Britain’s oldest vehicle manufacturer company was established in Guildford. In the first in a series, Andy Goundry tells the story.

Most folk enjoying a quiet drink in the Wetherspoons pub at the bottom of North Street in Guildford will be unaware that they are relaxing on the site of Britain’s oldest-established vehicle manufacturer. Indeed one of the oldest in the world, with a history which can be traced back to 1895 and the closing years of the Victorian era.

During Queen Victoria’s reign, the industrial revolution had seen both the birth and rapid development of the railway system, offering comparatively fast ways to transport both goods and people over relatively long distances. As the 19th century ended however, that railway supremacy was about to be challenged, and subsequently beaten, by a new form of road transport – that powered by internal combustion engines.

Few of the pioneers of this second industrial revolution can have imagined how their early inventions would develop. Certainly one John Dennis would not have done so when he left his native Devon in 1894 to join Filmer & Mason, a firm of ironmongers in Guildford High Street. As a country boy, John’s interests lay in farm machinery, and soon after arriving in Guildford in 1895 he built a bicycle, using parts bought through his employer. This first machine was soon sold profitably, leading to the manufacture and sale of further cycles, and, after a period working for a cycle manufacturer in London, John was able to set up his own business in 1895, selling his Speed King and Speed Queen cycles from The Universal Athletic Stores at the bottom of Guildford’s High Street. John’s brother, Raymond, then only 17, soon moved up from Devon to join John in his growing business.

In a far-sighted move, John and Raymond built, in 1897, a motorised tricycle fitted with a single-cylinder De Dion engine. Although inevitably primitive, this machine must have been reasonably effective, for as company folklore recalls, John became one of the first, if not the first person, to fall foul of motoring law by being prosecuted for ‘driving furiously up Guildford High Street at the speed of 16 mph’. A not inconsiderable fine of 20 shillings was repaid many times over as the Dennis brothers used this incident in their advertisements as proof of the machines speed. Then – as now – speed sells!

Motorised tricycles soon gave way to motorised quadricycles, which although far from substantial vehicles, set the scene for a move into building motor cars in 1901. This was facilitated by a move from the outgrown High Street premises to an old army barracks in North Street.

In 1901 motor cars were still a rarity, with probably no more than 500 in Britain, however the Dennis brothers continued to invest in their belief in the future of motoring, they expanded further with a purpose-built office and factory – the Rodboro Buildings on Onslow Street, now the home of JD Wetherspoons amongst others. Indeed, so successful were sales of the Dennis Brothers products that the firm moved into part of the new factory even before the rest was completed.

Interestingly, final assembly of cars was carried out on the third floor, the lower floors being given over to stores, offices, showrooms and component manufacturing. A large lift was therefore required to carry the finished cars down to ground level.

As the sales of motor cars increased, and as more manufacturers jumped on the bandwagon, the Dennis brothers looked for diversification opportunities. They quickly realised that the principles developed for moving people via motor cars could be adapted to move goods, thereby providing significant benefits to businesses large and small who had hitherto been reliant on horse-drawn transport.

In 1904, Dennis built their first commercial vehicle, a 15 cwt van for Harrods department store. Shortly afterwards, their first bus followed, which plied between Kingston-upon-Thames and Richmond.

Rapid success in sales of this broadened product range meant that the capacity of the Rodboro Buildings factory was again soon exceeded. A new 10 acre site was purchased at Woodbridge Hill, then a greenfield site on the edge of Guildford. Never ones to spend money unnecessarily, one of the first buildings on the site was reputedly a disused Mission Hall from Brixton which was dismantled, transported 30 miles, and re-erected to become No. 1 shop.

A further broadening of the Dennis range in 1908 proved to be significant, when a fire engine was produced for the City of Bradford Brigade. Traditionally, fire engines had been horse drawn, and used steam-powered pumps, with inevitably slow response times. In contrast, Dennis’s Bradford appliance could be on scene quickly and pumping immediately, thanks to its White & Poppe petrol engine. The success of this revolutionary appliance initially led to London and then other fire brigades throughout Britain, and indeed throughout the world. The name Dennis soon became synonymous with Fire in the public’s eye.

Sales success in fire engines was matched by thriving orders for buses and other heavier vehicles, at the expense of the original passenger cars. Indeed, in 1909 the company issued a statement to confirm that it was still building ‘passenger cars’. In truth however, the manufacture of Dennis cars was a relatively short-lived era, with comparatively few ever having been built. Fittingly two of the very few remaining cars belong to John Dennis, grandson of one of those original Dennis brothers, and can be regularly seen participating in the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run.

By 1910, Dennis’s claimed proudly, and justifiably, that their fire engines operated all over the world, from Auckland to Zanzibar, whilst over 1,000 Dennis lorries and vans were at work moving goods around the country.

Perhaps one of the company’s greatest strengths in these pre-Great-War years of rapid growth came from its ability and readiness to produce vehicles for specific uses, alongside their more standard ranges. This flexibility was made possible by the Woodbridge Hill factory making complete vehicles rather than just bodies or chassis.

By 1910 the factory was producing 1,000 vehicles annually. The factory was extended several times, covering over 260,000 square feet by 1916 – massive by any standards.

Even before then, war was in the air, and Dennis, which became a public company in 1913, took the decision to cease passenger car production in favour of concentrating on commercial vehicles. In part, this was in response to the Government’s recognition that the coming war would need far more in the way of reliable mechanised transportation than was readily available. Thus the Government devised the ‘subvention scheme’, whereby the owner of a lorry approved by the War Department, who made that vehicle available for use for the war effort, would be rewarded with a payment of £110. The vehicle types approved for this subsidy were subjected to rigorous testing by the War Department, thus owners who participated in the scheme not only received the cash subsidy but invested in the vehicle in the knowledge that it had successfully passed these tests.

Dennis was in the forefront of manufacturers submitting vehicles for these tests. Their vehicles successfully completed the tests without too much change. The foresight of both the Government and Dennis paid off as over 7,000 of these reliable vehicles were built over the war years, seeing honourable and trusty service in all theatres of war.

The Woodbridge Hill factory toiled day and night during the war to produce these vehicles, leading to the directors receiving a letter of encouragement from Lord Kitchener.

Ironically, at the end of the war this effort resulted in a vast fleet of surplus lorries no longer needed by the military. These found their way back to the UK and at a stroke destroyed the market for new lorries and indeed buses, thereby precipitating the Dennis business into its first real challenge in a new and uncertain future.