The Argyll Motor Works, also known as the Torpedo Factory and more recently Loch Lomond Outlets and now Lomond Galleries, has dominated the north end of Alexandria for the past century.
The building behind the impressive and palatial 540-foot frontage built of red sandstone from Dumfries, Aberdeen granite, and Italian marble, with its clock tower surmounted by a golden dome that could be seen for miles, began life in 1905 as offices and workshops for the flourishing Argyll Motors Limited. It took fourteen months to build and equip at a cost of £220,000 and was the largest car factory outside the United States.
Argyll Motors Limited started in Bridgeton, Glasgow, first as a private concern, then as the Hozier Engineering Company. Its chairman, W. A. Smith, and its managing director, Alexander Govan, had joined forces in 1889 after Govan had spent several years experimenting with the internal combustion engine. Both were convinced of the great future of the motor car
Competition from foreign cars was fierce, but at the Glasgow International Exhibition of 1901 their Argyll car went through a five-day trial without losing a mark and achieved the distinction of being the only car in its class to do so. The car went from strength to strength, winning many awards and accolades in the next few years, including the John o' Groats to Land's End record of 42 hours and 5 minutes.
Between 1901 and 1906 the Company's business expanded thirty-fold. Extension of the Bridgeton works made the production of 25 cars a week possible, but such was the public demand for Argyll cars that a new company had to be formed.
A new site of 53 acres was found in Alexandria, an area with an abundance of skilled male labour, most of whom were obliged to travel to Clydebank or Dumbarton for their work, and Argyll Motors Limited was born. At the time of moving to Alexandria the company was in very sound financial shape. They had built up reserves to make their stock a good solid investment. The works were planned on a large scale to enable them to expand their operations at any time. They had previously had to turn down orders of work, including building motor launches, ploughs, motor buses, taxi cabs and vans. Perhaps their greatest achievement was in building safe and reliable cars at reasonable cost suited to the average man who enjoyed motoring. The Scottish motor industry had come into its own.
The site was acquired in April 1905 and work began immediately. A railway siding with 3 branches to all parts of the site was laid from the Dumbarton and Balloch Joint Railway. This enabled building materials to be brought in quickly, and was later used to ship cars to all parts of the world. Govan designed the works himself, having visited factories throughout Europe and America. The architect was Charles James Halley of Clydebank, the builder J. Anderson and the contractor G. L. Allen. All spoke highly of the 1,000 workmen employed in the building of the factory. 5,000 tons of finished material and 11,000 tons of other material arrived at the company's siding on time. The bricklayers laid 30,000 bricks in one day; two roofs, 200 feet by 33 feet, were erected in another day. Half the frontage was built in one week. The painting shop, coach building shop and chassis shop were put up in the space of 6 weeks. At the opening ceremony one of the guests said that the works would stand as a monument to the genius of Alexander Govan.
The finished plant covered 12 acres, and was designed to be extended at any time. Surplus land was feued or sold so that the cost of the building and land could be recovered. Several streets of houses were built for the workers, many of whom had transferred from Glasgow.
Many of these streets, such as Argyll Street and Govan Drive, had names associated with the company and its founders.
The building on Main Street consists of two wings. Over the central entrance is a carving of a nymph on an Argyll car surrounded by artisans and cherubs. At the top of the marble staircase a grand corridor extends almost 100 yards each way. The North Wing housed the offices, board room, drawing office etc., the South Wing, the dining rooms, kitchen, recreation rooms, ambulance room, reading room and a hall seating 500.
All had large windows or skylights, and most had telephones. Below this corridor the store extended the entire length of the building, giving quick access to all the workshops. These were laid out at right angles to the main building, so they could be added to at any time without disrupting production.
Many recreations were encouraged and the works soon had its own orchestra, choir, ambulance class, cycling club, a football club so large it had 35 five-aside teams, a rifle club, and a magazine.
The Argyll Works were declared open by Lord Montagu of Beaulieu on Tuesday 26th June 1906. In his speech he said that the Argyll Works were the best equipped in the world and would attract a good class of workmen, and lead to the turning out of a first class article. He was confident in the future of automobilism, and he felt that the establishing of works such as these at Alexandria ensured to our nation the claim to be the great engineering home of the future.
By 1907 Argyll Motors were producing over 800 cars a year, more than any other manufacturer in Europe. The company employed at least 1,300 people, and at times as many as 2,700. Sadly, Alexander Govan died in 1907 at the age of only 38. He was succeeded as Managing Director by Colonel J. S. Matthew, and the cars continued to excel. Successful models included the Torpedo, of streamlined design, the double Phaeton and the Landaulette, a favourite with women drivers. Again the cars were innovative and good value for money.
In 1909 Colonel Matthew became interested in developing the single-sleeve valve which had been demonstrated to him by its inventor, a Glasgow engineer called Peter Burt. This was superior to the poppet valve in general use, but it proved difficult and costly to produce. Unfortunately the idea was ahead of its time, and this is where the company began to founder. A Canadian engineer had patented a similar design of valve just ahead of Burt, but the two men were able to meet and thrash out a design between them that was patented in 1909 as the Burt-McCollum single-sleeve valve engine. Around the same time, Daimler had adopted the Knight patent for a sleeve-valve engine. It took 2 years of development by Argyll's Henri Perrot before the first cars appeared with the new engines, which were judged to be very sound and practical. From 1911 to 1914 all new Argyll cars had the new engine plus many other refinements, and continued to set new records for performance.
In 1913 an Argyll 15/30 ran for 14 hours at Brooklands at an average speed of 76 miles per hour.
In 1911 Daimler took legal action against Argyll Motors Limited over patent infringements. Argyll contested and won the subsequent appeal, but the litigation cost them over £50,000. In 1914 they went into liquidation, and production ceased early in the summer. The French car manufacturers Darracq tried to take them over as a going concern, but the Bank of Scotland acting for the debenture holders refused the offer.
In 1915 J.D.Brimlow, Argyll's sales manager, took over the old Argyll Works in Bridgeton, and after the war introduced some new cars under the Argyll name. They could not compete for price with other cars then being produced in the English Midlands. Production ended in 1928, and the last Argyll Company was wound up in 1932. However, the Burt-McCollum principle in which Colonel Matthew had such faith was finally adopted by the Bristol Aeroplane Company and was a great success in both commercial and military aircraft until the coming of the jet.
When war broke out in August 1914, the Admiralty took over the former Argyll Works in Alexandria as a munitions factory, employing many of the car workers. Although industrial relations at Argyll's had been good, some of the men had become very militant. They were sacked by the Admiralty and some found employment on Clydeside. The Munitions Works became known locally as the Gun Works and to the north a building was erected for processing Lyddite for shells. This made the workers come out canary yellow. The munitions were run out of the Works on bogies and stored in Argyll Park.
During the depression a silk factory occupied the Works for a short time, but for many years the buildings stood empty. Unemployment in the Vale rose to 68 per cent.
Then, in 1935, with the rearmament programme the Royal Navy returned and the Works became a torpedo factory until 1969. It is often still called the Torpedo Factory although production ceased almost 4 decades ago
Hopes were raised in the Vale when in 1971, Plessey bought the factory for £650,000 for an electronic production unit. They closed within a year, intending to move the equipment to Ilford in Essex. The workers occupied the factory and released machinery only on the understanding that the site would be used as an industrial estate. Lyon-Plessey Developments tried to attract new industries to the estate with little success. The factory was sold to a company that called itself Alexandria Industrial Estates, in reality three brothers, Messrs Gruscot, who had a jeweller's business in London. James Parr & Sons of Glasgow managed it for them but the building lay empty and in a state of disrepair for many years.
The then Dumbarton District Council, concerned about the serious deterioration of this listed building, served a repairs notice on the owners in 1985, asking them to carry out eight major repairs at a cost of £7,000 to keep the building wind and watertight. Nothing was done, and although the council was empowered to carry out the repairs itself and charge the owners, or to put a compulsory purchase order on the building, it was unable to afford to do either, even though the building was raised from B to A listed, which could generate more governmental subsidy.
In 1986 the Argyll Group Plc expressed an interest in developing the site, converting the offices to luxury flats, renovating the central part for use as a museum and building a supermarket to the rear. Again nothing happened, and time and the weather continued to take their toll. What had once been the pride of the Vale was now an eyesore as it rapidly deteriorated. A local group was formed in the hope of coming up with a plan to save the Argyll building, many believing an industrial museum would be an ideal solution, but it was to be another long wait before a rescue plan became evident.
In the late nineties a company called Gilpro took over the restoration of the building and after a considerable amount of work and money had been spent on the project, Loch Lomond Factory Outlets was officially opened to the public in 1997 by HRH the Princess Royal.
The building only consists of the front-facing part of the building now, with the rear buildings having been demolished some years ago; the copper dome gleams once again and the marble staircase has been completely replaced
The basement housed a motoring museum until 2007, exhibiting many original Argyll Motors and telling the full history of this once booming industry.
The ground and upper floors now consist of factory outlets and have also at various points housed a creche, a bar and a restaurant, although many of the shops, the creche and the bar have since closed.
Many locals fear for the fortunes of the building as many of the outlets have only been filled for short periods at a time and many feel it would be a great pity to see this great example of architecture fall once again into disrepair after such a spectacular restoration.