Museum Hawk: London Science Museum

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More of TCC's Classics Corner coverage

Davis: Letter from London by Mike Davis (12/6/2004)
On what our neighbors across the pond are driving this year.

As noted at the end of my recent Letter from London (TCC 12/6/04), there seems to be a dearth of car museums in the London area, if not in all of Great Britain.

This is surprising because in general Britain has splendid museums, mostly free, covering a variety of subjects.

However, the Science Museum, a part of the U.K.’s National Museum of Science and Industry and located in a cluster of public museums in London’s West End, has a large exhibit hall devoted to the evolution of transportation.

This main floor (“Ground” level in European usage, not “First” as in America) display puts the motor car into the perspective of the typical centuries-deep British experience, the latest in a continuum from horse-drawn carriages and early steam railroad engines.

Royal Mail CoachFor example, there’s a handsome Royal Mail coach, dating from 1810. Recall that early Chevrolet roadsters, vintages 1914 to 1922, were called Royal Mails. What a great model name — wonder why GM never revived it?

Anyhow, these horse-drawn coaches carried mail and passengers the 200 miles between London and York from 1784 to 1838 at an average speed of 8-10 mph. This was accomplished by changing horse teams every eight or ten miles in stages, hence the American term stage coach.

Next in the sequence, there’s the oldest steam locomotive, dating from 1814 and first used not to transport passengers or general cargo, but rather to move coal from a mine to water-borne transportation. In America , the first steam locomotive dates from 1829.

Heading the Science Museum’s exhibit of motor cars is the first such vehicle to reach British roads, an 1895 Panhard & Levason with center-tiller steering control, imported from France . This vehicle is especially interesting to an automotive historian because it also was the first example, according to the Museum label, to present a chassis layout of front-engine/rear-drive. In another ten years or so, this would become the dominant pattern for cars worldwide.

The next car on chronological display, a brass-radiator Ford Model T, demonstrates this chassis layout pattern. Curiously, the T on exhibit is left-hand drive. The labeling did not indicate whether it was built in North America or Britain . The first local Ford T was assembled in England in 1911 from parts shipped from America, and local manufacture began the following year in Manchester . But assembly went back and forth between LHD and RHD until 1923 after which all Brit-built Ts, at least for Sterling markets, were RHD.

Car PylonFrankly, I was surprised to see this ubiquitous American car so prominently displayed where I had expected to see Rolls-Royce and other notable British marques. The point of the T being exhibited, nevertheless, was its dominance of worldwide production by the 1920s, when the word "Ford" had become synonymous for "car" in some languages and in many places. Indeed, the leading Ford historian in the U.K. today tells me there is an active market among British collectors for Model Ts imported from the U.S.!

On to the “first” floor

At this point in the Science Museum , the transportation hall opens to the "first floor" (we’d call it second) with a balcony overlooking the vehicles and airplanes suspended from the ceiling. Unlike American museums, which tend to stretch outward over one level, London museums go upward because land is tight.

The vertical space thus opened allows for an unusual pylon display of "popular" — that is, entry-level — cars familiar to U.K. motorists of the Fifties and Sixties. These are stacked one on top of another, sort of like martini olives on a toothpick. From the bottom up, they are a 1965 Hino 1300 (Fuji Industries), 1956 Saab 93, 1965 Volkswagen 1300, 1950 Morris Minor, 1952 Citroen 2CV (deux chevaux, or "doo-sha-voe"), and a 1956 Fiat 600.

Rover turbine carParked beside the pylon is another historically significant car, an experimental 1950 Rover roadster with a gas turbine engine. This is notable because it came out several years before General Motors and Chrysler experimental turbine cars in the U.S. GM’s futuristic Firebird I was introduced at the 1954 Motorama.

Mini cutawayAround the corner is Britain ’s most significant contribution to motoring history, a cutaway of the original front-drive transverse-engine Austin/Morris Mini from the 1959 London Auto Show. Though now reconstituted by BMW, the original was pioneered by BMC, which stood instead for British Motor Corporation.

1961 Austin-Healey Sprite Mk 1The final significant bit of British motoring history displayed at the Science Museum is the low-priced sports roadster, in this case a 1961 Austin-Healey Sprite Mk I, known in U.K. as the "frogeye" model and in the U.S. as bug-eyed. No matter, it sold for 669 pounds sterling, with an 83-mph top and an unimpressive 0-60 of 20 seconds, according to the labeling. Thanks to veteran auto journalist Jack Teahan at Automotive News, I can report a new Sprite sold for $1795 in the U.S. in 1961, equivalent to $11,460 in 2004 dollars.

The exhibit invites you to climb into the car to "experience what a sports car of the time was like" or words to that effect. I tried. I really tried. I just couldn’t fold my 73-year-old somewhat-tubby body and limbs into the close quarters of the driver seat.

If you’re not familiar with RHD stick-shift cars, did you ever wonder just how the pedals are arranged and whether the shift pattern is reversed like the steering? The answer is, the pedals are not changed, just moved over, and the shift pattern is the same as on a LHD car.

Which reminds me, in 1961, floor-mounted transmission controls were something of a novelty on both sides of the pond. Following American custom established by 1940, European sedans had column shifts, not "three-on-the-tree" selectors, but four-speed sticks on the column. There was the normal "H" pattern plus a pull-down extra leg for reverse.

Examining the controls of the Sprite did remind me of early experiences with British sports cars in the Fifties. Specifically, that the pedal space was very cramped — Brits, I thought then, must have awfully tiny feet, because invariably my size 9-1/2 Cs would depress two pedals when I only wanted one.

Another pair of cars in the transportation hall were examples of the postwar "microcar," Messerschmidt and BMW three-wheeled enclosed cyclecars. But they weren’t Brit.

1935 Lockheed ElectraCuriously, suspended over the cars was a shiny twin-engine 1935 Lockheed Electra, identical to the plane in which famous aviatrix Amelia Earhart disappeared on a 1937 cross-Pacific flight. An accompanying VCR screen showed rare film of her last take-off from New Guinea, as well as Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returning in an Electra from Munich in 1938 with his umbrella and naive "peace in our time" report after being bamboozled by Hitler.

I include these tidbits to emphasize that often as not, car enthusiasts also are interested in aviation history, and for Americans, Britain seems to be where history was invented — and continues to this day.

In short, London museums are lovely. In six days I managed to visit, in addition to the Science Museum, the Imperial War Museum, the Cabinet War Rooms, the Royal Army Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum and the British Museum , in addition to two guided London Walks. My daughter did me one better by managing to catch the Queen as she returned from "opening" Parliament among much pomp and circumstance.

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