Fragments on Forgotten Makes



No. 38: The Ruston-Hornsby

The roots of Ruston & Hornsby Ltd. go back to 1857. They were a well-established engineering firm in Lincoln when the First World War broke out. Contracting to make aeroplanes, they erected a special factory at BouItham. Here they were responsible for 1,500 of the not very effective A.B.C. Dragonfly aero-engines and built B.E. 2d and 2e, Sopwith 1½-strutter, Sopwith Camel, and Sopwith Snipe aeroplanes, the firm then being known as Ruston, Proctor & co.

The Air Ministry had undertaken to give six months’ notice of termination of contracts when the new aeroplane factory had been built but after the Armistice it closed the place down within a few days, ordering that aeroplanes already built or in course of production were to be scrapped. Ruston & Hornsby were faced with paying off thousands of workers, which would have utterly disrupted the economy of a small town like Lincoln. One further order was received for aero-engines but this was a very temporary palliative. A very small number of men, mostly skilled workers, could be transferred to the general engineering shops, as Ruston & Hornsby resumed their pre-war production of agricultural machinery, excavators and steam traction engines, etc.

To retain the many carpenters and joiners who had been engaged in aeroplane manufacture; the Company commenced to make furniture, to use up the stocks of wood they held and meet the needs of returning servicemen setting up homes. But this was but a partial solution to the problem and the next step to be taken was car manufacture. The Manager of the Aircraft Department and many of his colleagues had previous experience of the Motor Industry and the shops and the workers were well suited to this class of work. So the Ruston Hornsby car came into being.

Being engineers, good design and first-class quality were the aim. Work commenced in 1919, the initial announcement being made in June of that year. It is said that the Herschell Spilman car inspired the layout, perhaps because this American firm had tractor connections with Ruston, although, as they made their last car in 1905, the link seems improbable. A Dorman 80 x 130 mm. (2,613 c.c.) 4-cylinder engine was adopted and the specification was conventional, except that the 3-speed gearbox was mounted on the back axle. Zenith supplied carburetters, Ransome & Marles the steering-box, and Michelin the disc wheels. Lubrication was force-fed to the main bearings but by troughs to the big-ends, there was pump cooling, with a honeycomb radiator, a cone clutch, long ¾-elliptic back springs which were underslung, and C.A.V. supplied the electrical gear. Known as the model A1, this first Ruston-Hornsby pulled a 4.5-to-1 top gear and was taken to Brooklands, where it lapped for hours on end at 52 m.p.h. It was planned to sell a tourer at £525 and an “all season’s” version for £575. It would seem that someone in the firm appreciated the value of competition appearances at a time when so many new makes were struggling to obtain a footing in the post-war market, because it was announced that the new car would make its first public appearance at the Pateley Bridge speed hill-climb ia September, 1919.

Production, however, was delayed and when it did appear, with the Dorman power unit unashamedly described as Ruston’s own, the car was seen to be heavy, being made by engineers used to massive construction. The gear and brake levers were situated centrally, as in the American-influenced Austin Twenty and Twelve, but this was the Ruston-Hornsby’s only sop to mass-production methods and it was ill-equipped to compete with the new influx of low-priced cars that were coming on the market.

However, the car made its debut on Stand No. 22 at the 1919 Olympia Show, and its dynamo driven by Whittle-belt from the fan spindle, the engine’s detachable head, provision for carrying two spare wheels and the mounting of pilot lamps on an extension of the headlamp brackets, were noted. The tourer was now offered at £600 but it was hoped that this might in due course be reduced.

Early in 1920 production was sorting itself out, facilitated by attaching the back mudguards directly to the body and the rear lamp to the spare-wheel bracket, while the hood was neatly concealed within the back panel when not erect. Nevertheless, car building as a means of maintaining full employment was a costly business. Ruston & Hornsby had no knowledge of how to market their cars, the Motor Industry being a very different venture from merchanting heavy engineering products. They appointed C. H. Wardman & Co., of 166, Great Portland Street, as their agents but sales were very small, although three cars were delivered to J. Mather & Co. of Newark-on-Trent.

Publicity was obtained for a 16/20 Ruston-Hornsby, as the model A1 was designated, by supplying one as the official car in the 1920 Scottish Six Days motorcycle trials, the driver being Mr. William Pethybridge. In spite of a disappointing start, the makers announced that for 1921 the A1 model would be supplemented by the A3, with a 4-cylinder 90 x 130 mm. (3,308 c.c.) 20/25-11.p. engine of their own manufacture and developing 45 b.h.p. at 2,000 r.p.m. The gearbox was in unit with the engine. At the same time the 16/20 car was provided with an engine made in the Ruston works, also with a unit gearbox, giving 35 b.h.p. at 2,000 r.p.m. Before the 1920 Olympia Show the 16/20 tourer was priced at £695, the 20/25 tourer at £790. Later these were somewhat reduced and before the year was out Arnold & Co. put a 2-door saloon body on a 16/20 chassis.

Rumours began to circulate that production was to be dropped, as many workers were sacked, but the Company denied this, blaming seasonal sales fluctuations on the October dismissals and saying that production of cars and spare parts was to continue. Indeed, early in 1921 the agents offered an illustrated spares list: and A. T. Davis, M.P. for Lincoln, used a 16/20 tourer for visits to the House of Commons, supporting local industry.

Prices were substantially reduced again in 1921 and a London owner spoke well of his Dorman-engined 16/20, apart from its noisy plain-bevel back axle. Wardman remained the sole concessionaire but a Scottish agent, the British Motor Trading Co., was appointed late in 1921 and improved bodies (with Neverleak hoods), ball thrust race at the front of the crankshaft and, on the clutch shaft, a duplex fan belt for the 16/20 and separate belts instead of a triangulated drive, a more accessible oil pump and a dipper gauge on the 20/25-h.p. car were to be featured for 1922.

S. C. H. Davis combined the London-Exeter Trial with a road-test for The Autocar in a 16/20 Ruston-Hornsby but did not get an award, although another took its gold medal. The new engines were not released until the 1922 Motor Show. They had pressure lubrication throughout, positively-driven water pump and dynamo and very accessible oil pump and filters. Names like “Brocklesby” for the landaulette model and “Revesby” for the 4-door saloon on both chassis were adopted and prices slashed again during 1923. A purple tourer was exhibited at the 1923 Show, where the two batteries and spare oil and petrol containers were seen to be concealed behind the n/s running-board valance of the 16-h.p. car. I have amongst my collection of rare catalogues that issued by Ruston-Hornsby in 1923. With a colour cover linking one of their tourers with Lincoln cathedral as “Achievements of Supreme Merit,” it runs to 24 pages, lists the Fifteen at prices ranging from £400 for a chassis to £775 for the landaulette (colours were buff, Royal blue, purple or grey), the Sixteen “All-Season” model in Ruston buff at £525, and various Twenties, priced from £475 as a chassis to £865 for the landaulette. Special features, like the ribbed brake drums, electrical wiring within pipes and the oil-filtering, described by The Automobile Engineer as “probably the most complete system” at the 1923 Show, are illustrated, like a luggage grid (£3), R.-H. rear-screen-cum-tea-table (£15 15s.) — did one only venture out after lunch in a Ruston-Hornsby? — and side shields for the windscreen (£4 10s.), and every effort made to promote “The Car of Quality and Value.”

Unfortunately the solidly-built and rather expensive Ruston-Hornsby could not compete with the onslaught of mass-produced cars and as post-war production of other products got into its stride it went out of production before the 1924 Show, when perhaps 1,000 had been made. The Company flourishes today as makers of big diesel engines and gas-turbines.

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There is an interesting sequel to the Ruston-Hornsby story. The present Chairman of the Company was on a business visit to Australia in 1952 when, to his great surprise, he saw a Ruston-Hornsby in use as a taxi in Melbourne. The owner had bought it in 1921, used it continually ever since and had never required any spares.

Since then the Company has restored a 1920 16/20 Model. Interest in restoring a Ruston-Hornsby car began with Sir Geoffrey de Freitas. Before he relinquished his seat (representing Lincoln) in Parliament and became British High Commissioner in Ghana, he had discovered an old Ruston-Hornsby car in Australia. It was in a deplorable condition. but, at his own expense, he had it transported to Lincoln. He left behind an unfulfilled ambition to restore this car and drive it around the streets of Lincoln. Ray Hooley, the Company Librarian, noted this and wrote to Sir Geoffrey to ask if he was still interested in the car. Subsequently, a tentative arrangement was made that the car would be restored at Lincoln.

A second old Ruston-Hornsby was purchased in Torpoint, Devon, and an assessment made of the work involved. The project was clearly going to prove costly, and would involve a certain amount of “cheating,” because the two cars were entirely different models and the intention was to cannibalise them.

Whilst the problem was still under consideration, the Sword Collection, in Ayrshire, was listed for auction and it was learned that it included a 1920 Ruston-Hornsby. The manager of the North Region office was instructed to bid. The result was a purchase, at £300, in September 1962.

It was decided that the car from the Sword Collection would be completely restored and the other cars cleaned up as chassis exhibits. As, however, funds were not readily available, the task of restoration was taken on by a small group of apprentices who were prepared to do the work and in their own time.

Pete Francis, Barrie Addison, Ray Mitchell, Colin Whisker, Bob Hobson and Dave Salmons undertook the work. (The “survivors” on completion-day were Messrs. Francis, Addison, Whisker and Salmons). Supervision was carried out by Bill Howard of Training Department and Jack Banks of Research Centre. The apprentices spent 18 months doing this job, giving up their Saturday mornings and one evening per week regularly. The car was completely stripped down, and every piece removed was labelled and numbered. A series of photographs was taken of the more difficult assemblies, so that there would be no doubt how things should look when the bits were put together again.

The parts were thoroughly cleaned up and all defective pieces were replaced. The interior has been re-upholstered and the body re-painted in its original colours.

The rewarding climax is all this labour came on May 24th, 1967, when the car passed its first Ministry of Transport Road Test with flying colours. Its first run was on June 17th, from the Boultham factory, the same Ruston works in which it was originally built 47 years ago, passing out through the same gate, to Ruston’s Sheaf Iron Works a mile away. Here it was displayed at one of the Company’s Open Days, held as part of their “Quality and Reliability Year” campaign, and was again displayed on June 24th at the Boultham Works’ Open Day. Driven by a Ruston director. Mr. J. R. Bergne-Coupland, its proud passengers on its first journey were the apprentices who spent some 3,000 working hours of their own time on the task of restoration. Under the supervision. of Mr. Vic. Hassles, the staff of Ruston’s Sheet Metal Shop skilfully renovated damaged rear mudguards and some of the bodywork — an intricate task of sheet metalwork in one of industry’s few remaining hand-crafts, and paintwork on the old car was entrusted to the Company’s Finishing Department, where Mr. Jack Buxton and his staff provided an excellent example of coach painting in the car’s original colours. — W. B.


Nothing New …

“I wish to express my opinion that there are few things more exaggerated at present than the dangers of the road, and as one who has covered most of England during the past few months I maintain that I know something of what I am writing about. Accidents will happen, and, considering the stupendous 10,000% increase in road users of all sorts, one can only be surprised that there are not a hundred times more. I saw no sign of any accident on my long run (nor, for the matter of that, on any run I have taken for many a long day.) I am forced, therefore, to the very satisfactory conclusion that most of our Jonahs do not know in the least what they are talking about, and have no real personal experience in the matter. Unless, of course, they are attributing their own personal failings to everybody else.” —  Owen John writing in The Autocar 42 years ago….