Press Kit: Mercedes-Benz in the UK
Jun 13, 2007
The early years of the automobile in Britain
  • Surmounting all bureaucratic hurdles: Frederick Richard Simms paves the way for Daimler vehicles
  • The Prince of Wales turns Daimler enthusiast
  • Daimler initially faces no competition on British soil
The young engineer Fredrick Richard Simms refused to allow the many bureaucratic obstacles to dent his confidence. He had remained in friendly contact with Gottlieb Daimler after seeing for himself the German engineer’s miniature tramway that had attracted so much attention at a mechanical engineering exhibition in Bremen in 1889. In June 1891, having the previous year acquired the patent rights for all of Daimler’s inventions for Britain and the colonies, excluding Canada and India, he set up the engineering consultancy Simms & Co. as a means of exploiting the German inventor’s patents in England.
Anti-car legislation in place at the time meant this was out of the question as far as automobiles were concerned. So Simms began importing motorboats into Britain, hoping this would help change the attitude of his compatriots towards motorization. True engine enthusiasts were still few and far between, however.
While Gottlieb Daimler continued to make ever greater advances in perfecting his engines, in 1893 Simms and a few friends established “Daimler Motor Syndicate” with a view to exploiting the German’s inventions. The engineer was keen to have a permanent organization in place, ready for the moment cars received authorization for use on public roads. The company rented premises at a railway station in the London suburb of Putney and set up a workshop where Daimler engines were fitted to motorboats. Although Simms and his engineering colleagues were prohibited at the time from actually manufacturing cars of their own, it would be fair to describe Daimler Motor Syndicate as the true starting point of the British automobile industry.
Daimler Motor Company Ltd.
By 1895 it seemed likely that the Highways and Locomotives Act would soon be dropped. Simms was tasked with forming a British Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft, and around the middle of that year the first Panhard & Levassor car with a Daimler engine was shipped to England. It had been ordered by the motoring enthusiast Evelyn Ellis, who undertook a 90-kilometer test drive with Simms from Micheldever to Datchet –a journey that evidently aroused a great deal of lively interest, since as a result of this first motorized outing the company received over 80 enquiries about the vehicle.
Not all attempts to popularize the automobile in Britain were quite so successful, however. When a promotional convoy made up of Simms in a Daimler from Bad Cannstatt and Walter Arnold in a Benz Velo took to the road at the “Battle of Flowers for Charity” festival in May 1895 in Eastbourne, Sussex, something of a riot was provoked by proponents of motorized transport. Having hired an ageing horse to ride ahead of the procession, the car enthusiasts tied a placard around its neck that read “R.I.P.” and the man leading the horse wore a sash with the words “In Loving Memory”. But the crowd of onlookers was so angered by such hostility towards a much-loved animal that they mixed stones in with the handfuls of confetti they were throwing. Walter Arnold narrowly escaped serious injury.
In 1895 a private company made up of the members Ernest T. Hooley, Martin D. Rucker and Harry J. Lawson bought the British Daimler engine patents for 350,000 marks. They also founded British Motor Syndicate, which in February 1896 found new private backers for Daimler Motor Company Ltd. (DMC). Effectively, therefore, the British colleagues of Fredrick Richard Simms “rescued” the German car manufacturer, since management problems at DMG at the time meant vehicle production at the company was badly hit – and those cars that were built were often found to have serious faults.
During this period Gottlieb Daimler and his right-hand man, the engineer Wilhelm Maybach, both quit the company. Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG) was facing the prospect of bankruptcy until the English consortium led by Frederick Richard Simms purchased the licensing rights for all relevant Daimler and Maybach patents – and paid that unusually high price for them. “Of particular value was the Daimler-Maybach belt-driven design, featuring the Phoenix engine that was a key step in Maybach’s development work towards building a high-performance engine,” wrote the historian Friedrich Schildberger in an essay on the origins of the British automotive industry.
But the consortium also imposed conditions: Messrs. Daimler and Maybach and the businessman Carl Linck were to return to management roles within the company. Their demands were answered and thanks to improvements and new designs introduced by the now re-energized engineering duo of Daimler and Maybach, Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft once again returned to more profitable ways. Simms continued to use the name Daimler in England, having bought the rights to it at the same time, and Coventry continued to manufacture vehicles bearing this name, as it had done for many years under the Jaguar brand.
Meanwhile British Motor Syndicate began a public relations campaign to lobby for the repeal of the “Highways and Locomotive Act”, still the main obstacle to the introduction of the car in Britain. At an agricultural show in October 1895, for example, they presented four motorized vehicles – three with Daimler engines and a steam-car by De-Dion-Bouton. Furthermore, on November 2, 1895, the syndicate published the first issue of the magazine “The Autocar” – today the world’s oldest car magazine – and announced that soon all Londoners would have the opportunity to witness for themselves this safe and efficient means of transport. Simms had just imported a Daimler for his own use and unveiled it at a gathering for representatives of the press and a few high-profile celebrities. This was in essence the country’s first motor show – and a highly effective way of making the press more favourably inclined towards the innovative vehicle. Thereafter the syndicate organized an automobile show at the Imperial Institute, London, from May 9 to August 8, 1896, in an attempt to paint a harmless image of the car to the population as a whole.
The Prince of Wales rides in a Daimler belt-driven car
The show was a great success and in political terms, too, things were now running according to plan. Even before the show opened the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, expressed a desire to view and ride in an automobile. Simms and Ellis were happy to oblige with a ride in a belt-driven Daimler. Prince Edward returned from his test drive full of enthusiasm, and even though he expressed the view that as an animal lover he hoped the car would not render the horse completely redundant, he agreed to become patron of Britain’s first motor show.
With pressure now mounting from the public and royalty alike, the Red Flag Act was finally abolished on November 14, 1896. Vehicles no longer required accompanying personnel and the permitted speed was raised from “walking pace” to twelve miles per hour (just over 19 km/h). To mark the occasion the syndicate brought together a collection of 58 vehicles – most imported for promotional purposes from the European mainland – and organized a race from London to Brighton. The Earl of Winchester ceremoniously burned a red flag before an attentive crowd of spectators. Of the 33 vehicles (other sources put the figure at 35) that entered the event, 27 featured internal combustion engines, five had electric drive systems and there was one steam-powered motorcycle. In total there were nine Daimler cars and five by Benz, and Gottlieb Daimler is even said to have taken part in the run in person. To this day the so-called Emancipation Run from London to Brighton is held on the first Sunday in November to mark the abolition of the Red Flag Act. Entry is restricted to vehicles built in 1905 or earlier.
The promotional impact of this inaugural Brighton run was so great that Daimler Motor Company, which Lawson had founded in 1896 and which paid £40,000 sterling to the previous patent owners British Motor Syndicate for the licenses to manufacture motor vehicles based on the Daimler patents, was able to start production at the Coventry premises in 1897. Initially the British company produced four cars per week, with each vehicle requiring on average three months to be completed.
And so the city in which Gottlieb Daimler had worked as a humble factory hand back in 1861 and where in his own words he not only improved his English but also “acquired sound principles for technical work and engineering spirit,” witnessed the rise of one of the largest car production plants of the day – and the first on British soil. Alongside Lawson on Daimler Motor Company’s Board of Directors sat Evelyn Ellis, Gottlieb Daimler and William Wright; Simms was employed as a consultant engineer. In October 1896 Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft in Cannstatt supplied its first truck to its British business partners in London. The world’s first truck was equipped with a four-horsepower two-cylinder engine and was designed to accommodate a payload of 1,500 kilograms.
Although official authorization came relatively late in England, the motor car established itself with astonishing speed. For the foreseeable future Daimler was to remain the only automotive brand operating throughout the British Empire. Daimler’s friend Simms and Harry Lawson jointly set up the Motor Car Club, whose London-Brighton Emancipation Run of 1896 was the country’s first organized motor race. As public criticism was regularly levelled at the car in respect of troublesome vibrations, exhaust fumes, the risk of explosion and ineffective brakes, runs such as these always had a serious side in addition to the competitive enjoyment they engendered. But above all, the many test drives now provided German manufacturers with frequent opportunities to demonstrate the reliability of their cars.
In 1897 Simms established the Automobile Club of Great Britain & Ireland, renamed the Royal Automobile Club on receiving royal status in 1907. And in 1902 the automotive pioneer set up the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders, which exhibited at London’s Crystal Palace from 1903 onwards. Last but not least, Simms is credited with being the first person to provide written evidence of the first use of the term “motor car” in a letter he wrote dated February 8, 1891; it is also said he coined the term “petrol”.
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