By on December 23, 2021

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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14 Comments on “Rare Rides Icons: Arrol-Johnston, First Four-wheel Brakes and Inventor of Off-road Vehicles (Part I)...”

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    That’s a rare ride indeed, and a good-looking one.

    I can’t imagine riding out front like that, but the seats make good use of the space. /s

    Such an interesting time in history (~1900). As car buying adapts to the 21st century, I suspect dealer franchise laws will eventually go the way of the Red Flag Act.

    • 0 avatar

      Ha, soon everyone will realize the limitations of these road locomotive and move away from them. Where are you going to get the benzine to power them? A horse can be refueled by letting graze along the roadside. No running out of benzine with a horse either. You have unlimited range with just some grass and water. The worst thing is that these machines have no soul.

      • 0 avatar

        mcs, your inner southern democrat is talking. LOL. I wholly agree about horse power.

      • 0 avatar

        Funny you should say that; like the ICE/electric car argument, it is not so simple as that. A horse is actually only good for 20 miles; on the old stagecoach routes, there was what was called a swing station every 20 miles to change out the team of horses or mules, and a home station with overnight accommodations every 100 miles. (Mules were preferred to horses because Indians despised them and would not steal them.)

        Both types of stations provided feed and hay for the animals to eat; range grass enough was not alone to give them the energy and strength they needed. They also needed water, of course.

        When the early steam trains replaced them; the trains could not go much further without requiring wood, water, and lubrication. But they could travel faster, pull a larger load, and were more comfortable than stagecoaches; engine depots replaced stage stops, and the stagecoaches were relegated to providing service between cities the railroad passed by and the nearest station; the last ones operating into the beginning of the 20th century.

        (There is what I believed was once a stagecoach swing station not far from my house, along with a western themed model railroad layout I built, it had me researching this topic a few years ago.)

  • avatar

    Once can see where the term “horseless carriage” came from.

    Mo-Car, put a hemi in it and it would be a……….

  • avatar

    Red flag thing reminds me how autonomous cars are treated today. Horseless carriages to be replaced with “driverless” carriages. In front of autonomous car must ride bicyclist with red flag – just giving idea to Bridon and Congress. And red flags are all over – no self-driving cars, no genetic engineered food (in Europe), no genetic engineered humans, no AI that can compete with humans, no nuclear power stations (in USA and Germany), no super colliders which can create microscopic black holes and so on.

    • 0 avatar

      I think that’s the irony of the whole story of the original automobiles. People then had just as much trouble understanding and accepting new technology as they do now. What they couldn’t see was the total proliferation of the automobile to the point of choking the planet. No one could have seen that

      • 0 avatar

        @lie2me: I’ve seen it in videos of old interviews with rail employees on the changeover from steam to diesel locomotives. Even the “has no soul” complaint came up. You have one set of people wanting to stick with what works for them, another group that’s always looking for a better way, and a third group that wants to take a step back. You see it here and it applies to more than just automobiles or transportation. LIke in-home audio. Some people like streaming. Some want to stick with FM radio and CD’s, other people like vinyl. Maybe TVs are the exception. I’ve never heard anyone wishing they could go back to a 25-inch vacuum tube display. I’m even that way with computer languages. I like more traditional C++20 having come from C as a teenager along with Verilog. I turn up my nose at the interpreted language of the year (let’s replace semi-colons with annoying indentations). Then again, I’m in the high performance computing world where speed matters.

        • 0 avatar

          @mcs You can try Julia. It is almost as fast as C.

        • 0 avatar

          @msc, everything you say is true. But steam locomotives were much more expensive to operate than diesel due to their high need for labor intensive maintenance. I have read, and believe it is probably true that if diesels had not come along, many of the major railroads would have folded due to high labor costs as the amount of traffic declined due to the rise of trucks and the Interstate Highway system.

          The biggest problem with steam locomotives is their boilers. If you have owned a BBQ grill for a long enough period; you know that over time the heat and radiation from the fire erodes the inside of the BBQ to the point where holes appear. A similar thing happens to the fireboxes, fire tubes, and smoke boxes of steam locomotives, along with a building up of deposits on the water side of these surfaces. But the thinning metal can have a tragic consequence in the form of a boiler explosion, which will kill anyone in the cab, and can do great physical damage if it is inside a roundhouse.

          So after so many operating hours, the boiler had to have completely rebuilt, and the outside shell tested for metal thickness and replaced as needed. This was an expensive proposition, which also required skilled boiler makers and heavy machinery to accomplish.

          The last holdouts to steam power like the Norfolk & Western added mechanical lubricators, roller bearings, and other features to increase the time between stops; even placing pans of water between the rails so they could scoop up water on the fly.

          The N&W also built “lubritoriums”, where steam locomotives entered one end, and came out clean and fully lubricated on the other end. Men in asbestos suits even climbed inside the still hot fireboxes to clean out the ashes and soot; it must have been hot and miserable work. The boilers were also welded instead of riveted together, but the routine boiler rebuilds were still required.

          The other problem was the inefficiency of the Rankin cycle; only roughly 7% of the energy from the fuel burned went into making the locomotive go. The rest went out the smokestack, into heating the metal of the locomotive, and lost as radiant heat. Even the free coal that the Norfolk and Western got (the tender was loaded at the mine along with the rest of the coal train) could overcome this, along with rise in price in replacement parts when the rest of the industry dieselized finally forced them to switch as well.

          While it’s true that ICEs have more moving parts and require oil and filter changes and other maintenance that electric motors do not, the argument is not so clear cut here. Like diesels, electric cars are more expensive than comparable ICE cars. A blacksmith could do many of the repairs that steam locomotives require; likewise indie and most mechanics can fix most ICE cars, while electric cars when they do need service require technicians specially equipped and trained to work on them (especially Tesla.) Overnight recharging is not always feasible for some owners, long trips require additional planning; and power outages due to severe weather can leave owners stranded in a dead house with no way of getting out unless someone comes for them.

          I started out with FORTRAN, then switched to various forms of BASIC in the 1980s. We are comfortable with what we know; and unless you can get a job or project that lets you use it right away, you lose it. I have been programming in Visual Basic since the 1990s; and even in this cloud-based world, have managed to find work even today.

    • 0 avatar

      Watched this interesting documentary on fusion:

      Couldn’t help but imagine any fossil fuel executive watching that and thinking, “This is a TERRIBLE idea!”

      P.S. The solid tires on that vehicle above have a lot to recommend them.

  • avatar

    Wonder if folks back then liked to complain that “cars sit too high”. I mean, no one “needs” a 6 seater right? :)

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