SOME interest has been displayed from time to time in “Vintage Postbag” anent the Pilgrim car, so I was glad to be able to visit Mr. E. L. Armitage, whose father, Mr. Edward Armitage, founded the firm of the Pilgrim’s Way Motor Company in 1905, and Mr. V. C. Leaper, who was a draughtsman with this firm from 1910 until 1922, in order to glean some details.
The Company took its name from the ancient pilgrim’s way from Winchester to Canterbury, the factory buildings, which were erected specially for car manufacture, being located near this famous route where it passed through Farnham in Surrey, where today the by-pass road lies. The first car was built in 1906. These early models were known as the 25/30 h.p. and were unusual in having a 114 X 127 MM. (5,585 c.c.) 4-cylinder engine placed horizontally across the chassis, the cylinders pointing towards the front. It was claimed that the engine would run down to 120 r.p.m. or up to 1,500 r.p.m., its speed being varied by controlling inlet valve lift with a handle beneath the steering wheel. The engine drove through a pedal-controlled 2-speed epicyclic preselector gearbox and final drive was by a central enclosed chain to a nickel-chrome back axle with spurwheel differential. This big Pilgrim had a wheelbase of only 8 ft. 6 in., space being saved because the front seat was over the under-floor engine. The engine could be started from the seat or by means of a starting handle inserted at the side of the car, a section of runningboard being raised to offer a hole for the handle lining up with a second hole in the valance. Normally ignition was by h.t. trembler coil, the distributor running in oil, and there was force-feed lubrication. On the first car the radiator was hung low at the front but subsequently a short bonnet coming to a point was used, with vertical gilled tubes along each side, rather as on a veteran Wolseley. The foot-brake worked a band on the countershaft and the hand lever applied large expanding back-wheel brakes.
Two claims were made for the 25/30 Pilgrim—that it was dustless and that it ran quietly, without smoking. The catalogue modestly stated that on the score of silence “we must leave people to judge for themselves.” Incidentally, to exclude mud the wings (it is unusual, but the 1909 catalogue refers to them thus and not as mudguards) and steps were integral with the chassis.
This 32.4-h.p. chassis cost £492 10s. in 1909 but tyres were an extra, costing from £42 to £80 according to customers’ requirements (34 in. x 4 in. in front, 35 in. x 5 in. on the back wheels). Already, in 1906, a Pilgrim had won a silver medal in the R.A.C. Town Motor Carriage Competition, “for originality in design and accessibility,” and the following year a gold medal was secured in the R.A.C. Vapour Emission Competition. It is nice to know that Mr. Armitage has both these medals, as well as some large framed photographs of Pilgrim cars, in safe keeping today.
This 25/30 model was designed by F. Leigh Martineau, M.I.A.E., who was formerly with the James & Browne Company. The number made was not large, eighteen all told, but among satisfied users was Sir Thomas Barlow, Bt. By about 1911 the large car was abandoned and an ingenious 10/12-h.p. commercial vehicle and light car chassis was manufactured, to the design of C. T. Hulme, who also designed for Straker-Squire, another 9.2-h.p. 86 x 76 mm. 2-cylinder design becoming still-born when its originator, Mr. Bayley, left to join Rolls-Royce. This had a water-cooled horizontally-opposed twin-cylinder 98 X 102-mm. (1,538 c.c.) engine (early models had 89 x 102-mm. cylinders) under the floor, driving forward to an cpicyclic gearbox, from whence the drive was taken to the front wheels through a differential mounted on the sub-frame and drive-shafts incorporating grooved spherical universal joints. The sub-frame was composed of long tubes passing through lugs on the differential housing, through the gearbox and through the engine crankcase, a cross-tube which served as an additional engine-mounting enabling the entire assembly to rise and fall about this tube as the front wheels rode over bumps or fell into pot-holes. Moreover, the entire power plant could be unbolted and wheeled away for servicing or repair. This 50/12-h.p. Pilgrim had cast-iron pistons, constant-lift earns and a White and Poppe carburetter. Mr. Hulme had previously designed Swift cars from 1906 to 1910, including the 2-cylinder 90x 10-mm. light cars that were successful in the Scottish Reliability Trials. His Pilgrim design enabled a forward-driving position with central steering column to be used for the van, which, common place now, was revolutionary at the time. The side-members were steeply dropped, as the illustration shows, for low loading, and because of the front-drive mechanism the starting handle protruded from the rear! Sankey wheels were shod with artillery tyres. The spacious bodywork appealed to laundries and similar operators but apparently not more than half-a-dozen or so were made. From this design came the Pilgrim light car, with Renault-style bonnet. The factory had no foundry but castings supplied from the Midlands were machined in the works and much sub-contract work was undertaken to supplement car manufacture. For example, large quantities of the Wall Auto Wheel were produced, until less conscientious manufacture by a famous firm in the Midlands spoilt the good reputation of this early clip-on. Mr. Leaper recalls teaching Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes, whom I regard as by far the greatest detective of fiction) to ride a bicycle powered with a Wall Auto Wheel. .. .
Parts were also supplied to Vauxhall Motors for their 16-h.p. chassis, drilled pistons were made for their racing engines, and experiments were conducted for John Henry Knight who had built a pioneer petrol car at his estate near Farnham assisted by Mr. Parfitt, who lived to 101, while the prototype of a 2-stroke motorcycle engine having an automatic inlet valve that by-passed some of the charge across the plug points, was made for its inventor, Mr. J. E. Wilkes of Ewshott, who patented it in 1912. Development work was also undertaken on the Soames steam car for Mr. Soames of Moor Park, Farnham. The Pilgrim Company also designed a 2-stroke motorcycle power plant with the gearchange effected by depressing the clutch pedal (the 1914/18 War killed it), built wood-spring wheels to J. H. Knight’s invention, developed the Wex diffuser carburetter and, of course, made the well-known Pilgrim oil pumps. The outbreak of war in 1914 ended the production of Pilgrim cars but the number of workers increased from perhaps 30 to around 100, as munitions work was undertaken, although a number of ex-employees went to the Royal Aircraft Factory (now the R.A.E.) at near-by Farnborough. Just before the war it seems possible that a heavier lorry than the 10/12 was on the stocks, for a drawing exists of a substantial worm-drive back axle with dual solid tyres on wooden wheels and ingenious external stays to cushion the take-up of the drive. This may have been for a commercial version of the 15.9-h.p. 80 x 120mm. car envisaged for 1915. The War Office examined the little flat-twin front-wheel-drive Pilgrim but displayed no further interest.
However, the original buildings have survived, externally unchanged since they were built nearly 60 years ago, and today house the Pilgrim’s Way Engineering Co. Ltd., which makes thief-resistant messenger bags every bit as ingenious as the old Pilgrim cars.
As a postscript, I was intrigued to find, when I interviewed Mr. Armitage, that he was a member of the B.A.R.C. in 1925/26 and at that time ran a fine 3-litre twin-cam Sunbeam with Gordon England coupe body. His present car is a Morris-Oxford which carries the Reg. No. P 39 which was originally on a James & Browne and was transferred in 1911 to the first Pilgrim light car.—W. B.