders that have been or still are based in the city.
Motorcycle manufacture boomed in Coventry, with 77 makes emerging after the first – Pennington – appeared in 1897. Amongst the more famous names are Francis-Barnett, Humber, Invicta, Riley, Rover, Rudge-Whitworth and Triumph. But the biggest form of transport to have called Coventry its home is the pedal cycle industry – no less than 255 bicycle makers set-up premises, the first being the Coventry Machinists Co Ltd in 1869.
It is quite remarkable that one city can have had so much involvement in the field of people transport, stretching back some 140 years. Now Spyker has based its production at one of its supplier’s facilities, CPP (Coventry Prototype Panels), who also work with the likes of Aston Martin and Bentley. Spyker chief executive Paul Everitt cited that “The UK has more specialist sportscar manufacturers than any other European country and the skills and expertise to support further development”. Add in the fact that Coventry University is one of the world’s few learning centres offering courses in vehicle design allows us Coventry kids with petrol in our veins to still be proud of our birthplace.
Just do not ask me about the city’s soccer team though. That is another story altogether…