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A Century Of Transport - Introduction & Early Developments

Before 1860 practically all road transport was horse-drawn and powered machines to ride upon were unknown. By 1900 the internal combustion engine was with us but horse power remained the usual means of haulage. On a horse-drawn tramcar, the horses were detached at the terminus from one end of the tram and walked to the other end for the return journey. The superiority of smooth rails will be appreciated when compared to road surfaces prevailing at the time!

Steam, however, was better if a lot of power was required, as in the haulage industry. Steam traction engines could haul incredible loads, over seven wagons if required. Their typical speed of 4 mph was satisfactory for the poor roads of the time. Moreover they had a long life of 20 years or more and an abundant supply of cheap coal to power them. Such road trains became illegal in the 1930s when they became restricted to only three trailers within a given length but, by then, the dominance of steam for heavy haulage had already been severely dented.

Passengers in 1900 would travel by horse bus or, on busier routes where demand repaid the cost of laying rails in the highway, by tramcar. Steam or horse haulage for tramcars was again commonplace - other methods employed included cables laid under the road or accumulator batteries. The incoming method, however, was electricity, usually by overhead wire - what a transformation it must have been when your local tramway changed from sooty steam to electricity!

The electric tramcar was, by the standards of its time, a smooth means of transport and capable of long life. As in many other towns and cities, Birmingham Corporation took over the private tramways as their leases expired and, where necessary, electrified them. Nearly all tramcars were double-deckers and the earlier ones had open tops and ends but many were partly or completely updated to resemble the later all-enclosed tramcars.

'The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty, a fad'
- a bank president advises against investing in Ford in 1903.

Until the tramcar, the poorer working classes did not use public transport much. In towns people lived near to their employment or walked. Country folk went by carriers' carts on market days but otherwise didn't get about much. The development of country bus services and 'char-a-banc' coaches would release rural people from the narrow view they had of the world.

The Birmingham & Midland Motor Omnibus Co. Ltd., better known as Midland Red, first introduced motor buses in 1904 but found them unreliable and, despite its official title, reverted to horses! Midland Red reintroduced motor buses in 1912 and began its mighty expansion serving towns and villages throughout the Midlands to become the largest bus company outside London.

The expansion of electric tramways and the development of motor buses in the first few years of the 20th century meant that, by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the horse bus had almost gone. Regarded as the first mechanised war, when it was over civilian transport underwent a petrol-engined revolution. Vast quantities of reconditioned ex-services trucks were available at low prices and experienced ex-servicemen could drive and maintain them. Many haulage, coach and country bus companies date from this time.

Coaches were particularly primitive and were known as 'char-a-banc' coaches. This was a literal use of French which translates as wagons with benches. Each row of seats had a door on the nearside, earlier ones had doors on both sides. A folding hood provided cover in inclement weather - nevertheless they must have been a hardy lot in those days!

In the 1920s the engine was moved alongside the driver to release additional space for passengers or goods. However the decade would see bus and large lorry chassis design begin to part company. Lower chassis frame height for buses would ease entry into the vehicle and, on double-deckers, allow top covers. Another development was pneumatic tyres which improved the quality of ride whilst the driver additionally benefited from an enclosed cab.

One solution for seating more passengers was the AEC Q of the early 1930s. The engine was on the offside, behind the front axle releasing more space. The entrance was ahead of the front axle, an arrangement to become standard many years later, but draughty without entrance doors! Longer windows added to the modernity of the Q which was not unsuccessful but it was too ahead of its time and not many were sold.

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©Copyright 2019 Malcolm Keeley for the Transport Museum, Chapel Lane, Wythall, Worcestershire B47 6JA, England.
All rights reserved. Except for normal review purposes, no part of these website articles may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the prior written consent of the Transport Museum.


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