The Motor Mills – Daimler Works & Powerhouse

Foundation of the Daimler Motor Syndicate and the UK’s First Car Factory.

The Motor Mills Daimler Coventry

In 1885, in Germany, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach created a carburettor which mixed Benzin (petrol) with air allowing its use as fuel and their first operational, petrol-powered, air-cooled engine (Patent #00011938t 36-423 Impff & Sohn ‘Vehicle with gas or petroleum drive machine’) was running and for test purposes it was fitted to a specifically-designed motorcycle.  This vehicle was named the Reitwagen (riding car) and Maybach rode it for two miles (three km) alongside the river Neckar, from Cannstatt to Untertürkheim, reaching 7 mph (12 km/hr).

Also in 1885 Karl Benz built a three-wheeled motor-waggon and was granted a patent for it dated 29 January 1886.  By 1887 Daimler had bought a factory and was producing engines, initially for use in boats and then in 1889 he exhibited a petrol engined car in Paris.

Daimler Motor Syndicate

In 1891 in the UK Frederick Simms took up an agency for the Daimler System engines and acquired the British rights, which included the rights to sell in the British Empire and Dominions.  A letter written by him on 8 February 1891, to his London solicitor contains the first recorded use of the term ‘motor car’. ‘I have started a department for petrol motor boats and cars,’  he wrote, ‘and I have concluded an agreement with the Daimler Motor Company of Cannstatt which has just been turned into a limited company. I am going to exhibit a motor car at the German Exhibition at Earls’ Court, London, and I want to run a beautiful motor boat on the Serpentine.’

Daimler decided to lend Simms one of their motor launches.  This was a good move as the existing Locomotives on Highways Act in Britain made it virtually impossible for Simms to import a Daimler Motor-Wagen (motor-car) for demonstration purposes.  For the Earl’s Court Exhibition a single Daimler 1 hp engine was shown on the Dresden stand driving a chocolate-making machine.  Not quite what Simms had in mind.  Undaunted, he despatched his German mechanic Johann van Toll to make ready the Daimler boat, which was operational by May 1892 on the River Thames by Putney Bridge.

The Daimler agency proved so successful that in 1893 Simms founded the Daimler Motor Syndicate.  The motor launch business flourished and Simms rented a railway arch beneath Putney Bridge Station, for £25 per annum, as a workshop.  In 1895 Simms announced his plans to form the Daimler Motor Company Limited, to build Daimler engines in this country.

One of those who had purchased a Daimler-engined launch was the Hon. Evelyn Ellis, a wealthy landowner.  He also purchased a Daimler-powered Panhard et Levassor motor car in Paris and for some time kept and drove it in France, as the unreasonable Highways and Locomotives Act of 1878 meant he was unable to run the car on British roads.  However, after a change in the Act on 3 July 1895 and the car was licensed by Daimler Motor Syndicate, it arrived in Britain, Ellis drove the 3½ hp car from Southampton docks to his home at Datchet in Berkshire, a distance of about 70 miles (113 km), at an average speed of 8 mph (13 km/hr) without incident, either mechanical or from the law.  Ellis had collected Simms from Micheldever Station, north of Southampton and Simms accompanied him the rest of the way to Datchet.  HRH The Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) had his first ride in a Daimler motor car in 1896 – Ellis’s Daimler-engined Panhard – and, although slightly alarmed, was suitably impressed.  Apparently the Prince of Wales told Ellis not to drive “so fast”.  The Prince had first ridden in a motor car on the Continent in 1893.

1896 Advertisement for The Daimler Wagonette
from The Great Horseless Carriage Company

Following a very profitable purchase and flotation of the Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre Company, Henry J Lawson had formed the British Motor Syndicate and started buying up patents in an attempt to gain control of the nascent British motor industry.

Before Simms had managed to produce a single car, on 15 October 1895, Lawson’s syndicate offered Simms £35,000 to acquire his Daimler patent rights.  Simms sold out  (paying his original investors back two-fold), but remained as a consultant, and the new Daimler Motor Co. Ltd. (DMC) was registered by Lawson on 14 January 1896.

Gottlieb Daimler was appointed to the board for two years, but there is no record of him attending any meetings.

The Hon. Evelyn Ellis was listed as a director in the prospectus.  Lawson wasn’t listed, possibly to keep his name out of the press due to some of his previous financial dealings, although he was subsequently nominated to the board and became the Company’s first chairman.

The Motor Mills – Daimler Works

One of the first undertakings by the directors of the new Daimler company was to visit the Continent to study French (Peugeot, Panhard et Levassor and de Dion Bouton) and German (Daimler and Benz) motor car production.  What emerged as paramount was the need for a factory; locations in Birmingham and Cheltenham (preferred by Simms) were considered.

1905 Daimler Works

At the March 1896 board meeting Lawson recommended the purchase of a factory in Coventry by the Canal, a former cotton mill from the now defunct Coventry Cotton Spinning & Weaving Company.  This was empty and had been rebuilt by insurers following a fire in 1891.  It also happened to be owned by one of Lawson’s financial friends, Ernest Terah Hooley.  The board agreed the purchase for £18,000, with Hooley receiving a cheque for £4,000 that day.  Daimler’s ‘Motor Mills’ was born.

Daimler started producing cars and had a non-running mock-up by the end of 1896 with working cars being delivered from 1897.  After a period of financial restraint in mid-1897 business picked up and at the end of February 1898, Daimler had sold and delivered 89 complete vehicles or motors and frames, plus 24 engines for other applications.

In June 1898 the factory’s name was changed from ‘Motor Mills’ to ‘Daimler Works’. 

Pioneer motorist John Scott Montagu, heir to the first Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, ordered a 6 hp Daimler which arrived in the summer of 1898.

HRH The Prince of Wales had not forgotten his ride in Ellis’ Daimler and when staying at Warwick Castle asked for Daimler to supply cars for him to sample.  Together with his friends in the house party the cars were driven around the local area (they drove south to Compton Verney) and fuelled the Prince’s interest in the motor car further.  A year later John Montagu drove the Prince in his new four-cylinder Daimler.  The Prince of Wales was now more than keen to own a car of his own and asked Lord Montagu to bring the car up to London for the Prince’s staff to examine.  Lord Montagu agreed and in 1900 the Prince of Wales ordered his own car from Daimler.  This was a 6 hp model with phaeton bodywork by Messers Hooper of St. James’s Street, painted in chocolate and black.  Daimler employee Sydney Letzer delivered the first Royal car to Sandringham on 28 March 1900 and Letzer was appointed ‘Mechanician to the Prince of Wales’ as the first Royal chauffeur.  The King (ascended to the throne in 1901) ordered his second Daimler in 1902 and awarded the company a Royal Warrant.

By 1902 Daimler had an excellent board of directors – under the Chairman Sir Edward Jenkinson and a 30 year old engineer Percy Martin was appointed as manager of Daimler Works.  Martin drew up plans to expand the range of models on offer.  The early look of a wagon without a horse attached had given way to a more recognisable image of the motor car.  Generally the car had been greatly improved and was becoming easier to own and operate, although they were still expensive.  For example, the Daimler 9 hp chassis was priced at around £500, the 12 hp £725 and the 22 hp at £1,200.  To these figures had to be added the bodywork and accessories.

The Company’s financial position started to improve throughout 1902 and it was able to report a return to profit at the AGM at the end of 1903.  But 1904 saw problems return through a reduction in sales.  A reconstruction scheme was drawn up and the old Daimler Company was wound up and a new company formed as the Daimler Motor Company (1904) Ltd. with capital of £200,000 in the name of Ernest Instone as trustee.  This company acquired all the assets of the old one and discharged all the debts.  At the first annual meeting of the new (1904) company Sir Edward was able to report a profit of £83,167 compared to only £7,334 for the previous year.  Martin’s efforts were rewarded with a substantial bonus of £3,400.  His starting salary at the end of 1901 had been £500 with a possible bonus of another £200!

Daimler Powerhouse

Daimler Powerhouse Generator

When Daimler bought the Cotton Mills in 1896, to become the Motor Mills, one of the attractions of the site was that there was an Electricity Power Station right next to the factory which supplied electricity for the whole of Coventry.

Unfortunately the rapid growth of Coventry and its industry, had caused power outages that interrupted production and could damage the machining of components.

In 1907 Daimler built their own electric power station on the factory site – The Daimler Powerhouse which was to provide the factory with a stable, reliable source of power right up until WWII.

Daimler grew rapidly and became a major employer in Coventry and by 1910 the factory in the Radford area of Coventry was employing  4,000 people producing 200 cars a month.

In September 1910 the Daimler Motor Company, including the whole of the Radford site, was bought out by the Birmingham Small Arms (BSA) company.

The Great War

The Daimler factory workers were on their annual holiday on 4 August 1914 when England declared war on Germany and World War One started.  Immediately, the War Office sought out all motor manufacturers and commandeered every motor car and commercial vehicle on the premises.  The Company contacted all its depots and within a week had sent over 200 cars to the assembly area at Hyde Park in London.  They were quickly marked ‘W↑D.’ (War Department) and ferried to various depots prior to being taken overseas.

Daimler products were ordered in quantity; especially ambulances, box-vans, open trucks and wagonettes.  The workforce was supplemented by a number of Belgian refugees who came to Coventry and were employed at the Daimler Works throughout the war years, enjoying all the rights and privileges of their British counterparts.  Tractors were manufactured in conjunction with Foster’s of Lincoln, fitted with 105 hp Daimler engines and adapted for road use to pull large guns and ammunition to the front line.

The Radford factory manufactured large calibre shells and aircraft engines, the first being the French Gnome rotary engine.  Daimler had no drawings but were sent an example to copy and the engineers made a full set of drawings within a week and within eight weeks a prototype engine was running.  The manufacture of large cylindrical components for the sleeve-valve engine meant that Daimler’s skills were particularly suited to the manufacture of parts for rotary aero engines.

With skills in making car bodies it was a logical step to progress from making aero engines to making complete aeroplanes and Daimler went on to build the following ‘planes under licence: Bristol BE 2c (building 100 by the end of 1914); BE 12; RE8 (300 built) and De Havilland DH10 (building 80 per month by the end of 1918).

The fields next to Daimler Works was bought by the Company and turned into an aerodrome for the duration.

Following Daimler’s work on the Foster Tractors, the Landships Committee formed by Winston Churchill investigated the production of new ‘engines of war’ that could cross trenches and broken ground.  This lead to the design and construction of an armoured vehicle with caterpillar tracks, powered by a Daimler sleeve-valve engine, that was nicknamed ‘Little Willie’.  The following version ‘Big Willie’ passed its tests in January 1916 and the British Army ordered one hundred ‘Mark I Tanks’ in February 1916 and fifty ‘Mark II Tanks’ in April.

1938 Visit of King George VI

Inter War Years

Car production resumed in 1920 and Daimler changed their way of doing business and instead of selling direct to their customers they decided it was time to build a network of dealers and service agents.

The business continued to grow throughout the 1920s and 1930s and the factory was extended in 1938, doubling its capacity.  King George VI visited the site in 1938 and was driven round in a Daimler which had been manufactured for his grandfather, King Edward VII, in 1899.

In March 1939 Daimler opened a works museum containing a number of early Daimlers and the prototype Lanchester from 1895-96.  BSA had taken over the Lanchester Company at the end of December 1930 and merged it into the Daimler operation.  They were the first British car company to open a museum and at the same time they opened a new sports and social club on the site of the WWI airfield.

World War II

1940 Daimler Works at Radford After the Blitz

The Daimler factory suffered extensive bomb damage in the 1940 Blitz with the exception of the office block on Sandy Lane and the Powerhouse.  The museum, including the early Lanchester car were also destroyed.

When Coventry was bombed severely on 14 November 1940, what became known as the Coventry Blitz, many factories in or near the city centre were put out of action or badly damaged.  But raids on Radford and Daimler’s other plants were not restricted to just that one night.

Later it was found that over 150 HE bombs (over 38,000 lbs – 17,200 kg), 3 land mines (8,000 lbs – 3,600 kg), 17 delayed action bombs which did not explode, and numerous incendiary bombs had fallen on the Radford factory.

Some work and personnel from Radford were transferred to the Allesley (Browns Lane) factory to plan resumption of production.  Some of the Daimler employees who had been made homeless as a result of the bombing were given shelter in the accommodation block.  As well as moving large amounts of production to Browns Lane, Shadow Factory No 2, work was spread over a much wider area so that the company and war production would not be so reliant on the City of Coventry.

Post War and Jaguar Takeover

The factory site was cleared and new factory buildings erected but the Powerhouse survived the redevelopment.  By the 1940s Coventry Climax had moved onto the site and it boomed as a centre of innovation and production.  The power generating machinery was removed from the Powerhouse and the building was used by Coventry Climax, for testing its latest product –forklift trucks.

The Daimler Company struggled to make healthy profits during the 1950s and in 1960 when Sir William Lyons of Jaguar Cars approached BSA Managing Director, Jack Sangster with a request to buy the Daimler factory in Radford, BSA decided to sell the whole company to Lyons.  By November 1960 the whole of the Daimler site was in the ownership of Jaguar Cars Ltd with Jaguar moving all their engine production from their Browns Lane site to Radford.  Production of Daimler buses continued on the site and while under Jaguar ownership Daimler became the second-largest (after Leyland), double-decker, bus manufacturer in Britain, with the “Fleetline” model.  Daimler also made trucks and motorhomes.  In 1968 British Motor Holdings (BMC and Jaguar Cars had merged to form BMH in 1966), merged with the Leyland Motor Corporation to form the British Leyland Motor Corporation.

Production of buses at Radford ceased in 1973 when production of its last bus product (the Daimler Fleetline) was transferred to the Leyland plant in Farington.

While Jaguar was under Ford ownership (1989 to 2007) the company was re-structured and the Castle Bromwich factory north of Birmingham became Jaguar’s main car production site.  Production of Jaguar’s engines was transferred to the Ford plant in Bridgend in South Wales and the Radford site was closed and sold off to Wigley Group.

The Site After Daimler

Much of this site has been re-developed for housing while some of it remains as the Sandy Lane Industrial Estate.  The remaining large steel framed buildings have had a number of uses over the years: car and general storage, warehousing, logistics depot.

The Daimler Powerhouse still stands and today (2021) is occupied by Imagineer Productions who bring the world of arts and engineering together.  Their Godiva project for the 2012 London Olympics and the annual festival they organise in Coventry have brought quality and innovation to a Coventry product just as Daimler did in the past.

Imagineer Productions’ successful grant application for the redevelopment of the building as a modern arts space as part of the 2021 Coventry City of Culture programme will see yet another important chapter in the life of the Daimler Powerhouse.

The following article, extracted from CoventryLive, gives a brief history of the building and its transformation for the 21st Century. 

Author: Naomi de Souza, Community Reporter.

A former worker shared his memories ahead of the old car factory’s transformation into an arts hub

Life on production line at Coventry’s world famous Daimler building

8th October 1946 – The Coventry Climax Engines ET199 powered the first British-produced forklift truck, seen here being demonstrated by a girl worker at the Coventry factory, lifting a large racing car weighing nearly one and a half tons.

The fascinating history of Coventry’s Daimler Powerhouse building has been brought to life through an extraordinary account.  A former motor industry worker has shared his memories of his time in the world famous factory ahead of its transformation into an arts hub.

As reported by CoventryLive, the old factory building is being turned into a £2.4 million creative hub for artists, ready for UK City of Culture which starts in May.

The Radford based Daimler Building has long had a reputation as a centre of excellence.  From being the first car factory in Britain to the creators of the first British Fork Lift Truck, the building was part of Coventry’s beating industrial heart.

As final touches are put on the hub, Coventry resident and former motor industry worker Albert Smith has shared his memories from inside the Daimler building.

Production line memories

Albert began his apprenticeship at the factory in 1944 aged just 16.  He said: “I have a lifetime of memories working in the automotive industry in Coventry and it was wonderful to share those memories of both the people and the manufacturing achievements made in the City and at the Daimler Powerhouse.  I was delighted to see and hear about the memorable features of the Powerhouse being maintained and to hear how engineering and creativity are still at the heart of the building, I look forward to coming back to visit.”

21 June 1966 – HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh
visits Coventry Climax

Albert actually worked as a junior draftsman on the design of the first British forklift truck the Coventry Climax ET199.

He carried on working at Coventry Climax with two short breaks, at GEC and Morris Motors at Courthouse Green, before finally leaving to work at The Standard Motor Company in 1953.  After some years working for the Ford Motor Company in Canada in the late 1950s, he returned for a job at Coventry Climax as Technical Sales Manager in 1960.

Part of his role included accompanying inspectors, working for large companies and ministry departments, on visits to the Power House at Sandy Lane to check the stability and design features of the forklift trucks, which they had ordered, before they were dispatched.  He left in 1976 to form his own company.

Albert highlighted to CoventryLive some of the striking features of the building including the crane, which could travel the whole length of the building, which is being restored as part of the development so that it will continue to be seen throughout the building and will be a part of the new aerial rig going into the development.

History of the Daimler Powerhouse

In 1960 Jaguar Cars bought the whole of the Daimler Company from its parent company, BSA and then in 1963 Jaguar Group also bought Coventry Climax who were already based at Sandy Lane.

What is the Daimler Powerhouse Project?

The Daimler Powerhouse Project will complement The Wigley Group’s own plans to transform the Sandy Lane Industrial Estate into Daimler Wharf, an attractive new neighbourhood.  The creative hub will be focused primarily on outdoor arts and is an integral part of Coventry’s year as City of Culture 2021, as a production centre for major performances.

2021 – A computer-generated image of the new Daimler Powerhouse creative hub for artists

The project is being led by Imagineer Productions, a creative company specialising in cultural events including the award-winning Arts Council England projects Godiva Awakes (2010-14) and Bridge (2018-20), which is based on the site at Sandy Lane Business Park.

Daimler Powerhouse is funded through £1.9 million from the Cultural Capital Investment Fund which is resourced from Coventry City Council and the Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership’s (LEP) Growth Deal.

As the Daimler Powerhouse continues to take shape, Imagineer are bringing the history of the building to life through restoring elements of the original building and through encouraging people who worked at the Daimler Powerhouse to share their stories.


Authors: Tony Merrygold with CoventryLive content from  Naomi de Souza Community Reporter

© Text and Images – CoventryLive – Coventry Telegraph and Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust