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The first car to run in Britain was...?

2014-11-17 11:12

IN THE BEGINNING: The very first car officially recorded on British roads was this 1892 Bremer. Today it’s in a museum but in November 2014 was running in the London-Brighton race for Pioneer vehicles. Image: Courtesy Vestry Museum


You may not have heard of the Bremer car. It's not, for instance, listed in Georgano’s Complete Encyclopaedia of Motorcars* but it nevertheless has a very interesting claim to fame.

Earlier this year (2014) I managed a whistle-stop few days in the UK but found the time to visit an old friend in London for lunch. Not just any lunch, but one at a Manzies pie-and-mash shop, one of the oldest establishment still trading in the time-served way in Walthamstow, near London.

Later that day motoring pal and aficionado Ernie Allum asked me if I knew the name of the first four-wheeled British car said to have been driven in the UK – one with a genuine internal combustion engine, that is.

I confessed to having no idea but felt he was about to tell me: “We can do better than that," he grinned, "the actual car can be found just a bus ride away at Vestry House Museum in Waltham Forest.”

Frederick William Bremer, born in 1872, was the son of a German immigrant - a master bootmaker who decided to move away from central London, choosing to live and bring up his family in the less crowded area of Walthamstow. Fred left school early to study to become an electrician but specialised as a gas-engine fitter, engineer par excellence and bicycle-maker.


The friendly curator at Vestry House told us as we walked around the car that Bremer made all those years ago: “Fred’s genius knew no bounds and before long he felt he had the knowledge and skill necessary to build a car – just to prove to himself that he could.

“Yes, there are other contenders for the title of the first British-built petrol-driven  internal combustion car – such as those built by John Henry Knight, Charles Santler and others – but Bremer appears to have been the first, having been variously recorded as such in newspapers nationwide between January and July, 1892."

The car was on static display at Vestry House from 1933 but in 1963 and 1964 it competed in the London to Brighton Pioneer Run and was honoured with the registration number No.1. It took 7hr55min to complete the 80km course and used 13.5 litres of fuel and two litres of oil.

It did require constant fettling, but such is the nature of the event.

A report from the 1964 London-Brighton Race read: "The car doesn’t offer a smooth ride because of its simple springs and solid tyres. The steering is by tiller, and unless this is held firmly in the straight-ahead position the car will try to veer off at every opportunity. The Bremer did manage to maintain a 13-15km/h average speed… the spoon brakes proving surprisingly efficient."

Under the bonnet nestles a single-cylinder engine with a substantial flywhee; to keep it ticking over. There's no clutch as we know it today but Fred’s idea of a leather belt to gradually engage and disengage drive was certainly on the right track – as found in modern cars today.


No gearbox was fitted – rather an arrangement of twin pulleys of different diameter - same as modern constantly variable transmissions. Thus, no reverse gear was ever envisaged.

If you're ever in that part of the world a trip to see the Bremer at Vestry House Museum is a must. The museum has lots of other interesting artefacts of times gone by. Wednesday-Sunday, 10am-5pm, free entry. More information on the Vestry House Museum website.

*The reason the Bremer never made it into Georgano was that it never went into mass production – although the eponymous Bremer was known to have built build a four-cylinder version before abandoning the idea of ever seriously trying to compete against Henry Ford on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

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