Coventry was the centre of motor manufacturing in England until the late twentieth century. The city’s principal occupations in 1800 were the making of ribbons, which generate a substantial trade in the manufacture of looms, and watch-making. When ribbon-making declined with the onset of foreign competition in the 1860s many craftsmen in the city turned to making bicycles, and from bicycles to motor cycles and then, from the 1880s to motor cars. During and after the Second World War the engineering industry in Coventry also encompassed the manufacture of machine tools, tractors and aircraft. Several of the best-known British marques were made in Coventry, and some factories were very large, but the profusion of manufacturers in the early twentieth century included many names that are now almost forgotten, making small numbers of cars almost on a cottage industry basis.
The Museum of Transport opened in 1980 as a satellite building accommodating the growing collection of vehicles in the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, which began when Samuel Bartleet gave the museum his collection of bicycles in 1938. The first motor car was acquired in 1952, and as the industry changed in the post-war years increasing numbers of historically important vehicles were acquired. The museum completed a substantial programme to re-display its collections in June 2015.
The collection includes some 300 cycles, some of them very early examples, 120 motor cycles and 250 motor cars and commercial vehicles, including examples from such Coventry-based marques as Armstrong Siddeley, Alvis and Sunbeam. The display includes examples of buses used in Coventry. There is a large archives department with documents relating to many aspect of motor car manufacture in the city.