Rare Rides Icons: Arrol-Johnston, First Four-wheel Brakes and Inventor of Off-road Vehicles (Part I)

Corey Lewis
by Corey Lewis

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]

Corey Lewis
Corey Lewis

Interested in lots of cars and their various historical contexts. Started writing articles for TTAC in late 2016, when my first posts were QOTDs. From there I started a few new series like Rare Rides, Buy/Drive/Burn, Abandoned History, and most recently Rare Rides Icons. Operating from a home base in Cincinnati, Ohio, a relative auto journalist dead zone. Many of my articles are prompted by something I'll see on social media that sparks my interest and causes me to research. Finding articles and information from the early days of the internet and beyond that covers the little details lost to time: trim packages, color and wheel choices, interior fabrics. Beyond those, I'm fascinated by automotive industry experiments, both failures and successes. Lately I've taken an interest in AI, and generating "what if" type images for car models long dead. Reincarnating a modern Toyota Paseo, Lincoln Mark IX, or Isuzu Trooper through a text prompt is fun. Fun to post them on Twitter too, and watch people overreact. To that end, the social media I use most is Twitter, @CoreyLewis86. I also contribute pieces for Forbes Wheels and Forbes Home.

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8 of 14 comments
  • Inside Looking Out Inside Looking Out on Dec 23, 2021

    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.

    • See 5 previous
    • Jhefner Jhefner on Dec 27, 2021

      ToolGuy, it makes for a very harsh ride. The wood in these wagon wheels helped to absorb some of it, but not so much steel wheels.

  • IH_Fever IH_Fever on Dec 27, 2021

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

  • James Hendricks The depreciation on the Turbo S is going to be epic!
  • VoGhost Key phrase: "The EV market has grown." Yup, EV sales are up yet again, contrary to what nearly every article on the topic has been claiming. It's almost as if the press gets 30% of ad revenues from oil companies and legacy ICE OEMs.
  • Leonard Ostrander Daniel J, you are making the assertion. It's up to you to produce the evidence.
  • VoGhost I remember all those years when the brilliant TTAC commenters told me over and over how easy it was for legacy automakers to switch to making EVs, and that Tesla was due to be crushed by them in just a few months.
  • D "smaller vehicles" - sorry, that's way too much common sense! Americans won't go along because clever marketing convinced us our egos need big@ss trucks, which give auto manufacturers the profit margin they want, and everybody feels vulnerable now unless they too have a huge vehicle. Lower speed limits could help, but no politician wants to push that losing policy. We'll just go on building more lanes and driving faster and faster behind our vehicle's tinted privacy glass. Visions of Slim Pickens riding a big black jacked up truck out of a B-52.