The Dawn of Motoring

Detail of early steam car

A Slow Start


Before 1896, motoring in the United Kingdom had a tough time. Under pressure from developers of Britain's growing railway network, the Government introduced the Locomotive Act 1865. Strict rules limited motor vehicles to a top speed of only four miles per hour in the countryside and just two miles per hour in towns. Each vehicle also needed someone to walk sixty yards in front waving a red flag or lantern to warn pedestrians and horse riders.

Gardner Serpollet Steam Car

Making Progress


Most of the innovations in car design were happening in France and Germany. For example, in 1891, French engineers Rene Levassor and Rene Panhard took the very successful German-made 6hp Daimler Phoenix engine and fitted it to a car they had designed. Unlike other engineers they wanted to try something new and developed the Systeme Panhard, a car so revolutionary that it would influence car design well into the late-20th century. There is an example in Hull Streetlife Museum which was built in 1899 and has revolutionary features including a front-mounted engine with rear-wheel drive and an in-line sliding gear transmission.

Stepping Up a Gear


As the popularity of motoring spread across the English Channel pressure from motorists led to a relaxation of the rules firstly in 1878, which removed the need for a red flag and then in 1896 the Locomotives on Highways Act was introduced. Now, smaller private motor vehicles were free of most of the strict regulations and the speed limit was raised to fourteen miles per hour. The era of motoring in Britain was born and car ownership increased dramatically.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries were an exciting time for car engineers. Small-scale precision engineering allowed them to experiment with replacements for inefficient steam-powered vehicles. In comparison to steam and petrol, electric cars (such as the Cleveland Electric Buggy) were mechanically simple, easy to drive and quiet. However, the batteries were very heavy, took a long time to charge and the owner would not dare venture far from home as the range was very limited. Instead, the power of the petrol engine was harnessed over its rivals, steam and electricity.

Gardner Serpollet Steam Car

Laws and Licensing


In 1903, the Government took steps to regulate the growing motoring population with the introduction of The Motor Car Act 1903. It introduced the crime of reckless driving and set penalties for those who were found guilty of it. The Act also required every vehicle to be registered with the council where the driver lived, each car was given a unique number and it had to be displayed on the vehicle. Drivers too were required to be licensed although there was no test, the driver simply had to pay the council a fee of five shillings.

In 1925, Hull's pioneering curator Thomas Shepherd acquired nine motor vehicles from a private collection in London. At the time demand for these cars from museums was low but Shepherd had the vision to see that in time these examples of the early days of motoring would become very important. Nowadays, these cars attract visitors from all over the world.