S.F. Edge, Maker of Motoring History

by Simon Fisher

“The last ten years of his life, in reduced circumstances, although not poor, and in failing health, must have been a sad and frustrating time for him, alleviated only by the joys of fatherhood and the support of his second wife. But all said and done, he clearly made a huge contribution to the development of the motor industry in Britain and to motor sports in its early years and deserves to be remembered.”

Want to meet a dynamic, engaged man who, though strongly opinionated, conducted himself honorably (though not always popularly) following his precepts? His appearance was striking and he was always well-groomed and -turned out and remained fit, trim and athletic over his life’s span of 72 years.

Some attempted to label him the founder or father of the British automotive industry which wasn’t quite true. That distinction belongs to Frederick Richard Simms (1863–1944) who was friendly with Gottlieb Daimler and who, in company with Robert Bosch, had developed and set up British manufacturing facilities for magnetos and played a key part financing and establishing automobile organizations in the UK that helped smooth the way for the company D Napier & Son to produce and offer for sale a British-built motorcar.

If you start reading the book from the front, as civilized people do, you’d find an “Appreciation” by an eminent contemporary of Edge’s, Sammy Davis. He closes by saying “the character of the man fitted the face.” Well, even if you’re a phrenologist, that could mean anything.
You might as well start your reading here, at the end of the book. The mere fact that there is a feature called “Scorecard” is a clue that things are not simple: . . . bombastic . . . opinionated . . . lack of tact . . . inflexible . . . took people to court left and right. But he also had several lifelong friends, was popular with his employees, and gave others a leg up in life, sports, and business. [ED]

That last bit circles us back to our dynamic, engaged, opinionated man: Selwyn Francis Edge by name, the subject of this biography. He preferred for those with whom he competed in bicycle races, then motorized bike and tricycle races (riders allowed to pedal to assist motors), and then in real motorcar competitions, to simply call him SF. 

Those motorcar competitions came about as a result of SF involving himself with D Napier & Son in sales, marketing, and management capacities. A believer in the yet to be coined “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday” phrase, Edge lost little time engaging in competitive driving events. From today’s perspective, the biggest headline achievement was bringing his Napier mount home first in the 1902 Gordon-Bennett competition. Yet, as this most readable book shares it was only due to SF’s stubborn perseverance overcoming obstacles to which his fellow competitors had surrendered that he and riding mechanic, his cousin Cecil Edge, prevailed.

At the wheel, Dorothy Levitt, 21 years old. It was her “long legs and eyes like a pool” that caught SF’s eye when she was temping as his secretary. Ever the salesman he seized upon the PR value of having a woman do what heretofore only men had done so he arranged for her to learn to drive. That she turned out to be a natural was just a bonus and that she won her class at the 1903 Southport Speed Trials positively shocked society. [ED]

Edge was a prolific letter writer his entire life reasoning, in the words of a fellow racing cyclist who was managing director for a time of De Dion-Bouton Ltd, and author of The World on Wheels (published 1926) H O (Herbert Osbaldston) Duncan, that “Everything was confirmed by letter. If it only contained two or three words, it was to the point and there it remained if wanted at anytime.” SF himself is quoted by Duncan to have explained “I might forget what I said, whereas on reference to what was written, no-one can misconstrue my meaning.” Then too, as this book’s author, Simon Fisher, observes the many letters SF wrote to the press over the years were “a form of self-publicity, the advantage being that it was free.

Not all with whom SF corresponded were favorably impressed. SF tangled with no less a personage than he who would eventually become P.M. and subsequently be knighted as well, Winston Churchill. Fisher explains those details as he does also of what can only be described as some of Edge’s more convoluted and inter-related business dealings such as a practice apparently common in the UK called “floating,” essentially a way of raising capital. More entertaining reading. 

Fisher doesn’t neglect telling his readers about Edge’s personal life. We meet SF’s first wife Eleanor. That union had been childless and ended after 22 years following a four year separation with Eleanor’s death from pneumonia. Prior to the outbreak of World War I Edge had established himself as a “Gentleman Farmer” as the chapter of that name describes it. He had hired a personal assistant, Myra Catherine Martin, whom he wed three years later. By all accounts they were well and happily matched and when Myra subsequently gave birth two years apart to two daughters, SF delighted in his fatherhood.

For an engaging read about a man who incontrovertibly left his mark on early British motoring, manufacturing and racing alike, you are highly commended to S.F. Edge, Maker of Motoring History. 

S.F. Edge, Maker of Motoring History
by Simon Fisher
Evro Publishing, 2022    [in US: Quarto]
192 pages, 156 b/w images, hardcover
appendices, bibliography, chapter end notes, index
List Price: $65
ISBN 13: 978 1 910505 79 3

RSS Feed - Comments

Leave a comment

(All comments are moderated: you will see it, but until it's approved no one else will.)