Curious Questions: When was the world’s first motor show held?

May 9 marks the anniversary of what many have regarded to be the first motor trade show; but was it really the first motorcar show, wonders Martin Fone?

We take the motor car so much for granted that it is hard to imagine at this distance how transformational and liberating a form of transport it would have seemed in the last decade of the 19th century.

It offered the very real prospect, albeit for those who could afford it, the opportunity to travel where they wanted, at speed, and without the constraints imposed by the stamina of a horse or the vagaries of the railway timetable.

What better way for the early enthusiasts of these new-fangled machines to demonstrate their practicality than through an organised public event?

And so, the idea of the motor show was born.

May 9th this year (2021) will mark the 125th anniversary of what many have regarded to be the first motor trade show.

Organised by the recently established Motor Car Club, it marked the opening of the summer season of the Imperial Institute in London and ran for three months until August 8, 1896.

The future Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, made an ‘informal visit’ on the opening day of what was called ‘The International Horseless Carriage Exhibition’.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the magazine Autocar, in its review on May 16th that year, thought that the descriptor ‘autocar’ was ‘much neater and more applicable than that employed in the title of the show’.

Nevertheless, they were fulsome in its praise, commenting that it ‘is really one that should not be missed by any person feeling even a passing interest in the road, pleasure and business vehicle of the near future’.

The exhibition brought together ten different makes of motor car and motorcycle and offered the visitor the opportunity ‘to make trial of some of the motor cars, which are manoeuvred on the ground’.

The hot topic at this exhibition was what was the optimal form of propulsion, a debate that resonates today. Autocar reported that the purchaser of the near future ‘will have to choose between oil and electricity as a source of power’.

The Universal Electric Carriage Syndicate claimed that its vehicle could travel some thirty-five to forty miles at eight miles per hour without recharging, an operation that lasted three hours.

Conversely, a vehicle displayed by the Arnold Motor Carriage Co, fuelled by benzoline, could travel seventy miles at the cost of a halfpenny a mile, yours for ‘about £125’, twice the average annual wage at the time.

Autocar concluded that ‘electricity has the advantage that it works without smell and with less noise and vibration, but the disadvantage of the costliness of the accumulators, and the impossibility of recharging except where the electric supply is available’.

As we know, cost and convenience won out.

1896 Daimler

The exhibition also included a display of flying machines, including a model of Mr Maxim’s steam-powered flying machine, a replica of Otto Lilienthal’s glider, in which he was to meet his death later that year, and one which used two small balloons to take off.

Such was the interest that by the turn of the century there were three annual motor shows in the London area alone.

Was it the first motor show, though?

Galling as it may seem, the French were quickest off the mark, holding, on December 11, 1894 on the Champs-Ėlysées, the grandiloquently named Exposition Internationale de Velocipedie et de Locomotion Automobile.

There were nine vehicles on display from four manufacturers. One interested visitor was Sir David Salomons, who, mortified to see that the French had stolen a march, was determined, according to an interview in The Sketch, that English manufacturers should produce a ‘carriage which will eclipse all others’.

His visit to Paris was the catalyst for the emergence of the British car industry.

As mayor of Tunbridge Wells, Salomons saw an opportunity to put his town on the motoring map by organising a show along the lines of that in Paris.

It was held at the town’s Agricultural Show Ground in the autumn of 1895, with just five vehicles on display, none of which, to Salomon’s chagrin, were British made.

His own exhibit was a Peugeot, which followed the familiar horse carriage vis-à-vis design, where the passengers sitting at the front travelled backwards looking at the driver perched on a raised seat at the rear. Tall hats were not welcome!

To put Salomons’ initiative into context, it was only on July 5 that year that the first substantial road trip was made in England.

The Honourable Evelyn Ellis picked up his newly imported Panhard et Levassor at Micheldever and, with Frederick Simms as passenger, drove to his home in Datchet, a journey of 56 miles.

It took five hours and 32 minutes, excluding stops, at a law-breaking average speed of 9.84mph. Wherever they stopped, they drew a crowd of onlookers and as they travelled through the countryside, the vehicle was ‘an object of a great deal of curiosity’. It was the star of Salomons’ show.

Ellis, the first Englishman to pass a driving test, in Paris in 1895, forty years before it was made compulsory here, also displayed a fire engine which, without a ladder, was little more than a motorised water pump.

A motorcycle and a noisy, fire belching ‘steam horse’ completed the exhibits. Still, from little acorns grow mighty oaks.

Horseless Carriage

It was, in part, thanks to Salomons that the roadblock to motoring that was the Locomotive Act of 1865 was removed.

This legislation imposed a speed limit on all self-propelled vehicles of four miles per hour in the countryside and two miles an hour in towns and required that someone carrying a red flag walk ahead of the machine to warn oncomers of its advent — a red rag to any aspiring motorist and cheerfully ignored by some, not least Ellis.

With Simms, Salomons founded the Self-Propelled Traffic Association in December 1895 and launched a vigorous campaign against the Act.

Despite the two protagonists falling out and Simms forming a rival organisation, the Motor Car Club, their lobbying was successful.

A new Act, The Locomotives on Highways Act, 1896, removed the necessity for the red flag and increased the maximum speed limit over threefold to a heady fourteen miles an hour. It was full steam ahead for the self-propelled vehicle.

On the day that the Act came into force, November 14, 1896, the Motor Car Club organised an Emancipation Run.

At a breakfast held at the Charing Cross Hotel, Lord Winchelsea ceremonially tore a red flag in two.

Then, from 10.30 am onwards, thirty-three motorists set off from the Metropole Hotel, on the corner of Northumberland Avenue and Whitehall Place, to Brighton, sent off on their way by a ‘flying escort’ of cyclists, numbering, according to one contemporary report, ‘probably 10,000’.

Between thirteen and nineteen completed the course, reports vary, although there were allegations that some were taken down to Brighton by train, splattered with mud and then driven to the finishing line.

Salomons and Simms buried the hatchet the following year, merging their two organisations to form the Automobile Club, later to become the Royal Automobile Club. Motoring had arrived via Paris, Tunbridge Wells, and the Imperial Institute.