The God of Fire at the Seaside (1)

Walking the lesser trod pathways of the UK motor industry, so you don’t have to, Andrew Miles profiles pioneering Liverpudlians, Lea and Vulcan.


The English Northwest is more associated with other kinds of industry. Mills for cloth, wool, but pioneering car factories? Like many others in the Victorian era, Liverpool, long known as a port and Southport a seaside resort, prospered. This being DTW, we’re not here for fish, chips, the Beatles or a stroll along the pier; Southport (and its environs) had a car production past.

William Lea was an early adopter of the motor car. Born in Cheshire in 1845, he moved to Liverpool in his early twenties and over his 77 years, had eleven children to three wives. Making his money through the sale of musical instruments with his Pianoforte and Organ Warehouse in Liverpool centre (not as unusual a starting point for a career in the motor business as one might otherwise imagine), his focus was always on satisfying the customer.

This continued as his interest with the car grew. By June 1901, Lea is mentioned in the Autocar as a ‘pioneer of the motor car‘ importing engines from Benz. Records state him being a ‘cycle and car dealer’ with premises in Birkenhead and when more space was necessary, four more areas of Liverpool were developed.

Lea’s car. (c) T. Shambrook

Even though his vehicles were in strong demand due to reasonable prices, driving well and being altogether quite elegant, Lea only produced cars for a year as he found that dealing in vehicles was more profitable than making one’s own, being an agent for Darraq, Talbot and Panhard, amongst others.

This, the Liver Phaeton, a 3.5hp, on solid tyres, was capable of up to eighteen mph and “excellent hill climbing ability even with passengers” was all Lea’s own doing, barring the German engine. This very car entered the London to Brighton run six times in the 1960’s after being recommissioned, before being sold to a Dutch collector in the 1970s.

When disposing of his collection, Liverpool museums were the winning bidders at the 1998 Christie’s auction stumping up the £53,167.50 to secure it. The front section is the petrol tank which could be easily used as an extra seat should you wish to see the back of the red flag wavers head a little closer.

Get me the writing kit, Mabel, I want full particulars! (c)

Lea does appear to be something of a visionary; entering and winning motoring competitions, championing the benefit of car over horse and even driving up Mount Snowdon in Wales in a Darraq. He also initiated possibly the country’s first driving school with his School of Automobilism and for those not able to gain practical advice, a Motor Postal Instruction Bureau tutorial was offered for £1 with an extra Three shillings for the textbook.

We leave Lea with a suitably modern day quote. “Maybe one day when everyone has a car and no longer keeping a horse, we shall need a private padlock on the wheel for when we go visiting or shopping.”

The God of Fire at the Seaside will continue later in the week…

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

13 thoughts on “The God of Fire at the Seaside (1)”

  1. Exactly what is meant by the “padlock on the wheel?” I might be misinterpreting this, but I feel like a reference to the wheel clamp is being made here.

  2. Thank you Andrew for trodding the pathways of the UK motor industry that none of us would be bothered to. The significance of Lea and Vulcan aside, I will reserve the right to focus my attention on McLaren instead.

  3. Hi Donga. I believe Mr Lea was referring to a padlock on the steering wheel, rather than a wheel clamping device. Either way, what surprises me is that he didn’t pursue such a lucrative after-market device.
    As to your preferring the McLaren, fine, I have no problems with some of the modern machines. It’s as I’ve got older and diversified interests that I like to look back at the dawn era of our automotive passion. If you look deeply, in the hundred some years of the car, not a great deal has changed. Lea used the best possible available technology, made a great driving machine and looked after customers. We could do with a few more of his ilk these days

    1. Fascinating stuff, thank you, Andrew. How charming that the “cheapest car in England” was priced in Guineas, a nod to the mode of transport it intended to replace. Was Mr Lea also the inventor of the PCP deal? A purchase term of up to a decade implies great confidence in the durability of his car!

  4. Very interesting Andrew, at first I suspected a successive evolution of Lea into Lea-Francis, but a quick look into Georgano’s bible made me understand that they are two different things (William Lea vs Richard Lea) .
    By the way, Lea is not cited there, so your article is a welcome addition to my information pool.

  5. Didn’t we, Great Britain, have a plethora of car manufacturers back in the day. What went wrong I wonder? Growing up in Southport I knew of the name Vulcan, but only as a street name and a garage, Vulcan Street and Vulcan Motors, but only recently knew their connection to the Vulcan car. I’d never heard of the Lea Liver Phaeton until a few weeks ago either.
    There must be many stories of similar automobile manufacturers out there too. Anyone heard of the Sheffield Simplex for instance?
    Looking forward to part 2.

  6. Tim, this is just the normal development path of a new market/object having yet undisclosed earning possibilities in a capitalist environment: at the beginning thousands of suppliers, then necessity and efficiency cream off the situation and only the most robust survive.
    It was not a GB only situation, the same happened at the beginning of the XX century in the USA, France, Germany.
    So, basically, nothing went wrong in GB, the initial death of many little producers is part of the dynamics of a brand new market.
    An example can be the microelectronics of the Seventies-Eighties, you would be surprised as I was when leafing through a Seventies article about portable computer suppliers of that time, dozens and dozens of types, marques and badges, none of them surviving today.

  7. Excellent article Andrew and can’t wait for the next episode. Driving up Snowdon sounds quite a feat. Walked up it but in a car? No thanks.

  8. This is NOT a BABY but a full-size car. So there! Says Vulcan. Two low-back stuffed seats is your lot. What year did this particular automotive paragon appear? At least it makes the Lea look like a wimp.

    I believe I’m driven to write! Back in the day, lack of decent roads and ability to get around except in towns and cities meant that there were dozens of local car manufacturers in what we now call the developed world. And wide wheels/tires to conquer mud occurred to exactly NOBODY. Who was going to putt-putt from Manchester to Leeds in 1904? Only an adventurer with a big silly grin, a wide scarf, goggles, and adequate provisions. No, you took the train. Railways were it, except for canals and sea transport for the really big stuff like ship propellers from Tyneside to Glasgow and Belfast. The very backward four-wheeler goods waggons that Britain kept until at least the 1960s compared to North American freight cars, held them back industrially as well. Canadian freight cars were the same size and as nimble as passenger train cars — bogie-equipped even back in the 1860s, far wider to carry more cargo and with actual working suspension.

    NB. I spent a whole four months working for the National Research Council of Canada Railway Lab in 1968, so at a tender and formative age I was brought up-to-date on railroad equipment design, a fast moving and dynamic field. Ahem. (The previous summer I had worked on VTOL design at the big wind tunnel at the same institution, it’s a huge place) The 1892 updated Janney coupler had yet to be beat in 1968 for freight and passenger cars in North America. The British buffer and chain system was absurdly primitive at all times. Britain was first with a network of welded rail and concrete sleepers with decent tie-downs, but such sophistication wasn’t needed here bar the welded rail, because our freight cars actually handled. I remember as a kid in Portsmouth watching empty goods wagons jumping clear of the rails at 15 mph. Amazing they didn’t derail. Backwards design doesn’t begin to describe them. Nobody had really updated them since George Stephenson was a little boy living outside a coal mine. My whole theory of how Britain’s Empire was eclipsed rests on backward railway equipment design, which required more expensive railbeds and civil works. Also, we in North America used a 40 foot wheelbase and 39 foot track sections to detune harmonics, so the characteristic sound of dum-did-ee-dum thrum of unwelded British rail passenger travel didn’t occur here.

    Vulcan. Everywhere a steel works arose, somebody thought of him. The Vulcan statue outside of Birmingham Alabama is the giant of all such statues to that god. 56 feet tall itself on a pedestal and cast iron at that!

    Thanks for the memories, Andrew!

    BTW, Gutenberg offers free e-book full-biographies on the famous 19th century British engineers, written by Samuel Stiles in the late 1800s. I find them highly interesting, but that’s probably just me. As an about-to-be graduate engineer, I always wanted to know how we got here from there, but my classmates didn’t, and couldn’t care less. The only History of Engineering course at my university was cancelled for lack of interest all the years I was there. I was the only one to ever sign up and one wasn’t enough for the course. At least the prof lent me his books, but as he was a Civil, they weren’t particularly my cup of tea. LTC Rolt is the doyen of popularly-written books on Victorian British engineering, BTW. And I’ve visited SS Great Britain in Bristol twice. Brunel worked out the hollow built-up propeller shaft in 1840 and a 90 degree V4 along with Maudslay. Too bad about the GWR and atmospheric railways. And at the Railway Museum at York, why wasn’t there a soul on staff who could tell me how they got mirror finish on early 1830s steam engine piston rods like without a digital CNC machining centre in sight, and not even a slide rule? Enquiring minds need to know.

  9. This is one of the reasons why I enjoy opening this site, sometimes I get two interesting articles instead of one!
    Bill, your interesting excursus on rails and train accessories led me quickly, through the mysterious web ways, up to mokume-gane metal (worth itself of a deeper look), but I could not find anything about those mirror-finished rods you made me too curious about. I found however micrometer measurement apparatuses already present in 1812 in Great Britain, so I suppose they were at that time useful for something about precision working, for instance clockmaking or possibly piston rods, otherwise they would not have developed.

  10. My early hero was Frederick Lanchester who in 1903 was considering ergonomics and vibration refinement in his cars along with parts longevity. While others were creating crude machines that vibrated terribly and self distructed Frederick and his two brothers were designing and building perfectly balanced horizontally opposed twins. Heat resisting steels were unknown at the beginning of the century consequently valve life was
    Very short with regrinds every two or three hundred miles. Lanchester overcame this problem which achieved results akin to products of sixty years later.
    Lanchester was the first designer to introduce splined shafts and roller bearings into motor cars and as none
    of the ball bearing companies could provide bearings to his requirements these were made by Lanchester and ground to tolerances of +0 to – 215/10.000 of an inch, a remarkably fine limit for the time.

    Lanchester based the periodicity of his spring rates upon observations of the average adult walking pace and he furthermore designed the seating position so the drivers eye-level was at the same height as an average adult when walking, argueing that at this height the driver would be in the most natural position for accurate judgement of speeds and distances!
    Most light cars had “bath chair” tillers instead of steering wheels but Lanchester chose a side mounted tiller instead of the normal front mounted type which he claimed were dangerous as centrifugal force encreased on the driver when turning thus causing oversteer. His side mounted tiller eliminated this phenomenon as centrifugal force acting on the drivers body tended to moderate his steering effort, also this lever hinged upward for easy seating access.
    Another attempt toward ergonomic compliance was the central placement of all seven main controls neatly and logically on a console between driver and passenger.
    Dr Lanchester ultimately went on to research the theory of aerodynamics, served as consulting engineer to the Daimler Company who when they abandoned chain drive adopted the Lanchester type of worm gearing for their live axle cars.
    Truly a man ahead of his time.

    1. That Mr. Gatewood sounds a lot like a synopsis for an article that perhaps you ought to write. Lanchester was indeed a pioneer and one it seems who struggled to gain acceptance. I seem to recall LJKS stating that the motor car might have developed faster and in a better direction (I’m paraphrasing here) had his ideas been more widely adopted.

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