Which Was First?


I agree with Mr. Robert I. Whyte that the Wolseley Register is a little presumptuous in claiming the Wolseley as Britain's First Car. When I was preparing the text of Lanchester Motor Cars I questioned George Lanchester closely about the first trial run. His remarkable memory was unable to provide a precise date but the run was made very early in the morning, before dawn, of a day of hard frost with a clear starlit sky. It could have been as early as the first week of February, 1896 and probably not later than the first week of March as the decision to fit a more powerful engine was taken in mid-March.

The possibility of the Wolseley having been photographed between May and September, because of the leaf-clad background is useful evidence of the season but not of the year. As it is known that Austin went to Paris to see what was being done there and as the first Wolseley tricar bears such a strong resemblance to the Leon BoIlee, which was first shown to the public in December, 1896 (and is unlikely to have been shown to a trade rival earlier) there is a good case for arguing that the first Wolseley tricar made its how between May and September, 1897.

Of greater importance than the date is, to my mind, the relative behaviour of the two cars. In its original form with the singlecylinder engine the Lanchester was underpowered (or over-geared) and the new twincylinder engine was made and installed, together with the worm-gear final drive and pre-select epicyclic gear, in the summer of 1896. Thereafter the first Lanchester was a perfectly practicable and reliable machine able to carry five passengers in comfort, six at a pinch, at 18 m.p.h. It was not finally pensioned-off as a work's hack until about 1903, and it was brought out of retirement occasionally in the 'twenties and 'thirties.

By contrast I do not believe the first Wolseley ever performed properly, and if one looks at the arrangement of the engine details it is not difficult to see why. In his history of the Wolseley Company, the late St. John C. Nixon says the engine design was remarkably advanced with an overhead camshaft and mechanical inlet valves; hut this is a little misleading as the engine is a horizontallyopoosed two-cylinder and the cams, valves and combustion chamber are "overhead" only in the sense that they are on top of the crankcase. Therefore, although the engine has two cylinders it fires as a single with the difference that the expansive force of the burning charge has to travel down two exposed pipes, with rather sharp corners, from the central combustion chamber to the two cylinder heads. It's an ingenious way of giving good mechanical balance but as the Wolseley Company kept very quiet about any practical trials with this machine, and Herbert Austin soon built another tricar with a more conventional engine, I think it is safe to assume it did not work very well.

In other words, like the Bremer or Edward Ruder's "Petrocycle", it must be thought of as just another abandoned experiment and Mr. Whyte is quite correct to point out that the Wolseley Register is unjustified in calling it Britain's First Car. Or even Britain's first petrol tricar, as the honour there surely goes to Butler?

Potbridge Anthony Bird