ATCO Lawn Mowers

ATCO - keeping the nation’s lawns neat and tidy for 100 years

It’s a great British success story and 2021 marks its centenary. Yet for the company behind the world’s first ever mass-produced petrol lawnmower, there were fears they might be making an expensive mistake...

The first ATCO motor mowers, designed for use by the general public, hit the market in 1921 - on the face of it, the worst possible launch time for the makers, Charles H Pugh Ltd of Birmingham. For starters, the country was in the middle of a severe economic slump and a national coal strike that was making life hard for most households. But there was another troubling factor, too - the weather. Britain was experiencing the worst drought for a decade, wreaking havoc for lawns the length and breadth of the country. For those families lucky enough to have a lawn - still something of a luxury in 1921 - there was little grass left to mow. At a board meeting in 1921, one of the company directors remarked: “I have heard that the established people say that we shall last only a short while.” 

Thankfully, the “established people” were wrong. The ATCO petrol mower - smaller and lighter than anything that had come before - was an instant success, with 900 sales in the first year.

There are some lovely stories surrounding the birth of the ATCO lawnmower. After the First World War, the company was looking at new products and new markets, so when the donkey that powered the mower at their factory died, they had a brainwave: why not develop our own motor mower not just for the factory, but to mass produce?

There is a nice story behind the name too - but we must go back a few years for that. When Charles Henry Pugh founded the firm in 1865, it was an ironmongery business based in Rotherham, Yorkshire, supplying metal parts for the textile industry in the north of England. When the business grew, it moved to the factory in Rea Street, Birmingham, where it was able to manufacture as well as supply the parts. At the start of the 20th century, bicycles and motor cars had become the new big thing, so the company switched its focus to making parts for these - notably bicycle chains. They wanted to print a brand name onto the side of each individual chain link, so it had to be short. One of the companies that Charles H Pugh had taken over was the Atlas Chain Company, so someone suggested ‘ATCO’. In the early days, the left side of the letter ‘A’ was very much more rounded - it had to be in order to fit on the side of the chain link. The lawnmower, as part of the brand, was therefore also called an ATCO. 

Lawnmower historian Brian Radam said the arrival of the ATCO mower was a revolutionary development: “This made lawnmowers mainstream. By 1921, motor mowers had been around for some time, but the ATCO lawnmower was different, and it paved the way for us all having powered lawnmowers today. The reason it was lighter and smaller than anything else on the market was because they created a completely different chassis. It meant most people could use them. In fact, the mower was so small and so light, a story reached the company that some people believed the ATCO to be a toy. One of the directors replied: ‘Tell them to put their fingers in the cutters and see if it’s a toy!’  Their sales teams and engineers could also transport them on the sidecar of their motorcycles - they had 10 service depots around the country, which was integral to their expansion.

Although the ATCO mower targeted homeowners, it was also a Godsend for village greens, cricket grounds and larger estates because it was nowhere near as back breaking as the other machines available. They were fit for Royalty, too. In 1930, the ATCO received its first Royal Warrant from King George V - an honour to be repeated with King George VI in 1940, The Queen in 1955 and the Prince of Wales in 1986.

ATCO were ahead of the game again in the 1950s, when they launched a marketing campaign aimed at women. Advertising images showed women in long flowing dresses pushing lawnmowers - some of the brand’s present-day marketing has a nostalgic nod to these iconic images. The firm’s innovative marketing worked: at its height, around 1,000 people were producing tens of thousands of ATCO mowers a year, with after sales customer care provided at the service depots. These specialist ATCO centres, first launched in 1922, is one of the traditions that has remained intact through the years, together with the trademark ATCO green - a shade lighter than British racing green.

Through it all, the ATCO brand has continued to thrive. Today, the brand - motto, “A Long History of Keeping it Short” - is based in Plympton in Devon and is part of the STIGA group. Sitting proudly among the current line-up of roller lawnmowers, rotary lawnmowers and lawn tractors is the traditional ATCO cylinder mower, a 2021 version of the ATCO Standard that kick-started it all 100 years ago.

We’ll leave the last word to James Pugh: “I think the legacy of the ATCO lawnmower is quite special, and I’m not just saying that because of any sense of family bias,” said James. “It is an iconic British brand that has survived for 100 years, and I feel very proud about that.”