From bicycles to locomotives and a load of vintage buses – our guide to some of the best transport museums in the UK shows you where to find the engineering triumphs that have changed the world
Ulster Transport Museum
The largest railway collection in Ireland and one of the most comprehensive transport collections in Europe, the Ulster Transport Museum tells the story of transport in the country, from its earliest history to today. The museum has a selection of galleries dedicated to different forms of transport, from road to rail to hoof, and includes a collection of commercial vehicles from a variety of local businesses, and a gallery dedicated to the ill-fated passenger liner Titanic, which was built in Belfast.
Star objects include a DeLorean car, manufactured locally in Belfast and made famous by 80s cult movie franchise Back to the Future, a record-breaking 1939 locomotive named Maedb and a McCandless Mule – a ‘Go Anywhere’ concept vehicle from the 1950s.
Located on the site of one of Britain’s first aerodromes Brooklands is the home of British motorsport and aviation, and is where many engineering breakthroughs were made, motoring records were broken, and both war and civilian planes were developed. It is here that Vickers, Sopwith, Hawker and other aviation pioneers were based and where the world’s first ever 24-hour motoring event was held.
There are many things to see at the museum and you’ll probably need a whole day to explore all of the engineering delights. Some highlights include a reconstructed aircraft factory with both original and replica aircraft, a 1933 Napier-Railton racing car, a stratosphere chamber built by Vickers for testing planes in high altitude conditions and a Concorde jet (G-BBDG). Book yourself onto the Concorde experience and you can board the plane, explore the interactive exhibition and experience a virtual Concorde flight to re-live the excitement of the supersonic age.
Coventry Transport Museum
The largest publicly-owned collection of British Vehicles, Coventry Transport Museum explores how the city was instrumental in bicycle development, and then in motorbike and car manufacturing, and how its contribution to transport innovation changed the world.
Star attractions include an armoured car manufactured locally by the Daimler company, Queen Mary’s own Daimler car, Ted Simon’s 1973 Triumph motorcycle which travelled all the way around the world, the open-top bus that carried the victorious Coventry City FC after they won the FA Cup for the first time in 1987, and even a vintage sleigh ride, a staple of the city’s festive season for the past 60 years. The museum is also home to the world’s two fastest cars, Thrust2 and ThrustSSC which broke the last two land speed records, achieving 633mph in 1983 and 763mph in 1997 respectively. ThrustSSC was the first land vehicle to officially break the sound barrier.
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Situated just a couple minutes’ walk away from Bury Bolton’s Street station where you can catch a steam train on the East Lancashire Railway, Bury Transport Museum has a host of vintage cars, vans, buses and more all lovingly restored to their former glory. Star exhibits include a steam roller named Hilda, a horse-drawn former fish and chip shop and a vintage fire engine.
Combined with a trip on the East Lancashire Railway, the museum offers an authentic journey to the past which will either trigger some fond memories or give you a whole new insight into the past.
Streetlife Museum of Transport in Hull delves into 200 years of transport history, exploring local travel through the ages. With galleries dedicated to the link between the bicycle and Hull’s history, one of the finest public collections of carriages, a collection of motor cars from 1897 onwards and a reconstructed railway goods shed with items of interest relating to the railway.
As well as the vintage vehicles, the museum also includes a 1940s street with chemist, cooperative and cycle shop, and old-fashioned arcade with playable games.
London Transport Museum
In the heart of Covent Garden, in the old fruit, vegetable and flower market, London Transport Museum is the world’s leading museum of urban transport, charting the history of travel in the capital and telling the stories of the people who have travelled and worked in the city over the past 200 years. The museum explores the history of London Underground – the world’s first subterranean railway system, takes a look at 19th century and Victorian transport and explores above ground travel before, during and after the wars. With design considered an essential part of London transports – especially on the underground – there are also changing displays of posters and works of art covering a century of iconic graphic design.
Head out west on a special open day or for a booked guided tour and you can also visit the museum’s Acton Depot, where many more vehicles, signs, posters and other objects not on display are kept.
National Museum of Flight
Housed in the wartime buildings of RAF East Fortune, one of the UK’s key military bases in WW1 and WW2, the National Museum of Flight is a must-see for any aviation fan, with hangers dedicated to both military and commercial flight.
Key objects on show include Myth Too, record-breaking female aviator Sheila Scott’s aeroplane; a spitfire, the most famous of all British combat planes; the only Red Arrows Hawk on display in a UK museum; and the UK’s only surviving Boeing 707 cockpit and cabin which transports you back to the 1960s – the golden age of jet travel. You can also climb aboard the museum’s very own Concorde (G-BOAA) and discover the story of supersonic flight in an exhibition which reveals how the iconic plane was designed and built, and what it was like for the crew and passengers on board travelling twice the speed of sound and at 60,000 feet.
This imposing building designed by the late, great Zaha Hadid occupies an old Shipyard, located where the River Kelvin meets the River Clyde. Inside it’s jam-packed with all manner of vehicles and transport and travel objects, from skateboards to locomotives. Displays tell the story of Glasgow’s subway system, the third oldest underground metro in the world, which is also known as the ‘Clockwork Orange’ due to its circular route and distinctive, orange signs and carriages.
A new gallery looks at energy efficiency in travel, exploring how cutting-edge engineers are designing low emission vehicles to respond to the climate change threat. A star object in this gallery is the Tesla Model S P85+, representing a new dawn in electric vehicle development.
A separate attraction, but moored just outside is The Tall Ship, the Glenlee, which you can also visit. Built in Port Glasgow, she took to the water for the first time in 1896 and circumnavigated the globe four times. The ship has been restored to its former glory and is one of only 5 Clydebuilt ships still afloat.
London Canal Museum
Telling the history of London’s canals, the London Canal Museum examines the important role of these man-made waterways to the history of London, and the wider England and Wales area. The building was originally an ice warehouse, and ice imported from Norway was transported by the canal and stored in the large ice well which is still visible inside the museum today. This warehouse was used by Swiss entrepreneur Carlo Gatti, who was one of the first to offer ice cream to the public.
On display are artefacts and information relating to London’s canals, and examples of traditional canal folk art found on narrowboats and their paraphernalia, as well as objects relating to the ice trade and Carlo Gatti, including ‘penny lick’ glasses. The museum also runs a programme of towpath walks, and boat trips in the summer through the long Islington Tunnel.
The go-to destination for railway buffs, the National Railway Museum is home to some of Britain’s – and the world’s – most famous trains. Around 100 rail vehicles are on show here at any one time, and the collection spans 200 years of British rail innovation, from record-breakers to royal carriages.
In its ranks the museum boasts Mallard, the world’s fastest steam engine; Stephenson’s Rocket, a legendary locomotive which won the Rainhill Trials in 1829 and shaped the future of the railway; and the Flying Scotsman, the first locomotive to officially reach 100mph. The museum is also home to the only Japanese Bullet train outside of Japan, the restored loco Duchess of Hamilton – which looks every bit as glamorous as it sounds and a handful of operational rolling stock, on which you can relive the romance of steam travel.
The National Motor Museum at Beaulieu
One for the petrolheads, the Beaulieu estate is home not only to an 800-year-old Abbey and splendid Palace House, it also houses the National Motor Museum, established in 1952 in memory of John Douglas-Scott-Montagu, 2nd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu, who was a motoring pioneer and advocate.
The museum features around 250 vehicles at any one time, and has some truly exciting cars on display. Visitors can peruse a display of some of the most luxurious cars ever built, and experience a pinch of the adrenaline of motorsport through a collection of F1 and rally cars. Famous cars from the screen, including Del Boy’s Reliant Regal and Mr Bean’s Mini are also on show. Two star vehicles are the 1,000hp Sunbeam, the first purpose-built land speed record car, which achieved more than 203mph in 1927, and the legendary Proteus Bluebird CN7, which was the first to officially reach over 400mph, and was driven by prolific record-breaker Donald Campbell.
For a bit of fun, the Top Gear exhibition has a whole host of cars from the long-running TV show’s challenges, including a campervan/boat hybrid created by Richard Hammond as part of the legendary amphibious challenge, and the ‘indestructible’ Toyota Hilux which remained operational even after being placed at the top of a 23-storey building which was then demolished with explosives.
Museum of Transport, Greater Manchester
Housed in a former Manchester Transport Corporation bus depot – one of Greater Manchester’s earliest bus garages – the Museum of Transport, Greater Manchester features many public road transport vehicles, documenting travel in the city through time, from 1824 to today. The exhibits range from a Victorian Manchester Carriage and Transport Company horse-bus to a full-size prototype vehicle for Manchester’s Metrolink light rail from the early ’90s.
Many of the museum’s buses are maintained to full working order and the museum often allows the public the opportunity to travel on some of these historic vehicles, giving it a real feel of a bustling bus depot from yesteryear.