Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: January 19, 2011
Webpage updated: February 24, 2022




There are two claims to having the first motor vehicles in Plymouth, one a car and the other a van.

It is said that the first motor car in Plymouth was owned by a dental surgeon, Doctor Francis Pearse.  He seems to have owned two, a German Benz and an English-built copy.  Which one came first is a puzzle but the original car seems to have been registered as CO 53 when registrations started in 1903/04 and the copy as CO 83 so that may give some indication.   It is reasonable to assume that the German-built one was first in order to give the English manufacturer something to copy.  The date was apparently circa 1896.

The story goes that by the 1930s the German car was so out-of-date that Doctor Pearse decide to bury it.  He also objected to having to pay Ł2 10s a year rates for garaging the car.  He is supposed to have carried out his threat but was later persuaded to exhume it for a local motor dealer, who sent it to Brooklands, the famous racing circuit.


The caption in Doidge's Annual 1932 read: 'During the year an old relic, Doctor Pearse's Benz Car, was lost to the town. 
Sooner than pay 2 10s a year rates to garage the car, Doctor Pearse at first decided to bury it. 
Later he accepted an offer to send it to Brooklands and is here shown driving the car to Friary Station en route to Brooklands
Mr C H Gil.

In the 1940s he offered a car to the City of Plymouth Museum.   This was presumably the English-built replica.  The Museum declined to accept it as they considered it was not of sufficient local interest.  Doctor Pearse died on March 14th 1947 at the age of 76.

One of the earliest motor vehicles in Plymouth was one purchased by Messrs Spooner and Company for the delivery of goods.  It was built by the London Motor Car and Wagon Company and was driven from London to Plymouth by Mr Foster Pedler, a representative of the makers.  He instructed Mr William Heath of Messrs Spooner and Company during the drive.  The journey took 2 days and the car arrived in Plymouth on the afternoon of Sunday December 5th 1897.  On the following Monday morning at about 10.15am, the local newspaper reporters were given a trip in it out to Yelverton Rock and back and 'greatly astonished the natives' en route.  It was a petrol vehicles, built on the Daimler principles, and had solid India rubber tyres.  It weighed 18 hundredweight, could carry a half a ton and cost 330.  Its gearbox enabled it to travel at 3, 6, 9 or 12 miles per hour, although it was claimed as being able to travel at 20mph downhill.  No doubt it's pneumatic "squeaker" was enthusiastically used during the journey.

Plymouth's first motor vehicle garage is said to have been the Mannamead Garage in Elm Road, which repaired a horseless carriage in 1901.

On the occasion of the funeral of Mr William Mumford, of Messrs W Mumford Limited, carriage builders, in March 1959 it was stated that Mr Mumford had built the first motor taxi to run in Plymouth shortly after founding his business in 1901.  He used the chassis of a Model T Ford and sold it to Mr Jack Andrew.

Mr Frank Marshall of the Mount Pleasant Hotel in Plymouth is said to have opened the first local driving school but the date is unknown.

The registration of motor vehicles was introduced by the Motor Car Act 1903, which was followed on November 19th 1903 by the Local Government Board's Motor Car (Registration and Licensing) Order.   In Devon, the County Council and the County Borough Councils of Exeter, Plymouth and Devonport were to act as the licensing authorities.  A motor car licence cost 20 shillings (or Ł1 if you preferred!) and a motor cycle one cost 5 shillings.  The Regulations came into force on January 1st 1904 and remained until revised by the Roads Act 1920, which came into force on January 1st 1921.

Amongst the earliest known motor cars in the Plymouth area were some registered in the Devon County sequence, which was allotted the letter T.  Plymouth was allocated the letters CO and Devonport, DR.

T1 was a motor cycle so the first motor car was T2, which on December 2nd 1903, the first day of registration, was given to Mr Harold George Edgar Cross of 56 Durnford Street, East Stonehouse.  The vehicle was a 10hp Argyll Tonneau that had an unladen weight of 13 hundredweight (cwt).  The motor car sat 5 and was painted dark green with yellow lining.  The registration was cancelled on May 25th 1909.

T38 was given to a Mr Edmund Parsons of Hazeldene, Elburton Cross, Plymstock.  His vehicle was a 12hp Argyll Tonneau, which sat 4 people and had an unladen weight of 13cwt.  It was dark green picked with white and was registered on December 8th 1903.  The following year, on July 30th, it was registered to a Mr Henry Lineham of Cambridge and Southampton.

Major Ernest Townsheand of Beauchamp House, Pennycross, registered an unidentified, 7hp tonneau on December 21st 1903.  Numbered T52, and weighing 15cwt, it was olive green lined in primrose and with primrose wheels.

The number T100 went on February 17th 1904 to an 8hp, single-cylinder, De Dion Bouton owned by Mr Ernest H Hacon of Mount Stone, East Stonehouse.  It was registered for private and professional use.   The tonneau was detachable and the vehicle weighed 13 cwt.  It was built of natural walnut with blue edging.

Mr George Grigg of Cann House, Crown Hill, registered a 20hp Wolseley tonneau on December 23rd 1903 as T104.  It was quite a heavy vehicle, 24 cwt, and was chocolate in colour, lined with orange.  It was sold to somebody in London on January 20th 1906 but not until after Mr Grigg, by now giving his name as George Frederick Mills Grigg, registered another 10hp Wolseley tonneau as T208.  This happened on January 25th 1904.  This vehicle was coloured olive green with red lining.  The registration for this motor car was cancelled on December 22nd 1910.

Also registered on December 23rd 1903 was an 18hp Mercedes Simplex tonneau belonging to Mr Richard Bayly (1877-1912) of Torr House, Pennycross.  The body was apparently built by Messrs Thrupp and Maberley of London and was painted chocolate picked out in red.   Registered as T136, it was either upgraded or replaced by a more powerful 28hp version from June 27th 1904, when it was described as being claret picked out in red.   The registration was cancelled on December 20th 1904.

T196 was an 11hp Argyll tonneau registered on January 20th 1904 by Mr Coryndon Matthews of Stentaway House, Plymstock.   It weighed 12cwt and was coloured dark green.  The registration was cancelled on February 6th 1905.

The letters JY were issued to the combined Plymouth Council in 1921 when the CO and DR registrations had both got to 9999.  Three letter prefixes commenced around 1932.  When the growth of motor vehicles outstripped that system, registration plates with the number first and the letters after came into use.