Brief Company History
For 77 years The Motor Rail and Tramcar Company Ltd. (MRTC) and its successors produced a highly innovative and successful range of tramcars and small internal combustion locomotives, thousands of which were sold in the U.K. and in many other parts of the world.
The Early Development
The company founder, John Abbott, had interests in the East India Tramways Company, who were operating horse trams. In 1907 experimental work began on a scheme to motorise these trams using petrol engines combined with mechanical and later electrical transmission. This resulted in a patent application (British Patent No. 18314/09) in 1909 by John Abbott’s son, John (Jack) Dixon Abbott, for the “Simplex” gearbox. This simple yet rugged design utilised three parallel gear shafts, providing forward and reverse gears in two speeds.
A Tramcar of the East India Tramways, as built by MRTC.
The Motor Rail & Tramcar Co. Ltd. was formed in 1911 and the first meeting of the directors, Mr. John Abbott (chairman) and accountant Mr. George Gale, took place at the registered office at 79 Lombard St., London. At this meeting George Gale was appointed company secretary at a salary of £100 per annum. John Abbott took one thousand shares in the new company, with George Gale taking one hundred. The intention of the new company was to manufacture and sell railcars and tramcars utilising petrol engines and the Simplex gearbox. The first vehicles were built at the Phoenix Ironworks at Lewes, Sussex. The arrangements for the use of these works cannot have been ideal because by 1914 the company was looking for new premises and several enquiries were made and sites visited. However, at a board meeting of October 1914 it was agreed that in view of the uncertainty of matters generally created by the war, the idea of a new works was to be abandoned for the present. However, the matter became urgent in 1916 after a meeting with the consulting engineers of the War Office, Messrs. Rendall, Palmer & Tritton. The War Office required “Petrol Trench Tractors” of 600-mm gauge that were capable of drawing 10 to 15 Tons at 5 miles per hour and the MRTC tendered for and was successful in gaining a contract to build the Tractors.
John Abbott had visited Germany in about 1911 and was alarmed at the stockpiles of light railway equipment for army use, including internal combustion locomotives. Worried that there was no British equivalent for use on temporary military supply railways, he set about designing such a machine. The first tractor was produced in 1915. John’s sons, Tom Dixon Abbott and John Dixon Abbott were also involved in the design of the so-called Simplex Tractor, and indeed they jointly submitted a patent application for the Tractor (No. 127399) in 1918.
Early in 1916 the MRTC entered into an agreement with the Bedford Engineering Company to use its premises at Houghton Road, Bedford and by May of that year had also opened its own office at 33 Houghton Road. John Abbott died on the 23rd of August 1916 and his eldest son, John Dixon Abbott was elected to the office of Chairman. The younger son, Tom Dixon Abbott had joined the board only a month before the death of his father. John remained as Chairman until 1957 and Tom would be actively involved until 1963.
Most of the workforce at Bedford was shared between locomotive and crane manufacture and the first Simplex Tractor produced at Bedford took 3 months to produce, but by the end of the year they could produce 20-25 per week using a workforce of less than 20. Tractors could be produced at this rate primarily due to the subcontracting of major parts manufacture. All major parts except the frame were bought in and final assembly took place at Bedford Engineering. Deliveries continued through 1917 and 1918, with over 700 tractors of 20 Horsepower and 40 Horsepower types delivered in 1918. At the start of 1918, a new site was purchased in Bedford, this being a former laundry in Elstow Road. Later that year, it was also possible to purchase further land at the front of the works, including the access road, and land at the rear including a rear access point. The company office moved to 16 Elstow Road in January. The first full batch of locos to be produced at the new works comprised works number 1642 onwards.
The following year John Dixon Abbott resigned from his post of General Manager, becoming Consulting Engineer to the company, a post that he retained during all his remaining years as Chairman. The post of General Manager was subsequently shared between Tom Dixon Abbott and a new appointee to the board, Alexander Harris-Brown.