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.
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.
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…