Coventry and Warwickshire have long being synonymous with manufacturing, particularly the car industry: it was in Coventry that the first British motor car rolled out of the Daimler factory in 1897 and the city has never looked back.
Jaguar Land Rover continues the area’s proud tradition of quality vehicle manufacturing and their cars are exported worldwide. But it is not the only vehicle manufacturer thriving in the area. London Taxi Company opened a new £300 million plant at Ansty Park this year in the city.
Unfortunately this article cannot do justice to the exponential growth of manufacturing in Coventry and Warwickshire, so its focus will be on the emergence of the motor industry in Coventry from 1900 onwards.
It was the manufacture of the bicycle in Coventry which provided the expertise for the nascent automobile industry at the turn of the 20th century. At the same time, Wright Hassall’s business was growing and the practice consisted of three partners who were closely involved with the local business community, advising business owners and their families on wide range of legal matters. The Daimler Motor Company was based in an old cotton mill factory in the Radford area of the Coventry and its presence on the site attracted other motor manufacturers to the area. Other companies which moved to the city at around the same time included the Maudslay Motor Company, the Deasey Motor Manufacturing Company, and the Standard Motor Company. Bicycle manufacturers already operating in the city and which started to make motor vehicles included the Swift Cycle Company, Allard Cycle Company, Singer and Company and the Rover Cycle Company.
It was the Daimler Motor Company’s success which launched Coventry as the centre of automotive manufacturing. In 1904 the company floated to obtain working capital. By 1910, it had doubled the number of employees and was becoming profitable.
Inevitably, the success of the early car manufacturers in the early 20th century created intense competition. There were few barriers to entry as the technology in the industry was still relatively simple and there were few intellectual property issues at the time. However, the 1907 depression and lack of working capital hampered many companies and ultimately led to a number of them closing.
In 1913 it was estimated 9,000 cars were produced in Coventry, compared with 5,000 in Birmingham, most of which were produced by Singer, Rover, Daimler and Humber. It was an insufficient supply chain which prevented these companies from producing even more.
It was not only cars manufactured in the city: Maudslay Motor Company produced petrol buses and goods lorries. Daimler also started to produce buses and tractors. During the First World War, production shifted to a wartime footing with aircraft-engines, shells, transmissions for tanks, among other armaments, being made by the motor vehicle companies.
Post war demand for private cars quickly escalated leading to a considerable expansion in production. Both Rover and Daimler expanded into Birmingham. The growth in the market continued throughout the early ‘20s, with several new entrants. Companies started to increase the range of models, with the design of the first sports cars. The end of the decade marked the beginning of a general slump resulting in many companies either becoming insolvent or switching to manufacturing other products. As the larger companies become more efficient and started to reduce their production costs, their greater competitiveness started to force out the smaller companies which were unable to keep up with the pace of change. As an example of the greater efficiency of the larger companies, Singer’s output in 1927 was 10,000 cars a year, in 1929 it produced 28,000.
Although the economic struggle of the late ‘20s continued into the ‘30s, a Coventry company bucked the trend as S.S. Cars started to market a specialist sports saloon car. In 1936 S.S. Cars made approximately 2,500 cars of which 7% were exported. In 1945 the company changed its name to Jaguar Cars.
After the Second World War, Rootes and Standard re-established themselves as Coventry’s largest car producers. In 1945 Standard took over the Triumph Motor Company and became associated with the Ferguson Tractor Company. Rootes took over Singer Motors in 1955 which had, by then, moved its vehicle assembly to its Birmingham factory due to damage from the Blitz, with the Coventry works concentrating on machining, spares and service.
War damage was also responsible for Rover leaving Coventry for Birmingham so by 1963 only two completely independent motor manufacturers remained in the City, Alvis and Jaguar. Jaguar continued to expand rapidly, mainly due to increased export sales: by 1959 the company’s annual production was around 20,000.
Today, much like the phoenix on the city’s coat of arms, the news that both Jaguar Land Rover and London Taxis are planning further expansion, plus the city’s involvement in cutting edge, driverless technology, means that Coventry remains firmly in the vanguard of the motor industry, a mere 120 years after the first car left the city.