THE Iris, forgotten by most, was remembered by one of the work’s apprentices who later owned and raced one, as a conventional British car with its good easy starting and slow running characteristics but poor acceleration, the legacy of its heavy flywheel, which made swinging the engine into life with the starting handle less onorous than with many other makes. Such qualities were attractive to the majority of Edwardian motorists, which would explain why these cars had a modest but sufficient following. It began with much of the finance contributed by the artistic Guy Knowles, who had apparently studied under the sculptor Alphonse Legros, in Paris and London. That is presumably how Knowles, at the age of 26, met L A Legros, who had been engaged in tramway engineering. It was 1905, and the two men decided to become partners in the growing automobile business. While at Harrow Knowles had befriended Ivan de Havilland, elder brother of Geoffrey de Havilland, who became Sir G. de Havilland, the famous aeroplane manufacturer. Ivan was taken on as chief designer at the Willesden works of the Iris Company. (It was through this contact that Knowles agreed to make, for a mere £250, the engine de Havilland had designed for use in his first aeroplane, a 45 hp water-cooled flat-four.)
Legros had, prior to this, designed rather heavy chain-drive cars, of which only two were built, based on the current Durkopp, and the engine of one of these was somewhat improved by de Havilland and put into the boat Iris which did well in the motor yacht trials at Southampton. It may have been in this way that the cars intended for production were named, but confusion over the name’s origin has arisen, because the slogans “It Runs In Silence” and “It Really Is Silent” were later used in advertisements. But it seems obvious that the name used was that of the Greek goddess Iris, speedy messenger to the gods, as early cars had a goddess mascot. The diamond-shaped radiator was an immediate recognition factor, for whereas round radiators might precede a Hotchkiss, a Delaunay-Belleville, a Spyker, a Maudslay or even a Britannia or a Badminton etc. that of the Iris was unique. It seems that Ivan de Havilland designed new cars which were announced late in 1905 but died soon afterwards. Fred Burgess, whom we have met in these pages recently as designer of the 1914 TT Humbers and who assisted W Bentley with his 3-litre Bentley, became the Iris chief engineer, helped by Mr Acers. It all seems to have come together by 1907, With manufacture undertaken by Legros & Knowles Ltd., but Iris Cars Ltd. were registered as the selling company, with premises in Bird Street, off Oxford Street in London where H W Chambers was sales manager. Guy Knowles, Capt. (later Col.) Hinds Howell and F R S Bircham were directors, and H F Hodges works manager at the Willesden factory. This was
quite a modest place, the ground floor being occupied by the gas engine that drove the machinery, a machine shop, (in the charge of Arthur Saunders who became Burgess’ IT mechanic and then went to Bentley Motors), an erecting shop, blacksmith’s forge and a store. There was space here for putting together about four cars. On the first floor was a machine shop, for smaller parts, fitters’ bay, the pattern makers’ shop and parts’ store. Across the yard were the offices, drawing office and test shops, with a Heenan-andFroud dynamometer (Tom Sparrow looking after engine testing), also storage for petrol and oil. The Iris works had no foundry and employed, all told, rather fewer than 60 people.
Nevertheless, Burgess produced some sound cars. The old gilled tube radiators gave way to honeycomb ones of the aforesaid diamond form, with the gear-type water pump in a rectangular recess in the radiator itself, the drive by dog-coupling from a timing wheel. At first four cylinder models with their cylinder blocks in pairs were offered, Type 2 a 15 hp car, Type 3 a 25 hp and Type 4 a 35 hp. (Type 1 was presumably the old model). With the larger models sharing a 133mm stroke, torque drive to a well made back axle with aluminium casing replaced the former chain-drive and this, and the separate three-speed gearbox, were notably quiet running. But the multi-plate clutch, using steel and brass plates running in oil, was said to dislike being slipped in traffic driving. Indeed, it seems that the transmission universal joints and the brakes were the weakest point of an Iris; Burgess had altered things so that the foot brake now applied external contracting cast-iron lined shoes on a drum behind the gearbox, and the handbrake worked contracting bands on small rear wheel drums. The front axle, on the bigger cars, was a straight steel tube, lined with wood, into which were pressed, and then pinned, the forged extremeties for the stub axles; these axle ends were known to break quite frequently, according to one Iris owner. . . Burgess had some good ideas which he incorporated into Iris cars, such as a differential unit quickly removable from the fully floating back axle, well contrived valve caps which could be screwed tight with the wheel nuts spanner, obviating the trouble in this area that many L-head engines suffered from, and a separate compartment for the valve-gear whereby the tappets, camshaft and timing gear were readily detachable. The radiatorlocated water pump was less acceptable and later it was given a conventional mounting on the engine. Another unusual feature was that the gear-selector mechanism was external to the gearbox, although
it is doubtful if Burgess visualised that this would enable a driver whose gear lever had broken off (a not unknown Iris failing apparently) being able to get home by changing gear with a spanner. . .
Iris used Bosch magnetos and their own single jet carburettor, changed later for a more Mercedes-like one. The three fourcylinder cars were followed in 1907 by a 40 hp Six, with its cylinders in three pairs. Early Iris cars had splash lubrication, changed subsequently to pressure-fed crankshafts. When the first race meeting at the new Brooklands Motor Course was announced in 1907, the directors became interested in taking part in this new motor racing on horse racing lines. Capt. Howell entered his 35 hp four-cylinder Iris and Bircham his six-cylinder for the Marcel Renault Memorial Plate, Brooklands’ very first race, Arthur Earp, brother of the famous Napier racing driver and who was now Iris’ chief tester, driving Howell’s car. Earp, moreover, won the first heat and was second to Tyron’s winning Napier in the final, while Bircham had followed the faster Iris home closely, in second place, in the heat, but he was unplaced in the final.
Howells’ car being given steel pistons machined from the solid, the bhp was up to 63, and there was a higher axle ratio. Not to be outdone, Guy Knowles had a special short wheelbase chassis built and a 5″ bore six-cylinder engine installed in it, which Earp raced for him in late 1907. These rather improbable cars did some more racing at Brooklands, Hodges’ 15.9 hp Iris driven by E S R Thorn (who was now Iris’ head tester until he left to go to Bentall & Co. and was replaced by Arthur Woodfield) winning in 1911. In 1908 S A Gibbons, who had been apprenticed to Iris Cars, bought a special 35 hp four-seater with removable back seats, which he ran at Brooklands, gaining a fourth place at a 1909 meeting. The four-cylinder engine was developing 57 bhp at 1700 rpm and the weight stripped for racing was 25 cwt. Lap speed was almost 80 mph, good going at this date. In 1907 the Spanish Motor Show exhibit had been driven to Madrid, the 960 mile run accomplished in a week without trouble from the car or its Palmer tyres. It had been hoped that the Queen of Spain
would buy an Iris but the deal fell through and the car was bought instead by Mr. Shoosmith and driven by his chauffeur Fraith, who became Field Marshal Earl Haig’s driver during the war, until it was replaced in 1915 by a Model T Ford, when the old Iris was turned into a van by a Lewisham piano dealer.
By 1908 a typical Iris product would have been the 25 hp chassis, priced at £575, with its 108 x 133mm four-cylinder engine rated at 29 RAC hp, with a 10 foot wheelbase, for which a top speed of 35 mph was claimed — staid cars indeed! The 40 hp (bore 127mm) cost £700 as a chassis and would gallop at up to 42 mph . . . In 1909 assembly was moved to a works on the outskirts of Aylesbury, parts being sent there from Willesden. Burgess had redesigned the 25 hp and 35 hp cars. Further efforts were made to gain publicity, including an RAC observed 2000 mile trial of the new 25 hp Iris (between London and Harrogate) and entry in the Brooklands 277 mile Standard Car race in 1911 (the first long distance race at the Track, which many historians ignore) of the new 15.9 hp model, with which Woodfield finished but far down the field. Production was perhaps 100 cars a year from 1907 but by 1913 the fortunes of Iris Cars Ltd. were deteriorating, although this did not prevent Mr. Hodges, the works manager, from having a 15 hp Iris fitted for his personal use with a six-light (or side windows) convertible coupe body by the coachbuilders Brown, Hughes and Strachan, finished in royal purple and black with myrtle green lining. The sales premises were now at Marshall Street, off Regent Street and at
Olympia in 1910 Iris Cars Ltd. had shown three 15 hp cars and an £80025 hp Thrupp & Maberly landaulette.
Then manufacture virtually ceased, although Iris Cars staggered on until 1915, when the war took its final toll, of a firm where the racing driver Douglas Hawkes had served his apprenticeship and the great motorcycle racer Bert Le Vack had worked on the lathes. From 1914 a service depot was maintained at the Aylesbury factory and the cars were taken there from Willesden and stored in a shed, along with a large quantity of unused parts. Almost all these vehicles and the parts went for scrap during the 1914/18 war, but one car was saved and used up to 1925 by Mr. Patterson, who had taken over the works, which became the Bifurcated and Tubular Rivet Company. Another, a bright yellow Iris, was used as this company’s hack into the 1930s . . .
After the Iris Company closed down the body shop on the north side of the Aylesbury-Bicester road is thought to have been used for the same purpose by Cubitt’s and after that manufacturer closed down in 1925 the premises became a dairy. With the urbanisation of the once peaceful town of Aylesbury one imagines that the building is no longer there. Iris managed to keep the service depot going until about 1923 and after it closed many of the employees were taken on the rivet company’s pay-roll. But at the time of the Iris works closure, many workers followed Fred Burgess to Humber’s, and then to Bentley Motors. Guy Knowles, who had started it all, died in 1959, at the age of 80. WB