Marlborough Car
Marlborough Car

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Marlborough Vintage Car Club and The Marlborough Engine.

The Marlborough Vintage Car Club is located in the Brayshaw Park complex in Blenheim.

This on-line exhibit showcases just two items - the Marlborough Engine which powered the first car manufactured in Blenheim in 1912, and another stationary engine also manufactured by William Birch, which is in the Marlborough Vintage Farm Machinary collection, also in Brayshaw Park.

Click on 'Start Exhibit' above to begin a guided tour, or click on an image to the left to go directly to that record, or click on 'Table of Contents' above for a list of all records in the exhibit.

The following is what is known of John North Birch, better known as William Birch.

Born c 1867, Nuneaton, Warwickshire, England.
Died 1945 Gisborne, New Zealand.

Hannah Taylor (born 1871, Exhall, near Coventry) whom he married in 1892 (from FreeBDM on the internet 14 May 2011). Wife alive after 1945. 3 daughters, one unknown, Gladys born 1894, Dorothy born 1897.

Geographical details:
Pre 1884 did engineering apprenticeship.
About 1884 joined Coventry firm of Starley Brothers.
About 1885 to Sheffield to work in Railway Carriage works, then to a steel foundry, before returning to his home in Nuneaton.
1888 premises in Foleshill, Warwickshire.
1898 back to Nuneaton, Warwickshire.
Arrived New Zealand 1905 at age 38.
1908 employed Miles Cheesman at Birch & Co., Blenheim.
Had Birch & Co., Blenheim up to end of 1911.
1912 started his own garage, Marlborough Engineering Co. in High Street, Blenheim.
1917 Geo. Birch, Motor Garage, High Street, Blenheim.
1922 moved to Gisborne as foreman at Collett Motors.

1903 awarded a first class diploma for reliability for the George Eliot motorcycle.

About 1888 built push bike - the Foleshill.
About 1898 built push bike - the George Eliot.
About 1900 built motorcycle - the George Eliot.
1912-1919 built several marine and stationary engines, plus the huge marine engine which ended up in McManaway's launch the Marlborough and was thought to be still going in Admiralty Bay near French Pass in 1968.
Built first car 1919 - the first Marlborough (broken up for scrap)
Built second & third cars after 1922 - the second Marlborough** (turned into a 3 ton truck - restored as a car again by Gisborne Car Club after 1968) and her never completed sister (used for spares).
Built third car about 1928 - the Carlton (fate unknown).

Article, published in Better Business, March 1968, pages 9-15.
"Before the Nova.
When ANZIEL announced plans last year, to produce a New Zealand-made car, there was immediate public interest. This really Is something people were saying, this really is ambitious. We thought so too, and decided to take a closer look. had such a venture been attempted before? We started to delve. We noted the Trekka, which has a high local content, then we went back another ten or so years and came across the Mistral, an unsuccessful attempt by a Christchurch firm to manufacture kitset cars. Then, arriving at 1930, we stumbled on a unique car and a story which took us back, ultimately, to a small town in England, to the birth of the bicycle, the motyor cycle, and the automobile. It is the story of John North Birch, a brilliant inventive engineer and a superb craftsman, who spent 40 of his 78 years here in New Zealand. Had his ambitions been realised New Zealand by now could have been world famous for its cars. Had he not come out here in the first place there is little doubt, in our minds at least, that he could have become another Nuffield, a Rootes or a Ford. But it was not to be. The story of this remarable character begins on page 10 and will run over two issues."

"No Fame for New Zealand's Motor Pioneer.

John North Birch (pictured right) is little remembered in New Zealand, yet this amazing engineer built the first all-New Zealand motor car - engine, gearbox and all - and was responsible for many inventions now standard in the motor industry. This is the first of two articles by DESMOND SNELL telling the story of this quiet genius of motor engineering.

No man irrespective of his talents, can succeed without luck. The very talented need only a little luck, the less talented need more. Doubless there have been a million men who could have achieved greatness had fate seen fit to back them: doubless too, as many have had success thrust by chance upon them. History remembers these men but, sadly, forgets all but a few of those who spent a lifetime trying, but in the end failed. Such a man was John North Birch.

"To some extent though, John Birch was responsible for his own fate. In his day he was one of the finest inventive engineers in Britain, yet he chose to try his fortunes in New Zealand. History has shown how wrong that choice was to be, for while his achievements in this country were by any standards substantial, they came to nothing simply because New Zealand did not develop into the industrially-strong nation* Birch envisaged.

"For 40 years, from his arrival in 1905 till his death in 1945, John Birch designed and built sophisticated machinery. His ambition was to produce cars on a large scale and to this end he painstakingly built a number of prototypes, each one a handbuilt masterpiece. Only a few accessories were proprietary, everything else - chassis, motor, bodywork, upholstery, even the transmission - was hand-made. In their day these cars were in many respects ahead of their contemporaries. Some of their innovations are now standard equipment in modern cars but, because he failed to take out patents, John Birch has received no credit for them. Similarly, his pioneering work with bicycles then later with motor cycles, though it played a part in their development, has long been forgotten.

"When he arrived in New Zealand at the age of 38, John Birch was, in action and aspect, every inch an Englishman of the old school. His complexion was pale, his stature slight; he sported a long, waxed handlebar moustache, long black tie knotted under butterfly collars and a neatly pressed suit which, now that fashion has practically come full circle, would not be unlike a stylist suit of today. This, it transpired, was to be the style of his working clothes as well - no matter what job was on hand he would be dressed as though at any moment someone might come and call him away to a tea party. He must have had that uncanny knack, possessed of a few craftsmen, of being able to work among grime without becoming a part of it.

"Biggest Ever.
In 1911, after six years in New Zealand, he took charge of a small garage in Blenheim, then sometime in 1912, he decided it was time to start on his own. Within three years he had the biggest set-up Blenheim, perhaps the entire country, had ever seen. It was in this workshop that New Zealand's first car was to be built.

"At the time of its conception, probably before the turn of the centruy, the design of Birch's cars was right up to the minute but by the time the first was completed - a seven year slog - it was beginning to date. The war of course, must have suspended progress because even in 1914, the first of the three cars under construction was nearly finished.

"Made to Perfection.
Practically everything was made by Birch on the premises - and made to perfection. The patterns from which the various parts were cast were also home-made. When they were completed, Birch took them to Nelson, to the Anchor Foundry for casting, but they required work so delicate that the foundry staff were in two minds about trying. Birch offered to cast them himself, using their plant and his offer was accepted. The job took him four days and after that the Anchor Foundry could cast the block of any engine ever invented.

"The car that was rolled out into the sunlight for the first time in 1919, was to last 21 years. By today's standards she was massive. The name was "Marlborough", a touring car with a wide, low radiator similar to a Landrover's. She had a four cylinder engine with a four-inch bore and seven-inch stroke, five main bearings, full force feed lubrication. Valves were two and a half inches across the face, cam lift was half an inch.

"At the time work on her began, most cars on the road, if you could call it that, had single or twin cylinder engines and few could do more than 30 miles an hour. By comparison the Marlborough, it is claimed, would have been capable of over a 100 on a good straight road - that's with a good set of tyres. For it was tyres, 815 x 105 mm beaded edge, which were one of her major weaknesses. The other, of course, was her hand-built quality. She was made to last and neither money nor time nor trouble had been spared to ensure she did jus that. She could never have competed commercially and it is estimated that her builder would have been lucky if he recovered 25 per cent of her production cost.

James Fuller of Seddon bought the first Marlborough, the only one as it turned out, to be completed in the South Island. He ran her for many years and reported that she was very reliable but hard to start. No wonder, with a bore the same as a tractor, two inches more stroke, and no impluse starter. Apart from wheels and gearing she would have made an excellent three-ton truck - in fact one of her sisters in later years was used for just that.

"As with all the engines made by John Birch, the Marlborough car engine was perfectly balanced. She ran smoothly, more like a steam than a combustion engine, and at 60 miles an hour there was hardly a sound. It is difficult to say how long she would have lasted had not the Second World War come along and brought with it a shortage of benzine. This, together with the chronic tyre troubles, finally if prematurely put her off the road. You could have bought her for $10 had you wanted. Even at that price there were no takers. So in the end she was given away and her recipient, unmindful of her uniquie history, broke her up for scrap.

"Only one part was saved - the engine. Ironically, it was bought by Ron Osgood, a man who had been apprenticed under Birch at the time it was being built. It was his intention to fit the Marlborough engine into his launch, but in the end he settled for one that was lighter and for many years the old engine lay rusting.

""About 1951", says Mr Osgood, "I decided to break her up for scrap, which was bringing a good price at the time. I could not get one of the bolts off the sump by the flywheel, so I used an eight-pound sledge hammer. The hammer bounced off the aluminium crankcase without effect. Then my conscience smote me and the hammer fell from my hands." It was a complete turn-around for Ron Osgood. In the years following he slowly rebuilt the Marlborough engine till today it gleams among the most prized of his possessions.

Meanwhile, back in Blenheim during the years 1912-19, Birch fell on lean times. He had built several marine and stationary engines in addition to the car and one, a huge five foot high by eight foot long marine designed for a 45 foot cruiser, was eventually to bring about his downfall. It was started in 1911 for an agreed price of 350 pound, but in the course of construction alterations and improvements had made it more and more expensive. There were delays and bickering right from the start and the engine was still not finished when the war came and materials went up again. To cover costs, Birch had to push the price to over 1,000 pound and the case wound up in court.

"Birch defended himself, in the Supreme Court in 1918. He lost the case - but not the battle. When the baliffs came the huge engine was nowhere to be seen [another, unsigned document says it was buried]. Its embittered owner was never to lay his hands on it. Birch was arrested and was away nine months, to be released only on condition he part with the engine. This he did, but swore it would never run again.

"Acutally it did. Years later it was uncovered in a boatyard in Picton and was bought for 25 pound by a young mechanic named Wilf McManaway. Eventually he had it working and installed in his fishing boat, aptly named the Marlborough. It was there for many years, including two around the Chatham Islands and numerous trips across Cook Strait. Recently it was replaced with a diesel, the only reason being that it had become expensive to run on benzine. Rumour has it though that the old engine is still going - driving a sawmill in Admiralty Bay near French Pass.

"So much then, for this early engineering venture in Marlborough. After his release, John Birch sold out and in 1922 with the two unfinished cars and a load of machinery, moved to Gisborne, where he became foreman for Collett Motors and began a new chapter in his eventful career.

"From then on the business of building cars became more his hobby than a full-time occupation, but he pursued it with the same furious effort and wholehearted application as before. Each day was spent as foreman at Collett's, each night, Saturdays and Sundays were saved for the cars. At times he would work right through the night just as he had in Blenheim where even now there are those who remember the drone of motors, the whine of the drills, the yellow light spilling out across the street at two, three o'clock in the morning.

"Complete Master
Time stopped for Birch when he was working, his lathe was a favourite toy of which he never tired. "His artistry had to be seen to be believed, "says Charles Sutcliffe, who worked with Birch for many years at Colletts. "He was the complete master: whether it was just some small intricate bush or a crown wheel carrier housing carved from a sixty-pound chunk of steel, he was equally at home."

"So much at home was he in fact, that while in Blenheim he had not only made the patterns for his engines but cast them as well. He had machined the crank and camshafts, turned the pistons and turned the valves from rough stampings. He had bored out the blocks and fitted everything to them. He had cut his own gears, embedded in clay, they would be white-hot in the furnace for days, then he would come along, quench them with water and they would be diamond hard.

"In Blenheim, for the first Marlborough, he had made the body and upholstery too, but in Gisborne this became largely the work of the late Jack Loach, who became as engrossed in the cars as Birch himself. They modelled the body of the second Marlborough** on the Studebaker, carriage-built and panelled as was the style of the times. When the car was completed it had been at least 14 years in the making, but continual improvements had kept it fairly up to date. In some respects it was modern even by today's standards - fully-floating rear axles for example.

""Although fairly big and may be cumbersome compared with modern cars," says Charles Sutcliffe of the second Marlborough, "it was still a delight to drive. The finish, workmanship and attention to detail left nothing to be desired." By way of trial, it was driven from Gisborne to Muriwai and back.

"Fate, however, was soon to step in again. The workshop in which the Marlborough and her embyro sister were kept, caught fire and both were extensively damaged. Also destroyed were the patterns for another car, the Carlton, a small model similar to the Austin Seven and designed to compete against it.

"After the fire the ruined car was redesigned as a three-ton truck and sold to a Hawkes Bay farmer who also bought the incomplete car as a source of spares. Eventually, after upwards of 30 years trojan service, it was replaced with a modern vehicle and, after spending some time in a swamp, passed into the capable hands of Gisborne Car Club, who are now well on the way to rebuilding it as the car it once was.

The baby Carlton on which Birch now pinned all his hopes, was also doomed. It was completed sometime around 1928 and was an all-Gisborne product apart from the engine block and steel castings, which were made in Napier and Wellington respectively. As with the other engines, the cyclinder block was cast as one - there was no detachable head since Birch maintained it was completely unnecessary in an engine that rarely needed overhaul. Brass plugs, however, were screwed into the block above the valves, which could thus be removed if required.

"Good Looking
"The Carlton," says Mr B.H. Wilcox, proprietor of Gisborne's Red Bus Service, "was a fine-looking vehicle, capable of seating six people. It was superior to many cars imported into New Zealand at that time." The carburettor, according to Mr Wilcox, was of Birch's own design, although it is doubtful if he took out patents for it. Later it was adopted by an overseas manufacturer and proved successful. The manifold system was also in advance of its time and is in use today on most modern cars. No more details are availabe since the car has proved impossible to trace.

"Company formed
Just after it was built, however, a car company was formed to manufacture in quantity, and the prototype was driven around Gisborne for demonstration to prospective investors. The necessary capital was soon raised and final plans for production were made. Then came the Depression. It broke the Carlton Car Company before it could get off the ground. The prototype was sold and that was the end for Old Bill Birch. He didn't try again. He just lived out his life quietly in his flat behind Jack Collett's and died in 1945 at the age of 78.

"Strangely, it was not until after his death that the full truth about him came to light.

*Readers who knew or worked with Birch in New Zealand may be somewhat confused at my reference to him as 'John North Birch.' This, however, was his rightful title. George, the name by which he was commonly known in this country, he adopted on arrival and was in fact his father's name. To further complicate matters, he somehow won the nickname "Old Bill" and many will remember him by that alone.

**It seems that this second car, although practically the same as its predecessor, was renamed the Carlton. To avoid confusion however, it will be referred to here as the second Marlborough.

On page 12 is a picture of "The second Marlborough on show at Collett Motors, Gisborne, about 1930."

On page 14 is a picture of "The Marlborough engine designed and built in Blenheim by John North Birch."

Desmond Snell completes the story of John North Birch in next month's "Better Business." [Source: MHS Archives, VF Birch.]

Article, published in Better Business, April 1968, pages 28-33.

"No Fame for New Zealand's Motor Pioneer. Part 11 by Desmond Snell.

"John North Birch, pictured right, is little remembered in New Zealand, yet this amazing engineer built the first all-New Zealand motor car - engine, gearbox and all - and was responsible for many inventions now standard in the motor industry. Last month we dealt with his years n New Zealand, the cars he made and their fate. This month, to conclude the story, we take a look further into the past.

"Anyone who had anything to do with John, alias George, alias Old Bill Birch, would have described him as reserved, unassuming, modest. Few would have guessed, however, just how reserved he really was. "I always felt there was a secret in his heart," says Jack Collett, who over the years had become his closest friend in New Zealand, "but it was not unitl later that I, as trustee to his estate, discovered from his solicitors that he was a married man and had three daughters and a wife living in England. I will never know why he left them to come out here and start again.

"Actually, a family was not all he left in England. There, he was an established and prosperous businessman; he was not only a pioneer of the motor cycle, but of the push bike as well.

"To see him in proper perspective, it is necessary to go back to 1884, about the time he joined the Coventry firm of Starley Brothers, just after having completed his apprenticeship in engineering. James Starley was already famous for his invention in 1870 of the Penny Farthing, now his nephew, John Starley, was at work on its successor, the first production model of the chain-driven safety bicycle, much the same machine as we ride today.

"Perhaps Birch, with the intuitive knowhow he had demonstrated throughout his early years, had a hand in designing that cycle - no one knows. It is certain, however, that being here on the scene, watching and listening, witnessing history in the making, made a deep impression on him and set him on the road he was to follow for the rest of his life.

"Gathering Experience
In 1885 Starley's put their Rover Safety cycle on the market and shortly afterwards Birch left the firm to do a stint in Sheffield, first in a railway carriage works, then in a steel foundry (which explains the all-round ability he demonstrated during the building of his first car in Blenheim) before returning to his home in Nuneaton, Warwickshire. Then, in 1888, his father loaned him premises in Foleshill, a few miles from Nuneaton, and there he built his first wheeled machine - a push bike.

"Typically, he made it all himself - even rolled the rims. He called it the Foleshill but in most respects it differed little from its contemporaries. In one, however, it was revolutionary - it incorporated the first-ever oil-retaining hub, the same type as is used today and one of the few inventions Birch cared to patent.

It is impossible to say just how many Foleshills were made but the number could have been substantial. Among the first proud owners were the Dennis brothers, Guildford, who later won recognition for their own motor cycles. Mrs Dennis is said to have caused something of a sensation by pedalling a Foleshill down the main street clad in bloomers and thereby earning what in those days must have been the doubtful honour, of being one of the first ladies to venture abroad in anything resembling shorts.

"In 1898 Birch shifted his operations back to Nuneaton and there produced another bicycle. This was called the George Eliot, possibly after his father's christian names. [Or possibly after the novelist George Eliot who lived at Griff near Nuneaton for her first 22 years]. Basically similar to the Foleshill but of more modern design it soon proved to be even more popular than its predecessor. A factory was set up for its production and at one time employed more than 20 workers.

"Measured against the standards of the day, this enterprise must have appeared very promising indeed. But, true to form, it did not satisfy Birch. He had new and grander ideas and before long was back at the drawing board. This time he worked with his two brothers, Fred and Harold. Night after night they, and a few cronies, would meet at the workshop to talk and argue far into the night. The topic of conversation? Combustion engines and in particular their application to bicycles. From there began a series of experiments and then, around the turn of the century, the George Eliot motorcycle was born.

"Aprat from the engine, it looked much the same as its name-sake push-bike. Even the pedals were there, but their purpose now was just to start and assist the engine. At the time there were a few other motorcycles on the road, but the George Eliot owed little to them. She was a single-cylinder machine able to develop 2hp and in three ways at least she left her mark on the motorcycle world. The backward placement of her engine was an innovation, so was the fact that the engine was brazed to the frame, and could not be separated from it. Of most interest, though, was the use of a low tension magneto, since this eventually replaced battery-type ignition on all brands of motor cycles.

"A First Class Diploma Underlined
It didn't take long for the George Eliot to make a name for itself. In 1903, after a series of demonstrations, it was awarded a first class diploma for reliability and subsequently its general design was adopted by manufacturers large and small. The same year Birch sold the "registered" design to Bradburys, sewing machine people in Oldham, so the well-known Bradbury motor cycle was in effect an exact copy of the George Eliot.

"Back in Nuneaton, Birch continued to manufacture motor cycles under the original name and in 1904 underlined the reliability diploma by riding a George Eliot from Land's End to John o'Groats - the length of Britain. The cycles, in fact, were manufactured in Nuneaton for a full 25 years, but after Birch left in 1905 the magic was gone and when his brother Fred, who later took charge of the business, was forced to retire in 1925, they disappeared for all time.

"There are rumours that John Birch accomplished much more during his life in England than is recorded here. One has it that he was responsible for the Fairy motor cycle (an opposed twin with automatic inlet and outlet valves), that he sold the patents to Douglas Bros of Bristol, and that the result was the Douglas motor cycle. Another is that he was instrumental in designing the huge twelve-inch naval guns at Woolwich Arsenal. This could be true since he later showed an interest in artillary in New Zealand during the First World War, when he designed and built a number of 25lb shells for the army. Inability to mass produce, however, ruled them out.

"Rumours aside, his proven achievements alone were considerable and whatever cause for his discontent, it must have become deeply ingrained for him to want to leave everything and come to New Zealand. "He left in February 1905," says his daughter Gladys, now Mrs Goalby of Nuneaton, "and intended to stay for only five years. He was always in communication with us, saying he was coming home, but unfortunately he never did. My father was terribly ambitious and was filled with the desire to make a name for himself in the motor industry."

"Well, he certainly did everything he could to realise that ambition and had he not been the victim of circumstance no doubt he would have. It is sobering to think that you can try so hard for so long then, in the end, fail.

"The author wishes to thank Ron Osgood, "Beaded Wheels," journal of the Vintage Car Club, and many others for their help in supplying material for these articles.

"On page 31 there is a picture, "The George Eliot motor cycle seen here with the maker's brother Harold. It was on this machine that John Birch made his 1904 journey from one end of Britain to the other proving beyond doubt the reliability of the machine." [Source: MHS Archives, VF Birch.]

John North Birch's Motor Garage, known as the Marlborough Engineering Company, where the first car in New Zealand was built, is still a motor garage in 2008. Today it is known as McKendry Motors and its address is 81 High Street, Blenheim.
Before McKendry's it was Hipkins Garage.
Earlier than that it was Grosvenor Motors.
In 1917 it was Geo. Birch's motor garage, High Street, Blenheim [Source: 1917 Post Office Directory].
Birch's motor garage was between 49 Dalgety & Co. Ltd and 63 Grosvenor Hotel. Dalgety's was on the corner of Seymour and High Streets and the hotel was on the corner of Henry and High Streets.

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