The Electromobile Garage lies hidden behind the grand façades of Mayfair, in the guise of NCP Carrington Street. The building may have little architectural presence on the street front, but it played a fascinating role in the early motoring history of London. Its story is especially intriguing in an age witnessing the (possible) revival of the electric motor car.
This was one of the main hire garages in London before the Great War, supplying chauffeured electric carriages for pootling about Town at a cost of 6s. per hour. A similar service was offered by other companies, such as the Electric Landaulet Co. Ltd. on Upper Manor Street in Chelsea (and briefly at the Niagara), but Electromobile was the main player in the West End.
The Electromobile Co. had started out in Juxton Street, Lambeth, in 1903, in the former headquarters of the London Electric Cab Co. Soon afterwards it moved to Mayfair, converting Messrs East’s livery stables in Curzon Street. In need of ever-larger premises, in December 1906 the company bought a site on Hertford Street, off Piccadilly. Old buildings – stables and coach houses – were demolished and Electromobile erected a new parking garage which was closer to the modern concept of a multi-storey car park than anything hitherto seen in England. At the time of opening, on 8 November 1907, it was advertised as ‘The World’s Greatest Garage’. It was described rather charmingly in the RAC Journal as ‘a motor house of enormous size; it is even said to be the largest in the world’. It needs a leap of imagination to appreciate this in 2017.
This functional three-level parking garage was designed by Electromobile and built by Perry & Co. It included several innovations. The exit and entrance were separate, side by side on Carrington Street. Just inside were two battery lifts, one to remove the spent battery from underneath carriages, and the other to fit a charged battery. No need for the motorist to wait for a battery to recharge – simply exchange it for another! Over 300 batteries could be recharged at any one time in the basement battery shop. This system was the equivalent of the petrol pump kept by the entrance of more conventional garages.
For parking, cars were pushed sideways onto a platform running on rails between ‘sidings’ (parking spaces). These ‘transversers or trolley ways’ had been used previously by the company to exchange batteries, but were now used for parking on the ground and first floors. This could be seen as a semi-mechanised parking system. Cars were moved between floors by three hydraulic lifts. One of these went up to the flat roof, where cars could be washed.
The chauffeurs employed by the company had their own lockers, where they kept their uniforms, and a mess room connected by telephone to the timekeeper’s office by the garage entrance. In fact most London garages had facilities of this type, right up to the Second World War.
In 1907 The Car published this comment about electric cars:
Recognised as a kind of fuel requiring regular renewal, treated with proper care and supervision upon scientific lines, and dealt with as a source of power detachable from, and independent of, the carriage which it can propel, it has found its proper sphere, and the electric carriage has attained high rank amongst automobiles (The Car, 4 December 1907, 148)
The big difference between electric cars then and now was the detachable battery. Perhaps an idea worth reviving!
In 1910 a sister company was created, the Hertford Street Motor Hiring Co. Ltd. This operated from the same premises as Electromobile, but hired out luxury cars – notably Napiers – which ran on petrol. These were advertised as being suitable for weekends in the country, while electric cars were still recommended for Town.
By 1913 the building was occupied by the Universal Motors and little more was said about electric cars. Petrol had won the battle as the fuel of choice for London motorists. Throughout the 1920s Universal Motors continued to run the old Electromobile Garage as a standard public parking garage – as it remains to the present day. The lifts were replaced by long ramps: otherwise, the building has hardly changed since 1907!