Fragments on Forgotten Makes, No.9: The Calthorpe

In its day the Calthorpe was one of the better small cars—very handsome, quicker than most and prominent in competition events in the ‘twenties. Following a tip sent in by a reader I drove to Birmingham recently to learn more about this make from Mr. John Matthews, now aged 73, who was with Calthorpe from 1912 until the company faded out in 1926.

In the ‘twenties Calthorpe made extremely handsome aluminium bodies for the 10.4-h.p. S-type chassis, which was built at the Cherrywood Road works in Bordesley Green, Birmingham.

Here they did all their own machining and built their own engines and three-speed gearboxes, but fitted Serck radiators and Sankey disc wheels. Mulliner of Broad Street made the coachwork; they were later taken over by Calthorpe, and built a factory beside the car factory. Mr. Matthews recalls how carefully the 10-h.p. Calthorpe was made. Con-rods were balanced and supplied to the fitters in sets of four and if they received, for instance, four sets Mr. Matthews expected them to produce four engines — they couldn’t just take any rods that lay about. Pistons were also balanced. The finished cars went for a short road test in the Stoneleigh area with a works body; later completed cars were tested with sandbags to represent passenger weight.

In those days George Hands and Louis Antweiler were Directors, J. P. Hillhouse looked after design and Mr. Wedmore really did most of the 10-h.p. design work. Frank Barnes acted as Sales Manager. Mr. Matthews as General Manager.

The Calthorpe Company was founded in 1904 and before 1914 raced cars in voiturette races in France and at Brooklands. During the First World War they made electric mines for the Admiralty and Mills grenades, etc. After the war Hands brought in a nephew as draughtsman and a French design was copied to produce the post-war 10.4-h.p. Calthorpe. In those days it was difficult for small firms to get magnetos, while in 1922, when Calthorpe contemplated changing from their own steering gear to Marles it was some time before such steering boxes could be supplied.

But the 10-h.p. model sold well, being much publicised by successes in reliability trials and in the Press. Mr. Matthews helped customers and Trade friends very generously. Many pictures of the polished aluminium Calthorpes appeared in The Light Car and Cyclecar  and Mr. Matthews used to drive the photographer but to secure these, as he couldn’t drive! Percy Bradley, when Editor of that journal, was a keen Calthorpe owner.

Geoffrey Bird of Bird’s Custard had a very smart manx-tailed two-seater which Mr. Matthews drove in events like the Colmore Cup Trial, Brown riding as his mechanic. In those far-away days A.Whale in Camden Town was a sub-agent to Mann Egerton and used to arrive at the works to drive new cars to London. He also drove for the firm at Brooklands. Although it didn’t really pay, Hillhouse was keen on Calthorpe racing at the Track, and two cars, one developed from the 1913 Type ST racer (1920) and a very narrow single-seater using some pre-war chassis components (1921), were duly built. These were sent by train to Weybridge and met by a van or truck for conveyance to the Track. Mr. Matthews recalls an occasion when Woolf Barnato sent mechanics to drive his car on this short journey and how they forgot to let the oil warm up and ruined an engine. He also remembers cylinder block failures with the Brooklands car, which necessitated scouring Birmingham for fitters who would work all night to get another block ready. The camshaft and other parts of this racing engine were machined from the solid and the car is reputed to have cost some £2,000.

In 1921 about 15 charge-hands were employed at the factory and C. Hewitt headed the Buying Department, while W. Whitehouse was the machine-shop foreman. Amongst many photographs in Mr. Matthews’ possession are several showing groups of workmen numbering 87 in 1918 — and others depicting a very fine, spacious machine shop.

An interesting venture was a Popular version of the 10-h.p. model, with a simple non-bulbous two-seater body, to sell for £100. The more noisy axles, gearboxes, etc., naturally found their way into these cars!  The idea was dropped, as sales of the de luxe models would have suffered. Mr. Matthews ensured useful publicity by lending cars to the police, charity organisers, etc., and he won a local Concours d’Elegance with a Mulliner coupé. One four-seater was fitted with the only Perfecta rear screen to be made, this being on Mr. Hillhouse’s wire-wheeled model — Mr. Matthews ran a disc wheeled tourer with Bosch magneto. In those days it was a record if 50 Calthorpes were produced in a six-day 54-hour week. In spite of long hours and low wages the charge-hands voluntarily signed a pledge of loyal support which they presented to Mr. Matthews — happy days!

As Morris cars sold in ever increasing numbers at lower and lower prices, carefully-made cars like the Calthorpe fell on hard times. Mr. Hands withdrew his support and bought the Palace Hotel at Torquay. He then had a shot at producing his own Hands light car. By this time a 12/15 Calthorpe was being made. It was successful except for long silver-steel tappet rods which were noisy until given fibre inserts. Mr. Matthews had a successful car radio with a 200-mile range (of bulky dimensions, using a frame aerial) but Mr. Antweiler refused to standardise this, nor would the Directors go over to mass-production.

Some 1,200 people were now working at the Calthorpe factory and a night shift was in operation, but orders fell away and in 1923 Mr. Hands came back in an attempt to save the situation — incidentally his father worked at menial tasks in the shops until he was 90. Davidson had joined Calthorpe from Lagonda and now Hugh Rose arrived to design a new 12/20 engine. A unit gearbox was used with this, after thoughtful study of a 25 cwt. Fiat which the works had bought, outwardly to use as a van! A six-cylinder twin-cam model was announced but never built, although a six-cylinder Hands, based on a famous Swiss make, had been produced.

About this time Mr. Hillhouse left. Very few 12/20s were made and in the summer of 1924 Mr. Hands was writing urgently from Torquay asking how soon 25 a week could be made and demanding an output of 12 a week immediately. Then he stated that all non-productive employees must be dismissed and quite unexpectedly one Friday late in 1924 everyone was paid off and Mr. Matthews was asked to help the Official Receiver, the firm finally dying two years later. Creditors had to be paid with completed cars and Hands, who had a garage in Torquay, took several, requesting that Mr. Matthews drive them down; he did this run in a day, starting at 5 a.m. — he still clearly remembers the distance as 204 miles!

The factory became the Colmore Depot, today well-known Morris agents. The 12/20 was a hand-made car but it just couldn’t compete with mass-production cars like Morris and Clyno. Calthorpe made the engine and gearbox, although Mills of Smethwick supplied the castings. Timken supplied the back axles. This last Calthorpe had many excellent features, such as inclined side valves in turbulent combustion spaces, a powerful water pump and big water passages, a special system of crankcase breathing, a self-priming external oil pump, and positive drive for all components, including the dynamo. The only weak point seems to have been the sleeve-type back main bearing which was apt to tighten up on new cars and cause difficult starting.

Mr. Matthews, who provided the foregoing data, is to be congratulated on still being in the motor trade — he is responsible for the windscreens on M.G.-A cars. He was apprenticed to James Archdale up to 1908 and thereafter served with Daimler, Wolseley, B.S.A. and Lanchester, before going to Calthorpe. After the demise of that firm he joined Austin in 1926 and subsequently worked for Morris Commercial and B.S.A. Small Tools, and he has been with Morris Bodies for the past 26 years — a splendid record.

Bidding goodbye to Mr. Matthews I drove home, past a 1927 Wolseley priced at £155 in a Birmingham garage, reflecting, as the stream of cars proceeded along the derestricted road to Stratford-on-Avon at a steady 30 m.p.h., that this journey must have been accomplished much more pleasantly in his Calthorpe forty years ago…—W. B.