London's Lost Manufacturing: We Were Once The British Detroit

By Londonist Last edited 13 months ago
London's Lost Manufacturing: We Were Once The British Detroit
Colindale's Chevrolet factory in the 1920s

Much of Britain's car industry, as it was in the past, is based in the Midlands and the north. But London was once home to a number of car, truck and bus makers — factories that have never returned to the capital.

Indeed, London was the home of Britain’s very first motor car; in 1892 Frederick Bremer of Walthamstow constructed his four wheeled vehicle, powered by an internal combustion engine. He ran it on the local roads. The original car can still be seen at Vestry House Museum.

Here, we take a look at some of the plants in action in London during the golden age of the motor vehicle. We're concentrating on motor cars, in particular brands that remain familiar to this day. We didn’t include Ford in Dagenham, as the factory is still there, although these days it manufactures engines, not complete cars.

The Bentley works in the 1920s

Bentley – Cricklewood

Bentley, the oh-so-very British gentleman’s motor car, began in north London. Founder, Walter Owen Bentley, started producing his sporting motors at a purpose built factory on Oxgate Lane, Cricklewood in 1919. It is from here that the famous Le Mans racing cars were made — winning in 1924, and every year between 1927 and 1930.

All the customer cars were only completed as far as an engine (‘rolling chassis’) to be delivered to the customer’s choice of coachbuilder, who then added the bodywork. These coachbuilders were in the main, London-based, and included Vanden Plas of Kingsbury, Park Ward of Willesden, and HJ Mulliner of Chiswick.

Rolls-Royce took over Bentley in 1931, and closed the Cricklewood site the following year. The site is now the Oxgate Centre and sadly, none of the factory buildings exist

Aerial view of the Dodge works in Kew, taken in the 1950s

Chrysler & Dodge – Kew

The American firm Chrysler Motors set up a factory just off Mortlake Road, Kew in the early 1920s. Like a great many American manufacturers, they were able to beat UK import restrictions by assembling shipped, pre-made parts from the USA. These were referred to as complete or partial ‘knock-down’ kits.

Chrysler gave its UK cars the names of Surrey towns to make them more palatable to UK buyers, so there was the Chrysler ‘Kew’ and ‘Wimbledon’, as well as the DeSoto ‘Richmond’ and ‘Kingston’.

Chrysler also owned the Dodge truck company, and these vehicles were produced at Kew too. After the Second World War, truck manufacturing became the site’s main production and the vehicles were known as ‘Kew Dodge’.

The factory was closed in 1967, when production was moved to a factory in Dunstable. Chrysler stopped all UK production of vehicles in the late 1970s. The Kew factory site is now the Kew Retail Park.

A Vauxhall ad from 1904

Vauxhall

Vauxhall has been a familiar British car brand since 1903. However it has been owned by the American company, General Motors since 1925.

The company has its origins in a marine steam engine company called the Vauxhall Iron Works, established by Alexander Wilson in 1857. The original factory was located at 90-92 Wandsworth Road, Vauxhall.

Vauxhall adopted the coat of arms (a griffin with a flag) of the Plantagenet knight, Falkes Di Breauté. This was apt as the site of the factory was built on the land of Falkes’s manor house, or hall. Falke’s Hall became corrupted over time to Fawkes Hall, Fox Hall, Vaux Hall, then Vauxhall. You can see this on the old map below, where the big arrow is pointing.

The company began developing internal combustion petrol engines for small river craft, and then realised their potential for a motor carriage, and in 1903 the first Vauxhall was made. Further factory space was purchased along Wandsworth Road to carry out this work.

By 1905 the Vauxhall Iron Works had decided to concentrate its efforts on motor vehicles, however, the Wandsworth Road factory sites were now too impractical for continued growth and the company moved to Luton. Strangely enough, by co-incidence old Falkes Di Breaute cropped up again, as he also held the old manor of Luton, and so the company’s Griffin badge was just as apt!

A plaque was unveiled on the wall of the Sainsbury’s petrol station at 62 Wandsworth Road in 2003 to commemorate the company’s history in the area.

Hornsey's Lotus showroom in the 1950s

Lotus – Hornsey

Famous for the iconic black and gold Formula One cars of the 1970s — and the submersible white Esprit in The Spy Who Loved Me — Lotus Cars was started by the engineering genius Colin Chapman in the late 1940s. Chapman began by adapting Austin Sevens with lightweight bodies and rented some outbuildings behind the Railway Hotel, off Tottenham Lane in Hornsey. By 1952 his business was doing so well he was able build a factory and showrooms opposite the hotel.

Business continued to boom and the Hornsey operation proved impractical, so Chapman moved the company to Cheshunt in Hertfordshire in 1959. Lotus is now based in Hethel, Norfolk where it's been since 1966

The old factory and showrooms are now a Jewson’s builders’ merchant, and the Railway Hotel last operated under the name Funky Brownz.

Chevrolet trucks rolling off the line in the former Airco factory in Colindale, 1920s

General Motors – Colindale

In World War One the Aircraft Manufacturing Company, more commonly known as ‘Airco’ had a large set of factory buildings on Edgware Road, Colindale. The buildings were enormous, pillar-less spaces, the roof held up by an ‘umbrella’ type construction. Here a huge number of fighter aircraft with the initials ‘DH’, such as the DH4, were produced. The initials referred to the company’s chief designer, Geoffrey De Havilland, who later went on to form his own aircraft company.

When the war ended, Airco, like all aircraft makers were left without customers, and the factory was closed down. In stepped the General Motors company of America, who recognised the value of the large production space. Here they made Chevrolet trucks from pre-manufactured parts shipped over from the United States.

In 1925 General Motors bought Vauxhall Motors of Luton, and therefore no longer needed the buildings in Colindale for motor vehicle production. The factory was turned over to another division of General Motors called ‘Frigidaire’, that, as the name suggests, made refrigerators. But by the 1980s the buildings had gone altogether and the site is now dominated by an Asda.

Acton Renault factory with French subtitles

Renault – Park Royal

Renault built a works near Park Royal on what had been part of the former Acton Aerodrome in 1926. The aerodrome was originally used by the Alliance Aeroplane Company, a company formed by furniture manufacturers to build military aircraft in thre First World War. Two of the huge factory hangars of this company still exist, and are used by a film and TV studio company.

Originally Renault had used the site to store, sell and maintain imported models, but by 1950 the company had started to manufacture cars such as the famous rear-engined 4CV and the Dauphine here. By 1960 though, it had become more economical to simply import French manufactured models. Renault continue to operate from the site as its main London showrooms, as well as for its associated products from Nissan and Dacia.

Although it is just outside of London, it is also worth pointing out that another French manufacturer, Citroen had a factory in Slough. Like other car manufacturers, Citroen decided to beat tough import restrictions by opening their own factory in 1926. Over the years the Slough site produced the famous Traction Avant, 2CV, Bijou and Ami 6 vehicles. Production ceased in 1965.

Thanks to Renault UK, Bentley Motors, and Vauxhall for their help in supplying images for this article.

By Mark Amies

Last Updated 06 October 2016

Malcolm Edwards

I'm slightly disappointed that you missed any mention of the Clement Talbot works in Barlby Rd, W10. Allegedly Britain's first purpose built car factory, construction began in 1903. Although the bulk of the plant is now a housing estate, the main admin block/showroom, known as Ladbroke Hall, still exists. The Talbot name is currently not in use, but it remains, via the Rootes Group and Chrysler UK, part of the history of Peugeot Citroen.

Emma

So how did Rolls-Royce come about in Park Royal then? My grandad was a coach-trimmer (upholsterer) after WW2 at that site until he retired in the late 1970's.