Forgotten Makes No.93: The 'pedals to push' Adams

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We have long become used to most car manufacturers offering an automatic transmission option and it is no longer considered a stigma for experienced drivers to buy such cars; even enthusiasts now seldom see much against mechanical gear-shifting, perhaps remembering that many years ago top racing drivers were seen driving cars with this type of gearbox. To the less keen or unskilled car manipulator not having to make gear changes was a boon, which before the advent of full automation occupied the minds of many inventors.

The provision of crunchless gear engagement seemed to have come to a head with the adoption, as a 1929 option by Armstrong Siddeley, of the Wilson pre-selector gearbox (as used years earlier in the Wilson-Pilcher car) brought to perfection when Daimler coupled this to the fluid flywheel. However, hand movements were not eliminated, so there was scope for further advancement into full automation, which was offered on the 1940 Oldsmobile in the form of General Motors ‘Hydramatic’ option. Prior to that freewheels, synchromesh cones (and ‘silent’ or constant-mesh third gears) had helped the ham-handed, synchromesh arriving on the Cadillac by 1929 and being taken up by Rolls-Royce and Vauxhall by 1932, with Alvis triumphantly providing this aid to quiet gear shifting on all forward speeds on the Speed Twenty in time for the 1933 Olympia Show. Adler followed, on their Diplomat model, two years afterwards. The Austin Motor Company sought to provide foolproof driving with the shortlived Hayes infinitely-variable transmission, fitted on a few Austin Eighteens between 1934 and 1936.

Long before these systems were used, the same ends had been reached with friction-disc drive on the GWK and Unit No. 1 light-cars, and variants of this and of expanding pulley belt-drive on simple cyclecars. Even earlier, Henry Ford had seen the need and his immortal Model-T had epicyclic transmission, which because the sun-and-planet gears are in constant mesh, cannot be driver-abused, changes of ratio between low and high (all that ‘Lizzie’ had) being effected by pedals. Foolproof gears from 1907, and the diametrically-opposed Trojan and Lanchester Forty cars later used this type of gearbox, but with the ratio alterations done with a lever. Indeed, Lanchester had done this thing from 1900, and De Dion Bouton had primitive pre-selection by 1902.

The splendid Model-T, ‘Flivver’, ‘Tin Lizzie’ or whatever, will never be forgotten. Another make which likewise had epicyclic gears controlled by pedals, hence its maker’s slogan ‘Pedals-to-push — That’s All’, the Adams, is less readily remembered. The first of these emerged from the factory in Bedford in 1905, based on the American Hewitt, a simple machine with either a single or a flat-twin engine mounted beneath the floor and that pedals-operated two-speed planetary transmission. The Igranic works where these cars were built was new for the purpose, and at first the machinery was driven by a steam-engine, pending installation of a gas-engine. The Managing Director was AH Adams, who had met Mr R Hewitt, the American who had brought two samples of his car to England in the hope of finding someone who would build them here.

In the USA Hewitt cars sold well until the prosperous company was absorbed by Mack Trucks, for whom to an advanced age Mr Hewitt remained a consulting engineer. Adams was more of an organiser than an engineer, so Hewitt sent his foreman, Leipert, to Bedford to get things started, until a Mr Strachan took over as works manager.

Adams was an agent for the American electrical and general factors, Cutler-Hammer, and for a time they had part of the Adams factory. The Adams chief engineer was Reggie Smith, the chief draughtsman E Talbot. However, it wasn’t long before Talbot left to make Zephyr lightweight pistons at Redford, and Smith, who had been with the Simms magneto company, also departed, and became a consulting engineer in London. The Adams manager, JM Strachan also left and worked for a time at the Humphris Gear Company, then designed the Abadonia car before founding the highly successful business of James Strachan & Brown of Acton, making bodies for motor coaches.

The plan had apparently been for the English Adams company to supply engines and gearboxes to Hewitt in America, who would send axles (chain-driven) to Bedford. This arrangement soon ceased and by 1907 the Adams-Hewitt became plain Adams. Larger cars with normal four cylinder engines such as the 17.9 bhp model were made, and the ‘one-lunger’ was superceded by the two-cylinder ‘Varsity’ model. An endearing aspect of these was that the radiator was shaped like an ‘A’, a wide brass crossbar sometimes being used to complete the letter, although unless the make was known it is possible this subtlety would have passed unnoticed. Later still vee-radiators and near-bullnose radiators were used. Like some other pre-1914 cars, the Adams featured a compressed-air starter.

When considering the more mundane makes, it is pleasing when an exciting sideline intrudes. In the case of the Adams it was the early adoption of a vee-eight engine. This was an adaptation of the 90-deg Antoinette aeroplane engine, rated here at 32hp and presumably considerably modified from its vaporative cooling etc. I think it was one of these V8 Adams which the aviator Graham Gilmore ran in a few events at Brooklands in 1909 and eleven such V8 Adams were sold between 1907 and 1909. Two of these engines were coupled together and used in the racing boat ‘Grey Witch’ in New Zealand.

After Mr Strachan left Mr C I Hunter, father of the Aston Martin enthusiast Inman-Hunter, moved up from draughtsman to become Adam’s chief engineer. He had been an apprentice with WO Bentley at the GN railway shops at Doncaster. He then designed the Danum motorcycle and made castings for it to be built by customers. The racing cyclist Jimmy James also joined Adams at this time. However, perhaps the four and six cylinder cars came too late. Anyway, Adams was drowned in the Titanic disaster of 1912 and although a revision was made to the original simple concept, the make was doomed. By 1914 it had gone. Mr Hunter joined EW Jackson & Son Ltd. in Doncaster, where they built the Cheswold car to his design, making all parts in-house. When production started Hunter was regarded as redundant, so he opened a garage in Scunthorpe. The war ended that and in 1915 he went to the Argyll works in Glasgow where war materials were being turned out. Jimmy James apparently joined Talbot and Davidson in making the Zephyr car. After WW2 the former Adams Bedford factory was making electrical gear and Talbot was making Zephyr anglers’ floats in Lowestoft. WB.