It has a 1hp Villiers 98cc 2-stroke engine, can reach speeds of 10mph and do 70 miles to the gallon. Welcome to our homage to the humble, but quite brilliant, Atco car.
The Atco car is like no other car. Finished in trademark Atco green, the car’s full title is the Atco Junior Safety-First Trainer.
There were only 200 to 250 of them ever made at Charles H Pugh’s Atco factory in Birmingham in 1939. The outbreak of war that September ended their production, as all manufacturing switched to focus on the war effort.
Remarkably, it’s thought that as many as 45 of the cars are still out there, in private collections and museums up and down the UK. There might also be some in overseas collections. You won’t see any on the roads, however – they’d never pass any of today’s regulations!
Atco had been making lawnmowers since 1921 and by 1939 had already established a reputation for quality and reliability that was second-to-none. So why did the company suddenly decide to make a miniature automobile?
Let’s rewind for a moment …
Atco lawnmowers were initially in the same group as Rudge-Whitworth motorcycles. Have a guess how Atco’s salesmen travelled around the country with their lawnmowers in those days. Yep, they’d ride a motorcycle, with the mower in the sidecar! So Atco already had connections with the automotive industry.
The answer behind why the company started to make the Junior Safety-First Trainer lies in its name. With more cars hitting the roads, there were more accidents. In response, the Government announced that road safety should be taught in schools. Atco thought: “Why don’t we put our engineering skills into making a training car for children to learn in?”
The press launch of the Atco trainer was a plush affair. It took place not on a road or in a school – but, somewhat incongruously, in a carpeted room at the Grosvenor House Hotel in Park Lane, London!
Nobody knows more about the Atco car than Brian Radam. Brian is the founder of the Atco Car Owners’ Club, which has over 40 members in the UK. The club is part of the British Lawnmower Museum in Southport, which Brian also set up: “To put it in perspective, there were lots of car companies and motorbike companies that made lawnmowers, but Atco was the only lawnmower company that made a car,” he said.
Atco created a special circuit at the back of the factory, complete with a zebra crossing, road markings and junctions: “It was a sort of driving proficiency testing circuit,” said Brian, “and in fact, I have a lovely story about it.
“We had a coach of quite elderly people come and visit the museum as part of a tour of the area. One of the ladies, when she saw the car, she became a completely different person. Her face lit up. She said: ‘I went in one of those cars when I was 6 or 7-year-old and I drove it. But when I got home and told my family I’d driven a car, they didn’t believe me. It was one of these’. I got a copy of the guide book out and showed her the photos of the circuit at the factory and she couldn’t believe it. That’s where she’d driven it.”
So what of the Atco car itself? “It had red leatherette seating and there was a St Christopher badge on the front grille. The engine was started with a hand crank that could be used from the driver’s seat, and the pedals were like the 1930s cars, with the clutch on the left, the throttle in the middle and the brake on the right. It also had a hand brake, and simple forward, reverse and neutral gears. When you’re sitting in one, you can’t help but have a great big smile on your face!
“What was also quite extraordinary was that it came with a 68-page hardback guide!”
To take it on the road, the car would need a registration number. During the war, the little Trainer proved its worth for its few owners, as it used so little petrol during fuel rationing.
It’s thought the car retailed at £35 in 1939. Today, it’s a valued collectors’ item and you can expect to pay something in the region of £10,000 for a restored one.
The British Lawnmower Museum has two fully restored Atco cars, including one originally owned by the Joseph Rowntree family. A third one is in the process of being restored. The National Motor Museum in Beaulieu also has a restored Atco car.
The cars at the British Lawnmower Museum are among 1,000 rare lawnmowers in the collection, 200 of which are on show. Brian’s first job after leaving school was as an Atco engineer, so it’s no surprise to learn the brand is well represented: “We’ve got some of the very first Atco lawnmowers in our collection. But our oldest material goes back to 1799. We have such an amazing lawnmower history in this country and people come to the museum from all over the world to see the collection. We want to keep the heritage alive.”
And a wonderfully nostalgic part of that heritage is the Atco car. As Brian says: “It’s a rare piece of British motoring history.”