When Alexander Govan was born on May 1, 1869, in Blantyre, Lanarkshire, his father, David, was 21 and his mother, Margaret (nee Main), was 19. The family lived an Number 1 Mid Row, an end terraced house at Blantyre Works, not far from the Mills, in Blantyre Village. In 1871 Andrew and James Thomson, also millworkers were lodging with them.
By 1891, the mills had recently closed and Alex found himself working in Glasgow attending to power looms. He clearly left Blantyre to pursue work and he worked his apprenticeship in Bridgeton, Glasgow.
He attended evening classes at the Glasgow and West of Scotland Technical College and won a medal for engineering design. Some people claim that Alexander could have been Scotland’s answer to famous American Automobile magnate, Henry Ford, for Alexander had turned his hand to car manufacturing and design at a time when hardly any other people in the world had done so. His background leading up to car invention is worth retelling.
This former Blantyre man as a young man went into business with his brother in law John Worton in Bain Street, Bridgeton making a bicycle which they called the “Worvan”, derived from a combination of their names. Unfortunately, the venture failed and Alexander went to England to seek more experience in the cycle industry. When he returned, his passion for cycles was to quickly diminish, for the engineering circle in which he moved were saying in the 1890s, “have you seen this motor car invention?”
Alexander HAD to be involved in this excitement and he sought and gained the financial backing of William Alexander Smith, a prosperous Glasgow merchant involved in a variety of business enterprises. It was at a factory in Hosier Street, Bridgeton that they launched a venture called the Argyle Car Company which led to early car assembly.
In 1899, Alexander Govan produced a car, which he called the “Argyle Voiturette” (pictured) modelled on a Renault. Such was the success of the venture, they had to move quickly to larger premises at Alexandria, a building which was palatial by comparison.
By 1901, Alexander had married. He had one son, David with Edith Worton in 1901. At this time he was living at The Sheiling in Dumbartonshire as a mechanical Engineer. In the census that year Janet McGregor a 14 year old servant girl lived with the Govan family.
Only Henry Ford’s company in America was larger than Govan’s, so he travelled at the start of the 20th Century to America to conduct some intelligence gathering. Armed with further contacts, he came back to Glasgow and the Argyle Motor Works Factory in Glasgow was built.
At the Argyle Motor Works Factory in Glasgow (now a Shopping mall) Alexander Govan by then the managing director said upon opening, “this building will be standing long after those here have gone to another world.”
The Argyle car project and his meteoric success was however short lived. The Young visionary, just 38 years old was at dinner on 27th May 1907 in the Grosvenor Restaurant in Glasgow and collapsed. He died and some claimed it was sudden food poisoning, although later proved that it was a cerebral haemorrhage.
Govan was described as a striking person, although private and was highly respected in industrial circles in the West of Scotland. His legacy Motor Works was liquidated in 1914 and became the “Gun Works” making shells for World War One.
We can only imagine how large the company would have become had Alexander Govan not died so young.