I am not addicted to museums, but finding myself in Birmingham I visited The Museum of Science and Industry, which is a credit to the City Council. The exhibits are housed in a large building, in spacious well-lit halls and bays, well signposted. I had hoped to see again the 200hp Benz which Sir Alastair Miller, Bt, ran at Brooklands and which John Morris and Eric Milner afterwards raced in VSCC and other events, but it is no longer on view. Which implies, I hope, that it may be seen and heard again in deep-throated action…
The centrepiece for me, in the Car Section, was the 53.8-litre 2500hp Railton with which John Cobb thrice broke the LSR and was the first driver to exceed 400mph, at Utah in 1947. What courage he displayed, sitting in the nose of the great car and controlling it with a steering-wheel angled not as in most racing cars, but at a ‘busdriver’s angle, the two supercharged Napier Lion engines so ingeniously mounted in the 4WD chassis by Reid Railton behind him. What, one wonders, were his feelings when they were fired up and the rest was down to him?
The rest of the car exhibits are locally orientated and thus include a 1912 BSA tourer, a 1924 Ariel Ten, an Austin Lichfield and two Sevens, a 1932 Box saloon and a 1923 Chummy, and more exciting, the Austin A90 Atlantic with which Alan Hess, when he was Head of Publicity at Longbridge, and his team, broke innumerable stock-car records at Indianapolis in 1949. The other cars are more mundane, 12 MG, TA MG, Riley Imp, Jaguar XKI50, 1972 Rover P5B, sectioned and normal Minis. But there is also an MG Metro 6R4 rally car. Veterans are represented by a Benz Ideal and an 1898 Star, and behind them a remarkable 1899 Gaillardet with tiller-steered front wheel, single seat on C-springs and an air-cooled single-cylinder automatic inlet valve engine at the back.
A surprise to me was one of F W Lanchester’s experimental wooden petrol/electric cars, OP13, about which you can read in Chris Clarke’s Lanchester book. Opposite the cars is a long line of motorcycles, from massive moderns to vintage examples, including a 1920 Levis with No 11 on its competition roundels. All are nicely spaced, with informative notices devoid of waffle, and there are large photographs as a backdrop, including one of the Hess A90 during a pit-stop and another of a family Austin saloon outside the Longbridge factory.
Lots of models, too; a marvellous scale fire-engine with its miniature tools laid out beside it, and many others, down to tin toys shown, not in the happy higgeldy-piggeldy of the Cotswold Motor Museum but singly, with just the maker’s name for identification. A Mamod working steam-car and one of those ever-covetable P2 clockwork Alfa Romeos flank smaller ones from Chad Valley and other toy makers. I was interested to see a JEP Voisin tin-plate saloon with dry-battery-lit searchlight. These desirable toys were of common parts from which this Voisin, Panhard-Levassor, 14/40 Delage and 13.9hp Renault emerged and remained realistic. (I have to confess that I cut the top off my Delage, to make it resemble a stripped tourer which might have been raced at Brooklands.)
The main theme of this excellent Museum is industrial, and some remarkable artefacts emphasise this, such as a huge glass-bottle-making plant and bread-wrapping and slicing machines, etc. The Steam Vehicles Section houses the enormous “City of Birmingham” locomotive and tender, against which a fine 1904 Foden steamwagon, a 1927 Burrell tractor, an Aveling & Porter roller which worked locally, etc, appear quite small. Here history goes back 200 years, to Murdock’s 1784 road-loco. On the first floor in the Aeroplane Section, Spitfire and Hurricane tower over engines, propellers and other items, including Show-polished R-R Merlin, R-R Griffon, Daimler-Benz and Bristol radial engines, down to a 652cc 34bhp Scott Flying Squirrel inverted twin. An identification lamp winks from behind the Hurricane’s cockpit canopy, a nice piece of theatre.
Open from 10.30 to 5 Monday to Saturday and from 12.30 to 5 on Sundays, admission is free, there is a good cafeteria, and kerbside access for wheelchairs.