There are places synonymous with the car industry’s rich history that are celebrated for their automotive links: think Detroit, Maranello, Wolfsburg and Turin or, in the UK, Longbridge, Dagenham, Crewe and Goodwood. The seaside town of Clevedon in Somerset is emphatically not one of those places.
At least that’s what I thought, having grown up in Clevedon. This place near Bristol has a rich history, but mostly stemming from its popularity as a Victorian seaside resort. It has an award-winning pier, which has stood proudly since 1869 (aside from a 29-year period after it collapsed during a stress test in 1970…). Clevedon was also where penicillin was first mass-produced.
But I had no sense ‘the gem of sunny Somerset’ was home to any motoring history. Except it was. And, of course, to find it, all I had to do was look in The Autocar. Long-time readers may just remember it from our 2 September 1899 issue…
It turns out the town was home to Clevedon Motor Cars, which, back in 1897, produced arguably the first all-British-designed and built car. At a site in the town centre, which I’ve passed for years. And I had no idea.
Thankfully, William Fairney is more clued up on motoring history than I am and has even written a book on it: Richard Stephens and the Clevedon Motor Cars. You can still buy it in digital form.
Richard Stephens, Clevedon’s own Henry Ford, was born in Cwmbran in 1856. He began working in mines, but his excellent mechanical skills led him into engineering. While in the US working for the Cleveland Iron Cliffs Company, Stephens collaborated with Thomas Edison. He also visited Lansing, Michigan, to meet Ransom Eli Olds, inventor of a new steam-driven vehicle and founder of the Olds Motor Company.
Stephens wound up in Clevedon in 1888 when friends recommended he be employed by the town as a steamroller driver and engineer. The war on potholes had started early in Clevedon: the local council bought a steamroller in 1882.
Stephens was fascinated by both bicycles and early motor car design and so set up The Clevedon Cycle Depot and Refreshment Rooms (his wife Mary supplied the teas) alongside his steamrolling day job, largely to advance his car-making dreams. He was also working on a car and submitted a raft of patent applications (including a successful one for a footpath snowplough).
He soon quit the steamrolling job to focus on his business and, with backing from local baronet Sir Edmund Elton, founded Stephens Engineering and Motor Car Works in 1895 in the Triangle, Clevedon’s town centre, to build a car.
Stephens’ first car was a four-seater featuring independently sprung front suspension – a first for a British car – and bar steering. Its twin-cylinder 2000cc rear-mounted engine was designed and built by Stephens and bore a close resemblance to those used by Olds in his early vehicles. It revved to 8000rpm, with two forward gears (reverse was ‘passenger-assisted’: you had to push it, basically…).