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LIVING: Books - Genius that made Brum car capital of Britain?

Byline: RICHARD WILLIAMSON

IT was sleek, powerful and radical but 'the Bullet' was doomed before it even reached the production line. Like many of the amazing concept cars at the Motor Show this weekend, the Enfield-Allday 10hp light car of 1918 was simply ahead of its time.

It was a revolutionary design incorporating a five-cylinder air-cooled radial engine and a very advanced chassis. It even had adjustable pedals and steering wheel to accommodate different-sized drivers.

At just pounds 275 and promising high performance and brilliant fuel economy, the car looked like a winner. But in 1920 the manufacturers announced that they had abandoned the project without a single car ever reaching the public.

Production costs had risen so much that it was reckoned the car would now cost pounds 550 - twice its original estimate.

The International Motor Show at the NEC may be about the future but it will always be haunted by the ghosts of the industry that made Birmingham the nation's car capital.

The ill-fated Bullet was a car from the city's heyday and a reminder that there was much more to the business than the famous names like Rover and Austin.

For this was a product of Alldays & Onions, once one of the giants of the city's 'metal-bashing' industry.

William Allday and Sons and J.C. Onions merged in 1885 but both firms had a history in the bellows-making trade stretching back to the 17th century.

The new firm set itself up at the Great Western Works in Small Heath in 1888. In the years to come, Matchless and Waverley Works would be added to its empire.

In a bid to attract more skilled workers the company even built its own houses close by the factory.

Over the years the firm would make all manner of engineering products, from forges and power hammers to hoists and fans and even forks, spades and wheelbarrows.

But, like so many other Birmingham companies, it was also heavily into road vehicles.

The Matchless Works was planned in 1896 to accommodate the booming cycle business.

Soon they were turning out tourers and racing cycles, delivery bikes for the Post Office and those classic 'stop me and buy one' tricycles.

The bikes they made for the British South Africa Company even had attachments to take a sword and a rifle.

They clearly valued their reputation for high-quality work and one early advertisement challenged customers to go over their products with a microscope, boasting: 'There's no shoddy work covered by thick plate and enamel.'

They weren't cheap. The Featherweight Imperial of 1901 cost 10 guineas.

Naturally, they soon made the step up to motorcycles. The Alldays Matchless motorcycle of 1902 could be yours for just pounds 42. Soon they would become famous for the Allon two-stroke engine.

Cars soon followed and the Alldays 'Traveller' voiturette, priced at around pounds 120, was much admired at the start of the 20th century.

By 1906 the Matchless works was building a range of motors priced from pounds 165 to pounds 375 and, in 1908, the company bought out the car business of Enfield of Redditch. They seem to have done particularly well selling to the colonies. In New Zealand one of their cars was an early pioneer of off-roading - simply because there were no roads to use.

An enthusiast from Bangalore in India wrote to the company to tell how he had driven his machine for 32 miles, rising 8,000ft, with three passengers and luggage, in 2 1 /2 hours.

The company also made trucks, trolleybuses, railcars, tractors and charabancs. Like many firms, though, it fell foul of the slump after the First World War.

Alldays & Onions - A Brief History (Landmark Publishing pounds 24.95) is the meticulous work of local historian Norman Painting.

It seems to me that the history of Birmingham is very much the story of its great manufacturing firms and the astonishing versatility and skill of the workers.

Mr Painting is doing a grand job in reminding us of who we are and how we came to be here.

CAPTION(S):

REVOLUTIONARY DESIGN... the Enfield-Allday Bullet promised much but never made it on to the market
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Oct 27, 2002
Words:694
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