Managing Director, Alex Govan
Chairman, W.S. Smith
Alex Govan was a self-made man. His father was a tenter, a cloth-stretcher at a Blantyre mill near Glasgow. Alex was born in May 1869 in a tied cottage at the works, five months after his parents’ marriage. The family moved to Bridgeton in Glasgow, and when he was old enough Alex started work in a mill there. At night he studied at the West of Scotland Technical College and gained distinction.
In 1893 Govan went into partnership with his brother-in-law, John Worton, manufacturing a bicycle called “the Worvan”. But it was a critical time for the cycle industry. Within a year many manufacturers had gone bankrupt by over-estimating the market, “taken all round in every phase of the sport and trade, the year 1894 will not rank as a particularly happy one. Disappointments have been rife in every hand”, said the Scottish cyclist.
Govan closed down Worvans and moved to Redditch to work for the Eadie Manufacturing Company, a light engineering works making components and industrial machines. In 1897 they imported from the continent three cars, a Vallee, a Mors and a Benz. The cars were taken apart and the Eadie company built its own motor car. One of their customers was Mr. James Butchart of Eglinton Cycles in Glasgow.
In Spring 1899, Alex Govan decided to return home and took a job as the Sales Representative of Charles Churchill & Company, the tool manufacturers. In August of the same year the Scottish Manufacturing Company, making components for cycle manufacturers, and headed by William Smith, was wound up. Smith and the liquidators were looking for a suitable Manager to re-construct the firm and in Alex Govan, they found one.
W.A. Smith was, on the whole, a successful entrepreneur. He was Vice-Chairman of the National Telephone Company, a Director of Bryant & Mays and a Director of the United Alkali Company. An astute businessman, he had negotiated the control of all British patent rights to telephones, phonographs and gramophones. Now he decided to enter the motor car industry and would prove to be well suited to this new, advanced industry, particularly with his knowledge of patent law.
In October 1899 Govan took over the management of the Scottish Manufacturing Company in Hosier Street, and re-named it the Hosier Engineering Company.
He decided that the company should be “less identified with the cycle trade than with general engineering; although by reasons of suitable tools, Mr. Govan will not refuse any cycle trade work that comes his way and early development of the motor car line is probable”, recorded the Scottish cyclist.
In March 1900 the company became Limited, with a capital of £15,000. Alex Govan was appointed Manager for five years, at a salary of £360. He took 10% of the profits until his salary reached £500 and 5% thereafter. William Smith was appointed Chairman, holding 1,000 shares, and John Worton, Govans’ brother-in-law, was Secretary with 500. The largest individual shareholder was Robert Pattison, a chemical manufacturer from the Vale of Leven and a friend of Smith’s.
The original prospectus of the company mentioned that they hoped to make a 4-seater steamer and a 2-seater petrol-engined car. Development of the 2-seater car had already started in December 1899 when the ‘Scottish Cyclist’ visited the works. It reported that the company had orders for upwards of 100 motors and “that almost all the parts were made within the premises”. The firm was described as a manufacturer of motorcycles but in the same issue of the magazine it was noted that Mr. James Butchart, of Eglinton Cycles in Glasgow, had experimented for some time with a light 4-wheeled quad car from the Eadie Manufacturing Company. He now purchased a similar vehicle from Hosier Engineering.
Govans new car was based on the machine that he had evolved in Redditch. It certainly had many of the features of the continental Voiturette and had been likened to a shaft-drive Renault. But Louis Renault took no action against Govan – no doubt Smith, with his experience in patent litigation, had advised the company well. But he must have insisted that Govan designed his own gearbox for the Hosier Engineering Company’s first patent, number. 5946, was a gearbox patent for the improvements “in driving gear for motor vehicles and the like”. This gearbox was used on all Argyll cars until 1909 when action in Britain failed to enforce claimed continental patents. The Argyll of 1899 was produced at a rock-bottom price of 155 guineas, but it didn’t follow the design of George Johnston and other local manufacturers at the time who basically motorised large horse-drawn carriages. Instead, Govan designed his horseless carriage around a tubular frame similar to that found on a bicycle (his company was well-suited to make such frames), however, like many early designs of the time, it had its problems. One agent from Hampshire made no 1ess than three attempts to drive the car to London before he decided to put it on the train. He was unable to master the new Govan gear-box as the design was unique – one pulled hard back for first, upwards and outwards for second and inwards then forwards for top gear. In 1901 the 5-horsepower engine replaced the earlier model, but the gear-box remained the same and by July 1902 the company claimed to manufacture more cars than any other concern in Britain – 30 vehicles a week. Its expansion had been phenomenal. The Scottish motoring journal ‘Motor World ‘ claimed that the gearbox was one of the most important factors in Argyll’s success. ‘Car Illustrated’, in 1903, stressed that the Argyll gearing differed from the Panhard in that it should never be forced, but whether this was considered to be a compliment or a fault, it’s difficult to say. The design did, however, win medals in engineering competitions.
The Argyll became known as a car of quality and reliability and to emphasise these points, publicity quickly became an important part of the company’s strategy.
Govan encouraged publicity and only two months after gaining control of the Hosier Engineering Company, he was showing the press around. The initial problems facing him were twofold: first to persuade a customer to buy a car, and then to persuade him to buy an Argyll.
His Publicity Department made tremendous use of the pioneering spirit that had caught the public’s imagination about motoring. He made an inordinate amount of non-stop runs and entered almost every Reliability Trial. Each one, which was completed, was shown to be a triumph for the marque.
Govans first publicity stunt was in July 1901 when he challenged William McLean, the Scottish agent for the French Darracq car, to a 5-mile race at the Glasgow International Exhibition. Unfortunately, the Argyll was beaten, and adverse publicity followed, but two months later Govan gained his revenge by beating all-comers in the same Exhibition’s Scottish Automobile Club’s Trials. Not only did the car go through the Trials from start to finish without losing a mark, but it gained the distinction of being the only car within, its class (vehicles costing up to f.200), to do so.
Originally there were six hills to be climbed in the Trial but the organisers felt that the hill at Whistlefields, outside Pintry, was far too stiff at 1 in 4, and left it as an option for the competitors. The Argyll climbed the hill without stopping and outshone all of its Scottish rivals. It was the publicity from these Trials that really established the marque.
In 1906 it was claimed that the Argyll car had never failed to obtain a non-stop award in any Reliability Trial it had entered. Alex Govan had the uncanny knack of getting publicity whenever he wanted it. The press noted that a car was driven from Glasgow to Bexhill at an average speed of 15 miles an hour that a Mr. Taylor came up from Penzance for his car, and immediately drove it home. That Mr. Govan made his own sports car, with a wicker body, and had gained the fastest time of the day at the Scottish Automobile Club’s hill climbs in 1905; that a car had been driven from London to Edinburgh in a record time of 22 hours. But Argylls most ambitious publicity stunt was to offer to provide a tender vehicle to Dr. Lehwess on his much-publicized round-the-world car trip. He had a 3-ton, 40hp car especially built for the journey and called it Passe-partout. The Hosier engineering Company claimed to the Daily Telegraph, the sponsors of’ the journey, that the Argyll car could go anywhere that the £3,000 Panhard could. Unfortunately, the stunt went wrong, for it all proved too much for the little car and its driver, Douglas Hamilton Whitehead who had to be towed home from Warsaw. The 3-ton yellow Panhard did little better, giving up in Russia! Nevertheless, there were other successes and Argylls prospered.
In late 1902 the capital of the company was increased to £30,000 and the works were extended. The Voiturette was refined further, 10, 12 and 16-horsepower vehicles were also on their way. In August, the great J.B. Dunlop (the tyre manufacturer) ordered a 12-horsepower car, and output had reached 6 cars a week. In July of 1904 the capital of the company was again to be increased, this time to £40,000.
Shares were issued in September and completely sold by October, a new engine plant was constructed and new coach-building works were built around the corner from Hosier Street at Crown Point. Argylls was the most successful and well-known car company in North Britain.
With men of the calibre of W.A. Smith, as financial adviser and Chairman, and an engineer of the genius of Alex Govan, as Managing Director, it was not surprising that the company felt it could crown its success by building Europe’s largest car factory, capable of producing (eventually), 3,000 cars a year.
In 1904 Govan traveled to Europe and America to look at car-production techniques. In Detroit he saw the new plant at Packard, the largest car manufacturer in the world, and the mass-production techniques of the National Cash Register Company. He brought back ideas that he hoped to use in his modern new factory. Standardization of parts was to be the aim for Argyll, not mass-production, a concept yet to be applied to car making. Govan hoped that by manufacturing standard parts in large quantities, he could produce a cheaper motor car. He felt that his designs were now sufficiently perfected not to require constant modification. Each piece of motor car could now be made on a special tool rather than on a jig or from a blueprint and would remain standard and unmodified for at least a couple of seasons. But each part still had to be hand-fitted and each car hand-built. He estimated that his system would take three-fourths off the workmen’s wages and the cost of the car, although nothing would be taken off materials which were still 50/50 to wages.
Govan hoped that the £1,000-car would soon cost between £500 and £800, although he admitted that this would not happen immediately.
On April 6th 1905, work began on a new home for the Argyll car. It, was to be financed by the sale of the Hosier Engineering Company to the new firm, Argyll Motors Limited, in which Govan and Smith would have majority shareholding. Argyll Motors was formed “to take over as a going concern, the works, plant, machinery, patent and leases, and all other assets and identities of the Hosier Engineering Company of Bridgeton”. The company’s new Directors were to include W.A. Smith, Alex Govan, A.W. Stevens (an iron founder), and A.J. Rogers (a chemical manufacturer). Nominal capital was nearly half a million pounds. Subscriptions opened on the 16th March and closed successfully two days later. There were 800 shareholders, ranging from a distiller in Campbeltown to a clerk in Holy Orders in Norwich. Govan was appointed Managing Director with a salary of £1,500 a year and a percentage of the profits, which could reach 7.5%. William
Smith, the Chairman, received £360 a year and 5% of the profits.
The whole project was on a grand scale and by the end of 1905, £200,000 had 1een spent on buildings, plant, tools, design and land. But the works were incomplete and more money was needed – so further £100,000 was raised on debenture stock, repayable in 1926. No one seemed to wonder why. The company still showed profit by the end of l905.
Lord Montague of Beaulieu, who arrived by special train, opened the new Alexandria works on July 26th 1906. Sixteen hundred workers gathered at the front of the building to hear the speeches. Alex Govan recalled that Mr. Smith had told him that the only thing that would disappoint him was, “if the Alexandria works were not the finest known” (applause). “The Argyll company was extremely fortunate in their builders and contractors” (applause). “They all would agree that if a gigantic undertaking were to be properly and expediently undertaken, they must have men with great appreciation, foresight and concentration, to carry out such works”.
The speech continued for 45 minutes and the audience applauded no less than twenty-five times.
Certainly the Alexandria works were of breath-taking size. The building had taken just over a year to complete. It was a remarkable feat for there was little mechanical machinery to hand. The stonework on the front of the facade was carved by hand and the dome encasing the top had been hand-goldleafed, It alone cost £2,000. It was said that the main staircase was a copy of the Paris Opera House. The frontage, in red sandstone, had an impressive entrance porch with a brilliant white clock face surrounded by a sculpture “a motor car emerging from the building, with a female figure standing on the front, holding a laurel wreath, and draped in such a way as to suggest flight. On either side are two figures blowing trumpets, while below, on either side, are two artisans half-kneeling on a ball of the world each holding the various implements of industry suggestive of toil”.
The site covered 60 acres with an actual floor space of 15, the administrative building had a frontage of 540 feet and the coach-shop measured 400 x 100 feet. The powerhouse contained 7 direct-drive dynamos. The building was lit by electric light and grouped to ensure an efficient flow of materials between the various stages of production. But it was not the workshops or the factory area that impressed the visitor. It was the massive, palatial frontage centred on Govans office at the top of the grand staircase. “The noble corridor stretches both North and South for almost a hundred yards in either direction. To the North wings are the Managing Director’s rooms, the Chairman’s rooms, the Board Rooms and the separate rooms for principal offices of the company as well as the drawing rooms, public offices and waiting-rooms”. Govans’ office was decorated Georgian style with the boardrooms in Elizabethan style. To the South were the dining room for the Managers and staff, there was seating capacity for 500 in the lecture theatre. In here “it was hoped that during the coming winter, a syllabus of lectures would be drawn up for the benefit of the workers which would be complemented by a stringed orchestra organised by the Entertainment’s Convenor, Senor E. Venere”. In addition to the orchestra, there had been formed a male voice choir, an ambulance class, a cycling club, a football club, a rifle club and the social life for the staff is rounded off by the Argyll house magazine”.
Why all this? And why at Alexandria, 20 miles to the west of Glasgow, a small town noted for its chemical works rather than its engineering capacities? At the beginning of the ceremony Govan said, “it was firstly because it was the best place”; “Secondly, they were placed in a position to acquire a large trade of land at a reasonable figure”. Govan had done this before the Argyll company was formed. “Thirdly, Alexandria was a populous district where there was an abundance of employment for females but a relatively small opportunity for skilled labour, as was evidenced by the fact that five or six thousand men travelled daily to Dumbarton and Clydebank and other parts to secure employment”.
But the fourth reason was, “the intention of the company to go into motor-launch building, and no more suitable a place to launch such craft could be found than Loch Lomond”.
But there were other reasons for choosing a site away from Glasgow – that self-proclaimed “Engineering Centre of the World”.
Perhaps it was because Alexandria was closer to Govan and Smiths’ home in Helensburgh than the old Bridgeton works were. This seems unlikely, but the question might be asked –why did they live in Helensburgh? The answer is simple: because it was too awful to live in Glasgow.
Glasgow was an industrial slum, a town of pollution and intolerable conditions. After the opening of the factory, Govan had said that one of his aims had been to make “the conditions of labour as comfortable as possible”. He “felt sure that they kept the best factory in the district and they believed that men’s lives would be happier and better than they could possibly be, working and living in dark, badly lit and badly ventilated flats”. Govan was not one of the industrial gentry of the West of Scotland. His family was not rich Fultons, Beardmores or Smiths, his father had worked as a labourer. Alex had grown up in the dark, poverty ridden, tenement slums, he was only too aware of the appalling conditions of the workers. Is it surprising therefore, that he deliberately set up his new factory away from these horrors, and there were jobs for the workers’ wives as well, the women were employed as coach trimmers and French polishers. The new-fangled motor car could give men work and their wives and daughters employment as well. It had even constructed its own flats for the workers to live in.
Managing Director, Alex Govan – 1905 to 1907
Andrew Thomson – 1907
Eustace Watson – 1907 to 1909
In November 1906 the Motor World reported on the 1st Annual General Meeting of the new Argyll Company, “most of those present must have felt, from the comparative coldness with which the opening portion of the speech of the Chairman was received, that a critical spirit prevailed, which all his resources would be taxed to disarm”. “He went carefully into the balance sheet and gave satisfactory expositions of every sum, dealing at special length with the entries which were most likely to cause apprehension and the shareholders unanimously supported all the recommendations of the board”. But there was still some dissatisfaction; it was felt that too much money had been spent on the factory building and too little on developing new products. The Autocar mischievously reported that “the sanitary arrangements are above criticism and the space devoted to lavatory and cloakroom accommodation for the work people occupies as much ground, and must have cost as much money, as many factories complete”. After a few months the works employed over 2000 men and output reached 60 cars a week, a European record, but could this be continued?
In July 1906 Alex Govan went on tour of Britain by car, visiting all his agents. In two weeks he covered 2,000 miles. The Publicity Department reported this and of course, more sporting achievements: A Mr. George McTaggart managed to travel from the top of Ireland to the bottom in record time and a Mr. A. George’s Argyll gained second place in the Isle of Man T.T. He actually was disqualified, but that was of little importance.
In London, Argyll’s offices were almost as palatial as those were at Alexandria. Built to impress the carriage trade they were, of course, in the centre of town (in Newman Street off Oxford Street). For those who wanted their old-fashioned coachmen trained in “carmanship”, Argylls offered courses at their motor school. For 15 guineas, a man or woman could be trained to be a, chauffeur or mechanic. Once the car bad been bought there were five bi-monthly engineering reports available, free of charge, and to encourage drivers (owners and drivers were not of course always the same person). There was free entry into the Argyll Drivers Competition, £5 being offered to those drivers whose cars performed most economically over 5,000 miles. A Mr. Perks of Messrs. McDowall & Steven & Company Limited, won the first-ever prize. This might have been considered a fix if it had become known that the company that Mr. Perks worked for had a Mr. A.W. Steven as its Director – a man who was also a Director of the Argyll Motor Company. In 1908 the London premises were extended even further, there was now a lift for taking cars to the roof, where they could he groomed and cleaned. To keep owners and drivers informed of what was happening in Argylls, a free magazine was issued called ‘The Motorist’.
In common with most of their competitors, Argylls did sell cars abroad. But export markets were largely untouched until the new factory was built; now unable to sell all their output at home, the company looked overseas for sales. Their oversees Representative was Charles Brimlow, an engineer who had joined them in 1904 to manage the assembly and erecting shops. (His brother, John Brimlow, later became Argyll’s Sales Manager after leaving the Stirling Motor Construction Company). India, Ceylon, Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania and South Africa were the main targets for exports, but in 1907 Brimlow managed to sell 50 taxicabs to New York. The order was not repeated.
Corners were never cut at Alexandria, each car being carefully tested, and every chassis being subjected to a 100-mile test. William Smith took delight in pointing out that whereas before they built the new factory it took 30 hours to machine a cylinder, it now took a mere 45 minutes. But the engine had to be put together by hand and even though the parts were standardised, they had to be hand-filed and hand-fitted.
In 1904 the Royal Commission on Motoring asked Govan why he didn’t manufacture his own engine blocks since he seemed to manufacture almost everything else. His reply was revealing and confirmed reports of the poor quality of British iron foundries. Govan said that there was a 75% wastage on castings made in Britain and it was therefore uneconomic to produce them here. His castings were imported from France, from the Aster Company, where sand from the Ardennes was used in moulding. He believed that this was major factor in efficient casting and hoped to import the sand to his works. However, he did more than this – in October 1906 French engineers came over to the factory to set up a foundry to manufacture their Aster engines under licence.
In June 1906 the company paid a 10% dividend to shareholders but there were rumours of financial problems at Alexandria. The publicity machine ploughed on, run by William Crawford, the son of a well-known Glasgow Politician and Magistrate. In the first months of 1907 Govan issued a challenge to the manufacturers of any 6-cylinder car, to match the smoothness of his own 14.6 4-cylinder model. The firm continued to manufacture cab-over-engine town carriages and added trucks to the range. Argylls and Stirlings joined forces with plans to produce a bus, which never materialised, but publicity did not create profits however, and soon the company found itself cutting prices to encourage sales. They decided in March 1907 to issue the 300 remaining preference shares. The economic situation was not looking good.
Depression had hit America and it was obvious that the draught would soon he felt in Britain. America withdrew gold stocks from London and in response the Bank of England raised its bank rate to 7% the highest it had been since 1870. The effect on the British economy was catastrophic, in France car sales were already beginning to show a downturn. The strain on Alex Govan must have been considerable. How could he justify the expense of such a palatial factory when there was so little cash to produce cars, no reserves and falling sales? His plans for speeding up production through standardisation of parts had hit problems too.
On May 17th 1907 Alex Govan took business colleagues to lunch at the Grosvenor Restaurant in Gordon Street, Glasgow, Alex ordered soup but felt ill after it. He went home and, in Helensburgh ten days later, he died.
He was buried on the 29th May. He claimed from his deathbed that it was tainted food that had caused his illness and his wife made no secret of the fact that she believed that the restaurant had been the cause of her husband’s death. On June the 24th she sent a letter to the owner of the Grosvenor claiming f.10, 000 damages. A court action followed, the Grosvenor claiming that over a hundred people had eaten the same meal as Alex Govan that lunchtime and were perfectly well. On June 18th the body of Alexander Govan was exhumed. A post-mortem revealed that Govan had died of a clot on the brain and not, as the death certificate recorded food poisoning. The restaurant, not unnaturally, claimed against Mrs. Govan for lost business, it was even said that it was known in London that the Managing Director of Britain’s foremost car plant had died after eating in their premises, Two years later expenses for £40 were claimed and collected from Mrs. Govan. Alex Govans estate was valued at £21,000 but much of it was in shares, which were now losing their value, his wife had good financial reasons to sue the Grosvenor Restaurant.
Andrew Morris Thomson, Govans young assistant, stepped into his shoes on his death. Thomson had been in charge of the old Bridgeton works, which were retained as a service and repair depot; when the Alexandria factory opened. An engineer by training, he had studied at St. Andrews University and at the Royal College of Science in London. Thomson was an outspoken Managing Director. Only three months after his appointment, he was writing to the Motor World magazine with an opinion that Reliability Trials, speed tests and hill climbs were unnecessary:– certainly food for thought for the Argyll publicity department!
But the Directors thought that Thomson was too young to take entire charge of the company and in 1907 Eustace Watson, the Manager of the London showrooms, was appointed Managing Director. Thomson left the company the poorer, for his shareholding had dropped considerably with Govans death. He was thirty years old. In 1909 he emigrated to America and there set; up with two other ex-Argyll employees (Alan Coutts, General Manager, and Robert McKay, Assistant Secretary), their own engineering firm. Thomson had taken with him, his wife, the sister of Alex Govan.
Govans death at 38 was a severe blow to Argylls. Yet it seems unlikely that the future of the company would have been any different if Govan had survived. As a Managing Director he must have been only too aware of what was going to happen to his company in the next few months. It must have worried him, and perhaps caused his death. Not only was economic recession just around the corner, but f.32,000’s worth of parts were going to be scrapped “because of the immense improvement attained in the construction of the past season’s cars”. Govans plans for the standardisation of parts required designs to remain unaltered over many seasons. But Argyll’s strength was in their ability to be innovative; it was found to be impossible to standardise parts and keep designs up to date. No one wanted 1907 Argylls in 1908. The plant was becoming unworkable.
In May 1907 at Govans death, Argyll’s shares stood at £l. 5s. Od. By September they had halved their value, and the recession which had been forecast was a reality. Orders collapsed and a share issue flopped.
The company struggled on with losses. In an apologetic statement in November 1907, the Chairman weakly claimed that the Board, “felt Justified in paying to the shareholders the interim dividend in May 1907 last for up to that time sales showed a large increase of 30% over the previous year’s return”. Mr. Smith claimed, and it must have only been a claim, that the company now was largely engaged in making commercial vehicles and that the results were encouraging not being a “season’s trade”, he hoped this wou1d “add to the stability of the undertaking”. Yet a month earlier it was noted in private correspondence, by the engineering firm J. & G. Weirs of Glasgow that the industrial vehicle market was in a state of suspended animation, a situation that lasted two years. The Directors were either pulling the woo1 over the shareholders’ eyes or they were just unaware of the situation. The dividends due for May 1908 were not paid and the interest payments were postponed until the following year.
The company continued to turn out quality cars. In l907 it produced two new models, a 10/12 and a 12/16. The 12/16 engine had four cylinders cast in one block, quite a technical achievement at the time, and no doubt the result of work in the newly commissioned foundry. A year later the prestigious Argyll 40 was introduced, the first car to be made with an entirely Aster-designed engine. In August it gained a Class win in the Scottish Reliability Trials. The company even made a commercial special for a customer in Syria, a 2-ton truck for desert work, with an Aster engine and solid tyres.
In June 1908 it became obvious that the previously postponed interest rates would not be paid. Since Govans death a gear earlier, the shares had fallen from 50/- to 3/-. On
July the 4th l908, the following circular was issued. “Notice is hereby given, that the Extraordinary General Meeting of Argyll Motors Limited will be held within the Masonic Hall, 100 West Regent Street, Glasgow, on Tuesday the l4th of July at 12 o’clock, for the purpose of considering, and if thought fit, passing the following resolution…that the company be wound up voluntarily”.
The company had outstanding debts of £36,000. Liquidators recommended that the company shou1d be re-constructed rather than wound up, for it “was worth far more as a going concern than if its assets were sold”. They criticised the extravagance of the building of the Alexandria plant and its method of operation. They valued the plant “at a sum which a practical man desiring to possess a thoroughly good works of a similar capacity, would be prepared to expend”. The report, argued that the works were far too large and it would be impossible to occupy them fully for many years to come, even if it became the largest Motor manufacturer in the world. Alex Govan had been, too ambitious.
Perhaps the liquidators were too hard on Argylls, they had been producing cars for a market that was in temporary recession but one that would, within two years, expand. Despite the crisis, the factory remained open and many of the company’s agents kept trading. It was announced that another commercial order had been received, this time for a fire tender from Keighley Town Council. It seems the Southsea agency announced the record profit of £1,530 and the Southampton one a smaller profit of £21.
Euatace Watson remained Manager, and it was noted in the summer issue of The Motor, that he was to be found with other holidaymakers on the Isle of Man, “together with some other motor manufacturers. This is his first holiday in five years and he spoke as hopefully as ever of putting Argylls into a satisfactory condition”. But it was not to be, for dour months later, in January, the new company appointed a new Managing Director, John Smart Matthews, put up by the Dunlop Tyre Company, Argyll’s main creditors.
Managing Director, John Smart Matthews
Born in Dundee in 1864, Matthews joined Dunlop’s at the turn of the century when they took over his interests in the Scottish Tyre Company. Like many of his contemporaries John Matthews had been an early cyclist and was one of the founders of the Scottish Cycling Union. At his appointment the Motor World became poetic
“Mr. Matthews dearly loved a fight and, though it may be hard to say what exactly influenced him most in his ultimate decision, we venture to suggest that the stress and the strain of the uphill road would weigh with him in no small measure at the end”.
Matthews had much to do. On February the 4th the shareholders “received a circular from him giving them details of the new company that the liquidators had decided to form. Argyll Limited had a total capital of £209,000. Those who held debenture shares in the old company received 12/- for every pound they had invested and were barred from foreclosing for four years. The ordinary shareholders received 6/4d for every 10/- share, (almost everybody lost something). It had not been a good week for John Matthews, for two days earlier, on 2nd February, the ‘Lennox Herald’ reported that at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, Mr. Matthews and his chauffeur had knocked down a Mrs. John Crawford as she stepped out behind her bread van in the main street of Alexandria. She was taken to hospital in the Argyll car, with a broken hip, history does not record 1f she was also an unlucky shareholder in the motor works around the corner.
The first shareholders meeting of the new company was in March 1909. Incredibly, it was claimed that the previous Board of Directors were unaware of the financial situation of Argylls, even a month before the liquidation. John Matthews made his mark on the company. In November a profit of £1,630 was reported from sales of 100 cars. Matthews may have been forced to work for Argylls by Dunlop, his brief was probably only to recover losses before their debentures matured four years later but he put his heart and soul into “his company”. In the following year he introduced an entirely new range of cars. Argylls maintained their strong advertising campaigns but were somewhat less aggressive. The bad publicity they had received in the 1900 crash softened their copy and they decided to concentrate sales on Scotland rather than the Southeast of England. The company was becoming less ambitious yet unfortunately, they found it necessary to open branches in Cardiff, Dundee, Edinburgh and London, having by now lost most of their agents. In 1909 the profits reached £2,171 and things began to look up. Over 1,300 people were employed and overtime was the rule rather than the exception. Events however, were beginning to take place that would change the course of the Argyll’ history again. John Matthews had been sitting in his Georgian-style Managing Director’s office at Alexandria for only eight months when he was visited by inventor, Peter Burt, the man who had, sixteen years earlier, sold to George Johnston (of Arrol-Johnston), the factory that turned out Scotland’s first home-produced car. Burt showed Matthews the model of a new engine he had designed which he hoped would revolutionise the motor car. This model may have been only celluloid and paper but the Managing Director of Argylls was interested enough to talk to Burt from early morning to late at night, and sufficiently impressed to agree to start development on this sleeve-valve engine immediately.
Argylls, like many other manufacturers, had been testing a number of different types of engine. Their aim was to find a silent, vibrationless engine with sufficient torque to reduce awkward gear changing to the minimum. One manufacturer, Daimler, had achieved success with their own revolutionary “Knight Engine”. The publicity they had received had been massive and the results were remarkably good. The search for the perfect engine was now on. The Peter Burt design appeared to be far more advanced and sophisticated than Daimlers, so what more successful way could there be of building up Argyll’s reputation than producing a revolutionary silent and vibrationless engine? It was also an opportunity to reduce the credibility of their major Scottish competitor, Arrol-Johnstons, and to show its new Managing Director, Thomas Pullinger, what Argylls were really about.
When Peter Burt and John Matthews met in 1Q09, they certainly knew and respected each other, Matthews as the businessman and Burt as the engineer. Burt’s credentials were impeccable. He was born in Glasgow in 1856, the son of an engineer. At twenty-two, he set up his own business in the East End of the city but it failed. In 1881 he established another, the Acme Machine Company. Two special branches of the business developed one for the manufacture of domestic laundry equipment, and the other for the manufacture of internal combustion engines.
Burt was very much the Victorian inventor, inventing and manufacturing such things as washing machines, mangles, perambulators, stoves, mincing machines and even ice-cream freezers, though it was with the Acme clothes-wringer that the company won a deserved reputation. It was called “the Wringer of the Age”.
The patent files of the Acme Company bulged then with every type of invention. It was even reported that Peter Burt’s father had made a motor car running off town gas. When Peter Burt’s patents division presented Argylls with a new, original, and almost flawless design of motor car engine then, it was no wonder that John Matthews was impressed.
Nevertheless, if Matthews and Argylls were to put money into such a design, they would have to be sure of a return. It was essential that no other inventor would claim rights to it, the design must be as free from patent litigation as possible. Perhaps John Matthews acted too quickly for he immediately began research and development into Burt’s engine, unaware, it seems, of looming patent problems, it was not to be the profitable master patent they had hoped for.
It was decided then, to build a test engine, and so that it could be made as quickly as possible, an existing 15-horsepower Argyll poppet valve engine was used, with as many standard parts as possible. The new engine was to be ca11ed the 15/30.
Peter Burt’s son, Thomas, and an Argyll engineer, William Ferrier-Brown carried out the original research. Brown had just joined Argylls from Austin as designer and chief draughtsman – returned to the company where he had taken his apprenticeship. There was disappointment at first with the now engine, tests showing that it was little better than a standard poppet valved design, but as the testing continued, the output of the engine increased. ‘ Another engine was built and this showed a considerable improvement in output. It became obvious that the power of the engine dramatically improved with age.
Yet there were other problems to overcome, it proved difficult to manufacture a sleeve that was light yet free from distortion and almost impossible to get the engine to run at slow speeds.
Argyll’s new sleeve-valve engine was first shown at Olympia in l911 complete with a chassis that had revolutionary 4-wheel brakes. It was now 18 months since the Argyll experimental car had made its first trial, a drive from Alexandria to London, non-stop, watched by the Assistant Secretary of the Royal Scottish Automobile Club; and three years had passed since the Daimler Company had introduced their own sleeve-valve engine.
In 1905 Charles Knight first took out Patent No. 14,723 for a sleeve-valve engine on the 4-cylinder principle. Later, in 1908, Daimlers abandoned all their poppet valve engines in favour of Knight’s design. It was a remarkably courageous move perhaps the most courageous that had been made in the motor industry up to that time, commercial success and increased sales justified it. Charles Knight had licensed other companies besides Daimlers to use his patent engines and he was under pressure to prove that he really did control these patents and had the right to collect royalties on them. At Olympia in 1911, amidst great publicity, and with the agreement of John Matthews, Knight served a writ on Donne and Willans the agents for the 30-horsepower Piccard-Pictet car, which was fitted with an engine made under licence from Argylls. (The Piccard-Pictet was considered to be the Bolls-Royce of Switzerland). Matthews immediately issued an undertaking to indemnify all purchases of his sleeve-valve engine against legal action. Burt had licensed Argylls with full world rights to his engine, so it was up to Argylls to exploit the patents wherever they could.
Knight, and his partner Kilbourne, issued a writ against the Argyll Company in November 1911, but it was not only in Britain that Knight and Kilbourne were attempting to prove infringement of their patents. In previous years they had taken (unsuccessful action in the French court against other sleeve-valve manufacturers).
They issued the following warning “we wish to warn the British public against being misled by the recent decision in the French courts… where the Patent Law is, in many respects, radically different from the English Patent Laws…we are advised by Counsel and experts that the 1904 English Patent is a Master Patent and is valid, and warn the public that all necessary and possible steps will be taken to uphold this Patent in England, regardless of what any court in any other country may decide”.
Was Matthews aware at an early date that patent action might be taken against him when he exploited the Burt engine? Or did he go straight into expensive research and development without realising the possible consequences? Certainly the public would not buy cars from him if there was a possibility of them being prosecuted personally or of the cars being withdrawn and spares being unobtainable. Yet Matthews was certainly not a newcomer to Patent Law. The Scottish Tyre Company, which he had founded, and of which he was Chairman, had fought with Dunlops over tyre patents for years. Eventually Dunlops had bought Matthews out and given him the Job of Scottish Manager. Perhaps Matthews had hoped to settle out of court or even to force a merger with Daimler, However, it was rumoured at the time that a large investor insisted on court action. Argylls had become aware of the patent problems with the engine very early on.
Burt patented his sleeve-valve engine the month he persuaded Argylls to start development. But after the patent had been applied for, he discovered that a Canadian called McCollum had been granted a similar patent. The search for McCollum began. Through a personal contact of Matthews in the Toronto Evening Telegraph, McCollum was found and invited to come over to discuss the problems. The return telegram was not hopeful. It seemed that McCollum was in negotiations with the French firm of Delaunay Belleville and was about to visit them. He was persuaded to cancel the trip and he met Matthews in London. But the negotiations were not simple. McCollum was a spiritualist. It was an Edwardian fad at; the time, and he relied on the advice he received from his dead father, who played a considerable part in the negotiations. Eventually an agreement was reached with Argylls and so the engine became known as the Burt/McCollum engine.
Argyll’s problems did not end there. It was discovered that a similar specification had been lodged with the Patents office in 1909. The patent being somewhat suspiciously in the names of an engineer and draughtsman who worked at Argylls. This seemed more than a coincidence and Argylls brought an action against the pair. They both contested that they had not been working on the Burt engine while at Argylls and to support their case, the two of them produced a notebook. On one page was a date and technical drawings; this, it was claimed, showed that the drawings preceded the date of the Burt engine. Eventually a settlement was reached in which one side withdrew and the other agreed to amend its patents. But the story had an odd ending, for when the documents were returned, it was found that the engineering notebook and the affidavit supporting it had been lost. No doubt both sides had their suspicions as to who was responsible. The Burt design was no longer a Master Patent.
Argylls tried hard to licence out their Burt/McCollum engine; Wolsely manufactured a 6-cylinder car and even Rolls-Royce tested an engine, depositing £1,000 as an option to manufacture. Delaunay Belleville, Hotchkiss, the German firm of Hansa and the American firm of Pierce-Arrow, all considered using the Argyll engine. However, all negotiations had to remain in abeyance while Court action was pending.
The action against Argylls centred around Knight and Kilbourne’s original 1905 single sleeve-valve engine Master Patent. In court, Argylls tried to prove that the single sleeve-valve patent was neither a Master Patent nor practical and, at their own expense, they built an engine on the lines of the specifications. It worked unfortunately, but, as they had hoped, with very low power. Knight had claimed that their sealing-ring was essential for the operations of any sleeve-valve engine and by using it, Argylls were breaking their patent. Argylls, as cunning as ever, wired to Alexandria for a car to be driven down to London. On its arrival the cylinder head was removed and the court saw that the car had no sealing-ring.
Eventually the court gave a decision in favour of Argylls, Knight and Kilbourne, who appealed but lost; costs were awarded against them. The engine was now ready for exploitation but the litigation had cost Argylls too much time and money, a reputed £50,000.
In 1910 the Argyll Company made a profit of £2,171. In 1911 this increased to £6,649, but at the AGM of that year, the Board were accused of failing to cash in on the general upturn of car sales.
Argyll’s balance sheets certainly show that there was less ready cash available, £61,000 in 1910, £23,000 in 1911 and £12,000 in 1912. Stocks in hand were massive, valued at £64,000 in 1910, £95,000 in 1911 and £109,000 in 1912. The balance sheets did not look good and by 1912 profits had fallen to £3,500.
The company was turning out a few hundred cars a year in a factory designed to produce at least 2,000. The work force was half of that originally planned by Alex Govan and there was a great deal of space given over to storing cars. The massive recreation hall for “the edification of the workers” was now a show room. Was the Patent litigation putting off prospective purchasers or were the cars just too expensive? Certainly Argyll’s major competitors, Arrol-Johnstons, were able to sell cars. Their cheap, new 15.9 car was so successful that the company was considering putting up a new factory to cope with demand.
Arrol-Johnstons made only one model at this time, whereas Argylls made six. Thomas Pullinger, their Managing Director, had scrapped all previous designs in favour of his new 15.9 car. At the 1910 Motor Show (when the sleeve-valve engine was in development), the Argyll range consisted of a 10-horsepower car at £275, a 12/14 at £285, a 15-horsepower at £355 (Competing with the Arrol-Johnston), an old design of 14/16 £375, a new 20 at £425 and a 6-cylinder 30 at £525. It was a vast and uneconomic range of cars. By 1911 an entire new range had been produced, supplementing the old 10, 20 and 30-horsepower cars.
The new Argyll cars maintained the tradition of well-built, high quality machines. They were visually attractive, their engines and chassis matching the quality of their coach-work. From 1911 their price included many extras which other manufacturers charged for. They even made a fully-fitted picnic model. French-style streamline bodies epitomised the Argyll, not streamlined in the sense of wind-cheating, but in smooth, simple, shapes and lines. The s1eeve-valve 15/30 at over £500 was the most popular car, but it was expensive, within two years £125 had been added to its price, a penalty of the introduction of the sleeve-valve engine. Its competitor, the 15.9 Arrol Johnston, now cost only £375.
Argyll’s costs were beginning to rise alarmingly. Sales had to be increased to cover this, the quality and reliability of the car needed to be demonstrated publicly. So in 19l5, only three months after litigation ended, record-breaking attempts were made with a l5/30 sleeve-valve engine at the Brooklands racetrack, in Surrey.
It was on May 18th that the Burt/McCollum sleeve-valve engine was officially submitted to long-distance trials at Brooklands. The chassis was of a basic type but with an engine fitted with special sleeves to give increased output. “The Brooklands model” developed 43-horsepower against the standard model’s 32-horsepower. It was fitted with the Argyll standard 4-wheel braking system.
W.G. Scott, Argyll’s tester and later a famous driver at Brooklands, drove alternatively with his colleague, L.C. Hornsted, in 3-hour shifts. The car ran continuously over fourteen hours without problems, averaging 72.59 miles an hour and completing the run at 8 o’clock in the evening, with only two punctures. The new 15/30 Argyll broke world records and its achievements were reported nationally.
However, much to the consternation of T.C. Pullinger of Arrol-Johnstons, the record was misreported in “‘The Motor”. The slip occurred through the report being telephoned in from Brooklands over a very bad line and Class B was misheard for Class D. “The Motor” claimed that the Argyll car had beaten the previous record of T.C. Pullinger’s 11.9 Arrol-Johnston. An unfortunate mistake, particularly as details of the Arrol- Johnstons attempt were given. The following week “The Motor” apologised, “Consequently the record set up by Mr. J. Reid on the 11.9 Arrol-Johnston still stands”. “The Motor” continued, “It has been repeatedly stated by the cognoscente of the motor world, or at any rate many of them, whatever advantages could be claimed for the sleeve-valve type of engine, that of high efficiency for racing purposes, could not be upheld. We are, of course, all wise after the event”.
It was a fine achievement, but what was outstanding about the record-breaking success was that a firm who had no experience in track-work or speed had built the car. Success at the Brooklands trials added much prestige to the company; even members of the Board were persuaded to be present at second week of record-breaking.
On their return to Scotland, a civic reception awaited the victorious team. Despite the rain, they drove to Alexandria in a 30-horsepower Argyll chassis decked in the Scottish colours. John Matthews presented each of the team with a silver ‘quaich’ (drinking goblet).
Much of the credit for the success at Brooklands must go to Henri Perrot, Chief Engineer, the only member of the team with racing experience. Some cynical observers claimed that he took the entire stores department from Alexandria to Weybridge as back up. He certainly made sure that every detail of the attempt was carefully planned. It took only 65 seconds to change a tyre and a faulty fuel line was replaced in 7 minutes. The use of 4-wheel brakes must have considerably improved the speed in and out of corners, although Peter Burt unkindly remarked that the ironmongery on the brakes was enough to frighten any car into stopping. Henri Perrot was born in France in 1886. He joined the famous French car firm Brazier on leaving University, and became their Chief Buyer and draughtsman. He was closely involved in their racing successes at the Gordon Bennet Cup Races of 1904 and 1905 (Weir-Darracq cars were competing from Scotland), In May 1907 he joined Argylls and remained there until August 1914 as Chief Engineer. At the outbreak of war he returned to France to join up but instead he was put in charge of the production of aero-engines at the Lorraine-Dietrich Works near Paris. After the war he set up as a Consulting Engineer and even corresponded with Peter Burt over administering the Burt Patent engines in France, though it is with the Perrot braking system that his name will be principally associated. In actual fact, its designer, J.M. Rubary licensed the system to Argylls, however, in 1914, Perrot bought the rights for £200.
Unwilling to rest on their laurels, Argylls decided to develop their racing engine further and in 1914 produced a 17.3 – horsepower engine car of 2.84 litres. However, no record attempts were ever made. The year 1913 showed a slight increase in profits at Argylls and three new Directors were appointed to the Board. Their job was to investigate the company’s financial condition, (it was believed that they were going to re-construst the company).
Argylls were now able to offer the prospective car purchaser the single sleeve 15/30 or the bigger sleeve-valve 25/50; the old poppet valve design 20 (in taxi form), and the12/18 were also available. In July 1915 there was further publicity when Princess Louise, the sister of George VII, christened an Argyll, for Captain Kelsey. Built to cross Africa from the Cape to Cairo, the 25/50 sleeve-valve ‘Louise of Argyll’ proved however, quite unsuitable for the appalling conditions The Daily Mail sponsored the trip but the unfortunate Captain died after being mauled by a iron in the bush.
Another Argyll product, which had little success outside the factory, at least, at the beginning, was the company’s fire tender.
The motor works decided to rent out their new, fast, and up-to-date fire engine to the Vale of Leven Town Council. A retainer of £250 a year was paid with an addition of £1.10s.od. for each fire it attended. The first fire it was called to prove to be a non-event for the fire engine – unfortunately nobody had bothered to check if the hydrants in the Vale were the same as those in the motor works. They were not, and the engine sat and waited impatiently as the fire burnt out.
By now the motor works were by far the largest single employer in the area and had become very much part of the community. John Matthews had even been persuaded to become President of the Vale of Leven’s Amateur Operatic Society.
Princess Louis was once again at the factory in November 1915, this time she visited the site of the new Vale of Leven Garden City, which was to be built as a tenant’s co-partnership scheme with the Argyll workers. She cut the first sod of turf and planted a tree; by December the first house had been constructed.
On December the l6th the company’s Annual General Meeting took place in Alexandria. Two percent of the shareholders were present and a 56% increase in orders was noted, but it was not a pleasant meeting. Questions were asked as to whom had paid for the garden suburb. Was it the contractors, the Building Society or the Argyll Company? Why were the profits so small and the Directors salaries so large compared with their competitors, such as Rovers or the Glasgow lorry firm of Halleys? Why was the company not making industrial motors? Perhaps Mr. Smith, the previous Chairman of the company, expressed most dissatisfaction, “never since the company was re-constituted, have you sent out to the shareholders any information as to what took place at any meeting or anything whatsoever about the company. You have left them in absolute ignorance”.
The Chairman replied that they now manufactured a large variety of motors for every need, and that their Argyll taxi-cab was one of the best of those available. He reported that “the company are building three experimental aero engines for the War Office tests. The War Office has offered very substantial prizes for the best British engine in competition and so far as we can see, this patent engine of ours is likely to develop in many different ways, other than motor cars”. The shareholders were not impressed and tried hard to find out how much it had cost to defend the Burt / McCollum sleeve-valve engine patents. The Directors successfully avoided the question.
The new Argyll aero engine was shown at the 1914 Air Show in London. It, was a 6-cylinder sleeve-valve water -cooled machine with an output of 120-horsepower, however, there were initial problems with crankshafts breaking.
Despite that, Argylls were offered an Air Ministry contract “at a price which would have covered all expenses ” but events overtook them.
In March 1913 Argyll’s shares stood at 5/6d; the following week, when the High Court judged in favour of them, over the Burt / McCollum patents, their shares rose to 6/3d. In January (1914) further price cuts were announced after discussions with the Agents. The company claimed that they had produced a sufficient number of single-sleeve-valve engines to cover the cost of development and that now manufacture could go ahead freely. Only the sleeve-valve engine would now be available and in February, 26 orders were taken. The company was suffering from a shortage of cash however, and attempts at raising further finance failed. By March 1914 the shares had dropped to 4/- and by June 7½d. History was repeating itself, it was like 1908 all over again.
The debenture holders were unimpressed and unwilling to support the company any further, particularly as they could now redeem their stocks, the original 4-year restriction on sales having passed. Only a take-over could possibly save the firm, there were rumours of a deal with Arrol-Johnstons certainly Arrol-Johnstons had money, but their recent move to Dumfries was unlikely to encourage them to purchase a factory over a hundred miles away. Attempts were made to negotiate a deal with Darracq, whereby John Matthews would retain the Bridgeton factory, with its manufacturing outlet, body shops and service department, together with the rights to the sleeve-valve engine. But the Bank of Scotland, Argyll’s major creditor, was unwilling to give its approval. It claimed that the company had been living off it for years, and that it would now take the opportunity of reclaiming its money. In May 1914, John Matthews resigned as Managing Director but remained as a Director. In August 1914, he entered the Services.
At a meeting of the shareholders on June 16th 1914, it was decided to liquidate the company with R.W. Blackman, the then Chairman of only five months, as liquidator. Presiding at the shareholders’ meeting, Blackman claimed that the company should have put its energies and capital into the production of a standard car rather than plunging into the unknown. He reported that the sleeve-valve engine had cost £50,000 to produce and that £5,000 had been spent on developing the aero-engine.
John Matthews made a short, aggressive statement, claiming that the Chairmans report was full of inaccuracies and that the task of restoring the company was child ‘s-play compared with that of the re-construction of 1909 (then its liabilities had amounted to £360,000). He felt that the present deficit of £80,000 was no more “than one might expect for any business of this size and that the company had arranged an overdraft in 1912 of £26,000 and had borrowed an additional £30,000 but it had been paid back in time”. He rejected the estimated cost of £5,000 for the aero-engine and pointed out that the Royal Aircraft factory had already ordered it.
But more interestingly, Matthews claimed that despite the original Darracq offer of £120,000 for Alexandria and two-thirds of the machinery, the Board had blocked it, although it was later increased by a further £20,000. This was the point at which Matthews had resigned. He felt that “a disinterested investigation would reveal a different story”.
The motion for liquidation was nevertheless carried out, but not before William Smith, the company’s Chairman up to the 1909 crash, had claimed that the Management were not fit to “run a hen-coop”. He could talk. Perhaps he was right. One only has to compare the performance of John Matthews with that of Thomas Pullinger at Arrol-Johnstons.
Pullinger had started his Scottish career within four months of Matthews and probably with less cash. He had an empty factory, no marque reputation and no staff. By 1914 Arrol-Johnstons were one of Britain’s most successful car manufacturers. On the other hand, when Matthews became Managing Director of Argylls, he inherited a company with a name, and a huge operational factory making a wide range of conventional cars. His task was to make this profitable. He had two choices, either the Pullinger way, which meant suspending production, reorganising and making one model (not a happy prospect for a man who knew little or nothing about car manufacture), or, Just carrying on and trying to increase efficiency.
Matthews chose the latter option but a third came up eight months later when Peter Burt offered him the chance of re- vitalising Argylls with a new, revolutionary and powerful engine. Argylls could perhaps regain their name and prestige.
The patent litigation, the unwieldy size of the factory, the necessary high price of the cars and the deliberate move away from the carriage trade in the South of England, all led to Azgylls demise. But perhaps the most significant influence was the investors’ lack of enthusiasm and their understandable desire to keep their investments secure. Argyll was just another company on the stock exchange. The Smiths and Govans were no more, since the fire had gone out of Argyll; the company was wound up.
In 1914 the liquidators announced that the land, plant, and works had been purchased by the Admiralty for £153,000 although the works had not been idle, as, since the start of hostilities, it had been used to manufacture ambulances for the Western front. The money for the sale of the works and plant was made over to the debenture-holders and the remainder was transferred to the liquidators. In January, Armstrong Whitley took over the factory for the production of war munitions.
Between 1919 and 1926 the motor works lay empty. Then the Scottish Amalgamated Silks purchased the buildings for £37,500 but nothing came of this. Perhaps the locals were saved from cruel fate for Scottish Amalgamated Silks also purchased the Galloway car factory in Tongland, where many of the local people invested and lost, thousands of pounds, in a company that never started production.
The Vale of Leven had no manufacturer occupying the Alexandria works again until 1935, when it was turned over to munitions, but that too closed. In 1969 Plessey acquired the works, moving out in 1971 but not before the workers had organised themselves into shifts to prevent machinery being removed. The factory closed and the Plessey sit-in came to nothing. Yet one more unhappy event in the history of the Argyll factory.
At the opening of the works in 1905 Alex Govan had said, “in fact, these buildings would stand long after the youngest present had passed into another world.” His prediction came true, but only in part.
The old Argyll works are now part of the Alexandria Industrial Estate; only the warm sandstone and marble facade remains, for it has ‘Listed’ status. The works at the back no longer stand, having been demolished in 1982. The old Argyll works in Bridgeton have also gone and Hosier Street, after which they were named, is only a name on old maps.
However, not all the assets of the Argyll Company were sold off in 1914. When Argylls went into liquidation, the London end of the, business was taken over by a Mr. A.H. Lindsay, who continued to run his Agency into the 60’s, the London show-rooms having long gone.
The rights to the sleeve-valve engine returned to Peter Burt Peter Hurt and with no one manufacturing Burt-engined cars, he decided to start licensing again. His first attempt was to re-negotiate the patents deal with the Swiss firm of Piccard-Pictet whose sleeve-valve car had started the legal battle with Knight and Kilbourne. Unfortunately, because of the war, Piccard-Pictet was unable to manufacture. They wrote to Burt, “since the 1st of August it has been materially impossible for us to build motor cars. Our works were shut as the principal heads of our company had to fulfil their military duties. We have had the greatest trouble imaginable completing the vehicles that were in the course of construction”. Burt’s proposed licence with the German Hansa company also produced problems. His legal advisers thought that he might be prosecuted for trading with the enemy if he continued to negotiate with them, so the licence was dropped. As the war progressed, Burt lost interest in the sleeve-valve engine and became involved in other activities, though he did appoint Piccard-Pictet as his European licensing agents.
On October 15th 1915, a small paragraph appeared in the motoring press announcing that John Brimlow, Argylls ex-Service Manager, had bought from the Receiver, Argylls old Bridgeton works with their service and body-building departments. He proposed to carry on servicing cars and manufacturing parts. Well over 5,000 Argylls had been made in the 15-year life of the company and in 1917 business was sufficiently good for the “Argyll Motor Company” to be formed; its ultimate intention was to re-introduce the Argyll car after the war.
John Brimlow set up his company with a capital of £50,000, of which £15,000 was his own. His Directors included his old colleagues from the Vale of Leven – John Harrison of the Harrison engineering works, one of the origina1 suppliers to Alex Govan. Sir John Anderson, who built the Alexandria works, and John Ferguson, an early Argyll Director, subsequently John Brimlow’s brother, Charles, became one of the Directors. In 1920 the Argyll Motor Company was in the position to “offer again” a car for sale. It must have been an important part of their strategy for the number of pre-war cars and taxis requiring servicing was diminishing rapidly, and the public was hungry for new cars. But John Brimlow wasn’t merely resuming manufacture. He was following in the Argyll tradition; the new model would be a quality car using the Burt/McCollum sleeve-valve engine. Motor World reported that John Brimlow “believed in the sleeve-valve engine and from the beginning, and before long, his faith would probably be completely justified by its very extensive adoption, although that would not benefit himself or his company beyond demonstrating their original foresight”. In 1919 Peter Burt granted Wallace Engineering of Glasgow, rights to manufacture his sleeve-valve engine under licence. In the following year Argylls obtained a specific licence to manufacture and use sleeve-valve engines in their cars, taxis and light vans. The old 15/50 was re-designed and appeared, for the first time, at the Motor Show of 1920. A year later, the car was reviewed by ‘Motor World’. Its most notable feature was its pulling power, “very few motorists will take their first run in an Argyll car without being very early surprised by the pulling power in top gear. Naturally a car that is so good in flexibility has a very fair power of acceleration in this matter. The Argyll is not exactly wonderful perhaps, but it will fare favourably with the average 20-horsepower car. Road-holding we do not consider remarkable, any way or the other. Maximum speed in our hands proved to be 47 miles-an-hour.” these were the days of uncritical reviews and manufacturers expected praise, not criticism. The ‘Motor World’ review must have been kind to the Argyll, for it obviously did not outshine its cheaper competitors. It is believed that only 11 of the f.900 15/30 Argyll cars were ever produced. Other well-known similar makes were the Humber 15.9 at £850, the Talbot Darracq at £895 and the Arrol-Johnston 15.9 at a paltry £600.
In 1921 the Wallace engineering company developed a more attractive engine, the 11.4 or Mark N. It proved to be the last of the sleeve-valve Argylls. Several hundred were made, its neat 1400cc engine developed a respectable 30-horsepower, it was claimed that it only needed de-carbonising every 30,000 miles; this would compare very favourably with the standard poppet- valve engine at 10,000 miles. Like the 15/30, its tog gear flexibility was exceptional. Unfortunately, the two that entered the R.A.C.’s small cars trial made no impact, the trial confirming the general belief that sleeve-valve engines consumed considerable amounts of oil.
In 1,000 miles 14 pints had to be poured into the crankcase, twice what one might have expected. In 1920 a fast Tourer model costing £475 was manufactured, with 50% more power than its smaller brother. A year later Argylls showed again at Olympia but this was the last time. Wallace, who had developed the engine, were closed down by the Liquidator in 1925; Brimlow purchasing their entire stock of engines and parts. Wallace engineering had accepted the European agency for Burt engines in 1920 when Piccard-Pictet went into bankruptcy. To their credit, Piccard-Pictet had managed to manufacture two types of sleeve-valve cars, one with an impressive 8-cylinder engine.
As part of his agreement with Wallace in 1920, Burt had agreed to carry out more research into the sleeve-valve engine through his research and development subsidiary, the Acme Company. For their own part, Wallace agreed to manufacture a sleeve-valve tractor, where the high torque of the engine could be used to good advantage. There was competition for the rights to the engine, with Henri Perrot, from France, the ex-Chief Engineer at Argylls, showing interest; as did Robert McKay, another ex-Argyll employee, (A Canadian business colleague of Argylls ex-Managing Director of 1907, Andrew Thomson).
In 1921 Wallace appointed Jules Haltenberger as their American representative. Haltenberger granted a licence in 1922 to General Motors to manufacture the Burt engine. But Haltenberger had more grandiose ideas and arranged a meeting with Louis Chevrolet, the founder of the Chevrolet Motor Company; and now an independent engineer. Chevrolet had designed an advanced touring car at a cost of £25,000, which he called the Frontenac. He had successfully, fitted a Burt 8-cylinder sleeve-valve engine into the car, but unfortunately the Frontenac Company was pennyless, Chevrolet and his partner Jacoby, personally owing Peter Burt a £10,000 licence fee. Chevrolet offered to loan his car to Jules Haltenberger at any time and place and to demonstrate it to prospective licensees as recompense. Haltenberger wrote to Burt, “this is an irreplaceable asset in our hands, in fact, the use of this car could re-open to us, fields unreachable in the past”. Haltenberger had, by the next year, demonstrated his car and interested the Yellow Cab Company and Chryslers. He believed that American companies were now competing for sales on engineering details and, therefore, the sleeve-valve engine was an attractive proposition. He said, “sheer rivalry in the business makes our position even stronger than ever”. In 1926 Continental Motors took up the manufacturing rights, but they did little with them – the engine did not become the success that Jules Haltenberger had hoped.
In Britain, Vauxhall tested a Burt 4-cylinder sleeve-valve engine in l924, and in 1926 manufactured their S-type car, using a 6-cylinder version, but with little commercial success. It was even tried in a bus, the AEC Company built two proto-types but they never went into production. In 1927 the Burt sleeve-valve engine was being manufactured again in Scotland, this time by Arrol-Aster, the new company formed by the merger of Arrol-Johnston and Aster Engineering of Wembley – Arrol-Aster were in liquidation by 1931.
By the late 20’s Argylls were in a poor financial state, they announced a 6-cylinder 17.9 sleeve-valve car but it was never made. The Bridgeton factory returned to servicing the old Argyll cars.
By now John Brimlow and his brother, Charles owned most of the company’s capital, with John Anderson owning the vast majority of the remaining worthless shares. There were debts of over £34,000. On the 17th November 1932, Brimlow was appointed liquidator and the works finally closed, Brimlow becoming commercial Sales Manager for the Scottish Motor Traction Company. The Argyll Motor Company wasn’t finally wound up until 1963, for John and his brother Charles seemed to have lost interest in it.
Peter Burt’s engine was of a truly Scottish design but it never really succeeded as a motor car power-unit. However, it did have a future. In 1924, Frank Halford, who had helped to develop Arrol-Johnstons, aero-engines in Dumfries, made contact with Burt’s Acme Company. Representing the Consulting Engineers, Riccardo & Company, he hoped to develop the sleeve-valve design for aero-engine use and Riccardo took up engineering rights. It was another ten years though, before the sleeve-valve engine finally vindicated its followers. In 1934 the Bristol Aeroplane Company used the Burt design as a basis for their sleeve-valved air-cooled aero-engines, fitting it to such famous World War II aircraft as the Beau fighter and the Wellington. Peter Burt lived to see this, he died in January 1944, his Acme company was wound up twenty years later.
Bonhams Auction House