Arrol-Johnson, First Four-wheel Brakes and Inventor of Off-road Vehicles (Part I)


We discussed Arrol-Johnston briefly in our Rare Rides Icons coverage of Isotta Fraschini a few days ago. Though the brand didn’t even make it to see World War II, the company’s contributions to the advancement of passenger vehicles make it an important one. Onward, to Scotland!

Arrol-Johnston’s story began with some trains. Locomotive engineer George Johnston was an employee of Neilson and Company (1837-1903), a Glasgow-based firm that was largely a local provider of trains within its home city. In 1894 Neilson contracted with Glasgow Tramways, as the municipally-owned company wanted a steam-powered tram to replace inefficient and hungry horse-drawn trams.

Johnston worked on the tram’s design, but unfortunately, the project didn’t go too well. As Glasgow municipal officials looked on, the tram burst into flame during one of its final beta tests. Locomotive dreams dashed, Johnston decided to work on something else. He spent much time examining European cars in general and ultimately concluded that a car of his own design would be superior to anything presently on offer. With a primary focus on engine design, Johnston worked quickly and had ideas ready for execution in early 1895.

He went in search of money and found two main business partners in the likes of T. Blackwood Murray, and Norman Osborne Fulton. Murray was an electrical engineer and had previously worked in the mining industry, and Fulton was George Johnston’s cousin and had money. Fulton was assigned to the manufacturing part of the operation. Johnston took care of the engine design for the automobile, and Murray’s charge was to engineer its electrical ignition. At the time, Daimler used incandescent platinum tubes in their ignition.

The project car moved along swiftly, and a test car was on the road in Scotland in November of 1895. The car was able to complete a three-hour journey according to The Scotsman newspaper (1855-). It was the first automobile (or Auto-Car) seen in Scotland. The government immediately prosecuted Johnston and claimed he was in violation of the Locomotive Amendment Act of 1878. The Locomotive Acts were early laws in the UK designed to regulate and restrict the usage of “road locomotives,” and other mechanically-propelled horse-free vehicles. The worst restrictions on road vehicles began in 1865 when the government imposed the Red Flag Act. In it, all road vehicles were required to travel at a maximum of two miles per hour in urban areas, and four in the country. All vehicles that had any trailer or wagon attachment had to be accompanied by a man who walked in front of them and carried a red warning flag.

For his part, Johnston argued his automobile was a carriage and did not qualify as a road locomotive. But engineers are not lawyers, and he lost the case and was fined. But the proceedings brought more attention and pressure to amend the restrictive Red Flag Acts, which were stifling investment and advancement of British automobiles.  The Red Flag Act was not lifted until 1896 when the Locomotives on Highways Act allowed motorcars to travel up to 12 miles per hour and without an escort.

Johnston joined with another business partner in 1895, once his prototype was ready. A joint venture with wealthy civil engineer Sir Willam Arrol, Mo-Car Syndicate Limited would build Johnston’s car, branded as Arrol-Johnston. The company was structured with Arrol as chairman and Johnston as the managing director. Mo-Car had three new partner investors as well, and Johnston’s cousin Norman Fulton became the factory manager.

The new factory was sited on the east side of Glasgow at Camlachie, and when production started in late 1895 Mo-Car became the first automobile producer in Britain. The company’s first car was the Dogcart, a sort of a proto-minivan. With seating for six, the arrangement was three rows of two seats. The row at the front was out over the front wheels, while the middle row was where the driver and one passenger were perched. The rear row was over the rear wheels and faced backward, with a drop-down sideboard upon which to rest feet. It was an open wooden wagon of a sled-like shape and had no doors. Six people were protected from the elements by a removable canopy roof supported by thin metal poles.

The Dogcart’s engine was underneath the second and third rows of seats and was a two-cylinder opposed-piston design. Typically such engines are used in very large formats, like those of ships and tanks. Opposed-piston engines are still in use and development today in diesel applications. The Dogcart’s engine made 10 horsepower and was fired up by yanking on a rope. It had a chain drive and was stopped via shoe-type brakes applied on the back of the (solid) rear tires. The suspension was leaf springs at both ends.

The Arrol-Johnston Dogcart found sales success in the very uncrowded car market circa 1895, and the company kept its initial factory open until 1901. An unfortunate fire destroyed it entirely, and assembly moved to a new factory in Paisley, a city that was just to the west of Glasgow. The following year Mo-Car got a new partner, William Beardmore. A wealthy industrialist, he had his own iron and steel components company, creatively named William Beardmore and Company. Beardmore bought up lots of Mo-Car shares and became the firm’s largest shareholder. He then directed Mo-Car to buy its components directly from Beardmore, which they did.

But Beardmore also brought money to the table, and the company restructured itself in 1903 to his liking. Mo-Car had been struggling financially, but with Beardmore’s cash injection remained solvent. However, Beardmore installed a new lead engineer named J.S. Napier. With his extensive checkbook and shareholdings, Beardmore essentially folded Mo-Car into William Beardmore and Company as a subsidiary. Founder George Johnston was not happy with the restructuring and left to start another car company that he named All British Car Company. The enterprise lasted from 1906 to 1908 and built 12 total eight-cylinder cars. That was Johnston’s last notable involvement in automobiles; he passed away in 1945.

Mo-Car existed in its current format for a couple more years, as Beardmore made plans to grow and expand his automotive business in interesting new directions. More on that in Part II.

[Images: YouTube]

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