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Sheppey's fascinating link with inventor Wadia Murad and the 'car which never was'


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Inventor Wadia Murad made a car that was set to take the world by storm - but it never happened.

Reporter John Nurden recalls visiting him on Sheppey and tells how the dream went on to become a nightmare.

Wadia Murad posing by his one-off Murad car at the Sheerway Works, Sheerness, Sheppey, in February 1982. Picture: Kent Evening Post
Wadia Murad posing by his one-off Murad car at the Sheerway Works, Sheerness, Sheppey, in February 1982. Picture: Kent Evening Post

It was a cold February day in 1982 when I gingerly knocked on the side door of what appeared to be an abandoned factory. "Come in," beckoned an elderly man. He was huddled in an old overcoat at a dusty deck trying to glean what warmth he could from a tiny oil heater.

It was late afternoon and the daylight was already slipping away. Inside, the factory was dark and cold. A burst water tank had knocked out all power.

Wadia Murad, who was then 81, sat in silence. A photograph taken at an office party some 30 years earlier was a reminder of happier days when he had a vision of building cars on the Isle of Sheppey.

This was how one of Britain's top war engineers had come to spend his days, in a deserted factory off Montague Road, West Minster, Sheerness. The Sheerway Works are now home to Pacific Double Glazing.

Eventually, Mr Murad stood up and led me slowly to the back of the building where, in the gloom, I could just make out the ghostly shape of a vehicle. It was surrounded by discarded bits of old machinery and hidden under a giant tarpaulin in a forlorn bid to protect it from dust and pigeon droppings.

Promotional picture of the Murad car in 1948
Promotional picture of the Murad car in 1948
Advertising for the Murad car when it was launched in 1948
Advertising for the Murad car when it was launched in 1948

The frail pensioner struggled to heave the heavy cover out of the way and then stood back so I could take in the awesome sight of the "car which never was".

This was the vehicle which had made its sensational debut at the 1947 Earls Court Motor Show in London and ran up advance orders worldwide of £5.75 million. It was light years ahead of its time with its aerodynamic design, fitted radio, integral oil-cooler, rear rubber-bonded springs, independent front suspension and air-conditioning.

The leather upholstery and noiseless door locks - said to be the envy of Rolls-Royce engineers - would have made it a winner for Britain. Its £2,000 price tag put it in the Rover and Jaguar class.

But the production lines never ran. Only one prototype was ever built and that was the one I was looking at. It had been used by Mr Murad until the early 1970s. When he was too old to drive, he kept it safely stored away, protected from the weather. Its one-of-a-kind engine had been removed.

Mr Murad stared at it and whispered: "It was beautiful to drive and so quiet. Wherever I went, crowds would gather."

Wadia Murad - innovative engineer and designer of the Murad car
Wadia Murad - innovative engineer and designer of the Murad car

His only wish at that time was that his dream would somehow be turned into reality and the car brought back to life.

Wadia Halim Murad was born in Kingston, Jamaica, on February 25, 1900, the son of a Lebanese Arab millionaire. When I met him, he was trying to live on a £30 a week pension.

"Of course I'm bitter," he said. "I once had a very substantial business."

At 16, the young Murad, a firm believer in the British Empire, was playing for the Kingston Cricket Club. But his overriding ambition was to play for an English university. So he was delighted when his father shipped him off to Manchester University, renowned for its engineering, with a sheaf of £20 drafts. He landed in Bristol on January 15, 1921.

By the 1930s he had begun working with the wireless industry and had introduced a new type of coil-former which cut costs, led to increased accuracy and was able to add the short range frequency to the mass-produced radio sets of Pye, Plessey and Ultra.

A Murad 3Q capstan lathe designed by Wadia Murad
A Murad 3Q capstan lathe designed by Wadia Murad

But his chief love was engineering and in 1936 he set about producing a more accurate capstan lathe. Within three years he had amassed orders for 200 machines worth £68,000. The Murad Machine Tool Company was set up and production rose to 40 lathes a week.

There were few factories or school metalwork shops which didn't have one of his lathes. During the Second World War they were used to make the 20mm shells needed for arming the British war birds of Spitfires and Hurricanes.

According to Mr Murad his innovations brought the cost of a shell down from 4 shillings and sixpence (22.5p) to seven-and-a-half pence - a saving of 80%.

He also helped produce carbide armour-piercing shells used by British tanks against Rommel's forces in North Africa.

Other triumphs included the production of spot-locating fixtures for fitting de-tuned Rolls-Royce Merlin engines into tanks.

The Murad car and engine showing its Rubery Owen chassis
The Murad car and engine showing its Rubery Owen chassis
The Wadia engine designed and built by Wadia Murad to power his Murad car
The Wadia engine designed and built by Wadia Murad to power his Murad car

The idea must have saved the nation millions but Mr Murad never asked for a penny himself, content to think that this was his contribution to the war effort.

But after the war his troubles started and dogged his dream car. A government permit to build a factory on the Watford bypass was suddenly withdrawn and Mr Murad was ordered to move to South Wales. He refused and after several wrangles settled for Aylesbury.

But halfway through building his custom-designed factory the government halted work and demanded again that he go to Wales. By the time he had sorted that out, the wicked winter of 1947 had set in and building delays caused the cost of the factory to rocket from £43,000 to £103,000.

Like another of Kent's heroes, Canterbury-born Sir Freddie Laker, the banks weren't impressed and a receiver was called in. The factory was sold leaving Mr Murad with just £40,000. But he was determined to bounce back.

On May 5, 1960, he was summoned to the Board of Trade offices in Horse Guards Avenue, London, and urged to move to what was known as a Development Area to breathe new life into depressed towns. He was offered two choices: Scotland or Sheerness.

Murad's former factory now home to Swale Building Supplies
Murad's former factory now home to Swale Building Supplies

He rejected Scotland and set about setting up shop on the Isle of Sheppey which was reeling after having its Royal Naval Dockyard closed in March of that year. He was told 325 skilled men were waiting to help him build the car of his dreams.

He says he was told his £50,000 removal expenses would be met by the State. But by the time he discovered Sheerness had been removed from the list for aid without any warning it was too late to cancel the move. He had already begun work on his Whiteway factory (later taken over by car security firm Waso and now home to SBS Building Supplies). His removal expenses never came.

Worse followed. Mr Murad was unable to get his promised skilled labour as most had been snapped up by Chatham Dockyard or moved to other dockyards at Scotland or Portsmouth.

He spent more than £200,000 in wages training 40 of his own hand-picked apprentices but could not sustain the huge financial burden. To survive, he cashed in his insurance policies and sold his opulent five-bedroom home in Radlett, Hertfordshire worth £200,000 in the 1980s.

But the bank stepped in again and at the end of June, 1965, unceremoniously evicted the company and its machines from the Whiteway factory. Mr Murad managed to salvage them and moved the equipment, along with the prototype of his beloved car, to his other premises a quarter-of-a-mile away where he printed his advertising literature and monthly newsletter.

Murad's former Sheerway factory now home to Pacific double-glazing
Murad's former Sheerway factory now home to Pacific double-glazing
Murad's former Sheerway factory now home to Pacific double-glazing
Murad's former Sheerway factory now home to Pacific double-glazing

Once-valuable engineering machines ended up stacked outside where they rusted in the rain. To make matters worse, Queenborough Council, which had made many promises to entice him to the Island, then petitioned for the winding-up of Murad Developments Ltd.

Mr Murad ended up in Sheerness magistrates' court accused of failing to stamp employees' cards for National Insurance. He denied the charges but later that week made the headlines in local newspapers - "Island firm chief gets prison threat" and "Isle director pocketed workers' cash".

He reflected: "An aggressive solicitor from the Ministry of Health appeared before the local lay magistrates and bullied them into believing that I was really a dreadful scoundrel."

By that date he had spent £235,500 "attempting to produce machine tools with thoroughly incompetent labour" and maintained he had paid £61,063 in wages out of his own pocket.

For two years he slept across two chairs at the printing works until former employee Mrs Doris Palmer heard about his plight, took pity on him and invited him to stay at her home.

Rusting wreck of the Murad car photographed by Andrew Bone in 2017
Rusting wreck of the Murad car photographed by Andrew Bone in 2017
Inside the Murad car showing the wooden dashboard, leather seats and car radio. Picture: Andrew Bone
Inside the Murad car showing the wooden dashboard, leather seats and car radio. Picture: Andrew Bone

But he still made regular trips back to Sheppey. In a last-ditch bid to stay solvent he put the 3,000-square feet premises on the market for £90,000. Another blow came when Swale council issued him with a chilling ultimatum: pay £2,000 rate arrears or go to jail.

Mr Murad, a once proud man, was down but not out. He tapped me on the arm and promised: "I shall fight them - to the very end."

He later went to London's High Court on an abortive mission to sue the Department of Trade for his £50,000 removal expenses.

Finally, he gave up the fight and emigrated to America to be with relatives.

The remains of the Murad motor were auctioned, with no reserve, by Brightwells auctioneers of Leominster on September 21, 2016, and went under the hammer for £1,320.

Rusting remains of the once-proud Murad car from Sheerness about to be auctioned in 2016 by Brightwells
Rusting remains of the once-proud Murad car from Sheerness about to be auctioned in 2016 by Brightwells

The auctioneers said it had been found under straw at the back of a barn in the 1990s. Theo Gillam, a freelance motoring writer from Bognor Regis, recalled: "I worked occasionally with Mike Wilsdon, the museum owner who bought the Murad and all the parts, and helped with its rescue from the Isle of Sheppey in the 1980s. The car was ultimately recovered by a friend of mine to the area where I was then living, in Hampshire, where it stayed hidden until a few years ago."

He added: "I became a freelance motoring writer in 2000 on Practical Classics and later, when Sam Glover joined the magazine, I became good friends with him. I told him about the Murad story and he said wanted to buy the car. But before I could get in touch with the people I knew to find Mike Wilsdon, the car appeared at auction, the farmer having died and his family putting everything up for sale."

He said: "I remember Mike telling me the story of Wadia Murad's secretary finding him sleeping on his desk at the derelict factory with the council about to foreclose on him. I think it was her who first got in contact with Mike after she had contacted various motor museums, including the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu, but none would pay money for the car and the parts."

Self-styled "odd car fetish" Sam Glover, who was the magazine's technical editor at the time, went ahead and bid for the mystery car at auction and still has it in his "car barn" near Cheltenham, although the doors now have to be held shut with lengths of rope. He went on to exhibit "the world's only Murad" on the Practical Classics stand at the Lancaster Insurance Classic Motor Show.

He recalled: "I'd been searching for the Murad for many years so staying away from the auction was not an option. I braced myself to jettison my bank balance but it turned out that nobody else shared my enthusiasm. It was mine for £1,320."

Murad's 1948 prototype pictured in 2017 in new owner Sam Glover's 'car barn' in Cheltenham. Picture: Sam Glover
Murad's 1948 prototype pictured in 2017 in new owner Sam Glover's 'car barn' in Cheltenham. Picture: Sam Glover

It still had its Rubery Owen chassis but its engine, a straight 1.5-litre four-cylinder creation designed and built in-house by Mr Murad's team, was missing.

Sam continued: "The Murad was the folly of otherwise successful Jamaican-born engineer Wadia Halim Murad. Despite taking a healthy number of orders the project was doomed by bad luck, poor decisions and, allegedly, industrial espionage.

"The full story seems to be Tolstoyesque in scale and complexity."

He added: "The car’s bespoke 1.5-litre OHV engine is sadly missing but a number of components have surfaced since the auction. It’s rumoured that enough parts were made to assemble 100 Murads so there’s a chance we’ll be able to piece it back together in its original form. Otherwise, we’ll have to get creative. My initial impression is that it’s better than it looks both in terms of condition and design."

Alas, some of those parts, according to John Sissons, who as secretary of the Swale Vehicle Enthusiasts Club methodically compiled the car's chequered history, may be long gone.

Review of the Murad by Auto Car courtesy of John Sissons
Review of the Murad by Auto Car courtesy of John Sissons

He said: "There were a number of Moss gearboxes but most of them went over the sea wall and are now buried below lots of concrete and tarmac in the docks as the port expanded."

Others, mainly young boys, discovered hoards of Murad hubcaps and used them for skimming practice into the sea.

Keith Partridge said: "I still have a set of four. I got them when they were cleaning out the building around 1984/85. The car was there at the time and in reasonable condition."

In its heyday the engine could produce 48 brake horse power at 4,000 revs although Mr Murad once ruefully remarked that it would only work with KLG spark plugs.

Like its owner, even the car could prove difficult to please.

A Murad hub cap
A Murad hub cap
Set of four Murad hubcaps still owned by Stephen Partridge (46173730)
Set of four Murad hubcaps still owned by Stephen Partridge (46173730)
Letter heading for Murad's Sheerway Works (46173466)
Letter heading for Murad's Sheerway Works (46173466)

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