The World’s First Trackless Train comes to Brighton in 1926

Preston Manor staff and Royal Pavilion & Museums conservation team and volunteers used the February half-term last week to give the rooms and furnishings a thorough overhaul.

As part of the general tidy up and deep clean a filing cabinet was opened to reveal a collection of photographs that were once the property of Mr Henry Roberts, the first curator of Preston Manor when it became a museum in 1933.

Photo showing several men gathered around a large trackless train. Brighton Dome visible in background.
World’s First Trackless Train in Brighton, 1926

One photograph in particular stood out. It shows 56 year old Henry Roberts sitting in the cab of the World’s First Trackless Train – the vehicle parked outside the Royal Pavilion showing the Brighton Dome in the background. Henry is shaking hands with an unknown man whose suit, jaunty hat and general demeanour suggest he might be one of the representatives from the Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer film company. MGM used the ‘train,’ which is actually an articulated rubbed-wheeled road vehicle faked as a train, to promote the film company.

Wherever it went the train caused a sensation and bought out huge crowds, and there was plenty to marvel at: an engine and single Pullman coach with six berths, kitchenette, diner and observation platform all lighted and heated by electricity.

The first ‘trackless train’ was manufactured by the Henry O McGee Manufacturing Company, Indianapolis in 1917 as a new venture in transport, a precursor perhaps of ideas one hundred years on about driverless vehicles.

McGee’s trackless train, as seen in this photograph, was leased by Metro-Goldwin Pictures in 1925 ahead of a three year world tour, travelling first to the US and Canada, and then in Europe, Australia, Mexico and Central and South America.

Moving images of the train visiting London and being admired by crowds and whizzing past a sedate tram can be seen in the British Pathe film archives.

The train came to Brighton in the summer of 1926, possibly June, as it was in Guildford in Surrey on 18 June where it broke down outside the Guildhall.

Although clearly summer by the full foliage on the trees note the three piece suits, ties and stout overcoats worn by the men and the school cap and blazer worn by the boy on the right – and the highly-polished shoes and hats worn by all but one bystander.

In 1926 there was a through road between the newly built India Gate (1921) and the William IV Gate with traffic passing close to the building, and part of this road is visible in the photograph. Henry Roberts was, at this time, Director of the Royal Pavilion Estate and busy overseeing the restoration of the Pavilion following its use as a military hospital between 1914 and 1920. Perhaps he hoped the appearance of the famous vehicle would draw attention to the restoration needs of a building much bruised by war use.

The train returned to the US in April 1928 after its tour thrilling the world. However, the trackless train idea never took off and the train in this picture returned to Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer and was used as a travelling motion picture studio before being sold for scrap in the build up to the Second World War.

Paula Wrightson, Preston Manor Venue Officer