The 1903 Electric Autocar, built in York and once a familiar sight on the lines to Harrogate, Selby, Pateley Bridge and Filey, was the first in the world that did not need to be pulled by a steam locomotive. With its own engine built into the chassis, it served as the prototype for the modern commuter train.
Only two were built and just one survives. Its last journey was in 1930, but on Friday passengers in the Yorkshire Dales will climb aboard once more.
It will be the culmination of a £500,000 restoration that has seen it rescued from undergrowth near Pickering, where it had originally been a holiday home, and returned to its original condition.
Steve Middleton, a Harrogate enthusiast who led the project, said: “Its historical importance can’t be underestimated. It’s the precursor of all modern trains.
“It was not only a world first but a Yorkshire world first.”
The Autocar –given its name in an Edwardian era in which a car was a railway carriage – was designed to attract trade back to the railways from the streetcars and trams that were threatening to supplant them.
Supplied by the North Eastern Railway from its carriage works in York, the two coaches were set to work on the epic route from Hartlepool to West Hartlepool, before being unleashed upon Yorkshire.
Eventually, with bigger engines, they were able to be pull a second carriage – an example of which has also been restored by Mr Middleton and his team.
“The company wanted something that would shuttle backwards and forwards efficiently and that wouldn’t need to be turned around to take the train back,” Mr Middleton said.
“The idea never really caught on until the 1950s, so this was way ahead of its time. But if you look at the trains running between Harrogate, York, Leeds and virtually everywhere else today, they are virtually the same as this one in concept.
“It set the template. It’s the missing link between the steam and diesel ages.”
The restoration, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, had been a labour of love, he said. Cut into halves and stripped of its undercarriage, only the train’s front window could be made out among the hedges. A crane had to lift it clear, and on to a low loader.
“But the framework was made of teak and that was in good condition. And when we stripped off the layers of paint, we found pitch pine beneath, which is full of resin,” he said.
The Autocar’s first journey in 88 years will depart from Embsay Station, on the Embsay and Bolton Abbey Steam Railway, at lunchtime on Friday.
It will enter regular passenger service on the line next year, with visits to other heritage railways, including that in the North York Moors, also planned.