coventry transport museum
history in the making
Coventry's Transport Museum is Britain's biggest collection of historic cars, bikes and cycles. And you don't need to be an enthusiast to enjoy a visit. Jonathan Crouch went along for a look
If Britain is the home of the motorcar, then Coventry's Transport Museum is without doubt the home of British motoring history. If you thought that title rested with London's Science Museum or Lord Montague's collection in Beaulieu, then think again. It's in Coventry that you'll find the largest collection of British road transport in the world. And it's free to visit.
In fact, even motoring enthusiasts are usually shocked by the sheer scale of this museum. It includes over 240 cars, commercial vehicles and buses, 94 motorcycles, over 200 bicycles, 25,000 models and around a million archive and ephemera items. Amongst this lot, there's a huge variety in the exhibits. The oldest item is a Hobby Horse dating back to 1818, whilst the newest is the 2001 bike used by Steve Knight, the British Mountain Bike Champion.
The slowest vehicle is an 1897 Daimler (capable over just 12mph) while the fastest is Richard Noble's famous ThrustSSC (which managed 763mph in its pursuit of the World Land Speed Record in 1997). Every exhibit has some connection to the City of Coventry - though since the City is well established as the cradle of the British Motor Industry, that remit covers almost every vehicle you might care to name.
In its time, Coventry has had 271 cycle makers, 111 motorcycle makers and 136 car and commercial vehicle builders, coachmakers and component manufacturers. As far as car makers are concerned, just two remain in the City - Jaguar and LTI (who manufacture the famous London Taxi). Under the surface however, petrol still flows through the veins of this proud Midlands community. Its University for example, is still recognised as a world leading starting point for car designers of all nationalities.
The museum's collection started to be formed as far back as the 1930s by Horace Wilton 'Sammy' Bartleet, a local collector, and ever since has been a focal point for those wishing to assure historic vehicles of all kinds a dignified final resting place. The museum has a refreshingly eclectic definition of the word 'historic' too. It might equally well apply to the Austin Metro Lady Diana used when pursued by the Fleet Street paparazzi when courting Prince Charles as to John De Lorean's ill-fated 1982 stainless steel sportscar. Both are of course in the collection.
Within the almost endless halls, you'll find roadgoing cars going back to 1897 (yes, they still take them out and use them), including the oldest surviving examples of the Riley, Hilman and Siddley marques. You'll find exhibits as strange as a 1900 'Freak' Cycle and as significant as the 1888 Rover Safety Cycle, the machine that paved the way for all future two-wheeled transport.
Few people today realise what an important role the bicycle played in the eventual development of the motorcar. Certainly, most of Coventry's most notable car makers - names like Rover, Riley, Humber and Hilman - were all previously cycle manufacturers before moving into the apparently more profitable world of car manufacturing. And profitable it initially was. By mid-way through the last century, over 60% of Coventry's population were devoted to the business of making cars.
Of course, that made it all the worse when the almost inevitable crash came in the Seventies as, one by one, the factories closed down, taking with them, the hopes and dreams of a generation. Many of those hopes and dreams are also preserved in the museum. You can relive what it was really like to work in one of those busy factories in the boom years of the Fifties and Sixties. At the same time, your kids can design their own cars of the future, using some of the same technology employed by designers of today.
The Museum first opened as the 'Museum of British Road Transport' in 1980 but has recently been much improved with a £7.5 million revamp, with new developments having increased its size by some 17,000 square feet, making a total of 125,000 square feet of exhibiting space - three times the size of Beaulieu and twice the size of the Heritage Centre at Gaydon. Free admission was introduced in 1998, opening up the history of the place to a wider audience than ever before.
Today, the Museum's collection is 'Designated' as a collection of national importance - part of a Department of Culture, Media and Sport initiative. The Museum is one of only 62 collections to receive 'Designated' status. Even before the recent redevelopment, the Museum attracted on average 140,000 visitors a year, placing it in the top 2% of museums in the UK. Of these very few will attract as many children, a demographic group accounting for an astonishing 44% of the total number of visitors.
An increasing number of companies are using the Museum too, taking advantage of the Conference facilities that enable a very different and interesting venue to be used that showcases technology of all kinds.
The Museum is open every day from 10am to 5pm and admission, as we've said, is completely free. For more information, visit www.transport-museum.com or call 024-76383 2425.