The greatest missing link of all? AUTOCAR – The first modern traction

A ‘missing link’ between the steam age and modern traction – and as historically important as Trevithick’s locomotives or Stephenson’s Rocket – will debut in the coming weeks as the culmination of a ground-breaking 15-year project. Words and photographs by Andrew Rapacz.

In the coming weeks, a long-lost but key vehicle in the history of railways worldwide will enter service for the first time in the heritage era – the North Eastern Railway Autocar.

The Edwardian period came to be regarded as an age of significant changes in technology.

December 1902 saw the first radio signal transmitted from North America to Great Britain. The following year heralded the Ford Model A, the first car to be produced by Ford, in Detroit, and Orville Wright flew an aircraft with a petrol engine in the first documented and successful powered flight.

A view from November of last year, when glazing for the driver’s compartment had yet to be fitted.

The petrol engine also featured in another significant, but less well known event. The NER introduced the world’s first electric railcar, powered by its own on board petrol engine. This fact was acknowledged earlier this year by Guinness World Records.

Known as an ‘autocar’, a term which has not survived the passage of time, the survivor was one of two built in 1903 by the NER. It took the contemporary steam railmotor concept – in which a steam bogie was fitted inside a carriage body – one stage further, by using an internal combustion engine rather than steam. The same year, the GWR introduced the first of 99 steam railmotors, four years after the LSWR had introduced them on its network.

The autocar is priceless in terms of the story of the evolution of railway rolling stock. It paved the way for diesel railcars and then DMUs, which today comprise a sizeable proportion of passenger trains worldwide.

The rebuilt NER autocar will enter heritage railway service towards autumn of this year, but in a compromise to current standards, it will be powered by a modern diesel engine as opposed to a reproduction of the petrol engine it was originally built with.

Oh, and 1903 was also the year Typhoo, that well known brand of tea, was launched.

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