The Motor Academy
An early driving school with its own brand of dual-control car.
Boundary Rd. (today known as Swanscombe Rd.), Notting Hill, London, W11.*
Exact details of the number of cars on the road in Britain during the late 19th and early 20th centuries are distinctly vague. The main reason for this is that until the 1903 Motor Act came into force on 1st January 1904, owners of motor cars (and motor cycles) in Britain were not required to register their vehicles.
In November 1895, when Britain’s first motor show was held, it is thought that there were probably about two dozen cars on British roads. Half of these were home-built one-offs, and the remainder, foreign imports, mainly from France.
By 1900, following the 1896 “Emancipation Act”, this figure is thought to have risen to seven or eight hundred; and it was from around this time that numbers began to grow significantly. By 1st April 1904, 28,073 motor cars and motor cycles had been registered in England and Wales, and 1,903 in Scotland (Hansard 31st May 1905).
During the early years of motoring, there was little formal driver training. (The compulsory driving test was not introduced in Britain until June 1935.) In the relatively few cases where the complete car (ie chassis, engine and body) was supplied directly from the manufacturer, the customer would often be loaned a driver for a day or two in order to learn how to operate and maintain their vehicle.
Owners who chose to employ a chauffeur, might send him (it was invariably a man) to work for a week or so in the factory where their car had been made, in order to learn about its workings and particular eccentricities.
The first advertisement for driving lessons that this writer has been able to find, was in March 1900, placed by William Lea, owner of the “Liver” Motor Car and Cycle Works located at the Park Entrance, Birkenhead. Another was George Taylor from the Bankside Works in Chelmsford, who in August 1900 was also offering lessons in motor driving.
In September 1903, the first driving courses were taught at London’s Battersea Polytechnic, and by July 1904, training was available from the recently established Institute of Chauffeurs, based at 39 Victoria Street, in London.
The Motor Academy in Notting Hill, however, was almost certainly one of the first specialist driving schools in the country - as opposed to garages and motor sales outlets offering lessons on a more ad hoc basis.
Situated within a few hundred yards of Shepherd’s Bush tube station, it was based in what was possibly a former organ factory. Opening on 7th November 1905, and claiming to have “the largest premises in London for teaching”, the Academy had a number of classrooms set aside for lectures, together with a garage and several other rooms displaying working models of engines, parts and accessories. However, the ‘jewel in the crown’ was the newly surfaced space behind the building, which included a small track on which driving lessons were held.
As one newspaper reported: “the track is amply provided with movable posts, vermillion-tongued terriers of wood, and chickens on thin board, which lie flat when one runs over them." (The London Evening Standard, 8th November 1905.)
According to The Field magazine, “The open air track is large enough to drive round comfortably at the legal limit, and is paved with a kind of tarred slag. In the middle is a smooth cemented space which is smeared with soft soap in order to practise handling the car on grease. Reversing is practised between parallel lines ruled across the ground.”
The Motor Academy had a number of cars available on which pupils could learn to drive. From 1906, these included its own car, appropriately named ‘The Academy’. Manufactured by E J West, a former partner of the Calcott Brothers, it had a 14 h.p, four-cylinder White & Poppe engine. Those cars used by the Motor Academy were probably the first to be fitted with dual-control, although the car was also sold to the public with just single controls.
The Academy proprietor, Mr Turberville Smith, entered and drove an Academy car in the 1906 Isle of Man Tourist Trophy race. The early TT races limited entrants to just 6.9 gallons of fuel for the entire 161-mile race. Perhaps inevitably, a number of cars did not complete the course, one of these being the Academy. However, with the smallest engine in the field, it completed three of the four 40.5-mile circuits, at an average speed of 28 mph, with fuel consumption at 22 miles to the gallon.
Although the Motor Academy seems to have been well-received in the press, there appears to have been widespread concern at the time over the quality of training by ‘so-called driving schools’ - something under ‘careful consideration’ by the Automobile Club and the Motor Union.
In view of this, a journalist from the Autocar magazine paid a surprise visit to the Academy to check on the training that was being offered. After listening to one of the lectures, and examining the engine display and the various other components on show, the writer concluded that pupils were being given a thorough grounding in instruction and repairs, “well within the reach of the working man”. The article also stated that, as an added bonus, pupils who felt that they could learn more by attending further classes were allowed to do so at no extra cost.
In 1907, the Motor Academy became the first motoring school to be officially appointed by the Royal Automobile Club.
Under the name of the Motor Exchange, second-hand cars were also sold from the Academy premises, with customers able to take a trial run around the Academy’s track.
Although the Academy was not wound up until 1910, Mr Turberville Smith appears to have opened another driving school in September 1907. Known as The Motor School it was based at 10-12 Heddon Street, just off Regent Street in London’s West End, with a garage and works at 21a Loudoun Road, St John’s Wood (a Majestic Wine store in 2022).
Like the Motor Academy, the Motor School also produced its own car – the Pilot, based (and possibly assembled) at the Loudoun Road works in St John’s Wood. In November 1915, the School was re-named the Motor Training Institute and still, at least initially, based at Heddon Street. Production of the Pilot car ceased in 1914, but the Motor Training Institute appears to have remained in existence until 1957.
* In July 1938, Boundary Road was re-named Swanscombe Road. The Motor Academy was located on a rectangular piece of land bordered by what are known today as Swanscombe Road, St Ann’s Villas, Queensdale Road, and Norland Villas.
Boundary Road (now Swanscombe Road), Notting Hill, London W11
An early driving school with its own brand of dual-control car.