Remembering Edinburgh's trailblazing robot car park we thought was the future

When Edinburgh’s robot car park opened its doors in 2001, it was proclaimed as the start of Scotland’s capital being dragged kicking and screaming into a new vision for the future of transport.

A stone’s throw from the unassuming building at the back of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre on Morrison Street, plans were put in place for a groundbreaking new tram line which, once complete, would span the length of the city from Newbridge all the way to East Lothian, providing a new and exciting way to experience all the capital had to offer.

Much like the vastly scaled back tram system however, the Autosafe Skypark’s legacy quickly became one of over ambition. Within two years it had shut its doors owing to financial concerns, lying abandoned and becoming a popular haunt for illegal raves while still up for sale amid complicated legal wrangling.

READ MORE: Edinburgh woman rushed to hospital after cars crash at busy junction

READ MORE: Plans for Edinburgh warehouses to be demolished for multi-storey student flats

But its strange and offbeat history had one final secret to reveal before being converted into a far less entertaining office block - a number of abandoned vehicles trapped inside after administrators padlocked it shut for good.

Billed as “Britain’s most technologically advanced car park,” the £5 million facility arrived to much fanfare in the dark ages of the early 2000’s. Modelled on similar technology found in China and Japan, the automated system used sensors to direct up to 600 vehicles into designated spaces within a steel frame.

The dimensions of the car were assessed by high tech lasers before a series of lifts, turntables and robot shuttles ushered them into a space, without the need for drivers to pick out an empty lot in a multi-story.

When drivers returned, they inserted their parking ticket into a pay machine which automatically signalled for the car to be retrieved.

The vehicle was then presented and ready to drive away within three minutes at an exit on to the West Approach Road, saving space and providing much needed bays for the Capital's crowded streets long before Spaces for People became the biggest controversy to befall roads around the city.

The cutting edge tech did not come cheap though and less than 24 months after blowing the collective minds of Edinburgh motorists, the prohibitive cost of operating the robotics had began to hit home for operators Sky Parks (Edinburgh) Ltd.

By the time the receivers arrived in 2003, the firm were only able to successfully operate four spaces in the building - less than a hundredth of its full capacity.

Brief hopes of a reopening were raised in 2008 when administrators KPMG told The Scotsman an "international car park operator" was interested in purchasing the facility, but that proved to be a false dawn, leaving it abandoned.

For 15 years, the haunting shell became a playground for urban explorers to swing from the mechanism and the venue for raves attracting hundreds of people to a surreal stage.

Those days were long gone by the time a sale was finally completed in 2017. Glasgow firm BAM properties won a contract to overhaul the development into 122,000 sq ft of office space on behalf of Hermes Real Estate and began dismantling the machinery from the top down, only to get a shock when they reached lower floors.

High above the Capital's roads, eight vehicles had been frozen in time without seeing the light of day since the building had closed.

Rumours receivers had simply turned up to padlock shut the doors without allowing some motorists to reclaim their cars spread like wildfire at the time, but this appeared to be confirmation of an Edinburgh urban legend.

Retro models including the Austin Maestro - which seized production in 1994 - and a similarly aged Fiat Uno were uncovered thanks to Reddit user ieya404 snapping an image from a nearby office block.

No-one came forward to claim the cars and hopes of a ghost site were dashed shortly after their discovery when it emerged the operators had purchased several scrap vehicles to test the system before opening it to the public.

Sign up for Edinburgh Live newsletters for more headlines straight to your inbox

Bus driver Ronnie Meredith, who worked at the site when it opened, told the BBC in 2018: "When it first opened they did buy so many bangers for testing.

"We had a few scrap cars. I remember one being a Austin Maestro and we also had a Lada and a long wheel base Volvo.

"On numerous occasions when it broke down we either had to instruct the computer to retrieve a car from its position or physically go inside with what we called a joystick and manually retrieve a car.

"Even if the place had its doors shut by administrators they would have still legally be entitled to retrieve their own personal vehicle.

Join Edinburgh Live's Whatsapp Community here and get the latest news sent straight to your messages

"If anyone looked at the windscreens of these cars they would no doubt have noticed that none of them had a tax disc which was still a legal requirement back then if the car was being used on the road."

New owners Hermes said "every effort would be made to preserve the vehicles" but little is known about their current status. Whether they were consigned to the scrapheap or now take pride of place somewhere else remains a mystery.

This article was initially published on May 16, 2021.