Metal Tyred Primitive

Metal Tyred Primitive

I have owned the above picture of a Motor Traction Co. Ltd. bus for over fifty five years and have yet to find anyone who can identify the make of this vehicle with any certainty.

It is amazing, but true, that as a nation we seem to have more knowledge of Roman chariot construction than we do of early primitive public service vehicles that once prowled the streets of London prior to 1903. This vehicle’s age is certainly prior to that date as the lack of number plate proves.

It is certainly London as the side route board indicates Oxford Circus and it is about to be overtaken by a distinctive LGOC horse bus; whilst at the same time being viewed, probably with some suspicion, by a metropolitan police officer. He looks as if he would like to take down its number in his note book; as surely in his mind a bus without a horse goes against all that is accepted in the natural world? However, as it has not got a number he is rather at a loss as what to do next.

Is it petrol powered? At the beginning of the twentieth century it was still uncertain which mode of propulsion would win the coveted laurels of acceptance that would be awarded to the engineer who could provide reliable and economic locomotion. The picture does not seem to show a radiator but it could be that this is mounted to the rear of the engine a la early Renault practice. It could be steam powered but as there is no chimney or clouds of the white stuff this seems unlikely. Battery power was also tried but these machines do not generally have a bonnet (or hood) at the front.

One clue is the usual cluster of levers to the right of the driver suggesting a hand brake and gear lever. If this be so, then whatever engine was fitted it must have been fairly low powered as it was deemed unnecessary to fit mud guards. A rod can be seen leading from the outer lever in the direction of the rear axle that is almost certainly the hand brake. On many primitives this is the only form of retardation and would be pushed to the ‘on’ position. The thinking here being that the weight of the drivers body being thrown forward would act as a form of servo assistance.

Another feature loved by early vehicle builders is the vertical steering column. This feature may look quaint to modern eyes but does at least allow the driver to apply some muscle when manoeuvring at slow speed.

It has been suggested that it could be a Daimler or at least Daimler powered. The ‘push on’ handbrake was a feature of Daimler vehicles for a long period and in fact I have a 1932 BSA Trike in my garage (BSA also owned the British Daimler Company for many years) that still employs this feature; mind you early Leyland’s had the same arrangement. In addition the Daimler Company were always reticent in putting their name upon their buses relying on the finned tops to their radiators as the only clue to their origins (plus a regal looking ‘D’ on rear hubs). Perhaps their history of royal patronage was deemed enough to allow local borough councillors to make the connection between this feature and quality travel for the electorate when choosing buses?

As a child the anonymous finned radiators of Luton Corporation Transport buses provided a mystery that I am sure triggered my life long interest in public transport. I once had the temerity to ask my school teacher for his opinion on who made these buses with no label on them. His reply was that I should get back to the more important task of memorising the dates of royal births and deaths instead of wasting my time on an uninteresting subject like buses.

John Barringer


This photo appears in "The Early Motor Bus" by Charles E. Lee, published by the British Railways Board in 1964. I bought my copy from the original York Railway Museum for the princely sum of 10p!
According to the caption it is a German Daimler which was placed in service on 9th October 1899 and withdrawn in December 1900, with the photograph being taken in the spring of 1900. There were two steel- tyred buses with 12hp 4-cylinder Daimler petrol engines and 26-seat horse bus bodies. They opened a route between Kennington and Victoria station via Westminster Bridge. They were operated by the Motor Traction Co. Ltd, which had been incorporated on 30th June 1899 as the London Steam Omnibus Co. Ltd. They never operated steam buses and changed their name on 6th September 1899. The service changed in the spring of 1900 to run from Kennington to Oxford Circus. It seems to have been the first regular motor bus service in London.
The book comments that after withdrawal of the bus service in December 1900 the twentieth century opened without a single motor bus regularly plying in the Metropolis. We seemed to forget the correct date for the change of a century in the millennium!

David Beilby


Thank you David Beilby for your reply concerning this bus as it does confirm the opinion passed to me from other sources. It is interesting that these machines only operated on the streets of London for about 18 months prior to withdrawal. One can only assume that the lack of reliability of early delicate machines such as these was the main drawback. When you consider the difficulty of veteran cars that struggle to get to Brighton each November I suppose 18 months sounds quite a long term. An acquaintance who owns a solid tyred bus tells me that it was quite usual in the early days for mechanics to drop the sump of every machine each night and take up the slack in big end bearings. Another interesting point is that just after these were built the name 'Daimler' was no longer applied to German built machines as they became Mercedes! Try telling the Germans now that their favorite make is named after a French woman with a Spanish name: Mercedes Jellinek, the daughter of the French distributor, Emile Jellinek!

John Barringer



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