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Argyll Factory

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Argyll Works frontage, 2008
Argyll Works frontage
© Stephen Sweeney

The Argyll Factory was located in Alexandria, approximately one mile south of Loch Lomond, and was built to house one of Scotland's most promising car manufacturers, who failed shortly after it was opened. In the following years it served as a munitions factory, producing torpedoes, a number of failed business ventures, was under threat of complete demolition, but survived to to become a listed building and shopping outlet in later years.

Early history

In 1905, work started on a new factory in Alexandria, intended to become the home of production for the Argyll car, which had outgrown its original Hozier Street works in Glasgow. From its beginnings in 1900, the now liquidated Hozier Engineering Co Ltd, of Hozier Street in Glasgow, was now working nightshifts to produce up to 25 cars every week as the Argyll Motors Ltd. with some £100,000 of outstanding orders waiting to be satisfied.

Capable of producing up to 2,500 vehicles each year, and equipped with its own test tracks to the rear, the building was created on a grand scale, with an ornate red sandstone exterior including a carved sculpture of Victory figure astride a motor car, flanked by trumpet-blowing angels, engineering and manufacturing figures (over the main entrance), a magnificent reception area with a marble staircase, a dome, wood panelling, and a garden area for the workers. The cost of the new building was close to £250,000, with a similar expenditure for plant and machinery bringing the total startup cost to some £500,000.

300 guests travelled by special train from London to attended the opening ceremony on June 26, 1906, presided over by Lord Montague of Beaulieu.

The new factory was to prove the undoing of the company.

Barely half of its capacity was ever utilised, and its high running cost of some £12,000 per month meant that only full adoption of mass production techniques would have made it viable, and this was not the way for a manufacturer whose ways were set in the hand-crafted methods born of a small engineering works. A further example of the company's failure to grasp the concept of mass production was its catalogue, containing 100 pages of choice.

Although 1906 saw over 1,000 vehicles produced (requiring the use of a chartered train to transport export vehicles to London), this was still well below capacity, and the business suffered as a result.

In 1907, the problems continued with the death of Alex Govan, who had founded the Argyll marque only seven years earlier. Only 38 years old, he is believed to have suffered a fatal stroke.

In 1908, Argyll Motors went into liquidation, with losses of £360,000. Although the factory remained open, some 1,500 workers were laid off.

In 1909, a new company was created, Argylls Ltd, with capital of almost £210,000. In its first year, this new company made a profit of £1,600 thanks to exports to America.

In 1910, only 450 vehicles produced, providing even less return to the company, which was being financially drained by the cost of ownership associated with the vast Alexandria factory.

In the following years, Argylls Ltd fought (and won) a patent battle in respect of the design of their single-sleeve valve engine, but at a huge and financially damaging cost.

1914 was marked by the third liquidation, and final production of the Argyll at Alexandria. The company's shares had dropped from 10 shillings (50 p) to seven pence ha'penny (3 p), and the shareholders were unwilling to listen to any recovery proposals, even though production was actually improving, and the company had a contract to supply aero engines based on its new engine design.

The shareholder blocked a takeover move by another car manufacturer, Darracq, and The Alexandria factory was sold to the Admiralty in 1914 for £153,000, bringing Argyll production at Alexandria to an end.

In an interesting twist, production of the Argyll returned from Alexandria to the original Hozier Street factory, and continued for a further 16 years, until the company's fourth, and final, liquidation in 1930.

Post-closure history

After its closure in 1914, the factory was taken over by Armstrong Whitworth for munitions production, and then in 1916, by the Ministry of Munitions. Although its product was shells, the factory came to be known as the Gun Works.

The factory closed with the ending of World War I in 1918, and lay abandoned until 1926, when it was acquired by a company known as Scottish Amalgamated Silks, with plans to manufacture artificial silk. Although they had two mills in England, by 1929 hardly anyone had been employed, and the company was eventually closed down and a number of directors found guilty of fraud, following complaints leading to the seizure of its books.

The factory again lay abandoned, until 1936, when the Admiralty took possession and began torpedo production there, as part of the country's re-armament programme. This was soon followed by the need to expand existing output from the Royal Naval Torpedo Factory (RNTF) at Greenock, to meet the growing demand of World War II. By 1943, this requirement had grown to such an extent that all manufacture was to be moved from Greenock to Alexandria, which would then become the RNTF, leaving Greenock to be used as an experimentation and design establishment. The move was completed in 1947, and the new RNTF continued to produce torpedoes until the 1950s.

During the 1960s, the factory took part in a top secret Cold War project, Project Chevaline. This work centred on increasing the survivability of nuclear warheads fitted to Polaris ballistic missiles. Completion of work on this final project in 1969 also marked the the closure of the factory, and the transfer of its remaining work to Weymouth

In 1970, the factory was taken over by the Plessey Electronic Company. Manufacturers of traffic control equipment, the combination of an opportunity to profit from the growing motorway network and Government grants attracted them to the area. The business did not materialise, and although some 200 employees were taken on, within two years the company had sold of the machinery and returned south. The factory made the news when the workers attempted to halt the move by staging a sit-in. After this failure, sections of the building were used to house a number of small businesses and companies, when it came to be known as the Alexandria Industrial Estate. Unfortunately, only a few were successful, and the abandoned building was sold off to a London based company, who basically did nothing to maintain the listed building.

In 1971, the building was listed, which should have ensured it was not simply bulldozed to provide a new development area.

For those who knew the building, there was a moment of alarm when demolition of the site was announced. Fortunately, this was restricted to the the main production areas to the rear of the ornamental façade, and the forward section of the building. This meant the magnificent marble staircase and reception area were also retained.

The building was re-born in 1997, as the Loch Lomond Factory Outlets, a shopping centre where discounted goods would be sold for up to half (or less) of their high street prices. The centre was officially opened by HRH The Princess Royal in August, 1998.

The outlet has some twenty shop units of varying size, a food court, crèche and play area, with ample parking for vehicles. To the rear of the building, lies a modern housing development, built on the area formerly occupied by the production area and test tracks.

A section of the building once housed a small Motoring Heritage Centre, where models of various Argyll cars, and others, were on view within a small museum. Please note that this centre was closed some time around 2007, and we are unaware of its current status, or the fate of any of the vehicles from the collection.

The cost of the new centre was around £6 million - compared with the original construction cost of almost £250,000.

A few years after opening, a visit (2003) showed that quite a few of the formerly occupied units were unoccupied, and the outlet was quiet compared to earlier visits around Christmas, so future visits will be interesting.

Argyll car damaged in Japanese earthquake

In March 2011, much coverage was given to the magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami which devastated Japan, however this had been preceded by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which is said to have caused greater and more widespread destruction, devastating the cities of Tokyo and Yokohama, and killing some 140,000 people.

At an open air museum dedicated to the disaster, the surviving chassis and engine of a 1911 Argyll 14/16 are on display. The vehicle was burnt out during the earthquake of 1923, and its body was destroyed. It is believed to have been imported to serve as an advertisement for a store selling a beer from a local brewery, and was fitted with a bottle-shaped body, but by the time of the earthquake, had been refitted with a more conventional body, and was being used as a delivery van. The reason for the Argyll being there is suggested to have been down a Scotsman, Sir Thomas Blake Glover from Bridge of Don, Aberdeen. He is described as a successful businessman who founded the shipbuilding company that developed into Mitsubishi.[1]

References

1 Classic Motor Monthly. Issue 265. April 2011.

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