Veteran to classic -- forgotten makes

The Burney Streamline

When it made its debut late in 1930, the Burney Streamline created a more than mild sensation, even though it was never to achieve full production status. It was the creation of Commander Sir C Denniston Burney, Bt, KMG, who had been responsible for the airship R100. Although this Rolls-Royce-engined 3900hp airship flew a total of 14,956 air-miles, was capable of a speed of nearly 60mph, and had successfully journeyed to Canada and back to Britain, the Vickers-built ship was scrapped (literally steam-rollered) by Government decree after the ill-fated Beardmore-engined Barnes Wallis-designed R101 had crashed at Allone, Beauvais, in France on a flight to India in October 1930, killing most of those on board, including the Labour Secretary of State for Air, Lord Thomson of Cardington. Those who crave full details of the ill-fated R101 should read the wonderfully detailed book “To Ride The Storm” by Sir Peter C Masefield (William Kimber, 1982), which I highly recommend.

Divested of his airship ambitions, Burney turned to the creation of an advanced design of private car, using streamlining to reduce drag and so improve performance for a given power and petrol consumption. In this he was re-creating in a more modern concept the ideas behind such cars as the rear-engined German Rumpler of 1921 and the radial-engined North Lucas (see Motor Sport, March 1991). He asserted that even the exposed headlamps on the modern car absorbed seven bhp at a speed of 80mph, and claimed that his unusual Burney Streamline aimed at substantially reducing such extravagant power losses.

Apart from that, Sir Dennis was after better weight distribution and suspension than was incorporated in most 1930s cars. He had begun to work on these lines in the airship shed at Howden in Yorkshire in 1928, using a 12/75hp FWD Alvis chassis turned back-to-front, with its steering locked, and its back-axle replaced by one with steering pivots.

As finally evolved, the Burney Streamline was most certainly unconventional. The chassis was ordinary enough, being a channel-section frame tapered at each end, but this was supplemented by a pair of steel girders running the full length of the car, braced by cross-girders, with aircraft-type wire bracing tensioned by strainers, between the cross-members. There was a metal undershield, flat and unbroken, to improve streamlining.

Where the Burney differed from the majority of other cars of its time was in having independent suspension front and back, of axle-less design, with a single transverse front leaf spring and two slightly-staggered transverse cantilever springs at the back controlling the movement of the independently mounted wheels. Each front wheel was also independently steered, by means of a duplicated track-rod connected to the Bishop cam-gear. This steering layout gave a 50-deg lock and a turning circle of only 39 feet, in spite of the Burney having a 12 ft 5 in wheelbase, so that it could compete with a taxi in turning round in confined spaces. Moreover, both front wheels retained a vertical rolling motion over the full left and right lock. The front track was five feet, that at the rear 4 ft 8 in.

The engine was at the back, this being a key aspect of the design, to obtain the required low wind-drag, It stuck out of the sloping tail, its cover louvred to extract air, hingeing up and over onto the rear window of the faired bodywork, making the engine easily accessible. This engine-cover was light and easy to open. The engine was behind the place normally occupied by a back-axle and drove forward to a four-speed gearbox controlled by a long central gear-lever, with a ratcheted hand brake to the left of it. There was a direct-drive third speed, the ratios being 4.0, 5.2, 8.6 and 14.5 to 1 with a 14.0 to 1 reverse gear.

The aforesaid independent springing used parallel articulated rods to locate the wheels and these rods had Silentbloc bushes to obviate the need for lubrication. The sloping tail of the fabric-covered body had two rear windows and the undershield ran right to the tail, which enclosed the silencer, number plate and the rear lamps. Ground clearance was some 9-1/2 inches. The engine was cooled by twin radiators mounted one at each side, just ahead of it, drawing air from scoops over the back mudguards, two belt-driven fans forcing the air through the honeycomb. The drive between rear engine and gearbox was by a very short prop-shaft and a differential to the road-wheel drive-shafts.

Not only was the overall specification quite startling to those accustomed to normal front-engined cars but the Burney had other distinguishing features. Thus the two batteries and electric horn were accommodated in two pressed-steel cabinets in the nose, with the 14-gallon fuel tank just above and behind them. There was a space between engine and back seat for considerable quantities of luggage, access to it gained through side doors or by opening a roof-hatch. The very short nose enclosed the headlamps which shone through tunnels with glass fronts and drag was further reduced by using close-fitting cycle-type mudguards, these at the front turning with the wheels. The spare wheels were fitted to the insides of the doors. (This latter feature caused the Burney designer some worry, because at first suitable hinges to carry the combined 120 lb weight of door, window, wheel, tyre and the mounting for the latter, could not be found. Also it was suggested that should the car overturn getting out would be impeded, to which Sir Dennis pointed to the large window area and that the front doors were quite light). The wire wheels were shod with 30 x 6.5 tyres, and normal Lockheed hydraulic brakes were used.

For the finalised form of his sensational motor-car Sir Dennistoun used a straight-eight twin-cam 66 x 106mm (2956cc) Beverley-Barnes engine with MareIli coil-ignition; had one of their engineers had a look at an Alfa Romeo? Beverley-Barnes, of Beverley Works, Willow Avenue, Barnes, SW, had been building cars since 1924 (another “Forgotten Make”) beside supplying parts for other manufacturers including Bentley Motors, and were happy to sell these engines for £50 each at a time of sparse business.

By no stretch of imagination could the Burney be regarded as a handsome car. Its proclaimed merits were stability, comfort, a spacious interior (it seated seven), quiet running (any cacophony was behind it. . .) and a good ride. The usual rear-engine problem of interior warming was solved by having an exhaust-gas heater in the front compartment, piped from one in the back. There was never any intention to go into serious production. Sir Dennis hadn’t the facilities. In fact, after leaving Mowden he moved to the Cordwallis Works in Maidenhead, “The Jam Factory”, where he shared a large partitioned-off shed with the rundown GWK friction-drive car firm and the makers of the slide-valve Imperia. There was just room for development work. Nevertheless, he formed Streamline Cars, Limited (Telegrams: Streamline, Maidenhead) to advance his product, the Directors being himself, The Rt Hon Lord Vernon, Major JS Courtauld, MC, MP, Lt Col J Benskin, DSO, OBE, SL Courtauld and Sir MP Latham, Bt, MP. There was also an office in London.

With the 2.9-litre 80hp engine a cruising speed of 70mph was claimed and if a buyer did materialise the asking price was a rather high £1500, or nearly as much as an eight-cylinder Lincoln or Renault and £25 more than the price of a Packard Eight. When the Press tried the Burney it was found to be quiet, to pick up most impressively, to have light controls and steering, to ride very comfortably and handle well. At a speedometer 76mph (what an accurate observation) clutch slip intervened, otherwise the 80mph claims seemed valid.

Absence of running boards, wide doors, and the low build made entry and exit easy and it was said that a man wearing a top hat could walk into this Burney without removing it. Also that “No debutante would ever crush her ostrich feathers”. . . Sir Dennis said that a chassis would only do 63mph, so that the aerodynamics were worth an extra 17mph, but in fact chassis and body were supposed to be integral. George Lanchester greeted the revolutionary car with jealous praise, saying its suspension was like that used by Dr FW Lanchester before the turn of the century and that the spring-ends sliding in bronze trunnions had been used on Lanchesters since 1912.

One person who acquired a Burney Streamline (perhaps it was a present?) was HRH The Prince of Wales, and this odd if ingenious car could hardly have had better publicity — especially as in spite of the excellent forward visibility he knocked down a girl cyclist with it and insisted on going to see her (an attractive girl probably) as she recovered.

Late in 1931 Sir Dennis sailed for America in the Berengana and gave a lecture to the IAE about his car in Detroit. Before he left he had asked Hives (later Lord Hives) of Rolls-Royce to read through the paper and offer suggestions. Not only were Rolls-Royce interested but they tried a Burney and asked Sir Dennis to bring one to Derby, after Christmas. He was also recommended to approach W Parsons who had been an R-R engineer since about 1911 and who was then with Hotchkiss. (“Who are doing remarkably well I believe”) and on Rowbottom’s advice was anxious to put the project up to Mr Ainsworth, (the Englishman who managed the Hotchkiss Company).

Indeed, with generous help from the archives of the Sir Henry Royce Memorial Foundation which are kept by the Rolls-Royce EC at The Hunt House, Paulerspury, Northants, it is possible to see how helpful Rolls-Royce were at first to the Burney project, at a time when they were engaged in adapting centralised chassis lubrication to both models, slightly lengthening the wheelbase of the 25/30hp chassis and offering, as an extra, untarnishable metal finishes on both cars. The R-R company discussed his paper, which it was thought Royce might like to read (if sent to him at Le Canadel), suggested that their Mr Robottom who was sailing to the New York Motor Show in the Baltic might meet Sir Dennis in Detroit, and said that he should see General Motors, where R-R had “some very good friends who are sure to be intensely interested, because they have been struggling against fundamental difficulties”.

After digesting the paper R-R observed that Sir D should ascertain the deflection of the Burney’s back springs, as if a 4-1/2in deflection gave a good ride irs would be a much easier proposition than on a conventional car requiring some 8 or 9 in deflection to get rid of pitching. They did not follow the desire to get equal weight distribution between front and back wheels when braking, trotting out the old R-R preference for 40/60% braking, and they wondered if “Golden Arrow” type streamlining would be beneficial. To which Sir D said that when his car was fully loaded the c-of-g was somewhat behind the total weight, so he needed a 35/65 braking action, and as for the “Golden Arrow”, he retorted that the stability of the Burney was fine up to about 88mph, but if he could cruise at 120mph a tail fin might be needed!

The R-R engineers tried two Burney cars. They were very impressed. The Beverley-Barnes one was taken to 4000 rpm in the gears and only when the owner said it was being very much over-revved did the driver realise this, as ordinary engine noise such as piston tap and valve clatter had simply disappeared. More noise could be heard in the back than in a Rolls-Royce axle. Although no shock-absorbers were fitted and Burney said no work had yet been done on the springing, the ride was “very good”, with no pitching or rolling. The overall length, at 19 ft, was a little longer than that of a Phantom II with two spare wheels at the back, but the Burney’s turning-circle was practically that of a 25hp Rolls-Royce. The R-R engineers drove to Maidenhead from London and back, visiting the works, and saw six cars being built or developed. Cooling problems were being met by a frontal as well as the rear-mounted radiators, which helped the interior heating, but mud on the windscreen was a problem and a more conventional nose was available. So impressed were the hard-headed R-R technicians that Bumey was invited to call again at Derby when visiting Lord Vernon.

This enabled Hives to confirm that, even with the twin-cam, irritating noises (costly to cure) simply did not exist and that the ride was “very good indeed”. He gave the hp at the driven wheels as 43, about that of the old 25hp Rolls-Royce, and in spite of the Burney body “being much larger than anything we have put on a 25hp, speed is very good indeed”. He continued; “Anyone riding in the car would consider it more silent than a Rolls and, with development, rear passengers will have comfort approaching that of a train. It is irritating to have to think of an entirely new car, but as it has several sound fundamental advantages I should not like to take the responsibility of turning it down”.

In January 1932 A G Elliott had lunch with Sir D at Chichester and tried the car Burnley was taking to America, with a 4.4-litre straight-eight Lycoming engine as used by Auburn. Evernden went also, to assess the bodywork. They were impressed (apart from wind-noise and discomfort in the front seats, due to the short nose), but ”these would no doubt be tolerated on a chauffeur-driven car”, especially a car built without the resources of Rolls-Royce. But there was to be no rear-engined Rolls-Royce!

Maybe Sir D had been pushing his luck a trifle too far. He had confided to Rolls-Royce that he had the rights to rear-engined cars with the power units behind the drive-shafts and that Standard and Riley had taken out licences and that he had practically completed negotiations to take over the Lagonda Company, whose supercharged 2-litre engine was giving 110 bhp at 5000 rpm on the test-bench, well-suited to the rear-engined Burney. Sir D had been told Hives would try to get Royce to look at his car down at West Wittering. However, the friendly attitude cooled a bit when Sir D endeavoured to get R-R to make parts for him, after having been told they were not interested in his Company or experimental cars. Further visits to Derby were to be discouraged!

So the inventor went it alone, making a dozen Burney Streamlines in all, the later ones called “Pullmans”. In 1930 LC Rawlence & Co, the OM agents, had one in their Sackvile St showrooms in London’s West End. America showed little desire for the Lycoming-powered car, and when the supply of Beverley-Barnes engines ceased, resort was made to 20hp push-rod-ohv Armstrong Siddeley engines for the last two. In 1934 Crossley’s of Manchester took up the patents. The outcome was the somewhat better-looking Crossley-Burney, powered by a 2-litre Crossley engine and with a Wilson preselector gearbox. Unfortunately they decided to put a Crossley radiator on the car’s nose, dispensing with the rear-located ones, and were rewarded with over-heating problems. The recession of those early 1930s, following the Wall Street crash, like today’s financial set-back, was not a good climate in which to promote such a novel motor car. The ambitions of Sir Dennis were still-born, even though he bought a Crossley-Burney, installed a Vauxhall Twelve engine, and started to experiment again, around 1938. The War effectively stopped that. — WB


Sir Dennistoun Burney Bt.

Commander Sir Charles Dennistoun Burney was born in 1888, the only son of Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Cecil Burney, the first baronet. Retiring from the Royal Navy in 1919 he joined Vickers Ltd as a consultant and was a Conservative MP for Uxbridge from 1922 to 1929. He succeeded to the baronetcy in the latter year. He proposed an England-India airship service, which the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, caused to be investigated. Commander Burney’s brother was a motoring enthusiast who had veteran-car premises at Brooklands, which he disposed of to RGJ Nash.– WB