The Great Motor Men : Part Two – Harry Lawson

AROnline Contributor Martyn Kelham has produced this series on the great motoring men. Here, in the second part, he discusses the great businessman, Harry Lawson, who sailed too close to the line once too often.

Harry Lawson

Readers, except the most avid historians, will be forgiven for not having heard of Harry John Lawson. The writer’s interest in him goes back many years to when he was doing some research into the history of Daimler – only because, in those far off days, his father had a Daimler!

However, the name was at one time infamous in this country. He did, after all, own or sit on the Boards of huge parts of our motor industry. He was the man who started the London to Brighton run and at one time headed up an organisation dedicated to buying up all patents of every type from any source – to control the entire British Motor industry!

In his youth, Harry attended a ‘mechanical institution’ started by Stephenson whilst assisting his father with model making – including a model of Stephenson’s miner’s safety helmet. He has also variously been called a crook, a charlatan, a fraud and various other negative terms indicating that he might have been a bit of a rogue!

The Bicycle Era

His early days were very involved with bicycles and in 1876 he patented a ‘modern’ very low model, and this followed his ‘invention’ two years earlier, which was a cycle with a chain drive to the rear wheel. He certainly had a penchant for bicycle design (though not manufacture) and was rewarded before 1880 with a position as Manager for the Tangent and Coventry Tricycle Company. Born in 1852, he was less than thirty at this point.

In the early 1880s BSA had made two prototypes for him but had no desire to manufacture them. Undaunted, he designed and patented a Ladies Safety Bicycle.

This is the point where many readers will start to recognise names. For example, Harry re-financed a small Coventry company and re-named it the Rudge Cycle Co. It was this transformation that gave him the idea of ‘owning’ the British Motor Car. He subsequently took out a patent for the first British Motor Car in 1880.

Harry was clearly a man with an eye to main chance and his experience with patents and the bicycle inspired him to ‘sew-up’ the British car industry in the same manner. The only difference was that he had not ‘invented’ any car-related ideas – but would simply purchase them from others. During the period 1894 to 1895 he converted several tyre and cycle companies into public companies – thus making considerable money for himself and his friends.

Attempt to Control British Car Manufacturing

Towards the end of 1895, he registered the British Motor Syndicate Limited with the express idea of buying up all current, past and future patents relevant to current motor cars. It is thought that he was hoping to strike gold – and find a really important and lucrative patent that every manufacturer would want to pay for.

The business platform was to collect the royalties (which would be substantial) so that shares in his company would increase beyond his shareholder’s wildest dreams.

However, his prudence with money was highly inconsistent. He paid ‘way over the odds’ for some fairly minor patents and was somewhat ‘cavalier’ in his business dealings. At this stage we could perhaps think of him as a flawed genius. Contemporary reports refer to him as a very ‘generous’ little man of only five foot tall.

A £40,000 Bonus

The BMS had a capital of £150,000 and purchased the Old Coventry Cotton Mills – and the Daimler Motor Car Co – the whole costing him £130,000 in one year. From the Daimler licence to build cars he personally received over £40,000 – a handsome bonus figure in 2020 let alone in 1896!

Harry and his partner Simms then purchased the patents of de Dion-Bouton for around £20,000 including shares in BMS. To E.J. Pennington of Indiana he paid over £100,000 (in cash!) for patents – then owning around 75 in total that he could ‘licence’ out.

In the first year of trading he did well, paying 10%. Fuelled with the growing use of the motor car – ‘albeit with chauffeurs as clearly ladies in particular would not be driving.’ (Not the writer’s words obviously!). Harry then started the first ‘Motor Club’ with an inaugural ‘bash’ at a prestigious address in Holborn. At this event, ‘on a whim’ he paid Boll’ee £20,000 for the rights to the Frenchman’s tandem.

The time had come for another ‘company’ development and Harry floated the ‘Great Horseless Carriage Co’. with a capital of £750,000. At the ‘Mills’ complex, was now Humber and umpteen other companies all owned by Harry Lawson.

London to Brighton

At this point we have a change of fortunes for our hero. The Mills burnt to the ground and everything was lost. The writer cannot discover if insurance covered the losses, but one suspects it did – knowing our Harry.

Following the entry by Harry of a German car in the Lord Mayor’s procession in 1896, he inaugurated the first London to Brighton run, celebrating the passing of the ‘Locomotives on Highways Act’ – the very act that had severely held back Britain’s use – if not actual development – of the motor car. This ‘run’ was hugely important to Harry whose company shares previously rated at £1, were now changing hands for £3. There was such a furore made about this at the time that David Salomons who actually drove through the changes – was overshadowed by the Harry Lawson publicity machine.

Two years later, the Horseless Carriage Co. became the Motor Manufacturing Co. but unfortunately Harry filled up the boardroom with his ‘cronies’ and disaster was not far away. Despite his undoubted talent for buying patents – and, in the early days, designing bicycles – he was not a great businessman in the sense that he was very poor at choosing his colleagues.

He himself was not a great technician and, whilst he had very good ideas for buying cars from abroad (mostly France) so that his team could adopt the very best ideas, they did not. The men around him were convinced that ‘British was best’ and patently ignored a lot of good ideas from across the channel. This resulted in his companies spending a lot of time and development costs on something that had already been invented – and was proven and working. However, the real fundamental flaw becoming apparent in the whole platform of his business, was that the upholding of his patents was becoming almost impossible. As his empire crumbled and, in utter despair, all his patents were sold to Napier for an absolute song. Added to the already inherent distrust by the financial establishment, the shareholders blamed only one man – Harry J. Lawson.

The Downward Spiral

In 1903, a Receiver had been appointed and, in 1904, he was charged with conspiring to defraud and making false statements in order to induce others to buy shares. Amazingly, he conducted his own case but lost and was sentenced to one year’s hard labour – by which time he had no friends at all and was vilified by many.

The empire finally collapsed and he disappeared into the lost world of the birth of the motor car – and died in 1925 leaving £99.

In essence, Harry Lawson rode a bit too close to the line – in terms of integrity. He was constantly in the news – partly in self-aggrandising articles from himself or his friends – but more often in very negative reports from the establishment about his business dealings. Only his shareholders – whilst they were backing a winner – were impressed.

The good results from all this were that Daimler survived and may not have done without him – and, of course, we have that London to Brighton jaunt every year. For that alone, well done Harry! It also occurs that we have today highly-influential businessmen, who similarly sail a bit too close to the line – but I couldn’t possibly name names.


  1. I knew the name from Daimler history, but not much else about the man. He sound very much like many industrialists of this time, trying to push the limits – Charles Hatry being one that comes to mind.

  2. The 1896 Locomotives on Highways Act didn’t hold back vehicle use and development – it removed the walking pace speed requirements of the 1865 Locomotive Act AKA the Red Flag Act – see Wikipedia.

  3. If you design a car that only has to reach walking speed in the UK – but designs across Europe and the US could go at any speed – surely that would hold back our UK designers thinking? That was my thought, rightly or wrongly. Similarly, I think the Act held back actual use of the vehicles – because the Horse was undoubtedly faster.

    • The creation of General Motors in the US was not that dissimilar. By 1910, William Durrant owned Buick, Oldsmobile, Cadillac and some 20 other car firms. He then ran into difficulty and urgently needed money.

      Turned down by JP Morgan, who thought he was a “visionary nitwit” for thinking there would one day be 50,000 cars on America’s roads, he approached my family’s bank. We raised $15m of debt and loaned $2.5m of cash in exchange for control of the Board and all of the company’s assets as security. A very shaky endeavour indeed.

      That is where the similarity ends. By 1913 GM shares were worth $30 each, and by 1919 they were changing hands for $850 each.

      • At one time Durrant considered buying out Henry Ford, but couldn’t,raise the capitol to do it.

        • Yes. Durrant teamed up instead with Louis Chevrolet, and in 1916 reversed Chevrolet into General Motors (with my family relinquishing control). Durrant still managed to go bankrupt later on.

          Henry Ford also refused to take his company public. That only happened after he died, protected by the creation of the Ford Foundation.

  4. This is perhaps a rather sympathetic account of Lawson’s activities . He was in truth a spiv who spent most of his life trying to swindle people, and for rather a long time tended to get away with it. What this biography does not state is that in 1918 he was imprisoned for fraud for a second time, this time receiving a 20 month sentence

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