Today we don’t associate Manchester with car manufacturing, but in 1914 at the start of the First World War, it was one of the biggest motor manufacturing cities in the world.
At the turn of the 20th century, skill and expertise in other branches of engineering made a transition into manufacturing automobiles an attractive choice for several Manchester manufacturers. Motor cars were new, exciting and seemed to present a great business opportunity.
In this story we will take a look at how the existing skills, premises and attitudes in early 20th-century Manchester made it fertile ground for motor car manufacturing, shaping the future of transport as car makers influenced the move towards mass motoring.
From horses to horsepower
The transition from horses to engines for transport is exemplified in the case of Manchester’s Cockshoot and Co., long-established coachbuilders who applied their skills in making horse-drawn carriages to the new art of making the bodies for motor cars. In 1902 the first Cockshoot and Co. garage opened on Deansgate—one of the first garages in the country. In 1903 they produced their first motor car body. The company were widely known for their high-quality craftsmanship.
Motor cars, in the early days, were not for everyone. They were an expensive, luxury hobby for the very wealthy, who used them for touring, racing and tinkering. Wealthy motorists escaped Manchester at the weekends to tour the Cheshire and Lancashire countryside. The thrill of speed was an important part of the experience. Even breaking down could be part of the adventure. Motorists often prided themselves on their ability to maintain and repair their own vehicles.
Rolls-Royce and Imperial
To this day, nothing says luxury like the brand Rolls-Royce. The partnership between Henry Royce, an engineer, and Charles Rolls, who was a motorcar enthusiast, began in Manchester in 1904, when Royce showed his experimental motorcar to Charles Rolls, who wanted to sell quality, 'All-British' motorcars. Rolls-Royce was born.
Take the best that exists and make it better. When it does not exist, design it.
Fredrick Henry Royce
This is one of the earliest Rolls-Royce motorcars. Made in September 1905, it is the 12th Rolls-Royce motor car ever made. Originally it had a four-seater body and was used by Royce himself between January and December 1906. It was then fitted with its current body. The top speed of this Rolls-Royce was nearly 40mph, more than twice the speed of a horse-drawn carriage.
Rolls-Royce produced bespoke, luxury cars which were known for their quality. They became a symbol of wealth and luxury and helped to glamorise and popularise motoring. Another Manchester manufacturer of luxury cars was the Imperial Autocar Manufacturing Co. Ltd., who were based at the Manchester Corporation Company’s horse tram depot in Rusholme. The Science and Industry Museum collection includes this beautiful last known surviving example of an Imperial motor car. Made in 1904, it was built at a time when manufacturers were still experimenting with business models, building methods and designs.
Manchester was the first industrial city, famous for making engines and machinery, from locomotives to cotton machinery. Industrial Manchester was power hungry, and engines were big business.
Crossley Brothers Ltd. are another example of an established Manchester company with a certain skill set, which they turned to the new motor car market. They were responsible for the world’s first commercially successful internal combustion engine.
It was a world-changing moment in engine history, and Crossley Brothers Ltd. stayed at the cutting edge of engine technology. We can trace in the development of their internal combustion engines the genesis of the smaller, self-contained, mobile engines which eventually made it possible to use a small engine to power a moving car.
As engine experts, Crossley Brothers Ltd. were keen to break into the new motor car market. Crossley Brothers Ltd. started making cars at their factory in Gorton in 1904 and in 1910 they set up Crossley Motors.
Motoring for the masses
Ford at Trafford Park
As we have seen, at the turn of the 20th century, cars were expensive, and only available to the wealthy few. However, cars were heavily marketed as exciting and modern, and they became highly desirable consumer products. Cars were here to stay, and it wasn’t long before manufacturing methods were created to make it possible to churn out relatively more affordable cars.
American company Ford opened their first factory outside of the US at Trafford Park, Manchester in 1911. Trafford Park was the world’s first purpose-built industrial estate, and the Ford factory was Europe’s first production line. Henry Ford’s pioneering production line methods were developed to make these mass-produced cars.
As the popularity of motoring soared, ironically motor car manufacturing in Manchester declined, and the city's relatively small-scale motor industry was over by 1938. This was largely due to car manufacturers relocating in order to produce greater volumes of vehicles in vast factories.
Although it ceased to be a major industry in Manchester, the use of motored vehicles on Manchester roads was here to stay. Gradually, Manchester’s roads were adapted to further suit road vehicles, and horses, trams and even pedestrians started to be sidelined, creating smoggier, busier and more dangerous streets.
Through most of the 20th century, the people of Manchester suffered from dreadful, dangerous levels of air pollution, which was mostly caused by Manchester’s smoking industrial chimneys.
Today, industrial air pollution has dramatically decreased, and road traffic is the largest cause of air pollution in Manchester.
A car-free future?
Today, campaigners, communities and local government are often seeking ways to reduce the number of cars on our roads. An example of this is the Greater Manchester Clean Air Zone, which aims to reduce the amount of traffic on Manchester’s busy roads for a future with less traffic and air pollution, and hopefully an increase in safe and clean walking and cycling routes. This is a fascinating reversal of the process of motorisation of transport 120 years ago, when we moved away from walking and using horses towards making shorter journeys by motor car.
The Bee Network is another initiative from Transport for Greater Manchester to create the UK's largest cycling and walking network, connecting areas and communities in Greater Manchester to make it easy, safe and attractive for people to travel on foot or by bike for everyday trips. A key aim is to reduce the number of short journeys made by private car, by encouraging people to use active travel—getting where you’re going using muscle power.
Find out more
Butt, Joshua, The rise and fall of the Manchester motoring industry, Science and Industry Museum blog, 6 February 2018
Butt, Joshua, Adapting to the emergence of the automobile: a case study of Manchester coachbuilder Joseph Cockshoot and Co. 1896–1939, Science Museum Group Journal, 27 September 2017