Fragments on Forgotten Makes No. 41: The TB

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The TB three-wheelers were built by Thompson Bros. (Bilston) Ltd., a company of boiler makers and steel fabricators formed in 1827 by some brothers of the original John Thompson, apparently after a family quarrel. This firm had jogged along until the 1914-18 War, which gave it the jolt which caused it to expand and modernise its production facilities, and in 1918 the company had a sheet metal shop, a wood mill, and light and heavy machine shops. It had gained experience in producing lightweight structures, as, during the war, it had built many hundreds of Avro 504K undercarriages, fuel tanks and other sub-assemblies.

The manager of the so-called “A” Department, which had been set up for aircraft work, was J. W. Meredith, who had served his apprenticeship with the Clyno Co., in Wolverhampton, where he had worked on motorcycles. The post-war cyclecar boom naturally attracted him and he persuaded the directors to let him produce a three-wheeler.

The first car appeared in 1919, and was obviously aimed at the market dominated by Morgan, to which it bore a superficial resemblance. However, the likeness was only skin-deep, and technically about the only common point was the three-wheeler layout.

The basis was a light tubular frame, the design of which was distinctly peculiar. Two longerons ran parallel from just in front of the engine to a fabricated cross member in front of the single rear wheel. Two other tubular members ran diagonally outwards to the front of the car from this cross member. At their forward ends these members carried the ¼-elliptic front springs, to which the tubular front axle was bolted. No cross members, other than the rear one, united the four frame tubes, and hence a very substantial bending moment was imposed on the brazed joints where the diagonals joined the rear member.

The result of this rather horrid frame design was that the brazed joints very quickly fatigued and broke, and the extended parallel tubes, which carried the engine, dropped with a nasty crunch on to the front axle. Originally, these tubes finished just short of the axle, and frame breakage let the whole assembly drop to the ground, which at least stopped the device dead in its tracks.

Strangely enough, the design was never changed, but the brazing gave way to soft-soldering and the trouble was cured.

The rest of the running gear consisted of two very long cantilever rear springs, which extended through the rear cross member, and which carried at their rear ends the spindle for the single rear wheel. Running just inboard of the nearside spring was a fabricated torque arm, which carried the bevel-box, which drove the rear hub directly. A rather complicated, but quite effective, method of making the rear wheel quickly detachable was developed, and the only brake, other than the aforementioned unintentional sprag, was a contracting band, which I think was Ferodo-lined, on a drum on the rear hub.

The tubular front axle had forged fork ends pegged and brazed on, which carried the reversed-Elliott stub axles. The steering was direct, a drop arm at the bottom of the long steering column being connected by drag link to the nearside track rod arm. (By jove, don’t these terms sound archaic now? I know what I mean, and you know what I mean, but I doubt if anyone under 30 knows what I mean!)

The engine was a V-twin, air-cooled, variously J.A.P., Blackburne or M.A.G., and the drive was transmitted through a cone clutch and 3-speed and reverse gearbox to a long prop-shaft with disc-type flexible couplings, which ran at a slight angle to the bevel-box rear hub.

Hand starting was standard, and for some obscure reason the starving handle engaged with dogs on the camshaft, similar to the later V-twin B.S.A. three-wheeler layout. It is reputed that the Company Secretary, who was on the stand during the Cycle and Motorcycle Show in 1921, said to a puny prospective customer: “It’s a very good little car. There’s just one trouble; it’s very difficult to start in a morning.” Would that all salesmen were as honest!

The bevel-box was not noted for silence, but customers who complained of tram-car-like noises went away satisfied by the addition of granulated cork to the oil.

The gearbox was a factory product, not a proprietary unit, and the designer, who had never driven a car, proudly produced a design with four levers sprouting from the top; one for each gear. This was quickly changed.

The bodies fitted were produced at the Bilston works and were somewhat hip-bath-like in appearance. The touring models had one door, on the passenger’s side, but the sports model had none; nor did it boast any weather protection. But, then, as Cecil Clinton says, “Motoring is an outdoor sport”.

The dummy radiator was almost identical to the Brescia Bugatti, but whether or not it anticipated this shape I don’t know.

The car was in production from 1919 to 1923, during which time some 500 were built. It was quite successful in reliability and sporting trials, driven by John Meredith, Frank Brooks and Fred Spouse. Until very recently, the large board on which was posted the firm’s competition successes still hung in the roof of the factory.

“Value Engineering” is no new thing, and the foreman of the sheet metal shop, a Black Countryman of violent temper, decided he could make a cheaper silencer, with locked seams instead of welded ones. “I can burst it,” said Frank Brooks, the road tester. “Yo cor bost it?” said Joe. Frank drove out of the gate, switched off and on again . . . . ! For many months after that war was waged between them.

Somehow, despite its slightly greater refinement than that of the “Moggie”, the TB never quite caught on, and didn’t make profits, so the company turned to other products, such as the first kerbside petrol pumps, and road tankers and aircraft fuellers, which it still makes.

Towards the end of its car activities a prototype four-wheeler was produced. This had Ford Model-T side members, an Eric Campbell gearbox, and quite a pretty sports two-seater body with a bulbous tail. This car was known in the works as “BIIK” (pronounced “Bick”), which stood for “B——d if I know”, which was the stock reply of the road-testers to the question: “What sort’s that?” Alas, it remained only a prototype.

“J.W.M.” was a keen motorist and while the TB was in production always drove one. Afterwards he ran a Lancia Lambda, with what must have been one of the earliest “hard-tops”. This was maintained by the fitters who had worked on the cars. For many years there was a hole in the roof of one of the shops, caused by the departure of one of the Lancia’s front coil springs when the crowbar that was being used to compress it slipped. The fitter concerned had a slightly surprised and, aggrieved look ever after.

The TB was a little car that could have done well had the directors pushed it for a little longer. It must have been quite lively and robust to have done so well in trials.—John Coombes.