A NEW tourist attraction celebrating York’s aviation history is planned for the site of a derelict former garage in the city centre.
Developers backed by the Yorkshire Air Museum have bid to buy the Reynard’s Garage building in Piccadilly, which is being sold by City of York Council.
If they succeed, part of the site will be used to tell the story of the 1930s aircraft and glider factory Airspeed Ltd, which was based there.
The deadline for offers for the building has now expired. The bid by York-based Northminster Ltd, which also includes a housing development, will now be assessed by the council alongside other options. The building was constructed in 1921 but has stood empty for more than ten years.
Air museum director Ian Reed said the Airspeed 1930s Experience would not be an extension of its Elvington base but a “completely different concept” which would incorporate a 1930s aircraft and would commemorate York’s links with Nevil Shute Norway – the aviation engineer who formed Airspeed and later became a succesful author. It would also acknowledge pioneering aviators Amy Johnson and Sir Alan Cobham, who were among Shute Norway’s partners in the project.
Mr Reed said: “It is planned to be an all-inclusive attraction appealing to all ages and dealing with design, invention, speed, fashion and film – a reflection of the post-Great Depression and World War II period which was filled with so much energy and excitement.”
“We want to bring that entrepreneurial spirit alive once again to a very special place in the heart of the city. I believe this proposal preserves another unique piece of York history while providing a stunning visual replacement for a derelict area, which has blighted our beautiful city for decades.”
Mr Reed said the proposed development meant there would be no added competition for existing shops in the area, while it would create “a much-needed, high-quality attraction”. George Burgess, managing director of Northminster Ltd, said the firm already owned property in the area and saw the Reynard's site as an opportunity to move the regeneration of the Piccadilly area forward.
“We are interested in developing this site because it would be good for the city and we would like to see the whole process of redeveloping Piccadilly sped up,” he said.
“It is a window of opportunity because, for the first time in recent history, the council is right behind redevelopment of the area and we’d like to getsome momentum going. It’s currently an unsightly building, one of the most noticeable in the area, and its links to Airspeed would benefit its use as a tourist attraction.”
The building was used as York Corporation’s bus and trolleybus depot before Shute Norway, previously deputy chief engineer to “bouncing bomb” inventor Sir Barnes Wallis, launched Airspeed Ltd in 1931. During World War II, the firm designed and built many types of aircraft as well as the Airspeed Horsa glider.
However, the company moved to Portsmouth when it was unable to find space to expand in York, with its former factory being let to Reynard’s of York and later becoming a laser-game business.
How York missed out on aircraft boom
SEEN from the outside, the rundown building in Piccadilly known as Reynard's Garage doesn’t amount to much, writes Stephen Lewis.
It’s an eyesore in a city that prides itself on its beautiful architecture. Beneath that unimposing exterior, however, lies a fascinating history.
The building began life in 1921 as a depot for York’s expanding trolleybus fleet. The depot closed ten years later, however, when the new Fulford bus garage opened.
Then four remarkable entrepreneurs decided to turn it into an aircraft factory. The brains behind Airspeed Ltd was Nevil Shute Norway, a brilliant engineer who had been deputy to Barnes Wallis. Norway worked with Barnes Wallis on the design of the R100 airship at Howden and later went on to achieve literary fame, as plain Nevil Shute, with novels such as A Town Like Alice.
His partners were a young woman from Hull by the name of Amy Johnson, who went on to become a flying legend; a barnstorming test pilot named Alan Cobham; and aristocratic banker Lord Grimthorpe. In 1931, they began building gliders and two aircraft in Piccadilly – a parasol-winged two-seater, and the Airspeed Courier biplane. The Courier is thought to have been the first aircraft bought for the King’s Flight - Britain's equivalent of Air Force One. In 1933, the Duke of Kent landed it on Knavesmire.
It was a successful, thriving company - but its very success seems to have led, all too quickly, to York losing out as a centre of aircraft design.
In 1933, the company wanted to expand. York Corporation couldn’t provide the support it needed – and Airspeed Ltd moved to Portsmouth instead. There, it went on to build almost 4,000 Horsa gliders, used during the Second World War in the D-Day landings and at the Battle of Arnhem.
York, sadly, had missed out on this glorious piece of aviation history. The former trolleybus depot-turned aircraft factory played home for a time to a hire car firm, and was even briefly pressed into use to house a laser game centre, before falling into disuse.