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Vintage Albion Motor Car comes home to Biggar

On March 10 of last year we were all excited when a 1900 Albion motor car was delivered to us. As one of the oldest Scottish-made cars still in existence it is of national significance, but it also is of considerable local significance. The original car owner lived in Biggar, and his son, Thomas Blackwood Murray, became one of the outstanding pioneers in Scotland’s automobile history.

We immediately set out to find as much as we could about the Biggar connections of car owner John Murray; how his car worked; and the part played by his son Tom in establishing the Albion Motor Car Company.

In the first of his blogs relating to this iconic vehicle Charles Rigg highlights the Biggar connections to this car;

The Albion dog-cart arrived on March 10, 2020. It is on long-term loan from National Museums Scotland. (Photo: Jim Ness)

The Albion Car’s Biggar Connections

The car’s connections with Biggar are strong. The first owner was John Lamb Murray, an architect, who lived just outside Biggar at Heavyside Farm off Broughton Road. His order for the car was the very first received by the Albion Motor Car Company, formed on the last day of December 1899.

There was one very good reason why John Murray was keen to place an early order: his son, Thomas Blackwood Murray, was a co-founder of Albion. The other founder was Tom’s friend Norman Osborne Fulton. In the summer of 1899 Tom and Norman agreed to contribute £2,000 each to provide working capital for their business adventure; Tom’s contribution was largely acquired from a bank loan secured by his father on Heavyside farm.

One of the earliest Albion Car orders. A letter from John L Murray to his son Tom.
John L Murray’s letter to his son of 6 February 1900 details terms of the advance to his son. Note reference to the Masons; his son Tom became the youngest Master Mason in Scotland. (Biggar Museum Archives)

Development of the first Albion Car

John’s support was not limited to finance; much of the development work of the first Albion took place at his farm workshops. In the year leading up to the formation of the company Norman was in America where he worked with a company which had been producing electric and petrol-driven cars since 1896. Back in Scotland, Tom was working with developing his own car at Heavyside during his spare time. We know that by mid-February 1899 the crankshaft for its petrol engine was being turned in his father’s Biggar workshop where gears were also being cut and con rods being made*. It would appear that the two men had already formulated a plan to branch out on their own as Tom communicated with Norman on a range of aspects regarding engine and steering details. In response, Norman sent back sketches of axle components and sample wheels to Tom at Heavyside.

Once Norman returned from America and the Albion Motor Company was formed, work on Tom’s car continued at the upper floor premises they had rented at 169 Finnieston Street, Glasgow. The first vehicle to be lowered down the work’s hoist can be seen below, photographed at Heavyside. There was initial disappointment when a bracket attached to the rear axle almost immediately broke and the car came to an abrupt halt on Stobcross Street. Once repaired, Tom and Norman set off again and this time successfully made the journey to Biggar, stopping every 12 miles to top the car up with water.

The Albion Car in Development. The dog-cart prototype at Heavyside, Biggar.
The dog-cart prototype at Heavyside, Biggar. Notice the bicycle style wheels and American pneumatic tyres which were quickly abandoned. (Albion Archives)

The Early Days of the Albion Motor Company

Trials on the reliability of the prototype were then carried out from Heavyside. On one trip to Lyne Mill, Tom and Norman were forced to find overnight accommodation due to a puncture. This inconvenience was followed by a greater one when the wheels collapsed at the bridge at Spittal. Tom and Norman took stock of their experience and opted to replace the spoked wheels and pneumatic tyres with strong artillery style wheels and solid rubber tyres, 2 inches thick at the front and 2.5 inches at the rear.*

In February 1901 John’s car was delivered to him, the third person to take ownership of an Albion. It was not cheap to buy a car in the early days of motoring but, as a self-made architect, farmer and estate factor to the Skirling, Castlecraig and Carmichael estates, he had the means. The basic cost was £280, equivalent to about a year’s salary for someone in a managerial position.

The Albion Sales Catalogue

We can gather something of the car’s capability from John’s testimonial for the car which appeared in the first Albion sales catalogue early in 1902:

“The running has been over all classes of roads, some with a gradient of one in six… the average speed of the running has been 10-12 miles an hour.

With a fairly good road and no obstacles, I can easily accomplish an average of fourteen to sixteen miles an hour, which in my opinion is quite quick enough for ordinary purposes…

It has only the two speeds forward and one backing, and I am perfectly satisfied with this.

I find that the consumption of oil stated at four gallons per 110 miles is not at all under the mark, and I would place the mileage a little higher than that per four gallons…

I find the mechanism extremely simple, and my coachman has picked up the driving and management of the machine very readily and is now an efficient driver.

No part of the machinery has gone wrong and no repairs have been necessary since I got the car…

It is so much easier to overtake the work in it than with a horse machine.”

John Murray’s Journeys in his Albion Dog Cart

John made great use of his car and even journeyed to London in it. It was on this trip that he famously promised his chauffeur a crown for every car they over took before reaching London. Murray’s money was safe as they did not meet another car until they arrived at the capital city! Some three years later, in 1906, John sold the car to a Mr E. Cosher from Dunoon.

We have one photograph of John Murray with what we believe to be his car. It was taken at his Heavyside home, most likely in 1904, the year John’s daughter Margaret Anne married Norman Fulton and also the year John decided to retire.

John L. Murray in his Albion Car outside Heavyside House
John L Murray standing outside his Heavyside house. The chauffeur is John Lawson and his passenger Mary, John’s daughter. The driver in the car behind is John’s daughter–in-law Hettie (Rusack), married to Tom, and her passenger Margaret Anne Fulton.

John Murray’s Legacy

John died in 1908 and was buried in Biggar Kirk cemetery. In the history of Scottish motoring he is recognized as only the second person to have owned a car– a Panhard in the 1890s* – but he is more deserving of being recognized for the part he played in supporting his son’s business venture in launching Albion. Fittingly, his family had a stained glass window erected in Biggar kirk some two years later in his honour.

View the Albion Car

The Albion Car is currently on display inside Biggar and Upper Clydesdale Museum. It can be found to the rear of the museum and is part of the Victorian Streetscape Gladstone Court.

The Albion dog cart on display inside the museum
Museum Manager Elaine Edwards and Sharon Bradley, Trustee with the Albion dog cart

Further Reading about the Albion Car

If you’d like to find out more about the Albion Car, there are two further blogs about this topic on the Biggar Museum website – Driving an Albion dog-cart and Thomas Blackwood Murray of Biggar. You can also read the story of the Albion car’s painstaking conservation on National Museum Scotland’s website – The return to Biggar: conserving the Albion Motor car.

References

  1. Sam McKinstry, Sure As the Sunrise: A History of Albion Motors (1997) pp4-5
  2. Jack Webster, In the Driving Seat: A Century of motoring In Scotland (1996) p24; McKinstry, p7
  3. McKinstry, pp191-2
  4. McKinstry, p13
Author: Charles Rigg
Date: 31st Jul 2021 Back to Blog
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