Britain By Car - A Motoring History

George Johnston and the Mo-Car Syndicate

Lightbox Image

Founder of the company that built Scotland’s first car. 

Mosesfield House, Belmont Road, Springburn.

1895 – 1898/9. 

In 1861, the Rev. James Aitchison Johnson, his wife, and their five children moved from West Linton in Peebleshire to Mosesfield House in Springburn.  The minister was a well-known and highly respected figure in the area, and a founder member of the Scottish Temperance League - advocating complete abstinence from all liquor. 

Lightbox Image

It was here that George, one of their three sons, constructed what is held to be the first motor car built in Scotland.  Initially apprenticed in 1870, at the age of 15, to the Neilson & Company locomotive works, George Johnston went on to work on a wide range of engineering applications: devising machinery for use in food production, textile manufacture and, probably most famously, transport.  His vehicles included an oil-fuelled, steam-powered tram (1895) and an “electric motor car, to be used for the removal of city refuse” (1899) - both built for Glasgow City Corporation.

Lightbox Image

1895 looks to have a busy time for George Johnston; for it was in October of that year that he took delivery of the first two cars to be imported Scotland, a Cannstatt-Daimler and a Panhard et Levassor.  (Although motor historian Malcolm Jeal suggested that the Daimler may just have been an engine, and not a complete car.)

He also started to build his own vehicle in 1895, and on 27th January 1896 he was convicted of driving a horseless carriage (of his design) on the streets of Glasgow “at an hour when locomotives are not allowed there”.  In his defence, Mr Johnston explained that the car neither emitted vapour nor frightened horses, nor was it a locomotive in the sense of the Act.  He was fined two shillings and sixpence.

The vehicle itself was of a dog-cart design, rather like a small traditional horse-drawn carriage.  It had a 10 h.p (or possibly 12 h.p) engine mounted underneath the body.

The next stage in this story is the creation of what was known as the Mo-Car Syndicate; but exactly when this came into being is not entirely clear.  The Syndicate was probably formed in 1895 or 1896.  It was an agreement between George Johnston, his cousin Norman Osbourne Filton, and Thomas Blackwood Murray, an electrical engineer of some standing, to become engaged in motor car production.  Finance for the company was provided by Sir William Arrol, and Archibald and Peter Coats. 

Sir William Arrol & Co. had built the Forth Bridge, across the Firth of Forth, the second Tay Bridge, and the structure of Tower Bridge, in London.  Archibald and Peter Coats were sons of James Coats, a founder of the thread manufacturer, J & P Coats.

Mo-car was one of several words (another was autocar) used at the time to describe what we know today as the motor car.  The term was originally applied earlier in the 19th century to the steam-powered carriage.

Lightbox Image

By 1898, the Syndicate had the use of premises at 94, Hope Street in Glasgow, presumably as an office, and in early January 1899, it was announced that £50,000 had been invested in the syndicate by Sir William and the Coats’ brothers.  This was almost certainly to finance the company’s first factory in Camlachie, in the east end of Glasgow, about three miles to the south.

Further details   
• The Scottish Motor Industry, Michael Worthington Williams, Shire Publications Ltd, 1989.
• In the Driving Seat – a century of motoring in Scotland, Jack Webster, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 1996. 

Other locations
West Linton, Borders

Mosesfield House, Belmont Road, Springburn.

Founder of the company that built Scotland’s first car.