Frederick Lionel Rapson—inventor extraordinary

ASK PRESENT-DAY car owners, as they are trying to decide whether to re-equip with Dunlop Sport, Pirelli Cinturato or Michelin X AS tyres, whether they have heard of Rapson tyres and the odds are that the majority will reply to the contrary.

Yet in the 1920s Rapson tyres were the cause of much controversy and emerged from being a novelty to equipping some of the fastest racing cars, on both road and track. The story of the late Mr. Frederick Lionel Rapson has never before been explored, to the best of my belief, and an extraordinary story it is . . .

Rapson’s early career remains a mystery but on his-own admission he had had the responsibility of tuning up and preparing a Grand Prix winner (as he wrote this in 1919 he was apparently referring to a Renault, Fiat, Mercedes or Peugeot, although not necessarily, one Supposes, in the Grand Prix itself). During the First World War Rapson designed a quick-acting car jack, again on his own admission, as a “Tommy” working in a travelling workshop while nn active service, and when “his comrades were away in adjoining villages— enjoying a well-earned rest”. Mr. Rapson was, he said, his own designer, experimental engineer, tester, demonstrator, advertising manager, etc., when, after the Armistice, he formed the Rapid Jack Company Ltd. to exploit his inventions, which included a quick-action hood, a patent foot-operated engine starter, etc. Indeed, starting in 1902, Lionel Ranson patented over 200 inventions and towards the end of 1919 he formed Rapson Automobile Patents Ltd. to handle them. He had endeared himself to ex-Servicemen by his invention of coupled crutches whereby a soldier who had lost a leg and both arms could still get about, by looping the Rapson crutch under his armpits.

Lionel Rapson was presumably a wealthy man even before the arrival of his puncture-proof tyre, for after the war he was lending his pre-war 40/50 Rolls-Royce tourer (Reg. No. K 239) to journalists who could be persuaded to try his most important invention, with which he sought to revolutionise motoring and make a fortune. At this time, incidentally, he was not averse to making little jokes of benefit to himself; for instance; he made it known that when an American motor paper referred to him as the “The Motorists’ Lifeboatman” he immediately wrote to the Editor telling him he was wrong, as he should have termed Rapson “The Wreck”. This was a fatuous remark aimed at those who saw fit to offer criticism of Rapson’s as yet unproved tyre invention.

The criticism warmed up when Rapson, less than a year after the end of the war, introduced his unpuncturable tyre, the most profitable invention imaginable—if it worked. The Autocar was, from the first, extremely enthusiastic, one hopes not merely because Rapson took double-spread advertisements when there was not much surplus money in the Motor Industry. On Victory Day in 1919 The Autocar tried the new tyres on Mr. Rapson’s aforesaid Rolls-Royce. Although rain washed out many of the celebrations as they drove along the Bath Road to Maidenhead, Henley, Oxford and Coventry, the day could hardly have been better suited to such a test. When the drizzle became a downpour there was the Rapson patent hood, operated with the same handle which actuated the Rapson permanent jacking system, to facilitate the weatherproofing. When in Nuneham Courtenay a back tyre deflated this Rapson jacking system raised the wheel in 15 sec. Moreover, the ingenious Mr. Rapson had sent the reporters out on three of his tyres and one of another make and it was the “other” tyre that had punctured.

Comment came thick and fast. Although the construction of Rapson’s “unpuncturable” tyres had not at the time been divulged, it was suggested that they were cushion and not pneumatic tyres, so that “unpuncturable” was a contradiction of terms; if they were pneumatic tyres the fact that another make of tyre punctured after 17 miles in a test over a mere 160 miles proved nothing. The Autocar was quick to point out that they were continuing the test and had at the time of explaining this done 550 miles in the Rolls-Royce, testing petrol consumption with different makes of tyres—apparently the car had been loaned to them for a long period, the motoring journalist’s life obviously being as pleasant then at it is in modern times!

The result of this extended test was soon forthcoming. The Autocar referred to trying the car first with Rapson tyres on the front wheels only, then with Rapsons on all four wheels, with the Object of comparing fuel consumption. Mr. Rapson had told them that he expected to get about 10 m.p.g. on ordinary tyres and that his patent covers should improve this by roughly 2.5 m.p.g. The test was rather pointless, inasmuch as different routes were used, the first in Middlesex finishing with a climb of Harrow Hill, the second in Surrey, taking in Hindhead, and different loads were carried. However, it was pointed out that the car was hardly favoured on the second occasion, when it showed an improvement from 14.7 m.p.g. on the ordinary tyres to 16.5 m.p.g. After this, high-speed running in hot weather was indulged in for 100 miles and The Autocar then procured a board studded with 2 in. nails with 11 in. protruding and drove the car slowly backwards and forwards over it, without a tyre subsiding. Finally, to attempt to silence the sceptics, they announced that the RAC was to conduct a 10,000-mile test of Rapson tyres.

The sceptics were unrepentant. Capt. Wilfred Gordon Aston, the well-known motoring writer, took the Rapson advertisements to pieces, asking how it could be proved that Rapson tyres gave more m.p.g., that they ran 35% cooler than other tyres, and that they increased the life of the chassis due to absence of vibration? He remarked that Rapson’s claim of “resilience de luxe” meant literally nothing and he rubbed in the salt by saying that his 15/20 Metallurgique had run 9,000 miles on Victor rims and tyres, without use of the inflator. The Rapson advertisement claims were also criticised by Fred Baker, who pointed out that a Dunlop tyre on the Rebak rim he had invented had already run more than 10,000 miles in England and America without a puncture. Rapson countered with the comment that he knew his tyre would be “a red rag to a bull”. After Mr. Weston had reminded him of the Rebak performance he referred to someone who had called on him with a rook rifle capable of killing 100 persons but who couldn’t kill a rabbit with it and had then run up and down Long Acre telling all and sundry: “I’ve been out wif Wapid Wapson, on a Wolls-Woyce, shooting wabbits wif a wook wifle.”

This cannot have generated much love between the rival inventors of puncture-proof tyre equipment but the remarkable Mr. Rapson had already got Wilfred Gordon Aston on to his side, for that gentleman, after a 120-mile run in the Rapson Rolls-Royce, during which he got a speedometer 60 m.p.h. on the Hartford 13ridge flats, said in print how comfortable and cool-running the tyres were.

As no-one was permitted to know what was inside a Rapson tyre its inventor could laugh at suggestions that it was merely a cushion Lyre. Then a description of the Rapson invention was released and the tyre was seen to contain an inner tube of small size protected by a thick outer cover but one which, The Autocar was convinced, was of special construction to provide good resilience and to stop it rolling off the rim. The original Rapson reinforced tyre could be fitted to existing rims but a special one was being prepared, with a single tube for the front wheels and double tubes for the back wheels of heavy cars, which would require a special rim.

This revelation caused G. P. H. de Freville to praise the former providing there was no internal heating from friction between tube, cushion deflector and outer cover but to condemn the special Rapsons as being bound to lack elasticity, to give trouble due to the method of mounting them on the rims, and to be impossibly heavy for any save very big cars. (He was presumably thinking of tyres for the Alvis small car he had recently designed.) The light car folk were pressing for small-section Rapsons, and one of them thought that what was suitable for a two-ton Rolls-Royce would not work on a lighter car. The Michelin slogan Boit L’obstuee was quoted and it was thought that a Rapson tyre would choke under such conditions. There was heated argument about the validity of the Rapson patent, said to closely resemble the Rebak rim, but Mr. Baker was too busy going to America to buy machinery for making his special rim and Mr. Rapson was too busy forming his new Company for the chief protagonists to tear themselves any further apart. Meanwhile, many other people got hot under their collars about unpuncturable tyre claims and H. R. Pope weighed in with some interesting data about tyres on his record runs; he used up nine on his 1906 Monte Carlo-London record, in 1907 on the same “raid” he changed four tyres, in the Petrograd-Moscow race of 1908 he ruined eight special tyres, but on his 1913 London-Turin record the tyres were perfectly satisfactory. So Mr. Pope wanted to try a set of Rapsons, having “done in” two new tyres of well-known English make in 400 kilometres on the Deauville route. He despised Mr. de Freville’s desire for a Rapson small-car tyre, remarking that it was the heavy cars that suffered from tyre trouble—he wouldn’t expect a tyre to run more than 2,000 kilometres, presumably on his big Itala.

What everyone wanted was the promised RAC 10,000-mile test. Meanwhile, Oylers’, who made Rapson tyres at their Skew works, had dropped manufacture of ordinary pneumatic tyres and were backing Lionel Ranson for all they were worth. So the avidlyawaited test came about. It was arranged that Mr. Rapson’s RollsRoyce tourer should run on benzole fuel, which would be under RAC observation at the same time as his tyres. Messrs. Oylers’ gave a luncheon for Mr. Ranson before the start of the trial, during which Mr. A. W. Oyler spoke of the Special “deflector” tyres as running at the low pressure of 75 lb./sq. in. on a car weighing some 2A tons, laden with four passengers. The Rolls-Royce had already done approx. 18 miles on a gallon of benzoic and would use this fuel for the trial, which was to be run over six standard RAC routes.

The start of this RAC-observed trial, with Mr. Rapson driving for the first stage, stifled the critics, apart from someone who observed that the Rolls-Royce carried two spare wheels, which seemed odd, as Mr. Rapson did not anticipate tyre trouble . . .

Mr. Rapson brushed aside such matters, being far too busy with the trial, he said, to answer critics. The run was timed to coincide with the 1919 Motor Show, at which, it may be remarked, the makes of tyre on show embraced Henley’s, Grimston, Goodyear, Beldam, Oylers’, Moseley, Wood Milne, Gofa, Firestone, Pirelli, Palmer, Avon, Burnett, Dunlop, BF Goodrich, Hutchinson, International, Kempshall, Mackintosh, Midland, Indiarubber, Rom, Shrewsbury, Stelastic, Stepney and Victor—which rather discounts the opinion, held by Judith Jackson, during the time of the 1969 Motor Show, that “Once upon a time a tyre was a tyre—now there are hundreds to choose from!” There were always “hundreds to choose from”— those 26 makes in 1919 and 14 different makes at Earls Court last year . . .

At the 1919 Olympia Show it was stated that “of all the articles connected with motoring none had created greater interest since the advent of the Knight sleeve-valve engine than the Rapson tyre”. All eyes were therefore on the outcome of the RAC test, instituted by Oylers’ Ltd., of New Cavendish Street, WI. Lionel Rapson, however, was in for a severe shock but his critics must have smiled broadly—for THE TEST HAD TO BE CALLED OFF AFTER 5,718 MILES!

The Autocar had very little to say. It reported, on a supplementary page after the correspondence, that a flaw had developed in the internal rib which locked the deflector into position, so that one Rapson tyre had to be removed at 2,836 miles, another at 3,836 miles, and that when a third cover was showing signs of similar trouble at 5,717 miles Messrs. Oylers’ asked Mr. Rapson to withdraw. They claimed that the very first set of Rapson tyres had run 11,000 miles and they blamed a new method of manufacture for the failure of those in the RAC test. No punctures had happened in the 18,122 aggregate miles run by the four tyres, although one, said Oylers’, had been pierced by a steel screw and a long gramophone needle . . But would Lionel Rapson dare to show his face again after this debacle, would he ever recover from the public letdown his much-publicised tyres had suffered? He would, and he did . . .