The cars that Vickers built

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Vickers, who have sold Rolls-Royce to VW, used to make cars. It began in 1901, when Vickers Sons & Maxim Ltd formed a subsidiary company, The Wolseley Tool & Motor Car Co Ltd, with offices in Westminster and a factory at Adderley Park, Birmingham. This 3½-acre site had been empty since 1899 when the Lifu steam-wagon people had failed to take it over. The Wolseley Sheep Shearing Co, Herbert Austin, and the new company amalgamated with a capital of £40,000, to make Wolseley cars under Austin patents.

At first the range of cars made at Adderley Park ran from a £570 Shp phaeton (£10 less if on solid tyres), to a 10hp tonneau-bodied Wolseley, and a so-called 20hp racing car. Improvements were made, and Vickers’ special steels were used, but Austin’s influence was apparent in the horizontal engines. Losses were incurred, but not withstanding this racing was undertaken from 1902, with the Wolseley Beetles etc.

Seeing the vertical engine as the way to go, Vickers registered the Siddeley Autocar Co in 1902, its cars now built at Vickers’ Crayford works. After Austin resigned in 1905, JD Siddeley became General Manager. Orders came from Buckingham Palace and a London HQ was established in York Street, Westminster.

From then until the war this great organisation made a wide variety of cars, from a 7hp twin to a 60hp six, and to meet the new demand for small cars the popular if ugly ioe 9hp Stellite was introduced, hampered at first by a two-speed gearbox. After the war was over the Stellite was faded out in favour of the new Wolseley Ten. This had a watercooled 1261cc overhead-camshaft engine, this valve arrangement presumably suggested because the newly-named Wolseley company had made V8 200hp Hispano-Suiza aero-engines during hostilities, with Mark Birkigt’s classic direct prodding of vertical valves by the camshafts. But for some reason this simple system became complicated in the new light-car, a duplex chain driving the lower bevel of the vertical shaft-drive to the camshaft and the valves being very slightly inclined, necessitating rockers to actuate them.

This complex valve gear was no doubt meant to give a snappy performance but the top pace was only about 40mph, rather less than that of the ageing Singer Ten, which sold in 1920 for £365 against £545 for the Wolseley. Both cars had back-axle gearboxes, raising unsprung weight and involving long gear linkages.

The poor performance of the production Wolseley Ten was odd, because after Alastair Miller (later Sir Alastair Miller, Bt) has persuaded Wolseley’s MD, Arthur Corrnack, to let him run a racing department at Brooklands. Quite remarkable results were obtained, one of the Moth single-seaters lapping at 88.15mph.

In fact these amazing little cars clocked up six firsts, six seconds and eight third places at Brooklands from 1921 to 1930, took many records (such as 1465 miles at 61mph) and had successes at other venues. Miller’s racing Fifteen added a first and three thirds, and a lap at 92.25mph. One of the Moths was raced by Woolf Barnato, later a ‘Bentley Boy’ and owner of Bentley Motors, and the inexperienced Mrs Knox did an hour at 71.16mph in the ‘200’ Wolseley.

The other new post-Armistice Wolseleys were the 15.9hp 2614cc car with similar ohc valve gear to the Ten, replacing the old sidevalve 16hp (The Autocar had one as a staff car in 1920) and the top-model 20. The latter had a sidevalve six-cylinder 3921cc engine with compression taps, and was rather Edwardian in comparison with the latest bunch of luxury-cars. But although it even looked a bit out of date, I suppose Vickers’ shareholders and others trusted it, as made of good stuff by a vast conglomerate which built everything from trucks and aeroplanes, to rail and marine power units and munitions. (I have a faint memory of my mother hiring such a landaulet Wolseley for an afternoon drive, from a Mr Epps. He ran a garage off Streatham Place in SW London and I wanted to ask him about the car he had raced at Brooklands in 1928, but was too shy. Just as well, as I had confused him with a Mr RD Apps, and his mysterious Avrolett.) A jot above the also new but cheaper Austin 20, this Wolseley 20 (chassis price £1050) was not quite a match for other new luxury offerings.

Conscious perhaps of the high price of the Ten, Wolseley’s came up with a 36mph water-cooled 7hp 972cc flat-twin in 1922, selling at £225. It seemed like a nice little car, but could the market carry both Wolseleys? It was in production for only three years, whereas the Ten persisted until 1928; from 1925 it was called an 11-22hp although the engine remained at 65x95mm.

Sports Wolseleys? Yes and no. As an off-shoot of Miller’s dedication, a 65mph sports Ten was announced in May 1923, with vee-screen, disc or artillery wheels and pointed tail for £610, and a ‘Brooklands Speed Model’ with wire wheels, outside exhaust and oil-filler, a racing tail and a guaranteed speed of 70mph, priced at £695, was made in limited quantities. The phenomenal showing of the Moths at the track made these cars desirable; they must however, be compared with the sports Singer Ten, which Lionel Martin made before the war, still available in 1920 for £500.

Indecision, or the safety-in-numbers outlook prevailed, and Wolseley’s sidevalve 14hp model joined the ohc Sixteen for 1923, and there were so-called sports versions of 15 and 20hp cars; but the ‘sports’ aspect was only lightly applied!

The scene changed drastically in 1935 with the Morris take-over. But I believe Birkigt’s classic ohc valve operation was imitated for the 6-80 Wolseley of 1949, not altogether successfully. Better perhaps to think on Wolseley Hornet Special lines…

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