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The earliest known British automobile was built for breaking the law

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Photos courtesy Bonhams.

Not intentionally, of course, but the brothers Santler couldn’t help but break existing British road laws when they first ventured out in the little car they called “Malvernia.” Still, they had to give it a shot and in the process may have become the first automobile manufacturers in Great Britain in a car that will next month head to auction.

To be clear, self-propelled road locomotives plied the country’s roads well before Charles and Walter Santler decided they wanted to build their own personal horseless carriage. Typically gargantuan and slow, the steam-powered locomotives either worked local farms or served as stages, hauling a dozen or more passengers at a time. Their proliferation in the 1820s and 1830s not only caused traffic problems, but also led to the passage of the infamous Locomotive Acts starting in 1861.

Like many entrepreneurs, Charles and Walter Santler decided to bend the rules a little bit in 1887. Nothing prevented the brothers — both engineers in their father’s steam-engine business in Malvern, Worcestershire — from installing a triple-expansion steam engine in an atypically small handbuilt steel frame. Where they ran afoul of the existing Highways and Locomotives (Amended) Act of 1878 (in addition to the lack of a man walking ahead of their carriage with a red flag) was in deciding to put a two-place bench seat atop the frame: The law required a three-man crew.

According to the Bonhams description of the Santler carriage, after a few spins around town in 1889, the Santlers shelved the idea, probably repurposed the steam engine, and didn’t touch the horseless carriage chassis again until 1891 or 1892, when they installed a coal gas engine, then, later, a small single-cylinder gasoline engine.

After the Locomotives and Highways Act of 1896 essentially repealed the earlier, more restrictive Locomotive Acts and spurred on the automobile industry in Great Britain, the Santlers continued with their horseless carriage experiments and even went into limited automobile production in the mid-1910s. Throughout that time, Charles Santler kept the old Malvernia around, trotting it out once a decade or so for some event or another.

Certainly due to its unique status successive owners struggled with the car’s narrative. Early documentation of the car was lost in a bombing raid in World War II; its owner in the 1950s installed a Benz 3.5-hp water-cooled single-cylinder engine, which remains with the car; and nobody appeared willing to deep-dive into the car’s history until Dr. Alan Sutton bought it in 1985 and documented the car’s entire history.

Since then, Sutton registered the Malvernia — since rechristened the Santler — for the road, finally making it street legal 100 years after its construction, and entered it in the London-to-Brighton Veteran Car Run multiple times. It has yet another trip to the coast scheduled for this year’s run, the same weekend Bonhams intends to sell it at the auction house’s annual car run sale in London.

The Bonhams pre-auction estimate for the car ranges from £200,000 to £250,000 ($260,000 to $330,000). The sale, which includes at least five other 18th 19th-century self-propelled vehicles, takes place November 3. For more information, visit