The Chicken or the Egg?

In the March issue I took Griffith Borgeson to task for querying without convincing evidence whether the FWD Alvis of 1925 was a crib of the first FWD Miller racing car and therefore destroying Alvis’s claim of having been first in this field. This “chicken or egg” argument is not destroyed by recalling that there were front-wheel-drive cars even before that racing FWD Alvis of 1925. For instance, and without intending to invoke historical research as to which was the very first vehicle to be pulled along by its front wheels, someone had built such a car at least four years before the FWD Alvis appeared.

This may have been largely overlooked when it was driven to Brooklands on October 23rd, 1921 and parked in the public enclosure, for that was the day of the first JCC 200-Mile Light Car Race, an event so epoch-making and of such potential excitement that perhaps not many of the spectators thought to look at mere mundane road-going cars in the car parks. Had they done so they would have seen a little vee-twin light car with test body and a slim, unusually high, radiator, and had they looked closely at it they would have perceived that it was driven by its front wheels. This was the Brompton, designed by a Mr Charles Heyermans. He not only provided his brain-child with frontwheel-drive, he also incorporated all-round independent suspension by means of short wishbones and transverse coil springs in tension. There were also brakes on all four wheels, which were by no means universal in 1921. It was the intention that this advanced small car would he sold by the Bromton Motor Co from premises at Upper St Martin’s Lane in London. In the prototype chassis, the one driven to Brooklands, presumably by Mr Heyermans, who was no doubt as anxious as anyone to see what the outcome would be as 38 light cars contested the long track race (the Talbot-Darracqs proved invincible, finishing 1, 2, 3) an ioe 1,100 cc MAG engine was used, with a three-speed gearbox ahead of it, from which a splined cross-shaft and Hookes universal joints conveyed the drive to the front wheels. Michelin disc wheels shod with 28 in x 3 in tyres were used. It is interesting that the Brompton’s chassis frame had the “straight side-rails” noted by Borgeson as a feature of both the Alvis and Miller FWD cars. It is also interesting that apart from the claim for front-drive that it prevents skidding because the car is pulled and not pushed along, the later argument still used today, Heyermans gave more prominence to such advantages as less power-loss (questionable perhaps) in the transmission, better accessibility because the gearbox as well as the engine was under the bonnet, and that cost of construction and weight were lower, as a prop-shaft and differential were obviated (again, maybe not entirely convincing).

The Brompton was not the only front-drive car being promoted at that time, for in America an Australian engineer, G. J. Hoskins, had been experimenting and had sent to England an old 14.9 Standard with some 100,000 miles behind it, to which a cumbersome system of FWD was loftily mounted above its half-elliptic springs. Even so, the touring body had later been changed for a high enclosed body. The drive involved the car’s original gearbox and prop-shaft, from which an auxiliary herringbone-gear and shaft took the drive to a differential on the front axle, which drove the front wheels via patented Radio universal joints.

Nothing more was heard of these two FWD ventures and Brompton did not make the Georgano Encyclopedia, so presumably never went into production, whereas Alvis soon followed up the first FWD racer with production models, straight-eight GP cars, and sport/racing models. Miller, on the other hand, had no influence on production FWD cars until, rather later, the L29 Cord arrived. — W.B.