The leaflet says “transport yourself somewhere different” and that’s what I did this weekend, visiting Coventry Transport Museum as part of my trip to the Midlands and back up to the Toon for Easter.
Coventry, much maligned, is really worth visiting if you want to understand how cars have changed British cityscapes for better and for worse. It is also in my experience full of very friendly people who like what they like, and want you to be you, which is really nice. As well as the Transport Museum, I also visited the Herbert Art Gallery, museum and local history centre, only arriving 20 minutes before closing time. Along with the Cathedral, these three are the main tourist attractions of the ‘Phoenix City’.
What follows is an account of my experience at the Transport Museum and also a bit about the history of the town presented there.
History of Coventry told through Transport
From ribbon weaving, timepiece manufacture and a small sewing machine industry, to cycles and finally cars, Coventry is clearly full of engineers, makers and practical problem solvers, people who can think stuff up and then make it with their own hands. The museum tells this story through a chronological presentation and by dividing the available space into ‘zones’ such as zone 02: “A new motor industry 1900-1914”.
On entry, it smells beautifully like engine oil, produced by the tractors in the temporary exhibition, but perhaps off-putting for cafe goers. It took me back to sometime in my dad’s garage where he was messing around with engine bits from his Coventry made 1959 Alvis saloon, happy and nostalgic.
There is a big ramp and stairway up to the entrance desk and then you are straight into the first ‘zone’. I learnt how Coventry used to make silk ribbons from 1700 to 1860s, which employed half the town. By the 1850s, watch-making and some sewing machine manufacture were the primary industries. I learnt this from a number of key industrialists who speak to you as you go by and are quite attractively illustrated. There are also videos throughout the museum which explain the wider changes taking place, narrated by one female voice and presented very clearly.
The first transport themed display is a timeline of bicycle development which became Coventry’s main source of employment in the second half of the 19th century. The first British bicycles were based on the French ‘velocipede’, but called Hobby Horses after the children’s toy because you moved them much in the same way, i.e. by shoving off the ground with your feet. Between 1868 and 1895, Coventry became the cycling capital of the world, with 30 factories at the end of the period, employing skilled engineers. Between 1870 and 1885, the front wheel of the cycle increased in size towards what we call the Penny Farthing. This was primarily for athletic young men because it was all about speed and required physical strength to control. A whole raft of other machines were invented for less athletic men and for women including the 1881 Singer Challenge Tricycle which had space at the back for women’s billowing gowns, later developed into the Safety Bicycle with dropped frame, guards, gears, brakes and comfortable saddles for men and women. My favourite bit was the explanation and debate about Rational Dress which allowed women to wear practical knickerbockers instead of dresses to cycle in and was debated at the Museum (and in the 1880s) by men writing letters to newspapers. You can hear two opposing views with the best quote being: “If practical female dress is developed from cycling, I’m all for it”.
After the cycling boom, at the turn of the 20th century, Coventry became the centre for the motorcar industry. I really enjoyed the 1910 ‘Trip to London’ installation which saw the train, car, motor bike, pedal cycle and horse and cart race for the capital and arrive in that order. I found my favorite vehicle – the green 1913 Swift Cyclecar which was a hybrid of car and motor bike, lighter and cheaper than many of its contemporaries. Swift were one of 20 car manufacturers in Coventry at that time making a quarter of all British cars, the need for skilled workforce driving up the town’s population before World War One and producing lighter cars intended for mass consumption. There is then a small display about how these factories contributed to the war effort and what sort of things they made from ammunitions to knapsacks.
After the First World War, the production line principle reduced the need for skilled labour, leading to cheaper products and over 2 million private cars on the road by 1939. There is an explanation of how the shape of cars changed to reflect the art deco style, and you can design your own with tracing paper and light box templates provided. Some of the cars were simply enormous!
During the Second World War, there were 9 ‘shadow’ factories, called so because they were set up by the national government pre-war copying existing factory production lines. I played a game of ‘spot the enemy aircraft’ and got 8 out of 10 (unfortunately, accidentally shooting down two friendly craft, but one was a Spitfire so I don’t feel too guilty – long live the Hawker Hurricane!). The presence of so many factories made Coventry a prime target of the Luftwaffe and led to the destruction of most of the medieval town during bombing in 1940 (and particular the night of 14th November). There is a section of the gallery where you can go through the ‘Blitz Experience’.
Coventry’s medieval street pattern was considered too narrow for modern use even before the war. At that time, the City had the highest car ownership in Britain and roads were being widened through demolition. After World War Two, the city had to decide whether to rebuild as was or take the opportunity to try something new. It was re-planned using modernist architecture principles by city architect, Donald Gibson. The idea was to encircle the new town centre, with its high-rise blocks and central retail precincts with a primary ring road for motor cars. The museum presents the debate of history versus progress, restoration versus innovation, comparing with the German city of Dresden which has rebuilt its historic fabric after destruction during Allied raids and subsequent Communist rule and blocky architecture. The ring road really is divisive, I hate having to negotiate crossing underneath it to get into the centre of town, but also really appreciate being able to walk everywhere within the centre, and personally quite like the shopping precincts. To create this architecture, it must have been an incredibly optimistic time in the 1950s, when they thought that things would always get better, unable to predict they cycle of recessions we have since experienced, which has left Coventry and many other city centres around Britain with a perpetual half-finished feeling. You can vote for rebuilding or the future at the Museum.
Peak car production was between 1962 and 1964. Fast-forward to the 1980s and you can experience what it was like during the closures of Coventry’s car factories due to recession (Between 1974 to 1982, British employment fell by 27%, Coventry’s by 46%). There is a picket line, which calls out “scum, don’t you cross the line!” as you do so. There is also a reconstruction of the board room of Peugeot Company where you can listen to the debates between managers and the union representatives of the workers. This was the last car factory to close in 2006. The friendly woman explains how the prosperity of Coventry was far too dependent on this one industry, how communication broke down between union leaders and managers, leading eventually to the demise of the industry as wages sky rocketed, production slowed and the quality and development of the product stalled.
The Museum is massive. I was pretty tired by the time I reached a general gallery showcasing a variety of vehicles from funeral hearses to caravans and police cars. There is also a collection of dinky toys (the TIATSA model world). Upstairs includes a section on future technologies e.g. environmental design, aerodynamic innovations, plus the Jaguar interactive experience and Coventry Champions section. Back down a pokey stairwell to the supersonic machines section – it’s all very sci-fi and quite scary to me – giant land speeders with a pay to ride experience. I wasn’t much interested in these galleries.
As the Museum’s leaflet points out, it “isn’t just for transport enthusiasts; it’s for storytellers and escapists; speed freaks and thrill seekers; history buffs and culture vultures”. All in all, it really is successful at proving that transport history is actually social history and worth all of us paying a little bit more attention to. Worth a visit if you can.