Argyll: a story of supreme success and dismal failure

Stacks Image 69
One of the "three As" of Scottish motor manufacturing (Argyll, Albion and Arrol-Johnston) Argyll grew into a business which was second only to Ford of Detroit in terms of production.

But the story of the Argyll is not a straightforward success story. It is the story of supreme success and dismal failure.

It was while Alex Govan was working as a foreman with the Eadie Manufacturing Company (a bicycle manufacturer which more recently produced the Ariel motor cycles) that he developed his fascination for cars.
The firm had taken delivery of several light cars for experimental purposes and Govan spent much of his time working on them. He determined that he was going to set up in the Scottish car business. Alex Govan returned to his native Glasgow and started selling, servicing and, latterly, assembling French cars - De Dions, Renaults and Darracqs.

However, Govan had plans for his own light car and started to look around for backers. Mr W A Smith, who was already familiar with Govan's technical ability, came forward and set up the Hozier Engineering Co Ltd with £15,000 capital in the very factory in Hozier Street, Glasgow in which Govan had started his bicycle career. He and his brother-in-law, John Worton, had designed the Worvan, a bicycle produced by the Scottish Manufacturing Company which at that time owned the factory.
Production of the Argyll began in 1900. The first production model was described in Scottish motoring magazine "The Motor World" of June 1900. It was a two-and-three-quarters horsepower voiturette with a De Dion engine. The whole design bore a strong resemblance to the current Renaults (which Govan had so recently been assembling). The chassis was made of tubular steel shaped on the old bicycle formers in the factory. About 90 such models were produced at the rate of around six per week before the new MMC engine became available. Both engines were coupled to Govan's own three-speed gearbox.

In a five-day reliability trial run by the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (now the RAC) in 1901, the Argyll was the only car to finish without penalty.

Disqualified for losing ballast

From this point on, Argyll's competition successes increased until they truly devastated the opposition in 1903 and 1904. In 1905 two Argylls entered the Tourist Trophy races in the Isle of Man and one finished eighth with another Scottish car, the Arrol-Johnston, winning. The next year Argylls were back with George of George and Jobling, the Newcastle Argyll dealers, driving to second place only to be disqualified for loosing his ballast (the weight equivalent to a full complement of passengers)!

Alex Govan was a great believer in the value of competition and drove personally in as many events as possible. These competition successes gave rise to the legendary Argyll publicity department and their floods of press releases.

For 1902, the Simms 8 hp engine was offered with magneto ignition. An alternative 100 x 130 MMC engine, also of 8 hp was offered, this engine being capable of an alarming 1,500 rpm! In 1903, a 12/14 hp three-cylinder Argyll-engined car was on the market and selling well. Factory output at this time was about seven cars per week. Late 1903 saw the introduction of 10, 12 and 16 hp models. Thus the range was built up.

By 1904, the Hozier Street factory was working nightshifts to produce between 20 and 25 cars per week. Despite this large output demand exceeded supply and the company claimed to have £100,000 worth of orders outstanding. Obviously larger premises must be found.

Palatial new factory in Alexandria

Argyll on new factory
The year 1905 was a particularly important one for the Argyll concern, the Hozier Engineering CO was liquidated and a new firm, Argyll Motors Ltd formed with £500,000 capital. Govan himself was the managing director of the new company. Also in this year a start was made on a new factory which would allow production to expand.

Sited at Alexandria on the banks of Loch Lomond, the factory was designed for a massive production of 2,500 units per year. The huge factory with its gilt dome, wood-panelled halls, marble staircases and archways cost £220,000. In the grounds was a series of special test tracks and a "garden city" was built for the workers.

Lord Montague, the pioneer motorist, opened the factory on June 26, 1906. Three hundred guests were conveyed from London by special train for the ceremony. Lord Montague said in his speech that on his travels he had never seen such a well equipped car factory. He was sure, he said, that the confidence inspired in the new factory would not be misplaced.

It was. The factory was never to be more than half full.

Indeed, the new factory was so expensive to run (about £12,000 per month) that only mass-production could have supported it. Rather like his fellow Scot David Dunbar Buick on the other side of the Atlantic, Alex Govan found it difficult to accept the compromises that mass production would mean.

A car built with bench-tested, hand-built engines, painted with 30 to 35 coats of paint and varnish and finally given a 100-mile road test, could not be mass produced. Although Argyll's production figures were beaten only by Ford of Detroit, the target was never reached.

Almost immediately company fortunes declined

Despite this, 1906 was another confidence-inspiring year with production exceeding 1,000 units. A special train had to be chartered to take the export models to London. The range of cars, cabs, carriages and trucks was almost certainly the widest in the world with the company catalogue running to 100 pages!

The decisive blow came in June 1907 when Alex Govan died at the age of 38. Reports at the time stated that he had died of ptomaine poisoning after eating at a well-known Glasgow restaurant. Now, however, the accepted fact is that he died following a stroke. Almost immediately the company's fortunes declined.

In 1908, having made losses of £360,000, Argyll Motors went into liquidation. The factory was kept open but 1,500 workers were laid off.

A new firm, Argylls Ltd was formed on January 19, 1909 with £209,802 capital. Col. J. S. Matthew, founder of the Scottish Tyre Company, was appointed Managing Director. In their first year this new company made a profit of £1,600, partly due to a consignment of 50 cabs for New York.

The 1910 range saw the end of the three-speed Govan gearbox and the substitution of a four-speed gate change. The famous Argyll "Flying Fifteen" was also introduced in that year.

First in world to adopt four-wheel braking

The range of vehicles produced was rationalised, only five basic cars from the 10 hp to the six-cylinder 30 hp being available. The total factory output was correspondingly less ambitious, only 450 units being produced in the year. As a result the running costs of the palatial Alexandria factory dragged even more on the new company.

The year 1911 was a year of technical innovation with Argylls being the first company in the world to use four-wheel braking. Another important milestone was the introduction on the 15 - 30 hp models of the single-sleeve-valve engine.
Stacks Image 147
ABOVE: Cutaway drawings of the Burt-McCollum single sleeve valve engine, originally developed by the author's great uncle Archie Niven. He later transferred to Continental Motors in Detroit when they bought the rights.
This engine was designed by Glasgow baillie Mr Peter Burt and developed by the Argyll engineers, headed by my great-uncle Archie MacPhail Niven. A Canadian J K McCollum was included in the patent to avoid litigation.

However a Knight patent had been filed for a single-sleeve valve engine, although none had ever been made. Argylls were taken to court where they proved that the Knight patent was unworkable ' - they even made an engine of this design to prove it. Though they won their case and subsequent appeal, it cost them a huge sum which undoubtedly precipitated the impending financial problems.

The new engine was very successful and partly because Daimler had successfully used a sleeve valve engine (Knight's double sleeve valve engine) and, partly because of the competition successes which the new engine achieved, the engine was confidently received. An Argyll equipped with the new engine lapped Brooklands for 14 hours at 73 mph in the process taking no fewer than 26 class records! The engine thus proved, Vauxhall and the French Aster (with whom Argyll had a reciprocal agreement) took out licences to produce the engine while Rolls Royce had a £1,606 option on it.
William Grant in Argyll factory
A photo of William Grant in the Argyll factory, sent in by his grandson Stewart Grant. (Wiliam Grant is standing on running-board.) Stewart estimates it was taken in 1910 as he has another another of his grandfather in San Francisco the same year on Argyll company business.

Stewart doesn't know the exact length of his employment with Argyll as a demonstrator (and perhaps test) driver. Stewart says he was described as "demonstrator driver" at the time of his marriage in 1916.
The new cars, with their one-man stowaway hoods or "bubble- top" saloons were just beginning to sell well when the third liquidation came in 1914, the ten shilling Argyll share having dropped to seven pence halfpenny.

Col. Matthew had left a few months earlier to go into war service but he returned to exhort the shareholders to let the company go on. Sales were rising, he pointed out, and the company had been offered a contract for the supply of the single-sleeve valve aero engine (which they had developed at further expense) by the Royal Aircraft factory.

Unfortunately the shareholders were too angry to listen. A scheme for the takeover of Argylls Ltd by Messrs. A. Darracq & CO Ltd was blocked and the company went into liquidation.

The Alexandria factory was sold to the Admiralty for £153,000 (it is still known locally, to this day, as the "torpedo works"). The Hozier Street premises which had been a service station since the move to Alexandria, were sold to J D Brimlow along with drawings, patterns and stocks. The London end of the business, where the premises had been as lavish as at Alexandria was sold.

The Burt-McCollum single-sleeve valve patents were sold to Wallace (Glasgow) Ltd They made a few engines before selling the patents to Continental Motors in Detroit. My great uncle Archie crossed the Atlantic to work on developing his engine for its new owners. By the time he retired from the motor industry he had around 100 patents to his name on both sides of the Atlantic.

Teaching ‘Madam” to drive her Argyll

Everyone thought that Argylls were now dead, but they had survived two liquidations and they were to survive this one - though with a mere shadow of their former glory.

Mr J D Brimlow announced that production would start again after the war in the Hozier Street premises. Mr Brimlow had been with Argylls since 1904 and with Stirling Motor Carriages Ltd before that, he had distinguished himself by calling the first meeting of the Scottish Motor Trade Association (the organisers of the world's oldest motor show).

At the 1920 London Motor Show, Argyll cars occupied two stands. One was showing the revived 15/30 built by the Argyll Motor Company Ltd, Mr Brimlow's Company. The other stand showed a three-cylinder, o.h.v., air-cooled, radial-engined car produced by the London end of the business which had been bought by Mr A H Lindsay.

In 1922, the Argyll Motor Company introduced a new 12 hp model and in 1926 a new sports car appeared. At the 1927 show a 50 hp car was announced - it never appeared.

From that year to the fourth and final liquidation in 1930 the Hozier Street factory reverted to being a service station.

And, so Argylls finished the way they had started, as a service station in Hozier Street, Glasgow. The last company had not achieved much notoriety and its demise passed almost unnoticed.

There can be little doubt that the Argyll concern was one of the most colourful car companies in Britain. In many ways Argylls were ahead of their time, technically and in the field of public relations with their palatial factory and test grounds and their Oxford Street showrooms with instructresses to teach 'madam' how to drive her new Argyll.

If that was not enough, Argylls kept their name in print by sending out floods of press-releases, huge catalogues and with the first 'owner-driver' magazine this side of the Atlantic. Ironically, their flamboyance had much to do with their downfall.
© 2009-16 Ken McEwen Contact Me