Fragments on forgotten makes: No. 24—The Bleriot-Whippet
The Bleriot-Whippet was one of the better-looking and more Practical of the cyclecars which flourished for a brief period between 1910 and the early 'twenties, and when I heard that Mr. G. H. Jones, whose brain-child this was, was living in retirement in Shrewsbury I drove to this medieval town of drinking houses and betting shops, past the old Sentinel steam wagon works (now occupied by Rolls-Royce) to interview him.
During the 1914/18 War, Jones and W. D. Marchant had been at the Zenith motorcycle factory at Hampton Court. Zenith had, before the war, built those exciting vee-twin machines with variable-speed belt drive, contrived by an expanding and contracting engine pulley and a sliding back wheel, controlled by a "tram driver's" handle beside the tank. So successful were the Zenith Graduas that they were barred from the pre-war public-road speed trials, as unfair competition to other makes, and in consequence they adopted as their trademark the "barred gate" insignia.
Jones and Marchant conceived the idea of incorporating this type of variable belt drive in a cyclecar, the "stick and string" four-wheel movement having achieved a great following in the years immediately before the outbreak of war. Zenith were very co-operative, both over the use of their belt-drive system and in letting the collaborators work in the factory in their spare time, so in due course the prototype cyclecar was built, being finished at Marchant's house at Weybridge.
The engine was a 6-h.p. J.A.P. air-cooled vee-twin, set in line with the frame, driving to the sliding belt-pulley countershaft by a primary chain kept in tension as the countershaft moved by a cam-controlled third sprocket, the countershaft being carried in the rear engine-mounting plates. As Mr. Jones says now, the belt should have been used for the high-speed end of the transmission but in those days neither he, nor Marchant, nor Freddie Barnes who designed and raced Zeniths, realised this.
Anyway, the Jones-Marchant cyclecar was completed around 1919, with its variable-speed belt final drive, with 18 positions, and chassis consisting of deep wooden planks set on edge and bent to the contours of the wide 2-seater body, which was constructed of 3-ply covered with leathercloth and varnished, rather like the Gordon England and Weymann flexible fabric bodies that appeared in later years.
The next project was to find someone to manufacture the little vehicle. Now in 1917 the Government, having taken over the Bleriot Flying School on Brooklands Aerodrome, built for the Bleriot Aeroplane Co. a large and modern factory in the village of Addlestone, where, as the Air and Navigation Company, they built Bleriot trainers and Spad scouts. This factory is said to have cost in the region of £75,000, an instance of the rising costs caused by the war, for the entire Brooklands Track had been built for £150,000 ten years before, the complicated ferro-concrete banking/bridge over the Wey being constructed for only £4,666. When the Bleriot trainers became obsolete the factory contracted to build Avro 504s and S.E.5s.
The aviation slump in the days immediately after the Armistice caused the Company, now known as the Air Navigation and Engineering Co. Ltd., to cast about for something to produce. Jones and Marchant saw their opportunity and persuaded the Works Manager of the war years, a Frenchman called Norbert Chereau, to adopt their cyclecar, which was named the Bleriot-Whippet.
As the Company had business connections with the Burney & Blackburne engine company of Tongham, they insisted on using these engines, which were of nearly 1,000 c.c. This was quite acceptable to Mr. Jones, but during tests in North Wales and elsewhere a lot of trouble was experienced with big-end seizure of the forked connecting rods, so Jones and Marchant revamped the bottom of the engine, using roller big-ends.
The Bleriot-Whippet thus went into production at Addlestone, as a handsome little 2-seater, notably wide and comfortable when some cyclecars, like the Tamplin, were tandem-seaters, others, like the A.V., capable of carrying only one person.
The air-cooled side-valve Blackburne engine of 85 x 85 mm. (998 c.c.) had Ricardo slipper pistons and drove by a 5/8 in. x 3/8 in. primary chain to the 1 1/8-in. belt-transmission, which used a John Bull (or sometimes a Dunlop or Lycett) belt giving a high gear of 4.11 or 4.84 to 1 to choice. The wire wheels were shod with 700 x 80 tyres, springing was by undamped 1/4-elliptic springs, and the footbrake worked on the inside of the belt pulley on the back axle, which, in spite of its considerable width, eschewed a differential. The handbrake applied an internal expanding brake on the belt countershaft.
Steering was by a two-start quick-thread worm on the column, which engaged an internally-threaded sleeve linked to the track rod by pegs and a cranked arm. The dummy radiator had a slight R.-R. air about it, there were proper running-boards on which to mount a spare petrol can, and the Bleriot-Whippet was claimed to do 50 m.p.g. and 45 m.p.h. It was listed in three types, the Standard 2-seater at £250, the De Luxe model at £350, and the Sporting Model, which cost £250 and had the option of a 17- or 20-tooth engine sprocket, 3 in. extra ground clearance, a torpedo body and special steering, although, as Mr. Jones remarks, "everything was 'special' in those days!" Later the price was reduced to £210.
London Motors of Holborn Viaduct were appointed sole London agents, delivery was promised in two months, and extras were listed as a Stewart speedometer for 7 gns., a spare wheel for £7 14s., and Lucas lighting and ignition for £22. A kick-starter was fitted, later replaced by a long outside starting handle. Only one colour was offered—plum. Happy days!
Marchant drove a Bleriot-Whippet in events such as the J.C.C. London-Manchester Trial of 1920 and in J.C.C. Meetings at Brooklands, with good results, and Ballards Motors were enthusiastic about the sales prospects. Unless the picture has been touched-up, the one-time Bleriot and Spad aeroplane factory now proudly bore the inscription "Bleriot-Whippet Light Cars" across its stonework and 50 cars were photographed in May 1920 awaiting delivery to eager customers, with Mon. Chereau at the head of the line-up, and his lady secretary at the wheel of the first car. Delivery seems to have commenced around April 1920, the early cars being praised for excellent springing but being very difficult to kick-start on account of the absence of a valve lifter. The starting trouble seems to have been overcome, the springing was undoubtedly a very good feature, but the air-cooled engine enclosed under a bonnet tended to overheat in cross winds and owners complained that the only stowage space was under the driver's seat, the passenger's being taken up with battery stowage.
Naturally, with Brooklands so close at hand, this cydecar was raced at the Track. For the 1921 J.C.C. 200-Mile Race Marchant drove a car with the engine-stroke of 96.8 mm., giving a swept volume of 1,096 c.c., and a 3-speed gearbox and all-chain drive, the variable belt transmission having been discarded for 1921, after Jones had left to work with Granville Bradshaw on his oil-cooled motorcycle engines. It retired after 17 laps. For the 1922 200-Mile Race L. F. Peaty, who trained on a pogo-stick, entered a Bleriot-Whippet with standard engine dimensions but again it failed to finish.
This wasn't the end of the Bleriot-Whippet at Brooklands, however, because in 1923 Capt. Peaty drove a green and aluminium example with 85 x 97 mm. (1,098 c.c.) engine. It retired in the Whitsun Small Car Handicap after a standing lap at 62.6 m.p.h., failing to justify its scratch start. It did not appear again in B.A.R.C. racing, nor had a Bleriot-Whippet with proper racing body built on the aforesaid plywood and fabric principle and having an o.h.v. Blackburne engine, built in 1920 for W. S. Shackleton who later designed the 1923 A.N.E.C., light aeroplane built for the Lympne Competitions, do any better, but this one served as an eye-catching exhibit at the 1920 Motor Show. Although playing virtually "at home," the Bleriot-Whippet was not a success at Brooklands.
Mr. Jones says that the advent of the flat-twin Rover Eight finally killed it off, but Doyle gives it as surviving to as late as 1927. For 1923 a new model, selling for £155, with its engine set across the frame and shaft-drive, was introduced, and the older version was reduced in price to £170. Towards the end of that year the new Juckes gearbox was adopted, and the price was down to £125. In 1924 another £10 was lopped off but the make was not at the Show that year. The only known existing example is a 1921 model in the Brighton Motor Museum. These gearbox models had a more accessible magneto, stronger stub axles, and sold for £198.
The Addlestone factory went on to make the Eric-Longden small car, and several ultra-light aeroplanes such as the A.N.E.C.s and Missel Thrush were built there. A member of Callender's Cables then bought it from the Government for £16,000 with the idea of setting up his own cable factory but, unable to import the necessary machinery from Germany, sold the premises without using them, for some £21,000. Eventually Weymann, the famous French constructors of flexible fabric bodywork, used it as their British depot—is there, I wonder, any connection here with the body construction of the Bleriot-Whippet cyclecar? When Weymann's took over, one of the original hangars behind the main aeroplane bays was used as a paint-store. Today the building, apart from modern extensions, looks much as it did in 1917 and is the commercial body-building works of Weymann's.