The locally listed Daimler Powerhouse, just north of the canal basin, is a rare survivor of Coventry’s early motor industry. It is also a testament to the quest for perfection that made Daimler one of the industry’s leading motor firms. The building is part of a site that reflects the story of Coventry’s rise from the depths of mid nineteenth century industrial depression to the early twentieth century boom time.
After the collapse of the ribbon weaving industry in the city in 1860, some northern entrepreneurs searched for a site to establish a factory that could make use of the skills of the unemployed weavers. Their cheap labour of Coventry’s unemployed weavers, compared to Lancashire, led to a Cotton Mills being established on Drapers Fields. This latter site was made redundant after a fire in 1890. Despite rebuilding it remained empty for a few years until it was taken up by Harry Lawson in 1896 to establish a number of Coventry’s first car factories on the site. The building was now known as the Motor Mills and amongst the firms established there was the Daimler Motor Company.
Soon the other motor companies failed or moved out and Daimler took over the whole premises by 1900. They rapidly gained a reputation for quality engineering. Many companies bought in components to simplify their operation, but Daimler was not satisfied with the standard of work outside the factory so gradually expanded the works to make all components themselves.
Such were the standards they achieved in various car trails that the soon to be Edward VII bought a Daimler in 1900. The reputational value of such a customer led to increased production and by 1906 the factory had been completely remodelled and added to.
When ‘The Engineer’ visited in May 1906 they published an extensive article praising the methods used in the factory and its facilities. The only hint of criticism came toward the end of the article when they stated “To make the works complete requires the addition of its own power station and foundries”.
The requirement of a power station may seem a bit bizarre as next door to the factory was the Electricity Power Station for the whole of Coventry. Like the car factory it bordered onto the canal offering a supplementary transport route apart from the nearby rail sidings. However, the rapid growth of Coventry and its industry, at the time, had caused power outages that interrupted production and could damage the machining of components. An independent power source would overcome this obstacle.
And so it was, just a year after The Engineer’s visit that Daimler submitted for approval a plan for Powerhouse. Although this 1907 plan is essentially the building you see today, in 1911 a small extension was made at the western end.
The Daimler factory continued to flourish until it was largely destroyed in the 1940 Blitz with the exception of the office block on Sandy Lane and the Powerhouse. The factory site was cleared and given over to other uses but the Powerhouse survived the redevelopment. With the power generating machinery removed, the building was used by its new owner, Coventry Climax, for testing its latest product –forklift trucks. They had designed the UK’s first forklift truck in 1946 and its carrying capacity was tested to its limit in the building. A set of measurements up its inside wall, can still be seen today. They gave an indication of how high a fixed load could be lifted before the truck would begin to tip over.
Today the building is occupied by Imagineers Productions who fittingly bring the world of arts and engineering together. Their Godiva project for the London Olympics and the annual festival they organise in Coventry has brought quality and innovation to a Coventry product just as Daimler did in the past. Their successful grant application for the redevelopment of the building as a modern arts space will see yet another important chapter in the life of the old Powerhouse.