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Britain By Car - A Motoring History


Created Date:

30 December 2022

Last Modified:

09 January 2024
Coventry

Calcott

A relatively short-lived motor manufacturer that was well-regarded in its time.

Location   
Calcott Bros Ltd., XL Works, 154-165 Far Gosford Street, Coventry, CV1 5DJ.

Date
Car production: 1913 – 1926.

Calcott Ten, 1916.  The dickey seat to the rear is just visible, © Buch-t, via Flickr
Calcott Ten, 1916. The dickey seat to the rear is just visible, © Buch-t, via Flickr
Often advertising under the slogan, “Calcott Cycles are beautiful indeed”, Calcott Bros offered a wide range of lightweight racing cycles and tricycles, source: Cycling, 21st January 1893
Often advertising under the slogan, “Calcott Cycles are beautiful indeed”, Calcott Bros offered a wide range of lightweight racing cycles and tricycles, source: Cycling, 21st January 1893
The former factory administrative block, 2008; now a listed building, © Cliff Jones Photographs, via Flickr
The former factory administrative block, 2008; now a listed building, © Cliff Jones Photographs, via Flickr
The administrative building as it appeared in 1921.  The car at the main entrance is a Calcott Ten, source: Coventry City Council
The administrative building as it appeared in 1921. The car at the main entrance is a Calcott Ten, source: Coventry City Council
The Calcott Ten, with many features and components still easily recognisable today, source: Automotor Journal, 21st February 1914
The Calcott Ten, with many features and components still easily recognisable today, source: Automotor Journal, 21st February 1914
An early version of the Calcott Ten, the electric head and tail lamps were a luxury fitment to a car of this clas at the time, source: Automotor Journal, 21st February 1914.
An early version of the Calcott Ten, the electric head and tail lamps were a luxury fitment to a car of this class at the time, source: Automotor Journal, 21st February 1914.
A Calcott Ten fitted with a Lyon-Spencer gas container.  During the First World War, petrol was rationed in Britain, and ‘town’ or coal gas was used as an alternative source of power.  The car was owned by Lady Idina Wallace, later to become a member of the Happy Valley set, a group of white settlers in Kenya who become renowned for their hedonistic lifestyle, source: The Illustrated London News, 29th December 1917
A Calcott Ten fitted with a Lyon-Spencer gas container. During the First World War, petrol was rationed in Britain, and ‘town’ or coal gas was used as an alternative source of power. The car was owned by Lady Idina Wallace, later to become a member of the Happy Valley set, a group of white settlers in Kenya who become renowned for their hedonistic lifestyle, source: The Illustrated London News, 29th December 1917
The factory interior on Far Gosford Street, 1921.  The cars continued to be made largely by hand, © National Motor Museum, Beaulieu
The factory interior on Far Gosford Street, 1921. The cars continued to be made largely by hand, © National Motor Museum, Beaulieu
Launched at the 1924 Olympia Motor Show in London, the Calcott 12/24, for which front-wheel brakes were a £25 extra, source: The Illustrated Sporting & Dramatic News, 18th October 1924
Launched at the 1924 Olympia Motor Show in London, the Calcott 12/24, for which front-wheel brakes were a £25 extra, source: The Illustrated Sporting & Dramatic News, 18th October 1924
ames Calcott, the younger, with one of his daughters, Ruth, at the wheel of a six-cylinder Calcott 16/50, at Stoneleigh in Warwickshire, source: The Tatler, 14th April 1926
James Calcott, the younger, with one of his daughters, Ruth, at the wheel of a six-cylinder Calcott 16/50, at Stoneleigh in Warwickshire, source: The Tatler, 14th April 1926
Two Calcott cars are exhibited at the Coventry Transport Museum, © Tony Thorpe
Two Calcott cars are exhibited at the Coventry Transport Museum, © Tony Thorpe

Commentary
Like many early car manufacturers, Calcott Bros began as cycle makers, opening in East Street, Coventry, in 1886, and trading as Calcott Bros and West.

The brothers, William and James Calcott, born in 1847 and 1850, respectively, had no background in the cycle industry; the expert, in this regard, was Enoch J West, who had served his apprenticeship with the Singer Cycle Company.  

Their cycle business proved to be very successful, with the Gamages department store amongst their customers for both cycles and roller skates.  However, in 1891, Enoch West left the partnership to set up on his own, manufacturing cycles, motorcycles and, eventually, cyclecars.  The latter were marketed under various names, including West, West-Aster, Pilot, and Ranger.   EJ West also manufactured the Academy car, specifically designed for the Motor Academy driving school, based in Notting Hill in west London.

After Enoch West’s departure, the company was re-launched as Calcott Bros Ltd, and it was around this time that they began production of their most successful model, known as the XL.

A healthy demand for this and their other cycles created the need for larger premises.  Moving around Coventry, first to workshops in Gosford Street, and then to Much Park Street, Calcott’s eventually established their long-term base in Far Gosford Street.  

The company moved into the new factory in August 1896.  The office block, which still stands today as a locally listed building, had an ornate frontage leading to a courtyard  with a range of two-storey buildings running down one side opposite a series of north-lit sheds, extending all the way back to Gulson Road. 

When the new premises were announced in the press, three months before their opening, they were described as being “built on the most modern principles and fitted with improved labour-saving appliances.”  Interestingly, in the same article, William Calcott is quoted as having “great confidence in the future of the autocar” adding that when the new factory was built his firm would “be prepared to take on the manufacture of these vehicles”. 

In fact, car production didn’t begin at the Far Gosford factory until 1913.  Well before this, in 1901, William Calcott stepped back from the business due to ill-health and, two years later, following William’s death, the company came under the directorship of his brother James.  It was this point that Calcott’s began to experiment with motorcycles, producing their first machine for sale in 1910; a three-and-a-half horsepower model with a White and Poppe engine. 

In 1911, James Calcott himself retired as managing director, passing the reins to his son James, born in 1875.  Around this time, James senior’s youngest child, William, also became a member of the board, with responsibility for sales.  (It does get a little confusing, as almost all the key players in this story are named either William or James.) 

Calcott’s first car, known as the Calcott Ten, was launched in 1913.  Its 1456cc four-cylinder engine was designed by Arthur Alderson, who had previously worked for Singer, and built at the Far Gosford Street factory.  The chassis, however, came from Mechins of Scotstoun, in Glasgow, and the two-seater body was built by various companies, including Hollick & Pratt, Charlesworth, Tom Pass, and Cross & Ellis. 

Although relatively conventional by design, the car received almost universal praise from the outset.  The Motor Notes of the Devon and Exeter Gazette (admittedly, not exactly a mainstream motoring publication) reported in June 1914, “The Calcott car is rapidly coming into favour, which is a thing not to be wondered at, when one considers the quality of workmanship contained in it…”, adding, “the car will run 40 miles on a gallon of petrol, at a speed of 45 miles an hour, so what more could be wished for?”

The more authoritative Automotor Journal was equally enthusiastic.  In November 1914, it stated: “In the short time that it has been before the public, the Calcott Light Car has made quite an enviable name for itself, and a study of its constructional features is sufficient to explain the success.” 

If further recommendation was required; Henry Royce apparently used a 10.5 h.p Calcott, for a number of years, as a runabout at his home in West Wittering, Sussex. 

Despite the outbreak of war soon after its launch, Calcott’s seem to have continued building the Ten until 1917, either alongside, or prior to, the manufacture of shell cases for the war effort. 

Production of the Ten resumed after the end of the War; now fitted with a slightly larger 1644cc engine, giving an output of 11.5 h.p.  The original 10.5 h.p car, however, was re-introduced alongside this in 1922, becoming the 10/15, and available with a four-seater body. 

However, it was probably around this time that Calcott’s problems began to become apparent.  Unlike their local competitors, such as Singer and Standard, Calcott’s failed to upgrade their tooling and extend their premises in the period immediately after the War.  With limited space for expansion, and worn-out machinery, they were unable to move into mass-production, which the competitive market increasingly now demanded. 

With post-War inflation and a high unit cost of production, Calcott’s prices became uncompetitive, particularly when compared to those of market leaders, such as the Morris Cowley.

In an effort, no doubt, to broaden their appeal, two further models were introduced. In October 1924, the company announced the 12/24, a two-litre, four-seater car, with four-wheel braking available as an option.  A year later, the 16/50 appeared.  This had four-wheel braking as standard, a six-cylinder 2565cc engine, a four-speed gearbox and a top speed of around 65mph.

Again, these cars were warmly greeted by the press, but warranty claims on the 12/24 for problems with the rear axle and the cost of retooling for the 16/50, put huge pressure on the company’s finances.  The balance sheet was also probably not helped by the generous dividends that the company invariably paid to its shareholders; a 25 per cent pay out was made as late as 1923. 

In December 1925, there were warnings that the company was in difficulties, but despite assurances to the contrary, less than six months later, Calcott’s assets were being advertised for sale.  A statement from the Board indicated that the company needed a further £30,000 to remain viable.  Although promises amounting to £12,000 had been received, this was felt to be insufficient for their requirements. 

Perhaps reflecting the strongly religious background of both founders - James Calcott, the elder, was a Strict Baptist pastor of national repute - all creditors were reportedly paid in full.

Almost all accounts of Calcott Bros. Ltd state that approximately 2,500 cars were manufactured by the company over a period of just over 20 years.  One source that differs from this, however, is the announcement of the sale of the land, building and equipment etc., which stated that “nearly 6,000 cars have been sold to the public.

The factory on Far Gosford Street was taken over by the Singer Motor Company as their spares and servicing centre.  Ten years later, it was sold to Astley’s, sellers of workplace safety and cleaning equipment and one of Coventry’s oldest companies.  In 2005, Astley’s moved to Coventry Business Park, with the Far Gosford Street site being re-developed as university student accommodation.  The new building is appropriately named Calcott Ten. 

Further details   
• Coventry’s Motorcar Heritage, Damien Kimberley, The History Press, 2012.
• The Automobile A-Z of Cars of the 1920s, Nick Baldwin, Herridge & Sons Ltd, 2010.
• The Rise and Fall of the Calcott, Michael Worthington-Williams, The Automobile, Vol 7 No. 1, March 1989.