To get to grips with electric motoring, Simon Hacker steers his Vauxhall Mokka-e all the way back to where the story began. Here’s what he discovered.
Little is known about Thomas Parker. Especially, it seems, in the town he came from.
In fact, the woman at the museum just stared blankly. I’d driven 100 miles for this adventure, but her reaction made me wonder if a little Wiki-learning is a dangerous thing.
“Parker, you say? No, we’ve got nothing on him.” The Museum of the Gorge sits in the shadow of Abraham Darby’s 1779 iconic Iron Bridge, the epicentre of Britain’s industrial revolution. In a back room, a looped video celebrates the area’s architects of trailblazing technology. So where’s Mr Parker?
I make a mental note to send the museum a copy of this feature. Hopefully they will share it with the nine other museums here who narrate the story of the postcode’s illustrious names. At a time when so many of us are seriously contemplating EV motoring, shouldn’t this be the place where they yell about this Great British pioneer from the rooftops?
Let me hit you with some biographical bullet points. From child labour, at nine and half, facing a 60 hour-a-week slog, this self-educated Shropshire lad, born here in 1843, would grow up to: create early dynamos and batteries, invent a steam pump with ‘valves exceedingly simple and not liable to derangement’, set up the world’s first electric tramway in Northern Ireland, pioneer electric lighting (including a lighting system installed throughout Oxford), invent more reliable matches, build the first electric omnibus that sped from Charing Cross to Victoria in London at a reckless 7mph, design the first electric locomotive for Birmingham’s tramways and electrify the first chunk of London’s underground.
On the way, he’d bag two gold medals from the Smoke Abatement Society – one for the lean-burn Kyrle fire grate, the other for Coalite, the world’s first smokeless fuel. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, I nearly told her.
However, these are mere footnotes to the achievement that inspired me to deplete the range on my electric Mokka-e to its last sparks, as I coasted into Parker’s homeland on a slender 27 miles of range.
In 1884, you see, our man built the world’s first production electric car, as the faded image you see before you attests (he’s the rather serious-looking bloke in the middle). Okay, it doesn’t look like a ‘car’ as we now recognise one, though a popular design ethic of his day insisted no customer would invest in new tech if it failed to look familiar. Hence a shape that appears to be awaiting literal horsepower.
Nevertheless, this was powered by an electric motor, the design pre-dating marketing of the much-lauded Benz Patent-Motorwagen, the first internal combustion car, by two years. Along with Paul Bedford Elwell, Parker founded the Elwell-Parker Company, which supplied electric cars, trams and dog carts for the City of London.
So what, our museum receptionist might reply (though I’d left by then). And to be fair, the banks of the moody River Severn are so knee-deep in world-firsts around here that a little clouding over some of Ironbridge and Coalbrookdale’s protagonists is understandable. Yet as we coast irreversibly towards the tipping point of becoming an EV-driving nation, surely a little trumpeting of this man’s vision and ability would not go amiss? An eleventh museum? The tourists certainly seem to go for them around here.
Any such planning application would certainly be embraced with gusto at Ironbridge’s Best Western Valley Hotel. When I park my resplendent but rather range-free Mokka-e outside, I assume the breezy air of a mystery shopper, just passing by and casually (as if) interested in local history. But the staff on reception keep their eyebrows firmly unraised. Indeed, quicker than you can say Thomas Parker, they disappear into a back room, hit Go, and emerge with a professionally compiled, 84-page dossier, still warm from the printer, detailing everything anyone inquisitive about Thomas Parker might want to know. Better still, since I drove here by electric car, would I like to use the (free) charger they’ve installed by reception? It’s the only one in the area. I’m on it like a Labrador with a cream cake.
Such enthusiasm and gold-plated customer service might be better understood by a short walk around the hotel grounds. With manicured gardens that roll gently down towards the Severn, set amid little to disturb the rest of any weary traveller, this gem of a country house was – you may have guessed by now – once the pride and joy of Mr Parker himself. There’s even a plaque on wall outside, declaring that our man, known as ‘The Edison of Europe’ made his country seat here, early last century. From child labouring to an illustrious life of brilliant ideas, this address marked the end of a long road; Parker died here, from a likely brain tumour, in 1915, surrounded by an array of family and friends.
But what of the production series of six electric cars he pioneered? Information is patchy and thin, but one of Thomas’s sons, Thomas Hugh, who is pictured with his father in (or more aptly on) his car, provides a small window into the details. In 1946, a reporter for the Sunday Express tracked him down, in London, living in ‘modest circumstances’ and by then 75. The interview was given as part of the celebration of the first 50 years of the automobile, the official birth being generally acknowledged as that pesky Benz contraption.
Having created an electrical accumulator in 1879, Thomas Hugh revealed that his father and Elwell began to contemplate using the invention to power a horseless carriage. As a young apprentice, the son helped build the car which was ‘exactly like an ordinary carriage, minus the shafts. It had underneath accumulators weighing more than half a ton. It had iron tyres. The commutator emitted a feint whine which terrified animals’. In one episode, he added, his father was almost killed when a startled horse lashed out, its hooves missing his head by inches.
Top speed? Seven miles per hour ‘when there were no police about’. Nearing market readiness, Thomas Hugh recalled some interesting road test adventures: for publicity, it was taken to France, but the ship sank in the Channel. So they fished it back out. And like an inspiration to modern automotive engineers, it still worked.
Company finances were less buoyant. In fact, Parker and Elwell sank £15,000 into development, having designed a first in the form of four-wheel hydraulic brakes. But range was never successfully pushed beyond 25 miles, which, having been topped back up on the hotel charger, equates to about about 12 per cent of the distance my Mokka will eagerly consume.
But what also did for his father’s invention (which, staggeringly, he never patented) was a prevalent mood in England of anti-automobile aggression. In a world shackled to horse power, cars, whether battery or electric, were a threat to anyone with an interest in resisting change. Indeed, when Thomas Hugh accompanied his dad with their car to London, to show the Lord Mayor its potential, they were spat upon by so many passing cab drivers that they arrived for their appointment ‘in a disgraceful state’.
It’s an ugly image, but if Mr Parker senior is watching from somewhere in the clouds above Ironbridge, I’m optimistic he’d be happy. For a start, that electric car idea he had is eventually picking up speed. And if he’s not up there on high but pondering the future of EVs from his grave, I’m sure Mr Parker’s emotional batteries are contentedly humming. His story might be clouded in history, but it’s a clear vision for our future.
Visiting Ironbridge and Coalbrookdale
This is a UNESCO world heritage destination. Sitting centrally in England and tucked in Telford’s underbelly, it’s pretty easy to visit, picturesque and packed with layer upon layer of social and industrial history. For overall perspective, try the Ironbridge Gorge Museums site at www.ironbridge.org.uk. The largely linear nature of the area, dictated by the topography of the River Severn, is a great place to amble and (literally at times – given the old railway tracks) stumble upon history. And if history gets too much, you’re never more than a few hundred yards from a tea shop or pub.
If you’re not exploring the nooks and crannies of Airbnb, a brief visit to the The Best Western Valley Hotel www.thevallehotel.co.uk suggests it’s well worth booking – pleasant staff, huge amounts of space inside and out and, albeit not tested, a decent restaurant and choice of rooms. And don’t forget the free EV charger outside if you’re not combusting on your break.
For full details of Vauxhall’s sensational new Mokka range, including the all-electric e, call Baylis Stroud direct on 01453 765522 or visit the dealer online here.