Go back to article: Adapting to the emergence of the automobile: a case study of Manchester coachbuilder Joseph Cockshoot and Co. 1896–1939

Cockshoot’s entry into the motor industry

A special letter addressed to shareholders on 23 December 1902 announced the decision that J. Cockshoot and Co. was creating a Motor Department, with the purchase of new premises to support the operation. In the letter they reasoned:

It has been evident for some time past that customers of the firm have been purchasing motorcars in addition to their carriages, and it requires no great amount of argument to show that if that be the case their carriages, used alternatively with motorcars, will last much longer than if they used carriages solely.[7]

They then noted that although there was no change at the moment, there would be if the fortunes of the motor industry continued to improve. Their research involved visiting coachbuilders in London, Paris and the provinces to see how they had been adapting to the new motor industry. The letter suggests that ownership of an automobile without a carriage was unlikely in the period up until 1902. Indeed, the carriage and the motorcar could easily serve separate functions. Many coach-owners had several different carriages for different uses, with two and four wheelers, gigs, Broughams, etc. carrying a variety of different passengers and cargoes. Similarly, there were open top carriages for summer, such as in Figure 3, and closed cabs for winter (Watney, 1961, p 17). More recent automobile scholarship has emphasised both the unreliability and the adventuring qualities of the automobile during this period, used for touring and racing (Mom, 2015, pp 59–113). Carriages therefore might still be used to provide practical transportation, to the railway station, the church, or to visit friends. Indeed, as late as 1907 Rolls-Royce proudly advertised in The Autocar that: ‘A private owner of a R.R. writes: “I may say my car is a perfect dream. It is so reliable that I have done away with my carriages and horses.”’ (The Autocar, 1907) The implication being that carriage owners were not replacing entirely with motorcars.

Figure 3

Pencil and ink drawing of a dress coach from the early twentieth century

Drawing of a Cabriolet Victoria Phaeton made in 1902. Carriage nomenclature was used for automobile bodies

The decision therefore shows bold leadership from the Norris family, whose second generation were largely responsible for running the business during this period. Despite this, the decision was challenged within the company; two of the six directors, John Ainsworth and Ezra Miller, voted against entering the motoring industry.[8] Ainsworth was a large shareholder, and Miller was a harness maker for the firm, representing a specific skill that was unique to horse-drawn transport. This highlights that coachbuilding firms were a collection of many different crafts. Trimmers, coachbuilders, carpenters and painters would still have a role, whereas harness makers and wheelwrights might feel threatened by the new department.[9] This split is highlighted in the United Kingdom Society of Coachbuilders membership (Lyddon, 1987, p 73). Roughly 33 per cent of the workforce might be affected negatively, which would certainly explain the opposition within Cockshoot and more widely among other coachbuilders.

The venture was one vote from not starting. The internal loggerhead is remembered in a note on the subject written in the 1950s, by former director John Norris, working for the company at the time, ‘There was, in fact, a sharp difference of opinion between the Directors, which persisted for many years’.[10] He expands on this in other memoirs: ‘And again there was a tremendous amount of prejudice surrounding the motorcar and a serious maker found he not only had to break down this but also fight the vested interest. I remember my brother’s own tough fight with his co-directors on Cockshoot’s board to persuade them to take the trade seriously.’[11] Interestingly, but not perhaps unsurprisingly, this decision was viewed very differently by the company in later decades. The company’s catalogue for 1924 announced ‘it was but a natural development that the firm should take its place with the pioneers of the motor industry in this country’.[12] This insight into the firm’s dilemma is a rare opportunity to challenge the assumption that coachbuilders naturally adapted to the change brought about by the automobile. Indeed, while Cockshoot both entered early and negotiated this difficult period with relative success, one wonders what the situation was at other coachbuilders. This entry period also highlights the problem with considering coachbuilders as a single trade when in fact there were several that made up the industry, each with quite different roles and prejudices.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170803/005