The Story of William Woodley and the World’s First Mass-Produced Car

In this article, I explore the history of a ‘Benz Velo Comfortable’ motor car, which once resided in the village of Beedon. This vehicle was once owned by William Woodley and I discuss why, on the face of it, he seemed an unlikely man to become a motorist. I describe his preparations for a motor house, his first drive home, a trapped motorist, and an unusual repurposing of this vehicle. I conclude by detailing what finally happened to this car.

The Benz Velo Car Described

The car is described as follows:

‘Benz single cylinder 3 hp motor car, 1900, with accessories. This car was built by Benz & Co of Mannheim in 1900, and is of a type of which over 4000 were made between 1895 and 1900. The mechanism consists of a single cylinder horizontal motor, with a transverse shaft, placed over the rear axle; this drives, by pulleys and belts, a counter-shaft which is connected with the driving wheels by chains.’ [1]

Benz Velo Comfortable | Side Elevation Drawings

This model of Benz was the ‘world’s first…large-scale production [vehicle] and at the same time the first small car.’ [2] However, one can be forgiven for doubting that Woodley would ever consider owning a vehicle.

An Unlikely Owner

Woodley’s writings in the British Bee Journal and the Bee-keepers’ Record show his aversion to the horseless carriage. In 1907 he writes:

William Woodley portrait circa 1909.
William Woodley portrait circa 1909.

‘The Motor Nuisance. — I have often wondered why bee-keepers never refer to the nuisance which these horseless carriages are to those bee-keepers who live on a main road, where motors pass every few minutes, raising clouds of dust, which must of necessity settle in the nectaries of flowers in gardens, in the hedgerows, and for some distance in the fields adjoining the roads in question. Another injury is done to bee-keepers by the road authorities, who now cut many of the hedges down close to the banks, so that motorists can see each other coming. A few years ago these were white with blossom at the beginning of June, now there is practically no May bloom, while some farmers and land agents also closely cut every hedgerow and boundary, which still further curtails our breadth of forage.’ [3]

His feelings didn’t soften a year later and refers to motorists as ‘petrol fiends [who] had disturbed the quietude and freshness of our sylvan highways.’ [4]

It seems that that the proximity of Woodley’s home and apiary to a main road, also known as the Oxford Road, probably had much to do with his opposition to motor vehicles. Indeed, audio recordings of the Benz Velo Comfortable suggest it was a noisy vehicle and I would speculate the cars of that era were equally loud. [5] It might be safe to conclude that traffic noise at that time could be quite unpleasant.

The Motor House

On 27 February 1906, Woodley writes to his landlord at the Estate Office in Ardington to seek permission to construct an entrance in the wall (fronting the highway) and to ‘put a small motor house behind the shrubs’. Woodley explains that he is thinking about ‘having a small run about motorcar.’ The Estate Office grants permission, on condition the wall is reinstated should he leave the house, that is to say give up the tenancy. [6]

It seems perplexing why Woodley purchased a motor car when he considered them to be a nuisance. Charles Heap sheds some light on this conundrum, he writes about his visit to Beedon, during the summer of 1910, that Woodley ‘found [a car] necessary to keep since he established an out-apiary some miles from Beedon.’ [7] However, the out-apiary wasn’t a recent creation, it was established in 1890, so one wonders why a car was necessary in 1910? It is worth noting that Woodley would have been 65 years old when Heap met him, so maybe he wasn’t so capable of attending his out-apiary, which was two miles away, without the aid of a motor car.

We can describe the motor house thanks to a some surprising records. Firstly, we can approximate when it was built. A new outbuilding appears on the 1912 ordnance survey maps within the boundary of Woodley’s home; it is absent from 1899 edition. [8] As many cars during this time were open-topped, it is presumed that the Benz was purchased once the garage had been constructed. We know he was driving the car in 1910 and held a driving licence before 1909.[9, 10] If one presupposes this outbuilding was built after Woodley received permission from the Estate Office, we can speculate that the motor house was constructed between 1906 and 1908. Drawings made by the County Surveyor in the1955 suggest that this outbuilding had a footprint of 3m x 3m, and this seems ample room for a vehicle. [11]

Secondly, we have a visual representation of the motor house (see video). The watercolourist, Mary Somerville Elwes, made a painting of the property, and this shows a blue-coloured outbuilding adjacent to the frontage which is positioned where the ordnance survey map indicates a new outbuilding. [12] The exact date of this painting is unknown but it is likely to have been created in the late 1940s because Elwes was living in the nearby town during that period. [13]

The First Drive Home

Woodley buys the Benz in Oxford. [14] Oxfordshire County Council’s Vehicle Taxation Register confirms the owner of a vehicle as ‘W. Woodley, Beedon, Newbury’, and the car was assigned the registration number ’37’; sadly this document does not provide us with a date. [15] Mr Woodley renews his driving licence in March 1909, which suggests he received his first licence prior to that date and likewise one could speculate that he purchased the car before 1909. [16]

William Woodley Driving His Benz Velo Comfortable

Generally, Benz Velo Comfortable cars seem to require a lot of attention to keep them operational. An article in ‘The Automobile’ magazine describes the problems of another owner:

‘Even when running well on a level road the Benz could do no more than 15 miles per hour and progress was hampered by the need to replenish water and fuel supplies at three-mile intervals, by problems with the drive belts and by having no lights.’ [17]

The story goes that Woodley purchased the car from Oxford and took a route home which avoided traversing hills, although it is difficult to see how one could travel from Oxford to Worlds End, Beedon, without encountering hills. Unfortunately, the vehicle ran out of petrol at Langley, a place a few miles from Worlds End; it is unknown how he got his car home or where he obtained petrol to refuel it. [18]

Benz Velo At Beedon

The last mention of Woodley using his car is in 1911, he writes:

‘On Saturday, January 28th, we had a beautiful day, more like May or June than January, every hive in the home apiary was in full force, some gathering natural pollen, and after lunch I ran the car up to my out apiary and found every stock alive and on the wing in goodly numbers.’ [19]

The car finds its way into the possession of Elizabeth Goodman, the daughter of William Woodley, who lived at Beedon Hill House. It is unknown when this takes place, but in 1911 Woodley renews his driving licence for another year, perhaps pointing to 1912 when the car changes hands. [20] The vehicle register was not updated to reflect Goodman’s ownership of the car. This might suggest the new owner had been remiss in not informing Oxfordshire County Council, or perhaps that the car was not being used on the public highway. In addition, no evidence has been found that either Mr or Mrs Goodman had a driving licence. [21] The stories about the car during Elizabeth Goodman’s ownership, support the idea that the car was no longer fit for travelling. One story is that the car tipped-over at Beedon Hill, trapping her husband underneath. [22] Consequently, it needed repairing and interestingly, this was done by Mr Armstrong, the local blacksmith. [23] Another story was the car was used to cut up mangel-wurzels, although one wonders if this meant the car powered a machine to carry out such a task. [24] Indeed, one owner of a Benz Velo ‘intend[ed] to use its engine to drive a chaff-cutter.’ [25]

A New Owner

On the 27 July 1912 the Board of Education from the Science Museum writes to Elizabeth Goodman

‘Your name among others has been given to the Board by the Secretary of the Motor Museum as having in your possession an early Benz car that you are willing to dispose of.’ [26]

It is not known how the Board became aware that Elizabeth would be willing to ‘dispose of’ her car, although the most likely scenario might have been through a newspaper advertisement which she responded to.

The Museum purchased the Benz Velo Comfortable, and although a receipt dated 11 September 1912 confirms that the purchase took place, it does not state the price both parties settled on. [27] A letter believed to be from Mrs Goodman, probably written in July 1912, proposes to the Museum a figure of between £4 – £5, however one author states that the car was sold for £10. [28] How the car made its way to the Museum is unknown, but Mrs Goodman makes a suggestion, ‘we are 3 miles from Hermitage Station and I would put the car on rail.’ [29]

Today the Science Museum still owns the car and it is on loan to the National Motor Museum. [30] The Benz Velo Comfortable now resides at Beaulieu and is on display to the public. [31]

In Conclusion

It was the make and model of this car that made it worthy enough to be saved for the nation; this vehicle represents the first mass-produced car and the first small car.

It is difficult to reconcile logically how Woodley could consider motor cars to be a nuisance, yet he becomes an owner of one. Nonetheless, he leaves us with some useful written records which informs us about the attitudes to motor cars and how to prepare for getting one.

With the vehicle passing into the hands of Elizabeth Goodman, we are reminded that at this point in time cars were just as likely to be repaired by blacksmiths than mechanics, and that driving one was not without its dangers, albeit of tipping over. How Mrs Goodman and the Science Museum became aware of each other is unknown, but thankfully, the fact that they did means we can still see her Benz Velo Comfortable today.



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End Notes

1 Science Museum Group. Benz motor car. 1912-264 Science Museum Group Collection Online. Accessed 6 January 2022. https://collection.sciencemuseumgroup.org.uk/objects/co24628/benz-motor-car-private-car.
2 C. Danielson, ‘eMercedesBenz Feature:  The World’s First Production Car, The Benz Patent Motor Car Velocipede Of 1894’, Daimler AG. 12 September 2008, [https://web.archive.org/web/20150324020255/http://www.emercedesbenz.com/Sep08/12_001387_eMercedesBenz_Feature_The_Worlds_First_Production_Car_The_Benz_Patent_Motor_Car_Velocipede_Of_1894.html].
3 W. Woodley, ‘NOTES BY THE WAY’, British Bee Journal, British Bee Journal 1907, 35 (6 June 1907), 223.
4 W. Woodley, ‘PRACTICAL NOTES’, – Bee-keepers’ Record and Advisor, September, 26:224 (2008), 125.
5 BBC Sound Effects, ‘VETERAN CARS Benz Comfortable 1900 Open Top’, British Broadcasting Corporation, Vinyl Record, Sound Studio Suite Set 1, ECS 4M4.
6 William Woodley to Col. J. Colebrook Carter, 27 February 1906, Lockinge Estate Archive.
7 Charles Heap, ‘WILLIAM WOODLEY AT HOME’, Bee-Keepers’ Record, 29: 253 (1911), 23-24.
8 Ordnance Survey, ‘1912 County Series’, My House History, 2007, 1:1200 Scale Map of Worlds End, Berkshire,
9 Charles Heap, ‘WILLIAM WOODLEY AT HOME’, p.24.
10 Berkshire County Council, ‘PROVISIONAL LIST 1: Register of renewals of [driving licences?] under the Motor Car Act 1903.’ Berkshire Record Office, (1909), BCC uncat. 15, vol. 1, p. 6.

N.B. Berkshire Record Office driving licence records begin from 1909.
11 K P Brow, County Surveyor., ‘Beedon: A34, from south of World’s End to top of Beedon Hill, reconstruction, 14 April 1955’, Berkshire Record Office, C/CL/L2/551/6.
12 M. S. Elwes, Watercolour Painting of Garden Cottage, Worlds End, Beedon.
13 Voter Register, ‘COUNTY OF BERKS – NEWBURY DIVISION – POLLING DISTRICT NEWBURY (S) – NEWBURY (NORTH WARD)’, 22 Donnington Square, 1121.
14 Iris Lloyd, ‘Homespun The Beedon Book’, (Beedon Beedon Book Committee, 2002), p. 178.
15 Oxfordshire County Council, ‘1903 – 1934 Motor Tax Books’, Oxfordshire History Centre, Reel MTIII/i.
16 Berkshire County Council, ‘PROVISIONAL LIST 1: Register of renewals of [driving licences?] under the Motor Car Act 1903.’, Berkshire Record Office, p. 6.
17 The Automobile, ‘Restoration Special Selection: The history and restoration of a 1898 Benz Velo Comfortable’, 4: 7 (1986), p. 52.
18 Iris Lloyd, ‘Homespun The Beedon Book’, p. 178.
19 William Woodley, ‘Notes By The Way’, British Bee Journal 39 (1911), 54
20 Berkshire County Council, ‘Draft register of new motor car numbers.
([BL] 9001-9999; MO 21-107. This volume was originally used as a register of letters received, 1910-1911. The draft register of identification marks was entered on loose sheets which were them pasted over the old register entries.)’, BCC uncat. 148, Wednesday 8 March 1911.
21 Ibid.
22 Paul Goodman, Science Museum, London to Mr V. J. Pocock, 18 February 1987, letter with handwritten annotations by Pocock attributing W B Goodman as man trapped under car, private collection.

23 Ibid.
24 Ibid.
25 The Automobile, ‘Restoration Special Selection: The history and restoration of a 1898 Benz Velo Comfortable’, p. 54.
26 F. G. Ogilvie (The Science Museum) to E. A. Goodman, 27 July 1912, unpublished letter.
27 H. Lyons (The Science Museum) to E. A. Goodman, 11 September 1912, unpublished receipt.
28 E. A. Goodman to F. G. Ogilvie (The Science Museum), July 1912, unpublished letter.
29 Ibid
30 Science Museum Group. Benz motor car. 1912-264Science Museum Group Collection Online. Accessed 29 January 2022. https://collection.sciencemuseumgroup.org.uk/objects/co24628/benz-motor-car-private-car.
31 ‘Benz Velo – The National Motor Museum Trust‘ (The National Motor Museum Trust, 2022) https://nationalmotormuseum.org.uk/vehicle-collection/benz-velo/ accessed 29 January 2022.