While America has Detroit, Britain has Coventry, its original motor city.
Coventry was an engine room of the automotive revolution, and hosted headquarters and factories from a vast array of companies including Jaguar, Chrysler, Peugeot, Hillman, Riley and Triumph. Today, most are long gone, but its heritage as left it with one of the country’s best motor museums.
Now of course in common with most other museums right now, you can’t actually visit in person. But we did so in 2018, and here are the highlights. Hopefully it’ll whet your appetite to visit it in person once it’s back up and running:
Gwynne Fire Engine (1922)
This machine was produced in 1922 in London. After performing duties in an Essex village, it was sold in 1939 to Marconi, a radio company based in Chelmsford, to help protect its strategically important factory. After a night of heavy bombing in 1941, this little machine helped to stop its destruction, pumping 350 gallons of water-per-minute for 24 hours. It has a little 950cc engine, giving 8bhp and a top speed of 35mph.
Price new: £207
Equivalent price today after inflation: £11,182
Coventry Victor Venus (1949)
There are oddballs and there is the Venus. As its front overhang suggests, it features an engine mounted in front of the front wheels, but then rear-wheel-drive. This prototype went no further, and is the only example in existence. It featured a 747cc engine.
Alvis Front Wheel Drive (1928)
Front-wheel drive was an innovative feature back in the early days of motoring. This car was developed for racing but was very complex. This supercharged example belted out 75bhp and was good for 85mph – both very impressive for the period.
Alvis gradually lost interest in cars, and produced its last in 1967, preferring to focus on military vehicles.
Jaguar XJS Barbie (1990)
This car was first used by actor Omar Sharif in a film set in Bosnia. It was then marooned there during that country’s civil war, and when eventually returned to Britain, it was repainted for Mattel to help launch a new range of its Barbie toys. It features a 5.3-litre V12.
Price new: £33,400
Equivalent price today after inflation: £72,171
Talbot Horizon Turbo (1982)
The Horizon first appeared in 1978 and was sold around the world under other marques like Dodge and Plymouth. This 1.3-litre Turbo version was produced as a concept in Whitley outside Coventry, but went no further than that.
Rover 16/50 (1927)
The body of this car is made of fabric stretched over a wooden frame – a then-popular approach know as a Weymann. It had a 2.4-litre engine capable of all of 16hp.
Triumph Gloria (1934)
This lovely art-deco machine was made in Coventry. It had a top speed of 55mph.
Price new: £250
Equivalent price today after inflation: £17,000
SS Jaguar (1935)
Another car from Coventry, and another one with art-deco features. It had a 1.5-litre 4-cylinder engine, capable of 12hp and 70mph. The model is significant because it gave its name to the Swallow Sidecar Company itself in 1945, given the notoriety that the ‘SS’ initials had acquired during the war.
Price new: £285
Equivalent price today after inflation: £19,200
Queen Mary's Royal Car (1935)
This regal machine built by Daimler was given to King George V and his wife Queen Mary on their silver jubilee in May 1935. The King died less than a year later, but Queen Mary went on using the car until her own death in 1953. It was powered by a 90bhp 3.7-litre V8.
Standard 16 (1935)
This car features a 2.1-litre six-cylinder engine, capable of 16bhp. This car has been fitted with headlight covers necessary to help conserve the ‘blackout’ – the effort to prevent light emissions during the night that could be helpful to enemy aircraft during World War 2; needless to say, this effort brought a horrendous rise in car accidents.
Standard Vanguard (1948)
Desperate to get back into the commercial saddle after the war, this first post-war car from Coventry’s Standard was heavily influenced by American designs. It featured a 2.1-litre 4-cylinder engine capable of 78mph. As Britain was stony broke following the cost of the war, almost all initially were sold for export, many to Germany as it happens. It was also built in Australia and New Zealand.
Price new: £671
Equivalent price today after inflation: £23,200
Daimler Limousine (1947)
Another Royal special, this time given to King George VI, designated State Car number 1. It has a straight eight-cylinder engine.
Armstrong Siddeley Star Sapphire (1960)
Another model built in Coventry, this car features a 4.0-litre six-cylinder engine, capable of 165bhp and a 100mph top speed. 902 examples of this majestic machine were built, but production ended as the company withdrew from the car market in 1960 to focus on aircraft engines. Ironically perhaps, this company that made cars that looked a bit like Rolls-Royces was itself absorbed by Rolls-Royce in 1966.
Price new: £2646
Equivalent price today after inflation: £58,000
Triumph Stag (1976)
This famous British bruiser was actually designed by an Italian, Giovanni Michelotti (1921-1980). Built in Liverpool with final assembly in Coventry, top speed was 115mph, and power came from a 3.0-litre V8.
Price new: £4275
Equivalent price today after inflation: £29,250
Rover P6 2200 (1974)
If you were a bank manager or solicitor in Britain of the ‘70s, this was the sturdy, comfortable and (reasonably) dependable car for you. Power came from 2.2-litre four-cylinder engine, producing 98bhp and a top speed of 108mph.
Price new: £2018
Equivalent price today after inflation: £20,000
Triumph 2500TC Police Car (1977)
This Coventry-made car had a twin carburettor 2.5-litre straight six, giving a very impressive villain-catching top speed of 139mph. It also helped that by the standards of the day, this ‘jam sandwich’ was actually quite reliable.
Peugeot 206 (1998)
For many years the 206 was one of Britain’s best-selling cars. Not many buyers will have been aware that this ‘French’ car was actually built at Ryton, outside Coventry, in a factory that Peugeot had inherited with its acquisition of Chrysler Europe. Sadly the factory died along with the 206 itself in 2006.
Surely the most famous British car, the extraordinary ‘wheels at four corners’ packaging of the Mini gave lots of space and reasonable comfort for the first time in a small car – and all for not much money. 4.6 million were made over 41 years, and the brand was revived with new models after 2001 under BMW.
Price new: £497
Equivalent price today after inflation: £10,900
Jaguar Mark V (1948)
As the last remaining large car company based in Coventry, Jaguars rightly put in many appearances at the museum. The Mark V put in a first appearance at the first post-war British motor show, at Earls Court in 1948. It features a 3.5-litre straight six cylinder engine, capable of 125bhp and a top speed of 91mph.
Jaguar C-X75 Concept (2010)
This advanced hybrid-electric machine was conceived in partnership with the Williams Formula One team during the boom years of the noughties but wasn’t completed until 2010, with a first appearance at that year’s Paris motor show. But the ongoing economic situation clobbered production plans, though the car did get an appearance as a villain-wagon in the 2015 James Bond film Spectre, albeit powered by a conventional 5.0-litre V8.
Thrust SSC Supersonic Car (1997)
Richard Noble broke the world speed record in 1983, with a top speed of 633mph. He conceived Thrust SSC to break his own record, powered by two Rolls-Royce Mk 202 Spey Turbofans, more normally found in the F-4 Phantom fighter plane.
On 15 October 1997, RAF pilot Andy Green broke the record, and also became the first land vehicle to break the sound barrier (Mach 1), recording an average speed of 763mph during two runs over a measured mile at Black Rock Dry Lake in Nevada. Green intends to break his own record in the Bloodhound LSR in 2020.
The museum is currently closed until further notice due to the Coronavirus situation. We hope it gets to reopen soon, and when it does we urge you to pay it a visit - it'a a must for all car fans and those interested in Britain's industrial heritage.
When it is open, normal opening hours Monday - Sunday (including bank holidays) are: 10am - 5.00pm (last admission 4.30pm). Open every day of the year except 24 – 26 December and 1 January. Admission to the museum is FREE, and is a feast for anyone who’s interested in cars in general and the British car industry in particular.
Coventry Transport Museum is located in Coventry City Centre:Millennium Place, Hales Street, Coventry CV1 1JD