Coventry: The Rise And Fall Of The Motor City’s Car Industry

The story of the city’s love affair with cars began back in 1897, when the first British-built production cars began to appear on the roads – and they were made in Coventry. In the process of filming the documentary, we unearthed rare archive of early car making in the city. But most exciting of all was filming Michael Flather, who owns the oldest regularly driven Daimler in Britain – it reaches a top speed of around 20mph. He said: “It brings a smile to people’s faces and everyone waves at you.”

But why did the car industry first develop there? For centuries Coventry had been a city of skilled weavers and watchmakers, but when those industries collapsed with the industrial revolution, their craftsmen found work in the new transport revolution that began with bicycles. In the 1890s there were 75 different cycle companies in the city. Some such as Humber, Rover and Singer would go on to make cars.

But only one car manufacturer actually began as a family of Coventry weavers: Riley, a company that was once famous for its beautifully crafted sports cars. Today its
story is told by Victor Riley who, now in his mid-80s, is the oldest surviving member of Coventry’s greatest car manufacturing dynasty. He’s spent many years collecting old artefacts, photographs and documents to create the Riley Archives. Victor remembers how in the early days it was truly a family business: “Alan made the bodies, Percy made the engines, Stanley designed the chassis and Ted did a multiplicity of tasks, helping out wherever father put him.”


Coventry: the boom and bust of “motor city”

1897 | The first cars made in Britain are built by Daimler in Coventry. Soon after, Humber and Rover are among the many Coventry cycle companies that switch to making cars.

1931| The Standard Motor Company introduces the mass assembly line to Coventry. Output shoots up from 8,000 to 55,000 cars a year (in 1939).

1935 | Having moved his car company from Blackpool to Coventry, William Lyons launches the SS Jaguar, a game-changer brimming with design flair.

14 November 1940 | The Luftwaffe blitzes Coventry, killing hundreds of people, destroying the Triumph and Rover factories, and badly damaging others.

1950s | Car production in the city doubles, led by the launch of the Standard Eight in 1953. Priced at under £500, it is Britain’s cheapest car, affordable to many working-class families.

1952 | Riley’s owner, Morris, joins forces with Austin to create the British Motor Corporation. But the distinctive Riley brand is tarnished as a result of the merger.

1959 | Standard Triumph launches its new car – the Triumph Herald – to rival the Mini. Both easy to drive and appealing to a new female market, it is
a great success.

1961 | Jaguar produces the E-type, capable of speeds of up to 150mph and costing around £2,000. It becomes an icon of the swinging sixties.

1968 | British Leyland is formed to shore up a motor industry declining in the face of foreign competition. It is disastrous for Coventry, leading to bankruptcy and high unemployment.

2021 | In its City of Culture year, Coventry is reinventing itself again. At the forefront of the city’s revival is Jaguar Land Rover, with its pioneering all-electric cars.


A charismatic enigma

The Coventry car industry truly took off in the 1920s – and the man behind this transformation was a young shell-shocked veteran of the First World War, Captain John Black. His remarkable story is told by his son, Nick, who spent some of his retirement years delving into his dad’s past. “My dad was always an enigma, I just wanted to find out who he was,” Nick says. He discovered how his father, who knew little or nothing about cars, managed to get a job at the Coventry-based Hillman Motor Car Company and married the boss’s daughter, Daisy Hillman.

Captain Black was hard-working and charismatic, and he soon became one of the leading figures in the British car industry, joining the Standard Motor Company in 1929. Here he introduced the mind-numbing assembly-line method of car making, pioneered by Henry Ford in America. Yet despite the harsh working conditions he imposed, Black was surprisingly popular with the workers. Nick says: “He used to take a very personal interest in everyone and actually remembered their names. He’d see one of the workers and say: ‘How’s your mum at the moment, how’s her arthritis doing?’” Between 1931 and 1939, output at Coventry’s Standard factories increased from 8,000 to 55,000 vehicles a year.

In the depression years of the late 1920s and early 1930s, most people wanted a car that was cheap to buy and cheap to run. Among the most popular was a car made by William and Reginald Rootes – ambitious car dealers from Kent who moved into manufacturing when they bought Coventry car makers Hillman and Humber. The Hillman Minx, first launched in 1932, was soon clocking up sales of 20,000 a year. By the end of the 1930s, Standard and the Rootes group were both huge players in the British car market.

At Standard, the company’s success helped fund a flamboyant lifestyle for Captain John Black of wild parties, skiing trips and the purchase of Mallory Court, a sprawling country estate near Leamington Spa, where he lived with his family. But he was a troubled man. His son Nick remembers: “My dad was unhappily married to Daisy. He used to lock himself in the library at Mallory with a loaded pistol and have shooting practice against the wood panelling.”

According to Nick, his father turned to alcohol: “[That was] how he dealt with it all – he drank. He used to drink for six months and then he’d stop drinking for six months. But then he went to a dance in Nuneaton,

and he bumped into this wonderful young woman called Joan who was aged 21, 17 years his junior, and they instantly fell in love. My mother said she’d never met anyone like him in her life before. But it was six years before he finally got divorced.”

Life fundamentally changed in September 1939, when the Second World War broke out. The people of Coventry – especially those who worked in its car industry – now faced a huge challenge. As a manufacturing centre with engineering skills second to none, the city became a major centre for the production of military aircraft, munitions and armoured vehicles, with car companies helping the war effort in every conceivable way.

However, by doing this, Coventry became a major target for the Luftwaffe. Tragedy struck on the night of the 14 November 1940, when the city suffered the single most concentrated attack on a British city in the Second World War – the Coventry Blitz. The Luftwaffe dropped 500 tonnes of high explosives, 36,000 incendiaries and 50 landmines. Coventry’s great medieval cathedral was almost destroyed, and thousands of homes were damaged beyond repair. The official death toll was 554, but the real figure may well have been higher. When daylight finally came, former car factories like those of Triumph and Rover had been flattened and many others badly damaged. Coventry was in ruins.

Despite the devastation, the city and its people refused to give in, and from Coventry’s car industry came the planes, engines, motor vehicles and munitions that helped Britain win the war. Captain John Black’s Standard factories specialised in the production of hugely successful Mosquito planes, for which he was knighted in 1943. Coventry’s sacrifice would never be forgotten, and out of the ruins of the old cathedral would come Basil Spence’s new modernist Coventry Cathedral, whose foundation stone was laid by the Queen in 1956.

Factory workers assemble Armstrong Whitworth Whitley bombers

Armstrong Whitworth Whitley bombers on a Coventry assembly line. The city’s factories were a crucial part of Britain’s war effort (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

The rise of a rival

The postwar years saw a new battle emerge, though this fight was much closer to home. A fierce rivalry burned between two giants of the Coventry car industry: Standard, run by Sir John Black, and Jaguar, run by William Lyons. Lyons was an astute businessman with a natural talent for design who coachbuilt car bodies with engines bought from Standard.

To begin with the two men were friends. But in 1942 Black made the mistake of selling Lyons the machinery to build a new and powerful engine called the XK, which ended up in a brand-new sports car: the XK120. Capable of speeds up to 120mph, it was the world’s fastest production car. And it would transform the fortunes of Jaguar. William Lyons’ grandson, Michael Quinn, recalls: “My grandfather very quickly went and collected them and had them installed at his own factory. But apparently John Black did actually change his mind. He realised he might have made a mistake.”

Nick Black concurred: “My dad actually realised he’d made the biggest mistake of his life, because Jaguar were about to become one of the biggest companies in Coventry of the time. So he went back to Lyons and started begging: ‘I’m sorry, I’ve made a mistake. Can I buy them back off you?’ And he [Lyons] said: ‘No way mate, your word is your bond.’ So you know from that point on they became abject rivals.”

Lyons’ daughter, Pat Quinn, remembers what a resounding success the Jaguar XK sports cars were in the United States. She said: “I remember my father going to America just after the war and meeting Clark Gable and all the film stars that had fallen in love with the XK. It was certainly a very exciting time.”

Dizzying corners

From the earliest days of the car industry, winning motor races had been important for sales. Racing was often a family affair, and one of Riley’s most successful racing drivers was Victor Riley’s mum, Dorothy, at the wheel of a Riley Ulster Imp. Today, we can still see rare footage of her competing in the 1934 Le Mans 24-hour race where she became the first British woman to complete the race, finishing 13th.

Pat Quinn shared Dorothy Riley’s passion for racing, beginning her career in 1950 in the XK120 with her then husband, rally driver Ian Appleyard. Archive footage still exists of them competing in extreme conditions in some of Europe’s most gruelling rallies, such as the 3,000km Alpine.

“The mountains were pretty horrendous, you felt quite dizzy going around the corners. It was a little bit scary when one was near the edge, and they just used to go on and on and on, bend after bend. It was great fun because there was of course a great camaraderie among all of us. We always thought we were doing quite a lot of useful work for the factory in discovering faults in the car,” she recalled. Pat and Ian were awarded the Gold Cup for their brilliant performances in the Alpine.

Determined to outdo his new rival, Sir John Black bought sports-car maker Triumph and launched his answer to the Jaguar XK120 at the Earl’s Court Motor Show in 1952. It was officially known as the Triumph TR2. Capable of a top speed of more than 100mph and costing less than £1,000, the TR2 was loved in Britain and America too. John’s son, Nick, remembers: “The whole motive behind buying the Triumph Motor Company for £75,000 in 1945 was to get a name so that he could rival William Lyons of Jaguar. So I think he did probably feel at the end that he had achieved his desire for a sports car.”

During the 1950s, production in Coventry doubled, as Britons bought more cars than ever before. Standard produced the popular Standard Eight which sold for less than £500, while the Rootes Brothers came up with a revamped American-style Hillman Minx, which proved a huge hit. But it was a different story for Riley, who were swallowed up by the British Motor Corporation, a takeover that ruined their reputation for quality sports-saloon cars.

Jaguar were by now moving centre stage as the producer of luxury sports cars. And their reputation was enhanced by their performance on the race track. We filmed the legendary Jaguar test driver Norman Dewis who described his love of speed and how he narrowly escaped being caught up in the 1955 Le Mans race crash, which killed 83 spectators. The footage of this tragedy remains as shocking today as it was then.

But Jaguar didn’t dominate every corner of the car industry. In 1959 Standard Triumph unveiled its new small car: the Triumph Herald. The car was a triumph in more than name – notching up well over half a million sales.

Axles and other car parts are laid out on a factory floor ready for assembly, with men working around them

Men at work in a Coventry car factory in 1907. The city’s history as a hub of skilled weavers, watchmakers and then bicycle manufacturers made it a natural home for Britain’s nascent car industry (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

Running out of road

The final heyday of Coventry’s car industry came in the early 1960s, with the launch of the legendary E-type Jaguar, an icon of the swinging sixties. Costing just £2,000 – half the price of an Aston Martin – it was capable of speeds approaching 150mph. The other bright spot for Coventry was the success of “dolly bird” rally driver Rosemary Smith, racing in the rear engine Hillman Imp produced by the Rootes Brothers in the sexist atmosphere of the sixties.

But towards the end of the decade, Britain – and particularly Coventry – was starting to fall behind in a fiercely competitive international car market. In 1968, in an attempt to shore up the British car industry, British Leyland was formed – a giant conglomerate that included Triumph, Morris, Austin and Rover, employing almost 200,000 people. Sadly the unwieldy size of the company proved a disaster, and they ended up making some of the worst cars in Britain.

Job losses and strikes led to mass unemployment, which became synonymous with the British car industry. Further deindustrialisation in the 1970s and 80s saw unemployment in Coventry rise to a staggering 20 per cent. The tragedy of the city was captured in “Ghost Town”, the 1981 hit record produced by local band The Specials. Its lyrics speak of a better time: “Do you remember the good old days before the ghost town? We danced and sang, and the music played in a de boomtown.”

Soon, among Coventry’s population, the idea of a job for life with the same car company – once so common – was a distant memory. Nick Black remembers how the Standard Triumph Social Club was one of the last survivors of Coventry’s golden age in an era of deindustrialisation: “The old community spirit of the shop floor lived on there with the car workers and their families more than anywhere else in Coventry. The tragedy was that by the end of the 20th century there were few permanent jobs, or – more likely – no jobs at all.”

But today, in a new global market where a number of British car makers are foreign-owned, there is new hope as Coventry pioneers the latest automotive technology. Jaguar Land Rover remains a significant presence, and the 2018 I-Pace was the company’s first all-electric production car. Hopefully there will be new glory days ahead for the Coventry car industry, inspired by a proud legacy of creativity and innovation.

Coventry’s car industry in numbers

100mph

In the early 1950s, Triumph launched their answer to the market-leading Jaguar XK120 sports car, the TR2. Capable of reaching a top speed of more than 100mph, it cost less than £1,000 and was much loved in Britain and America.

20

By 1913, on the eve of the First World War, there were 20 manufacturers in Coventry, employing more than 12,000 workers and turning out 9,000 vehicles a year. There were dozens of component manufacturers too – making everything from engines and car bodies to the nuts and bolts that held them together.

98

Jaguar test-driver Norman Dewis died in 2019, aged 98, a legend of the Coventry car industry. In the 1955 Le Mans race, Norman narrowly escaped the tragic accident that killed 83 spectators.

300,000

The Rootes Group archive sited near Banbury is dedicated to preserving the memory of cars they made in Coventry such as the Hillman Minx, the Sunbeam Rapier and the Hunter Hawk. Among many other treasures, it holds more than 300,000 engineering drawings.

Steve Humphries is a TV director and producer. His  documentary, Classic Cars: Made in Coventry, presented by Mark Evans, aired on BBC Four in May

This content first appeared in the June 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine

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