Just before Easter 2011 I listened to John Minnis give a talk on ‘Early Automobile Architecture’ to the Victorian Society South Yorkshire Group. John is already known to the Group because some years ago he was the joint author, with Group member Ruth Harman, of the Pevsner City Guide Sheffield.
Now he’s working on an English Heritage project surveying the architecture of the motor trade from its inception in 1896 – garages to repair cars, garages to store them, salesrooms to sell them and accommodation for the chauffeurs. Like the contemporary development of the cinema, architects responded to a new technology with astonishing speed, which is why it’s a suitable subject for a Victorian Society event, even though the Society’s remit ends in 1914.
Motor cars were, of course, originally thought of and designed as horseless carriages, and John’s illustrations showed how ways of marketing and stabling the new vehicles grew directly from the existing practices of horse-drawn transport. There were significant distinctions, however: cars do not produce tons of manure, and their fuel is even more inflammable than hay.
(The famous requirement that London taxis should carry a bale of hay in the boot was only repealed in 1976.)
The Group Chairman, Valerie Bayliss, suggested in her vote of thanks that all the components of the motor trade – including dodgy second-hand dealers – were in existence by the 1820s, apart from the internal combustion engine.
One of the best known and most distinctive examples of early motor architecture is the Westminster Coach & Motor Car Works on Northgate in Chester, very near to the Town Hall. This elaborate terracotta façade is dated 1914, but appears to be based on an earlier building for the carriage-builders J A Lawton & Co that was burnt down on July 1st 1910. Their building was two storeys high, but otherwise apparently similar to the existing design.
Cars were sold on the site until the 1970s, and a new library was built behind the façade to an award-winning design by the Cheshire County Council Department of Architecture in 1981-4. The library itself will move on soon, apparently, and the Car Works site will become a market.
Future meetings of the Victorian Society South Yorkshire group are advertised at http://www.victoriansociety.org.uk/south-yorkshire/forthcoming-events. Guests are welcome. The biscuits are excellent.
The 48-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Historic Chester tour, with text, photographs, and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £7.50 including postage and packing. To view sample pages click here. To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.