George Johnston Scotland Mexico

Biography of George Johnston

Arrol-Johnston Car 1895 (UGD100/7/2/14)
Arrol-Johnston Car 1895 (UGD100/7/2/14)

George Johnston was a Scottish-born inventor and engineer, who designed, constructed and trialled Scotland's first automobile, the Mo-Car.

Johnston was born on 3 August 1855 at West Linton, son of Reverend James Aitchison Johnston, a United Presbyterian Minister of Springburn, where George became an apprentice engineer at Neilson & Company's locomotive works at the age of fifteen.

During his apprenticeship, Johnston took Professor James Thomson’s classes in Civil Engineering and Mechanics and Office and Field Work in Engineering at the University in 1878-79.

Johnston’s extensive career as an engineer and inventor saw him establish a number of partnerships and numerous patents within the major industries of the day, from food production to textile. However, Johnston would make his name when he switched his attention to the internal combustion engine. After acquiring one of the first automobiles to arrive in Scotland in 1895, Johnston, convinced that he could design a better car, set to work in his workshop at his father’s manse at Mosesfield with the assistance of his cousin Norman Osbourne Fulton, engineer (1872-1935) and Thomas Blackwood Murray, engineer (1871-1929) to produce and patent their ‘Benzoline’ or petrol ‘dog cart’, the first to be built in the United Kingdom.

The first road trials took place at midnight in November with Johnston driving the dog cart at twelve miles an hour on a twenty mile journey across Glasgow. For this, he was charged with contravening the Locomotive Act by driving his ‘horseless carriage’ during prohibited hours along Buchanan Street, then the main shopping thoroughfare.

Johnston coined the term Mo-Car in an address to a meeting of the Edinburgh Association of Science and Arts, and went on to establish the Mo-Car Syndicate to build dog carts with works in Yates Street, Camlachie. The works were completely destroyed by fire in 1901. Despite their reopening in 1902 and successful participation in the Glasgow to London motor car race in 1903 and the run from Lands End to John O’Groats, the Syndicate was a financial failure and was bought over by William Beardmore, the Glasgow ironmaster, in 1905. It was re-launched as the Arrol-Johnston Car Company, without either Sir William Arrol or Johnston.

Johnston's next venture, the Johnston Car Co, which became the All-British Car Co of Bridgeton, was eventually liquidated and Johnston declared bankrupt. In 1910, he left the country upon his appointed as manager of the newly formed West Mexican Mines Ltd, where he developed new methods of extraction. This venture was again a financial failure, and Johnston returned home where he spent the last years of his life in Edinburgh. He died, unmarried, in 1945 at the age of ninety.


George Johnston
Born 3 August 1855.
Died 1945.
GU Degree: Science and Engineering, 1878-79;
University Link: Student
Occupation categories: engineers; inventors
English snippet: Engineer of Scotland's first automobile
Record last updated: 22nd May 2013

Country Associations

Scotland Scotland, West Linton
Place of Birth

Scotland Scotland, Edinburgh
Place of Death

Mexico Mexico, No Region

University Connections

University Roles

  • Student