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In 1857 a talented Scottish engineer, Mr Alexander Wilson, founded a small business for the manufacture and sale of steam engines, boilers, pumps and hoists primarily, but not exclusively, for marine applications The business was located in a yard with workshops at 92 Wandsworth Road, close to The Vauxhall Gardens & Vauxhall Bridge and soon became well known locally as the Vauxhall Iron Works and was adopted as the official postal address. Trading as Alexander Wilson & Co he soon acquired a well-deserved reputation for engineering expertise, imaginative designs and very high quality of manufacture. Much of the products offered were designed by Wilson himself and some items, such as the boiler feed pump, were actually patented by Wilson. Initially his two main products were small, high pressure pumps for Admiralty pinnacles, and compound and triple expansion engines for use in river tugs, Wilson was also successful in being awarded a number of Admiralty contracts. By the 1860s the company was exporting its marine products and even won awards at the Le Havre Exhibition in 1868 and in Naples three years later. Engines were also manufactured for side paddle and stern wheeler ships and were fitted to two well-known river pleasure steamers of the 1890s – the “Queen Elizabeth” and “Cardinal Wolsey” which were employed plying between Westminster and Hampton Court. By the 1880s the Company had expanded to employ some 150 people, many of whom were highly skilled engineers as well as some young apprentices, and the company had diversified into many other products. These included a range of 12 different sized donkey pumps for boiler feeding. Added to this was the manufacture of “Lightfoot” dry air refrigerating plants used in the production of artificial ice & cold storage. Alex Wilson was also prepared to undertake any other work which interested him & he even had ideas on accident prevention: His “Excelsior” stream driven pump, of horizontal design with valve gears operated by triggers at each end of the power stroke, had no unprotected moving parts. This rapid expansion also had adverse side effects – a perpetual shortage of working space – this forced Wilson to rent additional storage space in a yard behind the public house next door to the Iron Works.

Alex Wilson was, according to his employees & as matter of record, a much better engineer than he was an accountant. His office desk was usually covered by a mass of papers,invoices and quotations; workers and the office cleaner were given strict instructions that on no account were any papers to be disturbed, especially during any office cleaning. The backs of letters and old envelopes were often used for making notes and estimates and then stuffed in his pockets for future reference.

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The continued high standards of build quality and excellent reputation were not sufficient on their own to weather the difficult trading conditions prevailing during the 1880s and by the start of 1890 the company had started to run into financial difficulties, mainly concerned around cash flow & record keeping, Wilson managed to limp on for several years until in March 1892 a financial receiver was called in. The receiver appointed to run the firm was Mr Jack H Chambers from Fenchurch Street, this would later prove to be a wise choice as Chambers was also a highly experienced engineer and was previously apprenticed by Wilson. The Company was immediately re-organised as a limited liability company – Alex Wilson & Co Ltd, and whilst Alex Wilson remained on the board of directors, a Mr William Gardner was brought in as joint Managing Director with Chambers. Wilson was not used to, and was extremely unhappy, working under someone else’s directions and in 1894 he finally left the company he had founded and sought his own independence again setting himself up in Fenchurch Street as a consulting marine engineer. Despite his talents this venture proved relatively unsuccessful and within a few years Wilson faded into relative obscurity and cash poverty, he died in 1902 just before Christmas.

Under the Memorandum of Agreement the Wilson Company was purchased for £9,480 which also meant paying off Wilson’s outstanding debts. The nominal capital of the company was £20,000 divided into £1 shares but by April only 18,000 of these had been taken up. Chambers & Gardner owned over a quarter although a chartered accountant, Robert Everett, was the major shareholder with 4,170.

On the 31 March 1896 the Company was reorganised again and became The Vauxhall Iron Works Co Ltd with JH Chambers as Managing Director, it continued to produce marine engines but production was subsequently extended to include the assembly of complete power unit, boilers, shafting, propellers, steam pipes and all the necessary fittings. Immense trouble was incurred in order to satisfy prospective customers; as an illustration of this there was an occasion when, in order to prove its capacity, a refrigerating plant was set up inside the works. The result was a local butcher benefited from some 20 tons of ice but the other local residents were driven mad when the concentrate of ammonia was being disposed of. With the second Company re-organization a new senior appointment was made, Mr F.W Hodges, an experienced marine engineer and a man of forward vision who had ironically previously served an apprenticeship with Alex Wilson & Co. Hodges was appointed as Principle Assistant to the Managing Director & Chief of the Drawing Office. As of 1901 the principle shareholders in the new company were Chambers 2,000, Hodges 3,000, W Gardner & Robert Everett 6,800 and a new shareholding of 3,000 held by a young German engineer Rudolph Selz who was particularly interested in the emerging motor industry.


The 25-year-old Rudolph Selz had achieved a Diploma in Engineering from Munich Technical School and had married and moved to England residing in Putney after joining the company. Of the major shareholders Selz was particularly keen for the company to build a motor car. Chambers had also spent some time in France gathering as much information as possible about various motor car designs in preparation for the possible manufacture of a motor car by the Vauxhall Ironworks. The company itself was more than capable of producing such a vehicle in house with all the necessary skills available and the ability to work to high quality & tight build tolerances as judged by turn of the century standards.


So by the early part of 1902 the Vauxhall Ironworks was in a position to look towards starting preliminary work on designing and building its first motor car.  


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