The Brighton Run and a 1904 20 h.p. Thornycroft

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This year’s Veteran Car Run to Brighton, organised by the RAC and the VCC and generously sponsored again by Renault UK Ltd., had an entry of 321 pre-1905 vehicles, of which 21 were reserves. This is a larger entry than the Police have welcomed previously and a splendid tribute to the prevailing enthusiasm for the truly historic cars. As usual, these veterans came not only from Britain but from America, France, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, the Isle of Man, Sweden, Portugal, Eire, Northern Ireland and Belgium, and there were even a 1901 De Dion and a 1904 Vauxhall from Australia. Out of this great cavalcade of pioneer automobilism the British Leyland Heritage put in two of its cars. It is vitally important that the British vehicles it owns are properly restored and used and thus one welcomed this appearance in such a significant VCC event of two of the cars from the big collection held at Studley Castle and looked after so ably by Peter Mitchell.

The two BL Heritage-entered cars were the 1901 solid-tyred Wolseley that I co-drove last year, and their 1904 Thornycroft. The idea was to let some of the hard-working BL Directors have a taste of veteran motoring, so I was highly honoured to be among the crew of the latter car, which Mr. Charles Maple was to conduct. Not only was it a privilege to have a place on this car when seats on the Brighton Run are so very scarce, but this interesting vehicle represented a “new” car for me, among those veterans I have been on as passenger, co-driver, or driver in 28 “Brightons”, commencing in 1936 on the late Dick Nash’s little Peugeot. This being the case, I decided to drive over to Studley to see it and have a drive on it, in case there was need for me to take the wheel somewhere between Hyde Park and the Sussex coastal resort on November 4th. The Thornycroft is both a rare and an impressive veteran. Not many were made, so it is significant that of perhaps 14 survivors, the BL Heritage is rebuilding a two-cylinder 10 h.p. specimen and the big 1908 TT car, as well as having this notable 1904 20 h.p. model on the road. Thornycroft started as makers of steam lorries in about the year 1896 and had introduced petrol-cars by 1903. It continued these, of increasingly enhanced horse-power ratings, until 1912, when the demand for motor-lorries was so satisfactory that cars were phased out, production of these finishing a year before the war. To be apprenticed to the great company of John I. Thornycroft, of Basingstoke in Hampshire (with offices at Thornycroft House. Westminster), was to have a very sound engineering training and the war-time subsidy J-type Thornycroft lorries, in line with the Leyland 4-tonners, were first-grade commercial vehicles. In spite of pronounced marine associations, the Thornycroft company ran cars in the TT races of 1905 to 1908, Tom Thornycroft competing in the last of these.

The Thornycroft on which I went to Brighton is the 20 h.p. model, with a notably long wheelbase suitable for closed carriage-work. In fact, it carries a rear-entrance tonneau body, and with its long bonnet has a pleasantly sporting appearance. The four-cylinder engine has its cylinders in two paired blocks, and it is unusual to find automatic o.h. inlet valves in use as late as 1904. In fact. Thornycroft changed to mechanical actuation of all the valves on their 1905 cars and four years later were using overhead valves on all three models, which then comprised 18 h.p., 30 h.p. and 45 h.p. six-cylinder cars. But if the atmospherically-opened inlet valves of the car we are studying make it seem old-fashioned, it has to be said that in general it is of very sound design.

The engine has a bore and stroke of 4″ x 4 3/8″, the capacity being 3.6-litres. It develops maximum power at 900 r.p.m. The inlet valves are on the nearside of the integral heads, fed by a fine polished copper inlet manifold on the offside that runs from the low-hung, updraught Thornycroft carburetter in two curved risers, each feeding two ports. The side-by-side exhaust valves below the inlet valves have exposed stems and springs and feed into a large-bore two-branch exhaust manifold on the nearside, with pronounced cooling ribs. Cooling is by a small water pump set low down at the front of the engine, driven by gears from the crankshaft. It possesses two big taps on its piping, and has No. 435 on its casing. A copper water gallery runs outside the inlet manifold from the pump to the water rackets and on the same side of the engine another, two-branch, copper water gallery takes the coolant back into the near-side of the radiator header-tank. Immediately above the water pump there is the bottom pulley for the Ferodo belt which drives a cooling fan which has six oddly-flat blades, set very close to the radiator. The fairly small brass-bound radiator is of the honeycomb kind, which I think makes this a late-1904 Thornycroft, as apparently it wasn’t until 1905 that such radiators generally replaced the gilled-tube kind on these cars. (Not that the dating of the car is in any doubt, for it has been confirmed by the VCC.) The radiator is topped by a small cap which swivels sideways for replenishing the supply of water, instead of having to be unscrewed, and possibly lost — perhaps a hint of steam-waggon practice?

The engine has dual-ignition, by h.t. magneto and trembler coils, with a drum-pattern distributor driven by a vertical shaft with exposed bevel-gears at its base. It is interesting that this ignition system fires eight sparking plugs and that those set horizontally in the inlet-valve cages are augmented by inclined plugs on the opposite side of the cylinder heads. Apparently the engine runs slightly more smoothly on the magneto-fired plugs on the “cool” side of the combustion spaces, than on the others, although normally both systems would be in operation together.

This conventional but well-contrived engine is mounted in a chassis having boxed-in dumb-irons. It is sprung on half-elliptic front springs, while a transverse platform spring augments the rear half-elliptics. The back axle is located by substantial side-rods. The drive goes through a multi-plate clutch running in oil, to an open propeller-shaft. The wheels are shod with Dunlop Cord 815 x 105 tyres, the front hubs protruding more than those of the rear wheels, while the steering track-rod is behind the front axle. All brakes are of the external-contracting type, again maybe from steam-waggon associations, especially as the drums are grooved in pulley fashion, to give the bands a good purchase. The foot brake operates on a drum just ahead of the back-axle, the hand lever the back-wheel band-brakes. A big petrol tank lives beneath the front seat, behind a wooden panel.

Climbing up onto the driving seat, there is a clear view ahead and over the bonnet which is some way below one. No windscreen obstructs one’s vision. The steering column is of highly polished brass, quite unsupported, yet no vibration is imparted to it. Topping the wood-rimmed steering-wheel is a queer-looking control box which somehow seems to have electrical connotations but is simply a mounting for the hand-throttle lever and the ignition control lever, the latter on the left. Both are stubby, and the elongated box with curved ends from which these levers protrude carries brass plates with the usual “Open”-“Shut”. and “Advance”-“Retard” instructions. The hand-throttle is the sole means of controlling what is really a constant-speed, governed engine. It moves somewhat stiffly, over a hidden toothed quadrant. Thus two foot pedals suffice. (The ignition lever is inoperative, as a vertical control at the top of the dash, and a little sliding button, now look after the settings of magneto and coil.

I was very impressed with this 1904 Thornycroft when I came to drive it. The engine is not noisy, no vibrations of the expected kind set the wooden mudguards or the steering wheel atremble. Moreover, controlling the car is simplicity itself. The clutch takes up so smoothly that one is seldom quite certain if one is slipping it or if it is taking its own time to engage. Bottom gear in the three-speed gearbox is very low, and the engine soon asks for second. The right-hand lever slips easily across the gate and back into second and it goes as easily forward, into top gear. Once into top the Thornycroft quite quickly and easily gets into its stride, a cruising speed of some 40 m.p.h. When it is expedient to change down, the gear-lever slips with quite astonishing alacrity into the lower-gear positions, without a sound and “like silk” as the saying is, provided a little finesse as to rapidity of movement is practised (if done too quickly, a mild protest results). This commendable ease of gear-changing should have endeared the Thornycroft to drivers in the veteran years, especially those who may have feared that a steam-waggon maker might have made a heavy-handling vehicle! The perfection of this early sliding-pinion gearbox cocks a snoot at the later synchro-mesh. It is all the more remarkable as the constant-speed engine preludes double-declutching.

So right from getting rolling, one feels great confidence in this big veteran. This feeling is enhanced when one discovers how well and smoothly the transmission brake functions, so that the hand-lever, which is rather out of reach (as are the two ignition tumbler-switches on the right of the dash), need only be used for parking. The gear-lever is inboard of the brake-lever and has a somewhat shorter travel between top and third than between bottom gear and reverse, which is opposite it. The brake-lever pulls on, has a normal ratchet-button, and the brake cables run through the hollow cross-rods. The steering is light but very high-geared, at something like literally half-a-turn from lock-to-lock. Road undulations deflect it somewhat, and there is a tendency to roll on the part of the platform rear suspension. But what a charming car this 20 h.p. Thornycroft is to handle! It seems surprising that this make, built by engineers of such integrity, was not more popular, between 1903 and 1913.

At all events, I was well satisfied with this car, which I was to share on the Brighton Run with BL Directors, C. Maple, A. Large, and B. Darnell. Before doing so, I had a final look round it. There is no radiator badge, but the brass hub caps display the Thornycroft name and a plate on the front of the dash reads: “John Thornycroft & Co. Limited” with, beneath the lettering, the inscription “T-F.L.A.G.” the Thornycroft house-sign. The dash is surmounted by a fine Motor Union badge and carries several smaller club badges, and another plaque reminds us that Thornycroft also had a Southampton depot and that this is car No. 524.

The driver looks down on a polished brass cylindrical lubricator of impressive dimensions, with a threaded rod topped by a big brass knob for forcing grease to the chassis. Next to this is an oil tank, with a plunger that is used every few miles to supply the engine, on the total-loss system. This square tank bears the inscription: “THE THORNYCROFT. Chiswick & Basingstoke, Steam Wagon Co. Ltd.”. Next to this, moving towards the passenger’s side, is the wooden box containing the ignition trembler coils, then a rolled-up apron, for fitting to the doorless front compartment, presumably to protect a lady passenger’s ankles, hidden beneath her skirt, and finally a fire extinguisher.

The body may be a replica. It has no weather protection of any kind, apart from the vertical dash, and the car was not intended to out at night, as the sole illumination is by a pair of Lucas “King-of-the-Road” black oil side-lamps, No. 452, which, judging by the condition of their wicks, have never been lit. A brass-bound rear-view mirror and a bulb-horn complete the equipment. The battery lives on the offside running board, and there are foot-plates on the running boards. The price in 1904 was £660.

This Thornycroft has a rather obscure history. For many years it languished in the works at Basingstoke, along with the other cars, including the big racer that finished 5th in the 1908 TT, and the aforesaid 10 h.p. car which BL Heritage is restoring and which has “half of a 20 h.p. engine”. These cars were either dilapidated and awaiting rebuilding or had deteriorated while in storage, in what I believe Thornycrofts called their museum. They then went to Beaulieu. BL Heritage got them back about four years ago. The 20 h.p. car needed attention to its clutch and gearbox but the engine was found to be in such good order when the cylinder blocks were lifted that not even new piston rings were required. The body was refurbished, with plain leather upholstery. Shell oil is used and petrol consumption is rather less than 20 m.p.g. The car carries a late Hampshire registration number. It goes so well that I shall be anxious to sample the racing version of the 5.2-litre 30 h.p. model on which Peter Mitchell’s staff are at present working . . .

On a day of too much traffic congestion and too much rain, the Thornycroft was flagged away (with a large Union Jack) from Hyde Park at 8.55 a.m. As I expected, it provided admirable transport for our November jaunt along the Brighton Road, cruising effortlessly at what we judged to be 40 or 45 m.p.h., second gear sufficing for all the hills en route to Brighton. This in spite of carrying four persons (and six for the run from Pylons to the finish on Madeira Drive, when Mrs. Maple and Mr. Mitchell sportingly joined Mr. Charles Maple, Director, BL Cars’ Technical Audit, Mr. Large, the BL Company Secretary, Mr. Darnell, of BL Heritage, and myself for a very wet finale.

When we had got within about a mile of Purley the o/s front tyre deflated. It was then 10 a.m. and we had to wait half-an-hour for the back-up Land-Rover, crewed by Don Joyce, and David Bowler, to arrive and produce a spare wheel and tyre. The subsequent “pit-stop” took an expeditious 15 minutes, and we were on our way again. Charles Maple proved an expert “chauffeur” and the Thornycroft ran on to finish strongly, getting to the Pylons by 1.10 p.m., the complete journey occupying 4 hr. 35 min.

The tarffic congestion had eased unexpectedly through Brighton itself and, apart from the puncture, twice boiling over, and a certain loss of braking power, the Thornycroft gave no anxiety, nor did it require refuelling. Mr. Maple never “lost his engine” although the hand-brake stuck-on once, and it started promptly every time. Incidentally, during the wheel-change it was discovered that “handled” hub-caps were used by Thornycroft, so the journey was completed without an o/s hub-cap, as the spare wheel we had was for the n/s of the car.

We were ushered to the finish by Anthony Marsh, doing his usual commentary for the benefit of the big attendance of keen onlookers. By now the rain was pelting down, so I am afraid when I spotted Roger Collings’ 1903 60 h.p. Mercedes coming down the Madeira Drive I begged a lift to the “Metroploe” and got a very swift run there! Collings had completed the Run very satisfactorily and was on his way to London, and his Darracq also got in safely, driven by Mrs. Judy Collings. Alas, the BL Heritage Wolseley, which I co-drove last year, and which enthusiastic Mr. and Mrs. Alex Park were conducting this time, retired some way before our Thornycroft punctured, with a con-rod parted from a piston.

The first car to arrive at the Madeira Drive was Faud Majzub from Iran (1904 Mercedes), who got there just before 11 a.m. Second to reach the seafront was Mrs. W.E. Pickvance (1900 Darracq). Third, in spite of three stops due to electrical troubles, was R.R. Loder (1898 Stephens).

So another Brighton Run was over! I am most grateful to that excellent and very necessary organisation, The British Leyland Heritage, for a very enjoyable occasion. All that remained for me was to go away in a Citroen Visa Club, a game and comfortable little car which, with its 652 c.c. air-cooled two-cylinder engine, had an affinity with some of the veterans that had bravely taken to the Brighton Road on this memorable day. – W.B.

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