EARLY IN 1900 a young Scottish engineer, resplendent in tall silk hat and frock coat, walked into the grandly named Automobile Palace on London's Holborn Viaduct, a few doors from where the notorious Harry Lawson's company was still trying vainly to assert its patents monopoly over the motor industry. Alex Govan was seeking contracts to keep his Glasgow engineering company afloat while he developed a light car, and asked the owner of the Automobile Palace, Charles Friswell, whether there was anything he needed. "More of these Renault baby cars," Friswell replied, adding that though he could sell all he could get of the sensational new model, delivery from the makers in Paris was lamentably slow. "If delivery is your only trouble, Mr Friswell," said Govan, "then I'll build you some copies!" He left Holborn Viaduct with an order for 25 replicas of the new Renault. From that chance order sprang the most grandiose venture in the early history of the British motor industry, the Argyll factory on the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond. It might have made southern Scotland the centre of the British motor industry instead of the Midlands.
With no great engineering tradition, Coventry was hardly a natural starting point for the British motor industry in 1896. Frederick Simms, whose 1893 Daimler Motor Syndicate was the seed from which that industry sprang, had an option on a purpose-built gas-engine factory with a trained workforce in Cheltenham, but Harry Lawson - who bought Simms's syndicate in November 1895 - chose Coventry so that his friend Terah Hooley could turn a quick profit on a bankrupt cotton mill. The "Motor Mills" had to be cleared of textile machinery before Daimler production could begin.
Once Daimler had started the ball rolling, other companies working in Coventry's traditional sewing machine and bicycle trades jumped on the motor car bandwagon. British cars are no longer built in gilded palaces on the shores of Loch Lomond Coventry was taken by surprise. Its new role resulted in a rapid influx of labour from far and wide, creating an instant housing crisis, with workmen living in gypsy vans or lodging in the casual wards of the workhouse. When 14-year-old Rowland Smith (a future chairman of Ford) joined the city's second biggest motor maker, Humber, he had to live in a tent on the common because there were no lodgings near the bustling Humber works. But many Coventry makers were small and underfunded, encouraging companies outside the industrial Midlands to venture into car manufacture. Manchester boasted a thriving motor industry for many years, but its most successful companies - Ford and Rolls-Royce - moved south when they needed to expand, and firms like Crossley and Leyland found the manufacture of commercial vehicles more profitable. The Earl of Shrewsbury & Talbot opened a model motor factory in London's Ladbroke Grove in 1904, but though an "invincible" Talbot was the first car in the world to cover 100 miles in an hour, the company had a peak annual output of only 2,000 cars. Sadly "twinned" with Sunbeam, Talbot moved to Coventry after World War Two. Down the road in Acton, Napier built luxury cars between 1903-24, but metropolitan London was no magnet for the motor industry. However, the Clyde Valley was different. As early as January 1897, coachbuilder John Stirling of Hamilton, Lanarkshire, revealed the first Scottish-produced motor car, though only the varnished wood bodywork was made in Scotland; its Daimler chassis came from Coventry and its Panhard engine from Paris. Stirling said he could deliver a car a fortnight and bought 50 chassis from Daimler for £13,000, but the good times proved shortlived. When in 1902 his company moved to a new factory "specially designed for motor car manufacture" near Edinburgh, the transplant failed to take and car production ceased a year later. Others had already filled the gap: in 1894 George Johnston built a steam tram, but when it went up in flames, he turned to motor cars as a less lethal option. Backed by Sir William Arrol, engineer of the Forth Bridge, he developed a wood-bodied dog-cart powered by a curious flat-twin engine which boasted four pistons and was started by pulling on a rope. Production of this ponderous "Arrol-Johnston Mo-Car" started in 1897 and lasted until 1905 in a Paisley thread mill. The company produced increasingly conventional cars until the late Twenties, though Johnston had resigned in 1907 to chase another rainbow, a luxury car powered by an eight-cylinder engine of unfathomable complexity. In 1899 two former Arrol-Johnston staffmen set up a rival business named "Albion" - a curious choice for an uncompromisingly Scottish company. They also started with rustic dog-carts, but in 1913 abandoned private cars in favour of commercial vehicles, for which demand was more assured north of the border. And then came Argyll. Backed by a £15,000 investment from W A Smith of the National Telephone Company, Govan revealed his prototype in July 1900, its design just different enough from the Renault to avoid litigation. Meanwhile, Charles Friswell, who had already fallen out with Renault, soon fell out with Argyll too, and the Glasgow company took responsibility for its own marketing, with remarkable success. Within four years, the company was Britain's biggest motor manufacturer, building 15 cars a week. It even had a flourishing export business to Australia. In March 1905 Govan transformed his modestly capitalised business into a new company, Argyll Motors Ltd, with a capital of £500,000. The financial press, remembering Harry Lawson's flotations, proved hostile. Govan responded by spending £220,000 on a colossal factory at Alexandria, at the southern end of Loch Lomond. Its offices were, to put it mildly, palatial: faced in red sandstone, they boasted a "towering central dome and flanking pinnacles" covered in gold leaf. Each of the 2,000 employees had his own locker, plus a third share in a marble washbasin, and was provided with a standardised khaki working uniform; £100,000 had been spent on the latest automatic machinery. But to make sense of such a factory, Argyll needed to achieve a far greater output than the projected 2,500 cars a year: it never even came close. The range was too complex and too much time was spent in hand-finishing. Alex Govan died of food poisoning aged 38 in May 1907; Argyll went into liquidation in July 1908 and 1,500 men were laid off. The company was reconstructed and even proved mildly profitable at first. However, output collapsed to 240 cars in 1909, a lawsuit over sleeve-valve engine patents ended in a Pyrrhic victory for Argyll at a cost of £50,000 and the new company was liquidated in June 1914, its management judged "not fit to run a hen-coop". The gilded palace by Loch Lomond was sold to the Admiralty for £153,000 just in time for World War One and became a torpedo factory. It still stands in vandalised decay, one of the saddest might-have-beens of the motor industry.