William Hillman (1847-1921)

William Hillman was a key figure in the beginnings of the cycle and motor industries in Coventry.

Born at Lewisham in 1847, Hillman first apprenticed in Marine Engineering before he moved to Coventry in the late 1860s along with George Singer and others. Working closely with James Starley in the development of the velocipede, by 1875 he had gained enough experience to form his own cycle business – that of Hillman & Herbert.

The company turned out many of the ‘Ordinary’ or ‘Penny-Farthing’ type cycles, before adapting to the diamond framed ‘Safety’ cycles of the late 1880s. One of Hillman’s most famous machines was the ‘Kangaroo’ a revolutionary geared front-driven safety cycle, as well as ‘Premier’ models.

In 1892, the company changed its name to the Premier Cycle Company – claiming to be the largest cycle manufacturers in the world by 1896. At this time, the motor industry was in its infancy in Great Britain, and at the forefront of this development was Coventry. Some cycle manufacturers such as the Humber Company and Bayliss, Thomas and Company acted quickly, releasing motor-driven bicycles and tricycles, yet Hillman himself waited until 1902 to develop an experimental motor-bicycle.

It was not until 1910 that he would seriously enter the motorcycle market, offering ‘Premier’ motorcycles, but prior to this in 1907 he teamed up with the Frenchman Louis Coatalen for a brief period making large motorcars, the largest being a six-cylinder 9654cc model. After Coatalen’s departure to the Wolseley Company, Hillman cars were of more conventional and economic proportions of 9 to 12hp through to WWI.

Hillman himself died in 1921, and by 1928 the company was absorbed into that of the Rootes Brothers Empire, seeing the introduction of the ‘Wizard’ and ‘Minx’ models in the 1930s.

The last car to carry the Hillman name was the ‘Avenger’ – introduced in 1970 until the final models in 1981.
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