diamond geezer

 Monday, April 21, 2008

Sent to: The Coventry Transport Museum
Coventry belongs to the car. Not just because of the grim dual carriageway ring road bulldozed around the heart of the city in the 1960s, but more particularly because the British motor industry was born and thrived here. One of those we have to thank is James Starley, a Victorian sewing machine engineer from Coventry's Watchmaking Quarter whose mechanical genius diversified first into bicycle parts and then into bicycles themselves. His greatest invention was the penny-farthing, a big improvement on the gearless boneshakers of the day. A few tweaks later James's nephew John came up with the "safety bicycle", its chain drive and diamond frame still pretty much the basic design to this day. And the name of Starley's 1885 two-wheeler? The Rover Safety Bicycle. Success beckoned. In the early 1900s the Rover Cycle Company took its first tentative steps into automobile production, and the rest is history.

Coventry Transport MuseumThe tale of Coventry's motor manufacturing past is told in the brand new multi-million pound Transport Museum. It's part of a millennial makeoever of the northern city centre, complete with granite plaza, spiralling glass walkway and twin boomerang-shaped arches (in honour of Frank Whittle, father of the jet engine). A most impressive setting, even in the rain. And an unexpectedly impressive museum too, with free admission to boot. The opening gallery contains a collection of landmark bikes and veteran motor vehicles, most around a century old, and all designed and made in Coventry. Rover, Hillman, Daimler, Alvis, Singer and Triumph - all household names in their time, and all being fussed over by a variety of older visitors as I passed.

Next follow a series of galleries bringing Coventry's transport past to life, with authentic street odours and reconstructions of various workshops and assembly lines. There's a lengthy "Blitz Experience", of course, and thankfully the animated cartoon character designed to appeal to the under 10s never quite grates. And then the cars proper begin. A red Triumph sports car on a twirling podium, a compact 60s Mini (did you know they filmed The Italian Job in the Coventry sewers?), even an old electric milk float. I was particularly taken by a montage of old road safety adverts (ahh the Tufty Club, ahh Jimmy Savile clunking and clicking, ahh Darth Vader the Green Cross Man), although the crocodile of kids being led round the museum for a birthday treat didn't seem quite so interested.

Daimler 1897, and penny farthing 1880-ishAt the rear of the building, in a darkened room, is the Thrust 2 vehicle which broke the world land speed record in 1983. It's huge, more a wheeled rocket than a car, and is curiously dated by the sponsors' adverts plastered all over the side (Faberge "Turbo" fragrance for men, anyone?). In the next room is its successor ThrustSSC, plus an extremely popular walk-on speed simulator, but alas the attendant closed off the entrance just as I walked round the corner. A room full of model cars didn't quite suffice, even if I did enjoy picking out my favourite Matchbox Hot Wheels amongst the collection. Several full-sized modern cars follow, plus an extensive collection of locally-sourced motorbikes and scooters, and an exhibition explaining precisely how bicycles developed.

And finally a reminder that Coventry's motor manufacturing days are now pretty much over. Near the exit is one of the final Peugeot 206s to roll off the production line at Ryton, unwrapped and undriven, next to a classic example of the only car still to be manufactured in the town - the famous London taxi! Coventry's economic star may have risen and fallen over the last century, but this museum is a fascinating way to relive the glory years.

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