A Morris landmark
Another great motoring landmark is about to be destroyed, along with so many others. I refer to the one-time Morris Motors production complex at Cowley, just outside Oxford. You might almost have said that the motor empire built up so industriously by William Morris, Lord Nuffield to be, would have rendered this world famous factory sacred. So it was, until last year. Then the destruction began on this historic site, bought from the former Military Training College at Temple Cowley in 1912 by the far-seeing William Morris, who put up his first factory buildings there in 1919.
Around the time when the Morris, in its various forms, was the most popular car in Britain, outstripping even the Austin's sales-figures, Cowley North, under the Nuffield Organisation, was expanded to 41 acres and new buildings were begun across the road at Cowley South. In the 1930s, the original plant was turning out 90,000 cars a year. Various vicissitudes followed, at what was one of our largest car building factory sites. But not any longer. The bulldozers have moved in. The famous North and South plants where Morris cars were built are to become an industrial and business park, under the auspices of Arlington Securities, an associate of the Rover group, which will make Honda-inspired Rover 800s on 122 acres of part of the site.
The ever-industrious Graham Robson has told the story of the remarkable Morris factories at Cowley in another place, but I think it worth making the point that one famous Morris landmark remains intact the ex-Stewart & Ardern Morris House at Acton, to the west of London.
Stewart & Ardern Ltd had a powerful influence in getting William Morris's then new light car on the market in 1913 and this organisation went on to become extremely well-known in Morris car and commercial vehicle circles; indeed, it became the largest distributor of Morris products in Great Britain.
It began when William Morris, having decided to become a manufacturer of light cars after running his successful garage, bicycle-building and car-hire business in Oxford, was delayed in this new ambition because supplies of White & Poppe engines for his four-cylinder 1018cc Morris Oxford were not immediately available. Undeterred, Morris took blueprints of the intended small car to the 1912 London Motor Show and laid them before Gordon Stewart.
So impressed was Mr Stewart with what Morris was proposing to manufacture that he placed an order for 400 of these cars without waiting to see one or try one out on the road. Morris appointed him sole London distributor and in the following year Stewart was able to go himself to Oxford to collect the first example, although his journey came to several halts due to the universal joint breaking up, as it had been made from a material not in accordance with the specification. However, that did not deter Stewart from advertising the new light car for £175 fully-equipped, before the first one took to the road in March 1913. His confidence was to lead to perhaps the greatest motor sales company in this country. But in those early days it was hard going, and Stewart was driving Morris cars in reliability trials before the war as a way of combining pleasure with publicity.
The first premises occupied by Stewart and his partner Ardern were capable of accommodating just two cars, with a basement containing a stock of spare parts and a repair shop. The location was Woodstock Street in London's West End. However, expansion was rapid when the post-war car boom came about, with pleasure-starved ex-service personnel and others seeking the open road, for which the Morris Cowley and Morris Oxford cars were well suited, outstripping the brief cyclecar phase. William Morris ensured that sales were well maintained, even through the post-Armistice financial crisis, by drastically slashing his prices when other car makers were raising theirs and many companies were going bankrupt.
This reflected well on Stewart & Ardern, who in 1923 moved to larger premises in London's fashionable Bond Street. At that time they also opened a service station and spare-parts stores in Gatliff Road, off Ebury Bridge Road, not far from Victoria Station. However, even these facilities proved quite inadequate for the vast demand which was taking place for Morris cars and the new Morris commercial vehicles, the latter embracing the popular Morris One-Ton trucks and vans. All this was of material benefit to Stewart & Ardern. This ambitious company, keeping pace with the success being enjoyed by Morris Motors itself, took the sensational step of building a great new depot in Acton. It was to become the largest service station and showroom in Britain.
The site was The Vale, Acton, and the building that took shape there was described, at the time of its opening in 1926, as an architectural amenity to that district of the metropolis. This was achieved by avoiding elaborate ornament in favour of bold details, resulting in a building of quiet dignity, well proportioned and grouped. Yet within, it was splendidly suited to showing off Morris cars and it provided the most up-to-date facilities for servicing and repairing them and getting new cars out onto the road.
This smart new depot flanked two appropriately named thoroughfares Cowley Road and Oxford Road, these branching off in L-formation from the Uxbridge Road, opposite the then offices of the Ministry of Pensions. On the ground floor, the spacious showrooms could accommodate up to 30 cars, with plenty of viewing space around each. This had been achieved because the architect had devised a pillarless construction, using beams 80 feet long to support the roof. The flooring was of parquet. Open-plan offices were situated behind the showroom. The total floorspace given over to the cars was approximately 8300 square feet.
Further back, behind the aforesaid offices, was a huge area used for parking Stewart & Ardern's stock, from which they would draw for customer sales. These would top 100 or more cars at peak periods of prosperity, replenished frequently. A system had been devised whereby the cars coming into this store were divested of all loose equipment, this being put into a waterproof bag, each one pertaining to a particular car, which was then sealed and deposited in the kit-store until such time as that vehicle had been sold and was due to leave the building.
The Acton premises also incorporated a car wash which could stand comparison with those at the best general garages in the country. All these facilities were situated in the building on the left-hand side of the Cowley Road, namely that devoted to administrating new vehicle sales. That on the right-hand side of the road dealt equally efficiently with the servicing, repair and tuning up of used Morrises, and the supply to their owners of spare parts. The building in which these operations were conducted was two stories high, devoted to what had become the well-known Stewart & Ardern 'Service after Purchase' care of Morris cars.
The parts store was one of the biggest in operation at the time. Some 7000 bins held the smaller parts and a large bay at the southern end of this building ended in counters for the store-keepers, who could serve from them retail and trade customers, who had ready access from the roadway. From these counters the mechanics working on damaged cars, or those in for service, drew the spares they required. Cars needing such attention entered from the Uxbridge Road and left at the opposite end of the shop. After the owner had discussed what he required to be undertaken, in the reception bay, his tool-kit and other loose equipment would be removed, for storage in a personal waterproof bag, in the same way as equipment for new cars was received from Oxford. It was stored safely until the car was ready.
In this large repair shop, the workbenches ran down the centre and cars being worked on were parked at an angle to these benches, thus saving floor space and rendering them more accessible to the mechanics.
As soon as the new Acton depot had been opened in 1926 it was coping with about 750 repairs of all kinds every week. On the first floor of the building, which was sometimes called the 'casualty ward', more serious repairs and rebuilds were undertaken, such as to vehicles which had been involved in accidents. Even in 1926, soon after the official opening of this remarkable depot, further buildings were being added, eventually making it the largest service station of its kind in Europe, if not in the world.
Incidentally, under a dust sheet in the despatch bay, after the war, you would have found that first Morris Oxford which Mr Stewart had driven from Oxford to London in 1913 (actually car number six), which was the start of this great organisation.
Stewart & Ardern had already opened a 'commercial vehicles only' depot in London's Euston Road a year earlier, and in 1924 had been offering their own sports-bodied Morris Cowley in mahogany or aluminium panelling. They already had the London and Home Counties distributorship for all Morris products, including 'Morris Owner' home garages and so on. Indeed, so successful was the Stewart & Ardern business that, apart from the breathtaking Acton depot. where all Morris models were tastefully displayed against a background of oak tables laden with bowls of hydrangeas, that by 1934 another Morris House was opened, in Berkeley Square, by Lord Nuffield. He spoke of the £21 million turnover achieved between S & A and Morris Motors. On the site of the former home of the Marquis of Landsdowne, with its famous gardens, which had been demolished, the 40,000 square feet, four storey Morris showrooms were built in its place. Between the war years, Stewart & Ardern had depots at Croydon, Tottenham, Golders Green, Staines, Ilford, Catford, Sutton, Harrow and Southend. After the Second World War they added the Dalston branch. In 1958 and 1959 Morris Commercial House, by the North Circular Road in London, devoted entirely to the sales and servicing of Morris Commercial vehicles and open seven days a week, was opened by Major-General EM Cayton, managing director of BMC Services Limited. S & A also had their own separate body-building establishment, which at one time made coachwork in the name of 'Essanay' at Talbot Road, West Ealing, London. W13.
Gordon Stewart was now the governing director and George M Upjohn the director and although most of the S & A depots were named Morris House, that at Acton remained the most important and most impressive. The head office of S & A Ltd was situated at 103 New Bond Street, the spares depot had an off-shoot at 58 Great Portland Street and the aforesaid commercial vehicles depot was located at 371-372 Euston Road, London NW I , for those who like to search out the sites of historic motoring buildings.
When war broke out in 1939, Morris House, Acton Vale, took over the repair of army vehicles and from these army auxiliary workshops many thousands of military vehicles were repaired and returned to active service. In addition, many RAF and civil defence units were similarly dealt with. Perhaps even more important to the British war effort was the resuscitation of very badly damaged machine-tools, from the bombed Woolwich Arsenal. This difficult but vital work extended over four years. In the once spotless showrooms, American lorries destined for the services were uncrated and assembled, together with reconditioning of searchlight generators, so essential to rescue teams during the London blitz, and the overhauling of limbers, compressors and pontoons — in fact most of the weapons of war came to Morris House for attention.
Later, overload fuel tanks for aeroplanes and some 5000 coolant header tanks for Rolls-Royce Merlin and Griffon aero-engines were made there, and it was estimated that over 2.7 million machining operations were undertaken when making components for Lancaster, Sunderland, Mosquito, Seafire and Hawker Typhoon aircraft. Not only that, but by 1943. 2500 men had passed through the training school for army fitters. Eventually the Ministry of Aircraft Production requisitioned the Acton premises, where, incidentally, S & A had made their own lathes and other machine-tools for the work they had been asked to carry out. The company then moved to their later Earl's Court building and carried on. The Berkeley Square showrooms had been taken over in 1939 by the Auxiliary Fire Service and then by the shipping section of the Ministry of War Transport. They were partially damaged by enemy action, and hit by a flying bomb in 1944 and were not derequisitioned until 1949.
Morris House, Acton, escaped during the war with only roof and window damage but the operatives, including refugees from many countries, were severely hampered by the disruption of London transport. It was not until the end of hostilities that normal working was again possible and it took two years to reconvert the place to peace-time occupation when the Earl's Court premises were vacated.
As for Mr Gordon Stewart, who lived at Send Manor, Ripley, near Woking and died in 1952, he had held 2625 ordinary shares in Morris Motors Limited in 1941. In 1919 Stewart & Ardern Limited had six staff and a turnover of £32,000. By 1923 there were 300 employees and the turnover was quoted as £1,000,000. Mr Stewart helped found the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. pioneered a new method of chicken-farming on his land at Ripley. where in the 1930s he ran kennels, and his interest in the theatre caused him to buy the Strand Theatre for £150,000, in 1946.
I am indebted to Harry Edwards, the highly knowledgeable historian of the Morris Register, for help with this article. Morris House, Acton, is today the impressive London Headquarters of Follett-Nissan Limited and thus another important motoring landmark is safe from developers.