Arks were essentially a German creation and the first to arrive in England was imported by showman William Wilson in 1930, who opened it at Mitcham Fair. The first Ark built by Lakin was delivered to showman Charles Thurston at the end of that year, resulting in legal action from Bothmanns, the German maker.
The actual term Noah’s Ark comes from the fact that assorted animal mounts were fitted to both the imported and earlier English machines. The early British Arks were small machines, built and decorated as economically as possible in the face of competitively priced German imports.
But the Wilson machine sparked furious activity and both Lakin and Ortons were soon knocking out Arks like nobody’s business, joined later by the Lang Wheels company of Uxbridge.
The Orton & Spooner five-hill Arks were amongst the first built, the first coming in 1931. The five-hill configuration only lasted until around 1933, by which time the four-hill machines became more-or-less “standard”.
By 1935 Arks were everywhere and the showmen loved them. As competition between Lakins and Ortons intensified the rides became more imposing and the decoration more spectacular.
To spice up the rivalry Edwin Hall hit on an idea that would win universal acclaim. From a sketch of “the chariot race”, a once famous painting hanging in Manchester art gallery, he created the Ben Hur Ark. The dramatic scene of the racing charioteers was reproduced on a frontpiece that was four panels high and the traditional Ark figures were replaced by horses, set in rows alternating with chariots, which in many cases were carved to represent dragons or art deco seahorses.
In 1937 Orton & Spooner countered when they fulfilled an order (Corrigans) for an Ark with motorcycle mounts, a concept exploiting the current popularity of motorcycle speedway racing. The Speedway, as it became known, was an instant success and Ortons were able to offer a highly original alternative to the Ben Hur machine.
As time went on Orton & Spooner were building even more elaborate Speedways, prompting Lakins to fit motorcycles onto their platforms and feature motorcyclists on their extension fronts. Arguably, the most elaborate examples of Ark-type rides ever produced came from this period as Lakin produced two machines in 1937 that were christened the “Coronation Speedways” (although they retained the Ben Hur-themed scenery).
As the “Ark wars” were in full swing the major players were also involved in other projects. An interesting aside occurred in 1935 following reports of a gigantic monster in Loch Ness. As the story was given such attention by the media a fairground ride was designed in Nessie’s honour. As produced by Lakins and Lang Wheels it was of three-hill Ark style, but minus the platform.
This ride never proved as popular with the punters as the builders had hoped, but the basic design lived to fight another day and became the Autodrome, introduced in 1939 by Lang Wheels. Lakin never cared much for the Autodrome and apparently built just one adult sized ride, although the company built quite a few in juvenile form.
Meanwhile, a direct and obvious development of the Noah’s Ark lay in the fitting of movable cars to the platform in place of fixed mounts.