Automotive history

Come fly with me: The rise and fall of Silver City Airways

by James Mills
30 October 2020 4 min read
Come fly with me: The rise and fall of Silver City Airways

You don’t have to travel too far back in time to reach an age when the Channel Tunnel was nothing more than an idea in the head of a boring engineer. It was only in 1987 that work commenced on tunnelling from Britain, with France following in 1990. And it took until the late ‘50s before the concept of the drive-on, drive-off car ferry was cracked, ending the sense of dread that drivers felt as they watched their car being hoisted aboard a boat and dropped into an open cargo hold.

Before either of these developments, the bright spark of the day was one Air Commodore Griffith Powell. ‘Taffy’ to his friends and colleagues, Taffy Powell worked with the Air Service Department of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and would be called to Montreal as Operations Controller of the Atlantic Ferry Organisation (ATFERO) when the ferry organisations had been taken over by the British Ministry of Aircraft Production.

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When RAF Ferry Command took over from ATFERO Taffy Powell was appointed Senior Air Officer to Air Chief Marshal Sir Frederick Bowhill – a position he held until the end of World War II.

With the war effort over, in 1945, shareholders in the British Aviation Insurance Company established British Aviation Services with a view to taking care of all the technical needs of the aviation industry. Taffy Powell was appointed managing director, and soon they were masterminding projects for clients who had spotted the opportunity for private air services in remote parts of the world, or fixing general charter and goods transport for mining firms.

One of those mining firms asked BAS to establish an air fleet of its own, and in 1946 Silver City Airways was registered, spiriting good, hard-working folk between Britain and the mines of Australia.

Against this backdrop, Taffy Powell found it frustrating that whenever he wanted to take a break from work and indulge in one of his favourite pastimes – a touring holiday in France – having his Armstrong Siddeley Lancaster loaded aboard a boat for the cross-Channel journey was a time-consuming and, frankly, risk-ridden affair.

Silver City Airways at Ferryfield Lydd airport

Not only that. Crossing the Channel by boat was a three-hour trip, and if your sea legs didn’t get the better of you the tedium of taking two hours to crawl through customs and immigration would.

The answer was staring Taffy Powell in the face: why not load his car aboard one of the freighter versions of the Bristol 170 Freighter? It sported clamshell nose doors that would open like a blue whale’s mouth and swallow all manner of cargo. Two large cars could fit without a problem, with room for other goods as well as space for passenger seating.

On 15 June, 1948, up, up and away went the Bristol 170 Freighter with two cars aboard, its maiden test flight proving a success, hopping the 47 miles from Lympne in Kent to Le Touquet on the north French coast in around 20 minutes.

That July, the first paying passengers booked their place on the new air ferry, albeit on a charter basis. A mere 200 cars were flown back and forth during the first season of Silver City Airways. When business resumed the next Spring, it was as a scheduled service. The two Bristol 170s found themselves making eight return trips a day – moving 2700 cars and their passengers by the end of the season.

Silver City Airways car ferry loading

The two cars would be carried in the forward compartment of the Bristol 170 Freighters, loaded into the nose of the aircraft by being driven up a portable ramp. A separate compartment was set aside for passengers, and the cost was according to the size of the car – small, medium or large, at about £18, £22, and £27 respectively.

By 1950, business was, er, flying. Silver City Airways shifted 4000 cars, 1000 motorcycles and about 15,000 passengers, without a single mishap. Soon, larger versions of the Bristol 170 – the Superfreighter – would be pressed into duty, capable of comfortably carrying three cars at a time.

Grass airfields at Lympne gave way to venues like Lydd (its HQ) and at its peak, in 1960, the air ferry carried 90,000 vehicles and 220,000 passengers across the Channel, including stars of the day such as David Niven, Stirling Moss, countless motor racing teams and even the Queen’s Rolls-Royce. (Silver City’s PR man was John Webb, the motor racing and aviation enthusiast who went on to handle PR for Brands Hatch before becoming its Chief Executive. Which explains how there came to be a Silver City Airway Trophy handed out during Brands’ first ever Boxing Day race meeting.)

However, by 1962, Silver City Airlines touched down for the final time. Substantial losses meant its parent company, British Aviation Services, decided to bail out, selling Silver City to P&O, which restructured and rebranded its new acquisition.

Drinking a cup of tea in the café at Lydd Airport, just last week, as I drunk in the surroundings and history, the appeal of the air ferry was easy to see. The crossing time was just 20 minutes, the environment was relatively exclusive with no crowds and the right crowd, there were no kerbs waiting to do damage to your prized motor car – or other cars packed in like sardines so that doors open against neighbouring cars – and I’d gladly take my chances with a light spot of turbulence than I would with a rising swell.

So what went wrong and why can’t we catch the air ferry today? Apparently the short-haul flights meant high running costs for the planes. There was competition, too, in the form of Channel Air Bridge, founded by Freddie Laker, which kept prices down. And then the ferry companies got their act together, designing ships and docks around the practical problem of loading of cars and goods vehicles.

Today you can wander into Lydd Airport, catch sight of the Coastguard helicopter and a pair of old Douglas DC-3 props as you drive past the hangars, and visit the flying club’s café, where stories of our skies in the past line the walls. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll probably look at pictures of the planes of Silver City Airways being loaded with cars, and think to yourself, “Now there’s an idea that could catch on in this day and age.”

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  • Doug Rohde says:

    What a Great Story. I been a pilot since 1965 and remember reading about Silver City Airways. Thanks again for the story!

  • Roger Eagles says:

    I can remember flying over to Le Touquet a couple of times with my parents and sister for touring holidays in France in the mid 1950’s. First time with a motorcycle and sidecar combination and then my father got his first car. The flights were so exciting as a child. I remember being given sweets to stop our ears popping. Great memories.

  • Brian Mills says:

    I remember Silver City Airways flying into my home town airport, Newtownards (Ards airfield) in the late 50s and early 60s
    They looked like big aircraft then. Nothing compared with the aircraft of today.

  • Mike Dannatt says:

    Flew twice from Lydd as a passenger without car. Think it was about 7 pounds, hard place to get to without a car, think nearest station was Appledore. 1962 last time when going on honeymoon. Really impressed at the time.

    • James Mills says:

      Fantastic to hear, Mike. Really interesting for those of us that weren’t around at the time Silver City was operating. How comfortable was the plane and how quick was the crossing?

  • Nick Pope says:

    Used the service several times with my parents, uncles & aunts and grandparents in the late 1950’s for family holidays in Le Touquet. Us kids (sometimes several from different families) enjoyed the beaches by day and the adults went to one of the 2 casinos in the town in the evenings. The planes were a bit rattly and my dad used to tell us that if there was engine trouble a trapdoor would open in the floor and we would have to use the pedals underneath to get us over the channel.

  • Christina Griffin says:

    I cant remember the year but can remember my parents taking me and my brother and sister abroad on a flight with our car to le touquet then we drove through to spain, must have been early 60’s, i have great memories of it! We then went another 3 years on the trot but sailed over as the car ferry had ceased!

  • Jane says:

    I worked at Lydd in 1961 as booking cars and passengers to Le Touquet, Calais and Ostend. Also had a couple of free flights. My parents frequently flew with their car as Dad hated going by sea. I remember being excited when the ruler of Jordan and his English wife flew into the airport, speaking on the telephone with Donald Campbell when he enquired what the cloud base was before flying in. Lots of great memories. I believe the man in charge there was a Mr Wolfeston (?).

  • Maureen Williams says:

    I remember going with my parents in 1951 to France with silver city taking our motorbike and sidecar. What a wonderful flight. Took about 20 mins to le touquet. My mom used to suffer badly with seasickness on a calm pond hence my dad’s solution silver city. We were considered quite daring in 1951 but we used silver city again but next time with an Austin 35. Happy days.

    • James Mills says:

      What memories, Maureen. If you have any pictures, we’d be interested to hear more. Please let me know and we can take it from there.

  • David Brown, says:

    Fantastic memories just looking at the photos of Silver City Airways, My farther had saved up enough money over several years to take all on a exciting holiday to France, all 6 of us packed into the car with a roof rack full of cases and a good size tent to sleep in, but the most exciting thing was looking at the large airplanes on the runway, to travel with the car across sea too France, and the experience of flying, the cabin seats were just like armchairs and so cosy ,the lady flight attendant put our seatbelts on and gave us sweets, I was only 10 years old, but this was the most exciting thing in life, and then the plane’s engines fired up and we off at last, its brilliant experience l will always remember, ( Thanks to Silver City Airways for my cherish memories. ) it’s a shame that I can’t turn the clock back and do it all again,

  • Patrick Byrne says:

    I was in the U.S Army elisted stationed in
    Southern Germany 1959-1961. Had a 1960
    VW convertible. Drove to that Calais and
    They put the car and me on a plane and flew to Ramsgate England. It was a nice flight.
    My final destination was Saltcoats up north
    Where I met my army buddy and his family
    We stayed for a week and came back to France on ferry. The cost to fly over was
    Very reasonable

  • Rolf Richardson says:

    I have a photo, taken in April 1964, of my wife, 3-mnoth-old daughter and VW Beetle being loaded onto a Bristol Freighter at Lydd. I know this date with precision, but most info now tells me the car air link ended in 1962. Obviously not. Anyone know when the vehicle air link finally finished?


    I remember it well ,my father worked at Lydd from 1956 as an engineer (Roy Hawker ),only this week I managed to look over a Bristol freighter here in NZ where I now live .brought back great memories when I used to be in the cockpit for compass swings

  • Richard Stewart Baker says:

    Remember them well used to fly from Manston also, what a well written account

  • Kinsbourg says:

    I remember flying from Le Touquet to Lydd and back with my mini, a few times in 1964-65 also.

  • Geoffrey Nicholson says:

    I flew as a First Officer on those aircraft 1967-69 from both Southampton till the base closed in 1967 and then Lydd. By then Silver City and Channel Air Bridge had been absorbed into British United Airways as BU Air Ferries. I was trained on a BUA sponsored course at Airwork Services Training at Scone in Scotland, also owned by the BUA Group. Through a quirk in the contract my Commercial Pilot’s Licence cost me £50 – don’t tell the young lads who are spending £100k plus today.

    At Lydd I flew many times with Captain George Livingstone who had been the First Officer on the first car ferry flight from Lympne mentioned in that article.

    The original Bristol 170 carrying two cars was the Mk31. By the time I joined in 1967 we only had the Bristol 170 Mk32 carrying 3 cars – or 6 horses, ? sheep or about 25 pigs. Pigs are nervous flyers and sweat a lot which made the climb up the ladder to the cockpit very slimey. Flying livestock we were paid an extra 19p an hour, not a lot on a 20 min. flight. I was paid £1,390 p.a. Fortunately I ended my flying career in 1990 as a Boeing 737 Captain on £40,000, so all’s well that ends well.

  • Steve Hogarth says:

    I remember you Geoff as I would cadge a trip or two when you were based at Southampton. I was a Gatwick BUA apprentice at the time but my home was in Southampton.. I went on to be sponsored by Bristow Helicopters as a pilot. Cruising at only a few knots more than the Bristol 170! My father was a B170 pilot in the Silver City days – founder member in fact.

  • Julie Reid says:

    My late Parents drove from Scotland then flew from Lydd to Le Touquet in the late 1950’s before my Brother and I were born spending time in France .Does Lydd airport keep records of passengers and their type of cars who flew back in the 1950 ‘s .

  • Peter Lambton says:

    Having just had a trip to Romney Marsh today it got me to wondering if it was still possible to see one of the old air-ferry planes somewhere… google led me here!

    When my gran (Doris Pitcher) retired and moved down to Lydd on Sea in the mid 60’s she quickly became restless and found a job in the crew canteen at Lydd airport. She loved it there and stayed until the airport (or at least the air ferry part) closed down.

    One of the oddest things relates to the phrase ” best thing since sliced bread”. The french pilots couldn’t get enough of Mothers Pride so my gran would bring in loaves for them. I think they liked that the bread didn’t go stale within hours of purchase. In return the french would bring exotic (in those days) baguettes etc, which we thought were marvellous, though, of course they HAD started to turn stale by the time we got them!

    BTW it seems Aerospace Bristol renovation have manage to retrieve a B170 from NZ. Apparently it’s the only one in Europe. Hopefully it’ll be possible to see it one day…

  • Harry Crick says:

    Peter Lamton, That is correct that you can see an ex RNZAF Freighter at Aerospace Bristol, it had to be taken apart to be freighted back to Bristol by sea and road, and now resides in our conservation hangar awaiting to be Refurbished. I think I may have flown on this one in 1965 from Borneo to Singapore, it was one of a couple based in Borneo at that time. If you visit you will also be able to go on board Concorde, which is on display in an adjacent building. Lots of info on our Aerospace Bristol website.

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