Wheels in Wales

Ian Smith

When you come into the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea, there are usually around 2,000 artefacts for you to see, but this makes up only small fraction of our collection!


Even though we refresh parts of the museum periodically there are many objects which never make it to the display stage. Why do you collect them then? I hear you ask. There are many reasons why something might not be on display. Curators collect things that are important to our heritage and very often these things are in poor condition, so an artefact might need a lot of expensive conservation work before it can be presented to the public. When we collect objects our first priority is to preserve them and stop any deterioration to their condition. Restoration for exhibitions or display takes a back seat until finance can be found for projects – especially large objects like cars and buses. In the Industry Collection of the National Museum of Wales there are many different forms of transport and each one has to have a strong connection to Wales – by manufacture, inventor or usage. The ones not on display are kept at Nantgarw, near Cardiff, until their turn comes.

From helicopters to horse-drawn hearses and electric cars to steam rollers, the National Collection Centre in Nantgarw sometimes resembles a child’s toy box – but on a grand scale!

Delicate objects are stored in acid-free boxes or specially made crates, but how do you store a bus or helicopter? Of course they can’t be kept in boxes, but are lined up like a supermarket car park and are arranged quite randomly as size and shape dictate. There is access to the stores for group visits by appointment, where you will see that some of the vehicles look quite dilapidated whilst they await the magic touch of our conservation team.

Meanwhile, back at the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea one can still see quite a variety of transportation and in our Networks Gallery is the story of transport links in Wales. This gallery has a host of models of vehicles of all kinds and large digital displays of how the transport networks have grown – from sheep drovers’ pathways to the M4.

Just outside ‘Networks’ can be found a ‘sociable tricycle’ from the 1880s and a Benz ‘Duc’ motorcar first registered in Monmouthshire in 1904.

The sociable was exactly that with a side-by-side arrangement of seats and was a special favourite of courting couples! The Benz was owned by a Dr Cropper of Chepstow who kept it until 1910 when he donated it to the Science Museum. It was taken into the care of the National Museum of Wales in 1911 and once fully restored took part in a number of London-to-Brighton rallies.

Hanging overhead is one of the star attractions of the museum. The ‘Robin Goch’ or ‘Red Robin’ has a strong claim to be the first aeroplane to fly in Wales. It was built by Charles Horace Watkins, an amateur airman, around 1908. I has a wooden structure braced with piano wire. The cockpit looks distinctly home-made, including a kitchen chair for the pilot’s seat and simple household objects for instruments. Indeed, Charles navigated by using an egg timer – he would turn the timer over, fly straight ahead until the sand ran out then turn 90 degrees and fly ahead again and repeat the turn twice more so that he ended up back where he started! To help him judge his height when landing two pieces of weighted string one 20’ and one 10’ long were hung on the underside so when the first weight touched ground he knew he was at 20’ and when the second at 10’.

Not everything in this section is over one hundred years old. You’ll find two examples of the Sinclair C5, one for display and one for use by the public to sit in and get the feel for it. On high days and holidays (and weather permitting) this model is used in our garden and any visitor can try it out. The C5 is pedal-powered with battery backup for hills or if the driver became tired. With a top speed of around 15 mph the C5 was produced secretly in 1985 at the Merthyr Hoover factory. It was so secret that a tunnel was built under the road between the factories to keep prying eyes from discovering the design. Different component manufacturers only saw their plans, not the whole car. It was launched with wide public expectation but proved a flop as it was deemed too small to be safely driven in heavy traffic. A brilliant concept and years ahead of its time, it might yet make a comeback one day when cycle paths are more widespread

We have many vehicles brought in for temporary exhibitions and displays. In recent years these have included a caravan and a number of boats and quite a few concept electric vehicles, but one of my favourite vehicles is actually a child’s toy car.

In our ‘Made in Wales’ Gallery is the Austin J40, a blue pedal car made in Bargoed in 1959. In 1947 Parliament passed an act that recognised that many miners who were suffering from pneumoconiosis (coal dust in the lungs) could no longer work underground. So it was proposed that new factories be set up to provide lighter cleaner work to employ these men. The Austin factory at Bargoed was just one of these.

The factory, which opened in 1949, stopped making the little cars in 1971 but between those dates about 36,700 were produced!

All the museums in the Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales family have free entry. Visiting to the National Collections Centre in Nantgarw is by appointment only; contact them on (029) 2057 3560 for availability.

Comments (5)

Oliver Cook
3 October 2021, 19:27
Anna Southall-the car you are looking for (Babs) is currently on display at the Brooklands museum in Surrey!
John Pitts
29 April 2021, 09:44
What about a Gilbern car or a replica of Bill Frost’s flying machine from 1896?
Nigel Bowers
8 September 2020, 15:09
Hello Ian,

I see in your main picture on the website that there is a blue van, I am hoping it is the Thames Trader Mines Rescue vehicle that has Cannock on the side. We have photos of it during restoration when it was at Chatterley Whitfield Museum before it closed in 1993. Did you buy it at the auction in 1994 or acquired it since, would love to know,

Chatterley Whitfield Friends CIO
Anna southall
12 August 2020, 22:33
Please can you tell me where my guests (in Carmarthenshire) can see Babs, Parry Thomas’s record breaking car...not at Pendine it seems...which is a disappointment.
Can you help, please!
Many thanks,
Phil plant
1 May 2020, 21:41
Hello Ian,
I have a 1963 Steelfab digger that was designed an manufactured in Cardiff. I was hoping to see something on you website about the manufacturer's history etc.
My digger is obviously old, and it needs restoration, which is beyond my abilities.

I could break it up for spares/scrap, but would prefer it to be preserved, if possible.

If this is something that the museum might be interested in please contact me by email in the First instance.

Many thanks, Phil.
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