Although Britain is home to several motor/transport museums, none is more appropriately sited than that in Coventry – the city in which Britain’s road transport industry was born and which, more than any other, has helped to get this country mobile.
Originally opened as the Museum of British Road Transport in 1980, it’s recently been renamed Coventry Transport Museum following a four year £7.5 million revamp carried out as part of Coventry’s city centre regeneration programme.
The result is the largest collection of British road transport exhibits in the world, with over 500 machines on show in the impressive new facility which boasts 125,000 square feet of floor space, making it three times the size of Beaulieu and twice the size of the Heritage Motor Centre at Gaydon.
As the name suggests, there’s more to the museum than just cars, with the exhibits also including bikes and commercial vehicles and with period sets and audio-visual presentations helping to convey the history of British road transport and Coventry’s important – and continuing - part in it.
The Early Days
This history dates right back to 1868 when Britain’s first pedal cycles went into production in Coventry, marking the dawn of personal transportation in the UK. Since then Coventry has been home to 271 pedal cycle companies, and the museum plays host to possibly the most significant collection of historic pedal cycles in Europe – which includes some very odd contraptions.
Of more interest from our point of view is that a number of these early cycle companies went on to start fitting engines to some of their machines, with the museum housing a collection of Midlands produced motorcycles from such legendary names as Ariel, Rudge, Norton and of course Triumph. Although tiny compared to that of the nearby (and sadly stricken) National Motorcycle Museum, this collection still serves to show what people were riding back in the days when the British motorcycle industry led the world.
Of even more interest from our point of view is that some of these early cycle companies then went on to start adding more wheels to go with the engines, following the lead of Daimler which built Britain’s first car in Coventry in 1896. Cars in the museum’s collection date from just one year later to the present day and, not surprisingly, most of them were built in Coventry.
While most of the museum’s exhibits are permanent, the Ariel Gallery visible through the large glass frontage will play host to several themed exhibitions throughout the year, with the current Sporting Speed display running until the end of May.
And while the exhibits in the Ariel Gallery are roped off in typical museum fashion, there’s nothing at all separating you from the majority of those in many of the museum’s other galleries, enabling you to take a really close look. Ask the friendly museum staff nicely and you can even get to sit in some of them to pose for photographs etc.
Now as a PistonHeads reader you’re obviously a lover of fast cars, so you should be interested to know that Coventry Transport Museum’s ‘Spirit of Speed’ gallery is permanent home to the fastest car of all – Thrust SSC. Although it’s kept under cover in a special housing you can get right up to it, enabling you to fully appreciate the sheer size of the thing and stare in awed amusement at the way all the paint on the rear side panels has been burnt off by the flame from those twin jet engines.
Though this is one exhibit you most definitely can’t get to sit in, you can get a taste of what it was like for Andy Green to drive it during those supersonic record breaking runs thanks to the Thrust SSC virtual ride. Obviously this can’t accurately convey the G-forces, but it nonetheless gives a pretty good impression of the speed and buffeting involved. You’ll also get a pretty good impression of the difficulties Andy had trying to keep the car running in a straight line – like having to put full 90° lock on the steering to fight sideways drift at over 600mph! Not to be missed.
Sharing the ‘Spirit of Speed’ gallery with Thrust SSC are the previous fastest car of all, Thrust 2 (which has its own panoramic sound and vision display) and the wonderfully eccentric test rig for Thrust SSC’s twin rear wheel steering system. Only the British would plan a car intended to break the sound barrier on land and use a rusty old Mini to test its steering...
Another exhibit you won’t find anywhere else, albeit not strictly motoring related, is the dark and smoky ‘blitz experience’ which recreates the sights and sounds of an air raid to commemorate the terrible battering Coventry took in World War 2.
This is one of a number of displays in the ‘landmarques’ gallery that combines sets, dummies and sounds (or display screens) with vehicles dating from Victorian times to the war to provide an insight into motoring history that you just don’t get with the usual rows of gleaming machines.
Not that the museum doesn’t have those as well, with the ‘Introduction Gallery’ combining rows of machines from numerous long defunct Coventry companies with information boards about some of the transport industry’s pioneers.
More recent industry history is charted on the first floor, which combines cars with audio visual displays to chronicle the rise of Coventry and its motor industry in the post-war boom years of the 50s and 60s, on through the strike torn years of the 70s and the subsequent decline that left Coventry becoming what local group The Specials described in their 1980s hit as a ‘Ghost Town’. Well making cars like the Austin Allegro didn’t help…
In addition to all the complete machines in the museum there’s a number of cutaway exhibits and display engines, including examples of the legendary Coventry Climax engines that helped to end the Italians’ domination of Grand prix racing and put Britain firmly on top in the early 1960s.
But far from merely looking at the past as so many museums do, Coventry Transport Museum also looks to the future, with part of its mission being to inspire interest in engineering and design, especially in youngsters, and there’s even a computer that enables people to design their own car (sort of).
The museum also provides a taste of professional designers’ ideas with a collection of automotive concepts (both scale model and full size) including several from Coventry University, which runs what’s widely regarded as one of the best automotive design courses in the world, and with which the museum has close links.
Further insights into what transport might be like in years to come are to be found in the interactive Futures Gallery, which as well as housing mock-ups of electric and even a hovering car also gives you chance to take a drive round a virtual Coventry city centre of the future. Assuming you can get near the consoles for kids that is…
Throughout the Ages
But that’s one of the things about Coventry Transport Museum – it’s been designed to appeal to people of all ages, giving youngsters chance to play computer games and oldsters chance to get all nostalgic about the days when ‘we used to have one of those’. In fact part of the museum’s official mission statement is to ‘display the material in an entertaining and educational way’ which is just what it does.
So if you’ve got a junior PHer or two, Coventry Transport Museum is a great place to go to teach them about the history and workings of our favourite form of transport. And for more mature PistonHeaders, it’s a great place to go to just spend some time looking around some wonderful (and maybe even some not so wonderful) cars and bikes. Not forgetting of course the chance to try out that Thrust SSC virtual ride.
Like PistonHeads, entry to Coventry Transport Museum is free (but all contributions gratefully received) and it’s open from 10am to 5pm every day apart from 24th, 25th and 26th December, so if you’re ever in the Midlands and have some time to spare you know where to go.
Web site: www.transport-museum.com