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SNAPSHOT 42: Stephens 1900

Whilst fairly obviously it is an early motor vehicle that is pictured here, the make is probably not one that instantly springs to mind when seeing its image, although since this Stephens Hackney Cab survives, it is perhaps somewhat better known than other pioneer motorcars that have long since disappeared.

Richard Stephens was a cycle maker in the seaside town of Clevedon in Somerset who in 1898 produced one of the earliest all-British motorcars – and it was not a mere copy of those Continental designs that had preceded it. Cycle manufacture more or less dictated that a tubular steel chassis was used and the horizontal parallel twin-cylinder engine could have been inspired by Peugeot power units.  In addition, the belt primary drive and side-chain transmission were already well-known systems, but Stephens had his own ideas about how all these elements should be combined.

Furthermore, his use of independent suspension for the front wheels was a bold and imaginative decision. There were others who had previously employed this means of suspending the steered wheels, but although we can these days readily identify them it was unlikely that when constructing his first vehicle that Stephens was aware of its earlier use, and the appearance on the scene at about the same time of the little Decauville voiturelle that was similarly suspended was simply a coincidence.

Several Hackney Carriages were built to the same pattern as the prototype vehicle although with increased seating capacity, and one example became the first mechanically powered Cab on the streets of Bath.  Others, as in this case, plied for excursion hire in the Clevedon area with Cheddar Gorge being a popular destination – a 15-mile journey each way that cost £1 per head for the passengers.  A visit to Gough’s Cave in the Gorge, which as the sign says had been discovered on November the 12th 1898, was a ‘must do’ for the tourists and for many their day out would not only have given them their first ride on a motorcar, but seeing the cave’s stalactites and stalagmites electrically illuminated would have been an additional novelty.

Richard Stephens made about a dozen vehicles in total and then continued in the garage and car hire business.  His son, also Richard, had learnt to drive on the 1898 prototype and he used it for many years in appropriate old car events.  It also survives.


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