Rowland Winn 1871-1959
An Early Motor Car Enthusiast

Rowland WinnWhen motor cars first appeared on the roads in the 1890s they were viewed with great suspicion and fiercely opposed by horse-owners and rail and tram companies. Initially classed as locomotives, their speed limit was 4 miles an hour and a man with a red flag had to walk well in front to warn other road-users. Their future seemed deeply uncertain, but one young man in Leeds, Rowland Winn, was fired with enthusiasm for this new form of transport and for the business opportunities it offered.

Rowland Winn was born in 1871, the third son in a family of nine children. From modest beginnings his father had built up a successful practice as an architect, but Rowland chose not to follow in his footsteps – he had a mechanical bent and was determined to pursue it. When he left Leeds Modern School he was apprenticed to a firm of hydraulic engineers, then took a variety of jobs working with engines, building up his expertise. In 1892, just 21, he persuaded two friends to join him in renting a cellar in Cookridge Street where they made and repaired cycles during the day and worked on engines in the evenings. He soon bought his friends out (for £7.19s) and set up on his own, but money was tight and his father was dismissive of Rowland’s wild dreams of a career with these new-fangled machines. But he persevered, built up the business, and by 1899 had become the first agent in Leeds for a range of cars from home and abroad – Levassor, Benz, De Dion, Daimler. His success meant he could move to larger premises behind the Town Hall.

These cars were expensive, catering for a luxury market where his specialist knowledge and skills were highly valued. Rowland began to offer driving lessons to potential owners, and thought up stunts to publicise and popularise this exciting new mode of transport – he drove an Oldsmobile up and down the Town Hall steps; he borrowed Ernest Beckett’s ‘Gladiator car’, bedecked in flowers, for his wedding in 1902; he drove across Woodhouse Moor and was convicted of speeding ‘furiously’ at 12 mph; and wherever he went he attracted attention with his musical horn. He acquired a national reputation as a driver and car expert, taking part in rallies and competitions across the country. In 1900 he lectured to the Leeds Association of Engineers on ‘Modern Motor Vehicles’, foreseeing a time when increased demand would mean cheaper cars for the common man – and the possible advantages of cars powered by electricity instead of ‘spirit’.

In 1903 an Act was passed which recognised the motor car as a new form of transport, introduced licensing, and raised the speed limit to 20mph. Rowland acquired the first Leeds license – U1 – which he gave to his friend Arthur Currer Briggs when he was elected Lord Mayor; it has remained the Lord Mayor’s number ever since. In the same year of 1903 Henry Ford started producing the low-priced Model T Ford – motoring for the masses. Rowland Winn was the first and sole Ford distributor in Yorkshire, and took full advantage of the rapid expansion of the market for cars in the years prior to the First World War. His business boomed, and he and his wife Lucy moved upmarket to Headingley, first to 1 Alma Road and later Oakwood House, Claremont Road. During the First World War he took on an official role to introduce motorised tractors into Yorkshire agriculture, which won him an MBE.

In the 1920s and 30s his company continued to expand and prosper, now with imposing showrooms and workshops in Woodhouse Lane (where the Merrion Centre stands now), with tempting displays of glittering new cars. Meanwhile he took on various public roles, serving as a Councillor (Conservative) for 29 years and as Lord Mayor in 1939, on the verge of war. Though now in his seventies he was active in organising essential wartime transport services in Leeds. One of his personal interests was the Leeds Children’s Holiday Camp at Silverdale, near Morecombe, founded in 1904, to which he donated £15,000. The camp still provides deprived and disadvantaged children from Leeds with free holidays in beautiful surroundings.

In the 1950s he retired from public and business life, and in 1956, 3 years before he died, he was awarded the Freedom of the City in recognition of his contribution to the city’s life and prosperity. 

Eveleigh Bradford
June 2014