Robert Erskine tells us the story of the Gloria sculpture constructed in 1996 at Coventry Business Park, Canley, the site of the former Triumph works.
Firstly I would like to outline a ‘Triumph’ connection.
My late father, a doctor in Greenford, West London, owned two Triumph 2000s, a navy blue late MK11969, and an emerald green MK2 1972, both automatics. He had a patient, Ernie Scrivener, a gearbox specialist and senior engineer who worked at Western Avenue Service Depot in London.
As a youngster I displayed an early aptitude and insatiable curiosity for all things mechanical, often ending in serious and disastrous trouble. Aged six I managed to ‘remove’ the spark plugs from my father’s Ford Zephyr 6. The ceramic insulators came out but the rest stayed put.
Ernest Scrivener would come to my parent’s home and carry out tune ups, on the Triumph 2000s. It was here I learnt and was mentored by him. He instructed me on engine timing, setting tappets, balancing the carburettors, and tuning amongst other things. He allowed me to be his assistant and these were very exciting times for me. Eventually aged 16\17 I began work at Western Avenue, under a newly introduced apprenticeship scheme and was interviewed by Jock Brown.
He kept up a friendly, if at times strict contact. I remember his red carnations in his button hole. I also remember the ferment on the shop floor at the time of union disputes and walk outs driven by the then Shop Steward. Jock Brown would regularly come down from his top floor office which overlooked the works to intervene and remonstrate. I had arrived into the adult world of work!
At this time the Stag had been recently launched, and early in the mornings there would often be lined up outside the depot on AA rescue vehicles, broken down Stags. These cars were assigned to a team of technicians who had to trouble shoot. I was intrigued by all this and would often go over at lunch break to see the progress. One day I noticed a stripped engine block and spotted a part drilled oil way not completed. I pointed this out to the technician and he explained a batch of engines had oil starvation issues to the valve train, and this may well have been the issue! I felt I had arrived as a fully trained technician, which of course I was not.
After a year at Western Avenue I decided to change direction and entered Art School to study sculpture and design. Originally I wanted to become an automotive designer and at that time no course existed, so sculpture was my best option.
When in 1993/4 I read about the redevelopment of the Canley site and the overnight bulldozing of buildings, I was especially moved by the public outcry. I then heard Arlington Properties, part of British AeroSpace, were developing the Triumph Works land into a business park. I felt a sculpture which would acknowledge the great achievements of Triumph’s work force, and especially the communities and individuals who worked there should be part of the scheme.
I approached Arlington Properties at their headquarters in Theale, Reading, Berkshire. On presenting the notion to the CEO and executive directors, they warmed to it. I was asked to create a fully costed design, and return within the month.
My own brief was to design a sculpture that was deliberately not car like, more something which the work force aspired too and knew was a process regarded with excellence. During my researches of Triumph I discovered that body parts of cars from the 20’s and 30’s where formed using the English Wheel. The skill of the English Wheel operator was indeed highly respected, and this became my starting point. The 1934 Gloria sports saloon had panels formed by hand with the English wheel and so this became the name of the sculpture. The top part of the sculpture is a flowing wing form based on the ‘Gloria’ going through the English Wheel rollers onto which it is supported. This intended to show that any radii can be created by the skill of the operator. It also echoed the high standards to which Triumph aspired.
After many drawings and sketches I reached the design I was looking for, and with time extremely tight completed my presentation material. This included an axonometric perspective rendering of my design in situ and related development drawings. I made the presentation and Arlington’s CEO and directors confirmed the sculpture was great. I was excited too and then for two months heard nothing.
Arlington eventually wrote to me explaining they were so impressed by my design they had put it out to ‘tender’ in the form of a national competition, to other sculptors, to get the best price! This annoyed me greatly and I explained the sculpture was my design, my copyright, and it was not a building you put out for tender. I also added that none of the other sculptors had lifted a finger picked up the phone or even thought of the project. Arlington replied they were justified in the decision. I was furious.
As most creatives learn some of your best work really does come out of sheer angst and frustration. I went into overdrive deciding a plan of drastic action. Normally sculptors don’t like making speculative pieces of sculpture for undecided projects without their costs being covered.
On this occasion because I felt so angry I went ahead and made a fully working scale model of ‘Gloria’ in wrought bronze. ‘If any sculpture about Triumph Cars is going to be made its going to made by Robert Erskine’ and this was my driving force.
Just as I was completing the model I had another idea. I really needed to pull a surprise: a big piece of theatre to create intrigue and desire. It was key to engineer a ‘happening’ to clinch my role and achieve an agreement with Arlington who I began to regard as shady sharp practising estate agents. In reality they were just ordinary Surveyors!
I needed to impress upon Arlington’s development team that I was a car enthusiast with flair and insight.
A friend owned a rare bright red 1932 4.5 Litre Lagonda two seater open racer, with exposed stainless steel exhausts. He owed me a big favour so I asked would he allow me to drive this wonderful car, as though I owned it, to the front of Arlington’s entrance, and reveal my working scale model ‘Gloria’ sculpture off the bonnet?
As one to think of similar mad ideas he readily agreed. On contacting the PA to Arlington’s CEO I requested a morning for him and his team to meet me outside in front of Arlington’s main office. To my astonishment this was granted, but an enquiring air of curiosity as to why from the CEO was ignored with a ‘please be there at the appointed time’. My ruse had worked.
A cold sunny frosty November morning arrived and my friend drove me along the M4 with the Lagonda’s roof off, the exhaust emitting a deep sonorous overture, lovely! I was wearing a WW2 flying helmet and googles for the occasion, after all this was my dawn patrol and I had a mission to successfully complete. The plan was to stop off at a nearby Sainsbury’s my friend going for a long coffee break, and me jumping into the driver’s seat of this fantastic looking and sounding car.
I was in heaven and as I eased myself towards Arlingtons offices, every vehicle including a police patrol car on the approach roads let me through.
I swept into the entrance road and stopped right in front of Arlington’s revolving entrance doors. A security guard appeared and enquired as to what I was doing, explaining in a stern tone that only the CEO was permitted to stop there. I replied that the CEO had requested I park up and he should check with his PA, I stood my ground. Nothing absolutely nothing was going to interfere with my plan. I jumped out of the driver’s seat and readied my Gloria working model, hidden underneath a black shroud, placing it on the bonnet glistening in the sun. Was this really happening it all seemed so at odds with Corporate protocol?
After an anxious few minutes a sudden flurry in the reception occurred, and like a volcanic lava flow a stream of black dressed men and women, flowed out and around the Lagonda. Their dark suits made the red bodywork of the car really ping out. It seemed all of Arlington’s employees had come to see the mystery. Arlington’s CEO was the last to come out accompanied by his team.
“Good morning ladies and gentleman thank you for meeting me here today. It’s my pleasure to have driven my rare Lagonda car here today. You may be wondering what this is all about and what’s on top of the bonnet. Simply your CEO asked me to create a sculpture for your new scheme at Canley, a sculpture that will echo the skills, commitment and lives of the communities that made Triumph Cars world renowned. “If anyone is going to make this sculpture about Triumph Cars it is going to be Robert Erskine!”
With that I unveiled the working model and I have to say the reaction was tremendous, everyone clapped. The CEO was taken with the sculpture, and before he had a chance to say anything else and whilst the iron was really red hot I asked ‘do you agree I have the commission?’ Without hesitation he announced I had. He also asked was the stunning Lagonda mine to which I replied of course, and it’s used everyday as my transport even to the shops.
My red herring Lagonda ruse had paid off!
I created and fabricated ‘Gloria’ in wrought and welded stainless steel with a unique lustrous surface, and sited it on the roundabout at Canley Business Park, opposite the Member’s Club House. I understand in excess of 300,000 cars weekly drive past it. It has appeared in the media notably Top Gear, and has been listed by the Monuments and Sculptures Association as contributing to the heritage and culture of the nation.
Whenever I am fortunate to be commissioned to create a large scale public sculpture I always place a Time Capsule beneath its foundations. And children who live nearby are invited to place whatever they like in it. Underneath ‘Gloria’ is a Time Capsule containing messages to future children, from local Primary Schools, and the handwritten manifesto of the Rt Hon Tony Blair, who on the eve of his election visited Canley Business Park, to unveil my working model of ‘Gloria’.
On meeting him I asked if he would contribute to the capsule and he asked if his hand written manifesto as to how he was going to lead the nation was acceptable! It’s safely in the capsule.
On the day of the unveiling I had organised a cavalcade of almost every Triumph model type to park around the roundabout where ‘Gloria’ is sited. The Triumph owners club were key in assisting me. The day was unfortunately rainy. Coincidentally it coincided with the anniversary of the repeal of the red flag act, and on contacting the Coventry Transport Museum floated the idea for the oldest car, a Daimler, to head the cavalcade with a young man in period dress walking with a red flag. That young man was the son of the Chair of the Coventry Society.
At this time it was also the release of the new Jaguar XK and also the Aston Martin V8 Coupe. I contacted both companies’ press departments to trailer these new cars to the cavalcade which they did, adding to the drama. Additionally I persuaded British Aero Space to provide a reception and refreshments for almost two hundred retired Triumph employees and their families. ‘Gloria’ was created for them, the communities who put the Triumph name on the map at Canley.
I am pleased ‘Gloria’ is being maintained in perfect condition and that it has achieved status as the only sculpture in England to mark the first centenary in 1996, of the British Motor Industry.
A few weeks after Gloria was unveiled I returned to photograph it early on a cold clear blue sky morning. This is the best light to view it. Whilst setting up my camera a gentleman walking his dog came by. “I’d like to shake the bloke’s hand who made this amazing sculpture. My grandfather used to work in the body shop at Standard’s employed on the wheeling machine. Each time I come past here I just feel real proud”. I put my hand out and warmly shook his hand.
You can find out more about Robert Erskine here.