Hugh Marsham Townshend received a wedding gift from his father in 1904 – a 15 horse power Panhard Lavassor car supplied by C.S. Rolls & Co of West Brompton. Rolls was actually Hugh’s cousin.
Hugh’s younger brother, Ferdinand, allegedly one of the most handsome men of his generation, was infected with enthusiasm for the new car and set up an embryonic motor car business of his own in the stables of the family home at Frognal. He had wanted to have his business in Knightsbridge called West End Motor Works but failing to find suitable premises, he merely adapted the name to Western Motor Works for his local enterprise.
He collected together a fleet of cars and a team of staff headed by H C Bennett from Rolls. Soon the Frognal business was flourishing and new premises were required to cope with the volume of work offering service to motorists. In 1909 this was an entirely new concept and a new building on Perry Street became the first purpose built motor car service station in the country. Western Motor Works carries on this proud tradition to this day.
The construction of the building, designed by local architect EJ May, was very robust, with particularly heavy roof members for lifting off the car bodies. There was an inspection pit, and a national gas engine provided the power. The workshop was illuminated by state of the art Blanchard paraffin-burning incandescent lamps. Everything was ready for the first vehicle, but it knocked its top off on arrival because the entrance door was too low! The overall cost of the build was £1,443 7s 2d with a further £183 5s 4d for the office.
In 1904 there were already 17,860 cars on the road, a number that increased to 100,000 by 1914. The machine shop was by then a hive of activity; its equipment was found to be ideal for the making of shell caps and production mounted to thousands upon thousands. A significant local contribution to the war effort.
The war was to claim the life of Ferdinand, he was killed in action in May 1915. The business passed to his brother, Hugh, and in 1920 he passed the ownership to HC Bennett.
Bennett expanded the business and weathered the difficult period following the 1922 boom. He became an Austin main agent in 1923 and a distributor of the Chevrolet, a General Motors product. In 1928 the Vauxhall company came under the control of General Motors and Western Motor works began their long association with GM in 1933.
During the Second World War the firm was reconditioning bomb damaged machinery and making detonator mechanisms for underwater mines. HC Bennett turned to fire watching until his son, Ralph, came home from Burma.
In 1955 the business celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with works both in Chislehurst and Dartford.
But what became of the car that started it all? Before he died In July 1954 HC Bennett wrote to Hugh Marsham Townshend asking if he could purchase for the firm the old red Panhard. It was still going strong, having been used for the delivery of the mail in 1926 during the General Strike and it had been continually serviced at Perry Street. Hugh insisted that Bennett should have it as a present, and although sometimes referred to as The Old Lady, it stood for many years in place of honour in the Perry Street showroom.
When the garage was sold after Ralph Bennett’s death the car was left to his three children. It is now a member of the Veteran Car Club and competes in the London to Brighton Rally, driven by mechanic, Mr Tree.
Researched from The Horseless Carriage, a booklet produced in 1955 with additional material from Mrs Marion Heselden.