A pioneer Welsh motor business

Some notes on the Automobile Palace, Llandrindod Wells

It all started when Roger Maughfling of Knighton went to his local printer about a calendar, and to show what results could be expected from a certain type of paper the printer pulled out of a drawer an old block, over 50 years old, of the picture reproduced (from this same block) at the top of this page. I saw that there was probably a story associated with this ancient motor coach, and when, after a particularly “dicey” drive over snow-covered hill roads last winter from New Radnor, I descended with some relief into the sanctuary of Llandrindod Wells and saw that The Automobile Palace still bore the word “Aircraft” above one of its showroom windows. This made me determined to call on two of the present Directors, Mr. Tom Norton and Mr. H. G. V. Howell, to discover how this ambitious motor business originated in Mid-Wales. To me it seems a delightful shopping centre for Radnorshire and is a town extremely well known to rally competitors and motorcycle trials riders. Most of them stay at the Metropole Hotel, which was the headquarters of the R.A.C. Six Days Small Car Trials of 1924, an event I partly re-enacted in 1954, when testing the then-new Citroënn 2 c.v. for Motor Sport….

It was June before I drove to The Automobile Palace in a road-test Citroen DS19 for the promised interview. It provided quite a story….

The late Tom Norton, its founder, was born at Newtown in 1870, one of 14 children. Apprenticed at the age of about 16 to an elder half-brother, he earned 1s. a week while learning the ironmongery business. A keen cyclist, he frequently rode in the 1890s the 27 miles to Llandrindod Wells, and became impressed by the large buildings that were going up in this then-fashionable Spa. This, thought Tom Norton, was the place for a cycle and sports depot, which he opened in rented premises in the High Street in 1898. He was one of the first Raleigh agents, and by 1904 guaranteed all the bicycles he sold for three years, repaired punctures free for the first season, and allowed return rail fare to purchasers within a 100-mile radius! He advertised that he had 200 machines in stock and by the turn of the century his ambitions encompassed agencies for such cars and motorbicycles as Singer, Excelsior, Swift, Ariel, Sunbeam and Daimler, etc.

Outgrowing his cycle shop, Tom Norton bought the site of the present business in 1906 at the high price of £1 per square yard and soon afterwards caused the first half of a two-storey building to be erected, which was completed in 1911 and called “The Palace of Sport.” The cost was in the region of £11,000 and the architect was Mr. Wellings Thomas. In 1908, Tom Norton Ltd. was formed.

Why does the word “Aircraft” still confront motorists who buy petrol at the Automobile Palace? Because around 1913/14 Toni Norton decided that Mid-Wales should be introduced to aeronautics and invited the great Gustav Hamel down to give demonstrations from the Ddole field, or old race-course, below the Rock Park Hotel. It is not known whether any aeroplanes were sold as a result, but again in 1933 The Automobile Palace sponsored interest in flying by arranging for Sir Alan Cobham’s Circus to give air displays from the same field. Indeed, Universal Air Services Ltd. hoped to run regular air services from this 25-acre, 550 yd.-long landing ground. They had an Avro 504K and a 275-h.p. Rolls-Royce Falcon-engined Bristol Fighter, and proposed to charge 9d. per passenger-mile in the former, 1s. 3d. per passenger-mile in the latter. Robert Kronfeld came down to demonstrate the Drone, but the agency was not adopted. The last flying display from the Ddole was held in 1937, when Cathcart-Jones and Campbell-Black led a Jubilee Display. But Tom Norton, who had an interest in the Rock Park Hotel, had advertised for a manager for “the hotel and aerodrome” in 1932.

Motoring history associated with The Automobile Palace goes back much further. They started one of the first public ‘bus services in Wales in 1906, running a solid-tyred Commer, with body by Percy Liveredge of the Old Kent Road, between Llandrindod Wells and Newtown. There is an amusing story of how one of the drivers, when tips seemed slow in materialising, used to ignite the carburetter and then “heroically” extinguish the blaze with his coat, to render the passengers more appreciative of his services! This may, however, have been on an even older vehicle, which was used by Lloyd George; Evan Roberts (the Welsh Revivalist) and Sir Alfred Thomas when they came to the town. Later the service was operated by model-T Ford and G.M.C. ‘buses.

The ‘bus in the heading picture is a chain-drive Thornycroft, with solid tyres bolted onto the rims, which was used for sightseeing tours of the Elan Valley, circa 1911. Another famous ‘bus operated by The Automobile Palace was “Col. Bogey,” which took golfers up to the golf-course for 9d., down for 6d.! Originally this was an open-bodied model-T Ford, subsequently given a closed coach body. This body was transferred to an early Chevrolet and in this form “Col. Bogey” functioned right up to 1954, after which the M.o.T. would have no more of it.

Very early Torn Norton had obtained the Ford agency for the whole of Wales and when the model-T was made at Trafford Park, Manchester, every one sold to Welsh customers came to The Automobile Palace before distribution, as befitted a business situated virtually in the very centre of Wales.

During the 1914/18 war Mr. Norton was commissioned by the Ministry of Agriculture to supervise ploughing up of land in Wales by early Ford, Titan and other tractors, and after the war he expanded the Fordson agency. Subsequently old Tom Norton became a personal friend of the late Harry Ferguson.

In 1918 he signed a contract with Herbert Austin for an Austin agency for most of Wales, which is retained in the B.M.C. Distributorships held by The Automobile Palace today. Early correspondence is retained, which includes letters from Lickey Grange, signed simply “H. Austin,” notifying increased prices for the post-war Austin 20 and apologising for long delivery delays on account of the Moulders’ Strike. At this period the Austin 20 and Overland Four were two of the most popular cars in Wales. The Automobile Palace held the Distributorship for the latter, on one occasion bringing nearly fifty Overlands from the Heaton Chapel factory in one day, after a triumphant publicity procession through Manchester had disorganised the traffic in that city. They also toured Wales with an ambitious fleet of Overland demonstrators, and with a lone Crossley 14 amongst them. But earlier American-built Willys-Overlands had come to them, crated, via Liverpool. To promote sales they organised an economy contest for Overland drivers, those who knew a simple dodge for weakening the mixture returning figures in the region of 30-35 m.p.g. These British-assembled Overlands were excellent—until a shower of rain temporarily obliterated their external contracting back-wheel brakes.

Other makes handled in the early ‘twenties embraced model-T Fords with Bell bodies, Galloway—”a very solid car,” Arrol-Johnston, Darracq, Calcott, G.W.K., 10/15 Fiat, Swift—”a very good car,” Durant, Humber, Sunbeam, Cadillac—very costly even in 1920, Oakland, Cubitt, Bean, Standard, Wolseley, Chrysler, Willys, Buick, etc., etc. It is recalled that Mr. Herbert Austin used to telephone on Thursdays for payment on cars to be delivered, presumably to enable him to meet the wages-bill at Longbridge! But an extremely successful Austin connection was built up, the Distributor’s Agreement having been signed in 1924. It is interesting that at the 1926 Motor Show contracts were signed for 755 Austins, 300 Singers, 200 Standards and 15 Chryslers during the ensuing year, and in 1930 The Automobile Palace became one of the first five Austin Distributors to sign 100% agreements. The 1931-32 Austin contract for eight Welsh counties was for 349 Sevens. 271 Twelve-Sixes, 113 Sixteen-Sixes, 29 Twenty-Fours and half a dozen Austin Twenties. Eleven car were kept in stock and three were demonstrators.

In 1929 a deposit of £200 was paid to the Singer Car Co. for a Distributorship but because of Singer’s precarious cash position the Directors of The Automobile Palace doubted whether this was a sound investment!

On the commercial vehicle side lorries like the Dennis, Crossleys, F.W.D., Garford and A.A. trucks were sold, Mr. Howell recalling the last-named as “horrible.” He used to drive these down from London and remembers the engine-operated warning whistle of the A.A. truck, operated by pulling a string, and of how frequently the whistle would be blown out of the cylinder. This, would have been the 16.9-h.p. 25/30-cwt. American-built truck. In 1920 the Company held the Distributorship for the whole of Wales for G.M.C. trucks, which were imported in 22.5-h.p. one-ton and 32.5-h.p. 3/3 1/2-tonner versions.

Prior to 1925 depots were operating at Wrexham, Cardiff, Knighton and Rhayader, but in that year the post-war depression made it necessary to close some of the smaller depots—it was then that the company named The Automobile Palace Ltd. was formed.

That concludes the vintage history of this unique, go-ahead Company. In 1935 a wholesale depot was opened in Conway and a Ferguson tractor concession was granted to The Automobile Palace for the whole of Wales and Monmouth, and this tractor was pioneered in the face of considerable prejudice on the part of Welsh farmers. A similar agreement was entered into with David Brown Tractors Ltd., after Ferguson had gone to Ford, and exists to this day. Later depots were opened in Llanfairpwll, Rhyl, and Penrhyn Bay.

Tom Norton’s son, a present Director, joined The Automobile Palace as a junior salesman at 10s. a week in 1939 and later that year left with the Territorial Army, being released in 1946. In the same year the Army released the top floor of the Automobile Palace, commandeered in 1941. All the original Directors are dead, but Mr. Howell has been with the Company for 43 years, and Percy Hughes, the foreman, is in his 54th year with them.

The late Tom Norton was elected President of the National Association of Old Time Cyclists in 1951 and his collection of early machines, valued at £1,500, is kept at the Palace. It includes an ancient motorised French bicycle so far not identified. Mr. Norton died in 1955, at the age of 85, and had attended the office to within ten months of his decease.

Many local motoring celebrities did business with The Palace down the years. One of the first cars to visit Wales, Col. Baldwin’s 1903 Renault, came there, and Sir Chas. Edwards, M.P. who had a big 6-cylinder Sunbeam, Sir Walter Wyndham who ran Rolls-Royce cars, Comdr. Wilson, and Sir Chas. Llewelyn, M.P., etc., were regular customers, while Comdr. Glen Kidston, R.N., used to order twenty tins of Aviation spirit at a time and buy sets of racing plugs at ten-bob each.

Some link with the old days is preserved, for the Company owns a 1901 Progress, restored and driven in the Brighton Run by a Rhayader enthusiast, a very early Austin 12, and a 1927 Austin Seven. Incidentally, they were presented by the Austin Motor Co. with the 250,000th Austin A40.

When in Llandrindod Wells, haunt of holiday visitors in summer, rally drivers in winter, you may care to ponder on these historic items.—W. B.