Lanchester - The First British Car

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 1895 - 1956
THE LANCHESTER has the distinction of being the very first British car. The cars came about because of the Lanchester brothers, both remarkable automotive pioneers, they were also very prominent engineers, so that, although distinctly unusual in design and construction, the early Lanchester motor-carriages were efficient, well sprung machines of adequate performance.

Frederick William Lanchester was born on 23 October 1868. He was doing excellent work for the Forward Gas Engine Company of Saltney, Birmingham, by the age of twenty and in 1892 went to America to study this branch of internal-combustion engineering.

He then became engrossed in scientific research and applied himself to the problems of mechanical flight. He had, meanwhile, paid for his brother George to become a premium apprentice in the company for which he was working and in 1893 George Lanchester had finished his 'lessons' and become Works Manager, although he was still only eighteen.

At this time, Fred Lanchester had built a high-speed petrol engine, capable of 800 rpm, which he fitted with his own design of wick carburetor. This was installed in the first-ever English-built motor boat, a flat-bottomed stern-wheeler. The third Lanchester brother, Frank, had helped with this project.

The boat turned out to be a sideline for Fred, who continued his experiments with rubber-driven model aeroplanes in his search for an inherently stable flying machine. As these experiments proved to him that he was on the right track, Lanchester sought assistance in the financing of a lightweight engine for a full-size flying machine, but this was not forthcoming from Dugald Clerk, whom he had approached, so, although disappointed, he decided to turn his talents to the motor car.

There was some activity in Europe that Fred Lanchester could study, but what he saw made it clearly apparent that he must produce a car of his own conception and not copy those which were already on the road, if a practical vehicle, free from the prevailing terrible mechanical vibration and other serious shortcomings, was to be produced. Design was undertaken during 1894, and the following year was devoted to building the resultant Lanchester car. It had a tubular chassis of proper torsional rigidity, but, as speed was legally restricted to 4 mph at the time and was raised to only 12 mph by 1896, no springing was deemed to be necessary.

Pneumatic tyres were used, however, bought from the Dunlop Rubber Company, the first motor-car tyres they had constructed. Lanchester was also far ahead of his time in arranging geometrically correct steering gear and, when most of the horseless-carriages of the period had exposed seats perched high on the chassis, he went for a proper body able to seat three persons abreast in comfort, this carriage work being provided with springs, to compensate for the lack of any at the axles. There was even a luggage platform. The engine was likewise of Lanchester originality. It was a 4¾ in x 4½ in single-cylinder with two balanced cranks, each with its own flywheel and con-rod, these cranks being kept in phase by bevel gears.

The cranks revolved in opposite directions, which gave smooth running up to 1000 rpm, at the expense of noise from the gearing, a significant innovation considering all this was before 1900. This engine was set horizontally and transversely in the centre of the frame, the cylinder being cooled by forced draught. Ignition was by low-tension current and there was an epicyclic low gear to augment the direct-drive clutch. It made its trial run early in 1896 and was found to be generally satisfactory, but underpowered.

Fred Lanchester
Fred Lanchester.

George Lanchester
George Lanchester.

Frank Lanchester
Frank Lanchester.

1897 Gold Medal Phaeton Lanchester
1897 Gold Medal Phaeton Lanchester.

1912 28hp Lanchester
1912 28hp Lanchester.

1914 38hp Lanchester
1914 38hp Lanchester. Despite there being no technical merit, Lanchester were forced to make the hood/bonnet longer to satisfy the buying publics expectations.

Post World War 1 Lanchester
Post World War 1 Lanchester.

1925 Lanchester 40hp, complete with tinted windows
1925 Lanchester 40hp, complete with tinted windows. The crest on the door probably indicates this Lanchester was used by somebody important.

1930 Lanchester Straight-Eight 30hp
1930 Lanchester Straight-Eight 30hp, which was fitted with a 4440cc engine and made a top speed of 85 mph

1932 Lanchester 18hp Saloon
1932 Lanchester 18hp Saloon.

1933 Lanchester 18hp with Grosvenor body
1933 Lanchester 18hp with Grosvenor body.

Briggs bodied post-war Lanchester Ten
Briggs bodied post-war Lanchester Ten.

Briggs bodied post-war Lanchester Ten
Briggs bodied post-war Lanchester Ten.

1952 Lanchester Cabriolet
It looks like a Daimler Conquest, but it is a re-badged Lanchester cabriolet circa 1952.
It is typical of the Lanchester mentality that instead of increasing the power output, a new two-cylinder car was built. This had six connecting rods linking the opposed pistons, again to provide good mechanical balance. Lanchester retained his ingenious wick carburetter, but further improved matters with easily detachable ignition igniters fed from a flywheel generator with It current, when other makers were plagued by the defects of hot-tube or high-tension-electric ignition.

Twin blowers looked after engine cooling and the valves were another ingenious Lanchester innovation. Instead of using separate inlet and exhaust valves, the former perhaps of the suction-actuated type, Lanchester had one large mushroom valve which opened into each combustion chamber. This, however, was operated by the cams so that it was open on both the inlet and exhaust strokes. Its port communicated with a second chamber in which a flat disc-valve, known as the crossover, opened and closed the inlet and exhaust tracts as required. The object was to ensure cooling of the main valve by the incoming charge.

Fred Lanchester remained unsatisfied with the chain drive used as it was likely to wear rapidly, so the twin-cylinder was given his special form of final drive, by shaft and Lanchester worm gearing; moreover, Lanchester devised his own cutters for this specialised form of drive. Then there were epicyclic change-speed gear that also acted as a brake in either direction of travel, side-tiller steering adopted for this second car, control of engine speed not by a throttle but via pendulum inertia governors, one to each cylinder, acting on the feed valves, to maintain tick-over, an accelerator being used in the normal way to open-up the engine, and, as experiments progressed, the famous Lanchester cantilever suspension which gave a ride unsurpassed by any other contemporary car.

The original Lanchester had been rebuilt with the two-cylinder engine and a second experimental car was built at the same time, known as the 'Gold Medal Phaeton'. For this, F. W. Lanchester instituted a system of quality control, so that when he was ready with production models, interchangeable parts could be fitted by unskilled labour. Thus, he anticipated Henry Ford by a number of years and pioneered the sort of check gauges now commonplace in the motor industry.

Lanchester Compounding Epicyclic Gears

He also evolved his M-thread for bolts and nuts used in Lanchester cars, as more satisfactory than the commonly employed standard Whitworth threads. There were other detail innovations which made the 1898 Lanchester a truly commendable vehicle, but Fred, and George who had now joined his brother in car manufacture, did not rest on their laurels. While the second experimental Lanchester was being constructed, a third example was made, endowed with a water-cooled engine. Moreover, and to overcome the slow progression of his two-speed cars once they were forced off top speed, Fred began work on his patent 'Compounding' epicyclic gears, similar in principal to today's automatic transmissions, which gave an intermediate gear, foolproof to engage, on his production cars.

Up to this time, the two Lanchesters had sought very little recognition for their very notable automotive achievements, but as a production plan had been laid down they now realised that the time was ripe for some publicity and entered for the Reliability Trial held at Richmond in the summer of 1899 by the Automobile Club. A special gold medal was won, which retulted in naming the car their 'Passenger Spirit Phaeton'. This was the only competition Fred entered and the award was for 'excellence of design'; an appropriate citation.

The Pugh brothers, of Rudge Whitworth detachable-wheel fame, viewed the project favourably and put up the finance for The Lanchester Engine Company Limited to be formed in December 1899; the authorised capital was £60,000, of which only £45,000 was paid up, £25,000 in cash. Frederick Lanchester was General Manager and Chief Designer and brother George his assistant, especially on the tooling-up and production side. As put into the catalogue, these Lanchesters were similar to the experimental cars; they had the characteristic forward driving position, a hinged leather dashboard replacing the conventional bonnets. The driver steered with the side steering tiller and had a series oflevers on his left that controlled low-speed and reverse, high-speed and braking, a gear trigger for pre-selecting the second or middle speed, two governor levers, a hand petrol-pump, and a vapour regulator.

If this sounds complicated, it was no more so than the controls of most of the cars of that time and if the mechanical specifications of the early Lanchesters definitely were complex, the end certainly justified the means. Warning of approach of the quiet-running Lanchester was by a pedal gong and a bulb horn, also arranged to be sounded by foot, the driver treading on it with his right sole. Cars for sale began to issue from the factory in Birmingham in 1900, the first two-cylinder models being known as the 10 hp, although rated by the RAC as of 22 hp, the engine dimensions being 5¼ in x 5 11/16th in. The wheelbase was 7 ft 10 in and the wire wheels were shod with 870 x 90 tyres.

The Lanchseter Air-Cooled Ten

The Lanchesters were considered very smooth-running for their period, and with effective brakes (the Lanchester shared with the later AC one of the first disc systems as its reserve anchorage), sold for £525, weighed 17 cwt and were able to run at up to 35 mph. In addition to their already mentioned advantages, there was the extremely comfortable ride provided by the supple springs, the wide track and the long wheelbase. By 1902, the air-cooled Ten had been joined by the water-cooled version, with a slightly wider track. It was priced at £550 and, although appreciably heavier, had a top speed of 40 mph. Larger Lanchesters soon followed.

The Lanchester Twin-Cylinder 18 and Rudyard Kipling

By 1904, the twin-cylinder 18 hp had arrived, one of which broke down in the hands of Rudyard Kipling, who became nevertheless an avid enthusiast and provided the make with valuable literary publicity. This bigger, more powerful model was partnered by the four-cylinder 20 hp, for which only two forward speeds sufficed. This had a vertical engine that otherwise followed the conventional Lanchester pattern (this means it was highly unconventional !). Speed from this four-cylinder was up to 50 mph and it cost £550. The engine, at 4 in x 3 in, was over-square.

In 1905, this fast Lanchester was given a three-speed transmission and it became available in chassis form, so that bodywork other than the famous Lanchester phaeton could be accommodated. The short-wheelbase (9 ft 5 in) version was available for £450 and the long version (10 ft 5 in) for £475, while the complete Lanchester-bodied car, weighing 23 cwt, cost £675. Three years later, although the Lanchester brothers were convinced that their side tiller on which the driver rested his right arm to steer, using his left one to operate the controls on the console, was the best arrangement, they supplied wheel steering to meet popular demand.

Archie Millership's Trials

The bodies of the pre-1914 Lanchesters were interchangeable and all of the top could be removed from the chassis in about five minutes, without resort to tools. Five seats were soon provided by making the tonneau or rear compartment wider, with a centre seat as part of the rear-entrance door. Although expensive, these veteran and what would now be termed Edwardian Lanchesters were recognised as docile and beautifully constructed cars. Sales were better than satisfactory, helped by demonstrations and trial runs organised by Archie Millership, who had joined the company for this purpose.

One of his choice tricks was to hang his gold hunter watch from a wall, about two feet from the ground, with its cover open, and then to drive slowly up to it, shutting the watch with the edge of a front tire , without denting it, thus showing how smoothly the Lanchester transmission functioned! The 16 hp and 18 hp models were only made in small numbers, about twenty of the former and half-a-dozen of the latter. Moreover, good as the design and especially the construction was, in company with other pioneer firms, the Lanchester Engine Company was attempting to make high-quality products with too little capital.

Lanchester Goes Into Liquidation

The directors became alarmed and Frederick Lanchester was encouraged to come out with a single-cylinder voiturette of 930 cc from a single-cylinder. On that sad note the organisation went into liquidation, a Receiver being appointed. Fortunately, this set-back was soon overcome and the greatest days of the Lanchester were immediately ahead of it. To meet the demand for more spacious and luxurious coachwork, four-cylinder vertical-engined oars were introduced. The engines had separate cylinders and novel horizontal valves actuated by vertical rocking levers from a camshaft on either side of the crankcase.

In place of coil springs, the valves were closed by compact blade tensioners and the tappets were adjusted by the vernier method, which compared favourably with the cruder means then so often encountered. There was fully forced lubrication and the engine, clutch and gearbox were in one unit-two more items which were distinctly unusual. The flywheel was mounted on the front of the crankshaft, again to improve balance, a layout which Henry Ford, who had studied a Lanchester, adopted. The oversquare engine dimensions of 4 in x 3 in for the 20 hp four-cylinder car were retained for the better-known 28 hp four, and the 38 hp six-cylinder model had a stroke of 4 in, with the identical bore, giving a completely 'square' power unit.

A legacy from F. W.'s gas-engine upbringing was the anti-chamber leading to the combustion space in his cylinder head, but his extraordinary forward thinking was seen again when in 1910 he patented a torsional vibration damper to' solve a pertinent problem that beset early six-cylinder engines. This was devised to get the Daimler Company out of a difficulty and used most effectively on his own make of car. The 28 and 38 hp cars set the pattern of Lanchester motoring prior to the war. They provided great spaciousness as well as comfortable, quiet running, and a very good performance.

Mostly, Lanchesters carried the company's own bodywork, but if a customer insisted on something different they could buy a chassis and send it elsewhere for fitting out. The short-wheelbase 28 hp would then cost £600 and the long-wheelbase chassis £625. Whatever bodywork was specified, the result was almost certainly an imposing if unusual looking vehicle, the driver and front-seat passenger being well towards the nose of the car, immediately behind the radiator, and separated by the control panel. Standard bodywork ranged from five and seven-seater phaetons or tourers with tumble-home sides, to magnificent broughams and landaulettes with front windscreens instead of the handsome leather dash or apron that sufficed on the screen-less cars.

Whichever model was chosen, a Lanchester of the pre-Kaiser-war era stood out unlike other cars, and some very important clients were well pleased to be seen in them, invariably chauffeur driven, either enjoying their merits as town-carriages or as fast long-distance transport. Eventually, of course, car ownership expanded and a new type of customer had to be catered for - and these people were unable or unwilling to accept or even understand Lanchester's clever side-tiller that gave restful and quick steering, so they began to demand a long bonnet ahead of them, as denoting a powerful and costly motor-car.

The Lanchester Sporting Forty

Fred Lanchester was reluctant to conform to popular Clamour or the views of his directors. However, such demand was met in 1914 by George Lanchester's Sporting Forty. This had a side- valve, L-head, 4 in x 41 in, six-cylinder engine, in the conventional frontal location. It used normal half- elliptic front springing, with dumb-irons, instead of Lanchester cantilevers, although at the back the now accepted, and indeed, widely copied, parallel-motion links and cantilever springs located the axle. There was no room under the bonnet that fashion insisted upon for the wick carburetor, so George substituted a Smiths five-jet, modified to suit his special inlet manifold; a stiffer crankshaft made the expected vibration damper unnecessary.

A sporting torpedo touring body was evolved from that used for the 1912 38 hp. However, this was not a car in the best Lanchester tradition and it was a failure due to its excessive fuel thirst and somewhat rough running. Nevertheless, it had a good turn of speed, one example having apparently averaged 50 mph from London to Liverpool. Perhaps fortunately, the war put an end to this Sporting Forty that had been George's first complete design for the company.

Lanchester Armoured Cars for the War

The war period was spent making armoured cars and other military vehicles, shells and, eventually, aero engines of RAF and Sunbeam design. When peace came, George Lanchester had a far better car than his side-valve job ready for the post-Armistice market. As a result of war-time aero-engine manufacture and operation, the overhead-camshaft engine was much in evidence, even for luxury cars. While Rolls-Royce remained faithful, for all their aero-engine influence, to side valves, Napier, Straker Squire, Bentley, Leyland, Hispano-Suiza and others had gone over to the overhead-camshaft configuration for their new productions.

George Lanchester followed suit, giving his post-war Forty a very fine six-cylinder engine, with slightly-inclined overhead valves opened by such an' 'upstairs' camshaft. This he drove from the vertical shaft and skew gears at the front of the engine, a cross-shaft providing the drives for megneto and water pump. The cylinders, of 4 in x 5 in bore and stroke (another half-inch on the stroke) were cast in two pairs, and the exhaust valves seated directly on the cylinder head, whereas the inlet valves were in detachable cages. No expense was spared to make this an efficient engine, with accessible components. It had a swept volume of 6110 cc and developed 95 bhp.

An epicyclic three-speed gearbox was an unusual feature in a world of 'crash' gear changing. It gave fool-proof operation even to novice chauffeurs, but was controlled by a conventional-looking lever. A torque-tube now located the back axle, but straight-forward cantilever springing featured in the specification, with half-elliptic leaf springs at the front. The chassis was an improved edition of George's pre-war Forty and, not satisfied with bought-out leaf springs, the Lanchester Company rolled their own. Front-wheel brakes were deemed unnecessary at the time of the Forty's introduction in 1919, but a worm-driven back axle was naturally fitted.

Better Suited To A Prostitute Than A Prince

The front axle was machined all over and the bodywork made use of aluminum panelling welded by a new oxy-acetylene process. Clearly, the Lanchester brothers had lost nothing of their skill and exactitude and the new ohc 40 hp was a serious challenger to the 'Best Car in the World' and one, moreover, that was able to run from 3 to 78 mph in its top ratio. It went into production in those difficult years just after the war at £2200 for the chassis and £3000 for a complete car. It gained great acclaim and a notable following, even if the King, confronted with a too-ornate limousine at the post-war Show, remarked that it was more suited to a prostitute than to a prince!

The Forty appeared at Brooklands as an only slightly modified slim and angular single-seater, used for testing Rapson tyres and for long-distance record-breaking. Parry Thomas frequently drove it and made it lap at nearly 1I0 mph: proof, if any were needed, of the quality of the design. Alas, both in production and racing form there was no longer any place for the wick carburetor, which F. W. had abandoned. The Lanchester Forty took its rightful place in the luxury-car market, requiring few modifications over the years, although by 1924 it had been endowed with a tubular front axle, enabling front-wheel brakes to be used.

The Lanchester Twenty

As Rolls-Royce had decided that a smaller model should supplement their Silver Ghost to provide for the post-war financial recession, the Lanchester Company followed this trend with a 20 hp car which many people thought to be the equal of, if not superior to, the Rolls-Royce Twenty, especially before that famous Company adopted four speeds and a right-hand gear lever for its 'little' chassis. The small Lanchester was a six-cylinder of 74t x II4 mm bore and stroke, giving a capacity of 2982 cc. It produced some 60 bhp, sufficient to give it a rather better performance than that of the Baby Rolls.

It had a four-speed sliding-pinion gearbox and front-wheel-brakes were part of the chassis layout from the start, ami gave excellent retardation. From 1925, a bigger engine was installed, rated at 23 hp, whereupon this model was confusingly called the 21 hp. With these two cars, the upper-crust and middle-class markets were amply catered for and both models were deservedly popular, and easily distinguished by their water-level inspection windows in the front of the radiator face. There had been drawing-office flirtations with a pushrod V12 engine, but the in-line straight-eight was the power unit of the mid-vintage years for the bigger, more expensive cars, although usually a disaster if attempted for lower priced ones and not always successful when cost was no consideration.

The Lanchester Straight-Eight

The Lanchester of this kind was, however, an even greater engineering masterpiece than the Forty and 21 hp. It made its debut at the South port International Rally of 1928 and as the motoring public flocked around it, avid to study its mechanicals, it was found to have a 4440 cc engine to place against the 6.1 liters of the earlier six-cylinder Lanchester luxury car. Nevertheless, the new Lanchester straight-eight, carrying heavy closed bodywork, was an 85 mph car. In some forms it must have done nearly 90 mph and third gear gave a maximum of a mile-a-minute. Acceleration and retardation were in keeping: IQ to 7Smph in top gear occupying just one minute.

The general design was as that of the 21 hp car, with an overhead camshaft, in this case driven from the back of the engine. Carburation problems, which were all too often apt to beset straight-eight engines, were eliminated by using a dual-choke Zenith carburetor feeding four cylinders separately. This splendid engine really was silken smooth, and free from vibration. The first straight-eight Lanchester had a Weymann fabric-covered body and this form of construction was popular for the car, contributing its quota to the silent running. Obviously, it was intended to phase out the Forty in favour of the new eight-cylinder car, which in 1928 could be bought for £1325 as a chassis and for £2000 with bodywork.

This 42 cwt car had a four-speed normal-type gearbox, like its smaller brother, and 20 x 6 tyres. The wheelbase was 11 ft 1 in, a longer version having another nine inches between the axles. Unfortunately, this ultimate 'real' Lanchester was short-lived, even though such illustrious patrons as the Duke of York, Indian Princes and Sir John Ellerman, the then reputed richest man in England, were Lanchester fanciers (Queen Elizabeth 2 made her first public appearance a Lanchester Straight Eight).

It was a financial crash, not an engineering misdemeanour, that was the cause. The Daimler Company took over and, from that time onwards, Lanchesters were really Daimlers with Lanchester radiators, good cars but lacking the personal stamp of the inimitable brothers at the Birmingham works. Fluid flywheels and pre-selector epicyclic gearboxes were adopted, but the famous name persisted right through the vintage period, until it finally died in 1956 with the Hobbs-transmission Sprite, which had a 2.0-Iitre four-cylinder engine. It was the age-old story of mass-production makes undercutting the price that had to be charged for Lanchesters, some of which still had Barker and Hooper bodies.

The Lanchester Ten

The best-known post-war model was the Ten, which cost £595 without purchase tax in 1946, or £725 two years later with Barker saloon coachwork. This Ten had been put into production in 1932 and was quite sprightly, certainly being a well made little car. Independent suspension came after the war, for the Ten, the 1952 2-liter Fourteen and the six-cylinder Daimler-engined, Hooper-bodied Dauphin which used the Fourteen chassis. Finally, came the Sprite, which never went into production, so a great name faded out.
Lionel Rapson's racing 40hp seen at Brooklands with mechanics and others
Lionel Rapson's racing 40hp seen at Brooklands with mechanics and others.
1925 21 hp Drophead Lanchester
1925 21 hp Drophead Lanchester.
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