On the eve of the Scottish Motor Show, Mark Ellis retraces one man’s ambitious attempt to create a motor industry and investigates the controversial history of a unique example of Scottish industrial
architecture - the Argyll Motor Works, Alexandria.
OVAN’S GRAND DESIGN
When the 55th Scottish Motor Show opens on November 2 1 st at the Exhibition and Conference Centre in Queen‘s Dock, the major stands will carry the names of Ford, General Motors, Volvo, Renault and Nissan. The smaller exhibitors will be the Scottish dealers who distribute and service these manufacturers’ cars. A visitor to the show would hardly suspect that in factories and workshops across Scotland, bearing names like Argyll and Arrol-Johnston, motor cars were once designed and produced by engineers absorbed in the first revolutionary developments of the internal combustion engine for mass consumption.
The Scottish automobile industry began in the 18905 and by the turn of the century there were ten distinct ‘makes‘. Altogether, between the 18905 and the 19205, over fifty different companies were formed to produce cars in Scotland. By 1939. however, only the Albion Company survived, its production confined to commercial and War Department vehicles. Albion, itself, was finally absorbed by Leyland in 1951.
The most ambitious of all the early engineers was Alexander Govan, who launched some of the most advanced cars seen in Britain during the decade before the First World War— the Argylls. But Govan‘s legacy is not confined to the six Argylls now preserved at Glasgow‘s Museum of Transport; it is, above all, the magnificent 80 year-old Motor Works at Alexandria, near Dumbarton — a decaying listed building at the centre of a protracted wrangle over responsibility for its preservation and eventual restoration.
Designed by a Clydebank
architect. CJ Halley, and constructed in just fourteen months at a cost of£22(),000, the vast sheds and offices were opened in June, 1906, at a lavish ceremony during which Lord Montagu of Beaulieu expressed his confidence in the ‘future ofautomobilism’.
Although Govan had been building cars at his Bridgeton engineering works since 1899, the new enterprise at Alexandria was intended to be a purpose-built car factory, incorporating the most modern methods of production.
The sixty-acre site contained its own powerhouse, machine and assembly rooms, smithies, coachbuilding and chassis shops, and separate sections for painting, varnishing and upholstering. Halley‘s masterpiece was the office-block. With a frontage of540 feet, the building housed a row of workshops beneath the managers” offices, kitchens, rooms for recreation and reading, and a hall seating 500 people. The five central office bays were embellished with a gilt-domed clock tower, a carved entrance, balustrades and a stunning pillared staircase in marble.
The largest car factory outside the United States, the Argyll works had acheived record European production figures of almost one thousand cars a year by 1907. It was not until the eve of the First World War that larger complexes were completed, like the Fiat Lingotto factory at Turin, with its banked testing circuit on the roof— but by that time production at the
Top. road-testing an Argyll between Becllm Falls and Cellender: Middle, theArgyll 15/30 which set world record: at Bmklends, 1923: Bottom, the office block nearing completlon, 1906.
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The List 1—14 November 7