Fragments on forgotten makes

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No. 32—the Phoenix

THE Phoenix Company was formed by J. Van Hooydonk. Hooydonk was born in Brussels and was badly disfigured as a child in a fire at his home. He nearly lost his life and was badly disfigured thereafter; because of this unhappy incident he adopted the name Phoenix for his products. His parents emigrated to England when he was quite young and he went to work at James PascalIs, the confectioners, becoming their best marzipan maker. However, a keen cyclist, who took part in the current road races, young Hooydonk took to repairing cycles and this began to interfere with his work at PascalIs. When they objected, he decided to leave and start his own cycle business in the Holloway Road, London.

Two factors were in his favour. The first was his brother’s interest in the then-primitive motorcycle. Hooydonk disliked mechanical propulsion but, persuaded by his brother, he assembled a motor-bicycle with a Minerva engine. He eventually condescended to ride it, became enthusiastic, and put a motorcycle of his own make on the market, called the Phoenix. From this, he evolved a fore-carriage. Those early tricars were very flimsy, so Hooydonk introduced a method of staying the side-members to the steering head, which he patented as the Trimo. Most tricar manufacturers adopted it and it earned large sums in royalties.

Then a railway took a path directly through the cycle-shop premises and Hooydonk obtained substantial compensation. This enabled him to move to larger premises higher up the Holloway Road at No. 736.

Subsequently, as the business grew, another move was made to Blundell Street, Caledonian Road, and finally to a big factory in Letchworth, Herts.

A 4-wheeler was developed from the tricar by fitting a 7-wheel axle with differential at the back. Called the Phoenix Quadcar, this was proudly exhibited at the Stanley Cycle Show of 1905.

This is where Mr. A. E. Bowyer-Lowe, A.M.I. MECH. E., M.J.I.E., F.B.H.I., who kindly gave me the information for this article, comes into the picture. He had joined J. A. Prestwich in 1902 and designed for them the first o.h.v. engine in England in 1903, the first vee-twin in this country in 1994, and the J.A.P. Dual Car in 1905, the last-named having a 3-cylinder engine, an epicyclic gearbox, steel plate clutch, worm back axle, front brakes and i.f.s.

Only one Phoenix Quadcar had been built and, realising that it was pretty crude—its strip from brakes hardly lasted the length of the factory yard and its cone clutch burnt out very quickly— the Company asked Mr. Bowyer-Lowe if he would re-design it. Joining the Phoenix Company on January 1st. 1906, he applied himself to this task. A Fafnir w/c. twin-cylinder engine was used, with an American epicycle 2-speed gear and a differential back axle made by Geo. Adams of Drury Lane. Incidentally, although Belgium never made many different makes of car, it is significant how frequently our Motor Industry imported their products and labour, both before and after the 1914/18 war.

The engine of the revised Phoenix Quadcar was set across the frame, and chain drive, of which Hooydonk was much in favour, was used throughout. One 4-cylinder model was supplied to special order.

An 8/10-h.p. car was introduced in 1907, following much the same layout but putting the Phoenix in the small-car field. Mr. Bowyer-Lowe, who was the firm’s designer, at first used a Minerva engine. When these became unobtainable a 10/12-h.p. Imperia engine was substituted and when the supply of these dried up a 12/15-h.p. Metallurgique engine was adopted. These little Phoenix cars at first sold well and were very successful, but by 1910 chain drive was going out of fashion and at the Motor Show that year only one order was taken.

This was so serious that while Hooydonk was temporarily away in hospital his fellow Director A. F. Ilsley, called in Mr. Bowyer-Lowe and asked how quickly he could get out a design for a new small car on conventional lines. About a year later the 11.9-h.p. Phoenix went on the market and was the sole model on which the Letchworth factory concentrated. After trying the 8/10-h.p. twin-cylinder engine in line with the frame and suffering hopeless vibration, Mr. Bowyer-Lowe designed the new 11.9-h.p. 69 x 100 mm. 4-cylinder engine. The new car was ready for the 1912 Motor Show and was subsequently produced at the rate of about seven a week, in batches of 25, the factory employing some 150 operatives. Production ceased in 1915 in favour of munitions.

This 11.9 Phoenix was of conventional design, but had some interesting features. A big aluminium plate closed one side of the cylinder block, to obviate a cracked block in winter, and made it extremely easy to remove casting fins and foundry cores and sand. The engine bearers extended deeply out to bolt on to the chassis side-members, helping to stiffen the frame. Sunk within them was the Stewart-Precision carburetter on the o/s., feeding through the block, and the magneto on the n/s., while the oil pump and piping were external. The camshaft was gear-driven and the crankshaft ran in three die-cast white metal bearings. Light alloy pistons were used. The drive went via a very smooth metal cone clutch running in oil to a 3-speed and reverse gearbox with r.h. change, the lever working in a substantial gate, of which it carried the selective section. Because Phoenix cars sold well in the colonies, an overhead-worm back axle was used, to ensure good ground clearance. There were 19 radial ball-bearing and three thrust bearings in the car. Earlier models had forward radiators, but Mr. Bowyer-Lowe used the Renault pattern for his 11.9, which not only kept the engine clean and the occupants warm but suffered little damage in minor collisions. The 2-seater body, in royal blue, with nickel-plated fittings, was one of the first to seat three abreast. The price before the war was £230, fully-equipped, with acetylene headlamps, oil side and rear lamps and number plates, at a time when on many small cars these were still “extras.” A Doctor’s coupé was another popular model.

Gradually Hooydonk had been persuaded to make differentials, then gearboxes, and finally engines in his own works, but he remained very conservative and wouldn’t allow his designer to use alloy-steels, so that the gearbox of the 11.9 model, for example, was unnecessarily large. The back axle pressings were obtained from Belgium after several English firms had declined to quote. The factory did not possess a foundry, obtaining cylinder castings from Belgium, alloy castings from Greenock, iron castings from Heatley Gresham. Factory methods, however, were very advanced. A Selson multi-purpose boring machine, a Mayer & Schmidt internal grinder, a Dickenson horizontal borer for the aluminium gearboxes, and a W. & J. Barnes’ horizontal crankcase borer were in use before the war. Camshafts were turned from soil bar in a turret lathe and practically all parts, and the bodywork, were made at Letchworth. It is interesting that every engine was run on the bench, at first on town-gas, then on petrol, and horse-power readings taken electrically. Road tests were made under the head tester, George Howell. Indeed, the 11.9 Phoenix was a quality small car, in spite of its competitive price, and the crankshaft, flywheel and clutch of his Edwardian light car were dynamically balanced as a matter of course. In a critical appraisal published in 1915 The Automobile Engineer commended the one-model policy, like that of Rolls-Royce, and found very little to question, apart from the use of Woodruff keys where castellated shafts were normally used. The Phoenix gearbox, however, employed a very refined locking arrangement, which The Automobile Engineer thought “an unnecessary luxury” in a cheap car.

When employed by J.A.P.s Mr. Bowyer-Lowe had ridden with notable success in many competitions, and van Hooydonk used himself to drive a Phoenix in M.C.C. and other reliability trials.

Why was the Phoenix less successful after the Armistice? During the war Mr. Bowyer-Lowe had designed an 8-h.p. 4-cylinder small car of integral steel body/chassis construction, and sought to introduce this as a post-war Phoenix model.

Alas, the Directors thought there would be lots of money about after the war and wanted a large 18-h.p. 4-cylinder car. Mr. Bowyer-Lowe was asked to design this but demurred, because his salary was to be tied to dividends and he foresaw disaster. Mr. Citroen of Minerva, having blamed his partner for handing over the Antwerp factory to the Germans, wanted to put £53,000 into the Phoenix concern, which had already refused to make engines for William Morris! A designer arrived from Arrol-Johnston with the drawings of the disastrous o.h.c. Victory model, and these were used as the basis for the post-war Phoenix. Items like alloy main bearings, an oil-pump of extruded rod, and so on, resulted in this new 18-h.p. Phoenix being as disastrous as the Victory-model Arrol-Johnston, of which it is said only six were built. Only one 18-h.p. Phoenix was made, but enough components and materials to make one thousand had been ordered. . . . This ill-conceived design was taken over in 1927 by the Ascot Motor & Mfg. Company, also of Pixmore Avenue, Letchworth, but they used a Meadows engine and Wrigley gearbox and back axle— and were no more successful!

Obviously something had to be done, quickly, so a further batch of 400 or so 11.9 Phoenix cars were put in hand, but with an unnecessarily large radiator in front of the engine, which made them ugly to contemplate. An attempt at modernity was made by reducing the external size of the gearbox, etc. But by 1922 this prosperous concern, which had had showrooms at No. 114, Gt. Portland Street and a repair depot at Whitcher Place, Camden Town, faded away, although, according to Doyle, it lingered on until 1928, presumably supplying spares and doing repairs.

As for Mr. Bowyer-Lowe, if he was downhearted he didn’t show it. Leaving Phoenix in 1919, he designed the Foster autogear cyclecar in 1920, using a centrifugally-controlled variable friction transmission and final drive by external belts, and, having driven in the first M.C.C. “Edinburgh” Trial in 1905, drove one of these Fosters, which were made in Letchworth and called the Autogear, in the 1922 “Edinburgh,” winning a bronze medal. He started his own radio business in 1922, worked on radar apparatus for the Ministry of Supply during the war, and today is a consulting engineer concerned with marine warning devices, etc. He took part in the 50th Anniversary London-Edinburgh Trial of 1954, gaining a Premier Award in his Mk. I Ford Consul, and this car took the Prix d’Honneur at the 1954 Brighton Concours d’Elegance. He still drives 15,000 miles a year at the age of 81, in a Mk. II Ford Consul. He would like to find an 11.9 Phoenix to restore but all seem to have gone to ground—the last one I saw was a post-war tourer in a shed in Kent, fifteen or so years ago.—W. B.

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