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Arrol Johnson Factory

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Arrol Johnson building, 2006
Arrol Johnson building
© Richard Webb

The Arrol Johnson factory was located at Heathhall, on the A 701 Edinburgh Road between Dumfries and Locharbriggs, Dumfries and Galloway.

The car company commenced in 1895 making a very basic type of car referred to as a Dog Cart.

Built in 1913 for the Arrol Johnson Co Ltd, the works comprised a large group of three-storey, reinforced concrete, flat-roofed buildings covering some 250,000 square feet on a riverside site. The design was modelled after the work of Albert Kahn (March 21, 1869 – December 8, 1942), a German born architect who became the foremost American industrial architect of his day, sometimes referred to as The Architect of Detroit. Additions in the same manner by Kerr & Watson (Johnstone, Renfrew), 1924. Further additions worth £3 million in 1957, following acquisition of the premises by the North British Rubber Co Ltd.[1]

An Arrol Johnson motor car was was taken to Antarctica by explorer Ernest Shackleton in 1907. Although the car was said to have been taken to provide transport for the explorer and his men en route to the south pole, this would have been neither practical nor possible with the technology of the time, but the stunt did provide publicity for the venture and the car, and he provided photographs of the the car in the snowy wastes in return.[2] [3]

In 1929 Malcom Campbell's record breaking Blue Bird car received its third rebuild. The chassis, engine and drive train remained the same, but the bodywork was replaced with one built in Dumfries by Arrol Aster.[4] The lowered body required a hump around the cockpit where Campbell sat astride the gearbox, and he surface radiators were replaced by a conventional circular nose opening, covered by a distinctive birdcage grille.[5]

Car production at Heathhall came to an end in the late 1920s, with the factory finally closing in 1931. The site was eventually bought by the North British Rubber Co Ltd in 1946/7, and changed to rubber production. The site is owned by a subsidiary of the Gates Rubber Company, and has remained in production since being purchased.

In 1993, the former Arrol Johnson works was described as "the only virtually complete British example of a concrete framed, multi-storey daylight car factory built in emulation of American principles".[6]

Arrol Johnson

Believed to have operated in the years 1898 to 1915 and 1918 to 1931.

The company was founded by George Johnson, a locomotive engineer, who built a steam tram in 1894, but which was destroyed by fire

1902 12 hp Dog Cart, unknown
1902 12 hp Dog Cart

He turned his attention to the motorcar and built a Dog Cart type vehicle powered by a flat-twin engine with four pistons. This was produced as the Mo-Car by a syndicate headed by Sir William Arrol, responsible for construction of the Forth Rail Bridge.

The 10 hp Dog Cart of 1898 proved to be very successful, and was produced until 1907. Several models followed, including the six-cylinder 23/9, and were in production in the outbreak of World War I. A 1905 Dog Cart with solid wooden disc wheels is still understood to survive in Khartoum, were it was supplied as a searchlight tender for the Egyptian sirdar (commander-in-chief) of the army.

In 1918 Arrol-Johnson re-entered the market with the four-cylinder Victory, but this was a failure and the pre-war four-cylinder 15.0 hp model was re-introduced.

The company later merged with Aster, and the final Arrol Johnsons were actually Asters.

Arrol Aster

Operated in the years 1927 to 1931.

The combined marque of Arrol Aster was formed in April 1927 by directors from both Arrol Johnson and Aster. The company lasted for two years before the receiver was appointed. Limited production and sales continued until 1931.

In 1928 the company restored Sir Malcolm Campbell's Land Speed Record car Blue Bird.


Aster Engineering Company Ltd, Wembley, Middlesex. Operated in the years 1922 to 1930.

Aster was a French firm which began around the turn of the 20th century. Their main products were engines and chassis, supplied to coachbuilders who added the bodywork and sold the completed motor car as their own. The Wembley branch was established in 1898, manufacturing the company's standard product, then, in 1922, they produced their own series of expensive, quality cars. In 1927, the company merged with with Arrol Johnson to set up Arrol Aster. This combined company only survived until 1930, when it went into liquidation.

Detroit Electric

In the early days of the car, electric vehicles were already being produced, in some ways simpler than their mechanical cousins with their many levers, settings, manual pumps, and complicated control layouts in comparison to the two or three pedal layout which took some years to evolve.

In 1913, Arrol Johnson was assembling the Detroit Electric car under licence.[7]

The Detroit Electric Model 60 had a top speed of 20 mph, with dual controls which allowed it to be driven from either the front or rear seat. Power was provided by 14 six volt Edison batteries controlled by a sophisticated controller which connected the batteries in series or parallel depending on which of the car's five speeds was selected. The wives of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and John D Rockefeller Jr numbered amongst the high-profile owners of Detroit Electric cars.


Arrol Johnson Car, c. 1905
Arrol Johnson Car c. 1905
At the Olympia Motor Show entrance
The Graphic newspaper November 1905


1 £3 million expansion

2 Museum account of Shackleton's Antarctic car

3 Photograph of the Antarctic garage for the car

4 The Racing Campbells, 1929.

5 Blue Bird photographs

6 P Collins and M Stratton.

7 Detroit Electric car licenced

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