What links a landed Spitfire and a child’s pushchair?

owen1
Owen Finlay Maclaren

Not another lock-down quiz question but one of Paul Maddocks’ interesting tales! Paul writes:

I have had a good life, a blessed life you could say, I have met many interesting people and learned many interesting things. One of the first people I met and got to know was in my first job after Art School.

I got a job working for Albert Frosts Printer in Rugby, opposite the famous Rugby School on Dunchurch Road. I was employed in the Art Studio to produce artwork for the various print jobs. The company had already been producing some small flyers for a small company called Andrews Maclaren Limited, just outside Rugby in the village of Barby. They were making folding outdoor chairs and pushchairs. The Maclaren Company wanted to produce some more flyers and upgrade their illustrations.

The founder and owner was Owen Maclaren who was by then retired, but had been an aircraft designer specialising in undercarriages. He had designed the Spitfire landing gear, so he was very famous.

I had only just started at Frosts the Printers in 1969 at the age of 19.  I did not drive and have never owned a car. I caught the Midland Red bus to Rugby every day. So when I had to go out to Barby to meet Owen Maclaren, the Managing Director of Albert Frost, Mr Clements, took me in his Austin Cambridge car.

Mr. Clements looked just like Oliver Hardy, right down to the greased down centre parting. He was a lovely man, very large but very gentle and polite. We must have looked a strange sight when we turned up at the village cottage where Owen lived and worked from his stables. I still had shoulder length hair and was very skinny. We were welcomed and shown into a large dining room with a large dark wooden table with bowls of hazel nuts still with their leaves on, and bowls of apples and pears, which must have come out of his orchard.

Mr. Owen Maclaren welcomed us both and we were introduced to a small, slim older lady, a Miss Andrews, Owen’s partner. She was strangely dressed in a goat skin coat and goat skin boots. The boots were all covered in black and white patches and had long hair. We were served tea in very large cups, the largest cups I have ever seen, more like shallow soup dishes. They looked normal in Mr Clements large swollen hands. We chatted for what seemed like ages then we were taken on a tour of the large farm cottage and stables.

Dotted around the cottage were various prototypes of what Owen had been working on. The first folding outdoor armchair was based on a design he had done for a bomber aircraft undercarriage. He had seen, at various country events, people trying to sit on shooting sticks, a form of walking stick with a fold-down seat but with a single leg. Owen’s answer was what looked like a bundle of sticks that open up and fold out to make a four leg chair with arms and a back and he called it a ‘Gad about chair’.

FoldingChair

After making various prototypes, first with wood, then aluminium tubes – and moulding the tubes to form a more curved bundle, he started making them for sale. But they were expensive, almost hand-made and containing a lot of components, so they had to be sold as luxury items and he did this by selling them through Harrods Store. His first order was for about 50 and he had them made with green and white seating cloth. Albert Frost’s had the word Harrods stencilled on the back of every one, making them unique.

We were then shown the very first ‘Baby Buggy’. Almost like a ‘gad about chair’ with wheels on. This had been inspired by Owen’s daughter having problems with pushchairs on aircraft. Owen’s genius was not just putting a wheel on each leg – he put two. Like on large aircraft undercarriages the more wheels the better, for strength, suspension and comfort.

Buggy)

Mr Clements and I had been at the Maclaren residence for nearly an hour and we still did not know what Owen wanted us to do. Then he showed us his latest invention – it was a larger version of the Baby Buggy. He had been asked by the Government’s Health Council to create a larger buggy for children up to the age of 10. He produced a prototype that he was working on, made of square aluminium tubing for strength, and he called it the ‘Buggy Major’.

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It had many more features, such as a hand strap around each handle. This was because older children can be very heavy and when tilting the pushchair back your hand could come off or slip away from the handles. There was another strengthening feature to brace the complete chair. But this was becoming a problem as some of the struts, when closed, could trap skin on hands, if not done with care. So I had to draw this prototype as a complete vehicle pointing out all the safety issues as it had to go to the Ministry of Health who were going to order them and supply them to clients. Over time the features were redesigned and each part slowly came to be safer, especially the struts at the back were linked together and a foot active device was added so that hands were kept out of the way.

Buggies

Another strange thing about the day Mr. Clements took me to Barby was that on the way back, instead of turning at a bend in the country road we drove into a field. The gate had been left open; a farmer had only just opened it up to take in a tractor. Mr. Clements drove around the field and around the tractor, nodded at the farmer and slowly left the field as though nothing had happened. We both smiled like simpletons as though it happened all the time.

I did many drawings of all of the Maclaren products, showing how they opened and folded. None of the drawings survive and I don’t have one of them. But I am sure I could draw every one of them from memory: the ‘Gad about chair’, the ‘Baby Buggy’ and the ‘Buggy Major’. They were all ground-breaking and all came out of the mind of a retired old aircraft under-carriage designer. A bit like from the Bible – ‘and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: Nation shall not lift up sword against Nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.’

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Owen Maclaren tried to make as many products as possible, employing most of the people from Barby and Long Buckby. A Japanese company were given the licence to manufacture the production for the American market and Owen became rich overnight. I lost contact with him when I left Albert Frosts the printers. It had been sold to GEC and was being moved to the large GEC factory site down by the station. The old building was going to be pulled down as it was needed for road widening and the industrial building did not fit in with the Rugby School surroundings.

I then went to work in Leamington Spa, then Coventry. I heard that Owen was a keen pilot and he had a heart attack one day while flying his own plane. He was able to land the plane but was found dead in his cockpit. I have never been able to verify this tale but it did fit in with the spirit of Owen Finley Maclaren M.B.E.

As an end-note, I would just mention that one day my girlfriend, now my wife, called for me at the Albert Frosts studio.  I was drawing a ‘Baby Buggy’ – not many people had seen one at that time. Sara said ‘that will never catch on’. I still remind her that it’s now the most produced and copied pushchair in the world.

Paul Maddocks, Deputy Chair of the Coventry Society

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