Liver 3.5 hp Phaeton, 1900

Accession number 1998.25

old fashioned motor car as described in the text, open topped with red leather seats and large spoke wheels

This early motor car was manufactured by the William Lea Motor Co Ltd of Birkenhead and Liverpool. It is not known how many cars Lea produced but this is the only known survivor. ‘The Autocar’ magazine of 1 June 1901 reported that the cars were in brisk demand because of their elegance, ease of handling and reasonable prices.

According to the 'Motor Car Journal' of September 1900 the car could carry four people at a speed from one to eighteen miles an hour. It was also reputed to be able to carry passengers up a gradient of one-in-four - a proud boast for such an early example of car manufacturing.

The name ‘phaeton’ means light, four wheeled carriage and the car body is very reminiscent of a horse drawn carriage. The engine is a Benz horizontal single-cylinder, 1045cc with transmission by belts giving two forward speeds plus ‘Crypto’ extra low gear with final drive by side chains. Steering is by a tiller and the car has solid rubber tyres.

It is unknown who owned the car for most of its early life. It was found in poor condition in the 1930s and restored to running order by a member of the Veteran Car Club. The car was driven in the London to Brighton run six times in the 1960s. It was sold to a Dutch enthusiast in the early 1970s who took it on its final run in 1974. National Museums Liverpool purchased the Liver Phaeton from the Paul Moebius collection, through Christie’s, London in 1997.


The Great Port gallery at the Museum of Liverpool.

William Lea

William Lea was a pioneer of the motor industry in the North West. In the 1890s, the infancy of the motorcar industry, he was the sole agent for Benz cars in the area and established the 'Liver Motor Car Depot and School of Automobilism' at the entrance to Birkenhead Park. He also had premises in Berry Street, Liverpool.

The depot at Birkenhead Park was huge. It was capable of moving up to fifty cars at any one time around a track inside the building. 'The Autocar' magazine of June 1st 1901 reported that:

"Mr Lea has grasped the vast possibilities of the autocar industry, with one of the largest, if not the largest, establishments of its kind in Great Britain."

By 1900 Lea was manufacturing his own cars using Benz engines.

By 1910 the William Lea Motor Co. Ltd also operated garages at 5 Slater Street, 72 Wood Street and Fleet Street in the City centre.

In December 1890 William Lea wrote a letter to the 'Motor-Car Journal' pointing out the benefits of driving a car rather than a horse and carriage. He illustrated his point by saying that a horse could not be trusted to wait outside a house while you were visiting friends but was likely to bolt or become unsettled. He also said that nobody, as yet, was likely to run off with your car, but

"perhaps some day when everyone has a motor instead of a horse, we shall have to keep a private padlock on the wheel when we go visiting or shopping."

A prophetic view of modern day motoring from 1900!

Before William Lea had entered into the car industry he operated the 'Liver Music Warehouse' in Church Street, Liverpool in 1871. It later moved to Bold Street. Publicity material from the time suggests that over 22,000 customers had been 'pleased and satisfied' with their purchases.

It is unsure why William Lea's car manufacturing business eventually failed. However his legacy lives on in the Liver Phaeton, an innovative and unique motorcar that has brought pleasure to many people in its 102 years.