IT was, you could say, love at first sight – even though the object of desire and intrigue in question was performing at a less than spectacular pace… trundling nosily along at just a few miles an hour in the wake of a chap walking in front and waving a red flag, as was the custom in those days.

The exact automobile that Swindon flour mills proprietor Ernest Skurray first laid eyes on back then, around 120 years ago, does not appear to have been recorded.

It may have been a Coventry Motette, a Duryea Motor Wagon, a Leon Bollee Tricycle or perhaps a Panhard & Levassor – either the two or four-seater model. Chances are, it was powered by a Daimler engine.

But whatever it was, it clearly took his breath away. And for a man of vision he realised that this was the future… and he wanted a piece of it.

For the heritage-minded, it is a sad day when a business, a shop, a product, a publication, a building, a club or simply a name that has weathered the sands of time for so long should suddenly vanish.

That is precisely what happened when the name of “Skurrays” disappeared almost overnight.

The UK’s longest running car dealership is no more following a buy-out from two companies… its fate sealed 117 years after Ernest Skurray – Swindon’s first petrol head – set up his pioneering business in Princes Street.

These are modern times and hard-nosed business types will have their way. However, former Skurrays Group MD Nick Plevey was bang on the money when he shrugged: “The biggest loss in all this is the loss of the Skurrays name.”

Skurrays… it is up there – or rather, was up there – with brewers Arkells, jewellery emporium Deacons and furniture merchants Gilberts as a true Swindon retail institution with roots in the Victorian era.

Ernest Clement Skurray was in his early 30s when he saw a big, bright, faster future in the shape of vehicles that may only have moved at walking pace but were powered by the combustion engine.

Horse-drawn conveyances, Ernest wasn’t slow to realise, appeared obsolete in the face of this revolutionary, potentially world changing breakthrough.

At the time Ernest was a partner in his father Frank’s business F Skurray & Son which ran the imposing, five-storey Town Flour Mills besides the Wilts & Berks Canal at Whale Bridge where Princess Street today meets Fleming Way.

The Skurray complex had its own wharf where corn was off-loaded from barges and freshly-made flour dispatched onto them.

Automobiles, though, were his thing and he acquired the first of many in 1899 – possibly becoming Swindon’s first car owner.

Just imagine the open-eyed wonder and amazement of pedestrians and fellow road users as Ernest Skurray parp-parped into town behind the wheel of a shiny open-topped auto – believed to have been a two-seater, Birmingham-built Accles-Turrell.

By then the law that stipulated horseless carriages should be preceded on the king’s highway by someone brandishing a red flag had been repealed – opening the garage door to a new breed of retail entrepreneur that we still love today… the car dealer.

Persuading his father there was more to life than flour, Skurrays converted a former chapel into a workshop-cum-showroom next to the mill – thus bringing the motor trade to Swindon.

Details are scarce but it appears ever-enterprising Ernest initially had a bash at building an automobile himself with parts from other manufacturers.

Within months of opening, a vehicle emerged from Skurrays garage fuelled by paraffin with wheels that ran on steel tyres.

Decorated to mark the 1900 Relief of Mafeking following the seven-month Boer War siege, it was the only mechanically propelled conveyance that took part in a subsequent celebratory parade through Swindon.

Ernest had also ordered six spanking new Accles-Turrells off the Brummie production line to sell in Swindon.

Boasting head-swimming speeds of more than 20mph, they were just the thing, he predicted, for well-heeled chaps who craved stylish, fashionable new modes of transportation.

A fine photo exists of Ernest Skurray and his head mechanic seated in an Accles-Turrell auto that the company used in an 1899 sales brochure soon after he entered into a contract to buy and sell them.

Picture the scenes, then, on the highways and byways of Swindon during the first few years of the 20th Century as automobiles wove their way through a plethora of horse-driven carriages and bicycles while attempting to avoid those bigger, tougher, meatier new arrivals – the trams that materialised here in 1904.

Havoc, disorder, confusion. Perhaps the occasional curse.

Decades later the company launched an advertising campaign that nostalgically evoked Edwardian days, lumping itself in with the great innovators of the era: “The Wright Brothers, Marconi Wireless… The Birth of Skurrays Vauxhall.”

Skurrays autos soon outgrew the original canal-side premises and motored uphill to roomier accommodation in Old Town, by which time Ernest had shrewdly become the auto agent for Rover, Enfield and Darracq.

A link-up with Vauxhall that lasted more than a century was also established as Skurrays proudly unveiled the 1911 C-Type Prince Henry – named in honour of Prince Henry of Prussia and considered by some the “first sports car.”

With petrol-fuelled travel rocketing, Skurrays were profitably ensconced in a grand, three-storey Georgian property in High Street next to the junction with Newport Street.

Leading steeplechase jockey Bert Gordon became a customer, buying his first vehicle there bearing the registration AM 9.

In 1926 the by then cramped, busy and outmoded premises were re-structured into a larger, showier showroom and workshop, complete with a striking, timbered mock-Tudor façade that became a much admired local landmark for the next 40 years.

Its old worlde appearance, however, was in stark contrast to the company’s reputation for keeping pace with cutting edge advances in the motor world.

By this time Skurrays were stocking some of the most coveted cars on the market made by the likes of Austin, Jaguar, Fiat, Volvo and Lancia, while also distributing batteries and tyres.

When Ernest, Swindon’s Grand Old Man of The Motor trade, died at 75 in 1940 he left a thriving business that continued, as others around the UK fell by the roadside, for another 76 years.

  •  IT was a man’s world, the motor business. At least it was supposed to be. 
    But Ernest Skurray didn’t quite see it like that.
    In the 1930s two of his four daughters Christine and Audrey became directors at a time when women were rarely involved in the auto trade.
    And during the company’s earlier years his wife is said to have become the first woman in Wiltshire to learn how to drive – proving, against all odds, that such delicate, fluffy-headed creatures were up to it.
    In 1999 Bill and Beryl Coster recalled how they began working at Skurrays when both 14 – and went onto notch-up a total of 100 years between them.
    Beryl said that as a widow Mrs Skurray, then of Bath Road, still loved motoring, even though she was too infirm to drive anymore.
    “One of the workshop staff would always take her out for a spin. She must have been in her 80s then.”
    Beryl’s job was to “file, type, make the tea and be a general dog’s body” while Bill started as an apprentice mechanic and stayed for 51 years.
    “It was a real family firm – a lovely place to work.”
  •  DESPITE diving headfirst into the fledgling motor trade Ernest Skurray remained true to the family flour business for years after his father’s death before finally selling up in 1925.
    Skurrays motors remained in the family until 1960 when it was acquired by the first of a series of owners.
    But the name, which became Skurrays Vauxhall, persevered. Eventually it operated from four premises – two in Swindon, one each in Marlborough and Oxford.
    Its eye-catching mock-Tudor Old Town showrooms were demolished in 1971 to make way for a modern, decidedly less aesthetically pleasing concrete and glass complex.
    Thirteen years later this in turn was flattened and the two-acre site now houses the Co-op.   
    The company moved to Drove Road but these premises were demolished in 2008 and the site is now occupied by another supermarket, Aldi.
    Sales were transferred to the firm’s Hillmead branch in West Swindon but following the recent buy-out the business now operates as Now Motor Retailing.
    In a second take-over, Skurrays in Oxford and Marlborough became part of the Eden Motor Group and trade as such… finally sealing the fate of one of Swindon’s longest established retail names.