Manchester’s Steam Wagon Pioneers: Simpson and Bodman

Following the Locomotives on Highways Act of 1896 motorised vehicles could legally travel above 4mph, and using them for commercial purposes suddenly became possible. One of the first to try and exploit this potential was Manchester firm Simpson and Bodman. They introduce themselves in The Engineer, June 1897:

“as a carriage builder who for the last eighteen months has been engaged, in conjunction with an engineer, on a series of investigations into the form most suitable to produce a commercial van and lorry suitable for the goods transport met with so largely in Lancashire.”

Their experimentation took place in a workshop in Didsbury, with “4 or 5 workmen” and a mysterious, but handy “adequate supply of money”. They spent their time testing various designs and types of power in order to ultimately create a vehicle that was “more useful and economical than horse or rail.”

Simpson and Bodman Steam Wagon c.1900
Simpson and Bodman Steam Wagon c.1900

They arrived at a steam powered vehicle that looked like the above as late as 1899, 3 years after starting the venture. They had planned to publicise their new vehicle by entering it in the 1899 Liverpool Heavy Traffic Trials, but sadly they didn’t finish in time. The Autocar from the 5 August 1899 reports:

“but for sickness in their works, and one or two other unfortunate occurrences at the new factory [now in Cornbrook], which has been only recently instituted, they would undoubtedly have kept their engagement”

The next we hear of Simpson and Bodman is their celebration of Queen Victoria’s 81st birthday on 24th May 1900, which you can see pictured below. Temporary seating was added to vehicles and the 38 members of staff were taken on a 30 mile trip from the works in Cornbrook. They travelled through Sale and Altrincham, stopping for lunch at The Swan in Bollington, before returning back to Manchester. You can just about make out the Union Jacks and the Queen’s portrait on the front.

Queen Victoria's 81st Birthday celebrations at Simpson and Bodman
Queen Victoria’s 81st Birthday celebrations at Simpson and Bodman

The partnership was not to last, Bodman parted ways with Simpson in late 1900 to join the Milwaukee Automobile Co. with the aim to develop heavy steam vehicles in the US. However the Milwaukee Automobile Co. didn’t last long, going bust in July 1902. It is not known what happened to Bodman afterwards.

Simpson carried on the business, teaming up with an engineer called Bibby, forming Simpson and Bibby. This company continued producing commercial vehicles until at least 1904.

If you are interested in The Engineer, there are several volumes dating back to the lat 19th century at the Museum of Science and Industry archives, while The Autocar forms part of Manchester Centre Library Special Collections.


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