Veteran - Edwardian - Vintage, July 1972

A Section Devoted to Old-Car Matters
Coventry’s Motor Museum

At a time when motor-museum news is very much in evidence it seems only right and proper to spare some thought for Coventry’s Museum, for Coventry is, after all, the Motor City, I was introduced to this Museum, known officially as the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, last year by Andrew Whyte of Jaguar Cars Ltd. At that time I was more concerned with the then-new V12 Jaguar E-type but I made a note to return as soon as possible. Consequently, during May I did a quick trip by BMW up M1/M6, for the purpose of a more detailed look at what Coventry has to show us.

It all began when, before the war, the late Mr. W. H. Bartleet gave his collection of bicycles to Coventry Corporation. This was and is, perhaps the finest collection of its kind in Europe and after hostilities ceased and Coventry was rebuilt the Corporation decided that the scattered exhibits should be properly presented. The line new Civic Building, in Jordan Well, became the location of the present Coventry Museum, which Lady Herbert opened in March 1960, Sir Alfred Herbert having given generously towards its erection; he laid the foundation-stone in 1954. It covers looms, silk-weaving machines, machine-tools, clocks, bicycles, motorcycles, aero-engines and cars, apart from the Art and Sculpture aspect, It was built up very largely through the painstaking work of the Curator, Mr. Cyril J. Scott. He has as his Keeper of Industry and Technology Peter Mitchell, A.R.Ae.S., who uses as regular transport a fine 1932 SA Alvis Speed 20 tourer and who showed me round the Museum and storerooms. He is ex-Science Museum, London, and came to the Coventry Museum in 1968. The Director of the Library, Art Gallery and Museum is Mr. A. Wilson.

It must be appreciated that the purpose at Coventry is to show mainly local products. Because Bugatti and Alfa Romeo cars were not made in Coventry there are no Bugattis or Alfa Romeos in this Museum—but they really should have a twin-cam Triumph Dolomite! At the time of my visit the floors were being cleared for a special “50 Years—Swallow to Jaguar Exhibition”, opened by Sir William Lyons, F.R.S.A., R.D.J., D.TECH., in the presence of the Lord Mayor of Coventry, on May 26th, and which you can see until September 10th. Normally, however, you would be likely to find, in the Museum proper, the undermentioned cars, with the proviso (which applies to most Museums) that exhibits are changed from time to time, that cars on loan may have been reclaimed, and that some vehicles were away and are not therefore included in this account, this applying to the well-known FWD Alvis, a Humber Staff car, etc.

Dealing with them in the order in which I came upon them, there is a 1932 TL Alvis beetle-back, a 1965 3-litre Alvis TE Graber saloon, which is Mr. J. J. Parkes’ own car, a 1913 twin-cylinder GWK lent by Leonard Lee, with one of his Coventry-Simplex engines in its stern, and a little 1913 Arden notable for a Standard-like radiator, gas lamps, and 3/4-elliptic springing all round, with single-leaf upper springs at the rear. Next there is an SSI lent by Jaguar Cars, and, back to light cars, a 1924 Stoneleigh and a two-seater slab-tank Singer Le Mans. The Stopeleigh is the Chummy-bodied, not the centralised-driver’s-seat model, and although its 28 x 3 Dunlop Cord tyres look as narrow as they come, they are actually inscribed “Extra Heavy”! This car, of which Armstrong Siddeley are said to have been sufficiently wary not to call by their own name, is on loan from Bristol-Siddeley. Even more spidery is a 1913 Swift cyclecar, with tubular frame and vertical-twin engine.

Well-known is Alvis’ 10/30 Morgan-bodied two-seater, the sole survivor of this 1920 model bearing the illustrious Coventry name— and small Smiths headlamps. Lined up beneath the windows are a 1923 Humber 8/18 Chummy which was rebuilt in 1966 by Humber apprentices and given to the Museum by Chrysler UK, a 1915 Rover Twelve doctor’s coupé, a rather sad 1909 20 h.p. Mauchlay landaulette with a huge exhaust-whistle alongside its n/s valance, H & B gas headlamps, Dietz sidelamps, and precious little protection for the front-seat occupants, and a 1911 Siddeley-Deasy with H. J. Mulliner landaulette body and a Sphinx mascot on the filler cap of its scuttle radiator. Of the last-named Mitchell told me an amusing tale. The Museum is proud of the fact that none of its vehicles submitted to an MoT test has failed to pass, but it was suggested that the track-rod of the Siddeley-Deasy required adjustment, whereupon it transpired that it is not provided with any means whereby this can be done and presumably has had the same toe-in, or toe-out, for more than 60 years! All these cars you are normally likely to see in the Museum Hall, for the rather delightful reason that many of them are too large to store. . . .

Besides the cars, there are the specialised exhibits, such as a magneto display, of Coventry makes like ML and BTH, including a vertical dual-ignition BTH, the engine displays which embrace 1909 L-head Standard, 1915, 9-h.p. Standard, backed up by a small model of a pre-war Standard two-seater and a typical Standard radiator, instruction books, etc (do we see a J. Davy touch here ?), a 1933 horizontally opposed 8/10-b.h.p. Coventry-Victor diesel, a 1919 Type E 5.76-b.h.p. petrol engine of the same local make, and various early one-lungers, with naturally one of the famous de Dion Bouton singles amongst them. There are also the aero-engines, from a Bentley BR1 rotary built by Humber and stamped “No. 1”, to an Armstrong Siddeley Mamba, Bristol-Siddeley Sapphire, etc., not to overlook (as if you could) a Siddeley Screamer rocket engine and an Armstrong-Whitworth test vehicle for missiles.

An eye-catching vehicle is usually put in the foyer. This could be Leonard Lee’s Type 33 Fl Lotus-Climax, from the Jim Clark days, with its “stretched” Coventry-Climax power unit, or perhaps, when Jaguars are not on show, that oddity, the Museum’s 1901 twin-cylinder 7-h.p. Payne & Bates Godiva may have pride of place.

Before looking at the many vehicles in the storerooms, let me digress to congratulate the Museum on its beautifully restored and painted van. This is a rare Singer with a 1,261-c.c. side-valve engine like those used for the 1931-32 Tens but a radiator which seems to have come from an earlier Singer Six. Found in Leicestershire. when I was shown it last summer it was very derelict. Now it is in use as the Museum’s handy van, extremely smart in its new livery. Credit for this commendable restoration goes to the Museum’s two mechanics, Frank Mason and Michael Bullivant„ who are dedicated to their varied and unusual tasks. They have a modest workshop, with lathe, drilling machine and hand tools, but will have much better facilities when a new storage building, now in course of completion, is opened at Canley. There is also an ambitious future plan for a bigger motor museum outside the town, with room for club rallies, driving tests, etc. Certainly there is ample justification for it, because there are now enough Coventry-made vehicles on hand to occupy some 75 years of restoration at the present rate!

For instance, roaming round the two-storey storerooms, and not including all that is there, I found a sectioned Triumph Herald, a Phase 1 Vanguard, a roomy and rather nice Humber Super Snipe saloon, a Rover Sixteen and a Riley Lynx with fold-flat screen, at the first glance. A 1910 T-head Humber tourer is being restored—it needed two new camshafts—and there is an interesting 1908 Riley swing-seat tonneau, which appears never to have had a hood. Its 2-litre vee-twin engine enables it to cruise easily at 40 m.p.h. but it was apparently built more for comfort than speed, the very direct steering and the flexibility of the platform rear springing ruining the road holding. Another treasured device is the yellow 1912 Crouch Carette. It has the luxury of a door on each side, unusual in a cyclecar, although with the hood up the driver’s is almost useless. Only Mitchell is brave enough to drive it, for it needs to be kept at 40 m.p.h. as there is no flywheel to smooth out the engine and it happily gets up to 60 m.p.h., but, with all the weight forward, full-elliptic front springs, and the brake on the single back wheel, stopping it is apt to be somewhat fraught. The side handle works anti-clockwise to start the engine and skins the knuckles but the proximity of the occupants to the broad radiator ensures warm feet.

Some cars are there for their geographic associations rather than merit, like a big Humber saloon with American-style bumpers, a 1935 Humber Vogue, its body alleged to have been the inspiration of a Paris dress designer, Chrysler’s Hillman Aero Minx coupé and 1934 Minx saloon, a glistening 1936 Armstrong Siddeley Fourteen saloon, a Standard Nine Fulham worm-axle saloon, a Triumph Mayflower and a rough Gloria rescued from a garage forecourt. There is a Lea-Francis post-war saloon which came up from Reigate very obligingly, a bull-nose Morris-Cowley tourer sound mechanically but awaiting a face-lift; a blue 14/40 Humber with maker’s doctor’s coupé body taken in when its owner went abroad, a 1913 Morris-Oxford, and one of those durable 1921 Rover tourers with radiator-mounted lamps and rear screen which, as I thought, is an ex-R. G. J. Nash car. It is kept in rough external condition for loan to carnivals but goes well enough providing it is decarbonised every 2,000 miles.

Much more exciting is the great 1905/6 Daimler with tonneau body. It poses a bit of mystery but it is probably one of the 9 1/4-litre 35 h.p. cars, and is thought to have been used for hill climbs by Instone. It appeared at Shelsley Walsh after the last war, when the fan savaged the radiator, so it awaits repairs. The Museum also has even older vehicles, including an 1897 Daimler it hopes to enter for the next Brighton Run, accompanied by a 1903/4 Riley Forecar, which has dodgy Ackermann steering. It also has a Benz Ideal which R. G. J. Nash dated as 1895; although not a Coventry-built car this one must represent a good investment on behalf of the ratepayers of the City.

The fabulous collection of bicycles, numbering some 200 in all, has been mentioned; it ranges from a Royal Salvo of the kind purchased by Queen Victoria through velocipedes, hobby-horses and numerous “penny-farthings.”, to modern machines. The motorcycles, some 50 in all, include most Coventry-built makes, such as flat-twin Coventry-Eagle, Rover, Lea-Francis, Francis Barnett, a 1903 Humber-engined Centaur, the Rudge-Whitworth with box sidecar which Glanfield Laurence rode round the world in 1927/8, two-stroke Hobart and ladies’-frame Wee MacGregor, McKenzie, etc., down to a modern Triumph Trident. Motor tricycles are represented by a Coventry Motette, an 1897 Beeston-Humber and an ex-Science Museum MMC. The eye roves over this enormous assembly, taking in a 1948 Francis Barnett autocycle, a Kenilworth scooter given by the designer’s son, a one-off Triumph-powered Caldicott trials bike and an enclosed-frame Coventry-Eagle, etc.

Naturally, too, all manner of automobilana has accumulated—historic Daimler and Lanchester body drawings of 1903-1914 with George Lanchester’s comments thereon, over 5,000 slides of Daimler records, and so on. Then there are the accessories, the models, even a Starley Europa sewing machine which began the long run of Coventry mechanisation, not to mention early radios and TV equipment. And the engines. The latter include parts from 1897 Daimler power units, an Anzani-like Humber three-cylinder fan-layout aero-engine with atmospheric inlet valves, a T-head White & Poppe, and a rather significant 1896/8 Panhard-Levassor twin-cylinder, found in Coventry, whereas Mercedes-Benz had to make a replica of this historic engine for their museum. Another very intriguing engine is a three-cylinder Lea-Francis, as used in their 1903 car. It has con.-rods some three feet long and a remarkable overhead-camshaft which, when two wing nuts are released, swings through 90º away from the in-line valves, so that a valve or valve spring can be changed without having to dismantle the camshaft or even disturb the timing. The camshaft is driven by a long shaft running alongside the extended crankcase. It would seem likely that the engineer who evolved this ingenious early o.h.c. valve gear later went to Maudslay, because both the Maudslays in the Museum have similar instantly-accessible valves by reason of swing-clear o.h. camshafts. I caught sight of a Clement single with automatic inlet valve and o.h. exhaust valve and the engine which T. G. John evolved from it for the Stafford auto-scooter. In fact, there are three of these later engines, all brand-new, and it is clear that this early link with Alvis was a direct copy of the French design but with both valves actuated by stout push-rods. Then there is a Rover Eight flat-twin with o.h. inlet valves, converted for use in a Flying Flea, a one-cylinder MMC engine of the type associated with the Lawson scandal, a Standard Vanguard engine coupled to the Terimola automatic-transmission which Harry Ferguson tried to establish, and a Coventry-Victor air cooled flat-four Neptune aero-engine, etc.

One of the most imposing cars in the place is a 1910 32-h.p. Maudslay but as I intend to devote a separate article to it, no more need be said of it here. All told, Coventry most certainly cannot be regarded as an also-ran in the motor museum stakes and it is nice to learn that last year some of its vehicles were exercised on private ground and the public given free rides on them. — W. B.